Monday, November 7, 2022

Testing, testing ...

 One day about thirty years ago I arrived at the copy desk, and my boss, Andy Faith, took me aside and murmured, "The editing test has been compromised." Someone had got hold of the general knowledge test we administered to applicants for the desk and had circulated copies at a job fair. 

Andy invited me to revise the test, and I went to the task with a will, creating what came to be known in some circles as The Sun's brutal applicant test. 

The compromised test was a handful of pages of general-knowledge questions. It had once been required of applicants for reporting jobs, but it had apparently been determined that general knowledge was not necessary for reporting but essential for copy editing. (When I took over the test, I had access to its archive, where I discovered John Carroll's score when he applied to be a reporter in the 1960s. I told John, who had returned to the paper as the editor, that if he were to apply for a position on the copy desk, he would be a prime candidate.) 

The new test that I devised had ten categories of general knowledge--arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports--with ten questions in each. Some example questions:

In a symphony orchestra, who is the concert master?

What is the difference between Chapter 7 bankruptcy and Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

What is a pocket veto?

The English portion required deciding whether mantel or mantle was the proper word in a given sentence. 

What term is used for the breaking off of an iceberg from a glacier?

Which president of the United States served for only one month?

Which amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the individual from being forced to testify against himself or herself? 

Name the author of the American novel Invisible Man

How many pints are in a gallon?

What is Ash Wednesday?

What is a zygote?

Name one of the four events in women's gymnastics. 

The reason for this battery of short tests is that newspaper copy editors must have broad general knowledge to be effective. The cumulative scores of the general knowledge section were more reliable at the lower range than at the upper. I hired and subsequently fired the person who attained the highest score ever registered on the general knowledge section, who turned out to be a know-it-all who could not get along with fellow copy editors. We found through grim experience to pass on applicants with a cumulative score lower than fifty percent, because they just did not have enough furniture upstairs to do the job. 

But wait, there's more. 

I put together three items for an editing section. The first was a series of short passages, some taken from the work of Sun reporters that had made it as far as the copy desk, presenting issues of grammar, factual accuracy, and tone. An example: "No matter what your interest, from fun and free family activities to competitive pet and pie eating contests, you're sure to find something distinctive at Mount Airy's annual Spring Fling festival this weekend."

The second item was a wire service story in which an assigning editor had combined elements from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times to create a dog's breakfast. Information was duplicated, word for word. The structure was so jumbled that the sentence explaining what the opening paragraph was about appeared in the twelfth paragraph. The story included a sentence saying that President Bill Clinton, explaining his course of action, "described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity." 

The third and final item was a short feature story describing the draining of a pond in a public park and what it revealed. It was entirely innocuous, and there were in it, at most, a couple of things I would have considered changing. I put it there to see who would go to town on it. Those who found something to comment on in every paragraph and who effectively rewrote the story did not impress me. I didn't want people on the desk who would waste their time on inconsequential changes while alienating the reporting staff. 

There was no time limit on the test. Most applicants completed it in two hours, though some took as long as four. Some wept. But better to have a brief unpleasant experience than to find oneself in a job and ill-equipped to perform it. 

All this can be told because the applicant test is a dead letter. It has not been administered to anyone in years, because The Sun stopped hiring copy editors long before it abandoned copy editing altogether. But while it was in use, it helped us recruit people who gave The Baltimore Sun a national reputation as a newspaper that took editing seriously. People we hired, trained, and mentored are working today as editors at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Just the facts, in English, please

 My former colleague Bob Erlandson has forwarded a specimen from the Associated Press, about the Pelosi assault, as an example of what passes for police reporting: "The San Francisco Police Department responded to a report of a home break-in at about 2:27 a.m. Friday, a spokesman for. ..."

It's a sentence that combines a false precision with imprecision. They could have responded, as Bob remarks, at 2:27 a.m. or about 2:25 a.m. or about 2:30 a.m. but not at about 2:27 a.m. And you may be excused for supposing that it was the report that was received at precisely 2:27 a.m., with the police response coming some minutes afterward. 

This fudging of the time of the event and the time of the response is one of many irritations that crop up in police reporting. 

There is, for example, the misuse of the word suspect, which means in common English "a person suspected of a crime," that is, an identified person who is under suspicion. When the name of the person being sought is announced, that person is a suspect. But in the copspeak of police reports, suspect means "the person who did it," though the person's identity is unknown to the police. They could write gunman, driver, assailant, perpetrator, or any number of other serviceable nouns, but they always resort to suspect. I wonder whether the increasing use of person of interest is a way of getting around the confusion their usage has created. 

Let me add my lack of enthusiasm for the reporter, evidently subject to echolalia, who merely repeats the stock jargon of the police report, in which people bail out of the vehicle rather than abandon the car and flee on foot instead of running away. Guns are discharged rather than fired. Victims of shootings and stabbings seem never to be found in houses or apartments, but inside a dwelling.  

I understand that police officers are trained to write in this jargon, for uniform practice in giving evidence. What I do not understand is the inability of reporters to convey this information in the ordinary English that their readers speak.  

Tuesday, October 25, 2022

We've been had

My eminent colleague Karen Conlin posted this morning an awkward sentence published by a Chicago television station: "A man killed in a shooting outside a Chicago Greyhound bus terminal in the West Loop on Harrison Street has had his identity released." It presents two issues, one grammatical and one journalistic. 

For the first, the verb "had" commonly suggests agency: "She had the leak in the roof fixed." "They had their wills and powers of attorney drawn up." But journalists frequently use "had" to indicate merely that something has happened, as in the specimen sentence, which suggests that the dead man released his identity posthumously. The examples of "had" meaning "happened" aren't always this ludicrous, but they always strike a false note. 

The reason journalists use this construction is to make sure they have something up front in the sentence to draw the reader's attention. It would have been easy to write "Police released yesterday the identify of a man killed. ..." But "Police released ..." is a yawn. "Man killed in shooting outside Greyhound bus station" is the most interesting thing the writer can offer, particularly since this looks like a second-day story with the identification the only new element. 

And the identity isn't in the opening sentence, likely because the victim was not anyone notable.

This specimen sentence has not had itself edited. 



Friday, October 14, 2022

Maybe it's time to let go of it

I posted this a couple of days ago: What long-held usage distinction/rule/shibboleth have you just given up as an editor, reluctantly or not? I was happy to drop the bogus "over/more than" and no longer see any utility in "comprise/compose" and "compare with/compare to."

Many of the responses were instructive. 

Dave Nelsen replied, "There was a time when I gave a lot more thought to singular 'they,' carefully considering the context and audience every time I’d come across it. Now I just allow it anywhere and everywhere, which is so much easier.."

Wendalyn Nichols was succinct: "I welcomed the moment that being a fan of singular 'they' no longer felt like a dirty secret."

Inevitably, one gentleman replied: "actually, right is right and wrong is wrong, and as the ink-on-paper world dies it should do so with some fidelity to the language. also, 'they' and 'their' as references to an individual are always grammatically wrong. precision exists for a reason."

"They" has been in use as a singular in English as long as there has been an English, antedating the singular use of "you." Even the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have grudgingly accepted reality. Language Log has multiple posts on the subject, for those willing to be informed. 

As it happens, today is the anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, after which the damned Normans destroyed English, collaborating with illiterate peasants to drop inflections and junk the genders of nouns, and to illustrate how a language is an evolving consensus among its users. 

Thomas Consolo says that he is "still not giving up on 'comprises' vs. 'is comprised of.' " Ah, the years I've spent changing "is comprised of" to "is composed of." The rule, for civilians, is that "comprise" can only mean "includes," not "is made up of." The other day I made a quick check at the Corpus of Contemporary American English (limited access because I no longer have university faculty status) and found 2,537 citations for "comprises" and 3,229 citations for "comprised of." When the language moves on, think about moving with it. 

Someone else asked about "farther/further." In the 2011 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, 62% of the since-disbanded usage panel favored the traditional distinction that "farther" should be restricted to physical distance, not "to a greater degree or extent." In the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (2014), the first definition of "further" is given as "farther." 

"Farther/further" is a prime example of what I have called dog-whistle editing: insisting on distinctions of usage that only other copy editors hear. Another is the journalistic "over/more than" rule, developed by 19th-century U.S. newspaper editors to restrict "over" to physical distance. It is a rule that does not actually exist in English outside of newspapers. Look that up in Merriam-Webster's

Of course, there was a tweet saying, "So, taken together, the thread respondents uphold no standards at all. Depressing."

I spent forty years as a copy editor enforcing standards, and still do as a retirement side-hustle. Some of the standards I used to enforce I no longer do, having recognized that the language has changed and that some of them  ("farther/further," "over/more than," "since/because") were bogus. If you want to be a serious editor, you must continually examine what you are doing and make an effort to keep informed. 

And there is this. There is not enough time for editing, even in the places that still place a value on it. All editing involves triage, and if you are still spending your time changing "further" to "farther" or "over" to "more than" out of a misplaced sense of precision, you may well be overlooking some error of fact, some jumble of organization, or some piece of slack writing that begs to be tightened. 

Try to keep up.

Sunday, October 2, 2022

Hilary Mantel on royals and pandas

 From "Royal bodies: From Anne Boleyn to Kate Middleton"

"Our current royal family doesn't have the difficulties in breeding that pandas do, but pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment. But aren't they interesting? Aren't they nice to look at? Some people find them endearing; some pity them for their precarious situation; everybody stares at them, and however airy the enclosure they inhabit, it's still a cage." 

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

It's all the rage

 Words and usages in English go in and out of fashion. When a new expression, or a repurposed old one, emerges, the eager adapters jump on it, because it's all the rage, and the traditionalists scorn it, because all is rage. 

I've mentioned elsewhere that contact as a verb was widely deplored as a vulgarism in the 1940s and 1950s (" 'Contact" is not a verb in this house," Nero Wolfe tells Archie Goodwin). But as the means of getting in contact multiplied, the objection faded. The objection to hopefully as a sentence adverb meaning "it is hoped that" from the 1970s and 1980s has also been wearing away, having had little foundation to start with beyond disliking "the way those people talk." 

Thirty years ago, John S. Carroll as editor of The Sun had strong traditionalist views about language, and he deplored using host as a verb. So I dutifully added the prohibition to our house stylebook, and the copy desk dutifully changed every host as verb to play host to. In time John Carroll and the language moved on, and at The Sun we hosted without trepidation. With good reason. The current sense of hosting events carries a sense of sponsorship, often of large-scale events, by organizations, something beyond the traditional sense of receiving guests and entertaining socially. And play host to as a substitute is stilted. 

Thirty years ago, The Sun also had a prohibition in its stylebook damning the use of suck to mean "objectionable or inadequate" as "vulgar street language." The reason, when younger reporters asked for an explanation, was that the word suggested fellation, and their reaction was "Oh come on." (Merriam-Webster still calls it "slang, sometimes vulgar.")

We also upheld the pupil/student distinction but dropped it as educators increasingly came to see younger children as active participants in their learning rather than passive recipients of information. The Associated Press Stylebook has eliminated all vestiges of the traditional distinction. We also got the occasional letter from a reader objecting to our referring to children as kids ("Kids are goats"), but that is another item that the AP Stylebook has quietly heaved over the side. 

Language, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our cavils away. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Death, be not affected

 Don't be mealy-mouthed about mortality. People die. When they do, just say so. 

At the death of Elizabeth II, some reports said that she had "passed" or "passed away." She died. 

Much as your squeamish discomfort with brute facts might tempt you to euphemize, pray don't. 

People die; they do not pass, pass away, pass over, expire, depart, succumb, enter eternal rest, go to be with Jesus/the Lord, go west, cross the bar, buy the farm, pay a debt to nature, rest from their labors, wander the Elysian Fields, breathe their last, answer the final summons, go to meet their Maker, yield up the ghost, ring down the curtain, cash in their chips, shuffle off this mortal coil, join the choir invisible, or climb the golden staircase.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The generous and the pinched

Another wrangle last week, this one in an online discussion with people who insist that the relative pronoun that, against all evidence, must not be used to refer to human beings and is "dehumanizing" when used so. Such dogmatism about the English language is common, strident, and frequently ill-informed. 

H.W. Fowler exploded the split-infinitive superstition a century ago. Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins has been available for half a century. Bryan Garner has been exposing superstitions and shibboleths about English usage for a generation. And yet what we commonly hear is that some commonplace word or usage is "uneducated" or "illiterate" or "like fingernails on a blackboard," and that we are verging on barbarism. 

What by contrast I found appealing in Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause is its atmosphere of openness and generosity. Ellen Jovin travels around the country from her base in New York City, setting up her Grammar Table in public spaces to engage any passerby who is interested in discussion of grammar and usage. Her account shows that people are fascinated by language, keen to talk about it, and--make note--willing to be better informed. 

My own experience as a professional copy editor over forty years is that my colleagues, far from being the robotic assassins of prose that some reporters would have had you think, have been open and generous in their approach to the craft. It was a quarter-century ago that Pam Robinson and the late Hank Glamann on their own volunteer time got the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing) launched. It has ever since relied on scores of volunteer speakers to broaden our perspective on language and editing and deepen our skills. 

In my own blogging I have learned a great deal from exchanges with linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky and with lexicographers such as Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, Steve Kleinedler, and Emily Brewster, all willing to share their expertise and offer support. What one finds from them is that there are many Englishes beyond the standard written form, all of which have fascinating features worth examining. 

Karen Yin's Conscious Style Guide and Conscious Language Newsletter are invaluable sources of intelligent and informed explorations of the ways the language is shifting and efforts to treat everyone we write about with dignity and respect. 

There are, of course, fair targets: journalists who can't make their subjects and verbs agree, academics who make a fetish of obscurity, merchants of vacuous business jargon, and anyone who inflicts  pretentious or dishonest or dull prose on you. Striking a blow for clarity and accuracy is always apt. 

But they aren't the targets of the people with the pinched view of language, the view that some form of standard written English is the only "correct" one, that some schoolroom nostrum carried into adulthood (and often misremembered) is eternally valid. What is actually behind the pinched view is not really an objection to words and usages in themselves, but to the people who use them. These objections are an opportunity to parade contempt for people thought to be inferiors.

Life is all choices. You can choose to frisk among the Englishes with people who are open-handedly willing to talk about them with you. Or you can clutch a precarious gentility. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

God doesn't think he's a doctor

I got into a back-and-forth online this week over using the title doctor for people with non-medical degrees. 

He's the issue for stylebook editors and  the tinpot despots who make style decrees for publications: At colleges and universities, the title doctor is in widespread, nearly universal,* use. But people who have attended college or university are a minority, and in the wider population, a doctor is understood to be an M.D. 

Or a D.D.S. or a D.O. or a D.C. or a D.P.M. or a D.V.M. (Those are the doctorates the Associated Press Stylebook approves.)

The issue has some currency because of the recent sneering at Jill Biden's being called "Dr. Biden." She holds an earned doctorate in education, but the Ed.D. does not score high in prestige on some campuses and is often dismissed as not a real doctorate. (One illustration of the snobbery among the learned came when I was at Syracuse. Someone caused a stir by obtaining and releasing the faculty salaries, and the provost caused a further stir by saying publicly that you could not expect to hire a physics professor for what you would pay a Spanish teacher.)

I think it's questionable that the Associated Press Stylebook should take it upon itself to determine which academic degrees are more genuine than others. And its decision seems even more questionable if it is based on prejudice or ignorance in the wider population. 

We are a middle-class, status-conscious society. When someone has sat through all those classes and seminars, slogged through all those articles and books, and pushed out some dissertation which, if they are fortunate, no one but their committee will ever read, let them have what little scrap of distinction society permits them. 


* A member of the faculty at Syracuse, a Chaucerian, preferred the title professor, because, he said, doctor was the title of someone making a living by probing people's orifices.  

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Take it out: in the wake of

Journalism operates on conventions (write one obituary or one police story, and you can write a thousand), and the pressure of time leads reporters to reach for prefabricated phrases. The best writers try to break free of formula. Here's a hint. 

Nearly every day I see an account that some event has occurred or circumstance developed in the wake of another event or circumstance. This is, first, a dead or at least moribund metaphor, like free rein. Unless the reader is a sailor, it's unlikely that the expression conveys an image of the disturbance in water from the passage of a ship. 

Apart from the loss of the visual image, the expression has lost much of its original sense. When a large vessel moves through the water, its wake has the potential to endanger smaller craft. But in most contexts in newspapers, in the wake of does not mean "complicates" or "makes more difficult." It often means that one event is a consequence of another, or even simply came after another. 

Change in the wake of to following, and the reader will readily understand your meaning. And you will have omitted three words you can well do without.