Posted tagged ‘Washington Post’

On compound modifiers and when to use a hyphen

January 6, 2015 Walsh, the Washington Post’s chatting copyeditor, has rendered an opinion on several grammatical (and other) issues that have grabbed my attention lately. One is when to use a comma in a compound modifier and when not to.

Way back in the 1970s, compound modifiers had hyphens: ice-cream cone, three-man spacecraft. In the 1990s and 2000s, a succession of editors and I imposed the same rule at The Washingtonian. We got some pushback from people who called the magazine “hyphen happy” (“hyphen-happy”?). As hyphen use fades away, it’s hard to tell where to draw the line—and stylebooks seem almost arbitrary on the matter.

That’s the background on Walsh’s first chat question recently. “It seems arbitrary to me: no hyphen for ‘grand jury investigation’ or ‘revenge porn law’ but ‘mineral-rich region’?” he or she asked. “And what are your thoughts on hyphenating ‘simple’ compound nouns (e.g., real-estate agent, high-school student). Thanks!”

I come up against this one almost daily. Since leaving my last magazine job—and my role as arbiter of grammar and style among people who actually care about such things—I admit becoming less hyphen-happy. But while some phrases read fine without a hyphen, others can be misread or just look wrong. If a stylebook is silent, do you just guess?

Here’s Walsh’s interesting reply: “That’s probably where my work practices and my personal practices differ the most. The Post would write ‘grand jury investigation,’ whereas I would write ‘grand-jury investigation.’ I even hyphenate the simple ones. Post style does not, and one of my problems with that philosophy is that it’s hard to draw the line. We’re not always consistent, and one of my goals is to come up with an easier-to-follow rationale for those pesky hyphens.”

Good point. We editors thought being called hyphen-happy was perfectly fine when we had a plain and easy-to-follow rule to follow that made the meaning clear and obvious to all. Once you start saying, “Well, not always,” editors won’t agree among themselves, and noneditors will have no idea. And there goes the neighborhood, grammatically speaking.

(Of course, we editors can stick our fingers in the dike only so long. Language changes, and eventually it will change around us. Which brings up that age-old question, should you be a prescriber or a describer?)

A commenter suggested that if the compound noun stands alone in a different context (“They eat ice cream; the grand jury will convene”), it doesn’t take a hyphen when modifying another noun. If it doesn’t otherwise stand alone (“mineral rich”), it does (“mineral-rich region”). Maybe that’s the rationale behind the Post stylebook?

I asked him those questions. Here are the answers:

“That’s a good way to decide when something like ‘mineral-rich’ absolutely must have a hyphen. It’s not a good guideline for deciding when not to hyphenate, because it takes the most anti-hyphen stance possible.

“Others will disagree, but I think it looks sloppy and unprofessional to leave ‘ham sandwich’ unhyphenated in something like ‘That was a good lunch, but it wasn’t ham-sandwich good.’ Or ‘beer gut’ in ‘One of those beer-gut dudes from Cleveland.’ You get the picture.

Post style, I’m afraid, reflects the fact that others will disagree.”

Speaking of disagreeing, here’s how yet another commenter responded: “Use them when not using them may confuse the reader. In the phrase ‘old money family,’ a hyphen isn’t needed because there isn’t such a thing as a ‘money family.’ The phrase ‘small-state senator’ needs a hyphen because there is such a thing as a ‘state senator.’ No need for the hyphens in ‘beer gut dudes’ or ‘ham sandwich good’ because the meanings are clear without hyphens.”

Yes, not confusing the reader is a main reason we have grammar. So I have to disagree with this commenter. No reader should have to spend even a second figuring out whether ‘money family’ or ‘state senator’ is a thing in those sentences. A hyphen makes it clear right away; no figuring or rereading needed.

And that is why we have (ahem) hyphen-use rules.

Copyright 2015 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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.

Multitasking: Charles Emerson Winchester was right

May 30, 2014 you want something done, they say, ask a busy person. But not a person doing several things at once. The results will probably not be either terrific or timely.

Until very recently, that goddess with multiple arms was the deity of working mothers and American commerce in general. How inefficient to do one thing at a time! Why go to bed at 10 when you can stay up working until 11, 12, 1 am? We boast about reading email while dashing to a meeting or cooking a meal while negotiating a deal and chasing an unruly child. As if that’s a good thing.

To cut down on those lengthy hours, or at least to get more done in general, Americans multitask. It’s a badge of honor. And it seems to work: We are the most productive people on the planet, according to sociologists and economists. Our productivity has skyrocketed in recent decades.

But at what cost? And individually—rather than in terms of GDP—how productive are we, really?

Not very, says Brigid Schulte, the Washington Post reporter who recently wrote Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. “Studies find that your brain literally cannot pay attention to two things at the same time with equal weight,” she says. “You’re not giving either thing your full attention. So instead of doing one thing well, you’re doing two things poorly.”

Like walking and chewing gum at the same time, as the old joke goes? Or driving and texting, perhaps? (Crash.) Maybe we’ve known this for a while without wanting to admit it.

Many people can write while playing music at low volume. When Washington had a smooth jazz station, that worked well for me. Anything with words collides with the words in my head. Unfortunately, that includes commercials. So now I work without musical accompaniment unless the work is something I don’t have to think much about—brainless collecting/gathering, for instance.

A much bigger distraction is right there on the computer, though, lurking behind the project of the hour. “I’m a sucker for Facebook, a sucker for checking my emails, a sucker for reading other blogs and a sucker for just about every other random thing you can do on the Internet,” writes Joe Warnimont of the blog Writing With Warnimont. “If this sounds like you, check out ZenWriter. Like bug spray, it’s a repellent and not a deterrent, but I was amazed at the software’s ability to shut out all my usual computer distractions and allow me to focus on writing.” Other possibilities I’ve heard of are Freedom, WriteRoom, and JDarkRoom.

To underline the point: As bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen once said, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

But my purpose here is not to discuss distractions, exactly; it’s to discuss multitasking and how its inherent distractions keep us from doing a good job on any one thing. We have one main task at any one time, whether it’s researching a project or driving to a destination. The new thinking is that it’s not more efficient to accomplish two or more tasks at once (because we’re really not)—rather, like Major Winchester on M*A*S*H, we should do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on.

Partly for all the positive reasons, and partly to avoid negative consequences. When people have too much on their minds, they start losing track. This is stressful. Things go wrong. This is more stressful. (Lorraine Feather wrote an entire song called “Where Are My Keys.” Spoiler alert: She never does find them.) “Stress is literally the most toxic situation for your brain,” Schulte wrote in the Washington Post Magazine. The Yale Stress Center did MRI brain scans and found that people who experienced stressful events and perceived constant stress had 20 percent smaller brain volume than people who were not stressed.

No wonder Lorraine can’t find her keys. She did come up with a good song about it, though, which makes me think she must have relaxed, meditated, lowered the music volume, kept electronic time-wasters to a minimum, exercised, had fun with friends, and taken the other advice out there for lowering stress.

At the top of most of those lists: Stop multitasking!

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

Larry King and other people who don’t make a lot of sense in public

March 21, 2014

It’s a little too easy to come down on people who mess up the language in some kind of open forum—on Facebook, for instance, or on a radio call-in show. “Regular folks” should be off limits. But people who make their living in the public square, people who should know better and who are practiced at this sort of thing? That’s different. Especially those who have the benefit of editors and staff.

These are just some examples of poor role models, or occasional slip-ups by folks who should be role models, that I’ve come across lately. Some of their mistakes are grammatical, some are in spelling, some are in pronunciation, some are just sloppy typing, and some are probably ignorance uncaught by any editor. Some mistakes are no doubt made by low-level people who happen to speak (or write) for supposedly high-minded outlets. Come on, leaders: Just as with your stars, when someone in a low pay grade addresses the world for the whole, invest in a second set of eyes.

• Larry King, in launching his new television talk show last year, was widely quoted as saying, “I would rather ask questions to people in positions of power instead of speaking on their behalf.” The show’s advertising is still trumpeting that line.

In all this time the powers that be couldn’t film the man saying something more comprehensible? A few wording changes would fix the grammar; the connection between interviewing people and speaking for them is harder to explain.

• “Please reduce down to no more than two capsules a day.” It figures that an ad for Garcinia Plus, a weight-loss drug (to lose redundant pounds), would use redundant verbiage. Or is “reduce” a play on words?

• “Did you make a person last year? A little tiny person that’s really bad at eating?” Cute, Turbo Tax. But a person of any size is a “who,” not a “that.”

• “They say you are what you eat. Well, at Perdue, we say you are what you eat eats.

The public-radio show “A Way With Words” has a blog that took on the (deliberately) missing word. “Never mind the implication that you are a chicken. Glide right past that,” its moderator wrote. “Perdue needs better copy editors.”

CBS Evening News anchor Scott Pelley must have missed the school lesson in spelling and/or pronunciation of “Arctic,” because he says it this way every time he mentions climate change or winter weather: “A massive Artic air mass ….”

• “More on Yahoo: Six Degree That Make Your Résumé Look Good.” Oops. Fingers type faster than brain thinks? Or does brain not have a degree?

• From the Washington Post, February 28: “BREAKING NEWS Economy grew slower that thought in 4Q.” Ditto. A pretty common mistake that passes spell check, unfortunately.

• “Montgomery College will open at 11AM, Tuesday March 4th due to anticipated icy road conditions. … If your class can meet for at least half of it’s scheduled time … your class will meet when the College opens at 11 a.m.” Sigh.

• “The challenge of rearchitecting ….” I heard this in an ad for VMware one morning and thought, “You’ve got to be kidding.” The Midwest has fertilizer ads, and Washington has government contracting ads. Are they really much different?

Not having memorized the rest of the sentence, I Googled that phrase. VMware talks about “virtualizing Tier 1 applications” and “the work that we’re architecting for future generations to come.” (Redundancy again.) This is the sort of thing that people in the know translate without a thought but outsiders hear as gibberish.

Meanwhile, “rearchitecting” led to a bunch of hits, mostly from IT companies. One man’s blog says this: “We don’t need to rearchitect the Internet. We need to rearchitect society.” Someone should consider rearchitecting his vocabulary.

• And the best public mistake of all lately:

Fox News, While Reporting About a Spelling Bee, Misspells Spelling Bee

“By Scott Kleinberg Chicago Tribune social media editor
“10:07 a.m. CDT, March 11, 2014

“Fox News, your word is bee.

“Can you use it in a sentence?

“We can, but the network apparently can’t, using ‘spelling be’ in place of spelling bee in a caption at the bottom of the screen during an airing of the show Fox & Friends.” ….

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

To be or not to bee, that is the question.

“Me, myself, and I” on the stage … and on the page

February 6, 2014

I just finished stage managing An Inspector Calls for a local theater company. The director, cast, and I started in October with a read-through of the 1947 British script. Then came blocking, which is where the director sets up the actors like pieces on a game board and moves them around—then changes her mind and moves them somewhere else. The actors read from the script for about two months, until they were supposed to be “off book” (to have memorized their lines). That made their movements more natural, and they could gesture and pick things up. Later came set, costumes, makeup, theater staff, programs, an audience–and fabulous reviews.

What does this have to do with language, you ask? A few things. First, after 4-1/2 months, you’d think I’d be sick of hearing the same lines over and over, but my appreciation of the writing only grew. Second, had I been directing, I’d have made a couple of tweaks so that modern American audiences wouldn’t get the wrong idea—particularly where Gerald says, “All right, I did [adore her attentions]. Any man would have done.” To us, this line makes it sounds like Daisy would have fallen for just anyone, and Gerald happened to come along. What Gerald means is the same thing without “done”—any man would have appreciated Daisy’s attentions. Quite a different thing.

Third, modern language intruded anyway. About half of the actors read their lines as J.B. Priestley wrote them, proper grammar and all: “You don’t. Neither of us does.” Others “corrected” what’s wrong for Yanks but right for Brits, lines like this: “Milward’s [shop] suddenly found themselves shorthanded.” And one actor, once out of the script, never, ever got this line right: “Yes, and do you remember what you said to Gerald and me after dinner …?”

After each rehearsal for the two weeks before we moved in, the director had me email to everyone the lines missed that night. After each rehearsal, I’d type out that line. The first time, I added, “(Eric would not have made the grammatical error of saying ‘Gerald and I.’)” Soon I started capping “ME,” then boldfacing those lines people were missing night after night. Finally I started begging, “(Or say ‘me and Gerald’ if that comes more naturally.)”

But bad grammar didn’t budge. This son of the aristocracy continued butchering the language through the final matinee.

Some folks don’t know any better. (Not the case here.) Some don’t care. (I hope not the case here.) Some don’t understand grammar and don’t trust the editors or other experts who insist that this way is better than that way. (Sure; if you hear something two or more ways, why not throw up your hands about it? Why not assume that either way is fine and that it doesn’t matter?) And for many, bad grammar is just so ingrained that they can’t speak any other way.

Bill Walsh at the Washington Post has a theory on this. “People get freaked out by ‘me,’ ” he says. “I think it goes back to being corrected in childhood for saying ‘me and Sally’ instead of ‘Sally and I.’ The idea that ‘me’ is somehow wrong in anything but the simplest utterance is what sticks, and so you get people hypercorrecting and saying ‘Come visit my husband and I’ or using ‘myself’ inappropriately.”

Myself, yes! I once overheard an actor—not the same guy—tell someone, “She came to visit myself.” Huh? What happened to me? This one I have a theory on: backward-formation. People used to say, “She came to visit Sara and me.” Then, for pretentiousness or misplaced emphasis or who knows what, it changed to “She came to visit Sara and myself.” Once enough people actually accepted that, the next step—“She came to visit myself”—was inevitable.

What’s the answer? Better-taught teachers and parents to teach—and correct—better-taught children, for one. But that’s got to start somewhere. Getting people to care is part of it, but that too may be difficult. I never had formal grammar training, not really; I got to know and understand this stuff partly from having adults around who knew and cared about it and partly from reading well-written and well-edited books from an early age. So literacy is part of the solution, too. That means everything from Reading Is Fundamental to Sesame Street, from the Book on Every Bed project to Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and other wildly popular young-adult series.

I’m not expecting miracles. But you wouldn’t think a single, skinny letter would be so hard to get out of a grown man’s head. It took years to teach and reinforce the wrong phrasing. Is there any hope that the coming decades will do what I couldn’t as stage manager and dislodge it? The decades probably won’t—but the next director might.

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.

Finding Nemo—and other interview subjects

December 3, 2013

Have you ever read those “how they met” articles, the ones about engaged or married couples and how they came to be? The Washington Post and its Express spinoff started two such series several years ago, seemingly modeled after the popular Vows column in the New York Times. I love reading these. They’re a glimpse into other people’s lives via such esoteric details and bits of luck, real and created, and full of both surprises and “aha” moments.

Finding people to interview can be a bit like those stories or like movies such as Sliding Doors (I haven’t seen it, but it seems emblematic of a range of rom-coms in which people almost didn’t meet). Often, of course, one tracks down the right person through research or is simply assigned to go talk to so-and-so. But then there’s that element of chance. Just for fun, how have I discovered good interview subjects? Let me count some ways:

• Sitting next to her at Thanksgiving dinner. Just last weekend, I struck up a conversation with my tablemate, who turned out to have an interesting job. Naturally, I thought of a series on people who have interesting jobs and asked whether I could pitch her story. Bet the editor likes it—this woman works for a popular, upscale establishment in a cool, unusual capacity.

• On a date. A few years ago, I had brunch with a fellow who was training in Spanish with the Department of State. The date didn’t go anywhere; I liked him, but he was soon to be shipped to Guadalajara. Several months later, though, came an assignment for which he would be a perfect source. He’d mentioned his last name. That and “Guadalajara” weren’t much to go on, but I managed to track him down through State’s training facility, and the story was a success.

• Through a lead that didn’t pan out. This one’s pretty common. As one example, I was researching medical mysteries for Washingtonian and source-hopped to someone at the Wilmer Eye Institute, who told me an amazing story about a boy born blind who connected with the one doctor who would take a chance on an experimental surgery. Nope, my editor said; out of our territory. “Darn,” I thought, and then, “Oh, good! Now I can pitch it to Baltimore!” Where it became a feature to be proud of.

• Getting lost. Or just wandering around. Dennis and I were poking across an obscure Greek island, off the tourist path, when we passed by an open first-floor window and saw a woman tossing a shuttle through a wooden loom. Inside, she showed us her handiwork—and I reached for a pen. Dennis got out his camera. The result: an international travel story in the Washington Post.

• Saving string. Ever keep something around because “this will be useful someday”? I tell my students the story of reading a profile of Heloise, the hint-meister, many years ago and finding a half-sentence in the middle identifying her as a vegetarian. In Texas—that was interesting. Not knowing what would come of it, I kept the article. Two years later, my subconscious set to work on it and … aha! Off went a query to Vegetarian Times, which led to a fun Q&A with Heloise on the back page about how she survives in carnivorous cowboy-land and how everyone thinks she’s her mother. It’s one of my favorite clips.

• (Re)discovering someone. I met “Chuck” back in the ’90s through work. Later I met his wife, Georgiana, and over the years we built a friendship. Later still, I learned she was a wedding officiant—who by the late 2000s had performed more than 2,500 weddings! “The woman who’s performed 2,500 weddings” seemed an irresistible tagline, and soon an editor found her as delightful as I did. I should take my own advice and pitch her story again elsewhere.

• Through failure. If at first you don’t succeed … but too many writers stop there. A quote from the director of a crisis hotline had stuck in my head for years after my boss at Washingtonian turned down a pitch: In the small, dark hours, it’s “so quiet that the ring of the phone is shattering,” she’d told me. “Suddenly there are only two people on the planet, just you and the caller. There’s an intimacy level with the client that doesn’t exist in daylight. You can hear the person sucking on a cigarette.” (Isn’t that an awesome image?)

More than a decade later, having an plum assignment elsewhere, I spent a year researching and writing it only to get slammed: “This is not the kind of story ______ would ever publish,” my new editor said. Ouch! So, round three: I sent the completed piece to Washington City Paper. It ran on the cover—at one-third the size and for less than one-third the pay, but it ran. I got my cover story, the organization and the director who’d so inspired me got their press, and the public got educated about a vital human health issue. Ultimately, that’s worth it.

Copyright 2013 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.

Teh need for copyedotirs–that is, the need for copyeditors

April 8, 2013

“Doris Truong, a multiplatform editor on the Universal News Desk at [the] Washington Post, was named the eighth winner of the American Copy Editors Society’s Robinson Prize during the national conference banquet Friday, April 5, in St. Louis,” according to the society’s website.

The day before, during (I assume) her absence from work, the Post website’s front page ran this headline for an upcoming chat: “Brad Hirschfield: Thanking God in Pubic Speeches.” As Dave Barry used to write, I am not making this up.

Would Ms. Truong have caught that? Is the website even in her domain? It should be in somebody’s. I understand the need, the need for speed, online (see “Should blog posts be edited?” two posts ago), but somebody has got to be second eyes at the very least. Why? Because everyone makes misteaks. Even—gasp—editors.

The irony here is too good to pass up, but the overall problem is sadly common. Former Post copyeditor Pat Myers had a conversation the other day on the aptly named Style Conversational blog that started with this question from a miffed reader about a different error: “Can’t the Post afford a preafrooder?” Excerpts follow (all sic):

—Someone at TWP got the massage. It’s gone from fuxed to fixed.

—[Another recent column read,] “The awe and wonder that accompanied Harper at 19 hasn’t abetted at 20.”

—I see so many errors in the online Post that I’ve started sighing and moving on. If I had my druthers, nothing would go out—in print or in bytes—without a copy editor eyeballing it first. But I have resigned myself to the temporal imperative of online journalism.

—[Pat:] I’d like to get the egregious errors fixed if possible. I don’t mean typos as much as ones that at least appear as errors of ignorance—ones where it looks as if the person didn’t know the right word (though if you’re anything like me, inadvertently typing a homophone of the correct word is becoming a more and more frequent occurrence).

—I acknowledge and applaud your desire to minimize TWP’s instances of egregious buffoonery.

Is there any more egregious buffoonery than “pubic affairs” and the like? But maybe I’m beating up on my hometown paper too much. Let’s run an experiment, a look at the online front pages of five U.S. newspapers, and see what shows up …

New York Times. The word “donuts.” I don’t know the paper’s style guide, so maybe that’s kosher, so to speak. Same for a few headlines I would have fixed, such as “Wearing a Badge, and a Video Camera” and “Slaking Region’s Thirst, and Cleaning Its Beaches.” “Scuttlebot,” in a technology headline, appears to be a pun. First (and seemingly only) mistake: “At Home With Jill Mccorkle.” A look at the story shows that her name is McCorkle.

Boston Globe. “Treasury head visiting Europe, to stress growth.” I guess the comma is there to show that these are separate ideas, not one. “Career-defining moments of three top women executives.” Agh, “women” is not an adjective! But that’s widely accepted these days. First mistake: “Thrown by plot in ‘Game of ‘Thrones.’ ” Possible mistake: “Understanding the hopes, fears, disappointments, and dreams of patients can make better doctors in the process.” Newspapers usually avoid the serial comma, but I can’t see enough evidence before the paywall to decide whether this is the Globe’s rule.

Chicago Sun-Times. First mistakes: “Fans, friend and family of Roger Ebert streamed into Holy Name Cathedral Monday morning to share their memories and love of the film critic at his funeral mass.” Roger had far more than one friend, and “Mass” is a proper noun. “Chicago Police program protects kids targeted with gang violence.” I believe that should be “by,” not “with.” Pet peeve: “Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dead at 87.” This is correct according to AP, but Washingtonian and I say “prime minister” should not be capped after “former.” “View point: Wrigley Field rooftop owners were there first.” “View point,” two words?

Miami Herald. First mistake: “Mayoral candidate says someone is using Vodou on her.” AP, at least last year’s version, says the spelling is “Voodoo” (except lowercase for a use like “voodoo economics”). Maybe the Herald, understandably, has its own preference—but regardless, the mistake is either here or in a subhead, “The case of a vodou curse, drugs and rape heads to trial,” because either up or down is right. Pet peeve: “Water pressure impacted in Northwest Miami-Dade due to repairs.” Teeth are impacted; the water pressure is affected.

Los Angeles Times. Questionable use: “Goodwill, other nonprofits fight over used clothing.” The mental image alone is enough to suggest a rewrite. Correct use (yay): “Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female prime minister, dies at 87.” First three mistakes: “Closing Arguments Set in fake Rockefeller?s Murder Trial,” “Autopsy Underway for Pastor Rick Warren?s Son,” “Annette Funicello, Former Mousketeer, Dies at 70.” (The Times apparently uses a mix of u&lc for heads, depending on the section.)

And just for kicks, today’s Poughkeepsie Journal, the paper I grew up with. First mistake: “Margaret Thatcher, ‘The Iron Lady’ dies of a stroke at age 87.” “Army: No improper relationship for West Point head.” “By” would be better than “for”; this headline sounds like he’s not allocated one. “Philip Levine Poet Laureate of the US to Read at Storm King Art Center.” Commas, anyone? But here’s a whopper: The story itself informs us that he was poet laureate in the year 201112. (The story has so many typos that I wonder if part of the problem is transmission/formatting.) “Traffic, news, gas prices, lifestyle and things-to-do for those people who travel to get to work.” Maybe all those missing commas morphed into hyphens.

Now, this may not be a useful experiment so late in the day, when one hopes mistakes have been discovered and corrected. Also, there are probably a lot more and worse mistakes in stories than in front-page headlines. But there’s a big difference between a simple typo and, as Pat said, the sort of error that suggests ignorance or laziness on one or more people’s part. A misplaced punctuation mark is one thing; factual errors and bad grammar are another.

To clarify: I’m not so worried about typos, even worse ones than those noted here. But the bigger stuff—the stuff that makes journalists and newspapers look bad and depletes readers’ trust and faith—has to be fixed. Preferably before it gets into print.

I showed Pat the screen shot I took of last week’s Brad Hirschfield headline and the further mistake below it (“What do you think about public figures address God in public speeches?”). She replied, “I guess it’ll take a really damaging error before they decide it’s worth hiring more people, or slowing down the process, to have a cleaner page.” As Hirschfield might say, “God forbid.”

Copyright 2013 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.