Friday, September 30, 2005

Hyperformalism

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.

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