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Like playing the piano with mittens on

You go in to work, sign on the machine and slog through the complaints about the copy desk’s outrages against language, imagination and common human decency.

Apparently professional journalists are no more adept than the population at large to distinguish between who and whom. And, God save the mark, we ran a headline that used impact as a verb.

But those were more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger complaints. The real eye-popping, high-blood-pressure, uh-oh-these-people-know-where-I-sit complaints come when the desk has, in the familiar phrasing, “drained the life out of the story.”

Some time back (it’s good to use examples involving people who no longer work at the paper), an irate reporter pointed out that in her lead sentence, which referred to some act being as difficult as “nailing Jell-O to the wall,” the copy desk had changed Jell-O to gelatin. The substitution of the generic term for the specific, she argued, flattened out the sentence and robbed it of flavor. Her editor backed her up.

And so it had, though for a reason. *

There is no doubt that the change dulled down the sentence, and I apologized meekly. But what I didn’t say — she might have hurt me — is that it was a cliche to start with. Skeptical? Go to Google and see for yourself how many tens of thousands of times the difficulty of nailing Jell-O to a wall has been mentioned. (A couple of sites tell you how to do it.) Moreover, nailing Jell-O to the wall is itself a variant on an older cliche, nailing a custard pie to the wall, which has been attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, Theodore Roosevelt and, for all I know, Erasmus of Rotterdam.

The copy desk had failed twice, by not challenging the cliche in the first place (something you’d think a moderately awake assigning editor might have done) and by making a bland substitution instead.

I leave it to you to imagine how joyfully the message is received that everyone is wrong.


* A digression on the reason: Whenever we use the brand name of a product in an article, chances are good that we will get a lawyer letter advising that we are infringing on a trademark. Companies know what happened with xerox, and they are determined to keep their products in the upper case. So their hirelings at various law firms have to be vigilant, because if they neglect to challenge casual uses of the product name, some judge may later rule that the name has become generic. And thus the legal system ticks along in its principal task, the production of legal fees.

The Sun gets such a lawyer letter every few months, and they are forwarded to me, because no one else wants to touch them. Mainly, these signify that the law firm has been zealous on behalf of the client; in my time at The Sun, no such letter has led to further legal action. And I periodically caution the copy editors against use of trade names, to show that we are not scofflaws.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (2)


So what the lede "should" have said is "nailing Jell-O® brand gelatin dessert to the wall."

I suggest:

"affixing a brain-eating amoeba to the wall with slow-cure epoxy."

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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