Saturday, May 26, 2012

I never

Should you be wondering, no. You can't get there from here:

"In 49 years I've never seen anything like it," the Tigers manager said.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

War on eagles!

First the freedom-hating Kenyan came for the sparrows, and I said nothing, for I had better things to do than hop around under the feeder and wait for the cardinals to drop some seeds.

Then he came for the bald eagle, which looks like it's ready to defend itself. Is there a message there for all freedom-loving Americans?!?!?!?!?!

As usual, this installment is brought to you by the Washington Free Beacon through The Fox Nation, neither of which is much help in slogging through the Federal Register to see how much this outbreak differs from the (ahem) 2007-2009 War on Eagles. .

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Today in quantitative methods

In case you haven't been keeping up with the Breitbart empire since the great man died, here's today's entry from "The Vetting" (the definite article, not the pale imitation on the Hannity program):

President Barack Obama is hailed by his supporters and the mainstream media as one of the most brilliant men ever to hold the office. However, his refusal to release his academic records, his admitted deficiencies as a student, and his frequent factual errors--even in his chosen field of constitutional law--have cast doubt upon his supposed genius. Now, Breitbart News has established that Obama's grades and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores may have been even lower than those of his supposedly less capable predecessor, George W. Bush.

And how did we establish that one number "may" be lower than another number (thus enabling The Fox Nation's question at right)?

Breitbart News has learned that the transfer class that entered Columbia College in the fall of 1981 with Obama was one of the worst in recent memory, according to Columbia officials at the time.

Do tell!

A Nov. 18, 1981 article in the Columbia Spectator, “Tight Housing Discourages Transfer Applications to CC,” written by student Jeremy Feldman and quoting admissions officials, reported: “On paper at least, the quality of the students accepted [as transfers] has declined along with the number of applicants, the officials say.”
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Never forget

It's not really surprising when a Date Which Will Live In Infamy gets an extra decade tacked on. The surprise is that it doesn't happen more often.

It's impossible to tell from the armchair here whether this is a reporter or editor error. Sometimes reporters do silly stuff because they think they'll be whacked on the wrist if they don't. Sometimes editors think they haven't done enough, so they look for extra things to improve. Either way, it's unnecessary. If you want to call them "the 9/11 attacks" or "the 2001 terrorist attacks," that's fine. Some part of the public might scratch its head in puzzlement, but some part of the public is always going to answer "never heard of him" when asked if they have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of the president. But "the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks" is overstyling.

I do think we can conclude one thing it isn't: a style-checking program gone feral. Style wouldn't add "2011" to "Sept. 11" here, because dates within a year of publication wouldn't ger the year anyway.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

One born every minute

Further evidence that cluelessness afflicts the newsroom as well as the public at large:

Lottery players at Tuzzo's Circle News in Hollywood think today's their day. So do those at a Pembroke Pines Publix and others at Government Discount in Miami.

At least, the numbers are on their side. Those South Florida retailers rank high among venues that have sold tickets awarding $600 or more, according to a Sun Sentinel analysis of Florida Lottery winnings since 1993.

(Visit to see where lottery tickets with payouts of $600 or more have been sold since 1993.)

Sigh. Yes, it's generally true that many lottery players, wherever they are, "think today's their day." Whether players at these three venues are more likely to hold that view than others isn't the sort of question you can answer with a feature story. Whether "the numbers are on their side" is a bit simpler: No. They aren't.

It's a free country, and Congress shall make no law abridging, &c &c &c, so you're perfectly entitled to do whatever you want with your "analysis" time and your frontpage space. In some cosmic sense, sharing popular delusions about the lottery isn't any worse than publishing the horoscopes. But if you'd like to be taken seriously when you proclaim "study says" or "poll reveals," you need to run a disclaimer with your "want to hit the lottery" tales:

On the other hand, you might as well go ahead and play your mom's birthday. It has the same predictive value as this analysis: None.

There's a reason it's called the stupidity tax, you know.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, May 12, 2012

He has a rebel

I appreciate the stylebook's patience, but don't you wish -- just once or twice -- it would be a little blunter* with the questions that arrive at "Ask the Stylebook"?

Dear Bethesda:
The stylebook

Contractions aren't a "grammar" issue. They're primarily a register issue, and in some cases you can fashion a pretty spectacular ambiguity issue from them, but you can't roll them up and hit your colleagues upside the head with them in the name of "grammar."

Contracted forms of "have" lie on a scale of cluefulness from "fine" to "gah." At the one end, there's no question that I've got a secret and I have got a secret are the same clause. The second is more formal, but formality isn't a function of grammar. Toward the middle, we sometimes vary by region: American English is pretty casual about shortening auxiliary "has," as in He's got an idea, but less so than our transmarine friends in shortening the main verb: I've an idea

Out at the far end is grammar: not a lack of it, but too much of it about too many things. Heather is a camera could become Heather's a camera with no problem, but Heather has two Uzis is not the same thing as Heather's two Uzis. (One's a clause, one is a noun phrase.) So much as I might prefer the shorter answer, the longer one is something like:

Dear Bethesda:

's is a perfectly grammatical shortening of has. In some cases, it may annoy your supervisor, so you should memorize those cases and be prepared to recite some swill about the evils of contractions that has nothing to do with "grammar." In others, the contraction might be grammatical, but since it's "grammatical" about some meaning other than the one you want, you should avoid it.

If you can't already tell the difference at better than chance levels, you should consider changing majors very soon.


The stylebook
* Bethesda, Bethesda, you have no complaint
You are what you are and you ain't what you ain't
... sorry

Labels: , ,

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Missed it by that much

Just a few questions:

If you've said "nearly worthy of Hollywood," haven't you covered all the ground that "dramatic" covers?

What made the sting fall short of Hollywood-worthy? How about a little help here for all those frustrated colleagues with a screenplay in the desk drawer who want to get it right the first time?

If you have to proclaim the Hollywood-worthiness, shouldn't you set it off with commas?

As with the comma case discussed below, this one doesn't call for enforcement of a prescriptive rule just for the same of rulemaking. But it does support a sense of wariness toward reporters' value judgments: not that they're wrong in all cases, but that left on their own, they'll do the darndest things.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Pesky ladies!

Oh, the perils that befall us when upstyle heds and ill-informed hyphenation meet deep-seated Fox-class racist paranoia.

Silly rabbit! Of course The Fox Nation didn't mean to suggest that this ship was the first ever to have been commissioned by a lady. No, it's referring to a cutter that was commissioned by the president's wife, which would make it a "first-lady-commissioned" ship. If, that is, it was somehow a national story that the mere touch of the dusky sorceress had somehow produced a few rust spots on a new cutter.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Annals of 'which' and 'that'

This just in from Whichfinder-Generall Ed Latham, an editing colleague across the pond, who spotted the sign on a housing estate "where non-restrictive clauses run wild and free."

"Have to say that the estate didn't *look* abandoned," he notes, "but it's going to be quite a popular place to live if it is, indeed, untaxed."

'I' has the honor to report ...

No, the first-person-pronoun theme hasn't gone away; it's just taken on a few new guises:

On Sunday’s “This Week” on ABC, Washington Post columnist George Will offered his theory on why Obama might be struggling this go-around.

“Look, self-absorption is part of the occupational hazard of politics, and it’s also part of the job description of being president,” Will said. “All that said, try to imagine Dwight Eisenhower talking about D-Day saying, ‘I did this. I decided this. I did this and then I did that.’ It’s inconceivable.”

That comparison between Obama and Eisenhower illustrated the problem for the president, Will said.

“If you struck from Barack Obama’s vocabulary the first-person singular pronoun, he would fall silent, which would be a mercy to us and a service to him, actually,” Will continued. “Because he was been so incontinent for the last three years that you wind up with, as you said, [an] Ohio State University with empty seats.”

"Incontinent" is the new "spectacularly promiscuous" -- a vaguely medical term thrown around by right-wing columnists to describe a linguistic phenomenon that supposedly sheds light on some sort of presidential psychiatric disorder (which one, we're not exactly sure) that the librul media are forever scurrying to hide.

As you've probably noticed by now (if not, start with a summary of the Logsters' rigorous observations*), there are two underlying problems with the "I" meme:

1) It's undertheorized. Pundits toss first-person-pronoun frequency around as if it had a fixed meaning, but it doesn't, and if it did, it's probably not what the pundit of the day thinks. (If you missed Jamie Pennebaker's appearance on NPR last week, have a listen.)
2) The scary Kenyan Muslim communist dude? He doesn't say "I" that often, compared with other presidents.
Will is, in short, lying, but here it's a sideswipe rather than the main event, which is comparing the feckless Kenyan to a real gentleman. Will has the vapors -- it's inconceivable! -- at the idea that Eisenhower would have done any such a thing. Alas for him, that's an evidence question. Ike's writing as a general is easy to find, and when it's examined, it too has a dismaying tendency to show the opposite of what's claimed for it.
Read more »

Monday, May 07, 2012

Stop press!

Charlotte: Cu Chi of the lower Piedmont? Or just another case of sweeps month over at the old "news partner," WCNC?

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Real numbers and made-up differences

Here's the offending lede from which the Freep's deck is taken (the main hed, stripped across the biz front,* is "U.S. job growth slumps in April"):

U.S. job growth slumped in April for a second straight month. It suggested an economy that is growing steadily but still sluggishly, which could tighten the presidential race.**


The AP is either stating a testable proposition about measurable stuff or it's just tossing words around at random because it thinks it needs to say something about the relationship between the business cycle and campaign politics. We can't rule out the latter, but let's be charitable and assume the former. That would mean, among other things, that there's a current state of tightness in the presidential race that could become tighter -- in a way attributable to real movement in the population, rather than chance -- owing to the rate at which the economy is growing. Is there?

One way to find out is to look a roundup of surveys about the presidential race. Let's use the index at Real Clear Politics (not the "RCP average," which can neither tighten nor loosen because it's a meaningless number). Of the four most recent as of this writing, we find two tracking polls -- Rasmussen, with 1,500 likely voters for a standard error of .013,*** and Gallup, with 2,200 registered voters (SE .011) -- in which the candidates are separated by a point and two polls in which they're tied. For the race to get any tighter, the campaigns would basically have to start executing their own supporters whenever things start looking up, and that's not going to be good for contributions in the long term.

What the AP probably means is something like: Mediocre expansion that manifests itself in nonspectacular ways tends to be a drag on the incumbent. That's an accurate if not especially interesting observation; the AP may have declined to make it out of concern that it would be pilloried as a lapdog of the Maoists. But it's a different sort of claim than suggesting that the race -- I'm trying to avoid excessive scare quotes here, but the election is still six months away -- is going to "tighten." Should the Rasmussen tracking poll show Romney up by 2 points on Sunday, it doesn't mean he's going to take on ballast until the race is even again.

Lesson for editors? When a story makes a bogus claim, don't amplify it in the headline. Ask for evidence, and if the evidence isn't forthcoming, get rid of the claim.  

* Yes, the Web site uses a comma to coordinate the clauses. Yes Web editing is every bit as important as print editing. Yes, people really do think less of products that don't care.
** There may be a few die-hards at the AP flagellating themselves over the relative clause, on grounds that it doesn't modify anything tangible, but that's not a real grammar concern and it's not particularly a sensemaking concern.
*** Meaning the "margin of error" at 95% confidence is ...

Labels: , , ,

Friday, May 04, 2012

No, who signs his

Quick, baseball fans: How many runs did Fred Lynn score on that fateful night* at Tiger Stadium?

If your answer is "I don't know," have another big orange.** The column is about the night Lynn drove in 10 runs. Even if "10-RBI" wouldn't fit in the top line (and it looks like it would), you can't shorten something by making it wrong. That's against the rules.

One good reason to teach editors how to calculate the margin of sampling error is that numbers belong in the realm of discussion, not magic. Our side of the newsroom needs to own its stats as thoroughly as the sports department owns its. If confusing runs with RBIs in display type is the sort of damage the War on Editing hath wrought downtown, we're closer than we thought, but not in a good way.

* June 18, 1975
** Or go play third base. I don't give a darn.


Thursday, May 03, 2012

Men-eating tiger

Quick, grammar fans, what's wrong with the Fair 'n' Balanced hed shown here? (Aside from the question mark and the "suspected," I mean.)

It doesn't take much in the way of substance to make the Fox front. Here's how the story explains the "possible link":

"We have no indication that there is any connection to Lauren's case, but we are certainly interested in anyone who comes to the attention of law enforcement for targeting women as victims," the department said in a statement obtained* by

... but when you're already fronting administration perfidy, Zombie Bin Laden and corporate scorn for Our Veterans, it must be hard to resist rounding out the perfect front page.

(We did have some discussion about an appropriate title for the post. I was leaning toward "That's right, Little Bill," but as is so often the case, Language Czarina had the better idea.)

* "Obtained." Stop the press!

This week in end-zone performance

Spring is here, spring is here, and what better way to welcome another term of journalism history than ... the return of the frontpage political cartoon!

After a fashion, I mean. Photo manipulation is a timid cousin of the real thing, and until people stop using it for symbolic handshakes between city and suburbs or Town and Gown, it's never going to get its own Pulitzer category. But an old-fashioned editorial elbow to the chops -- that just takes you back to the days when press barons stalked the earth.

But could it be only a year ago that the demand from the Murdoch-influenced* press was ... how's that again, Boston Herald? He's supposed to spike the thing?

 Just when the nation seemed to have fallen in love all over again with the gutsy, decisive leader in the Oval Office, the old Barack Obama was back again, refusing to release the photos of a dead Osama bin Laden because they might be inflammatory.

It’s not that we have a pressing need to look at bin Laden’s head blown open as we sip our morning coffee. But why is this president forever second guessing how the rest of the world, particularly the Muslim world, will react? Brave Navy SEALs gave the murdering bastard exactly what he deserved and the rest of the world should know that too. The message clearly ought to be that you mess with the United States, you kill innocent civilians and sooner or later we’ll get you. There is a price to be paid.

Well, yes and no. That's yes, as in everybody's entitled to an opinion, and no, as in "then why do people leave comments like this on news stories?"

OBL cost this country a couple trillion dollars.  It's a major pain to travel.  Some stranger gets to fondle my crotch at TSA checkpoints in the airport. [In] light of all that, I think I should be allowed to see that scumbags brain matter. Release the pictures Mr. President.
Read more »


Wednesday, May 02, 2012

War on birds!

Not content with his War On Christmas and Stealth Assault On The Second Amendment, the feckless Kenyan Muslim socialist is going after the weakest and most defenseless among us -- our sparrows!

At least, that's how the War on Birds is reaching the public agenda over at The Fox Nation ("for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion"). Its source is the Washington Free Beacon ("dedicated to uncovering the stories that the professional left hopes will never see the light of day"):

Bird enthusiasts are calling on the Obama administration to cease its devastating war on birds and reverse an obscure mining rule killing possibly a million or more birds a year.

The soul of the inverted pyramid, right? Broad summary in the lede, followed by support below? Meaning the next things we should learn are which "bird enthusiasts" are involved, how their call is expressed, and how the "war on birds" belongs to the Obama administration. Keep your eye on the pivot foot as we move through the next few grafs:
Read more »

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Charge for the guns, he said

Ever wonder how The Crazy spreads so fast? Enjoy this adventure in quality sourcing:

The Obama campaign apparently didn't look backwards into history when selecting its new campaign slogan, "Forward" — a word with a long and rich association with European Marxism.

Do tell! And we know this how?

Many Communist and radical publications and entities throughout the 19th and 20th centuries had the name "Forward!" or its foreign cognates. Wikipedia has an entire section called "Forward (generic name of socialist publications)."

"The name Forward carries a special meaning in socialist political terminology. It has been frequently used as a name for socialist, communist and other left-wing newspapers and publications," the online encyclopedia explains.

The sense-making graf comes at the end:

... Conservative critics of the Obama administration have noted numerous ties to radicalism and socialists throughout Mr. Obama's history, from his first political campaign being launched from the living room of two former Weather Underground members, to appointing as green jobs czar Van Jones, a self-described communist.

That's sort of what James Carey was getting at when he likened reading the newspaper to going to church. You probably pick up some information incidentally, but the main reason you go is to be reminded that all the stuff you already know is still true.