Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday, bloody Monday

Not an auspicious start to the week: woke at 3:00 a.m. yesterday, feverish, then chilled, congested, with a sore throat. Had to back out, shamefully, of a couple of obligations to spend the day swallowing ibuprofen and swilling tea. Today? Too soon to tell.

Before embarking on the week’s activities, some reminders and loose ends.

Still time to sign up

You still have a day or two to sign up for McMurry’s Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You audioconference on Thursday. Be assured that I will have pulled back from the edge of the grave by then, not only to alert you to some things about language that it is important to keep in mind, but also to hear what you have to offer. Questions will be taken. Form some.

More than spell-checking

That deeply embarrassing Star Tribune memo last week, the one that implied that the paper could get along without copy editors so long as the reporters ran spell-check on their stories, betrays a widespread ignorance about editing.

There are two levels of editing. Running the spell-check is part of mechanical editing: looking for errors in spelling, grammar, usage, points of fact. These are the errors that readers usually pick up on, and this is what people who are ignorant of the craft — many of them, sadly, corporate executives in the publishing industry — think is all there is to it.

The deeper level, analytical editing, is much more difficult. It involves the things that make articles readable, such as focus, structure, organization within the structure, tone, and the legal and ethical issues that get people into trouble. Readers who spot errors in grammar or street names are unlikely to think about the text in these terms, but they can tell very quickly when a story is hard going.

This kind of editing falls to the copy editor when the writer and the assigning editor get so bound up in their own preoccupations with the story that they are unable to step back and look at it as the reader would. Now that crucial step is missing or suppressed at many publications, which may be one reason that newspaper readership is dropping like a stone.

When I step into my classroom at Loyola tomorrow morning, I will be telling my students in the editing course that they are going to be responsible for editing at both levels. We’ll see how many are still there on Thursday.

President Thursday

Now that has made the older You Don’t Say posts inaccessible, I have no compunction about repeating points that I’ve made before. (Not, as my former colleagues can testify, that I have ever been particularly reluctant to repeat myself.)

The opening sentence of a front-page story in Friday’s Sun began thus:

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake Thursday ordered a

That was the first line, in enlarged type.

Let’s consider first an aesthetic question, whether a writer ought to string together a long series of capitalized words before ever getting to a verb. Probably not.

Let’s also consider the damnable practice of inserting the day of an event between the subject and the verb, which in this case makes Thursday appear to be Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s last name. This is a non-idiomatic bit of journalese that I campaigned against throughout my tenure as head of The Sun’s copy desk and language noodge. Apparently without effect.

Former Assistant Managing Editor for the Copy Desk John E. McIntyre Monday announced that he has not given up the fight against this detestable practice.


  1. Proof that I have no need to regret not subscribing to The Sun. And now that your previous blog is inaccessible, I have no reason to give The Sun's site clicks either. And I will be happy to spread the word so that others may also consider skipping all platforms of the Baltimore edition of the Chicago Tribune.

  2. Apperently published in the Whappo.

    "State-level cuts will quickly trickle down to localities, where officials will have to make the same sorts of decisions," writes Sandhya Somashekhar. ... Last year, counties did not receive nearly all of the state highway maintenance funds they were counting on and lawmakers said they are not likely to get any of that money back this year."

    ?? counties did not receive nearly all ??

    What the hell kind of construction is that?

    Is passive voice the new impactful?

  3. FIGHT THE FIGHT! ¡NO PASARÁN! A las barricadas, muchachos!

    Tell Mr. Monday I am with him.

    I remain your non-anonymous reader,


  4. Whappo on a Roll.

    Maryland Politics blog:

    Rawlings-Blake prepares to take reigns in Baltimore

    In the story, they use the proper word.

  5. The spell-check memo also betrays an equally widespread ignorance of how computers work and should be used. Spell checkers are immensely useful but will by nature overlook homonyms and subconscious slips of the keyboard, if well spelt, so even at that basic level they are not a substitute for reading over a text. Get well soon.

  6. But where's the passive voice there, COD? Other than "published"?

  7. The passive voice isn't there. It was a supposition. This certainly isn't muscular prose. I meant to convey that the passive voice might have been an improvement.

    P.S. Not a copy editor. One of the great unwashed: reporter. Run!

  8. John re "When I step into my classroom at Loyola tomorrow morning, I will be telling my students in the editing course that they are going to be responsible for editing at both levels. We’ll see how many are still there on Thursday." Tell them to watch out for Atomic Typos, too, because spellcheck cannot find Atomic Typos, and maybe ask them to google the term so they know about it: unclear vs nuclear, for example, spellcheck cannot see that.