Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Archive for November, 2008

Getting creative on the cops beat

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 21, 2008

Here’s a bizarro story from the Miami Herald.
Synopsis: Guy got shot on the night of his birthday after his family thought he was asleep. They found him a mile or two from his house, shot to death outside of his car.
Ridiculous sentences:
  • Detectives speculate Santos may have been robbed, but even that is iffy. Iffy? Really? Way to sound sensitive.
  • A burly man dressed in a plain white T-shirt, blue basketball shorts and flip-flops, Santos drove a white Chevrolet Impala. What does burly entail? Was he heavyset or big and strong? Why not just say that? Did he have a beard? The word “burly” always makes me think of Bluto from the Popeye cartoons. Did he look like Bluto? That’s a description I could get behind.
  • Perhaps Santos left to party somewhere? A nearby strip joint, maybe? A smoker, maybe he went out for more cigarettes? Detectives have only theories. What the hell? How can this blatant speculation make its way into a ‘reputable’ newspaper? That’s the real questions that need to be answered.

I’m all for getting creative with mundane stories. But that was a bit ridiculous.


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Election brings new AP style rules

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 18, 2008

I promised more election-related style rules, and this next one really threw me for a loop.

The big news last week was that the Associated Press changed things up and decided to start using first names for all heads of state. President Bush will now be President George W. Bush on first reference.

I really like the change, but it kind of sucks that I just learned the old rule earlier this month when I was looking up how to deal with “president-elect.” The rule changed as quickly as I learned it. Regardless, I welcome the change because I love consistency and using first names on first reference is just one of those rules that should apply to everyone.

The AP said that they changed the rule so that American stories would be consistent with international ones. As Ken McIntyre wrote on the Heritage Foundation blog (not exactly the first place I go to for my editing needs), the change represents the media’s move toward international standards.

Sure, it took less space to print “President Roosevelt” than to print “President Franklin Delano Roosevelt” back in the day — when every inch of spare newsprint meant more room for news. More importantly, though, the quaint old style assumed Americans’ familiarity – by natural and national kinship, if you will — with their president. “In most cases, the first name of a current or former U.S. president is not necessary on first reference,” the AP Stylebook entry for “president” instructed.

Now, though, AP stories will introduce the American president — a citizen of the world, after all – with the same formality with which the wire service treats other leaders of nations: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — even North Korean dictator Kim Jung II. No preconditions.

It’s an interesting point, but to me, the change is more about increased globalization and the accessibility of stories on the Web. Stories increasingly must stand on their own as readers from all over the world access them.

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Historically problematic

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 14, 2008

The election brought up a couple of style rules that I hadn’t previously had the privilege of using.

Among them are “historic” vs. “historical.”

A historic event is one of significance. This was a historic presidential election.

A historical event is any event that happened in the past, but I rarely see “historical” used to describe an event. More often, it’s used to signify that something is of or related to history. We looked at historical documents, for example.

The rules is simple; it’s just a matter of learning it.

Now, a trickier rule is whether to use “an” or “a” before the word historic. I have heard this argument go back and forth between people. I’ve even had my little “a” struck through by a red pen in high school.

I’m a proponent of “a historic” I pronounce the h when I say it, and I would, therefore, use “a.” I’m not British. I don’t lop off the h and pronounce it “istoric.”

The AP Stylebook agrees with me. John McIntyre does not. He argues that words beginning with h that are accented on the second syllable are less aspirated and, therefore, take an “an.” He suggests that copy editors leave both “an historic” and “a historic” alone when they come across it.

I’m going to have to go with AP on this one. While I feel for people who naturally say “an historic,” it seems to me like an idiosyncrasy among American English speakers. I have rarely encountered people who naturally (and naturalness is key) say “istoric.” Again, the only time I’ve heard the word used that way has been among British English speakers.

Consistency is key, and “a historic” wins out.

More election-related style tips to come!

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The post in which I don’t talk about things that are not amendments

Posted by Noel Sanchez on November 4, 2008

Today is Election Day! Exciting!

But you know what’s not exciting? Having to read each amendment multiple times because they make little sense. Here’s one example from the sample ballot in Florida.

Amendment 1:

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to delete provisions authorizing the Legislature to regulate or prohibit the ownership, inheritance, disposition, and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.

I had an argument over what voting Yes on this amendment would mean. Would a Yes mean that you are against aliens owning property or for it? I had to have it explained to me by a news article, which is fine; that’s what the newspaper is for.

But why can’t they just word these so the average person can understand them? Even if a voter is familiar with the amendment, and knows which way he wants to vote, he might get confused whether to mark Yes or No.

The problem is in the multiple negative verbs. An amendment to delete provisions that prohibit an action. It’s only mildly confusing when you take out some of the nouns that junk it up, but it’s really confusing when you read it all together.

Instead, why can’t the ballot read something like this explanation, taken from an article in the Independent Florida Alligator:

Florida’s constitution allows the state Legislature to “prohibit the ownership … and possession of real property by aliens ineligible for citizenship.” This amendment would remove that clause.

It’s simple and straightforward, but even with the rewrite, many voters might still misinterpret it. The Miami Herald, for example, had this article about how using the terms “aliens ineligible for citizenship” might make people think the amendment is about illegal immigration. Also, it refers to a provision that has never been enacted or enforced. Yeah, that might be good to know.

Would a little context hurt? I know the ballots are written to be as objective as possible. Adding some of that context could inject bias, but would using some more commonly used words and simple language kill them? Don’t they have some kind of focus group they test these things on?

I suppose voters are supposed to both be informed and be able to speak ballot when they hit the polls.

Happy voting.

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