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Since you asked

There is some unfinished business with brackets and other matters, but before we get into questions and answers, an amplification on the brackets post from Bill Cloud:

I would like to give credit also to Bill Montgomery of The Houston Chronicle, who took part in the presentation and supplied many of the examples, not to mention several people who have written on the subject.

Bill, another worthy colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, gets full marks.

Q. ... it sounds like the professor's proscription is only on interpolations, not on other bracket-y uses, such as citational ellipsis -- ? For example: "To be or not to be [...] ay, there's the rub."

A. In journalistic writing rather than formal academic citation, an ellipsis would be used, but without brackets.

Q. What about [sic]?

A. Once again, [sic] is useful in formal academic writing to indicate that an error has been recognized but preserved in a text. In journalism, which is more conversational than formal, it looks condescending. It is the equivalent of correcting someone’s pronunciation, and therefore we eschew it so as not to look snotty.

Q. ... the proper, consistent, and moderate use of square brackets should alleviate confusion, not cause it. I wonder if the fear of bracketry in any form is a case of underestimating the intelligence of readers.

A. We do try to use brackets when they are essential, and to use them in moderation. But a use such as [former President Bill] Clinton precisely underestimates the reader’s intelligence. That is why, instead of a flat ban, I suggest avoiding brackets whenever possible. And they do look jarring in big type.

Moving on:

Q. What’s the deal with Burma and Myanmar? Why do newspapers choose one or the other?

A. Slate posted a lucid explanation last week, which I recommend. The Sun has used Myanmar for years because that is what the government calls the country. So does the United Nations. We adopted Burkina Faso over Upper Volta for the same reason. Our policy on names, either of persons or of nations, is to go with the person’s or nation’s preference, the name by which each is generally known. The State Department does not like the junta that runs Myanmar and thus sticks with Burma. But it has gone along with other thug regimes (Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc.) without evident qualm. In any event, the State Department does not hold sway over our house style.

Want to pronounce Myanmar? The BBC offers four options. Merriam-Webster has an audio version.

Q. "Pain at the pump" may be trite at this point, but what it's trying to express is done easily, and avoiding it, while it could be better writing, could also lose a reader trying to wade through a phrase twice its length for the same result.

A. The thing about cliches is that while they are instantly recognizable, repetition paradoxically diminishes the effectiveness. I don’t think you need to look at all 638,000 instances of pain at the pump that a Google search turns up to conclude that the impact of the phrase has been dulled. Such a phrase is like the commercial you recognize without recalling what product it pushes.

In the same way, your eyes probably glide over ’tis the season hundreds of times between November and the end of December without registering anything much.

Well, maybe mild irritation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:47 PM | | Comments (2)


Side question - in light of this comment, "Our policy on names, either of persons or of nations, is to go with the person’s or nation’s preference, the name by which each is generally known" - I'm curious to know how your paper deals with people or groups who have weird typographical names - such as "kd lang", "Panic! at the Disco" or the impossible to say "!!!" - do you go with their logo/brand spelling or do you spell it "properly"?

Good blog. Thanks. Please denounce the fairly recent, but pestilentially spreading of the term "forward" in politics. "Forward" is poured like linguistic holy water over all policies,washing away sins of omission and comission. bob baker los angeles

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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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