Posted tagged ‘Washington Post’

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.

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.

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.

A football team that (still) needs another name

August 25, 2015


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.

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

July 14, 2015

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

June 23, 2015

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.

Word crimes and the grammar police

April 21, 2015

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.

“Broadcast News” and the demise of Brian Williams

February 17, 2015 week, as so many commentators have noted, was a big one in media. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams was suspended. The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart announced his departure after 16 years. Acclaimed foreign correspondent and 60 Minutes star Bob Simon and New York Times media critic David Carr (late of Washington City Paper) both died suddenly.

From a CNN Money column: “So much about journalism can be learned from this week: hubris from Williams, wit from Stewart, consistency from Simon, and ferocious eloquence from Carr.”

By coincidence, this weekend a local station was showing Broadcast News, a film I hadn’t seen since its debut. Billed in part as a romantic comedy, it’s also about the rise of blow-dried TV anchors who are all style, no substance, over less-glamorous reporters steeped in knowledge that informs their work. The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Writing, and Best Actor for all three leads.

NBC Nightly News was my newscast of choice—less for its anchor than, I admit, for its lead-in, the voice that said, “This is the NBC Nightly Nooz With Brian Williams.” The voice said “nooz” twice, which reminded me of where I came from, which was worth a smile every night. So I saw the January 30 broadcast where Williams thanked the embarrassed Army veteran whose platoon protected him in Iraq, after Williams’ helicopter supposedly was hit.

What had been whispered about for years suddenly came to the fore, assisted by Facebook, a service member who wrote there, “Sorry dude, I don’t remember you being on my aircraft…,” and a Stars and Stripes reporter who saw this and followed up with a story. Quite a few times, Williams had either lied about or “conflated” the facts about his helo ride—plus the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and maybe even a puppy rescue in New Jersey.

Was it “conflation,” which is real and understandable in regular humans? But Williams knew better; his own blogs and past recordings held differing versions of the same stories, versions that were later used to cut his career short. Why didn’t he fact-check himself? Was he such a big shot that no one would call him on his many retellings as they grew?

“LYIN’ BRIAN” was the harsh assessment of the New York Post’s front page, showing Williams on air with a Pinocchio-like extended nose.

Which brings me to the climax of Broadcast News. Holly Hunter’s producer character is drawn to and repelled by William Hurt’s empty, pretty-boy newsreader character, who confesses that he’s not smart, can’t write, doesn’t know current events, but interacts perfectly with a camera. He’s everything Hunter can’t stand about where the news business is headed.

Director James L. Brooks sums up Hunter’s dilemma by having her confront Hurt about a (cursory and shallow) segment he reported on date rape. A real Hunter would have caught the problem with the segment right away, but in the movie, not until the end does she point out that he faked a tear for the camera. It’s a firing offense, she says. He either doesn’t care or doesn’t see her point. So she dumps him.

Brian Williams has never, to my knowledge, been accused of faking a news segment—only of exaggerating several events outside of his anchor chair. But it’s a matter of credibility, and that’s what he’s “selling” when in that chair. As Hurt’s character puts it, “Just remember that you’re not just reading the news, you’re narrating it. Everybody has to sell a little. You’re selling them this idea of you, you know; you’re sort of saying, ‘Trust me, I’m, um, credible.’ ”

Just like that, Williams wasn’t credible anymore. This new thing called social media inflated his conflation to the point where NBC couldn’t ignore the outcry and suspended him for six months. “You can’t have an anchor on the air while his judgment and credibility are being questioned on every front page in America,” said an NBC insider. Rumor has it the brass wanted to fire him outright, but as the highest-rated news anchor, he was too valuable a commodity.

My guess is that like Stewart, Simon, and Carr, Williams will not return to his post. At 55, his career may not exactly be over, but anchoring the evening news was probably its apex. It’s fun to imagine, as some wags have suggested, him and Stewart switching jobs. In the end, though, there’s nothing funny about the end of last week and the end of a career for a man the Washington Post calls “an anchor with a relatively thin reporting resume who was eager to cement his journalistic bona fides.”

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.