John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three volleys and a bugle call

With an additional 30,000 U.S. troops heading for Afghanistan, reporters should school themselves to write more passages like this one from today’s Baltimore Sun:

The perfect rows of marble headstones stretching as far as the eye could see. The three rifle volleys followed by a somber rendition of "Taps." The flags, folded tight and handed with care to the parents and sister. ...

Full marks to the writer for saying “three rifle volleys.” The three-volley salute with rifles is a feature of military funerals. The “21-gun salute,” with which it is frequently confused in news reports, is performed with artillery, not rifles, and is typically reserved for heads of state.

Unfortunately, taps is not a song but a bugle call, like reveille, and therefore is not capitalized or italicized or written with quotation marks. Not to be picky — too late? — but calling it “somber” is more than is required. When was it not?

7 comments:

  1. Is there ever a point at which you have to help the reader along just a little bit? What if the sentence read "The three rifle volleys followed by taps." Does it seem to fall flat? Using the phrase "somber rendition" helps to set the mood for the reader.

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  2. Taps isn't necessarily somber. It isn't reserved exclusively for military funerals: it's played at lights out, at the end of each day, and in that context it's peaceful, not somber.

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  3. The words I associate with "Taps" are "Day is done / Gone the sun / From the fields / From the hills / From the sky / All is well / Safely rest / God is nigh." Definitely peaceful rather than somber.

    And yes, "followed by taps" wouldn't, without more, suggest a bugle call to me, but rather some ceremony, perhaps involving shoe heels.

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  4. All right, I suppose I ought to suggest an alternative, like a good little copy editor: "Three rifle volleys followed by the notes of taps echoing through the chill air." Don't like that? Suggest another rewording.

    But if you need a reporter to tell you that the playing of taps at a military funeral is somber, or that anything about a military funeral is somber, you must not get out much.

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  5. Given that sentence fragments seem to be the style, why not simply "Three rifle volleys. Taps." Better yet, "Three rifle volleys. Taps, echoing through the chill air." (Comma optional -- in this instance, I prefer to insert it for the pause it suggests.)

    I doubt that Fred and Ginger would come to anyone's mind in this context.

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  6. Just one point of clarification: While the 21-gun salute is reserved for heads of state, their deputies and general officers also receive cannon salutes at their funerals, with a descending number of shots, depending on their rank. A five-star general, of whom Omar Bradley, I believe, was the last, gets 19; four stars merit 17; and so on, in descending increments of two, ending with 11 for a brigadier general.

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  7. John

    If you say "followed by the notes of taps", you are now saying it's a song, since songs are made up of notes. Therefore Taps (capital intended) is a song and should be capitalized. I have always believed Taps transends the status of a call or signal and have disagreed with what is written in the AP stylebook.

    As we head into the 150th anniversary of Taps in 2012, one of the goals is to have Taps capitalized by elevating it to the status of our National Song of Remembrance, just as we have a national anthem and national march.

    I doubt if a lot of people realize the rule of not capitalizing Taps and the many editors I put the question to some years back had no idea. You'll see taps, Taps, "Taps", TAPS, and "TAPS"
    Even the military manuals are inconsistent.

    I also wish they would stop referring to the three volleys as a 21-gun salute. This too is inconsistent in military writing....

    Thanks for letting me respond. My website is www.tapsbugler.com and the new site for information about the 150th is www.Taps150.org which will go live in the spring. We will have a facebook site called Taps 150 up by January.

    Regards

    Jari Villanueva
    Tapsbugler

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