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Archive for the ‘style’ Category

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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When the ‘A’ in Q&A is a big mess

Posted by Noel Sanchez on October 7, 2008

I talk a lot about writing the way you speak, but what about speaking the way you write?

I’m not a fan of stories in Q&A format. When they’re done right, I enjoy reading them, but they can be cumbersome to edit. You can only really edit the source’s answers for spelling and punctuation, and you can’t do much about style. Q&A only works when you have a really eloquent source who speaks in complete sentences and stays on topic.

Interviewing a TV news anchor or professional public speaker might elicit really clear utterances, but I can’t think of many more people whose interviews would be coherent if transcribed directly. The problem is that speech doesn’t translate well onto paper. People repeat themselves. They start a sentence one way and trail off without finishing. They twist around their sentences into passive voice, and they don’t honor subject-verb agreement.

Slate has an article about trying to diagram Sarah Palin’s sentences from her recent interviews with Katie Couric and Charlie Gibson.

While the article acknowledges that diagramming is normally reserved for the written word, it criticizes Palin’s incoherent ramblings and asks whether we should hold our politicians, who are used to having to think (and speak) on their feet, to a higher standard.

And it’s true. Palin’s spoken ramblings were already difficult to understand. Reading a transcription or trying to diagram her sentences is nearly impossible. And yet, I encounter Q&A stories that ramble on like this all the time. Writing a traditional story and picking a few choice quotes that get the source’s point across well would do these stories much more justice.

Let’s just be thankful that Katie Couric’s interviews don’t get transcribed directly into a print story.

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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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