Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Setting up shop at a new location

What can I say? They wanted me back.

When I agreed after the [cough] Interval [cough] to return to The Baltimore Sun, the editors were keen for the return of You Don’t Say to its original home.

As of today, further posts will be found at a new/old address:

Many of you followed me a year ago when I moved from Baltimoresun.com to Blogspot, and I hope that you will be willing to follow me again. I apologize for any inconvenience you encounter in this switch.

You will be able to get access to this blog by RSS feed, and — a bonus — the 704 posts on the old site will once more be accessible.

The 404 posts on this site will be preserved for your continued access. It may be necessary to make a token post here from time to time to keep the site open, but the regular harangues about language, about journalism, about neckwear and strong drink and other minor obsessions will be appearing at Baltimoresun.com.

I invite you to follow me there. I want you back, too.

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.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Just call it a tussle

Now that I am hip-deep in newspaper journalism again, with the level rising, I am reminded of the journalistic fondness for altercation, which turned up four or five times in a short article a little while ago.
The word, Bryan Garner reminds us, used to mean a loud argument that does not quite rise to the pitch of physical violence. Think of the noise in the saloon before the first chair is broken over someone’s head. But American English has extended to include all manner of scuffling and outright fighting, particularly, Mr. Garner notes, in police jargon.

Don’t bother with the barn door; that horse has been gone a long time. Bryan Garner thinks that there is a possibility of limiting altercation to “light roughhousing,” short of the point at which somebody gets killed, but I am not optimistic.

There may, however, be a faint possibility of breaking reporters of the habit. If you can persuade them that altercation sounds pompous, or even prissy, you might just be able to lead them gently to other possibilities, no matter what the cop’s report said.

Two people got into an argument, which heated into a dispute, which grew into a quarrel, which swelled into a fight. And maybe not just a fight, but a scuffle, a set-to, a fracas, a scrap. Who know? Maybe developing into a brawl, a free-for-all, a melee. The language is not short of resources to describe disagreements. Take it out and give it a little exercise.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Turn your head forward

“The word of the day is jeremiad*,” writes Kevin Earl Dayhoff, a resident of Westminster, Maryland, and a fellow Tribunista who writes for Patuxent Publishing newspapers.

His brief statement on Facebook doesn’t indicate why that is his word of the day, but in looking at it I realized that it has been my word of the day for the past year.

With reason. It has been hard to see so many colleagues lose their jobs, to watch the decline in quality in so many publications, to be on the losing side in the War on Editing. But justifiable as jeremiads have been, they must have grown tedious to you, and they no longer serve the best purpose for me.

Today is my fourth day back at work at The Sun — still grappling with NewsGate, the creation of fiendish Danes — and it is time to determine what possibilities remain open. That is: What can I do myself to uphold and even elevate standards of accuracy and clarity in The Sun’s electronic and print publications? How can I uphold and assist my colleagues as they strive to improve accuracy and clarity? We are not editing with the forces we want, but with the forces we have. How can we deploy them more effectively?

We must cope with the realities. Editors throughout print and electronic media are editing less, and with fewer people. Editing operations are being consolidated at central locations or outsourced. More editing is being done by freelancers than by permanent employees. So the choice for an editor is to look for some other line of work or to discover how to function better within these circumstances.

I would like to think that over time, if we are thoughtful and energetic, we will discover how to edit more efficiently — to zero in on the most critical elements in texts rather than be distracted by minutiae, to master available technologies instead of being steamrollered by them. I would also like to think that over time those of us who still edit will demonstrate our worth to the people who decide where to deploy resources. It is not enough to do good work; it is essential to show that we do good work and that it has value.

I have been given a second chance. I intend to make the most of it.

*Like boycott, an eponym, deriving from the name of the prophet Jeremiah, whose bitter laments went largely unheeded.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

That thing I can't say about baseball

It has come to this: I am reading the sports section again.

A year ago, after my [cough] involuntary separation from The Sun, I expressed relief at the freedom from any obligation to read about sports. I never played them, never liked them, know virtually nothing about them.* Having me actually edit sports copy would have been analogous to handing a nail gun to a toddler.

But now I am back, with a professional and ethical obligation to know what is being published, and I will try once again to keep up.

If you have a taste for mildly amusing irony, consider that the same publishing executives who dismiss traditional copy desk procedures as vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial process also treat their remaining copy editors as if they were interchangeable cogs. 

But it is not so.

Accuracy and clarity in editing depend on the expertise of the editor. A copy editor deeply versed in the obscurities of baseball and football may not be the right person to edit copy about science and medicine. The copy editor who is a sharp-eyed observer of politics may be at sea in editing articles about the arts.

Though copy editors at newspapers and magazines are by necessity generalists, even so they tend to specialize along the bent of their personal tastes and backgrounds. It is to the reader’s benefit for an article to be edited by someone familiar with the subject matter.

You will perhaps pardon me for feeling impelled to say something that ought to be obvious to anyone.

It is not, however, obvious to the people who have cut staffs back to catch-as-catch-can “universal” desks, or consolidated the editing of your local stories to editors in another state, or abandoned copy editing altogether. This leaves writers working without a net, and unless you relish witnessing their spills, you are less and less likely to be enthralled with the consequences.

These desperate expedients have been forced on the industry by unfavorable economic conditions—not every executive has some principled but uninformed opposition to editing. But that does not mean that such expedients should be made permanent. You might have to boil your shoes for soup during a famine, but you won’t want to keep the recipe when times get better.

Luckily for me, I am still able to lean on the exceptionally able Andy Knobel and Steve Gould and the other sports editors at The Sun. They know their onions, as the Brits say of expertise, and I know as well as they do the importance of accurate and timely reporting on sports for a multitude of Sun readers. The point in employing and retaining a corps of experienced editors like them is that we collectively compensate for one another’s weak spots, to our benefit — and yours.

*As explained in the post “That thing I say about baseball.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More stuff

Will “lifting luggage” become a catchphrase to match “hiking the Appalachian Trail”?

Go to Language Log for the linguistics; stay for the snickering over hypocrisy.

Roger Ebert tweets:

“Reason.com discusses my Newsweek attack on 3D. Some comments debate my status as an old fart. I'm an old fart who's right”

I feel a kinship.

We told you you needed editors

At nbclosangeles.com, a report that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s name has been misspelled in her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as “Julia Luis Dreyfus.”

You may also recall that the director of Chile’s mint was recently fired, in part because the mint issued 50-peso coins spelling the nation’s name as “Chiie.”

A message from Patrick Lackey on a Washington Post story “about the Virginia attorney general seeking documents by a former U of Va. prof named Michael Mann, who did research on global warming. The story quotes the attorney general: ‘There is no scientific consensus on global warming or Mann's influence on global warning.’ I think the attorney general meant ‘man's influence on global warning,’ not Mann's. So how is a newspaper like an off-short oil rig? What can go wrong will.”

Just how big a geek are you?

We learn from Copyediting that Mary Beth Protomastro has set up a website that will allow you to search more than forty online stylebooks at once. This should help you to learn how to live with inconsistency.

Our impoverished profanity

When Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan repeatedly used a word rendered in newspapers as “sh—y” while questioning executives of Goldman Sachs, a thrill went through journalistic circles because he had used a Bad Word in public. That was followed by much brow-furrowing over how to report the expression, given the delicate sensibilities of the American public. The crossword-puzzle solution, a combination of letters and hyphens to get thisclose to the word without actually rendering it, was the usual resort.

I will, of course, in my new capacity as a tinpot authority in The Sun’s newsroom, enforce the puerilities demanded by newspaper style, but as you reflect on naughty expressions, I invite you to consider a short passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (shield your eyes, sensitive readers):

“Of the non-profane pejoratives in common American use, son of a bitch is the hardest-worked, and by far. ... But son of a bitch seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or Latin as fudge does to us. The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks up a dozen better ones between breakfast and the noon whistle. ... In Standard Italian there are no less than forty congeners of son of a bitch, and each and every one of them is more opprobrious, more brilliant, more effective. In the Neapolitan dialect there are thousands.”

Let the nagging resume

It was all quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles when I returned to The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom yesterday.

We’ll see how long that honeymoon lasts. For example, this sentence from yesterday’s Sun:

The force of the crash ejected Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck that struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

If I were a bookmaker, I would give you highly favorable odds that anyone you ever heard say that someone was ejected, rather than thrown or flung, from a car or truck was either in law enforcement or journalism. Ejected is pure cop jargon, so common in police reports that it infects reporters’ writing.

A subtler point is that dependent clause. A that clause most commonly singles out one person, object, situation from a number of possibilities. It is called variously a restrictive or limiting or essential clause. Which clauses can also be restrictive,* but when they merely add additional or parenthetical information, they are set off with commas.

There was one truck; we don’t need to distinguish it from the other trucks on the road that did not strike the stone pillars. The dependant clause merely adds information about that particular truck. In more conversational English, the sentence would have run thus:

The force of the crash threw Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck, which struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

Sticking in ages as appositives is another journalistic tic, but there are limits even to my carping.

*Yes, they can. The Sainted Fowler suggested using that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive, and many usage books have followed his lead. But that has never been any more than advice. Which clauses can be restrictive or non-restrictive, but that clauses are always properly restrictive. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The fedora is on the coat rack, and the red Razor scooter is propped against the desk, sure indications that I am back in my old office at The Baltimore Sun.

This morning I collected a stack of final examinations and editing projects from my students at Loyola, who will be expecting their grades within the next two days, and this afternoon I attempted to plumb the mysteries of NewsGate, the new editing and production system. It may be a day or two before I regain my footing with the blog.

But make no mistake. Not only am I back on Calvert Street, but I will also be reliably back at You Don’t Say.

Thank you for your many kind remarks since this restoration was announced.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing about suicide

More than four dozen people have leapt to their deaths since 1964 from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, California. Mental health advocates and law enforcement officials want to install a nine-and-a-half-foot safety rail to make suicide attempts more difficult. But nothing in America is simple, and preservationists and others oppose the barrier.

Noozhawk, Santa Barbara’s enterprising electronic journalism site, opens a four-day series on the issue today. William Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s publisher and a colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, has asked me to comment on the journalistic issues and standards involved in reporting on suicides and suicide attempts.

I am not an expert on the matter, but I am willing to write what I know and invite informed parties to comment.

(1) Suicide is a private matter — except

Ordinarily, a news publication treats suicides and suicide attempts as private matters, mental and emotional disorders being as inherently private as any other illness or disorder. Not our business.

But in news obituaries, as distinguished from paid obituaries in which the families include only the information they choose to disclose, the publication gives a cause of death. That is part of the news, even if the families and friends are reluctant.

When I started at The Flemingsburg Gazette forty-two years ago, no one died of cancer. Obituaries said that people died “after a long illness,” because having cancer was a stigma, a source of fear. Later, in the 1980s, deaths from AIDS-related illnesses carried a similar stigma. And mental and emotional disorders continue to be things people prefer not to speak about. Journalism, by reporting with common sense and restraint about stigmatized things, airs them for public discussion and understanding.

(2) Suicide is not to be sensationalized

When a person commits suicide publicly, it can no longer be considered a private matter. But common sense and restraint are still necessary.

It is commonly understood now, for example, that a suicide by a teenager can touch off a cluster of similar attempts among other adolescents undergoing emotional upheavals. In these cases in particular, it is important for articles to be factual and dispassionate to avoid stimulating imitations.

Mr. Macfadyen tells me that some media outlets writing about the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge have used headlines or labels including “Bridge of Despair” and “Leap of Faith.” You can publish just about anything in America, but this is cheap and distasteful. Anything that serves to romanticize or dramatize suicide could have the effect of encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to see it as a glamorous act.

(3) A personal note

My son, J.P., fell into a profound depression in college and attempted suicide. It scared the hell out of my wife and me, and we did our best to get him help. He withdrew from college and came home. We found an incomparable therapist in Dr. Roger Harris (previous therapists not having connected effectively with J.P.), who, combining drug therapy and talk therapy, brought J.P. through.

J.P. returned to St. John’s College and graduated a year ago. He has also graduated from therapy and has been off antidepressants for several months. He is alive, and he has a life ahead of him.

I asked him this morning whether he would object to my writing about him in this post, and he encouraged me to do so. Depression is terribly isolating, he said, and the stigma about mental illness reinforces the isolation. The more people can talk openly and factually about it, he said, the better off everyone will be.

(4) Over to you

I encourage you to read the Noozhawk series, which raises issues with an impact well beyond Santa Barbara, and I invite you to comment here on suicide and journalistic standards and practices.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Slice, dice

If you had an English class that actually tried to teach grammar and usage, and I’m probably talking to the over-forties out there, you probably heard many solemn warnings about — the horror, the horror — the comma-splice run-on sentence.*

But though I was trained in the Old Religion, there were always aspects that made me uneasy.

I saw that British writers turned out comma-splice sentences by the yard, with no embarrassment. They no longer own the language — 1776, we speak Amurrican, and all that — but still.

I saw that there is a figure of speech in classical rhetoric, asyndeton, that omits conjunctions between related clauses and thereby implicitly endorses comma splices: I came, I saw, I conquered.

I saw that in American fiction comma-splice sentences represent the loosely connected clauses of colloquial speech in a way that more formal punctuation would make, well, more formal.

And now I have seen, on Stan Carey’s Sentence first blog, a nuanced and sensible account of acceptable uses of the comma splice: “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!”

Commenting on the hard-line prohibition on comma splices that can be found in many texts on grammar and usage, he says:

This kind of advice can be helpful to learners, or writers who want a quick yes–no answer. But it also tends to be simplistic and misleading, failing to reflect the subtlety and complexity with which skilled writers consciously use comma splices. Moreover, when authorities dismiss certain techniques out of hand without mentioning the breadth of their usage in various stylistic and historical contexts, they can perpetuate fear of making mistakes and ignorance of how language works.

Now before anyone can start shouting that the linguists and lexicographers, those insidious descriptivists, have eaten my brain, let me point out that Mr. Carey quotes approvingly one of my fellow moderate prescriptivists:

Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, summarises as follows: “Most usage authorities accept comma splices when (1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a miscue, and (3) the context is informal.”

Of the uses of the comma splice, Mr. Carey says:

[C]omma splices are often fine, but they create a noticeably casual effect that is widely considered ill-suited to contexts such as essays, reports, and business writing. They are seldom seen in news reporting except for rare appearances in dialogue, where they can serve to convey an informal speaking tone ... [o]r removed altogether, leaving run-on sentences that lend a breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect. ...

Nuance in usage in hard to teach, especially when students come so ill-prepared in formal grammar. I will continue to caution my students about the dangers of a “breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect” in their writing, and about the appearance of sloppiness. But in this matter, as in so many others, I must continue to edge away from flat prohibitions.

*My students at Loyola have no such fears. Though they, like most Americans, shrink from the semicolon as a horse shies from a snake, they pull out the comma-grinder and sprinkle the contents generously over all their texts.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Derby Day

If I had a horse running today in the Kentucky Derby, I’d name it Hapax Legomenon and spend the race chuckling at the announcer’s pronunciations.

But I can’t commemorate the Derby appropriately because I’ll be at Memorial Episcopal Church gussying myself up as Franklin Roosevelt for tonight’s performance of Annie.

Since you’re on your own for the Derby, some advice:

Make yourself a mint julep. A julep, I must caution you, is not some genteel lady’s drink or one of those candied concoctions that the unsophisticated young mistake for cocktails these days. A julep is a drink for serious topers.

Step one: Go outside and cut a handful of mint leaves.

Step two: In a silver cup or a squat glass with a good solid bottom, mix a little sugar — a teaspoon should be plenty — with just enough water to dissolve it.

Step three: Muddle the mint, crushing it in the sugared water. A miniature Louisville Slugger bat is very good for this. I had one from the ACES conference in Lousiville* in 2002, but it has gone astray. You may need to improvise with some other implement.

Step four: Fill the glass with cracked ice. Do not use crushed ice, which will melt too fast, or ice cubes, which will melt too slowly. Cracked ice.

Step five: Cover the ice with good bourbon. Old Forester will do; Maker’s Mark is better. If you’re flush, Woodford Reserve or one of the small batch bourbons will do nicely. On no account should you use any Tennessee whiskey.  Garnish with a mint leaf or two.

Step six: Sip.

Step seven: Shut your mouth and stand respectfully while the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Step eight: Mix another. From this point it’s just a bunch of horses running around.

*That’s LOO-uh-vul.