Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Smart People, Foolish Typos

In his new blog on the Baltimore Sun site, John McIntyre explains the dangers of having a brain.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

If Pythagoras Wrote Headlines

What I like about this hed is that AUWI2 + Immunity2 = odpy2.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

What's Wrong With This Picture?

From the November issue of Esquire:

Give up?

Sunday, December 11, 2005


Slotrexin isn't for everyone, including people with liver problems and women who are nursing or pregnant.
Why, yes, those are examples of the people who fall under the "everyone" category! How about:

Slotrexin isn't for everyone. People with liver problems should not take it, nor should women who are nursing or pregnant.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

More, Ahem, Sticklers

Washington Post restaurant critic Tom Sietsema's weekly chat has been bombarded recently with complaints about restaurant servers' use of "you guys" (covered in this space) and "no problem."

Today, a final word (yay!) and a verdict in the sticklers' favor (boo!):

Kingstowne, Va.: Can you stand one more comment on last week's issue about whether a waiter or waitress should use the phrase "no problem"? Seems to me that this is a silly phrase to use because it should be assumed that there is no problem--that is, if carrying out diners' requests is a problem, then the person needs to find another job!

Tom Sietsema: Agreed!

End of discussion. Case closed. Let's move along, people.
Repeat after me, people: Figure of speech.

Does "You're welcome" really make any sense as a response to "Thank you"? And what's the deal with "How do you do"? (I liked Kramer's response: "I do great!") Figures of speech. If "no problem" is a problem for you, you have some significantly bigger problems.

What Happens to a Rant Deferred?

Some tidbits:

  • I was all set to lash out after being bombarded, first in the U.S. Open tennis coverage and now in a Saab commercial, with the moronic techno-whatever song whose main (only?) lyrics are a muffled "ready steady go." (Are today's youth so callow that "ready, set, go" is too much to comprehend?) But a Google search (due diligence isn't dead, folks) revealed something I apparently should have known: The phrase has a long and illustrious history. I still don't get it.

  • I feel a little slimy about reproducing this bit of e-mail correspondence, even though I am steering clear of any identifiable details, but it's just too good. Apparently I'm Mr. Permissive! (This, no doubt, is what Stephen Jones's rebellious child would sound like.)

    I just have to say something [about "Rules That Aren't"]. Being an editor do you not need to be a "stickler" in grammar? It is not what sounds best but what is grammatically right. That is what is wrong with the students coming into the colleges today. People are not focusing on grammar but what sound right. This is not right. Some children learn to read from the parents reading articles in the newspaper. So, if you write it wrong they learn the wrong grammar at such a early age.
    My reply was patient and helpful, in case you're wondering.

  • I know somebody who lives in a building named after Langston Hughes but isn't all that clear about who Langston Hughes was. This is à propos of nothing, but I just had to find something to tie things together with that headline. (Also, if you don't know the poem I'm alluding to, learn it. If you know "raisin in the sun" only out of context, you're missing out.)

  • Wednesday, November 30, 2005

    The AG's o

    Few capitalization errors rankle me more than the ones that the word attorney seems to engender. The Attorney General's office! The U.S. Attorney's office!


    Assuming you call the president and the pope "the president" and "the pope" when there's no name attached, and not "the President" and "the Pope," you should not be calling the attorney general and the U.S. attorney "the Attorney General" and "the U.S. Attorney." But doesn't the addition of "office" change things? It can. If you want to capitalize such an institution, fine: Attorney General's Office. U.S. Attorney's Office. If you don't, also fine: attorney general's office. U.S. attorney's office. But the caps need to match. If the pope isn't sacred, neither is the goddamned attorney general.

    And if you're worried that a lowercased U.S. attorney will be mistaken for a simple American lawyer, random variance in capitalization is not the solution.

    Tuesday, November 22, 2005

    You're Against Abortion? And? . . .

    To write that a politician "opposes abortion" steers clear of the "pro-life" and "pro-choice" rhetoric that we're supposed to steer clear of, but it also ends up saying little or nothing. I hope we all, on some level, "oppose" abortion -- we just disagree on the degree to which the law should forbid it.

    The traditional copy-editing fix would be to change "opposes abortion" to "opposes legalized abortion."

    But beware: The governor-elect of Virginia made opposition to abortion part of his campaign platform, but he also said that he does not want to "criminalize" women and their doctors. So he opposes abortion only in the we-all-oppose-abortion sense -- fine for his stump speech, but highly misleading to cite without elaboration in a news article. (Also, if it's notable that Candidate A "opposes abortion," does that imply that the opposing candidate favors abortion?)

    Saturday, October 22, 2005

    Will I Ever Shut Up?

    Not just yet, it appears. Erin McKean, Michael Dirda and I will lead a discussion titled "Rich Resources for Successful Writing" on Nov. 19 at the Smithsonian Institution.

    Monday, October 10, 2005

    The Descriptivists 'Could Care Less,' but ...

    The Post's AME for copy desks, Don Podesta, recently asked my fellow chiefs and me why the Post allows the mistaken expression "step foot" (for "set foot") in the paper. We all looked at him, puzzled -- it's not something any of us had ever noticed.

    But, sure enough, searches show that the error is pretty common. It's even cited in the Eggcorn Database.

    (A prescriptivist riddle: When is a usage that is perfectly understandable, quite common and literally correct nonetheless an error? Answer: When it is a failed attempt to reach for a different expression.)

    Wednesday, September 28, 2005

    There's a 'The' in Your Future

    On a visit last week to Michigan, my home state from 1962 to 1979, I found a new wrinkle in the trend of silly names and vanity capitalization. The Detroit-area tourist attraction that was known in my field-trip days as "Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum" now calls itself "the Henry Ford," with a pointedly lowercased the. (Greenfield Village and the Henry Ford Museum still exist, but now the proprietors have tacked on a couple of minor attractions and put them all under the "the Henry Ford" umbrella.)

    It's a ridiculous name, of course. Henry Ford was a person, and even an uppercased the would do little to alert the reader that such a minimalist reference to the person's name could mean anything but the person himself. But they went and made the moniker even sillier and more inscrutable by lowercasing the the, as though every printed reference would be rendered in the typefaces and colors of the logo.

    Those of us who make style decisions are used to slapping down capitalized thes and even eliminating the word altogether (a lot of us lowercase the the even in references to newspaper names in which it is uppercased, and The Ohio State University, to any sensible editor, is Ohio State University). For many publications, then, the people of "the Henry Ford" have made things easy. For publications that honor the Thes, however, there is an intriguing conundrum. When you cap the The in The New York Times, you're really doing so not because the word is capped in the flag, but because the word is present in the flag. We capitalize names, and if we are recognizing The as an integral part of the name, there you go. (We would write "Los Angeles Times" even if the flag said "los angeles Times.")

    So, if you humor the NYT people, does it follow that you should ignore the wishes of the Henry Ford people and write The Henry Ford? I say yes.

    Tuesday, September 27, 2005

    When 'Might' Makes Wrong

    I blame all those moms and grade-school teachers who correct "Can I go to the bathroom?" to "May I go to the bathroom?" -- not for being wrong (it's a legitimate distinction), but for making us so vigilant about the "permission" connotation of may that we sometimes steer around the word in non-permission usages and crash into a misuse of might.

    A minor problem is that might, according to some, expresses a lesser degree of probability than may. The big problem is "might have." "I may have left the keys in the car" leaves open the possibility that the keys are in the car. "I might have left the keys in the car" suggests that the catastrophe was averted, as in "I might have left the keys in the car . . . if you hadn't alerted me."

    There are cases, as Bryan Garner points out, in which the issue of permission does present ambiguity. He points to "You may not come with me" as a case in which might would solve the problem. In general, however, use might, and especially might have, with caution.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2005

    From 'Between' to 'And'

    As I said in "Lapsing Into a Comma," it's silly to insist that the "between ... and" construction is inherently non-inclusive -- if you write about something happening between 1972 and 1974, I'm not one of those people who will sniff, "So it was 1973?"

    Still, I keep those sniffers in mind when I'm editing, and I routinely do change "between ... and" to "from ... to" or simply "to." (I maintain that "from" should be left out when it results in something like "a sentence of from 10 to 20 years." I don't of-from.)

    Bolstering my case against the sniffers is a construction I recently came across, one that demands "between ... and":

    He said the seller acquired the coin between 1856 and 1858.
    You can't very well say he acquired it from 1856 to 1858, and you can't very well insist that the phrase equals "in 1857."

    While I'm on the topic, a few hyphen notes:

  • A "from" requires a "to." None of this "from 1972-1974" stuff.
  • Even worse is a mixing of the "from" and "between" constructions, as in "between 1972 to 1974" or "between 1972-1974."
  • The hyphen is fine when no such external force is present. You can have a 1980-1984 tenure or even a situation "in 1980-1984."
  • Strictly a style point, but I like "1980-1984" rather than "1980-84" now that we're in the 2000s.

  • Wednesday, September 14, 2005

    Foresee This

    If I ever write the Dictionary of Stupid Expressions, it will define "the foreseeable future" as a time when I will sure as hell have a Powerball ticket in my hand.

    Friday, September 09, 2005


    Paraphrasing to protect the guilty, I present you with a fascinatingly bad Moebius strip of a sentence:

    John Smith, a former firefighter, said he believes that was not true.
    OK, so he believes it, and . . . d'oh! How about he thinks that was not true?

    A lot of us, it seems, have had a lot of nonsense, sometimes contradictory, drummed into our heads about supposed distinctions between "thinking" and "believing" and "feeling." I'm not a big fan of "feeling," I admit, but I'll save the discussion of those nuances for another time.

    My point here is that "believe" has an unfortunate transitive property that can result in the kind of rhetorical roller-coaster ride you see above, and that search-and-replace editors need to keep that property in mind before they go mindlessly replacing every "think" with a "believe."

    The Smith example is especially interesting because it is immune to the fix that usually renders "believe" usable. "They believe Bush lied" does the Moebius/roller-coaster/insert-your-own-analogy thing, but "They believe that Bush lied" is just as good as "They think Bush lied."

    With Firefighter Smith, however, such a fix would result in an unfortunate "that that." In that case especially, there's nothing wrong with thinking.

    Monday, August 15, 2005

    Damn This Traffic Jam

    Word of the day: gridlock. It means the grid is locked, as in north-south traffic remains in the intersection after its light turns red, preventing east-west traffic from moving when its light turns green.

    It is not an all-purpose synonym for "congested traffic." You can't have gridlock on a freeway.

    Thursday, August 04, 2005

    And Don't Even Start With the Apostrophe Issue

    Most of us know that the Veterans Administration hasn't existed for some time now (it became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988), but what about "the VA"?

    It's handy that the agency's initials didn't change, but that the is a problem. The Veterans Administration? Yes. That's how people talk. The Veterans Affairs? No.

    To review, the general guideline is that we use the with initialisms when both of the following are true:

  • We use the with the spelled-out form. (This is the part at issue here.)
  • The initialism is not an acronym; it is pronounced letter by letter. (This is why the World Health Organization is simply WHO, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is simply OSHA.)

    In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I point out that this means the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gets a the with its common BATF abbreviation but not with its more common ATF abbreviation. It's "the Bureau ..." but not "the Alcohol ..." (The agency has since become the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, but it's still called ATF.)

    Now we have a similar case with VA and, uh, VA. What to do? One answer is to use the abbreviation only adjectivally. As a second-reference noun, use Veterans Affairs or the department. But that can get unwieldy in a story with several such references. Or you could call it VA without the the. The irony, if I may risk a rare use of that term, is that people drop the the in agency references that need the word. Things happen "at EPA" or "at OPM." Sic. Sic. But the tradition of "the VA" dies hard.

    A corollary problem is the first reference to a VA hospital. That second reference works fine, but, if you want to get picky (and of course we do), what used to be a Veterans Administration hospital is a Veterans Affairs hospital only if Department of Veterans Affairs was used earlier. Otherwise, you really should call it a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital.

    Veterans hospital, anyone?

  • Wednesday, July 13, 2005

    Of Showstoppers and Deal Breakers

    I try to avoid the "increasingly common error" trap, so I will allow that maybe it's just coincidence, or heightened awareness on my part, that the first and second times I've noticed a misuse of "showstopper" occurred in quick succession in the past few days.

    A "showstopper" is a good thing. Webster's New World:
    1 a song or sequence in a musical theater production, show, etc. so exciting or impressive that applause from the audience interrupts the performance
    2 anything so exciting, impressive, showy, etc. that it attracts much attention
    It is not a synonym for "deal breaker."

    Yes, I'm the Moron

    If you get the early edition of the Washington Post, the one marked REGIONAL, you may notice one or two embarrassing errors in today's front-page space-shuttle caption. Now, the Post, like any newspaper, makes its share of errors, and I make my share of those, but usually when somebody points out a Post misstep to me, as chance would have it, I'm not the responsible party. This time? All me. This can be a frustrating line of work.

    Thursday, July 07, 2005

    Mapping the Oddities

    Jackson Hole sure sounds cool, but there is no "Jackson Hole, Wyo."
    -- the city that gives the area its name is simply Jackson. There's also no "La Jolla, Calif." -- La Jolla is a section of San Diego. I hope we all know that the Pentagon isn't in Washington, but what about all those casinos on the Las Vegas Strip? Not in Las Vegas; try unincorporated Clark County.

    Whether to go all copy-editor on people's asses about such things is another question, of course. I think the Jackson fact is worth enforcing, but you could argue that La Jolla is grandfathered in, the same way "Hollywood, Calif." exists in spite of its nonexistence. I would argue back that we shouldn't say "La Jolla, Calif.," the same way we don't say "Georgetown, D.C." But I would let the Las Vegas casinos be Las Vegas casinos.

    "Wimbledon, England" also gets the Hollywood exception, I think, even though technically it's more like "the Wimbledon village of London," but I don't favor rolling over so easily for other violations of the city-state and city-country syntax. Brooklyn, N.Y.? Oh, all right -- it once was a city. But there's no Queens, N.Y., or Bronx, N.Y., or Staten Island, N.Y., or Long Island, N.Y. Go ahead and use "Bayside, Queens" and "Sayville, Long Island" for New York street cred, but screw the stylebook and give readers a little credit when it comes time to choose between a simple "Queens" or "Bronx" and "the Queens (or Bronx) borough of New York City."

    "Darfur, Sudan"? No. It's the Darfur region of Sudan.

    In a related note, my expertise on Scotland is a little shaky, but the "Gleneagles, Scotland" we keep hearing about as the location of the Group of Eight meeting appears to be a resort, not a city. The actual place that merits the comma-Scotland treatment seems to be either Perthshire or Auchterarder.

    What have I left out? (Or screwed up?)

    Wednesday, July 06, 2005

    A Strictly Hypothetical Note

    "Jurist" comes in handy as a synonym for "judge," but keep in mind that many consider that a loose usage. The primary meaning is "legal expert or scholar." The distinction could become important if, say, a partisan hack with little knowledge of the law were up for a seat on the bench.

    Friday, June 24, 2005


    The DSM is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, not the Downing Street memo. Responsible users of abbreviations will recall a similar situation from earlier in the Iraq mess, namely that CPA is a certified public accountant, not a Coalition Provisional Authority.

    D.C. bonus: AA is an organization for drunks, not a county in Maryland. (And I meant District of Columbia, not DaimlerChrysler.)

    Thursday, June 23, 2005

    A Hard Problem to Lick

    Did you hear the one about the giant popsicle that melted, sending New York pedestrians scurrying?

    Only, wait -- Popsicle is a registered trademark. And this one was made of Snapple, so it wasn't a Popsicle-brand product. What will you do?

    The evolution of the Associated Press story is instructive. First it was a "Popsicle." Then it was a "popsicle" (though the headline didn't get fixed), with the note "Eds: SUBS lead and 4th graf to substitute generic use of 'popsicle' sted trademark."

    (Sure enough, Webster's New World says the word for "such a confection" can "also" be lowercased. You'll get letters from lawyers if you take this route -- that, I don't mind. What I do mind is that it's descriptivist nonsense.)

    Finally, with no note to editors, AP did the right thing: "ice pop." Before I saw this I had come to the same conclusion for the Post's second edition, after a little Web surfing. For the first edition, unfortunately, all I could come up with was the dorky and unwieldy "Popsicle-style frozen treat."

    For the third and final edition, I killed the item when I saw that it was also in the Style section. Sigh.

    Wednesday, June 22, 2005

    If, Frankly, You Give a Damn

    The latest American Film Institute television special covered the "100 greatest movie quotes of all time." I'm a sucker for these shows, but the most interesting thing in this one, especially from a copy editor's viewpoint, was just how many of these quotes we get wrong all the time. (In fact, the AFI Web site gets the first one in the show -- No. 100 -- wrong. The line from "Titanic" is "I'm the king of the world," as the TV special shows, not "I'm king of the world." And that's one that people almost always get right.)

    Because the show contains actual clips for every line, I'm reasonably sure I'm getting this right (if not, please correct me). So here, as a public service, are the top however-many misquoted famous movie lines (numbering courtesy of the American Film Institute):

    89. "Tell them to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper" ("Knute Rockne, All American," 1940). Not so much a misquote as an adaptation, but note that it's not "Win one for the Gipper." And I'm imposing a comma on that movie title even if, as the AFI claims, there is none.

    74. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown" ("Chinatown," 1974). Not "It's Chinatown, Jake."

    66. "Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape" ("Planet of the Apes," 1968). As Ray Romano makes clear on the special, there are any number of ways to get this one wrong.

    63. "Mrs. Robinson, you're trying to seduce me. Aren't you?" ("The Graduate," 1967). Not "Mrs. Robinson, are you trying to seduce me?"

    60. "Well, here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!" ("Sons of the Desert," 1933). Don't we normally say "another fine mess you've gotten us into"? Maybe Oliver Hardy did say that at some point, but it's "nice" and "me" in the AFI's showcase line.

    57. "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good" ("Wall Street," 1987). So, it's "Greed ... is good," not "Greed is good." Again, perhaps an adaptation more than a misquote.

    51. "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do you, punk?" ("Dirty Harry," 1971). Commonly misstated along the lines of "Are you feeling lucky today, punk?"

    50. "Houston, we have a problem" ("Apollo 13," 1995). An interesting case here, in that the movie version is a misquote, and an often-misquoted one at that (people often say "Houston, we've got a problem"). The actual quote from the actual Apollo 13 in 1970 is "Houston, we've had a problem."

    40. "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get" ("Forrest Gump," 1994). Was, not is.

    39. "If you build it, he will come" ("Field of Dreams," 1989). Maybe at some point the movie says they, but the main quote is he.

    36. "Badges? We ain't got no badges! We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinking badges!" ("The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," 1948). Not "We don't need no stinking badges."

    35. "You're gonna need a bigger boat" ("Jaws," 1975). Not "we're."

    34. "I want to be alone" ("Grand Hotel," 1932). Apparently Garbo's alleged "vant" delivery was a myth.

    28. "Play it, Sam" ("Casablanca," 1942). Here's one that I think we've come around on. I think it's fairly well known by now that "Play it again, Sam" was never uttered.

    26. "Why don't you come up sometime and see me?" ("She Done Him Wrong," 1933). No, Mae West did not say "come up and see me sometime."

    19. "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore! ("Network," 1976). The common variant "I'm [not as] mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore" isn't too far off, as at least one of the people following Howard Beale's instructions says it that way.

    11. "What we've got here is failure to communicate" ("Cool Hand Luke," 1967). Not "What we have here" or "a failure to communicate."

      9. "Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night" ("All About Eve," 1950). Night, not ride.

      7. "All right, Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up" ("Sunset Boulevard," 1950). This one sometimes gets turned around.

      4. "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore" ("The Wizard of Oz," 1939). You could make an argument for "I have" (as the AFI special's graphics show), but it's definitely not "I've got" (despite what the AFI Web site says).

      1. "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn" ("Gone With the Wind," 1939). Even more so than with the "Play it again, Sam" myth, I think people know now that the formerly common version -- in this case, "Frankly, Scarlett, I don't give a damn" -- is wrong.

    Sunday, June 19, 2005

    When Answers Are E-Mailed

    The question "Should direct quotations be edited?" is one, as I have said before, that seems to split journalists right down the middle. One side maintains that "we shouldn't make people look stupid," while the correct side considers the question analogous to "Should history be altered?"

    I put it this way in "Lapsing Into a Comma":

    This doesn't mean we need to reproduce every um, every er, every cough; it doesn't mean a reporter's transcription errors can't be corrected; and it certainly doesn't mean that stories should attempt to re-create dialect (plenty of literate people pronounce should have as "should of"). But it does mean that a reader should be able to watch a TV interview and read the same interview in the newspaper and not notice discrepancies in word choice.

    The pronunciation issue is just one of the complexities within the bigger question. What about quotes from written material? If the Senate subcommittee's report refers to "the President," are we at liberty to make that "the president"? It's a slightly closer call than changing a spoken "ain't" to "isn't," but I think the answer is still no. The attribution "the panel wrote" should introduce what the panel actually wrote.

    Now then: What about written material of a less-formal nature? More and more these days, instead of making a phone call, a reporter will ask a source a question by e-mail. If Deep Throat '05 writes, "dood that documnet, thats the smokin gun!!!!!," what do you quote your source as saying?

    My answer may surprise you:

    "That document, that's the smoking gun," the source said.

    E-mail is the medium, not the message, and informality in spelling, capitalization and punctuation in e-mailed answers is akin to pronunciation in spoken answers. All this, for me, hinges on the verb "said." Whether you must disclose "said in an e-mail interview" is an issue for your publication's masters (Do you say "said in a telephone interview"?), but once you frame your quote in terms of "said" rather than "wrote," you become a literate transcriber rather than a photocopier. More controversially, perhaps, I would extend this liberty even to "said in a news release." If Acme announces news about "WILE E. COYOTE" in a release, go ahead and make it "Wile E. Coyote," as long as you're saying "the spokesman said" or "the company said" rather than "the news release said."

    That news-release guideline is an exception to my general advice, which is to treat documents as sacred when they are intended to be read by an audience other than the reporter. When you're quoting an e-mail to yourself, you're quoting the writer of the e-mail, you should use the verb "said," and you should follow your publication's style; when you're quoting an e-mail from Enron felon No. 1 to Enron felon No. 2, you're quoting the e-mail, you should use the verb "wrote," and you shouldn't change things.

    Saturday, June 18, 2005


    My favorite pull quote from my latest acquisition as a stylebook collector, the style guide of the Guardian:
    "Iraq or Iran -- what's our style?"

    Freelance subeditor at British national newspaper
    (not the Guardian)

    Friday, June 17, 2005


    Clearing out the notebook . . .

  • Comma before "and" when the word is joining two independent clauses, right? Hell, I've even hit you over the head with that concept. But there's a "but." Observe:

    "From the beginning, the company has acknowledged wrongdoing and we’re going to have to take responsibility for our actions," he said.
    If you're tempted to put a comma before that "and," hold on. The comma belongs there if the speaker is asserting that the company must take responsibility. It doesn't belong there if, as is more likely, he is listing that as one of two things the company has acknowledged. He may indeed agree with the assertion, but in the context of this sentence he's saying "The company has acknowledged a and b," not "The company has acknowledged a, and I would like to add b." Sometimes an independent clause is a tad on the dependent side.

  • Still using the "small-business man" example to illustrate the joy of hyphenation? It's a classic, but it's flawed, because "businessman" is one word -- doubters could point out that "small business man" is different from "small businessman." Try this: A small town judge is different from a small-town judge.

  • From the "Say what you mean, mean what you say" file:

    According to industry executives and analysts, the management strategy that made Dell a successful computer company could do the same for the fast-food chain.
    The fast-food chain wants to become a successful computer company? No.

    In the players' box was Tony Nadal, the uncle and coach of Rafael Nadal since he started playing as a youngster.
    Tony didn't become Rafael's uncle until Rafael started playing tennis? No.

    Members of the platoon testified that they punched, kicked and struck the detainee with their rifles.
    They punched him with their rifles and kicked them with their rifles? No.

    Unlike the Middle Ages, when books were made of parchment so expensive that they were mainly for the wealthy, papyrus was more accessible to members of all classes.
    Papyrus was unlike the Middle Ages? Well, yes, but . . .

  • Friday, June 10, 2005

    Fun With Partial Quotes

    This Chowhound post tickled my funny bone. (Of course, I still giggle to myself every time I pronounce "Zagat" as "Zagnut," so it goes without saying that your sense of humor may vary.)

    Thursday, June 09, 2005

    A Little Good-Natured Belittling

    In case your self-esteem has gotten a little too high, fellow copy editors, try this. Or maybe this.

    Montopoli is right, of course, that a Mrs. Robinson allusion was a bad idea for the Anne Bancroft headlines. Those of you who became editors for reasons other than "it might lead to a reporting gig down the road," or who have thinnish skins, might prefer the way the point is made at A Capital Idea and Testy Copy Editors.

    Tuesday, May 31, 2005

    Some Science Professors Are More Political Than Others

    A political science professor is just lazy, and a political-science professor is unnecessarily fussy when a professor of political science is such an easy alternative.

    In the overcorrection department, however, I submit high school teachers of English. Think about these things, people; don't just let your knee jerk. Unlike a political science professor, which could mean either a professor of political science or a science professor who is political, or French professor, which could mean either a professor of French or a professor who is French, high school English teachers presents no ambiguity: If you wanted to write about English high school teachers, that's the way you'd write it.

    (I, of course, would write English high-school teachers, but that's another topic.)

    Tuesday, May 17, 2005

    'Face' Dances

    At what point do you face something? Stories that mention prison sentences routinely use the verb "face," but they vary on what exactly they mean by that. Observe:

    a. If convicted, he could face a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
    b. If convicted, he could face a prison term of up to 10 years.
    c. If convicted, he faces a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
    d. He could face a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
    e. If convicted, he faces a prison term of up to 10 years.
    f. He faces a possible prison term of up to 10 years.
    g. He could face a prison term of up to 10 years.
    h. He faces a prison term of up to 10 years.
    i. He faces a prison term of 10 years.

    I think we would all agree that (a) overqualifies things to the point of redundancy. And most of us would agree that (i) doesn't qualify things enough. Reasonable people will differ, but I vote for (h). I think you could face time in prison without being sentenced to time in prison. And -- context, context, context -- do you think any readers need to be told that the prison sentence would apply only in the case of a conviction?

    If you're inclined to play things extremely safe, there's a (j):

    If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

    If you're inclined to object to "up to" when there's no yardstick involved, you're at the wrong site.

    Thursday, May 12, 2005

    Garner on Eating, Shooting and Leaving

    If you let your subscription to the Texas Law Review lapse, you missed a 5,000-plus-word essay by Bryan A. Garner, the authority's authority on American English, on the phenomenon of Lynne Truss's "Eats, Shoots & Leaves."

    Garner lists errors and inconsistencies from the book, pointedly addresses the missing hyphen in the subtitle's "Zero Tolerance Approach," and quotes James J. Kilpatrick, Barbara Wallraff, Patricia T. O'Conner and yours truly on our quarrels with the book. He even wonders why people love the title so much, before conceding that even his 12-year-old daughter and her friends are in love with the panda joke. Garner continues:

    So I won't criticize the main title of the book. But the book itself is a different matter altogether. When people have asked me what I think of it, I've usually responded by summing up its entire message in this way: "Don't know much about punctuation, but wouldn't it be nice if people could sort out their apostrophes?"

    There lies the real answer to the question: Why do the experts uniformly disparage a punctuation book that appeals so much to the popular mind? The thing is that many people think they're sticklers when they're not. And Lynne Truss happens to be one of them.
    The full article is available on LexisNexis.

    Tuesday, May 10, 2005

    Conditional Love

    If the filibuster is eliminated for judicial nominations, Bush would enjoy greater latitude in filling vacancies on appellate courts.
    Officials of the organization said that if the bill passes, it would prevent the agency from providing information to the public.
    No. If the filibuster is eliminated, Bush will enjoy greater latitude. If the filibuster were eliminated, Bush would enjoy greater latitude.

    If the bill passes, it will prevent blah blah blah. If the bill passed, it would prevent blah blah blah.

    The tenses have to match. Is that so difficult? Is/does/will. Was (were)/did/would. Get all conditional on us, by all means, in a sentence in which the conditionality is implied but the present tense never raises its ugly head (otherwise, Albom-breath, you're assuming a future event that may or may not happen):
    Blah blah blah about what the bill would do. It would prevent the agency from providing information to the public.

    Friday, April 29, 2005

    That Wasn't So Hard, Was It?

    I'm watching "Survivor" and I see a commercial for Wal-Mart's digital photo-processing services. And I see and hear something remarkable.

    It's quick, it's easy, and the price is terrific.
    Parallel construction! In a TV commercial! You know, I'm not sure I've ever seen that before in a case in which it would be so easy to get things wrong. Given that same set of points, 99 out 100 advertising people would have foisted on us:

    It's quick, easy, and the price is terrific.
    What's wrong with that? Well, it implies either that "easy" is a complete thought on a par with "It's quick" and "The price is terrific" or that "It's the price is terrific" makes sense. Either "it's" applies to all three items or it applies only to the first one; it can't apply to the first two and not the third, at least not in that construction.

    If you want "it's" to apply to the first two items and not the third, you need to close off that series by giving it its own "and":

    It's quick and easy, and the price is terrific.
    That way or the Wal-Mart way -- either is fine.

    Saturday, April 23, 2005

    ur kidding lol

    The normally astute Wall Street Journal has decided that email is a word. A tear is running down my cheek, much like the one on the proud Indian's face in that anti-littering commercial from the early '70s.

    Thursday, April 21, 2005

    Rules That Aren't

    I forgot to mention this to the empty-handed people in the room, but a handout for my presentation at the ACES conference in Hollywood is available here. Choose your format: Web, Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat.

    For a more frivolous look at the conference, see Off-Topic.

    Tuesday, April 19, 2005

    Comment? No.

    Not long ago, I criticized writers who report a "no comment" but then quote something that looks very much like a comment.

    I saw the flip side of this issue the other day. The passage went something like this:

    Harvey Baxter, chairman of Philosoph Enterprises, said last night, “I have no comment on this issue at the present time.”
    Now, that is a "declined to comment." Don't waste your publication's paper and ink and your readers' time by printing such quotes.

    Monday, April 18, 2005

    Can You Hear the Hyphens?

    A couple of ads, one on television and one on radio, show why compound-modifier hyphenation is more than just an esoteric issue confined to the nerds of the written word.

    There's the Geico ad on TV in which the dorky executive and the gecko go door to door to charm customers, including reading to their children. One line from the fake storybook says something about a "small car insurance bill." The written equivalent would be "small-car insurance bill" -- an insurance bill for a small car. Obviously, the actor was supposed to say "small car insurance bill," as in "small car-insurance bill," as in a small bill for car insurance.

    Another ad, on a local radio station, for a product I can't remember, mentions "high energy efficiency." The meaning, of course, is not high-energy efficiency, as in efficiency that's particularly energetic, but rather "high energy efficiency," as in energy efficiency that is high. (No hyphen needed, though "high energy-efficiency" would be an acceptable style decision.)

    The fact that "small car" and "high energy" are oft-heard word pairs makes these pronunciation mistakes especially annoying, though perhaps they contributed to the errors. My point is that compound-modifier hyphens, or the lack thereof, affect the way phrases are pronounced as well as the way they're read by those of us who can do so without moving our lips.

    Thursday, April 14, 2005

    It's My Party, and I'll Hyphenate if I Want To

    It was a 100th-birthday party, not (barring coincidence) a 100th birthday party, at which Trent Lott said those nice things about Strom Thurmond that cost Lott his Senate leadership position a couple of years ago.

    Am I being too fussy in insisting on that hyphen? No.

    Everybody knows that the reference is to 100 birthdays, not 100 parties, but is that a principle that can be applied to all such instances? Of course not. Only a 1-year-old can have a first-birthday party, but you may have had your first birthday party at 2 or 3 or 47. The icing-on-the-face thing gets pretty old somewhere between 3 and 47.

    Monday, April 11, 2005

    In the Pubic Interest

    Another typo to keep an eye out for.

    Sunday, April 10, 2005

    Copy Editors Run the Show, of Course

    What's missing in this Chicago Tribune account of the Mitch Albom making-stuff-up affair is any sense of whether a mere copy editor could have made substantive changes in Billionaire Superstar's writing without being fired, or whether anyone would have listened if a mere copy editor had mentioned that Billionaire Superstar should wait until things happen before reporting them.

    Ideally, of course, a copy editor should have risked his or her job to prevent obviously false statements from being published. (Also ideally, housing and food would be free. Let's not equate letting Mitch be Mitch with standing by while innocents were tortured.)

    Saturday, April 02, 2005

    News to Me


    No, it doesn't. I'm picking on the Miami Herald headline because the Herald was one of the first papers I saw this morning, but I'm sure many papers defaulted to similar treacle in light of the unfortunate papal situation.

    I'm sorry to be so crass, but there is a lesson to be learned here about inclusiveness. Not everyone is a Catholic. Not everyone is a Christian. Not everyone believes in God. Not everyone thinks religion is a force for good. A large majority of the world's people, I'm sure, are sorry to see an old man dying, but a great many don't think kneeling and whispering will make things better.

    Most examples of this kind of presumptuous writing are less profound than coverage of a papal deathbed. Breezy references to "taking the kids for hamburgers," for instance, assume that everybody's a parent and nobody's a vegetarian. I'm not saying that we must screen every sentence for possible offense to transsexual nudist vegans, but we do need to avoid writing with a smug sense of "everybody's like me."

    Friday, March 25, 2005

    Talk Radio Hard Hit by Rental Car?

    In "The Elephants of Style," I discuss how the terms rental car and hard hit have become so ingrained that people use them even in contexts in which car rental and hit hard would be much more natural.

    Add talk radio to that list.

    Yes, there is a phenomenon called talk radio. But that doesn't mean you have to refer to radio talk shows as talk-radio shows, or to radio talk-show hosts as talk-radio hosts.

    (There must be a fancy term for such sancrosanctization of word combinations. Mr. Safire?)

    Thursday, March 24, 2005

    Little Change, Big Difference

    In editing a story on the shootings this week on the Indian reservation in Minnesota, I changed a reference to "a horde of media" descending upon the reservation to "a media horde."

    What's the difference? Well, one makes sense and one doesn't. If you insist that media is and always will be a plural noun, you're stuck with the meaning of "more than one medium." Even if a medium in this sense (the concept of television? the concept of radio?) could swarm an Indian reservation, there aren't enough of them to constitute a horde. Media in this case is short for news media, so you have probably four: print, radio, television and the online world. Subdivide those all you want -- you won't end up with more than a dozen or so. Hardly a horde.

    If, like me, you recognize that media when used that way is a mass noun, you see that horde of media makes even less sense. You wouldn't say horde of military or horde of judiciary, but military horde and judiciary horde -- and media horde -- are fine. It's a horde of people from the media, which works whether media is singular or plural.

    Saturday, March 19, 2005

    I Rant, and Rave

    Actually, I rant and rave. The headline contains a superfluous comma of the sort that seems to occur especially often in newspaper writing. Technically, a compound predicate does not merit a comma. In real life, the "take a breath" comma, as I call it, is occasionally appropriate when the wording is unwieldy or when a dramatic pause of sorts is desired.

    Not to pick on any particular writer or editor, but a story I recently handled contained a wealth of examples.

    They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army.

    No. "And" doesn't believe; they believe. Because there's a chance that a reader would think the Pentagon is doing the believing, the best option here is to keep the comma and repeat the they:

    They are skeptical of the Pentagon's ability to substitute air and naval power, and they believe strongly that what the country needs is a bigger Army.
    It's possible that the presence of and twice in in four words tricked the editor into thinking this was an example of the serial-comma exception for newspapers that ordinarily don't use serial commas (toast, juice, milk and Trix, but toast, juice, and ham and eggs).

    To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective is holding up better than many analysts expected.

    No. "From a historical perspective" isn't holding up better than expected; the military is holding up better than expected. As with the first example, the comma is a good idea -- it just needs to be accompanied with a restatement of the subject.

    To be sure, the military has also benefited from two years of war-zone rotations, and from a historical perspective it is holding up better than many analysts expected.
    And another:

    The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended, and has 18 now.

    No. "And" doesn't have 18 divisions now; the Army does. Two options here:

    The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended, and it has 18 now.


    The Army shrank from 40 active-duty and National Guard divisions during the Vietnam War to 28 when the Cold War ended and has 18 now.

    Another one:

    The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist, and hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.

    No. "And" didn't hit 96 percent; the Army did. Again, two options:

    The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist, and it hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.


    The Army met 94 percent of its target for getting first-term soldiers to reenlist and hit 96 percent among those in mid-career.

    Today, Shelley is on duty in what he calls a "one-man fighting hole" on another battlefield -- a Marine recruiting station in Lexington Park, Md., in St. Mary's County -- with a mission to persuade young men and women to enlist, and probably go to war.

    Yes! This is a good example of a pause for effect. The going-to-war part isn't a straightforward part of the persuasion; it's a necessary consequence of the other things he's persuading people to do.

    Friday, March 18, 2005

    Also, 1040 Is Different From 401(k)

    I'm seeing a fair number of references to tax returns when the writer means tax refunds.

    Thursday, March 17, 2005

    Today's Axiom

    There's nothing easier in newspaper criticism than taking pot shots at editing. In other words, no matter how accomplished an editor you are, you will commit errors that fourth-graders will notice. In other other words, the eagle-eyed reader who makes an excellent point about something you let slip through could well be functionally illiterate. In other other other words, the managing editor who might fire you for missing two errors in a story wouldn't necessarily have caught any of the 48 other errors you fixed.

    Tuesday, March 15, 2005

    More on 'E-Mail' vs. 'ROTFLMAO'

    The good guys lose, but I make a cameo appearance in an article about the poll.

    Sunday, March 13, 2005

    Hear Here

    Here is the episode of the National Public Radio show "A Way With Words" that includes Martha Barnette's mercifully brief interview with me. It's an interesting show, co-hosted by Richard Lederer, but if you're the impatient type you can skip ahead to the 14:30 mark to hear my segment.

    The link will be replaced with the newest episode March 19.

    Wednesday, March 09, 2005


    Apparently Roy Blount Jr. is on my side (with a startlingly similar argument) on the whole uhmail thing.

    Tuesday, March 08, 2005

    That's That

    A reader recently wrote to say that one of the best bits of writing advice he had ever received was "you can eliminate the word 'that' from 99.5 percent of all writing."

    My reply was on the contrarian side. Such advice, I think, has been taken too literally, and I find myself inserting that more often than deleting it.

    From "Lapsing Into a Comma":

    A misguided principle of the editing-by-rote school is to delete the word that whenever possible. It's often possible, but that doesn't mean it's desirable. Tin-eared editors chanting the mantra "Omit needless words" produce staccato ridiculousness that, in addition to sounding awful, can cause readers to stumble. Observe:

    He declared his love for her had died.

    So you're reading along and you find that he declared his love for her. How sweet! Then you get to the end of the sentence and realize you've been misled. He declared that his love for her had died.

    Believe is one of the big danger words for the that-averse. Often I'm reading about how the Democrats believe Bush (How sweet!), only to find that they actually believe that Bush did something wrong.

    Or how about: They think Bush did something wrong. (Look, Ma, no that!) Are you shuddering at the word think? Don't be afraid. There's nothing wrong with think, just as there's nothing wrong with get. If your search-and-replace function is loaded to stick in believe and receive because the one-syllable words aren't good enough for edumacated individuals, well, cut it out.

    Wednesday, February 23, 2005

    Stepping Up to the Plate

    This had never occurred to me. An excellent point in another brilliant recap, this one for "The Apprentice," by Miss Alli at Television Without Pity:

    In actual baseball, when you "step up to the plate," it's because it's your turn. It's not an act of courage! That guy isn't willingly putting himself in harm's way. He's not ballsy; he's next. So can we stop using "step up to the plate" as some kind of synonym for "volunteer"? Because it really, really isn't.
    Off-topic: Alli is also a must-read for fans of "Survivor" and (coming soon, a new season!) "The Amazing Race."

    Saturday, February 19, 2005

    Don't Dis My Tamales

    The now-almost-hoary slang term for "disrespect" is dis, not "diss." Don't be confused by the doubled s in disses, dissed and dissing.

    Occasionally you'll read about a contact "lense" or a camera "lense" because of similar confusion: The plural of lens is lenses. Another such confusion, however, has resulted in a legitimate word -- at least in English. Tamales, in Spanish, is the plural of tamal. English speakers, ignorant but hungry, saw all those tamales and invented the tamale.

    Thursday, February 17, 2005

    'No Comment. Comment, Comment, Comment ...'

    Company spokesman Bob Flacker declined to comment.

    "The investigation will bear out the truth in due time, and until it is complete, we feel that it is inappropriate to say anything about the matter," Flacker said.

    "We have no comment at this time" is a "declined to comment" comment. When you can save a good column-inch of space by cutting a non-comment, it's a safe bet that it doesn't qualify as a lack of comment.

    Wednesday, February 16, 2005

    Questions and Answers

    I joined Don Podesta, Washington Post assistant managing editor for copy desks, for a Washingtonpost.com chat.

    Sunday, February 13, 2005

    Mother and Child Reunion

    A note on telecommunications history:

    AT&T was "Ma Bell" when it was the parent of all the regional phone companies (the "Baby Bells," if you must).

    The AT&T that was recently acquired by one of the so-called babies, SBC Communications Corp., was, almost by definition, not Ma Bell.

    Friday, February 11, 2005

    Pretend the Quote Marks Aren't There

    Quotations are generally introduced with commas:

    She said, "How are you?"

    Unfortunately, a lot of writers and editors take that guideline to mean that every quotation mark must be accompanied by a comma. Observe:

    The president was heckled by protesters who held signs with slogans such as, "Leave My Social Security Alone," and, "No More Lies," as his motorcade arrived.

    What in the world are those commas doing there? To write that is like writing:

    The animal lover has had pets including, piranhas, and, boa constrictors, over the past three decades.

    Punctuate with your brain, not with the search-and-replace function. And, as I've said before, even a correct quote-introducing comma is negotiable if it also introduces awkwardness (as the incorrect ones do in the Social Security example).

    Thursday, February 10, 2005

    (The) Globalization Marches On

    I have added ordering links to the Canadian, British, French, German and Japanese branches of Amazon.com to my "Elephants of Style" and "Lapsing Into a Comma" pages.

    Bonus content: Note that I used "Elephants of Style" in an adjectival reference to "The Elephants of Style." Nothing wrong with that; in fact, it's preferable. For a related reason, don't go capitalizing the in something like "the Hague-based International Court of Justice," even if you normally cap The Hague. In that instance, the goes with International Court of Justice, not with Hague.

    Thursday, January 27, 2005

    Read the Damn Bottle

    The vodka brand is Ketel One.


    It's not ladled out of a big old "Kettle" (at least not in English), despite what you may have read in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New York Post, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Boston Globe, the Hartford Courant, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, the Miami Herald, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Kansas City Star, the Denver Rocky Mountain News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Charlotte Observer, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Entertainment Weekly, and dozens of other publications where a bottle in the bottom drawer might have come in handy.

    Tuesday, January 25, 2005

    The Owl Is Superb

    A timely reminder: Super (space) Bowl. It's not oneword.

    Friday, January 21, 2005


    There are few copy-editing errors that I would call "inexcusable." Time and other constraints and human fallibility result in errors that seem unfathomable to people who aren't copy editors.

    But if any sort of error is inexcusable, it's an incorrect phone number. One of the cardinal rules of copy editing is that every phone number published must be checked.

    Monday, January 10, 2005

    Dot Dot Dot

    (This essay is now a Sharp Point.)

    In "Lapsing Into a Comma," I caution against beginning or ending a quotation with ellipses: "It's silly to indicate omission at the beginning or end of a quote, since virtually all quotes are from people who have spoken before in their lives and will do so again."

    Now, then, a case study. You're a copy editor, and you're editing a story that contains the following paragraph:

    "I really don't think it's a good idea," he said. ". . . And I'm not going to support any such move."
    Do you kill the ellipses? I hope you don't. The "And I'm not" part is not the beginning of a quote; the "I really don't think" part is. If you delete the ellipses, you imply that the following sequence was uttered:

    "I really don't think it's a good idea. And I'm not going to support any such move."
    A no-ellipses version of the initial example is exactly how most reporters would render the above quote. That's how we write. We often — usually — put the attribution for a multiple-sentence quote after the first sentence.

    What the reporter was indicating with the ellipses, unless this reporter just likes to decorate copy with dots, is that something more like this was said:

    "I really don't think it's a good idea. I just don't. And I'm not going to support any such move."
    Think about it: If we kill the ellipses, how is a reader to tell whether the two sets of quote marks indicate two discrete quotations or simply the standard attribution placement for a multiple-sentence quote? To put it another way, two quotes should not share one attribution.

    If the ellipses look silly to you (and I admit that they look less than elegant), there are other options:

    "I really don't think it's a good idea," he said. He added: "And I'm not going to support any such move."

    "I really don't think it's a good idea," he said.

    "And I'm not going to support any such move," he added.
    Better yet, present the quote intact. I'm not quite as anti-dot-dot-dot as my friend Merrill Perlman of the New York Times, who has called ellipses and bracketed insertions in quotes "dishonest," but I'm pretty darn close. Unless the stuff between the salient statements was completely irrelevant jibberish, it's usually better to let it stand.

    Tuesday, January 04, 2005

    Watch Those Line Breaks

    "It's the fox guarding the chicken co-
    op," he said.

    (Things are tough all over in real estate.)

    Monday, January 03, 2005

    How Soon We Forget

    The same people who will refer to "Star Wars, Episode 9: Quest for Cash" as "Star Wars" seem to have forgotten that we had a President George Bush, oh, not so long ago. Many years after Zachary Taylor, I believe. Now, I'm not going to get all AP-style-nazi on you and say every reference must be "President Bush," but if you're going to use the "George," the "W" is not optional.