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/.

Monday, May 10, 2010

You can't call the trucks back

In what he described as a pre-emptive gesture, Steve Gould of The Sun’s sports desk sent out word on Facebook and Twitter earlier today: “Yes, I realize the first line of the headline on the golf story says, ‘Woods pulls out’ and no, the humor is not lost on me.”

Not that Mr. Gould should beat himself up too much for The Sun’s failure to scotch that one— I did a quick Web search and counted two dozen “Woods pulls out” headlines at various news sites before giving up. Apparently it was irresistible.

One indispensable qualification for a professional copy editor is possession of a filthy mind. English is rich in the possibilities of double entendres, with nouns that are also verbs, verbs that are also nouns, and countless idiomatic expressions that can take on salacious overtones.

The Anchorage Times once ran a headline, “Messiah climaxes in chorus of hallelujahs.” Putting “Messiah” within quotation marks would have helped some, but not enough.

The Miami Herald published a headline about a business takeover, “Textron Inc. makes offer to screw company stockholders.” It was a company that makes screws.

The Chicago Daily News advised, “Petroleum jelly keeps idle tools rust-free.” Noted.

You may also recall the famed Evening Sun­ headline on home canning and preserving, “You can put pickles up yourself.”

And not just in headline type, either: “The impact of the scandal has stretched from Aberdeen’s privates to its top officer.”

Or this lead sentence about a waterman: “Aboard the Becky D, Ren Bowman grins with delight as his rod throbs with the energy of a large rockfish.” One thing you can take to the bank, I tell my students every semester, is that you never want to use rod and throb in the same sentence.

I know, when I sit at the desk among the editors and hear the first muffled snort, or outright cackle of glee, that a dirty mind has registered another ripe one. And I am grateful for the sensibility that sniffs out smut in unlikely places.

Editing is not for the pure in heart.