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Best line heard in the workplace

I’m looking for single statements, not paragraphs or screeds.* It should be a single statement that in some way encapsulates an essential element of the work, the workplace, the people, the atmosphere. And it should be something that you heard someone actually say or write in a note or message.

Here’s my offering, a remark by Ursula Liu a former Sun copy editor and designer, now with the International Herald Tribune:

“Do I have an invisible tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”

Your turn.


* screed (n), originally (14th century), according to the OED, some fragment torn or cut or broken from a main piece, with the same etymology as shred, later (18th century) taking on the sense of a long list or harangue. (I'd say an harangue, but let’s not get started on that again.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:08 PM | | Comments (33)


A few months ago on what we all agree now is the benchmark for bad metro fillers: "This story is 30 inches long AND HAS NO NUT GRAF!"

For the benefit of civilians among the readership, the "nut graph" is the summary paragraph that follows the introduction to an article (usually some tedious anecdotal details about some person you do not know and in whom you have no particular interest).

It may strike you as odd that a professional journalist would file an article of 1,200 or so words that has no discernible point, but those of us on the copy desk are in the unhappy position of being able to tell you that that is far from uncommon.

After an email chiding employees for "working" from home too many days, our supervisor added, "of course, you're welcome to work from home during nights and weekends." Gee, thanks.

But John, let's do get started on "an harangue." Do you not voice the H? If you do, then it always flows better, to my ears, to put an A before it. What's your reasoning for "an"? Maybe I missed this discussion the first go 'round.

Its a high price to pay [usually meeting attendance or other such "fun" activity] for a free lunch [and generally not the great a lunch.]

"FYI: The second floor will be painted on Saturday, when no one is there, to spare everyone from fumes."
[from an intra-office e-mail sent by the editor in chief that morning and read by furious copy editors amid the painters.]

I do solemnly swear on a stack of the holiest of Bibles that, when I worked in a call center doing technical support, I myself was actually asked this question by one of our customers, and I quote:

"Which one of these is the main unit and which one is the remote sensor? The one that says 'Remote Sensor' on it, is that one the sensor?"

The job was full of intellectual stimulation.

"The Provost's Office would like to reiterate that employees are responsible for their own work completion, even during storms, but may use personal hours at supervisor's discretion if they feel their personal safety is at risk."

Sent during a blizzard, where 20" of snow fell in a day, the buses stopped running, and even the plows were having some issues.

I work at a digital agency. The VP of Creative is fond of using "rock star" as a verb. As in, "you totally rock-starred that presentation today." Another thing I picked up on soon after starting work here, when you don't know something, you say, "I don't have any visibility into [X]." I also like "rat hole" as a verb, meaning to get bogged down in a side issue during a meeting. "We're getting rat-holed on this, so let's table it for another day."

There's so much b.s. lingo around here, I just want to weep sometimes.

After an acrimonious discussion with architects who had designed our existing unsatisfactory (but prize-winning) building, and who were now designing an addition, a colleague asked this question: "Can you guarantee that this addition will not win any architectural awards?"

I once contemplated sending an e-mail to our sports staff saying "Please take a look at your stories before sending them to me. The copy desk is not here just to bolster your stringbook."

Didn't go through with it, but it felt great to at least write down.

This may be too coarse for polite company, but I always felt this exchange highlighted the pounding undercurrent of desperation on my undergrad campus. The scene is of a couple walking across the quad:

Boy: "...and I was like 'quit your bitchin', everyone is f --- g miserable!' "

Girl: "Yeah! [beat of silence] Totally!"

JEM: Slightly euphemised for seemliness.

Overheard on the other side of my cubicle, as several people passed by in the middle of a conversation:

"Yeah, he thinks he's God's gift to sliced bread."

By the time I could breathe again, whoever said it was gone, but I keep his memory alive by using this wonderful saying whenever I can!

Most of my best options cannot be shared for reasons of confidentiality. So I offer a few simply good ones instead.

From a friend, "I think everyone seriously considers dropping out at least once during med school."

And from a parent, "What you really need to do is go into radiology, where you get paid loads of money and never actually have to see any patients."

A new intern on the copy desk as the rest of us discussed the Tribune bankruptcy filing: "Is it just here, or all newsrooms this morbidly pessimistic about the future of their jobs?"
This comment was promptly followed by prolonged laughter and the death of one young journalist's innocence.

Somewhat along the line of "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore," I told a new arrival in a foreign country we were working in "Every day something is going to happen that will make you cuss this place up one side and down the other." It always did.

Told that a colleague was going to take a six-month leave to write a book, one gruff copy editor replied:

"Yeah, three months to write it and three months to color it."

"If it's yellow, let it mellow."

That was the sign hung by our publisher in the men's room when there were problems with the plumbing.

Years ago, I was working as a gasboy at Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, Mont. One of our old-timer mechanics was in the midst of a multiple-day inspection of an ancient warhorse of an airplane, I think a DC-3. I didn't know enough about what the mechanics did to understand why the job was so taxing, but at one put the old-timer paused in his work, laid an arm on one of the wings, put his forehead in the crook of his arm, sighed heavily and said, "I've been to two world's fairs and I've seen goats f---, but I've never seen anything like this."

From my Dad, who taught 10th grade biology in a public school for 25 years, "Teaching wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for the students."

Told to treat a subject diplomatically at work, my father responded, "Diplomacy is just saying 'nice doggie' until you can find a rock."

Working at a law firm in the mid-1980s, I asked a colleague how his day was going: "Just another day in this whirling vortex of tedium and monotony." We both left for journalism jobs soon after.

"Writing is not typing."

My sister, a teacher, after a particularly trying day with middle school students: "Kids. People just need to stop having them."

Told to me by a boss after I made gave him a recommendation based on the average of some data points:

"Don't give me averages. If you stand with one foot in a bucket of boiling water and the other foot frozen in a block of ice, "on average" your feet are comfortable."

Teacher? He couldn't teach himself out of a paper bag!

On the wisdom of partying late the night before an early shift: "They offer safe rides home. They don't do safe rides to work.'"

My greatest fit of histrionics went like this, in an instant message to a copy desk chief about three papers back:

"When the gods of journalism torpedo this place and it goes down with all hands lost, don't say I didn't warn you."

A colleague at USA Today made this observation years ago during a SportsCenter update on Michael Irvin's latest court proceedings: "You don't show up at your drug trial dressed like Superfly."

Here's another exchange that sums up why I'm proud to be a copy editor. After Heath Ledger's death:

Editor: "He's cute. Or he was."

Copy editor: "What time is it? He probably still is."

Passing along one from a friend who interned at the LAT:

Foreign copy desk ed #1: Wilkes-BARE-RY? Is that right? You know,
that just goes to show how people from the East Coast can't spell.
#2: And they can't pronounciate either. (affects a Boston accent here)
#1: I mean, places in Massachusetts called Gloucester and Worcester…
#2. Ha, Wuh-sta.
Foreign copy desk ed #3: Hey, quit wastin' ya time-sta.

I heard a guy once ask another guy "Would you like to test my wiki?"

Worried about the boss reading a report before the meeting: "He won't get it done on time. He can't move his lips that fast."

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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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