Friday, September 30, 2005

No, not really

Today's entry in the irritating analogy sweepstakes, shaken, not stirred, from a 1A feature:

She said she would take her driver’s license, Red Cross identification, debit card and sleeping bag when she boards a Mo-X shuttle and heads to St. Louis. Then, she will settle into a first-class seat for the first time and fly to Memphis. When she lands, she said she will receive her assignment and travel instructions.

Although this might sound like a James Bond plot, it is the way the Red Cross manages volunteers nationwide and sends help to the place where it is most needed.

OK, I might have missed a few of the middle-period movies, but I don't seem to recall James Bond taking his own sleeping bag along. Or riding Mo-X. It's hard to see how it sounds like a James Bond plot at all.

And while we're at it, don't shift from conditional to simple future to describe events in the same sequence ("would take" and "will settle"). And remember to set the attribution (graf 1, sentence 3) off with commas on both sides; otherwise, you're putting the wrong verb ("said," rather than "will receive") as the simple predicate of the main clause.

It'd be nice to lose the James Bond reference, but if you can't talk the writer into that, at least clean up the syntax.


Had William of Ockham been a rim rat, he would have reminded us of the virtue of taking the shortest and simplest correct route. A couple of reminders from this morning's papers:

Judith Miller, The New York Times reporter who has been jailed since July 6 for refusing to identify a source, has been released.
Common sense says to lowercase "the": Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter. Formalist paranoia sets in: But "the" is part of the paper's name! Result: Bad decision.

Here's how to test this one (and, not coincidentally, any case involving The Citadel, The Washington Post, The Ohio State University or any other Annoying Institution that capitalizes The Definite Article). What's the article modifying? If it's modifying the proper noun, you can capitalize it:

Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times ...

If it's modifying a common noun, like "reporter," go ahead and lowercase it:

Judith Miller, the New York Times reporter who ...

A foolproof test is to read the sentence without the attributive noun modifier. If you still need the "the," it's lowercase:

Judith Miller, reporter who ...
Judith Miller, the reporter who ...

Mr. Ockham might also wonder why the Times is "The Times" on second refs in one story on page 4A, while The Washington Post is "the Post" in another. Maybe he was a rim rat after all.

And speaking of a Midwestern college town's dominant morning daily, don't repeat this burst of J105-induced overediting:

These reports stated that up to 300 armed Arab men on horses and camels attacked the camp in northwest Darfur and burned about 80 makeshift shelters.

Here's the original:
These reports said up to 300 armed Arab men on horses and camels attacked the camp in northwest Darfur and burned about 80 makeshift shelters.

Turning the "said" into a "stated that" is a waste of copydesk time, pure and simple. And it's the sort of time-wasting that distracts attention from bigger problems, to wit the misuse of the hyphen as a conjunction in the subsequent graf: "Between 4,000-5,000 Sudanese." Or the missing "that" after the time element in the lede. Or any of a number of factual blunders in the 1A Roberts gimmick type.

Take the simple route. Heed not false rules. Fear no nightly noises.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Bad K-R! Bad! Bad!

The mighty collective news force that is Knight Ridder has been justly praised for smart, dogged reporting on the current Iraq venture -- quite a leap forward for an agency whose Washington coverage provided little more than entertainment value during the 1990-91 war.* So it's a bit dismaying to see K-R slipping back into its bad old habits, particularly the Random Policy Pronouncement and the Adverb Lottery. Copy and wire desks, be warned:

An agreement by North Korea on Monday to scrap its nuclear weapons programs is a significant step toward dispelling a decades-old threat of war in East Asia, but not a resolution to the crisis.
This is a classic bad result born of good intentions. K-R, petrified of being caught back in the pack with the AP by merely reporting what went on, is going to add value by telling us what the news means -- even if it doesn't have any idea.

If this state of affairs is a "crisis" and the agreement is indeed a "significant step," then it's probably the sort that might indeed end the crisis (people who keep track of international crises have good operational definitions of what crises are and when they begin and end, and one good sign would be a significant reduction in the risk of war). So the sentence makes as much sense, if not more, when the elements in the predicate complement are switched: "... a significant step toward resolving the crisis but doesn't dispel a decades-old threat of war in East Asia."

Which brings us to the bigger problem: What's the real effect on the "decades-old threat of war"? The short answer is probably "who knows?" The effect of nukes on the likelihood of conflict is far from certain. One hypothesis that's gotten some support is that they don't prevent disputes but do seem to limit escalation, maybe, depending in part on whether the parties have been dancing long enough to have some norms worked out.

The moral: If you don't know what the news means, better to let it speak for itself and be thought clueless than to analyze it and remove all doubt.

Here's another bad old habit, based on the quaint folk belief that good writing has lots of modifiers and a "writer's paper" is one that tosses adverbs into the stew at random:

HOUSTON -- Four hundred miles of dread stretched along the Gulf Coast on Thursday evening as a powerful and unpredictable Hurricane Rita approached an area that included Galveston, Houston and -- unbelievably -- New Orleans.

Oh, come on. Have none of the three heavy hitters in the byline been watching television for the past four days? As the hurricane moved past Florida and into the Gulf? Where New Orleans is? The casual reader can think of a lot of concepts -- cosmic injustice, bizarre coincidence, royal pain in the hem-hem -- to associate with the chance of New Orleans' being hit again, but "unbelievable" isn't any of them. Copyeds, to the barricades: Don't let this sort of slop get by.

* Not "the first Gulf War." The first Gulf War is the one that began 25 years ago Thursday.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Sunday school

Hey, kids, can you think of a passage that gave the cherubim and seraphim above a big old headache when they looked upon this morning's e-Missourian?

Whether a “man who lies with another man” can legitimately claim allegiance with other Christians and inherit the Kingdom of God has been a point of contention since the writing of the Old Testament book of Leviticus.

That's right, Buffy: This probably wasn't a point of contention among Christians when Leviticus was written because ... the Pentateuch was pretty much assembled by about 400 years BC! Thus a little grousing about the spate of blunders in the Missourian this week. Any rumblings of thunder indicate that some entity* higher in the celestial food chain than your correspondent isn't happy either.

Some errors -- the Leviticus thing is just another take on the Roman coin dated 44 BC -- just sort of slip through because nothing looks amiss at first glance. They're an argument for stopping at the end of every sentence and assembling a quick mental summary of it.

Others are arguments for following procedure. A good rule for beginning copy editors is to have a copy of the World Almanac at hand and consult it on every (rpt every) international story you read. This five-minute investment is the best way to head off heds like "Riots continue to disrupt Ireland" (3A Tuesday) -- Belfast is the capital of Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Like understanding why the West Bank isn't a state called "Palestine," this distinction is sort of central to figuring out why the people in the story are throwing things and shooting at each other.

Still others underline the importance of reading text carefully. If a distinction is made in a story, the odds are it should be made in a hed or any other summary. Sally Ride wasn't "the first woman in space" (8A Friday). That honor belongs to Valentina Tereshkova. Ride was the first American woman in space. (This one hasn't been corrected yet but needs to be.)

Some errors come about because of grammar. More precisely, because writers and editors are obsessed with following nonexistent rules about what "over" means or whether it's OK to say something happened "last week" (it is) and don't pay attention to how grammar actually works to make individual chunks of meaning into bigger chunks of meaning. More about this one later.

And sometimes we just seem to be caught in one of those Greek mythology things wherein the gods introduce some errors in the system, then pour another one and sit back to watch the fun. That's the only to explain how, in writing about the Honor Medals bestowed by the J-school, we managed to misspell one winner's name, use the wrong part of his name on second reference and mislocate the hometown of another winner (quick, which big Texas city would you guess a station named K-H-O-U would be in?).

It looks as if we got several things wrong about the selection procedure too, but that's enough for now.

*Hmm. It's after deadline, the photo's too big and Revelation has a 2/72/2 -- maybe it's the Intelligent Designer!**
** Sorry, designers.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Advice to the lovelorn

Your regular program of ranting about journalism will return when the workload clears a bit. Meanwhile, this from Thursday's online Guardian:

Nuclear fallout helps with dating corpses

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Beyond the stupid question

If there's a medal for the highest single-article nonsense-to-space ratio in American daily journalism, a certain Southeastern daily is going to have its picture on a box of Wheaties any day now:

Was Katrina `the fist of God'? (1)
Many embrace a God of love. Others believe more in a God of retribution.(2) Katrina dramatized the difference. A Pennsylvania group called Repent America, for example, noted that the hurricane hit New Orleans days before a planned gathering of gays in the French Quarter. "Act of God Destroys New Orleans Days Before `Southern Decadence,' " Repent America declared. Others mused that the hurricane sprang from U.S. involvement in Jewish settlers leaving Gaza,(3) or that Katrina came as punishment for humankind(4) defiling the Earth. One Web site columnist said "the fist of God" was behind it all. We asked several religious leaders to reflect on God, Katrina, other natural disasters and in what ways they relate. Or don't relate. Their thoughts aren't intended to represent the wide range of beliefs on this topic.(5) They're just intended to make you consider other views.(6)

1) Your hed last week asked essentially the same question. Are you going to keep trying until you get an answer, or did you not read any of the "well, no" replies the question elicited, or what?
2) And still others think false dichotomies are for the clueless.
3) This particularly batty observation tends to produce hard-hitting, cutting-edge journalism along the lines of "Lincoln had a secretary named Kennedy." If you're going to dignify it with space in your newspaper, at least have the good sense to ask some follow-up questions (which, again, you've had a week to work on): Does this fit God's MO from the past (Hurricane Audrey hit the Gulf ... what, a mere seven months after Ike leaned on the Israelis to pull out of Sinai)? Where were the messages after Camp David and the '93 accord? And why didn't God simply turn the hurricane eastward, kinda tilt it on its edge to get it through Gibraltar, and send it up the Med -- where He or She could not only inundate Gaza but probably take out Sharon's ranch in the bargain?
4) Not to be picky, but since the objects here are "leaving" and "defiling," not "settlers" and "humankind," you really ought to make the latter two possessive. If you're going to produce phrases like "reflect on ... in what ways they relate," I mean.
5) Technically correct, since your lede mentions a range of beliefs that runs from A to B and you present only A. But what exactly would be the point of chronicling the whole "wide range of beliefs" here anyway? Which gets us to ...
6) Amazing what a remarkable range of people and beliefs you can offend with a statement this blithe, isn't it?
a) When you tell me your intent is to make me "consider other views," you're telling me that the (monolithic) view you present is not mine -- in other words, that I believe, as a minister in Florida said after the tsunami, "You have to look at where it happened to understand. Most of the people who were killed were nonbelievers." Where exactly do you get off, bubba?
b) On the other hand, if I do share the view you present, does your editorial policy really give equal weight to the idea that New Orleans got what it deserved for all those years of decadence? (It's hard to see a single gay convo as the casus belli here, but God works in mysterious ways.) One looks forward to your future endorsements of Christian Identity, human sacrifice and other such expressions of diversity.
c) Religion is not public policy. It is not theory-building. It does not require the presentation and dissection of alternatives. Perhaps newspapers should consider sticking to stuff they can explain and understand.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005


This just in:

With nearly 1,200 evacuees in shelters alone, North Carolinians Tuesday ramped up their efforts to help those displaced by Hurricane Katrina and braced for months of work.

Hmm, six grafs of prose followed by bullets. From the examples below, can we guess which of the staffers credited in this tale did the lede?

And this just in:

Mr. Robinson was born on May 4, 1949, in Columbia. ... He graduated from Hickman High School in 1968. He served with the Army during the Korean War.

Putting this guy in a war that ended when he was 4 years old is entirely the reporter's fault. But how many different sets of eyes (starting with the city desk and going through page proofs) missed a chance to head off the correction?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Comforting the comfortable

Here's another in our series of dubious Internet polls on a familiar question: Is it time for this writer to find a new lede?

Sept. 6: Clergy and lay leaders in Mecklenburg's powerful faith community will unite today to discuss ways to help Katrina's evacuees -- one of a growing number of ways Carolinians continue reaching out. (4 grafs, followed by bullet items)

Sept. 5: From agencies planning missions of mercy to the Gulf Coast, to children selling lemonade for the relief effort, Carolinians continue reaching out: (1 graf and bullets)

Sept. 3: Each passing day, Carolinians find new ways to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. An aching to do more is moving home-repair types to volunteer their expertise. Kids to set up lemonade stands. Schools to seek out Katrina's littlest victims.

Sept. 2: As the devastation deepens, many Carolinians no longer are content to stop at money and prayers. (12 grafs and bullets)

Sept. 1: As Charlotte prepared Wednesday for the possibility of taking in the injured and homeless, the Carolinas kept pouring out their heart and money to victims of Hurricane Katrina.
(7 grafs and bullets)

Aug. 31: With dollars, prayers and sweat, a growing number of Carolinians are extending the hand of compassion to victims of Hurricane Katrina. (3 grafs and bullets)

Anxious readers will be relieved to know that the lemonade stands (two of them, best I can tell) appear again in a Sept. 6 story.

To paraphrase a familiar newsroom saw: Some people will write a dozen stories about the hurricane, and some people will write one story a dozen times. Which would you rather be?

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Your secret is out, little comrades!

Many readers have long suspected this banking center's leading daily of spewing leftist bile despite its protestations of innocence. Now the truth emerges at last in the headlines:

Aftermath underscores class struggle
In New Orleans, one of poorest cities in U.S., many are left stranded

Today's lesson, as shrewd Komsomols have no doubt figured out: Not everything that looks like a synonym is a synonym. "Class struggle," for instance, isn't another way of saying "class issues" or "class divide" or "concerns about class." It's the ... oh, go look it up.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

This is a game, right?

Something like a copydesk equivalent of the Unseen Hand Club? You find a completely inappropriate way to put a question mark on a hed and you learn the secret handshake?

Today's gems:

The trial of Saddam coming in October?
Iraqi official says it'll be Oct. 19; Western diplomat doubts date

Let's try to make up our minds here, shall we? Is the story worth reporting or not? If we think there's some merit in the anonymous source's assertion, put it in the hed and let the "diplomat" knock it down in the deck. Or try it the other way around. Posed as a question, though, it looks like another random possibility the Observer plucked out of the air and deemed worthy of debate. Sort of like "Saddam's face found on pita in Dearborn?" Or even like this effort from the religion page:

A message from God -- or Earth?
As the lede of this rather lame tale points out, there is a potential third alternative:

What caused Hurricane Katrina to slam the U.S. Gulf Coast? Was it a late-summer tropical storm caused by wind, water and heat? Mother Nature crying out over the Earth's pain? An angry God?

I trust it's not out of line to suggest that a newspaper's default explanation should be the empirical one.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Helping the writer

One of the first things you'll hear -- or should hear -- when you seek advice on assembling your portfolio is "throw out the stuff that's less than perfect." And one of the goodliest things you can do as a copy editor is to provide the sort of line-by-line detail editing that turns an OK piece of prose into one that holds up in the cold light of the hiring editor's eye months or years later.

That doesn't mean turning a second-person lede into a third-person lede. Choosing the form of a lede is a matter for the writer and the line editor*. The copy editor's job -- along with the usual spelling, grammar and style stuff -- is to make sure that the lede and any decisions stemming from it are executed properly.

Thus, the rim rat will wave through a lede like "Look behind the buildings on Business Loop 70 and you will find Mugs Up Drive-In, the only drive-in root beer stand in Columbia, between the fresh businesses and old houses" (1C Wednesday; I'd link to it, but for some reason it's not on Digmo). There are some points to quibble about: Would "you'll" work better than "you will"? Is "between" the right preposition; is "fresh" the right adjective? But the direct address is fine.

If "you" is the reader in the lede, though, it can't be someone else in the eighth graf: "Kewley said she believes businesses run better if you operate as a family." The passive voice is a smooth patch here: "Kewley said businesses run better when they're run as families." (Right, this also means we need to look for ways to get rid of "said she believes" if belief isn't a factor in the story).

Similarly, in a feature story, line editor and writer usually have the ultimate say on whether to use given names instead of family names on second reference. It's up to us, though, to enforce consistency and ease of reading. If Kay Kewley is "Kewley" on second reference, why is Larry Kewley "Larry"? And why, in the one case that clearly requires a given name along with surname, is Kay just "Kewley" in the graf that follows on the latter? Since hers is the dominant voice, there's no need to burden the story with "Kay Kewley" on every reference. But you do need to make sure the reader knows who's on stage.

(Parenthetical) inserts in quotes are allowable in cases in which a vague pronoun needs to be cleared up. They're not mandatory; often a partial quote is clearer. But when the last words of one sentence are "root beer," it's pretty overformal to insist on clarifying the next one as follows:

For just slightly less than a dollar, customers can enjoy their house-made root beer.

"(Root beer") is our biggest drink," Kewley said.

Again, tone issues: "Just slightly" is just a little redundant. In "just" phrases and similar colloquialisms, "over" and "under" often sound better than the formal "more than" and "less than." And what's the antecedent of "their"? But the big question remains: Wouldn't this sound more natural with a pronoun there?

Always more on this topic, but the takeaway line is: Don't make writers sound like you. Make them sound like themselves, only better.

IN THE SUBSCRIBERS-ONLY EDITION: Saluting some firsts. Welcoming old pals. Stamping out 105isms. And MUCH, MUCH MORE

* I trust it goes without saying that this is an assertion about form, not content. Dumb second-person ledes should suffer the fate of "It's official," "Christmas came early for," "looks and sounds like an average college sophomore" (8A Thursday) and anything containing any phrase resembling "one of Charlotte's most important."


Hyphenation questions are always in season, as recent chats on both Mike's 4406-7406 list and the Maf make clear. As promised below, then, a few thoughts on hyphenating compound modifiers, brought on by the semester's first case of nervous overhyphenation (1A Wednesday):

FEMA ordered task-force members into New Orleans.

... in New Orleans as part of its hurricane-relief actions.

Let's start with an observation from old Fowler (which might actually be from Ernest Gowers; I think the hyphen stuff was revised pretty heavily for the 2nd edn of Modern English Usage):

"No two dictionaries and no two sets of style rules would be found to give consistently the same advice. There is, however, one principle that seems to command at least lip service from all authorities. This is that the hyphen is not an ornament but an aid to being understood, and should be employed only when it is needed for that purpose."

When considering whether to hyphenate one pile of words modifying word, then, bear in mind this Fowler principle: "The primary function of the hyphen is to indicate that two or more words are to be read together as a single word with its own meaning."

Thus, coordinate adjectives, which apply their weight equally, aren't hyphenated. A cold, gray day is a day that's cold and gray, not a cold-gray day. Nor are cumulative modifiers, which apply meaning sequentially: A store that offers custom picture framing is one that does framing. What kind of framing? Picture framing. What kind of picture framing? Custom picture framing. "Hurricane relief efforts," above, needs no hyphen because it's cumulative: Hurricane relief efforts are a kind of relief efforts.

When an actual compound -- in the Fowler phrase, two words acting as one -- needs hyphenating remains (and will forever remain) a moving target. Get used to it. But it's not one we can't address sensibly.

Compounds clearly enough understood to be in the dictionary themselves almost never need a hyphen. "Task force," above, is one; likewise "high school" and "ice cream." The only exception would come when such a noun is joined to a participle: "Ice cream cone" need never be hyphenated, but "ice-cream-cone-shaped UFO" needs all three: one joining the compound to the participle and two inside the compound.

Several kinds of compound usually need a hyphen when they precede the noun they modify. Fowler's list:
adjective+adjective (red-hot)
noun+adjective (pitch-dark)
adjective+participle (nice-mannered)
noun+participle (weight-carrying)
verb+participle (made-up)

He singles out noun-participle combos for special concern. Monty Python fans will recall this as the difference between a man eating blancmange and a man-eating blancmange.

Compounds in which the first word is an adverb usually don't need hyphenating (hence the -ly rule in stylebooks) unless the adverb could be taken for an adjective. Fowler gives "little used car" vs. "little-used car."

Obsessive hyphenation is one of those annoying 105-isms that tend to crop up a lot at the beginning of the semester, about which more later. When in doubt, stick to Fowler. Hyphenate because of meaning, not because you don't think you've done enough damage to someone's story yet.