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Guardian of propriety

Today’s post left matters unsettled for my esteemed colleague Elizabeth:

I'm not sure what your final thought is here. Should I

a) Let a commenter say "Starbucks' coffee sucks"

b) Post the comment, but insert asterisks, as in "Starbucks' coffee s***s"


 c) Deep-six the comment on moral grounds in spite of the fact that the commenter will always think I did so because I personally adore Starbucks' coffee.

Also, wouldn't the terrorists say they were claiming credit for the crime as opposed to responsibility? Doesn't to report that more accurately reflect what they said?

I’m in agreement with Kathy Schenck’s post on Words to the Wise at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: We who blog for newspaper sites and have the authority to screen comments also have a responsibility to uphold civility. Therefore we do not permit comments that are profane or obscene; that maker personal attacks or insults; or that indulge in racial, ethnic, sexist, homophobic or religious slurs.

It turns out that a substantial number of readers in Milwaukee appreciate being spared loudmouth, imbecilic outbursts.

But I’ve still left the sucks issue unsettled. So:

The copy desk upholds house style in staff copy. I don’t use x sucks, and I keep it out of staff copy. If it were used in a direct quote, the quote would have to add something substantial to the article to be included.

Blog usage is more freewheeling, but I’d advise against x sucks there, too, because it’s a childish vulgarism.

But it’s not profane or obscene. If it appeared in a comment that was otherwise unobjectionable, I would let it go — and not try to euphemize it with asterisks or dashes or other devices.

As to terrorists and credit/responsibility. I think that the argument is that yes, they claim credit; but if we say it that way, it implies that we think that the action is creditable. Responsibility is a neutral term and therefore preferable.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:43 AM | | Comments (6)


You are right. Saying Starbucks coffee sucks is a childish vulgarism (although not untrue, IMNSHO.) I just didn't want to waste my time saying something like--"I believe that Starbucks coffee is the caffienated equivalent of burnt toilet water." I opted instead to be succint and save time and effort.

Sometimes the quick and dirty solution just seems to work better!

John McIntyre wrote, regarding x sucks: "But it’s not profane or obscene."

Saying x sucks begs the question "Sucks what? If you grew up in a farming environment and were familiar with the life cycle of farm animals, it might be short for "sucks hind teat," not a desirable position for a kitten or piglet. If you were raised in an urban environment the answer to the question might not be so innocent.

sometimes saying something sucks is the best way to sum it up, other times people like kimmer come up instead with something like the brilliantly accurate "burnt toilet water" description. but if kimmer merely said it "sucks" that would conjure up something in the range of burnt toilet water anyway. to me, it's perfectly acceptable shorthand. "sucks hind teat" on the other hand, seems a bit vulgar.....

I prefer "it blows" to "it sucks," anyway.

But can something that sucks also blow?

It depends on which definition of "blow" you intend. One is similar to "suck," one is the opposite.

Some might remember a Chevy Chase bit on an early "Saturday Night Live" show about this. Rather coarse, especially for the 1970s.

Poor colleague Elizabeth,

The real world still lies before her.

If terrorists announce, in quotes, "We claim credit for x x x ,"
then it's up to the copy reader to decide whether to allow it or paraphrase the statement.

I'm not sure that I have ever seen quotes around "credit" in articles involving terrorism or crime.

Ergo, assigning "responsibility" is accurate and more responsible on the part of the reporter and copy reader.

We certainly wouldn't allow the late Jeffrey Dahmer to "claim credit" for having his friends for lunch.

Why would we allow al queda to
"claim credit" for blowing up a market?

There is no credit for murder, only responsibility.

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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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