Do *you* read banned books? (Probably, yes.)

Posted October 6, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Have you finished your banned book yet?

If you started reading during Banned Books Week (Sept. 27 through Oct. 3), maybe not. Some of those titles run long. Of course, so do the lists of them. If you’ve ever delved into the Harry Potter series; The Kite Runner; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; or To Kill a Mockingbird, you’ve read a book that someone somewhere has banned or restricted.

Classic? Young adult? Play? Graphic novel? Short, long, fiction, even nonfiction? Humor, historical, horror, allegory, how-to, science/medical, satirical? Doesn’t matter. There’s always a reason.

People and groups that challenge or ban books make strange bedfellows. Nationalism and obscenity are common reasons around the world. So is racist language. (Sexist language is apparently not a problem.) That’s the main basis of perpetual battles over Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Black Boy, and even Mockingbird. The keep-them side sees these classics as learning tools and reflective of their times, and each side accuses the other of failing to see what’s more damaging: reading racist words and racist depictions of people and situations or cleaning up or avoiding the same in an effort to sanitize history, literature, and thought.

Then there’s the religious argument. The Harry Potter series is godless and promotes witchcraft. Brave New World is antifamily and antireligion. Fahrenheit 451 not only uses foul language but shows the burning of a Bible. (Hello, irony.)

Another angle to the religious argument (often including obscenity) is the attempt to ban books that show “immoral” situations: extramarital sex, homosexuality, rape, and so on. That covers Forever, Mr. and Mrs. Bo Jo Jones, Lolita, Daddy’s Roommate, Heather Has Two Mommies, The Kite Runner, even In the Night Kitchen (Mickey the toddler is nude!).

Overlapping that religious angle but often coming from the opposite political viewpoint is the desire to shield children from books that depict violence, abuse, suicide, and general misery, especially involving other children. There go The Kite Runner (again), The Hunger Games, The Color Purple, I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Ordinary People, Lord of the Flies, The Chocolate War, Blubber, Summer of My German Soldier, Catch-22 ….

Current popularity is no protection. I was surprised to find Friday Night Lights, among other most-read titles, on a Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books List. (Is it the football worship?) This is a novel that’s spawned a film and a very successful TV series. No surprise about magic-filled Harry Potter, the bestselling book series in history, which has been credited with getting hundreds of thousands of nonreaders to read; its seven print installments have been made into e-books, audiobooks, theme parks, video games, a stage play, and the second-highest-grossing film series of all time.

I gave my mother the “I read banned books” pin I received at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference this year. She smiled. “Banned books are the best books,” the career librarian said.

It’s not too late to find your own banned book and defy attempts at censorship. Try Banned & Challenged Classics (The Great Gatsby is #1) or the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2014. Then you too can say, “I read banned books.”

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Accuracy checklists aren’t just for staffers

Posted September 15, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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check_list1Many years ago, I wrote a travel article that described the Lancaster County area in contrasts: city versus country, 18-wheelers roaring down I-30 with clip-clopping black buggies just feet away on the sides of the highway. Confident in my writing, I nonetheless asked Ray to give it a read before I sent the piece off to the editor.

And good thing I did. Ray nodded at most of the draft but brought up one major objection. “Honey,” he said, “I-30 is in Texas. Route 30 is in Pennsylvania.”

I remembered that incident—still used as a cautionary tale for students—when reading about Steve Buttry’s advocacy of an accuracy checklist. Buttry has some 45 years of experience in the news business. He urges using the same sort of CYA checklist in journalism—and by extension nonfiction writing and reporting—that airline and healthcare workers use to prevent critical errors.

Buttry heard the idea from Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech and a former managing editor at PBS, at a 2010 accuracy workshop. The checklist is ”one of the simplest and most effective error-reducing tools” and has “been proven to work for pilots, doctors, nurses, and even people at nuclear power stations,” Silverman wrote in Columbia Journalism Review.

Experienced journalists don’t use checklists because they think they make fewer mistakes than a rookie, he wrote, but “research doesn’t support this idea.” Too often we wing it, going with our assumptions, depending on “logic,” conflating correlation with causation. These mistakes are even more likely to sink a story given the loss of fact checkers and editors on staff.

So what should be on a writer/reporter’s checklist? Silverman’s CJR article includes links to a few examples (here’s his own starter), and Buttry has one, too. It’s pretty basic stuff, but a tired, overwhelmed, or distracted writer can easily miss things like this:

• Have you double-checked all names, titles, and places mentioned in your story?
• Have you tested from the screen and CQ’d all phone numbers and Web addresses?
• Are the quotes accurate and properly attributed? Have you fully captured what each person meant?
• Have you assumed anything? (If so, verify, hedge, or remove.)

You wouldn’t believe the stupid mistakes made presumably without such backstoppage. The Times of London once referred to Pope John Paul II as “the first non-Catholic pope for 450 years” (it meant “non-Italian”), and the New York Times corrected a column saying that Moses had parted the Dead Sea, not the Red Sea. Better editing—or a fail-safe checklist—would have prevented those mistakes.

An assistant editor at The Washingtonian, the young woman in charge of the fact checkers, used to have a sign over her desk. “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story,” it read. We’d all do well to remember: That was a joke. You’re not infallible. Check your copy.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

A football team that (still) needs another name

Posted August 25, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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We’re in the third quarter on this one! Meaning that we seem to be getting closer to a name change for the Washington-area professional football team—and that this is the third year I’ve tracked our progress. Let’s take a look at name-related news from the past year ….

August 2014: News reports mention broadcasters who won’t say the team name on the air, including “two notable NFL analysts and former Super Bowl champions,” according to Yahoo News. “The controversy surrounding the nickname has taken on all forms, and for CBS lead analyst Phil Simms and NBC studio analyst Tony Dungy, their protest will be to avoid saying it.” As writer Frank Schwab explained, “Simms told AP he’s not taking a side in the debate about whether the nickname is offensive, but he’s just sensitive to the complaints. But the controversy has now forced NFL broadcasters to pick sides, simply by questioning whether they’ll use the name on air or not.” Tom Jackson of ESPN said he was leaning toward following Dungy’s example.

Also in the news: a CBS rules analyst and former NFL referee who says he has never used the “proper” name and has refused to referee Washington’s games since 2006.

The month’s biggest news on this front was the Washington Post editorial board’s decision to stop using the team name. “This page has for many years urged the local football team to change its name. ‘The term “Redskins,” ’ we wrote in 1992, ‘is really pretty offensive,’ ” the editorial read, continuing, “while we wait for the National Football League to catch up with thoughtful opinion and common decency, we have decided that, except when it is essential for clarity or effect, we will no longer use the slur ourselves…. as Mr. Carey noted, every time the R-word is used, something disrespectful is happening.” It was a change only for editorials, not for the sports or news pages, but it was a good step.

September 2014: More than 100 Native American and social justice groups asked thousands of broadcasters to refrain from using the team name. The coalition cited ESPN’s Lisa Salter and CBS’s James Brown as well as Simms and Dungy as among those who do not use the name on air.

The same story mentioned an ESPN survey of 286 NFL players finding that 58 percent think the name should stay and 42 percent think it should go. In a separate survey of 51 players on the team in question, 26 said keep it, 1 said change it, and 24 “declined to answer.”

Then there was the opening episode of South Park that took on owner Dan Snyder, the team, and its name. A startup company needs a name, and which name is available after losing trademark protection? Snyder: “You cannot let my people be belittled like this.” Bwah!

October 2014: The National Council of La Raza, the country’s largest Hispanic civil rights organization, joined the call for the team (and the NFL) to change the name. Last year, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, whose members include the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union, did the same and urged the team to “refrain from the use of any other images, mascots, or behaviors that are or could be deemed harmful or demeaning to Native American cultures or peoples.”

November 2014: Another month, another protest, this time 3,500 to 4,000 people (mostly Native Americans) chanting “not your mascot” outside the Washington-Minnesota game in Minneapolis. It was perhaps the largest such protest, ensuring lots of media coverage. Another reason: The stadium was built in part with a $10 million donation from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, and a plaza honors the state’s 11 federally recognized tribes. “Controversy had swirled around the Vikings game since August because of demands by the University of Minnesota to limit use of the team name and logo inside the stadium,” the Washington Post wrote. “But school officials insisted that they could not dictate behavior to the Vikings organization, which is paying the university $300,000 a game to use the stadium while its new facility in Minneapolis is being built.”

Does it count as news if it’s a surprise to no one? Maryland governor-elect Larry Hogan immediately announced that he liked the current team name and saw no need to change it.

Capping the month, Rolling Stone named Dan Snyder—“the staunch defender of an unambiguously racist name”—the worst owner in all of sports. The magazine spent a long, detailed paragraph on his “invoking tradition to defend the indefensible” before even alluding to the team’s abysmal playing record.

December 2014: Proving that some supporters are at least as tone-deaf (to put it kindly) as the owner and his team, a group raising funds to fight cancer organized an event it called Scalp Out Cancer: Because Bald Is Beautiful. “That’s insane. Really? They’re that clueless?” said Tara Houska, who pulled together a rally against the team name near its own stadium at month’s end—just as the fundraiser was to take place. The fundraiser was renamed Shave Out Cancer, though its coordinator, Michael Kennedy, told the Washington Post the event’s original name had not been a reference to the Native American mascot.

February 2015: Members of the Sandy Spring Friends School student government researched the issue and decided to ban the local pro football team’s name throughout campus, including on clothing. The ban applies to faculty as well. Lately students have been wearing apparel with the logo but not the name: “They still want to support their team, which I totally am behind,” a co-clerk of the government told the Gazette, which has since ceased publication. “But they also want to support Native Americans.”

May 2015: The whole team lives in Virginia, two-thirds of season-ticket holders do too, and Virginia’s governor wants the team to move there. Now Arlington County’s board has passed a resolution calling on the team to change its name, calling it “objectionable … a racist slur and derogatory.” The board’s vice chair, J. Walter Tejada, said the current name “serves to divide us, diminishes our humanity, and erodes our integrity”—but a change would be “a fresh start” were the team to relocate. Hint, hint. (Tejada said he also considers the name a personal insult, as he immigrated from El Salvador as a youth and is descended from Mayans.)

June 2015: The United Church of Christ is the latest religious group to call on the team to change. According to the Washington Post, UCC asked its nearly 1 million members to boycott games and merchandise until that goal is achieved. “The church has condemned the use of Native American imagery for sports teams since 1991,” the story said. “It has also asked the Cleveland Indians to change its name and controversial mascot, Chief Wahoo.”

Meanwhile, “a bill at the state Capitol would make California the first state to ban public schools from using ‘Redskins’ as their nickname or mascot,” according to Capital Public Radio. The bill has passed the Assembly and its first Senate committee.

July 2015: The Washington team has made noises about coming back to the city, maybe to the site of RFK Stadium, where it played for years before decamping for Maryland. But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has told DC Mayor Muriel Bowser that the National Park Service (which owns the RFK land) would not allow a new stadium there without a new name. “I think we would never consider naming a team the Blackskins or the Brownskins or the Whiteskins. So personally, I find it surprising that in this day and age, the name is not different,” Jewell had told ABC News.

Later, a headline: “Judge upholds cancellation of Redskins trademarks in a legal and symbolic setback for the team.” This time it’s a federal judge in Northern Virginia. Says the Washington Post, “The cancellation doesn’t go into effect until the Redskins have exhausted the appeals process in the federal court system”—though the team can use the name and logo under state law regardless. And yet another high school team is dropping the name it shares with the Washington team.

And in August: In a controversial move, team owner Snyder has been donating through his Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation. Now South Dakota’s Cheyenne River Sioux council has voted to reject the funds—and ordered its chair and the 8,000-member tribe to “cease all unsanctioned communication with the Washington Redskins and any group or person associated with them.” Before the vote, Councilmember Ryman LeBeau posted online a photo of an uncashed $25,000 foundation check and wrote, “Sold our souls. Price was cheap.”

Whew! On that note, here’s to a 2015-16 season of more activism, fewer trademarks, more protests, and less name use for the Insultingly Named, Obnoxiously Hyped Washington NFL Franchise.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Blame the media? Keep looking.

Posted August 4, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Everyone blames the messenger. Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton do it, former president Richard Nixon did it (not to single him out), the National Rifle Association and antigun groups both do it; heck, even some Founding Fathers did it. Reporters Without Borders is tracking 363 official or unofficial journalists killed or imprisoned this year alone, so a lot of people, movements, and regimes are acting against messengers as well.

About the June murder of nine South Carolina churchgoers, amNY columnist Liza Featherstone wrote in the Observer, “The mainstream media gave us all the tragic facts about Charleston last week and promptly became a scapegoat. People felt angry and sad about what happened and didn’t know what else to do besides blame the messenger. Media criticism stood in for politics—since gun control is seen as hopeless and racism (in isolation from other problems) has no policy solution. The travesty, though, was not the news coverage but that [admitted shooter Dylann] Roof’s awful crime happened at all.”

There’s commentary—opinion—and then there’s news. In all reputable media operations, they don’t mix. A newspaper or radio station can run opinion pieces, of course, but they must be clearly labeled and separate from news. (Before cable, television stations sometimes ran opinion pieces, which held to the same rules. Then came entire channels devoted to commentary.) Some official media opinions, such as this Des Moines Register editorial, have called out Trump for cheapening political discourse. Not recognizing the line between news and opinion (or possibly not caring), Trump is now refusing press credentials to the paper’s reporters. Dan Snyder has pulled the same thing with sports reporters from the Washington Post, for obvious reasons.

You can complain about media bias; we know, for instance, that unintentional racial, gender, and other bias occurs in coverage. (Stylebooks aim to avoid language such as “a 60-year-old grandmother” when the description is irrelevant and, in DC, “across the Anacostia River” when it assumes readers are downtown/to the west.) You can complain about overcoverage, as when TV stations from Philly to Richmond focused on a burning Baltimore block hour after hour recently. You can complain that local and even national TV goes by “if it bleeds, it leads” or “if we have video, it really leads.”

But complain about the fact of coverage? No. “The mistake we make when we blame or excuse the media’s role in tragedy is in missing the fact that the media play a role rather than running the whole show,” wrote social psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford in Psychology Today. News coverage should be looked through, like glass, rather than glared at, like a picture. That way you see what you’re really upset about.

“When activists complain about the nature of media coverage, they are actually demanding that the media abandon an independent journalistic stance and champion their cause by reporting what they want reported,” William Domhoff, a sociology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, wrote online. “This is in effect what people from the left and right constantly do: attack the media with the hope that they will bend in their direction, then blame the media if their program fails.”

The right, generally speaking, believes in a “liberal media,” in part because despite long-held and long-taught standards of neutrality in journalism, some polls have shown that more journalists personally lean left than right politically. The left, generally speaking, distrusts corporate media because companies are owned and run by very wealthy, often very conservative groups and individuals for whom advertising dollars outweigh balanced coverage.

Domhoff warned fellow radicals that “the media can magnify the message of the powerful and trivialize and marginalize the claims of the powerless. But the media don’t cause some people to be powerful and some people to be powerless.” And no side in any argument has a monopoly on confusing cause and effect.

Benjamin Franklin set forth probably the Colonies’ first explanation of freedom of the press and equal time (Pennsylvania Gazette, 1731): “Printers are educated in the Belief, that when Men differ in Opinion, both Sides ought equally to have the Advantage of being heard by the Publick; and that when Truth and Error have fair Play, the former is always an overmatch for the latter ….” Decades later, Thomas Jefferson added, “Information is the currency of democracy.”

Sometimes it’s hard to hear such reasoning over the din of media blamers on all sides. But the Framers’ words have lasted two to three centuries; I imagine they too will be an overmatch for the latter.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Editors are funny. And that’s a good thing.

Posted July 14, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Many people assume editors, especially copyeditors, are a bit lacking in the humor department. People who fix other people’s grammar are like the ants at the picnic, right? Nope. Pat Myers, empress of the Washington Post’s Style Invitational, was a longtime Post copyeditor and still has a hand in at that. She’s an arbiter of humor who’s pretty funny herself.

And then there’s Bill Walsh, a current Post copyeditor, whose books include Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. In his monthly online chats about grammar and usage, he’s been known to have exchanges like this:

Q: Front page of the Post website: “Scientists have found the complicated reason Indian food so delicious.” Sigh.
A: Fixed now? If so, it’s a naan issue.


Q: Are formal conjunctive adverbs still used?
A: That’s the technical term for “pinkeye,” right?


Q. I’m so glad it’s March now, because if I hear one more broadcaster say “Febuary” [sic] I’m going to scream!
A: You’d think people would have learned that sort of thing at the liberry.

Lori Fradkin, a former copyeditor for New York, says her job supplied “the name of my future band, Typos on the Internet.” She was ecstatic when Panic! at the Disco removed its exclamation point, writing, “We only pray, moe., and !!! will follow suit”—and their choice not to, she said, was “sending a message to people like Ke$ha that kreativity is kick-a$$.”

When indexing The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Saller went a step further, indexing “terrorists” with “see copy editors.”

Then there was that Twitter feed Fake AP Stylebook, which hasn’t posted in more than a year but had some great lines in its day. Among them:

“ ‘He/She’s not the only one’ as first sentence in second graf of a feature story ‪#ForbiddenPhrases

“While it’s tempting to call them ‘baristi’ because of the Italian roots, the plural of ‘barista’ is ‘journalism majors.’ ”

“The interrotilde is used to denote an ‘n’ that is pronounced as ‘WHUUUUUU?’ ”

“You cannot libel the dead. You can, however, libel the undead. Vampires have powerful lawyers and hypnotism, so be careful.”

“A sentence fragment occurs when you”

“.@jsgf: I don’t know, jsgf, when do YOU think it’s OK to use the passive-aggressive voice, MR. SMART GUY?”

“Christmas is the one time a year when you’re explicitly allowed to print stories that lie to children. Don’t waste it.”

Along similar lines, the smart-aleck people at Café Press offer mugs, T-shirts, and so on with such gems as these: “Volunteers Needed to Help Torture Victims” (no doubt a real headline once) and “One of the great things about being a copy editor is freedom from the vulgar desire for public recognition.”

A man wrote to Walsh last week to say that in reading a recent article, “I felt that the headline called to mind a sex act …. My girlfriend felt that such a reading would only occur to a stupid and immature child.” Walsh liked the question: “You have the kind of potty-brain that can be valuable on a copy desk.”

Which brings to mind a line from a profile in the Christian Science Monitor: “It is far from understood how smart and funny copy editors are as a group.” These attributes are necessary to the job. They make us good colleagues, too. And here’s the kicker, management: Who else is going to save your text, periodical, or website from pubic embarrassment?

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Of mondegreens, eggcorns, and malapropisms

Posted June 23, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post and I agree on quite a bit: We are almost aligned on matters grammatical, theological, and genderological, to make up a word. He even once awarded me the ultimate prize when he was czar of the Style Invitational. It’s nice to share a fair amount with a two-time winner of the Pullet Surprise.

I like making up words. I’ve always figured that’s my right as someone who knows what’s a word and what isn’t. Making up a word can be a way to be funny or to make a point or sometimes both. (Heck, the Style Invitational encourages it—but I digress.)

Recently, when I got into the subject of misunderstood song lyrics, or mondegreens, the idea was that it’s often hard to grasp the right phrases for a variety of reasons, so our brains fill in a best guess from context and culture and other influences, often to comic effect.

Now Gene has opined here and here on sort of an off-key combination of the two: An awful lot of people are unintentionally making up words because they’ve never seen or registered the right ones in written form, they’re trying to sound educated (and having the opposite effect), or they just don’t know any better.

Gene was pretty restrained under the circumstances. Here are some of the circumstances he and his many correspondents have noted:

  • eck cetera (et cetera)
  • conversate (converse—or talk)
  • preventative (preventive—although the former has, alas, become “largely accepted”)
  • firstable (first of all)
  • “right from the gecko” (the get-go)
  • easedropping (eavesdropping)
  • all for knot, all for not (for naught)
  • excape (escape)
  • supposably (supposedly)
  • “for all intensive purposes” (intents and—although who knows?)

Some of these seem to be actual mondegreens (or “eggcorns”—the term used in a 2003 Language Log post—which Grammarist says “has been advanced as a broader term for misheard words or phrases that retain their original meanings”); others are just pompous mistakes that caught on. I sure hope the former don’t morph into the latter. But Gene checked: Believe it or not, according to Google, as of a few weeks ago “easedropping” had more than 20,000 hits.

Eggcorns seem designed to make us laugh. I’ve mentioned before a colleague at a long-ago job who often proclaimed the need to nip some problem in the butt; my boss and I had to stifle a grin every time. Among other examples cited by Grammarist: “It’s a doggy-dog world,” “bad wrap,” “hare’s breath,” and “on tenderhooks.” (How tender can they be?)

Others I’ve heard include “old-timer’s disease” (which makes sense!), “another words” (which doesn’t), “medium strip” (that thing down the middle of the road), and “hold your piece” (which could have its uses).

Are these proliferating? Is the problem getting worse? I followed Gene’s lead and Googled “for all intensive purposes.” Results: More than 135,000,000. Of course, a lot of those are folks like us talking about eggcorns and malapropisms and that time Denise Richards said it on the “Idiots Are People Two!” episode of 30 Rock. But still.

As I said, I sometimes make up words for fun. (And phrases, like “rocket surgery.” But that sort of thing can go wrong.) So does Gene. “There are times when the creative use of technically incorrect language achieves a sort of poetry and is not only to be defended but to be celebrated,” he said online. Then he mentioned that “conversate” reminded him of a favorite lyric, from Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline”:

As I was motivatin’ over the hill
I saw Maybelline in a Coupe DeVille …

Now, was he motivatin’? Possibly. I always thought he was motorvatin’. After all, he was driving a car, yes? We have no idea how motivated he was yet, though right away he became very.

Gene and I should discuss this. Maybe we’ll actually agree.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Lady Mondegreens (why we “kiss this guy”)

Posted June 2, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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buddy-holly-christmas-card-by-pelloEvery baby boomer in America knows that there’s a bathroom on the right.

If you’ve ever misheard a song lyric—as a perfectly reasonable alternative, or at least no less reasonable than the original—you know the concept of Lady Mondegreen. A classic mondegreen is that line from Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising”: “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” You know, a bathroom on the right.

This idea is called Lady Mondegreen because of another misheard verse. As a kid, Harper’s writer Sylvia Wright heard a reading of “The Bonny Earl of Moray” this way:

Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae you been?
They hae slay the Earl of Moray
And Lady Mondegreen.

Which made sense; maybe this was a low-body-count scene from Game of Thrones. But no, the last line was actually

And laid him on the green.

Oh. When Wright learned the truth, she found it disappointing. But she’d also found a neologism. In 2008, the people at Merriam-Webster added “mondegreen” to the collegiate dictionary.

I still swear Johnny Rivers was singing about a “secret Asian man[1],” maybe the one guilty of bribery during the Clinton and Carter administrations. Others insist that Pink Floyd said “no Dukes of Hazzard in the classroom[2].” Why not? Both The Wall and the popular TV show came out in 1979. At the millennium, Macy Gray seemed less than upset when her SO left: “I blow bubbles when you are not here[3].”

Social media shows listeners the errors of their ears much faster than one’s friends do, but we’re still hearing lyrics wrong. Witness “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift. Thousands of people swear she’s singing “all the lonely Starbucks lovers[4].” She even tweeted about the mixup in February: “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentine’s Day.….even though that is not the correct lyric.”

To which Starbucks tweeted back: “Wait, it’s not?”

I was grinning about this idea two weeks ago (hearing Jimi Hendrix, “ ’scuse me while I kiss this guy[5],” on classic-rock radio), decided to write about it, and promptly forgot. Coincidentally, an article appeared last week on Yahoo Health about why Lady Mondegreens happen so much.

David Gow, a clinical instructor of neurology at Harvard Medical School who researches spoken-language processing, likens parsing song lyrics to understanding someone with an accent. “The question is why speech ever works because you’re always trying to recognize a moving target,” he told Yahoo’s Korin Miller.

Your brain takes its best guess from context* and any previous knowledge of the speaker/singer. Singers often don’t enunciate, and the accompanying music and other sounds make the job that much harder, Gow and colleagues say. Plus, he adds, you’re not looking at the singer—and may not be paying full attention to the song.

(*Your brain guesses according to established patterns, Gow adds. That explains why a lot of people have heard a central line from a Peter Gabriel hit as “don’t you know you’ve got two chocolate monkeys[6].” As a New Yorker who pronounces the key word “chawclit,” I would never mishear that one.)

“Consonants are typically more confused than vowels, he says, and unstressed syllables are more easily confused than stressed syllables,” wrote Miller. “Nouns are also confused more often than verbs.” No wonder so many people have settled on a “sensible” solution like “Starbucks lovers.”

A friend once cracked me up when she sang along to Crystal Gayle, “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue[7].” (Apparently she wasn’t kidding.) At least now we know why she heard it that way.

[1] “Secret Agent Man.”

[2] “No dark sarcasm in the classroom,” “Another Brick in the Wall.”

[3] “My world crumbles when you are not here,” “I Try.”

[4] “Got a long list of ex-lovers.”

[5] “ ’Scuse me while I kiss the sky,” “Purple Haze.”

[6] “Don’t you know you’ve got to shock the monkey,” “Shock the Monkey.”

[7] “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.”

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Writers conferences: When the real work begins

Posted May 12, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
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imagesI cleared my calendar for Monday, May 4*, a month ahead of time. It would be the first business day and fully awake, alert day after this year’s three-day ASJA conference, and I would still have a lot to do. Of course.

Writers should expect a lot of homework after any conference. In addition to unpacking if travel has been involved, there’s sorting: One should return with a pile of business cards, a bunch of detailed notes on conference sessions, sample magazines, handouts, maybe giveaways, dongles, news releases, pens, bags, and who knows what else. If you don’t file it properly, you’re throwing away gold.

One the back of each business card, many of us write the date, the event, and a few words about the person to help us remember what we have in common or what to get in touch about. “Ghostwriter,” I jotted on the back of one card (the front didn’t say so). When I got home, I started an email conversation with the writer about this area of writing we share.

There may be official homework: Editors may have said, “Send me samples” or “Query me on that” or, more vaguely, “Follow up, okay?” or “Keep in touch.” They may have forgotten your name the instant you turned away, but if you draft a query the next day and mention your tete-a-tete, you’ll spark a useful, presumably pleasant memory. Six weeks down the road, you could be just another subject line to get rid of.

Notice I suggested “draft.” Don’t send it instantly. If the editor or publisher gave you feedback or taught a session, go through your notes first. Read through your sample magazine; look through more on his or her website, including the editorial calendar and other background. Make sure you’re on the right track—and proofread. Then send it quickly.

Undoubtedly, you found new markets. Whether you write for magazines, corporations, content marketing firms, or publishing houses, you surely learned of a few you didn’t know were there. Do some research. Check their editorial calendars. Look up their top employees. Draft a letter of interest or a relevant query. Mention something pertinent the person said in a session or over drinks at the bar. If you’re a member of the group that put on the conference, all the better—editors and publishers like to think they’re working with the best.

Unofficial homework includes following up with colleagues. Connect on LinkedIn; follow them on Twitter. Write emails to those you had a particularly interesting conversation with. Did one or the other of you express interest in an idea or ask a question? Follow up. This is how we learn. Conferences are much more than sessions.

Can you read your own handwriting? If not (or not really), type or copy the notes. This will reinforce what you learned. If you recorded the sessions, transcribe the good parts. Sometimes sessions you thought were great at the time don’t amount to much on the second listen. Okay. With those that do, you know what to keep.

Recharge your phone. The conference has already recharged you—although maybe you could use a nap before plunging ahead refreshed.

* Star Wars day: May the Fourth be with you.

(c) 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Word crimes and the grammar police

Posted April 21, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

A still from Weird Al's "Word Crimes" video.They’re is no shame in misspelling…. Their is no shame in misspelling…. There is no shame in mispelling….

The anonymous nature of the Internet allows for plenty of unpleasant behavior, with trolling and cyberbullying right up there. Even where real names are attached, if you’re addressing strangers, it’s all too easy to lay into them in a way you wouldn’t if you were face to face.

Apparently a subset of this unpleasant behavior is shaming people for everything from being fat to being ugly to … using bad spelling? Even homophones?

Gee whiz, people. Sure, I notice when folks like former copyeditors Pat Myers and Carolyn Hax and current copyeditor Bill Walsh leave out a letter or throw in an apostrophe where it doesn’t belong. But first, occupational hazard. (They’d notice the same about me.) Second, there’s a big difference between a typo on the fly—in an email, Facebook post, or online chat, none of which is meant to be perfect—and something that’s at least read over carefully before print, let alone scrutinized by multiple professional eyes.

I adored Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” a video that has achieved almost 24 million viewings on YouTube. (Weird Al is brilliant. Parodying a top-selling and hugely catchy tune didn’t hurt.) But a Twitter account for the Grammar Police, with 19,000 followers, shames regular people for what Andrew Heisel calls “little language errors.” That’s just not funny.

Who’s Andrew Heisel? He’s a Connecticut writer who’s—excuse me, whoseop-ed in the Washington Post last week objected to this new trend. But he didn’t just object; he set out to find out why even those of us who know better slip up.

Turns out it’s pretty interesting stuff. Heisel talked to two cognitive psychologists, who mentioned everything from associative grouping to homophones (we often think in terms of pronunciation, which is why language patterns in the deaf vary so much from those in the hearing) to motor-system habits to cognitive control.

“Of course, people can and should proofread (a practice the brain complicates as well), but we can never fully curtail these slips that rapid-fire media like Twitter bring to the fore,” he wrote. “Mocking another person for making one of them is like mocking a heart for skipping a beat.”

Heisel noted in conclusion that he’d made numerous errors while typing his article. So have eye—I mean I. Spell check may have made us lazy, but any downsides are outweighed at least 10 to 1 by its upsides.

A few weeks ago, I was checking an old cover letter when I noted an inverted pair of words. The letter went out that way? I’d read it over and over and hadn’t seen that? Well, yes. The more you read your own work, the less you see such errors. Had the words been bigger, of course I’d have noticed, but these were very tiny words….

I suppose drunk-dialing an ex at 3 am might be more embarrassing than an editor’s sending a potential employer a letter boasting of how good an editor she is and including an obvious mistake like that. But the consequences are probably worse in the second case. Naturally, I never heard from the employer.

Lesson for this editor: Watch out and do better next time. And there’s still no excuse for mess-ups by people who have editors. As for regular folks whose motor-system habits slip on occasion? Come on, grammar police (and Grammar Police). Lighten up.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

English: The language in which you chop a tree down before you chop it up

Posted March 31, 2015 by Ellen Ryan
Categories: Uncategorized

Tags: , , , , , , , are for idiots, a wag once said. I’m so grateful not to have to learn English as a second language, I have said—often—because idioms like “I chopped the tree down, then I chopped it up” would make my eyes cross. Ever consider that in English, fighting with someone equates to fighting against him?

Cartoonist Keith Knight occasionally devotes a Sunday strip of “The Knight Life” to ways in which his German-born wife mangles her adopted language. He thinks it’s cute. It is. But I can imagine how tough it must be to figure out “take a chill pill” (“take a freeze tablet”) and “it’s no biggie” (“it’s no Baggie”) when the “correct” terms don’t seem to make any more sense.

This is not a new concept. Way back during the Great Depression, when roads had even more potholes than they do now, the Works Progress Administration built Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and thank Roosevelt it did. That was the first “parkway.” And while your driveway is mainly for parking—is there room for much else?—imagine if you lived at Downton Abbey. You’d be driving quite a way on it then.

While you’re imagining, picture yourself right off the boat, plane, or whatever it is that brought you from whatever foreign land you came from. You’ve taken a basic English class and think you can manage to reach relatives who will help you settle in. At least you can find food and a restroom (which you’ve been told isn’t just a room to rest in).

In the gift shop, you pick up a package of cocktail napkins. “Be alert! The world needs more lerts,” they read. Puzzled, you put the package back.

You walk outside to a maze of cars, taxis, buses, and traffic lanes. Attempting to cross several of them, you suddenly face a sign: “Do Not Pass.” You stop obediently. A car honks; a couple of people on foot yell at you. What? Now you can go?

You explain to a cabbie where you’re headed and who lives there. “Stop beating around the bush,” he says; “just give me the address.” Who said anything about shrubbery?

On the cab’s radio, people are yakking nonstop. “You really woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning,” someone says. Why would the speaker know that, and what difference would it make?

Finally you reach your destination. The clouds have darkened, and just as you open the door, the skies open. “Gonna rain cats and dogs all night, I hear,” the cabbie grumbles. What a bizarre thing to say! Though there are a couple of dogs on the sidewalk here … maybe he’s on to something?

Boy, is your brain fried!

So many immigrants from so many other countries have brought their languages here that America has evolved to have the most polyglot, mix-and-match language of them all. Our words betray origins the world over, not to mention our idioms. But we’re not the only ones with wacky sayings.

Keith Knight’s wife probably knows the phrase “nicht in jemandes Haut stecken wollen” (not wanting to be stuck in someone else’s skin). He might say instead that he wouldn’t want to be in someone else’s shoes.

Given a small tip, an optimistic Italian waiter might think “tutto fa brodo” (everything makes soup). Here, the translation would be “every little bit helps.”

In China, people speak of the horse that does harm to the herd. In America, they would refer to a bad apple that spoils the bunch.

A Brit once told me he was “keen as mustard” about some idea. Was that good or bad? Good, it turns out: He was quite enthusiastic.

In France, when you are down in the dumps, you have the cockroach. I can see that as a near-literal translation.

And in Japan, if you prefer dumplings to flowers, you want substance, not style. In other words, forget anyone who’s all hat and no cattle, all sizzle and no steak.

Aren’t you glad you learned (American) English first? Before I lose my train of thought, let me tell you the score about idioms. I’m not being tongue in cheek when I say that dealing with these things as a stranger can take its toll. It can really throw you for a loop. Because if you don’t know the idioms of the country you’re in, trust me: You will feel as dumb as a box of hair.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.