Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Archive for September, 2008

If you’re wondering, it’s Miss Sanchez

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 30, 2008

Ah, courtesy titles. They’re one of the most noticeable stylistic differences that vary from paper to paper. For the record, I don’t really understand the use of courtesy titles. I suppose it sounds nicer to refer to someone in this more “polite” manner, but using a person’s last name sans title on second reference doesn’t seem all that disrespectful to me. Personally, I think that newspapers that use courtesy titles are just asking for inconsistencies.

Politeness seems to be the overarching argument for using the titles, but the folks at Language Log recently questioned that reasoning.

“Courtesy title” is an odd nomenclature in this context. It suggests that the Times is being respectful, but its policy of using the titles for all non-athlete adults — even crazed killers and monstrous dictators — doesn’t end up conveying respect. When Robert Mugabe is referred to, in non-first mentions, as “Mr. Mugabe” or “President Mugabe”, I cringe at the idea that the Times is showing respect for the man.

It’s just following a style sheet, not showing respect. But how are its readers supposed to know this? The style sheet might warm the hearts of the NYT staff, but what the readers see is inexplicable variation in the use of titles.

Language Log goes on to say that outdated conventions like courtesy titles can end up confusing readers.

… The Times staff is failing to do something all writing teachers tell their students to do: take your readers’ viewpoint. Instead, they’re looking at things from their viewpoint (including following the newsroom “rules”.)

Luckily, I work at a newspaper that doesn’t use courtesy titles, which is great because I know the Miss/Ms./Mrs. triangle would provide a nightly headache. We’d have to rely on the writer having asked a source about her preferred title. And what about a person in the story who the writer didn’t interview? Is the writer to guess if the person is married? And what happens when the writer can’t figure it out? The burden would probably fall on the copy desk, with the editor consulting with the writer to come up with an educated guess.

I can just imagine how that conversation would go. “Um, I didn’t see a ring on her finger, I guess I should go with ‘Miss’? Oh wait, she’s a career woman, maybe ‘Ms.’ would be more appropriate.”

And I don’t even want to attempt to figure out how a married woman who has kept her maiden name wants to be addressed.

This might just seem like the rant of a lazy writer or editor who didn’t bother to do a thorough enough interview or research, but I could see this being a commonly occurring problem. And one that isn’t easy to avoid. Because once you’ve committed to the courtesy title, you have to use it throughout the entire story on every subsequent reference.

If those potential hiccups aren’t bad enough, newsrooms that use courtesy titles often have other little rules regarding their use. The New York Times doesn’t use them for athletes, and back when The Boston Globe used courtesy titles, they didn’t extend the titles to convicted criminals or historical figures. All these little cracks lead to arbitrary decisions (when does someone become historical?) and, inevitably, inconsistencies.


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Punctuation matters. Period.

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 26, 2008

Tuesday was National Punctuation Day, and I spent the day reflecting on the periods, commas, hyphens and apostrophes in my life.

Using punctuation correctly is one skill a person never finishes developing. Using proper punctuation consistently doesn’t conflict with my love of descriptive grammar, so I’m all for adding dots and curls to copy because it only makes writing clearer. Furthermore, I find punctuation interesting because it is meant to mimic the way we speak by adding pauses and giving written sentences intonation. You know to read a sentence differently when it ends in “?” than when it end in “!”

I can relate (in a weird way) with Ron Burgundy in “Anchorman,” who mistakenly says, “You stay classy, San Diego. I’m Ron Burgundy?” because of a misplaced question mark. I’ve never done anything that embarrassing, but it’s easy to get tripped up by bad punctuation.

And bad punctuation can cost you. Just how much? About 2 million Canadian dollars. Brushing up on the rules once a year may keep you from committing a costly blunder.

So, in honor of the holiday, I have made four punctuation resolutions:

I will not use an em dash to set off parenthetical material or unessential clauses. I will use commas.

Some editors, who are unsure about how to treat clauses like this one, set them off with em dashes.

I will capitalize the first word that comes after a colon if it starts a complete sentence.

I promise this: Colon mistakes will not be tolerated.

I will only use an ellipsis to show the deletion of words in a quote, not to indicate a pause. And I will use only three periods and a space on either side.

This example is … pretty self-explanatory.

I will look up words in the dictionary to see if they normally carry a hyphen because I realize that hyphen rules are really arbitrary; it’s impossible to memorize them all. I will be OK with that.

My hyphen misuses are well-known throughout the newsroom.

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When a newspaper has a potty mouth

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 23, 2008

At the college newspaper where I work, the question of how to handle expletives occasionally comes up. While we haven’t printed the F-bomb under my watch, we have printed a few other questionable words, including “bullshit” and “pussy.” In those cases, the words were used in direct quotes in entertainment stories, not news stories. And in those cases, I consulted with the editors, who were fine with it. It wasn’t exactly the most controversial issue that’s ever come up.

But where do you draw the line? Do you limit expletives to features? Are they acceptable only in direct quotes? Editorials?

What about headlines?

“Jeez, never in headlines! That’s going a bit far,” you might think to yourself. Normally I would agree with that, and I initially agreed with John McIntyre, who suggested that b, a free Baltimore paper, went a little far when it printed a headline that read “DOUCHEBAG!”

Full disclosure: I do not really find the word offensive, but I don’t find too many words offensive. The word doesn’t carry the hateful or hurtful tone that, say, ethnic slurs have. But on the surface, I thought printing the word in a headline was definitely a no-no. Surely you could limit the word’s use to the article’s text (if it’s absolutely necessary) and come up with a different headline.

But then I read the actual story that accompanied the headline (I needed some context, after all). The article describes various types of contemporary douchebags and outlines some behavior traits of said types. It’s supposed to be humorous, although I don’t find it particularly funny. I do, however, have a different feeling about the headline now.

This paper had an entire article dedicated to douchebags. Obviously, the story is not to be taken seriously; anyone who visits the Web site can see that for themselves. In a story that describes the ins and outs of douchebaggery, it seems impossible to avoid using the word in the headline.

Whether to print the story in the first place is a whole other issue. (I wouldn’t have run it, mostly because it’s not clever or original.) But let’s just take this from a copy editor’s standpoint. The story is going in, no matter what, and it’s time to choose a headline.

Choosing any other word would seem a bit misleading. The best I can come up with is “D-bag,” but that’s only an abbreviated form, so it’s not a true alternative. Choosing another noun, like “jerk” or “loser,” doesn’t quite convey the same meaning as “douchebag.” A douchebag is not the same thing as a jerk. As with any set of near-synonyms, there are subtle differences.

So what’s a copy editor to do? Think about the audience. I would imagine that this paper’s readership is mostly made up of students and young adults. They could probably get away with using the word without many regular readers complaining. And if anyone was offended, it should have been at the article itself, not the use of the word. In the end, “douchebag” will likely fall into the the category of taboo words that slowly gained acceptability. In his post, McIntyre mentions “sucks” and “scumbag” as examples of this. We can only hope that “douchebag” will have a similar fate.

Side note: As I am writing this, “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” is airing a sketch about using a particle collider to smash celebrity douchebags together.

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One fewer mistake

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 19, 2008

The University of Florida’s Office of Sustainability has an environmental challenge called One Less Car. The details of the challenge are not so important, but its name is useful for a lesson in another silly grammar rule. Someone mentioned to me recently that it should be called “One Fewer Car” in accordance with the AP Stylebook.

Although the name might sound completely legit, it breaks the fewer versus less rule. The rule states that you should use “fewer” when you can count the items you’re describing and “less” when you can’t. In this example, you can count cars, so “fewer” would be the correct word to use. The easiest way I remember it is with the phrase “less gas, fewer gallons,” which I have posted next to my desk.  It’s a mantra of sorts.

So I think the less/fewer rule is a nice guideline for news copy. I don’t love it, but I don’t mind it. I also don’t think that it should be applied to catchy slogans that would sound ridiculous otherwise. While “One Fewer Car” doesn’t sound totally awful, “One Less Car” has a much nicer ring to it. And take the recent Gardasil vaccine campaign. Its slogan is “One Less,” as in, one less woman to be diagnosed with cervical cancer. This phrase wouldn’t have quite as much punch it if were “One Fewer.”

I’ve heard people even apply the rule to the 10 items or less line at the grocery store. Bill Walsh wrote a mini-rant about people being sticklers over the wording of the sign. I believe his argument, though, was that the sign could be taken to mean “10 items or less [than that],” in which case the use of “less” would be appropriate.

Whether it’s grammatically correct is beside the point. What’s more important here, again, is the way people use it. The fact that “less” has been used in the grocery store line for so many years makes its use in that context perfectly acceptable, in my opinion. The reason “10 items of fewer” sounds awful to the ear is that you’re so unaccustomed to hearing it.  Someone who injects the word “fewer” into phrases and slogans where it’s technically correct but uncommon nonetheless sounds out of touch.

So in your run-of-the-mill story about attendance at a county fair, saying, “Fewer people attended this year,” is perfectly acceptable. But trying to pass off a phrase as ungrammatical when it simply sounds nicer that way is just plain silly.

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Keep the online grammar police at bay

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 16, 2008

Correcting news copy and correcting a person’s speech are two very different things. One of my pet peeves is when people correct me when I speak. I think most would agree that it’s pretty rude. But what about correcting a person’s online grammar? Should the same leniency be given to the errors and misspellings on a blog?

The Baltimore Sun had a nice little article on online grammar police. I don’t consider myself a grammar cop, and I try to look past mistakes. But many people are not so forgiving.

The writing on your blog should reflect your voice, but that’s no excuse for poor grammar. People are quick to dismiss what you have to say when you have multiple misspellings, little or no punctuation and way more ellipses than necessary.

People should take the writing on their Facebook profiles as seriously as they take their resumes. And I don’t think I need to go into the importance of good grammar and usage in an e-mail to your boss. If you’ve found yourself guilty of not editing yourself online, here are five tips that will make your posts, e-mails and other online writings look that much better.

  1. Spell things out. You aren’t getting charged by the character, so don’t try to abbrev evry wrd. It not only looks sloppy, but it’s also hard to read.
  2. Use consistent capitalization. If you really don’t want to use proper capitalization in your Twitter updates, no one will kill you. But do keep in consistent. don’t do This. AnD dEfiNatEly DoN’t do ThIs (It’s so eighth grade). In longer writing, like on your blog, use regular capitalization rules.
  3. Use apostrophes appropriately. This seems easy, but apostrophe misuse is one of the biggest mistakes I see online. Don’t use apostrophes to make words plural (unless the word is a numeral or a letter). Do use apostrophes to make a noun possessive.
  4. Limit your exclamation points. Ask yourself, “Would I actually exclaim this if I was saying it out loud?” If the answer is yes, use one exclamation point. Use two if your verbal exclamation would be followed by a fist-punch in the air (in other words, very sparingly).
  5. Read what you just wrote. Don’t click that publish button so quickly. Mistakes act as a distraction from what’s really important: your content. You don’t want your first comment to read, “You spelled ‘administration’ wrong.” You want it to say, “I wholeheartedly disagree with your assessment of the administration, and here’s why.”

For people to take your writing seriously, you have to take it seriously, too. That means editing it to the best of your ability. I won’t judge you, but those online grammar police might, and you don’t want to get on their bad side.

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Y spelling cownts

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 12, 2008

Phonetics professor John Wells is calling for a “freeing up” of the English language, the Times Online reports. While I’m usually pretty hip to unconventional approaches to both language and education, I don’t agree with the idea that people should have more freedom to spell as they like. But, as always, there are a few instances where I disagree with the dictionary.

It all goes back to consistency. Consistency from article to article is important to keep the newspaper looking professional. Wells seems to advocate a set of consistent changes to English spelling, but a large restructuring of the language all at once would make it inconsistent with writings from just a few years earlier. Spelling changes occur gradually and allow people to adjust accordingly. An overhaul of every spelling irregularity overnight would raise a generation of students who would have trouble reading a book that their parents read in high school. Spelling is just another form of keeping writing consistent, and as a result, keeping it understandable for the reader.

That being said, there are a few words that are technically misspelled that I choose to use in print. I attribute these misspellings more as changes in modern grammar than simple spelling issues, though. The biggest of these are “gonna,” “wanna,” and “finna,” which in some southern dialects is a shortened form of “fixing to.”

The AP Stylebook doesn’t have an entry on any of these words, and Merriam-Webster Online does not recognize any of them. Obviously, a reporter is not going to use these words in their copy, but what about in direct quotes? It’s a bit misleading to change your source’s utterance of “gonna” to “going to.” They mean the same thing, but I would argue that “gonna” is a different word. The pronunciation is completely different, it has less syllables and judging from its Google hits, people use the written form of “gonna” already.

This question has come up before in the newsroom, usually because “gonna” and “wanna” show up as being misspelled, making a copy editor wonder how to change it. I always suggest keeping them as they are unless they would cause confusion. (Although “finna” has never come up, I’d probably just paraphrase the quote to avoid using an obscure word.)

Do you know of any other misspellings that you feel should be adopted by the stylebook or dictionary?

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Grammar rules are meant to be broken

Posted by Noel Sanchez on September 9, 2008

For my first post, I want to explain what “the twist” in my blog title refers to. I’m a copy editor who likes breaking rules. Copy editing is often viewed as this job where editors impose rigid grammar laws and get all hung up over dangling modifiers. Some copy editors may fit that bill, but I, however, do not enjoy following rigid, outdated rules.

I am of the belief that prescriptive grammar (that is, the grammar you learned in school) should not be imposed on writers or readers. The way we write should reflect the way people actually speak.

If you’re familiar with linguistics, this is called a descriptive grammar approach. Descriptive grammarians acknowledge that change in a language is inevitable and no one form of a language is considered superior.

How is this useful in copy editing? A lot of times I see editors become frustrated with rules, not because they don’t understand them, but because they just sound … funny. Trying to decide whether to use “whomever” or “whoever” will not make an article better. It will just distract you from editing for clarity and conciseness.

Bruce Byfield summed it up perfectly:

“By abandoning prescriptive grammar, writers shift the responsibility for their work to themselves. In practice, this shift means making choices that are not right or wrong in the abstract, but, rather, useful in a particular context or purpose.”

Copy editors should take a similar approach when editing someone else’s work. We must really think about the words we use and the grammar we impose. When I’m editing, I ask myself, 1. Is this the clearest and most concise way that this could be written? and 2. Does this reflect the way people actually speak?

So worry less about changing “who” to “whom” and more about the story’s ability to answer those other, more important W’s. If we can think of grammar rules as guidelines and put some real thought into what the writer is trying to say, we can make decisions that better serve both the writer and reader.  Plus, the articles we edit won’t sound so damn stuffy anymore.

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