Monday, September 01, 2008

Sum of human knowledge: Yur not xactly addin to it

A few small things copyeds might have done, or not done, to help keep the old checking account at the First Federal Bank of Human Knowledge from slipping into overdraft territory:

This year, probably around Oct. 1, Muslims will end Ramadan by celebrating Eid al-Fitr, "the Feast of Breaking the Fast."

Oh, go ahead and throw caution to the winds! Ramadan, as the hed, lede and second graf all noted, is a "month." So when a month begins at the beginning of the month, it's going to end "around" the beginning of the next month -- no "probably" about it. If you're trying to imply that this lunar month is usually shorter than the corresponding month on your desk calendar, you can offer a slightly closer guess at when the next lunar month begins, but it's still going to be close.

Which doesn't help the poor disoriented time adverbs. The Eid isn't a special attribute of Ramadan "this year"; it's the festival that follows the end of Ramadan, period. How about something like "The month of fasting ends with a festival ..."?

The origins of Ramadan can be traced to the prophet Mohammad ...

Consistency is often overrated in the editing dodge; a lot of the false perceptions about split-verb "rules" are probably rooted in a perceived need to make stuff "consistent," even if everybody who uses the language knows how to make the usage vary according to need. In transliteration, though, consistency is a genuine virtue. How come the religion editor uses one spelling for the prophet while the rest of the paper follows AP's preference ("Muhammad")?

Many style decisions are genuinely value-free. Nobody's going to call you a tool of Wall Street if you abbreviate "road" with a street address -- or even without a street address. (I used to work for a metro that blithely abbreviated "road" right along with the AP's holy trinity,* and the sun still came up every day). Stuff that deals with politics and religion is trickier. Coverage of the Islamic world is a perpetual sore spot for the foamy-mouthed right, which looks on any readjustment ("Quran" for "Koran," say, which the AP adopted early in the millennium**) as a sign that The Media have sold out and will be shipping your daughter off to Riyadh any day now. We know why Fox News follows the older style on "Mohammed"; why do you guys do it?

This one isn't a cosmic transliteration question:

We might gripe about the boss or work hours, but 48 percent of Americans are “completely satisfied” with their jobs, according to a Gallop Poll conducted Aug. 7-10.

It's just a spelling error.*** G-A-L-L-U-P. Get used to it. You'll see it again. (I'm trying really hard not to say anything about the lede, which features the sort of bizarre non sequitur that almost makes you forget to say "tool of Wall Street": With pessimism about the economy near all-time lows, Americans are finding silver linings at work. Thanks, business staff!)

Now for one that goes to how we interpret and use "style" -- or more to the point, when we look stuff up and when we guess. Here's the shirttail from an op-ed column by sociologist Robert Nash Parker, writing for the LATimes service:

Nash Parker is a professor of sociology and co-director of the Presley Center for Crime and Justice Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

So how did somebody decide he was "Nash Parker" on second reference, rather than "Parker" (which he uses on the U's Web site)?**** If this had been a British paper, I'd expect somebody was generalizing from Ralph Vaughan Williams. Here, it's probably better to ask when you went to college and which edition of "Working With Words" you used. But at any rate, someone has a deep-seated mental shortcut for contracting names of this sort, and it doesn't include "looking stuff up." Too bad.

One more? Oh, all right:

U.S. Senator and former Navy fighter pilot John McCain can reach the White House by hammering U.S. Sen. Barack Obama over his lack of experience, according to the Carolinas' delegates to the Republican National Convention.

Umm -- isn't that one usually called a light bomber or attack aircraft or something? Which might be why McCain's own homepage says he was shot down "during his 23rd bombing mission"? Making him something other than a "fighter pilot"? The NYT corrected this one last month, with a note worth attending to: "The error has appeared in numerous other Times articles the past dozen years, most recently on April 9 and on Dec. 15, 2007."

OK, don't panic. Job cuts and descriptivism and Those Kids And Their Damn Baseball Caps aren't destroying the language. Newspapers have been doing the same sorts of things***** ever since they became newspapers. But they're still annoying. They still rub me the wrong way. I still expect better of an edited product. I hope someone still sees value in providing one.

*Street, avenue, boulevard: The StAB Rule. It's a secret handshake of the editing craft, so expect to see it on tests.
** Sorry for the vague date; we're having some computer adjustment issues this weekend.
*** Once in the story could be a typo. Twice, kids, is a spelling error.
**** Faculty bios shouldn't take you long to find. Look for an "academics" tab on the school's main page, then for something like "schools and colleges," then the department you're looking for, then for "faculty" (or just "people").
***** Quick, how many times have you seen the elder President Bush called a "fighter pilot"?

5 Comments:

Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

C'mon - how hard is it to find out when Ramadan ends this year? And you're right: that "this year" is badly out of place. He probably meant it to go with his date but it sounds like Eid is new.

Nash Parker can hang out with Luther King, Foster Dulles and F. Scott Key Fitzgerald.

5:51 AM, September 02, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Strictly speaking, the end of Ramadan depends on the new moon actually being sighted, so you can't tell in advance when it is. You can make a pretty safe bet that in the US it will be the night before Oct 1, but this is one of the rare cases where waffling is in principle correct.

By the way, The Google is often better for finding faculty bios in medical-related areas -- you often don't know whether to look in School of Medicine or School of Public Health, for example.

12:36 PM, September 02, 2008  
OpenID q-pheevr said...

I'm trying really hard not to say anything about the lede, which features the sort of bizarre non sequitur that almost makes you forget to say "tool of Wall Street": With pessimism about the economy near all-time lows, Americans are finding silver linings at work.

Oh, go ahead and say it. On top of being a non sequitur, the bit about "pessimism ... near all-time lows" gets me confused about which way is up. I suppose it means that the popular mood is low, which to me translates into a high degree of pessimism.

If you're trying to imply that this lunar month is usually shorter than the corresponding month on your desk calendar, you can offer a slightly closer guess at when the next lunar month begins, but it's still going to be close.

Or you could, you know, just look it up. Saying "probably around Oct. 1" suggests rather strongly that the date is simply not yet known—or rather, given that the date is known, it suggests rather strongly that the writer is too damn lazy to consult a calendar. I suppose that since Eid does not officially begin until the new moon has been sighted, there is some room in principle for doubt as to when it will occur; on the other hand, the sophistication of modern astronomy—or indeed of medieval Arabic astronomy—really removes all reasonable doubt in practice.

12:53 PM, September 02, 2008  
Blogger fev said...

I _think_ the use of calculated dates is far and away the norm these days -- though a lot of listings of observances (you've probably seen one if you're working on a syllabus or otherwise getting ready for the semester) still indicate that there's some flexibility. But no, I don't think US custom is to wait on the Saudis.

It might just be me, but I'd also rather just explain why there's some variation to the date, rather than feeding that Air of Orientalist Mystery.

And tnx to Anonymous for the tip on medical bios. That may end up working its way into an editing exercise.

1:21 PM, September 02, 2008  
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3:17 AM, November 13, 2008  

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