Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

A football team that many refuse to name, Part 4

August 23, 2016

football-clip-art-aTeEjM8T4-2The Washington, DC, area’s professional football team is an embarrassment, and I don’t just mean its longtime on-field record. Every time I hear a newscaster or read a sportswriter refer more than once to “the burgundy and gold” or “Washington’s team,” I know he or she is deliberately avoiding saying the name of the team. Yeah, you know … (whispering) … the Redskins.

“We all make mistakes, so it makes sense if you were misguided and you participated in [cultural] appropriation without realizing it could be harmful,” reads a Web post I came across a few weeks ago on another topic. “It’s one thing if you own up to the fact that you accidentally did something that caused harm, and do your best not to do it again. It’s an entirely different story if you insist on continuing to appropriate just because you ‘don’t mean to hurt anyone.’ ” (Emphasis in the original.)

The movement to change the name of the capital’s pro football team suffered a setback this spring, but that’s a battle in a war that will ultimately be won. For now, a look at the year in cultural-appropriation skirmishes, football edition.

September 2015: Who cares about Deflate-gate when the Washington NFL team still has a rotten name? So said Senate minority leader Harry Reid in a CNN interview. “The name of the Washington football team is disparaging to a large number of my constituents, and he demeans them every day,” Reid said, referring to team owner Dan Snyder. On Twitter, the senator repeated: “I find it stunning that the NFL cares more about how much air is in a football than it does about a racist franchise name.”

October 2015: California (where else?) passed the nation’s first statewide ban on the ‘R’ name for sports teams, affecting four public schools. Individual school districts had already done so, including in Madison, Wisconsin, and Houston, Texas, according to Reuters. That led to another Washington Post editorial advocating a name change. In the presidential race, said Reuters, “former Florida governor Jeb Bush and billionaire Donald Trump have said they do not see a need to change the name.”

November 2015: Quote without comment, as The New Yorker sometimes says. From the Washington Post: “Nearly four months after a federal judge ordered the cancellation of the Washington Redskins’ federal trademark registrations for disparaging Native Americans, the National Football League is appealing with a provocative tactic: listing the names of porn, clothing and beer companies that use offensive language, but nonetheless have the support of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office. ‘By way of example only, the following marks are registered today; Take Yo Panties Off clothing; Dangerous Negro shirts … Midget-Man condoms and inflatable sex dolls,’ the Redskins lawyer wrote in their opening brief filed Friday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, based in Richmond. The lawyers added a footnote with 31 more trademark registrations, many of them unprintable in The Washington Post.”

December 2015: Snort! Headline on sports site SBNation: “Washington’s NFL Team Accidentally Revealed It Runs That ‘Fan’ Twitter Account Supporting Its Name.” Redskins Facts is a website/Twitter account supposedly operated by rabid fans who want to keep the name. The story, which made national news, noted that a tweet correcting a previous tweet on the official account went out simultaneously December 13 on both the official account and the “fan” one. Previously, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog had found the site intentionally misleading, and Slate had “strong evidence” that the website was created by a crisis-management firm.

January 2016: If you were listening to the January 22 broadcast of “The Dan Le Batard Show” on ESPN Radio, you heard mention of “the Washington Racial Slurs.” Bwah! The FishbowlNY daily media email reached back to a Cleveland Plain Dealer item from August 13, in which Jeff Darcy called team owner Dan Snyder “the Donald Trump of the NFL,” noted that “at least 23 Native American tribes have called upon the owner to change the team’s name,” and flagged the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo mascot as equally disparaging: It “actually matches Washington’s team name better than their own helmet logo.” He concludes, “As long as both teams continue to identify themselves with racial slurs and stereotypes, they will still be losers.”

February 2016: In recent years, the local team has been playing across the pond to show off “American football.” Now two members of the British Parliament have written to the NFL to say change the team’s name or send a different team—“one that does not promote a racial slur.” They added that the game could also be a problem for Wembley Stadium and the BBC. Even the Brits get it! The Oneida Indian Nation piled on, said CBS Sports, “blast[ing] the NFL for creating an international incident” by sending the team to London in October.

April 2016: CNN Money: “The Washington Redskins’ case surrounding whether or not the team can trademark its controversial name may go to the Supreme Court.” Yup, it just filed a petition following that Patent and Trademark Office decision back in June 2014 that it can’t get a trademark because the name is “scandalous, immoral, or disparaging.” To which the team said (as in November), hey, look at all these other things that are scandalous, immoral, or disparaging—and they have trademarks! Which is kind of a point. The team wants its case to be heard along with that of an Asian-American rock group called, yes, the Slants.

May 2016: According to the Washington Times (a right-wing paper, by the way), “The results of the survey of 504 American Indians by The Washington Post were identical to those of a 2004 Annenberg Public Policy Center poll, meaning that a decade’s worth of advocacy by top progressives and media outlets against the Redskins name has moved the needle not a whit.” This pronouncement referred to a national poll showing that 90 percent of Native Americans say the team name doesn’t offend them. Prominent Native leaders promptly denounced the results even as Snyder and the team trumpeted them, and, said the Post, “news that such a large percentage of Native Americans do not care about the name could provide the necessary political cover for District leaders to welcome Snyder’s club to return to the site of RFK Stadium, where the Redskins used to play.”

Where did that leave the many sports journalists and the like who stopped using the name? Peter King of Sports Illustrated wrote a column on why he still won’t use it. As 21 percent of those surveyed felt the name disrespected Native Americans, King said, and the word is still a dictionary-defined slur, why go back? Former Post columnist Mike Wise, writing for ESPN’s The Undefeated; eternal NBC sportscaster Bob Costas; and USA Today’s Christine Brennan agreed, all wondering why a poll should influence a moral decision.

“If ethical decisions were decided by majority rule, the poor and the weak would have no moral standing; indeed, every minority group would be outvoted,” Wise said. “Public opinion is an evolving animal. What we think in the moment doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s morally right.”

It’s not just individual sportswriters. ran a column making not only an ethical but a business case for a name change. Washington City Paper is one of many newspapers and other media outlets that have an official policy of not naming this particular name. City Paper will continue to use “Pigskins,” backed by a February survey in which 58 percent of readers agreed that the team name is offensive. According to the Washington Post—whose editorial board will continue to avoid the name except when referring to the controversy itself—the only major media representative to revert is Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford, whose comment boils down to “majority rules.”

But as Mike Wise said, that’s not the way democracy or humanity works. I’ll bet it’s not ultimately the way the team’s name works, either. Anyone want to bet which departs first, the current name or the current owner?

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Public grammar and spelling don’ts from public players

August 4, 2016

DSC001221-2I’m not going to pick on Larry King. Not even going to pick on Scott Pelley (this time). And certainly not going to pick on everyday people who mess up grammar in everyday use.

In these occasional call-outs of bad syntax, spelling, and other offenses against the English language, I’ve smacked the typing hands or shut the pieholes of magazine editors, broadcasters, company PR departments, ad writers, politicians, nonprofit communications pros, news reporters, and more. All either know the language or have people who know the language—and all have a platform to inflict their errors on a wider public.

Regular people who mess up through ignorance, sloppiness, or laziness: Clear communication is important. Please learn from others’ mistakes. Here are some just since the holidays ….

The website tag on a Post story about Mount St. Mary’s University: “The small Catholic college in southern Maryland became embroiled in crisis this year when its previous president suggested that students struggling academically should be culled.” Nice try, Post website writer. How about “a small Catholic college in Maryland, just south of Pennsylvania.” Like seven miles south. Unless you mean St. Mary’s College of Maryland—which you don’t, because that’s a whole nuther institution. (Numerous comments chastised the paper for correcting the mistake without noting that it had done so.)

Tsk to the editors of Reader’s Digest, several of whom failed to fix this Barack Obama quote on its way into print: “But just in case there’s any lingering questions, tonight I’m prepared to go a step further.” That should be “there’re” or “there are.” The sentence was spoken, not written, and even if Reader’s Digest got the quote from a transcript, the editors (including the author) should have caught the mistake.

Write headlines in haste, repent at leisure. The editor of this Washington Post article should consider the word “him”: “McConnell focused on the ideas that unite he and Trump, and that separate he and Hillary Clinton.” (That comma doesn’t belong there, either.) And writer Jennifer Rubin should consider the word “her”: From an op-ed in the Washington Post, “In a general election, the Clintons will encounter voters who don’t really recall either she or Bill in their pre-President Obama days.”

If you still need help lowering your blood sugar, this is Jardiance.
If … you’re talking to your doctor about a biologic, this is Humira.
(The Northern Virginia hospital chain Inova had a similar line in a recent radio ad.)
These are logic failures. They imply an if-then relationship, but actually, the second phrase is true regardless of the first phrase. “This is Jardiance”—a newish medicine—whether you need help lowering your blood sugar or not. The marketing campaign is a clever way of suggesting that Jardiance will do well at lowering your blood sugar when in fact the sentence says no such thing; it simply introduces the product and lets you draw your own conclusion. (By the way, Humira, a biologic what?)

New York Post headline: “Hillary Using Bill to Shakedown High-Profile Donors.” Gimme space! A noun is not a verb.

“I am standing with the 31 Governors that are working to keep our nation safe,” tweeted then-presidential candidate Ben Carson. Last I heard, governors (lowercase) are people, too. So they take who, not that. 

“Tastes so good, you won’t believe it has 50 percent less calories.” Argh, Trop 50, you’ve already made an abomination of orange juice; now you’re butchering the English language. “Fewer,” please!

Washington Post headline: “Legendary Photographer Ansel Adams Visited a Japanese Internment Camp in 1943, Here’s What He Saw.” A run-on sentence in a headline is another example to back up the assertion that the Post has lost (most of) its copyeditors and general grammatical knowledge.

And saving the worst for last: “U.S. News and World Reports has recognized the Naval Academy …. Upon graduation, midshipmen earn bachelor of Science degree in a choice of 25 different subject majors and go on to serve at least five years of exciting and rewarding services as commissioned officers in the U.S. Navy or U.S. Marin Corps.” Bad, bad “United States Public Affairs Office”—and shouldn’t that be “United States Naval Academy Public Affairs Office”? This news release has to be seen to believed, especially because the highlighted sentences should be boilerplate.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Should “internet” be lowercased? How about “web”?

May 31, 2016

Tomorrow, it’s official: The Internet becomes a common noun.

At least according to the AP Stylebook. Back in April, the Associated Press announced several coming changes; lowercasing “internet” and “web” made the biggest splash.

“The changes reflect a growing trend toward lowercasing both words, which have become generic terms,” AP standards editor Thomas Kent told Poynter.

Both tech (Wired) and nontech (The New Republic) editors have advocated for the change, though with varying degrees of logic. Here’s what Indiana University professor Susan Herring wrote in Wired last year:

“According to Bob Wyman, a Google tech staffer and long-time Net expert, the ‘I’ should be capitalized to make clear the difference in meaning between the Internet (the global network that evolved out of ARPANET, the early Pentagon network), and any generic internet, or computer network connecting a number of smaller networks. … Yet … most people (other than techies) are not aware of any internets other than the Internet—that distinction is no longer relevant in ordinary usage. And for many younger folks who have grown up with the technology, the internet itself is ordinary—just another communication medium, like the telephone, television, and radio.”

(I’m picturing a poster on some computer science lab’s wall that reads, “There is no internet but the Internet, and Steve Jobs is his prophet.” Please tell me such a poster exists.)

As for “web,” Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh correctly notes that the word has other, generic meanings, so capping it in this case helps show readers which meaning is meant.

Another argument for the lowercase treatment of either word is that capital letters are speed bumps in reading, not to mention typing (the shift key being sooo difficult to use). Seriously? Ask any copyeditor: Reading comprehension goes up with caps, punctuation, serif type, and other well-regulated aids to understanding. In one of his monthly chats, Walsh wrote, “The argument that there is a general trend away from capitalization would be more persuasive if I didn’t see the same people who champion ‘internet’ and ‘web’ writing about being ‘Sophomores who are majoring in History and love Sushi.’ ”

Hmm. As an editor, I will enforce AP style when clients request it. Off the clock, though, this will have to be—like the serial comma—another area in which we agree to disagree.

A change I approve of: AP has gotten more real about child sex trafficking, banning such uses as “child prostitute” and “teenage prostitute” because they imply that the child “is voluntarily trading sex for money,” Kent says, and a child, by definition, can’t consent. A petition signed by more than 150,000 people, sponsored in part by Human Rights Project for Girls, helped make the case.

Others, FYI:

  • Being more careful about “accidents.” Either “accident” or “crash” is “generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks,” says AP. “However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms.”
  • Avoiding “mistress”—because “mister” is not the equivalent. Rather, use “companion,” “friend” (really?), or “lover” if applicable. “Whenever possible,” AP’s new entry says, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: ‘The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.’ ”
  • Keeping “spree” positive. No more using “killing spree” and the like. Though that could get subjective. “Spending spree” could arguably be positive, negative, or both, depending on who’s looking at it.
  • Somewhat defining “exponential.” As in, say, “exponential growth”—it now has to mean progressively larger (5 percent this year, 10 percent next, etc.) and not just fast growth.
  • Somewhat defining “alarms” in terms of fire. Because many of us have no idea what a two-alarm fire is, just that presumably a three-alarm fire is worse. No kidding, says Kent: Such terms are “meaningless” without context, so spell out the number of firefighters or amount of equipment used.
  • Making “dash cam” one word. Once again, though, AP goes halfway by keeping “body cam” two words, thus needlessly confusing both copyeditors and readers.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Comma chameleon: Punctuation makes news

March 8, 2016

958e15c68eae47f6c76eb1a68fd80f32-4Consider the comma. Often misused, often misplaced. Tiny, easy to overlook—but powerful enough to set off nonessential and introductory clauses.

The lowly comma has made the news at least three times in the past few months. Let’s give the mark its due.

  1. Harper Lee’s first book? second book? never-meant-to-be-a book? … anyway, Go Set a Watchman was published last July, for better or worse, whether she was aware of it or not. Given the evidence past and present—or “present” before the publication—it’s certainly hard to believe she was. On the other hand, a HarperCollins editor reportedly showed her a mockup of the cover with a comma after “Go,” as the phrase is in the King James Bible (Isaiah 21:6), and she—again, reportedly—responded, “That’s the Lord’s book. This is my book. And there is no comma.” (The press and public love anecdotes, especially greatly embellished ones.)
  1. In a case that got lots of media attention, an Ohio woman used her beau’s eye for detail to strike back when cited for a parking violation. Andrea Cammelleri left her Ford pickup parked on the street for more than 24 hours. She got a ticket. A West Jefferson, Ohio, ordinance forbids—or did—“any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle from daylong parking.”

Guess what? As her beau pointed out, a pickup truck isn’t any of those. Cammelleri protested. West Jefferson officials argued that the missing comma was a typo and that her truck illegally overstayed its welcome. Last summer, the Court of Appeals, Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio, ruled unanimously that maybe so, but the law should say what it meant, so the ticket was as gone as the comma. (Apparently West Jefferson has now restored its missing punctuation.)

  1. Should Avondale Lockhart spend 10 years in prison for child porn? In a U.S. Supreme Court case decided days ago, commas were central to the outcome.

The federal child-pornography law at issue says that anyone caught possessing the stuff is subject to the mandatory minimum if he or she has a prior state court conviction “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor or ward.” The folks who wrote and approved that should have paid more attention to their grammar. Does “involving a minor or ward” apply to all three crimes or just to the last one?

Lockhart v. United States came down to, yes, the “series qualifier” v. the “last antecedent.” Team Lockhart favored the former (he’s off the hook). Team Fed favored the latter (see you next decade). In oral arguments, the late Justice Antonin Scalia, Mr. Stick-It-to-the-Government, was Team Lockhart. Even without him, the court ruled 6-2 for Lockhart.

Said a commenter in Washington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh’s chat, “Justice Kagan’s dissent said (effectively) ‘all well and good, except when the series that precedes the profile have a close relationship to one another, the modifier applies to the entire series, not just the last antecedent.’ Frankly, I think Kagan got it right.”

Replied Walsh, “This is a good counterexample for the serial-comma fans who keep laughing about ‘my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’ If serial commas were used only cases of ambiguity, the presence of the serial comma in this case would make the majority opinion clearly correct. Otherwise, the statute is hopelessly ambiguous and the justices are left to guess.”

If the Supreme Court operated the way the Twelfth Appellate District of Ohio did, it would have sent the law back to Congress and told that august body to rewrite it to be far more clear. Maybe the court ought to try that sort of thing.

Meanwhile, score three for the comma. It’s mightier than it looks.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

FOIA reform: A step for journalism and democracy

February 16, 2016

images-11The pen can be mightier than the sword, but only when certain conditions are met. One is that the pen has enough information to go on.

When government is open and the press is free, the governed can be informed enough to make responsible choices. Both parts of that supposition seem to be under constant threat. Currently, threats to the former come largely from fear of terrorism, of foreign governments, of cyberhackers, and various combinations. Threats to the latter come from corporate owners, genericism (everything is focus-grouped and homogenized), and the disappearance of investigative journalism and of independent media itself.

Let’s look just at that “open government” part. The American Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)—which goes way back to the Lyndon Johnson administration—allows for release, full or partial, of U.S. government documents. (There are versions in other countries, too.) It defines what records can and should be disclosed and how and, of course, spells out several exceptions. FOIA doesn’t mean the feds necessarily make it easy or cheap to get information—they can still redact the heck out of it, bury you in paper, and/or send it long after you ask for it—but FOIA is better than no FOIA.

In fact, in many cases, FOIA has been fabulous. Innumerable important news stories have been broken, crimes and coverups exposed, arrests made, fines levied, lives improved. Wrongdoers have been frog-marched out of both public service and private employment based on information discovered or confirmed through FOIA searches.

But the Freedom of Information Act has been eroded, largely due to 9/11 and the response (“fear of terrorism, of foreign governments, of cyberhackers, and various combinations”). Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the FOIA Oversight and Implementation Act (H.R. 653), which amends FOIA toward greater transparency and accountability. The Senate has yet to act.

Now more than 40 organizations have spoken out in favor, mostly, of this FOIA reform. A letter coordinated by (“Americans for less secrecy, more democracy”) has gone to House leaders and the public.

For example, signers approve the bill’s requirement that federal agencies disclose information unless there is some legal bar or “foreseeable harm” in doing so. The bill would narrow the use of FOIA’s Exemption 5, a very necessary change because this exemption has kept expanding to withhold—or cover up—far too much information that should have been released in the public interest, such as U.S. torture policies, targeted-killing programs, and of course National Security Agency surveillance information. The bill also would allow the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to communicate directly with Congress (this is not allowed?) and to advise on mediations.

The 40+ organizations object to some last-minute changes in the bill from members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. These changes, naturally, would exempt the intelligence community from some of the FOIA amendments and from the OGIS consultation process—exactly the sort of things the new bill is aiming to reform.

The coalition signing this letter includes the American Society of Journalists and Authors (to which I belong), the Society of Professional Journalists, the Media Freedom Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the American Association of Law Libraries, the Association of Research Libraries, and the National Security Archive. Notice a pattern here?

I have written my legislators and urged them to support the bill without those changes—my representative, of course, and both senators, assuming the bill will make its way to that side of the Hill. If you’re in the States, I hope you’ll do the same. To find your members of Congress, just go to and type in your Zip code, click each name, then go to his or her contact form to write in a few original sentences on why you support H.R. 653. See? Open government at work.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Writers’ messy desks: a tribute

January 26, 2016

messydeskBlog headline: “A Perfect Mess: Why Disorganized People Are More Creative and Productive.”

I love headlines like that. Most writers probably do. After all, no less than Albert Einstein said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Years ago, I was curious about my dear friend Beth’s writing nook. It was up a narrow flight of stairs and had a window out over her Annapolis neighborhood as well as—how cool was this—a window over her living room. One day I asked to see it. She demurred; it was a total mess.

I didn’t have to say anything, just gave her the two-handed New Yorker “Wha, who you talkin’ to?” gesture, aimed at my incredulous face. The Jersey girl got it and led me up the steps.

She wasn’t kidding. Her office was a fraction the size of mine and proportionally a wreck: books piled sloppily, threatening to tumble over; magazines full of Post-It notes; papers, tapes, brochures, and other paraphernalia everywhere. Photos, buttons, tsotskies. No sign of the floor; barely a sign of the walls. A neatnik’s nightmare.

Sure, Beth would have liked a neater office. Like most of us, though, she had lots of projects in various stages, and putting things in order, let alone storage, was a low priority. And apparently there was more.

According to the post referenced above, in the Web Writer Spotlight by David K. William, we disorganized people are indeed how we have defended ourselves to bosses, family, and friends: “spontaneous, bold and more imaginative.”

William cites Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman, authors of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. “On a messy desk, the more important, urgent work tends to stay close by and near the top of the clutter, while the safely ignorable stuff tends to get buried to the bottom or near the back, which makes perfect sense,” they write. “The various piles on a messy desk can represent a surprisingly sophisticated informal filing system that offer far more efficiency and flexibility than a filing cabinet could possibly provide.”

Well, even to me that sounds like self-justification. How many times have I cussed while turning over piles of paper in search of that one I need right now? But they go on: “It’s not just that the advantages of being neat and orderly are typically outweighed by the costs. As it turns out, the very advantages themselves are often illusory. Though it flies in the face of almost universally accepted wisdom, moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.”

William cites other researchers, too. Susan Biali, a physician, life coach, and author, praises “controlled clutter” for certain personalities. There’s a study by University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management professor Kathleen Vohs: Clutter increases both efficiency and creativity. “Disorderly environments seem to inspire breaking free of tradition, which can produce fresh insights. Orderly environments, in contrast, encourage convention and playing it safe,” she says. Now that I believe. After all, as Abrahamson and Freedman note, “Mess helped Alexander Fleming discover penicillin.”

I wish I could share David’s post with Beth. To my enormous sorrow, she died suddenly on her birthday this month. Her partner told me he isn’t even thinking about her office for now. It hurts me to think of his pain in going up those steps—because if a writer’s soul is anywhere, it’s generally among all those disorganized papers.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Little Free Library: Take a book, leave a book

January 5, 2016

As public libraries and their budgets shrink across the country, one type of library is growing: the Little Free Library. Never heard of it? Look around near home. Your local library may be closer than you think.

Here in Rockville, I noticed my neighbor Judye’s immediately on my nightly power walks. The size of a large birdhouse, it stood about four feet high on a post and featured a see-through front door. A note inside explained that passersby could borrow a book and put it back or replace it with another.

What a lovely idea! According to, this movement dates to 2009, when Todd Bol built a tiny one-room schoolhouse to honor his mother, a teacher. “Free Books,” the sign on it said. Rick Brooks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison met with Bol and batted around some history and concepts, including industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s backing of 2,509 free libraries 100+ years ago, a Wisconsin librarian’s bringing “traveling little libraries” to 1,400 locations at about the same time, and “take a book, leave a book” collections in coffee shops and other public spaces.

Bol and Brooks decided to set an official goal of 2,510 Little Free Libraries by the end of 2013 to promote “reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world.” The idea spread from Bol’s hometown to Madison in 2010. There were nearly 400 by the end of 2011. In May 2012, the founders made Little Free Library a formal nonprofit with a board of directors—and it met its 2,510 goal that August. About a year later, my neighbor Judye got hers. It’s No. 9,217.

Why? Judye has about as many reasons as Bol and Brooks: To honor her late mother, an avid reader. And her daughter, who earned her master’s in library science late in 2012. And because she “wanted to share my love of reading with others in my neighborhood and my community.” And because she was inspired by a Little Free Library a few miles east.

“Cookbooks don’t do well. Any current titles go quickly. Nonfiction and mysteries tend to be the most popular,” says Judye. “And of course kid books.”

Judye and others have added a journal to their boxes. “People scribble messages to me and each other,” she says, mostly thanks and recommendations. “This box is the highlight of our runs,” reads one. “It’s like book paridise [sic],” reads another, likely a child; just beneath is “Thank you!” in a more grownup hand.

“By January of 2015, the total number of Little Free Libraries in the world was conservatively estimated to be nearly 25,000,” the website says. “By January of 2016, the total number reached over 36,000.”

Over on Anderson Street, our neighbor Susan’s library is No. 20,497. Susan, 544 AndersonHer daughter-in-law is a librarian, so Susan’s husband built it and gave it to the younger couple for Christmas. “But she’s very private,” Susan told me. “They were horrified at the idea of people traipsing across their lawn, so they put it in their basement.” Susan took it back and put it on her own lawn.

“Children’s books go fastest,” she told me, but her box is filled with mixed adult fare: A Map of the World, In the Garden of Beasts (paper and hardback), Archy and Mehitabel, Small Ceremonies, True North. Susan pointed to one lying on top of the others. “Trash,” she said with a grin. “I just read that over the holidays.”

“It has been so much fun to have the LFL on our corner for all to enjoy,” Judye wrote. Her Little Free Library and Susan’s—just two within walking distance of me—show how Bol and Brooks are achieving their goals every day: promoting literacy, reading, libraries, and community.

Copyright 2016 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

The Washington Post changes “mike,” “e-mail” to “mic,” “email”

December 8, 2015

1-12433511551KPgDays ago in an op-edWashington Post copyeditor Bill Walsh announced some changes in the paper’s stylebook. Long after the Associated Press and even the New York Times, the Post has changed the following:
—“e-mail” to “email”
—“Web site” to “website”
—“Wal-Mart” to “Walmart”
—the short form of “microphone” from “mike” to “mic”

“Why did we wait so long to make the changes?” he wrote. “As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.”

If all copyeditors were laid end to end, would they ever reach the same conclusion? At the same time? (Oh, wait, that’s economists.) Walmart changed the way it referred to its stores—if not its official corporate name—in 2008. AP changed “Web site” and “e-mail” in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Times did so in 2013. Walsh decided to propose his changes only once the Post was about to move to a new building. Better late than never, I guess.

Let’s take these one at a time.

Email. We don’t say “tshirt” or “xray,” Walsh says, so why “email”? But he caved to pressure both internal and external because “yesterday’s vigorously defended norm can be today’s laughingstock.” Wrote Grammar Girl in 2011, “I asked the AP Stylebook editors why they made the change, and they said most of their writers already turn in articles with the ‘email’ spelling, and copy editors found ‘e-mail’ increasingly difficult to police. They emphasized that they don’t consider themselves to be on the leading edge of language change; that instead, they ‘bow to common usage.’ ”

My take: Don’t be fooled by the fact that tech users are early adopters; the world is not aligned on this sort of thing. AP also uses “e-book,” “e-commerce,” and “e-business”; a well-funded, global legal association uses “e-commerce” and “e-discovery.” To me, it’s about readability; do readers trip over the word? Digital readers were much quicker to give up (on) the hyphen.

Website. “I don’t know why I made such a big deal about it all these years,” said Walsh.

My take: AP still caps “Web” as a proper noun while lowercasing “website,” “webcam,” “webmaster,” etc. (We’ll see how long that lasts.) I’m fine with making it one word but appreciate the cap for clarity.

Walmart. The company is Wal-Mart Stores Inc.; it changed its logo in 2008. A logo is not a word, but readers complained. Walsh found a loophole that he said let him make the change: “The Post no longer routinely uses Inc., Corp., Co. and the like in company names. So we could keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the rare occasion when we’d spell out the name, while otherwise referring to the company and its stores by the name everyone knows.” (Huh? What does that have to do with Walmart vs. Wal-Mart?)

My take: Just pay your workers decently, whatever you call yourself.

Mic. Walsh spent six paragraphs trying to justify his decision here. No wonder. “As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it,” he said.

Pro “mike”: “A bicycle is a bike, not a bic. Bic, as in the pens, rhymes with Mick.” Plus, “mic” began as an abbreviation on recording devices; it was never meant to be pronounced or used as a word. Pro “mic”: “Enough people made the error that mic gradually crept into the language.”

My take: I completely agree with everything Walsh says above, though I hate that the Post and other guides are giving in on this. As he explained well, “mic is an aberration.” And call me Irish(-American), but I’m not getting over the bad historical connections here. He’s also correct, though, that “some now-common phrases—mic drop, hot mic—would look downright anachronistic with the old spelling.” Which … is how language changes.

As an afterthought(!), Walsh stopped short of changing the rule that a person must be called “he” or “she”—but the Post now also allows the use of “they” “as a last resort.” Say what?! This one Walsh actually advocated as “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.” “He” is sexist, “she” is patronizing, “he or she” is awkward, and alternating and “s/he” are silly. “What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns,” he wrote, “was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people.” Plus, he noted, sometimes you just don’t know the right gender to use.

Walsh claims to be surprised that people have protested this change more than the others. Seriously? “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle,” he wrote. “We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

My ultimate take: Of all the changes mentioned here, the fact that no one has brought a complaint about a newspaper of record breaking a basic rule of grammar is the saddest one of all.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

More public grammar and spelling don’ts

November 17, 2015

Ignorance, sloppiness, autocorrect (a bane if I ever saw one) … there are many reasons for poor grammar and usage. But there are few excuses.

No one writes the way they talk—see what I did there?—and few of us even write the way we’re “supposed to” in everyday writing. That is, in emails to friends and sticky notes to coworkers, who much cares how U write as long as yr understood? Emails to your boss or the board, on the other hand, call for a higher standard.

Companies, government agencies, and nonprofits are also held to a higher standard. Any entity in business with or service to the public should respect itself and its audience enough to use proper English. If you don’t know enough to make a noun and a verb agree—and know that it matters that they do—find someone who does.

As always, I’m not going to pound on regular folks who mess with the language. Those “entities” that know better or should, though, deserve what they get. Some examples:

In direct mail from a nondenominational Maryland church, “The decisions we make can transform our lives, the lives of our families and impact our future.” As Sesame Street says, “Which one of these things does not belong?” Parallel usage, please. Though fighting “impact” as a verb may require the Almighty.

From a Washington Gas marketing flier: “Cross bores can lay dormant for months or even years, their exact locations unknown.” Cross bores may lie low—that’s an example of an idiom—but they lie dormant. And that’s no lie.

A radio ad for a timeshare-rescue company says, “How’d you like to be the person that dumped that timeshare?” Another says, “You deserve a dentist that can restore a full arch of teeth in a single visit.” If this dentist is a person and not a robot, he or she is a “who,” not a “that.”

There’s a lot of this going around: Referring to veterans, the New Mexico Department of Health website says, “We are proud to serve those that have served us.” And “Tonight we’ve learned more about the prison employee that investigators think helped the men escape ….”—With two previous mentions here, CBS’s Scott Pelley is going for the ungrammatical hall of fame.

From a Yahoo Music article: “The song lyrics warn about a wrath from God prompted by ‘the lack of raw humanity.’ ” I’ve heard of the wrath of God. Maybe this should say “a wreath”?

In an opinion column in the Washington Post: “the text of the Constitution, the legislative history, the legislative history of the civil rights statue that preceded it ….” Ooh, let’s see the civil-rights statue that preceded it. Pretty sure the Constitution came first, though.

The Hollywood Reporter, quoting Law & Order: SVU showrunner Warren Leight about an actor: “We’ve put his character through the ringer ….” No, you put his character through the wringer. My grandmother used a wringer. Being put through one would be very unpleasant. (See photo.)

From a Liberty Mutual magazine ad: “As an alumni of UVa, you could receive exclusive savings ….” Staff at the alumni association, whose logo is on the ad, should know that any graduate, alum, or former student is singular, not plural.

In the Washington Post Express, in a section on odd crimes: “After giving officers there a detailed description of the hat, police found it in a flowerbed and arrested him.” Police gave officers a description?

And in the Washington Post, those pesky vowels: “The decision does not effect the Ivanka Trump collection, which Macy’s also sells.” No. It doesn’t affect it, either, which is more to the point.

From a business coach’s newsletter on the subject of communication (irony alert): “If people don’t seem to be listening to you and reacting the way you desire, it is you, not them, that are the issue.” Oy! (Says Bill Walsh, Washington Post copyeditor: “ ‘They’ would be the quick fix, but I’d do more heavy lifting.”)

Another communicator who should know better is the writer/editor of FishbowlNY, which ran this sentence this summer: “The New York Daily News has received bids from John Catsimatidis and Jimmy Finkelstein, but neither appear to be the frontrunner.”

On a poster in Washington, DC’s, transit system: “A smart kid like you knows that eating and drinking in the system is against the law, right?” And a smart Metro knows that two subjects take a plural verb, right? (It didn’t mean only people who do these things in combination. Folks have been arrested for just the French-fries part.)

Okay, this is not strictly a grammatical error and seemed to be an off-the-cuff remark, nothing official. But it made me giggle while listening to WTOP radio: “Watch out for deer on the road in all this fog. I saw two of them driving in this morning.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

All that gleams may be a distraction from work

October 27, 2015

time-fliesIn the late, lamented TV series Firefly, “shiny” was a futuristic word meaning “cool” (or the equivalent). For writers and other creative folks, it still is—and it’s something to watch out for.

Avoid Shiny Object Syndrome,” warns author and book marketer Sandra Beckwith in a recent blog post. To Beckwith, a shiny object or other cool thing may be helpful, or it may be a distraction. For instance, lately she’s been hearing a lot about Periscope, the Twitter video tool that can help sell books. It’s also fun, cool, amazing, and—well—shiny.

“Before you are distracted by the newest shiny object that everyone seems to be chattering about,” she writes, “ask yourself these questions:
• “Who is using this tool or service?
• “Who will I reach if I use it?
• “Is my target audience—the people who are most likely to love my book—using it?”

If not, ignore it. Back to work.

Beckwith is talking about longer-term distractions. There are also shorter-term, day-to-day ones. I’ve written before about shiny objects in general when trying to work—things like food, laundry, a sudden need to exercise, and of course the very shiny Internet with its newspapers, YouTube, email, and other fun dalliances. Any excuse to spend minutes, even hours away from what really matters.

“When you finally get back to work—two, five, maybe 10 minutes after the initial interruption—it’s harder to focus,” Laura Entis worte on “You pause to check your email again, peruse news sites and look at cute kitten pictures on Instagram. Consequently, you find yourself making more mistakes.”

Entis cites a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology “that a mere 2.8 second interruption more than doubled the number of errors study participants—300 undergraduate students—made when asked to recall precisely where they were in a sequence of tasks.” Shiny = scary.

What to do? Commenters on Beckwith’s blog offer suggestions for avoiding distractions, whether specific or general. “I’ve set up an Outlook rule so that all marketing emails from people I follow automatically go into a marketing folder,” wrote one. “This folder lets me quickly delete 95% of them and only open the true gems.”

Entis offers others. Set up chunks of time in which you refuse to be distracted. No phone, no Internet, no lunch. My previous post, cited above, includes links to apps that can temporarily block access to email and the Net so you won’t be tempted.

Figure out when you’re naturally most awake and alert, and do your most important work then. According to David Rock, coauthor of Your Brain at Work, most people can focus best only six hours a week. Even more scary!

And last, grow up. Seriously. In another post, Entis, who writes a lot about procrastinating, quotes Tim Pychyl, a Carleton University psychology professor and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. “I don’t know where we learn this, but somehow we internalize the notion that our motivational state has to match the task at hand,” says Pychyl. “For many important tasks, if not most of them, getting started has nothing to do with how we feel.” (Entis also recommends deleting games from your desktop and blocking Facebook—“whatever you have to do.”)

Shiny objects are good for writers if we can corral them, tame them, shape them into article queries and blog posts and book chapters. But shiny objects are bad when they become distractions from doing that work. Few apps, games, emails, or news articles are “shiny”/cool enough to be worth losing 2.8 seconds of work over when those so often turn into two, five, or 40 minutes and errors to boot. All that lost productivity will take the shine off—fast.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.