Posted tagged ‘copyeditor’

The Post shakes up its stylebook (somewhat)

July 19, 2014

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copyeditor, has been chatting online again. As copyeditors are wont to do (an old English saying whose origin I don’t know), he’s been tinkering with the paper’s stylebook. “Some of that work is a game of old-fogy Whac-a-Mole,” he says, “in which I shake my head at Kids Today and break up brandnewterms with the space bar or the hyphen key.” Heh.

“These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ, but mass-market print journalism is inherently conservative with language. On the one hand, I can’t deny that there is a growing synergy between technological change and language change. On the other hand, there’s something absurd about onewording a five-minute-old invention when a paper clip still isn’t a paperclip after 115 years. So, for example, we cling to ‘voice mail’ (somewhat older than five minutes, but well short of 115 years) and ‘e-mail’ and ‘Web site.’ And ‘user name’ and ‘ear buds.’ ”

Come on, Bill. Even the Associated Press switched to “email” and “website” years ago. The Post is starting to look silly by holding out. But then, this is the news organization that hung on to “employe” for decades.

Also regarding the stylebook changes, he says, “More timelessly, I warn against saying someone ‘declined to be identified,’ which is sort of like declining to be punched in the nose—it’s not in your control.” Oh dear; I’m disagreeing with my colleague again. If it is not in the person’s control, he or she is identified: “ … said Jane Jones of Rockville” or “said John Jones, undersecretary of the Interior.” If it is in the person’s control, then he or she can decline: “ … said a witness at the scene who declined to be identified.” See?

Another recent change seems to bring the Post’s stylebook in alignment with AP—or at least alongside it—regarding state names. AP has gone to spelling out full state names. As Bill explains, “I’m not as aghast about spelling out state names as a lot of copy editors are, but it does seem like a waste of space. AP’s reasoning is that it has an international audience of readers who may not know what Mo. is. At The Post we’ve gone through a similar change of mind-set when it comes to local communities, which is why Arlington is now ‘Arlington, Va.’ ”

I’d wondered about that! There’s a line between fully informing readers, which a newspaper should do, and babying or talking down to them, which this change does, in my opinion. Any city, town, or large unincorporated area within the local readership zone should not have to be identified in this manner. A neighborhood, of course, would be described by context: “In King Farm, Rockville’s ‘new urban’ planned community ….”

That’s because no one in Prince William County (Virginia) can be expected to know a neighborhood in Montgomery County (Maryland). But it’s basic local literacy to know where Rockville, Ashburn, Bowie, Georgetown, Takoma Park, Arlington, Oxon Hill, and Reston are, at least generally. If you’re new here or otherwise don’t know where something is, you learn by discerning from context, which the story should provide. Likewise, the story should locate all but the very largest cities outside the local area. (The largest are identified this way in AP: “Atlanta: The city in Georgia stands alone in datelines.”)

In yet another change, the Post is now caving to common but confusing usage with “condo.” Rather than refer to apartments and townhouses, Bill says, the newspaper will use “condominium” or even “condo” “where once we reserved the term for discussion of the mode of ownership.” Ugh! It’s perfectly obvious to the eye what’s an apartment and what’s a townhouse. (This not being New York, we almost never have to get into the definition of “rowhouse” or “brownstone.”) Why muddle the completely clear?

On the other hand, it sounds like some housecleaning Bill did was long overdue. The Post stylebook apparently used to tell editors to “use play down instead of downplay” and that “unplanned events ‘occur’ while planned ones ‘take place.’ ” Now that’s esoteric.

Other old rules the new book throws out:

–distinguishing between “people” and “persons”

–distinguishing between a spiral and a helix

–not using “premiere” as a verb or “repeat” as a noun (as a synonym for “rerun”)

–getting worked up about “parameters,” “unless and until,” and “self-confessed”

As Bill said, “These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ.” I differ with the Post on many of its latest changes or lack of changes. I quibble with AP, too—especially about the serial comma—but AP is the most universally useful style guide out there.

Bill is worth reading, though, as always. His latest chat closes this way, and let me agree with his agreement with a contributor: “Winceworthy is a great word.” If you like language, a language chat is worth a visit.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

“Impact” is for teeth, and other geeky grammar gremlins

January 17, 2014

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post’s most famous copyeditor (now there’s a funny thing to say), has been chatting with his fans early each month. Keeping with my practice of commenting on his comments, here’s a look at what he’s had to say this winter.

First, something I’ve tried to explain to colleagues for years, colleagues who with best intentions think they must follow whatever conceits commercial enterprises use for their own commercial products: “The company is free to call its product whatever it likes. Likewise, we follow the rules of grammar and this publication.” It should be easy enough, but a surprising number of fellow writers and editors just haven’t gotten that.

Here’s what Walsh says about it: “I’ve long been a stickler for following conventional capitalization in proper nouns even if logos are all lowercase or all caps or otherwise decoratively punctuated. I don’t care that your running shoes say ‘adidas’; when I write about them, I will write Adidas. NIKE is Nike.

“Yes, the lowercase conceit is part of Adidas’s identity. But so is the typeface the logo is written in. So is that weird marijuana-leaf logo. We can’t replicate all these things in print, and so we stick to some basic rules. As you learned in second grade, proper nouns are capitalized.” Thank you!

He goes on to explain that while he isn’t crazy about “iPod,” for example, “I allow the delayed capitalization the same way I do with de Gaulle and van Gogh. But I’d write IPod at the beginning of a sentence, the same way I’d write De Gaulle.” Good point.

Here’s a question one chatter brought up; if it were the topic of my post here, I might title it “Choosy mothers choose ‘affect.’ ” “How do you feel about ‘impact’ as a verb – a true pet peeve of mine,” she asked. Aha, I thought. His answer: “Impact as a verb is well established, but choosy writers choose to avoid it, at least in the non-dental sense, because it’s tainted. It’s biz-speak and ad-speak. So your wisdom teeth can be impacted, but sequestration affects the economy. Or has an impact on the economy. (Too many overzealous editors avoid the noun because the verb is tainted. The noun is just fine.)”

Walsh and I differ on occasion. This is one example: A chatter asked about the use of “they” to refer to a single entity, such as Congress. Walsh said this is proper in British English – “Oliver’s Army are on their way!” – and perfectly natural in speech on both sides of the pond, but we Americans don’t do that in print. In speech, he said, “I would never refer to the store as it. The they refers to an implied group of employees – ‘I like Wegmans; they have great pastries and bread.’ ”

True, but I do sometimes use the singular in speech, for precisely that reason: The plural not only is wrong, it sounds wrong (if only to me). Maybe it’s the “s,” an implied plural, that throws off his example, or maybe it’s that I’m referring to the chain of stores, not to the employees. If you’d say, “Giant has great pastries,” why not say, “I like Giant; it has great pastries”?

And last: the “farmers market” conundrum. At Washingtonian, our rule was “farmers market, girls locker room, teachers union.” Two chatters asked where to put the apostrophe – if at all – in terms like “voters guide” and “mens room.” I’ve struggled with this myself. Is the term really possessive? Is it a guide of the voters as well as a guide for voters?

“Newspaper style tends to look at voters as descriptive rather than possessive,” Walsh wrote. “It’s a guide for voters, not a guide belonging to voters, and so no apostrophe.” Not sure I entirely agree, but at least he’s definitive.

But wait, there’s more. “Men’s room is another matter,” he wrote. Men is already plural, and so there is no mens, except in menswear, which just sort of evolved just because. Mother’s Day is another just-because. It’s not for just one mother, but that’s where the apostrophe landed. Sometimes precedent overrides logic.” So we add an apostrophe because “men” is already plural?

Another chatter didn’t get that, either: “So why not say ‘men room’ because the room is for men, not possessed by men? Obviously it sounds weird to the ear, but would it be right?”

His reply: “Good observation. The already-plural thing forces our hand. So it’s women’s tennis, obviously, but different publications have different styles on girls softball vs. girls’ softball.”

Hope I don’t have to give up my Grammar Club membership card by admitting this is still confusing. But I don’t have to make up style rules. When I move on to another publication, I will simply enforce the rules already in place – or point to an authority elsewhere. Bill Walsh, perhaps.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Open mic (mike?) night and other abbreviation silliness

November 12, 2013

Bill Walsh is back. He’s the Washington Post copyeditor who calls himself a copy editor and is now conducting his online chat once a month, apparently. This gives me a chance to comment on his comments on other people’s questions and comments about grammar.

Bill has had two chats since the last time I commented on his comments. The October one stayed put better than the November one, so I’ll look at that one first rather than conflate them.

He started off with “a case study from the world of language change and geekery and peevery”: the term “open mic night.” It’s annoying that the rude put-down for Irish ancestry has become the acceptable abbreviation for something else entirely. Would you ever see a sign announcing “Open ____ night” or “Open ______ night”? Is it just me who thinks this?

Anyway, Bill says the Post’s style for the slang term for “microphone” is “mike.” It is? Hooray for the Post! Here’s how he explains it: “That’s the way nicknames and short-form slang work: You spell them phonetically. You don’t just grab the letters f-r-i-g out of ‘refrigerator,’ because ‘frig’ is pronounced ‘frig.’ It’s a mild curse word; a fridge is a ‘fridge.’ A Bic is a pen; a bike is a ‘bike.’ Bic and sic and hic and Nic [all] rhyme with ‘mick,’ and so should ‘mic.’ ” Exactly.

Tape-recorder designers weren’t looking for a new form of “mike” so much as shortening the word the way they might shorten “Robert” to “Rbt.”—which is not the same as “Bob.” Yet people took “MIC” on those machines as the real short form, and it stuck. The AP Stylebook solidified this in 2010, and now “ ‘open mic night’ appears 12 times as often as ‘open mike night’ ” in the Nexis database, the reverse of the way it was until the 1990s. Ignorance, Bill declares—but as with so much of the way grammar changes, it’s he and I who look like fuddy-duddies rather than the ignorant who look mistaken.

Speaking of short forms or abbreviations, a chatter used the term “WaPo” for the name of the newspaper. Bill said that term made him cringe. I can see that. I once worked with an editor, a Montgomery County native who now lives a few miles from the border, who claimed not to have heard the terms “MoCo” and “MontCo.” At the time I think they were fairly new, but it seemed odd that he wasn’t tuned in enough to have seen them in headlines. Americans like abbreviations, and in the last decade-plus they’ve shoved celebrity names together slangily—“Brangelina,” for example, and “TomKat” and “Kimye.” I can see that, too, but wouldn’t mind if the fad faded out soon.

All grammar geeks cringe at different things, I suppose. Bill may cringe at “WaPo,” but I cringe at something Cosmo—short for Cosmopolitan—magazine has been doing for quite a while. (Not that I’m a regular reader, but in my business one is aware of a great many publications.) Sometime in the 1990s, I think, Cosmo started using “gyno” for “gynecologist” and later “vacay” for “vacation.” Ugh! And then I saw “vayjay,” which eventually I figured out is what a gyno looks into. Double ugh! Cosmo has never been known for either its taste or its sense, but if I hadn’t long since quit as a reader (after coming across the advice that a “girl” should attract a man’s attention by deliberately spilling a drink on herself), that would have done it.

In short (ha): Reader, be careful with abbreviations. The size of the word does not relate to the size of the grammar controversy that may accompany it.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Literally, contranyms, and other grammar silliness

September 11, 2013

Did you know? Grammar can be funny.

That’s the conclusion I draw from reading just the titles of Bill Walsh’s books: Lapsing Into a Comma, The Elephants of Style, and the new Yes, I Could Care Less. Walsh is a copyeditor at the Washington Post (I know! Who knew there were any? snark) who led a chat there recently about all kinds of grammatical questions, from new words in the Oxford Dictionaries Online to the contradictory meanings of “sanction.”

First, yay him and yay the Post for having such a chat at all. People care about this stuff, and not just those of us who attempt to make some sort of living at it. As I keep saying, words matter, especially in a wonky city like Washington. Second, yay him for being sensible. “New words can be annoying. Changes in the way people use old words can be especially jarring,” he says. “The good news is that even if ‘literally’ can mean that other thing, you and I and the Washington Post stylebook are not required to use the word that way.”

Random comments:

• In the spirit of parking on a driveway and driving on a parkway, one reader wondered why “sanction” means both to approve of and to punish. I admit I’d never thought about that. Likewise, “sanguine” means both bloody and bloodless, “cleave” means both divide and bring together, and “to dust” can mean either to add or to subtract dust. Walsh calls these contranyms—now there’s a cool word!—words that have two opposite meanings. The Oxford Dictionaries Online have now added “literally” to that number. (Ugh!)

• Walsh says, “To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle, as a flopping fish might.” Oh, boy. Now, if people don’t know the difference automatically, how are they supposed to remember that? Too bad the mnemonic is confusing.

• I always feel for immigrants trying to learn English. What a nutty language. Here’s an example: A reader asks about past participles, trying to understand “shone” versus “shined” (which “just sounds wrong to me”). Walsh replies, “So many past participles are irregular in this language, you’d have thunk the grammar gods were playing a joke on us. It’s hardly surprising that new ones have snuck in.”

• Editors aren’t perfect, even at grammar, and here’s an example: I’ve always had trouble with this sort of construction. Walsh writes, “By the way, I was thrilled to read ‘one of the people who get annoyed.’ Too many people hypercorrect such things and would say ‘I’m one of the people who GETS annoyed.’ Which would be dead wrong.” Eek!

• Circling back to the beginning: Several of Walsh’s readers commented on “literally” becoming not literal in the Oxford Dictionaries Online, a change that has made many people apoplectic. Okay, not literally, but close. One of those people was Gene Weingarten, frequent maker of poop jokes and—by the way—two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

A week or so ago, he weighed in on the controversy. “I am not a language tyrant,” he wrote. “… But one must draw the line somewhere, and to me, that line is crossed when antonyms are certified for use as synonyms. It is rewarding vapidity. It is celebrating vapidity. It would be like your giving the Nobel Prize in medicine to the president of the Hair Club for Men.” Virtual panties, Gene!

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Should blog posts be edited?

February 19, 2013

The Washingtonian, like any good magazine, has a robust protocol for fact-checking and copyediting everything from full-length features to headlines and captions. (You wouldn’t believe how often captions have errors.) When its writers started doing blog entries for the growing website, those followed the same protocol.

One writer in particular objected. As an investigative reporter, he had scoops that weren’t meant to age even a few minutes, he said—they had to go up ASAP to beat the competition. The editors got that, and it’s true that the writer’s work was leading the magazine into digital ascendancy. But it’s also true that haste makes waste, loose lips sink ships, and so on. “You have the best dirt, Harry,” I told him, “but even you have been known to make mistakes.”

“Moi? When have I ever made a mistake?”

“Yesterday, when Lynne caught what you wrote about X. And before that, I saved your butt with Y. And then there was Z ….”

“Yeah, okay. But this is solid, and there’s no time for anyone to check it.”

This went on for months. Most of the time everything checked out, though I sometimes fixed grammatical bugaboos, from misspellings to left-out words. Occasionally I caught a major screwup. That, I told him, is why we check. Still, he chafed, and eventually word came down: No more checking. Just post it.

The 24-hour news cycle has won pretty much everywhere, and to paraphrase another quotation, they who hesitate are lost. But I wish everyone would agree to hesitate—just long enough for both a fact check and a copyedit.

There have been plenty of embarrassing factual errors both online and in broadcasting because of the rush to be first, the initial misreporting of the Obamacare verdict being just one. That’s the subject of another post. But a good copyedit can be done in minutes, and clean copy isn’t just an aesthetic nicety. “There are few bigger turn-offs for readers than grammar and punctuation flaws in a piece of writing,” wrote Charlotte Beckham, a British editor/proofreader/blogger. “Such mistakes indicate to the reader that the article has been written in haste, lacks attention to detail, and/or has been completed with little effort.”

In short, it speaks to credibility. Even dating sites now inform profile writers that other users think less of those who can’t spell or don’t bother with punctuation. What do you think more “professional” readers think of blogs and other social media that aren’t up to the standards of the printed publication? Should standards come down at the same rate as the use and readership of paper?

Authors of books have griped for years about the dearth and death of editing. Errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, use of words, and more on the Washington Post website are downright embarrassing, and readers of the dead-tree version regularly write in to complain about the lack of copyediting. And according to former ReadWriteWeb senior writer Marshall Kirkpatrick, a survey on the crowdsourced copyediting service GooseGrade led to this conclusion: “Spelling and grammatical errors harmed [readers’] opinion of a blog, their willingness to spend time on the site and to share its content nearly as much as perceived factual errors did.”

“Grammatical Gaffes Annoy Readers and Erode Our Credibility” is the title of an op-ed by the appropriately named Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star, who wrote, “Numerous newspaper credibility studies have concluded [that] readers don’t care whether reporters are rushed, staff count is down, or editors are too busy posting content online to catch grammatical gaffes.” Quoting former ombudsman Don Sellar, she added that editing errors “erode public confidence in a paper’s ability to get anything right.”

If professional bloggers—and those who aspire to such status—don’t have a copyeditor to back them up, they do at least have advice from Charlotte Beckham on doing it themselves:

1. Read your writing as though you did not write it yourself.

2. Consider whether your writing makes too many presumptions as to the reader’s understanding of the subject.

3. Consider the presentation.

4. Send the post to a friend or colleague for feedback—if time permits.

She elaborated on each of these points, and you can see the details here. (She also, sorry to say, made two small grammatical errors, which I corrected when quoting. I couldn’t very well not correct them, right? Occupational hazard and all that ….)

The post has many complimentary comments, including these: “Proofreading is important; it makes a piece of text more effective” and “It may seem time-consuming, but it is worth the time as it will help make you and your site look more professional.” Charlotte, Marshall, Kathy, and Don would surely join me in agreeing.

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.