Copy-editing with a twist

The ins and outs of being a copy editor

Archive for the ‘real-life dilemmas’ Category

Can a parrot say ‘copy edit’?

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 31, 2008

Here’s a case where actually thinking about what is being said (rather than focusing on superficial things like grammar) would have been helpful.

Language Log has an post about The Economist’s review of a book about a talking parrot. As Language Log points out, one sentence in the review stands out as being not only illogical, but possibly negating the entire premise of the book.

In explaining how the parrot seemed to be able to string phonemes together to create new words (a crucial way humans distinguish their language from that of animals), the review provides this example:

Lacking lips, he could not pronounce the letter “p”, so his term for an apple was “banerry” (apparenlty mixing “banana” and “cherry”).

What’s the problem here? Well, think of the most common things parrots are usually “taught” to say. “Polly wanna cracker” and “pretty bird” come to my mind immediately. Surprise! Both start with a p. Other parrots seem mighty capable of making this elusive sound without the use of fleshy human lips. By taking a simple step back and reflecting on whether this example gets the writer’s point across, a copy editor should have immediately been struck by this fact and realized that the explanation made no sense.

Language Log takes it a step further in pointing out that both the [p] and [b] are articulated with the lips, so if you can make one sound, lips or not, you should be able to make the other sound.

I’m not sure if this faulty information came straight from the book or if the reviewer just came up with an example. The worst part is that anyone who catches this error is going to write-off the content of this book. While I don’t really care that people won’t buy this whole parrot-who-can-talk story, it’s awful for the writer, whose work is probably already criticized enough from the scientific community.

While the blog rightfully blames the reviewer, I am shaking my head about how this got by copy editors. Even if the editors knew absolutely no details about how parrots mimic speech (like that having lips has nothing to do with it), the simple thought that parrots do indeed make the p sound all the time would have served them well.

Copy editors need to question every sentence. They need to wonder if it’s factual, clear, grammatical and  whether it logically makes sense. In this case, the sentence is crystal clear, grammatically intact, and it is factual in the sense that a copy editor could possibly look in the book to find this fact, or just think, “yeah, parrots don’t have lips … moving on.” But that test for logic is missing.


Posted in editing theory, real-life dilemmas | 1 Comment »

Adding ID to injury

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 17, 2008

The Gainesville Sun ran an article this week about a guy who had both of his arms broken by the same man in two separate attacks. The article really makes you feel bad for the guy. He apparently had an argument with the alleged attacker, who came at him with a brick one day and a metal pipe the next. After the second attack, the victim went to police and discovered that both of his arms were broken.

The strange thing here (other than the story itself) is that the story included the victim’s address. Newspapers usually include addresses of people in cops stories because they’re a good way of identifying a person when most of your information comes from the police and you don’t have much else to go on. Victims of assault, however, usually aren’t identified by address. It brings the potential for unwanted attention to someone who has already been put through an ordeal.

While the paper shouldn’t pass judgment on the guilt or innocence of anyone, it would be safe to treat this man as a victim after having both of his arms broken. Although the police have arrested the suspect, it’s entirely possible that some other people have a score to settle with this human punching bag, and the paper has some responsibility to protect him.

How far does that responsibility go? Should we not identify any sort of victim? What makes someone a victim? People who have been robbed are certainly victims, but I don’t see  much harm in identifying where they live. I know SPJ’s ethics guidelines say to be cautious about identifying victims of sex crimes, but what about other victims of assault? The code didn’t mention that issue specifically, but I feel like this would fall under the “minimize harm” section. This guy was a victim of a violent crime; I think it would have been smart to err on the side of caution.

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Bailout to the rescue

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 14, 2008

Are copy editors to blame for the public’s perception of the $700 billion financial rescue plan?

The plan has been called a bailout for weeks, and more recently it’s been referred to as a rescue. Has the change in semantics affected public opinion?

Kathy Schenck points out that “bailout” carries some negative connotations, while “rescue” sounds much nobler. I have to agree with her; even the first time I heard the bill referred to as a “bailout,” I thought it sounded a little opinion-tinged. But, to be safe, I checked out what the the ultimate objective authority, the dictionary, had to say.

From Merriam-Webster:

Bail out- v. to rescue from financial distress

Rescue- v. to free from confinement, danger, or evil

“Bailout” certainly seems like the appropriate word, but I still think that it carries a negative connotation. To me, when you bail someone out, you’re giving them a handout. You’re helping them out  when they’ve gotten themselves in deep trouble, and they probably don’t even deserve your help. As in, “I’ll bail you out this one time, but you owe me big. Don’t expect me to help you out like this again.”

Maybe that’s just me, but this article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel talks about how the b-word might have influenced people’s perceptions, and consequently, the House’s initial rejection of the bill.

A rescue, on the other hand, is the ultimate form of selflessness and nobleness. Helpless animals and children need rescuing; drunk friends across town with no cash and no way of getting home need bailing out. Heroes rescue; annoyed roommates bail out.

I’d like to think of the Wall Street bigwigs as somewhere between helpless critters and inebriated college students.

Headline writers weren’t wrong in using the word “bailout.” It is, afterall, probably more accurate than “rescue” because its meaning deals specifically with finance. But writers should never underestimate how a simple word can shape a person’s perception.

Posted in headlines, in the news, real-life dilemmas | 1 Comment »

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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