Category Archives: Editing

“slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

If you are confused about the difference between style and grammar, you should read this testy but important post from The Economist’s Johnson blog, pointing out a problem with Paul Farhi’s Washington Post profile of David Minthorn, one of the editors of the AP Stylebook. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

“E-MAIL” or “e-mail”? “Bed and breakfast” or “bed-and-breakfast”?… “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Mic” or “mike”?

My question isn’t which of these readers prefer, but a more abstract one: which of these are questions of grammar?

The Washington Post profiles the Associated Press’s “grammar and style expert” David Minthorn today. In raising all these questions (and Mr Minthorn’s answers) and in describing Mr Minthorn as a kind of linguistic Solomon, the Post’s Paul Farhi never once makes a crucial point: none of these questions has a correct answer at all, because they are not questions of grammar. They are all style…

Whether to hyphenate “e-mail” or not is one of the most trivial and boring things I can possibly imagine having a debate about, but the AP’s recent move to “email” caused an almighty furore….

It’s good to be consistent, and that’s why the AP and The Economist (and probably the Washington Post) have something called a style. But this is just a series of subjective, almost capricious rulings so that we don’t see “e-mail” and soon thereafter, “email”, a “Ghaddafi” here and a “Qaddhafi” there. As the name suggests, style is a matter of taste…. Who cares, for goodness’s sake? Just pick one and stay with it.

Grammar, on the other hand, really does render “right” and “wrong” judgments…. This isn’t to say there aren’t open or controversial questions of grammar. And there are meta-level questions about the sources of authority in questions of grammar, the old prescriptive versus descriptive argument…. Whatever your language or dialect, it has rules….

Many people worship and slavishly follow the AP’s style. They shouldn’t, because the whole idea of slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language…

It’s also important to remember that there are different style guides for different types of writing, and each style is influenced by practical considerations unique to their publications. For example, Chicago style (used by most of the publishing world) uses the serial comma for clarity, while AP style (used by most newspapers and journalists) doesn’t use the serial comma in order to save column space. Here are two additional examples from Farhi’s article. The AP decision to drop the hyphen from “e-mail” was made because “the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second.” And though Chicago italicizes the titles of books and periodicals, Minthorn notes that “AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them….”

So you should make sure the style you are using is appropriate to the specific type of writing or publication, understand the reasons behind the style decisions you make, and apply your style choices consistently. For more about style manuals, see my previous posts on the subject. For more examples of Chicago and AP style differences, see the AP vs. Chicago blog.

No, Oxford hasn’t abandoned the Oxford comma

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love the Oxford comma (also known as the serial or series comma). I wrote in a post over two years ago:

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

This morning a GalleyCat post reported that the use of the Oxford comma is now discouraged by the University of Oxford (in their online Writing and Style Guide). This has, of course, ignited the Twittersphere with strong reactions, pro and con.

However, it turns out that the story isn’t really true.  Galleycat has just added an update to their blog post:

Reader Michael Williams adds this clarification: “That’s the University of Oxford PR department style guide. Oxford University Press is a commercially and editorially autonomous organization.”

So, much ado about nothing. (Yet another reminder not to believe everything you read on the Internet.) But even if it were true, that would certainly not convince me to give up the Oxford comma.

Update, 6/30/11: 

Oxford Dictionaries tweeted this morning:

The Oxford comma is alive and well at Oxford University Press: http://oxford.ly/mnx8XK

This AP article explains:

But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Yet the report caused a Twitterstorm….

Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

I’ve previously blogged about a number of different style manuals, but this is a rather unusual one. BoingBoing has published online the style manual of the National Security Agency, received through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in April 2010.

The NSA has a style guide—a Strunk and White for spooks—which we’re delighted to publish here for the first time.

Most of the document is an alphabetized compendium of ambiguous, easily-misused or otherwise troublesome words. As style guides go, it’s standard fare: more interesting than the grammar tips are clarifications on obscure intelligence terms and the usage examples, which often lean toward military operations, geopolitics, killings and diplomacy.

Go to the BoingBoing post to read the embedded document or download it as a PDF or TXT file.

Below I’ve copied an assortment of entries that caught my eye as I browsed:

about, approximately …
About is preferred in general and informal contexts. Approximately is common in technical and reference works. Do not use either term (or estimated or nearly) if precise figures are given. POOR: During the attack, about 304 were killed. GOOD: During the attack, 304 were killed. If you are not sure of the number, round it off: During the attack, about 300 were killed.

aircraft …
Do not abbreviate the generic types of aircraft in serialized reports. Use fighter, not “fir”; bomber, not “bmbr”. In keeping with modern journalistic style, capitalize only the first letter of aircraft nicknames: F-15 (Eagle).

bomb …
Do not use the terms A-bomb or H-bomb. Spell out the words. Do not capitalize atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, etc.

bureaucratese …
Bureaucratese is a pejorative, non-technical term for the language style commonly associated with bureaucrats.

Avoid bureaucratic style whenever possible. It is the mark of the timid writer. What is bureaucratic style? Robert Claiborne identified the four main principles of bureaucratic style as:
• never use a short word where a long one will do;
• never use one word where you can use three;
• use abstract and general terms rather than concrete and specific ones; and
• avoid flat statements by hedging and qualifying.

Bureaucratese speaks in passive voice and buzzwords, and it carefully avoids assigning responsibility for any action or decision. It will bore or put to sleep most readers. Don’t use it unless you have no other way to communicate.

casualties …
In military terms, casualties means the total number of dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Do not use casualties when referring to only one of these categories.

communism, communist. ..
Use lowercase for the word communism.

Capitalize communist when referring to the political party or to individuals who are members of it: Communist Party. He is a Communist.

Use lowercase for communist in all other situations: a communist government; he has communist leanings.

email…
Shortened term for electronic mail. The spelling without the hyphen is becoming more common and is preferred, but the alternative form e-mail is also correct.

foreign phrases and words …
Keep the use of foreign words and phrases to a minimum. Few of our readers are linguists.

Where the capability exists…, italicize any foreign word or phrase that may not be known to the average reader. Commonly recognized terms that need not be italicized include, but are not limited to:
• ad hoc
• attache
• blitzkrieg
• bona fide
• charge d’affaires
• communique
• coup d’etat
• de facto
• demarche
• detente
• fait accompli
• junta
• laissez faire
• per se
• persona non grata
• rapprochement
• versus
• vis-a-vis

FOXTROT …
Phonetic spelling of the letter “f.”

gender …
When talking about a specific person, use a term appropriate to that person: chairman Jones, chairwoman Doe.

Use neutral terms when talking about mixed groups or persons whose identity has not been established: members of the Assembly, rather than Assemblymen; a member of Congress rather than a Congressman.

Do not change an official title to a neutral term. If the official title is “Party Chairman,” use that term; don’t say “Party Chairperson.”

For pronouns, the problem is different. Modern English does not have gender-neutral pronouns for people.

When a pronoun must be used and the gender of its antecedent is not known or can refer to persons of either sex, there are four three choices the writer can make, all of which are acceptable in SIGINT serialized reports.

1. Use the plural pronoun: Everyone hopes they will win the contest.
2. Place the whole sentence in the plural: All people hope they will win the contest.
3. Rewrite the sentence and eliminate the personal pronoun: Everyone hopes to win the contest.

government…
Government, as a political term, refers to an established system of political administration. In American usage, it takes a singular verb; in British usage, it takes a plural verb.

guerrilla …
Preferred spelling. The alternate spelling is guerilla.

jihad …
Preferred transliteration of the Arabic word for “holy war.”

missile …
A missile is an unmanned, self-propelled weapon whose flight path or trajectory can be controlled. A missile may be aerodynamic or ballistic. Distinguish it from a “rocket, which is a self-propelled vehicle whose trajectory or flight path cannot be controlled.

reconnaissance…
Two n’s and s’s. Avoid abbreviating it as “Recon” except as part of a unit designator in a listing or in a narrative report where it occurs repeatedly. Also avoid the abbreviation “recce,” which is chiefly British. The verb form of reconnaissance is reconnoiter.

revolt, revolution …
A revolt is widespread opposition to current standards. Politically, it refers to an armed attempt to change authority.

A revolution is a radical alteration in a system or in social conditions. In the political sense, it is the overthrow by open and organized armed force of an established government and its replacement by another.

security control markings …
Words or phrases added to restrict the dissemination of a serialized report. At this time there are five such markings:
• ORCON – Dissemination and Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator
• NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
• PROPIN- Proprietary Information Involved
• REL – Releasable to (name of the countries)
• EYES ONLY – (used only on electrical reports in place of REL due to existing software limitations)

title after a name …
Capitalize only national-level titles (Cabinet-level or above) that appear after a name: Jane Doe, Minister of Defense. Lowercase and set off with commas most other titles that appear after a name: John Doe, the deputy assistant minister of culture, arrived yesterday.

title before a name …
Capitalize a formal title appearing before a name: President Jane Doe, Assistant Secretary John Jones. Do not capitalize a title that serves primarily as an occupational designator: astronaut John Doe…. See the entries for courtesy tjtles, military rank, and religious titles.

totalitarian …
Avoid. See the entry for authoritarian.

The document also contains an appendix on abbreviations and acroynyms.

So, what’s your favorite entry?

NY Times ignores AP, clings to “e-mail” and “Web site”

As you know, Bob, most newspapers follow the AP Stylebook, but the New York Times has its own famously idiosyncratic style. Though the AP dropped the hyphen from “e-mail” a few days ago, the Times is keeping the hyphen, according to a blog post by Phillip B. Corbett (associate managing editor for standards) describing some recent revisions to their in-house stylebook. Here’s an excerpt:

We no longer have to write about people sending “an e-mail message” — we can call it “an e-mail.” The term is also acceptable as a verb. (For now, at least, we are keeping the hyphen for this and similar coinages like e-commerce and e-reader.)

Some of the changes simply acknowledge the cultural ubiquity of digital technology. Most of our articles followed popular usage long ago in dropping the “World Wide” from “World Wide Web.” Now the stylebook has caught up: just call it “the Web” outside historical references. Keep in mind that it is just part of “the Internet.”

For now, we’ll continue to capitalize Web and Internet, and we’ll keep “Web site” as two words. But “webcam” is one word, lowercase….

While writers are still urged to avoid some of the newer fad words and jargon, the ubiquitous “app” is now acceptable in all references to software applications, particularly for mobile….

As with PDF, we are no longer requiring points in USB or URL. (The same goes for fanciful texting abbreviations, should you feel the need to ROTFL. Sparingly, please.) We have given up on the insistence that “firewall” always be two words….

Note that the Times alone continues to use “Web site,” though common usage and all of the most recent editions of major stylebooks (including AP, Chicago, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple) use “website.”

The AP Stylebook is dropping the hyphen from “e-mail”

Last August I compared how a number of new style manuals treated tech words. In 2010, both the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and the AP Stylebook Online finally changed their style recommendations from “Web site” to “website,” reflecting what has long been common usage.  But there was disagreement over other terms. Most notably, Chicago and AP still used “e-mail,” but the tech/digital style manuals (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) all dropped the hyphen (“email”)

Today Jim Romenesko reported that the AP Stylebook editors just announced a series of new changes– including the dropping of the hyphen from “e-mail”–  at the American Copy Editors Society Conference. Here’s an excerpt from the ACES 2011 post:

David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, editors of the AP Stylebook, brought with them to ACES 2011 in Phoenix some of the changes that will be effective as of 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, March 19.

They are:

• email, instead of e-mail. (Other “e” terms, such as e-book and e-commerce, retain the hyphen,)

• Kolkata, India, instead of Calcutta, India. To follow local style.

• cellphone, smartphone become one word. (No longer cell phone and smart phone.)

• handheld, n., hand-held, adj.

Most news organizations follow AP style, but book publishers usually follow Chicago style, so the hyphen isn’t dead yet. (See my April 2010 post for more on “e-mail” vs. “email” and Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index.”)

A final post on Cooks Source (updated)

Over the weekend, the Daily Hampshire Gazette posted an article by Dan Crowley containing an interview with Judith Griggs about the Cook Source copyright infringement kerfuffle. (See my two previous posts for background.)

I found the article rather sad, as she still doesn’t seem to get it. She admits printing Monica’s article without permission was wrong but continues to make vague excuses about overwork (she and her daughter run the magazine alone) and her “shortcomings when it comes to understanding copyright law.” She clearly doesn’t understand that what sent everyone into a frenzy was the tone and content of her truly extraordinary e-mail to Monica. It was just so wrong, arrogant, and unintentionally funny that it became an instant meme.

And now she has replaced her previous unsigned statement on the Cooks Source website with a new one, full of anger and self-pity (and lots of spelling and punctuation errors):

Its sad really. The problem is that I have been so overworked and stretched that when this woman — Monica — contacted me, I was on deadline and traveling at the rate of 200 mile a day for that week (over 900 in total for that week), which I actually told her, along with a few other “nice” things, which she hasnt written about. I was stupid to even answer her that night, her email to me was antagonistic and just plain rude and I was exhausted. But I got suckered in and responded. She doesnt say that she was rude, she doesnt say that I agreed (and did) to pay her. It was my plan to contact her after deadline and have a good discussion about it….

I should add that this email exchange took place the day before she wrote her article for the world. After she (likely) received my email, she called the home office phone at 10PM, I didnt answer that late, was in bed as I was traveling again the next day (left at 7AM the next morning) to Connecticut, and didnt get back to her. This is not an uncommon practice with anyone, to not respond to a phone call for a day or two, it happens to me from other businesses, all the time. I came home that day from being in Connecticut to find hundreds of phone messages and emails telling me I sucked and was a dirtbag… and much MUCH worse.

I really wish she had given me a chance to respond to her before blasting me. She really never gave me a chance….

This is how it happened:
When putting together a magazine, a publishing firm usually has a staff of many, a stable of writers and proofreaders. Cooks Source doesnt, it is just us two…and believe me we would if we could use more help. Consequently I do much, have a few stalwart writers who love to write (for free) and a number of publishers and book agents who send me A LOT of books, recipes, press releases, etc — I recieved one even today. In the past I have also assisted budding writers with their writing skills and given them a portfolio piece they can get jobs with, from magazines and newspapers that will pay them. In short, we do a lot of good, sell a lot of books for authors, and help a lot of people. But one night when working yet another 12 hour day late into the night, I was short one article… Instead of picking up one of the multitude of books sent to me and typing it, I got lazy and went to the www and “found” something. Bleary-eyed I didnt notice it was copy written and reordered some of it. I did keep the author’s name on it rather than outright “stealing” it, and it was my intention to contact the author, but I simply forgot, between proofreading, deliveries, exhaustion….

The bad news is that this is probably the final straw for Cooks Source. We have never been a great money-maker even with all the good we do for businesses. Having a black mark wont help…and now, our black mark will become our shroud. Winters are bleak in Western New England, and as such they are bleak for Cooks Source as well. This will end us….

Thank you to all our readers, thanks to all our advertisers and writers… and to everyone who has been supportive and who has been a part of Cooks Source. To one writer in particular, Monica Gaudio, I wish you had given me a chance.

You can read the whole thing here.

What a shameful way for Judith Griggs to exit the stage.

Update 1: Here’s Monica’s response.

Update 2 (11/17/10, morning): In a new article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Dan Crowley reports that Judith Griggs is officially shutting down Cooks Source magazine:

“Cooks Source is gone,” Judith D. Griggs said Tuesday, just days after personally distributing her last issue of the free magazine in western New England. “It’s done.”… In a phone interview Tuesday, Griggs said she will leave her statement up a few more days before eliminating the Cooks Source website altogether.

Update 3 (11/17/10, afternoon): The Cooks Source website is gone. Here’s the Google cache of Judith Griggs’ final statement.

Monica Gaudio has posted copies (with dates) of all of her e-mails to Judith Griggs, but she can’t publish the full text of the e-mails she received without permission.

A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words

Though two of the most influential style manuals (Chicago and AP) recently changed from “Web site” to  “website,” they still differ in their treatment of other tech words, which won’t be a surprise to writers and editors who work with different styles.

Below I’ve compared the current recommendations for tech words from new editions of four style and usage guides.

Chicago is the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (published August 2010), the authoritative style guide used by most of the publishing world.

AP is the AP Stylebook Online (updated April 2010), the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists. (The New York Times uses its own idiosyncratic style.)

Yahoo! is the Yahoo! Style Guide (published July 2010), a new style guide for digital content.

Garner is the 3rd edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (published August 2009), an excellent book that tracks recent changes in usage and language.

The results:

  • All four agree on “website,” “World Wide Web,” and “the Internet.”
  • All except Chicago capitalize “the Web.”
  • Chicago, AP, and Garner use the hyphenated “e-mail,” but Yahoo! uses “email.”
  • Yahoo! and Garner use “webpage,” Chicago uses “web page,” and AP uses “Web page.”

It may look like consensus has finally been reached on “website,” but this is not the end of “Web site,” as it is still the standard in older works like the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (which hasn’t been updated since the 2004 3rd edition) and both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, published in 2003) and Merriam-Webster Online. (By the way, the December 2009 Apple Publications Style Guide uses “website,” “webpage,” and “email” without the hyphen.)

What does this mean for you? If you are using an older style manual, you should probably get a more current one. Which style manual you use will depend on the kind of writing, editing, or publishing you do. Chicago will likely be your primary style manual unless you work with specialized fields or content, such as technical writing, journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, etc. If you are working for a publisher or company, use the style manual and/or “house style” they specify. (Some use a hybrid, based primarily on a particular style manual but customized for internal preferences.) If you are writing for yourself, you can do what you want, but try to be both consistent and open to change. (Though Chicago is my default style manual, I’ve been using “website” and “the web” since I began this blog two years ago. Though I’m tempted to eliminate the hyphen from “e-mail,” I’m not quite ready to do so.)

So, in light of all this, are you going to make any changes to your style or try to convince your employer to modify the house style?

For more on style manuals, see my previous posts.

Update, 8/11/10: In the comments, Delf notes that though Microsoft’s published style manual hasn’t been updated since 2004, their style guide for internal use continues to be updated, and the latest version (June 30, 2010) specifies the following:

website
World Wide Web
the Internet
the web
email
webpage

Note that all of the tech/digital style guides (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) have dropped the hyphen from “email,” which I don’t think we’ll see adopted quickly by Chicago and AP.

Update 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

“The new phone book’s here!”

My print copy of the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just arrived from Amazon.com, though the official publication date is not until the end of August.

Here’s an interesting change: the 16th edition of the CMOS, like the new edition of the AP Stylebook, now embraces “website” (instead of the more formal “Web site”) as well as “the web” and “web page” (see 7.76 and 7.85). For more on “Web site” vs. “website,” see my earlier post on the subject.

For a list of some of the other changes in the 16th edition, see The Subversive Copy Editor’s “16th edition Sneak Peeks and Retired Rules.”

If you prefer your reference works in digital form, see The Chicago Manual of Style Online for online subscription options.

By the way, in the package with the CMOS was another new style manual, The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. When I have more time, it will be interesting to explore and compare the two works.

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America”

Today, July 2nd, is the 234th anniversary of American independence. July 4th is the anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. For the whole story, see my post from last year, “Why July 2nd is really Independence Day.”

The document above is the original resolution on Independence, adopted by the Continental Congress on July 2nd, 1776, in the hand of Charles Thompson, secretary of the Congress:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and, of right, ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown, and that all political connexion between them, and the state of Great Britain, is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

It is from the Papers of the Continental Congress and is housed at the National Archives.

The document above is the first page (of four) of Jefferson’s “original Rough draught” of the Declaration of Independence, written in June 1776, including all the changes made later by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, other members of the committee, and the Continental Congress. It is housed at the Library of Congress, and you can view it in their online exhibit “Declaring Independence: Drafting the Documents”. You can compare side-by-side the text of various drafts with the final version here.

The Subversive Copy Editor and a new edition of Chicago Manual of Style

Thanks to this CopyEditing post, I just learned that Carol Saller, the editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s Online Q&A and the author of the book The Subversive Copy Editor, has a new blog, the appropriately titled The Subversive Copy Editor Blog. Last year I wrote about Saller’s CMS Q&A and recommended her book in my post “I think someone needs a vacation….”

In related news, the new and revised 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style will be published in August 2010. Here’s an excerpt from the description, with information on what’s new in this edition:

While digital technologies have revolutionized the publishing world in the twenty-first century, one thing still remains true: The Chicago Manual of Style is the authoritative, trusted source that writers, editors, and publishers turn to for guidance on style and process. For the sixteenth edition, every aspect of coverage has been reconsidered to reflect how publishing professionals work today. Though processes may change, the Manual continues to offer the clear, well-considered style and usage advice it has for more than a century.

The sixteenth edition offers expanded information on producing electronic publications, including web-based content and e-books. An updated appendix on production and digital technology demystifies the process of electronic workflow and offers a primer on the use of XML markup, and a revised glossary includes a host of terms associated with electronic as well as print publishing. The Chicago system of documentation has been streamlined and adapted for a variety of online and digital sources….

The hardcover book will be priced at $65, but you can pre-order it from Amazon for $41.  There’s also an online version, The Chicago Manual of Style Online, which you can subscribe to for $35 per year (or $60 for two years). Subscribers will automatically receive the new content.

For more about the Chicago Manual of Style, see my post “The writer’s bookshelf (part 3).” You can also follow the Chicago Manual of Style on Twitter.

AP Stylebook surrenders the battle over “Web site” vs. “website”

I was very pleased to read today in this post on Poynter Online that the Associated Press Stylebook (the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists) is finally changing from Web site to website. This change now appears in the AP Stylebook Online and will be in the printed 2010 AP Stylebook.

It’s about time, as common usage long ago moved to website, a fact acknowledged by Bryan Garner in his excellent 2009 third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage:

website. One word, lowercase. But some stylesheets and dictionaries specify Web site (a clunker). When Web stands alone, it is capitalized. Cf. World Wide Web.

The New York Times, which has long had its own rather idiosyncratic style rules (see my 2009 post on the subject), uses Web site, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they continue to do so long after everyone else has abandoned it.

Here’s what the Chicago Manual of Style Online says about the issue:

Q. Which is currently accepted: Web site, web site, website, or Website?

A. A lot of people are writing “website.” A lot of people have come to prefer “website.” But formal usage still calls for “Web site,” in recognition of the initiatives of the World Wide Web Consortium (write “Web-site” as an adjective). The most elaborately formal modern American publication I can think of, the New Yorker, still writes “Web site,” but then again, they also write “E-mail,” “coördinate,” and “reëxamine”—they are very particular. We at Chicago are very particular too, and we recommend “Web site.” But our press as a whole is not in the position of publishing a single, unified publication—such as a magazine. It is easier to apply a set of standard rules and never vary from them for one publication, but rules applying to all sorts of books, articles, and other writing must be a little more flexible. Moreover, when a word gets used a lot it tends to lose any awkward edges (and what could be more awkward than a compound formed of one capitalized word and one lowercased word?). Each new book that appears on the scene presents an opportunity for an author to express a usage preference or to demonstrate a familiarity with changing usage.

But generally, I would recommend “Web site” for formal writing, but “website” for informal writing or friendly writing. Unless, of course, you prefer “Web site” even when you’re being friendly.

It’s a fact that style and usage change over time, though it often takes time to filter up to the guardians of language. One of the things I really like about the new edition of Garner is that he includes a “Language-Change Index” to “measure how widely accepted various linguistic innovations have become.” His Index has five stages:

Stage 1: A new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.

Stage 2: The form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.

Stage 3: The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.

Stage 4: The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts….

Stage 5: The form is universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics).

For example, email for e-mail is in Stage 4, and he explains in detail in the entry:

e-mail; E-mail; email. The first is the prevalent form in print sources. The letter e–short for electronic–is sometimes capitalized, but the trend is to make it lowercase. The unhyphenated email is unsightly, but it might prevail in the end. In print sources, e-mail is five times as common as email. Ultimately, the hyphen may well disappear–since that is what midword hyphens tend to do–but for the time being it is more than holding its own.

Of course the reason e-mail is much more common in print sources is that the style manuals used by print publications specify that as the correct usage.

For more on style manuals, see one of my earliest posts, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), or some of my other posts on the subject.

Update, 8/5/10: The new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style now embraces “website,” as I noted in the post I wrote after receiving my print copy.

Update, 8/6/10: See my new blog post, “A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words.”

Update, 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

How cutting and pasting can lead to plagiarism

In today’s New York Times, Public Editor Clark Hoyt’s column, titled “Journalistic Shoplifting,” is about the recent plagiarism scandal surrounding Times business reporter Zachery Kouwe.

I wanted to point out this particular passage, in which Hoyt notes that both Zachery Kouwe and Gerald Posner claim that their plagiarism was unintentional, caused by cutting and pasting material from other sources and mixing it up with their own writing:

Kouwe told [John Koblin of the New York Observer] that the plagiarism happened with minor news reported elsewhere that needed to be matched on DealBook. He said he would copy stories from wires, paste them into a file in the editing system, verify the information and then put the material in his own words. At least, he said, that is what he intended to do. When I asked him how he could fail to notice that he was copying someone else’s work, he added further explanation: He said the raw material in the computer files in which he assembled his stories included not only reports from other sources but also context and background from previous articles that he had written himself. When putting it all together, he said, he must have thought the words he copied were his own, earlier ones. “It was just my carelessness in trying to get it up quickly,” he said.

The explanation was similar to one offered only days earlier by Gerald Posner, a reporter for The Daily Beast, who was caught by Jack Shafer of Slate cribbing sentences from The Miami Herald. Posner, who resigned after even more plagiarism was found, also said that he did not do it intentionally. He said he had poured all his research — interviews, public documents, published articles — into a master electronic file and then boiled it into an article under tight Web deadlines, a process that led to disaster.

We’ve seen before how cutting and pasting material written by others can lead to plagiarism, as in the Chris Anderson Free/Wikipedia scandal.

Writers can protect themselves from this kind of  “unintentional plagiarism” by incorporating some simple and practical tips into their research and writing process. In a July 2009 blog post on avoiding plagiarism, I recommended Harvard University’s excellent PDF publication Writing with Internet Sources. The chapter on “Incorporating Electronic Sources into Your Writing” contains a section called “Strategies for Avoiding Internet Plagiarism” (pages 42-44), with important advice for writers:

Internet plagiarism most often occurs when writers cut and paste from the Internet or paraphrase carelessly… The following tips will help you research and write with honesty and integrity.

  • Plan ahead
    … Budget enough time to search for sources, take notes on them, and think about how to use them… Moments of carelessness are more common when you leave your [writing] until the last minute and are tired or stressed. Honest mistakes can lead to charges of plagiarism just as dishonesty can; be careful when note-taking and in the incorporation of ideas and language from electronic sources so you don’t “borrow”—i.e., unintentionally plagiarize—the work of another writer.
  • Print your sources
    Print the relevant pages from any websites you use, making sure that you note the complete URL….
  • File and label your sources
    Never cut and paste information from an electronic source straight into your own [writing]. Instead, open a separate document on your computer for each electronic source so you can file research information. When you cut and paste into that document, make sure to include the full URL….
  • Keep your own writing and your sources separate
    Work with either the printed copy of your source(s) or the copy you pasted into a separate document—not the online version—as you [write]….
  • Keep your notes and your draft separate
    Be careful to keep your research notes separate from your actual draft; this will ensure you don’t cut language from a source and paste it directly into your draft without proper attribution. You can open your notes and your draft next to each other on your computer screen and work back and forth.
  • Acknowledge your sources explicitly when paraphrasing
    In your research notes, use some form of notation to indicate what you’ve paraphrased (e.g., put brace brackets around the paraphrase), and mention the author’s name within the material you paraphrase. Once you start writing and revising, make sure you avoid gradually rewording the paraphrased material until you lose sight of the fact that it is still a paraphrase of someone else’s ideas….
  • Quote your sources properly
    Always use quotation marks for directly quoted material, even for short phrases and key terms….
  • Keep a source trail
    As you write and revise…, keep a source trail of notes and of each successive draft…. You ought to be able to reconstruct the path you took from your sources, to your notes, to your drafts, to your revision….

I also recommend that you read Craig Silverman’s recent column for the Columbia Journalism Review, “The Counter-Plagiarism Handbook: Tips for writers and editors on how to avoid or detect journalistic plagiarism.” Here are two of his useful tips for writers:

  • Use a different font and text color for your research files. This will help you instantly recognize other people’s words when you paste them into your story.
  • Add in the proper attribution as soon as you paste any research into your draft.

“Never assume anything!”: Tips for greater accuracy

In light of my recent blog posts about errors and fact-checking, I thought I’d link to some resources to help writers improve their accuracy. Though some of these sources were written for journalists, much of the advice applies equally well to anyone who researches, writes, or edits. It’s important to remember that writers are ultimately responsible for their own work, and they can no longer just assume that their mistakes will be caught and corrected by copy editors or fact-checkers.

This list of “44 Tips for Greater Accuracy” is by Frank E. Fee Jr., the Knight Professor of Editing at the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. There are two versions of Fee’s tips on the web: the first is a concise list, and the second has additional explanatory comments by Fee. You should read the whole thing, but here are some of his more important and universal tips:

  • Always do the math. Don’t rely on another person’s figures…
  • Never disregard a question that has been raised by another reader [or] by that small, sometimes indistinct voice in the back of your head…
  • Never assume anything!
  • We have to see the forest and the trees, so always read (at least) once for content and effect [and] read (at least) once for the mechanical errors (grammar, punctuation, keyboarding).
  • Always use all of the tools available to you (dictionary, stylebook, spell-checker, reference books, etc.). Don’t be too busy or too proud to check a fact.
  • Never trust anything in the [newspaper] clips. How do you know the first story was correct? Do you know for sure corrections caught up with the library clip or archive copy? Has something changed since that story was written?
  • Always get another pair of eyes to look at copy…
  • Always analyze any correction you see — yours or another’s. Ask: How did the error occur? How could it have been avoided? What would I do next time?
  • Always give any sensitive, unusual or tricky material one last look.
  • Always go back and read the full sentence if you’ve changed a word or two in copy. Watch for subject-verb agreement, missing info, duplication, etc.
  • In doubt? Always call the reporter, wire service, or even the source. We’re after the truth, not just a plausible narrative…
  • Always be careful how you ask questions when checking a fact. Leading questions may lead you into trouble. Ask open questions that ensure complete, open answers.
  • Never commit to print anything that you don’t understand. If you don’t know, what are the chances readers will? In pinning down your own understanding, you may: learn something; find a better way to say it; find a more accurate way to say it.
  • Never correct an error until you’re sure you made one. Retrace your steps. Don’t take someone else’s word that copy is wrong; check it out. This will help you discover why the error was made.
  • Always remember: Errors can come in clusters. Finding one may not find them all. There may be others.
  • “Fee’s Theorem”: “The most severe error in any one passage of a story will divert attention from the less severe errors in the same passage. The bigger the error, the more likely it will be the only one caught at that reading. Subsequent readings will tend to continue to eliminate only successive next-most-glaring errors.”

Accuracy First (for reporters)” is a handout that was developed as part of the American Press Institute’s seminar, “Our Readers Are Watching.” Here are a few highlights:

Ensuring accuracy involves several steps:

  • Asking effective questions.
  • Taking accurate notes.
  • Gathering source documents.
  • Questioning information.
  • Verifying information.
  • Fact-checking your story.

Get the names right

Screw up a name and readers who know how that person spells the name will not trust anything else you write. And the source will certainly question your ability or commitment to getting anything else right…

How do you know that?

Judith Miller of the New York Times blamed her inaccurate reporting on weapons of mass destruction on her sources. “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong,” she wrote. Don’t ever buy or use that excuse. The story has your name on it. You are responsible for the information in your story, however you attribute it. Do all you can to evaluate the source and verify the information.

Get to the source. When a character gives you a fact in an interview, get used to asking, “How do you know that?” This gets you to the source of the information. The person you’re talking to may be mistaken or lying or not remember the complete story. Asking “How do you know that?” helps you find the best source for the information. If you’re hearing a story second- or third-hand, trace it back to its origin. If someone is citing statistics to you, get the report that is the source of those statistics. Then you can verify, add context and find more stats.

Evaluate the source. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this person is: Does the source hold a position that would give her official access to this information? Is the source well enough connected to learn this information unofficially? Has this person given you reliable (or unreliable) information before? Has this person given you inaccurate information before? What is the source’s motivation for talking to you? Is the source willing to go on the record and stand behind her story publicly? Who else knows this? Who else knows more about this?

Evaluate the information. Ask questions of your source (and other sources) that will help you determine how knowledgeable and reliable this information is: Does your source know whether this is theory, speculation, rumor or fact? If the information is factual, is it current? Is it complete? What is the context?…

Verify using other sources

Who else knows? Seek other people who are knowledgeable about this situation. They can confirm or refute what you’ve been told. They can fill in gaps. Seek to resolve differences. Again, ask them how they know. Beware the echo chamber: You aren’t receiving confirmation if your second source only knows the information because the first source told her.

Seek documentation. Find official data, records and reports that can confirm, refute or expand upon what you have been told. If you are writing about a court hearing you didn’t attend, get the official transcript. Photographs might help you verify some details…

Go online. Seek verification (or original information) at the official web site of the organization you’re writing about and web sites of agencies that regulate the organization and interest groups that monitor the organization. Be as wary of information you find on the internet as you would of any other source of information. Especially be wary of information from sites that don’t verify their information, such as Wikipedia…

Chip Scanlan’s article on the Poynter Online website, “Getting it Right: A Passion for Accuracy,” contains advice and links to other sources.

Sarah Harrison Smith’s 2004 book The Fact Checker’s Bible: A Guide to Getting It Right has information on reading for accuracy, what to check, researching facts, and assessing the credibility of reference sources.

If you know of other useful sources you’d like to recommend, please do so in the comments to this post.

“How Did This Happen?”: The story behind the Times’ comedy of errors (but I’m not laughing)

In today’s New York Times, Clark Hoyt, the public editor, wrote in detail about Alessandra Stanley’s error-filled appraisal of Walter Cronkite and how it happened:

The Times published an especially embarrassing correction on July 22, fixing seven errors in a single article — an appraisal of Walter Cronkite, the CBS anchorman famed for his meticulous reporting. The newspaper had wrong dates for historic events; gave incorrect information about Cronkite’s work, his colleagues and his program’s ratings; misstated the name of a news agency, and misspelled the name of a satellite.

“Wow,” said Arthur Cooper, a reader from Manhattan. “How did this happen?”

The short answer is that a television critic with a history of errors wrote hastily and failed to double-check her work, and editors who should have been vigilant were not.

But a more nuanced answer is that even a newspaper like The Times, with layers of editing to ensure accuracy, can go off the rails when communication is poor, individuals do not bear down hard enough, and they make assumptions about what others have done. Five editors read the article at different times, but none subjected it to rigorous fact-checking, even after catching two other errors in it. And three editors combined to cause one of the errors themselves.

Seemingly little mistakes, when they come in such big clusters, undermine the authority of a newspaper, and senior editors say they are determined to find fixes. The Times seems to have particular difficulty in writing about people after their deaths. In addition to the appraisal in the Arts section, a front-page Cronkite obituary had two errors of its own, and the paper has suffered through a recent string of obits with multiple errors. Craig Whitney, the standards editor, said late last week that an editor is being added to the obituary department to fact-check and work with the staff to reduce “unacceptably high error rates.”

The Cronkite episode suggests that a newsroom geared toward deadlines needs to find a much better way to deal with articles written with no certain publication date. Reporters and editors think they have the luxury of time to handle them later — and suddenly, it is too late.

What Sam Sifton, the culture editor, ruefully called “a disaster, the equivalent of a car crash,” started nearly a month before Cronkite died, when news began circulating that he was gravely ill. On June 19, Alessandra Stanley, a prolific writer much admired by editors for the intellectual heft of her coverage of television, wrote a sum-up of the Cronkite career, to be published after his death.

Stanley said she was writing another article on deadline at the same time and hurriedly produced the appraisal, sending it to her editor with the intention of fact-checking it later. She never did.

“This is my fault,” she said. “There are no excuses.”

In her haste, she said, she looked up the dates for two big stories that Cronkite covered — the assassination of Martin Luther King and the moment Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon — and copied them incorrectly. She wrote that Cronkite stormed the beaches on D-Day when he actually covered the invasion from a B-17 bomber. She never meant that literally, she said. “I didn’t reread it carefully enough to see people would think he was on the sands of Omaha Beach.”

June 19 was a Friday, a heavy time for the culture department, which was processing copy for Saturday, Sunday and Monday. Lorne Manly, Stanley’s editor, read the article but did not catch the mistakes; worse, he made a change that led to another error. Where Stanley had said correctly that Cronkite once worked for United Press, Manly changed it to United Press International, with a note to copy editors to check the name. In the end, it came out United Press and United Press International in the same sentence.

Though the correct date of the moon landing was fresh in his mind, Manly said, he read right over that mistake. Catching it might have flagged the need for more careful vetting. For all her skills as a critic, Stanley was the cause of so many corrections in 2005 that she was assigned a single copy editor responsible for checking her facts. Her error rate dropped precipitously and stayed down after the editor was promoted and the arrangement was discontinued. Until the Cronkite errors, she was not even in the top 20 among reporters and editors most responsible for corrections this year. Now, she has jumped to No. 4 and will again get special editing attention.

Janet Higbie, a copy editor, said she started reading the article that Friday and caught the misspelling of the Telstar satellite and the two incorrect dates, but fixes she thought she made didn’t make it into the paper. “I don’t know what happened,” she said. Higbie said she had to drop the story and jump to deadline work, and she assumed that someone else would pick up the editing later. No one did — for four weeks, until Cronkite died late on another busy Friday. “It fell through the cracks,” Higbie said.

Two days before his father died, Chip Cronkite sent me an e-mail message labeled, “pre-emptive correction.” He said that CBS, in reviewing its obituary material, had found inaccuracies. “As a life-long admirer of your newspaper,” he said, “may I suggest that you have someone double-check ahead of time?”

Douglas Martin, who had written an advance obit of Cronkite several years earlier, phoned Chip Cronkite. They went over spellings, discussed the cause of death and the like. No one thought to forward Chip Cronkite’s message to the culture department, where Stanley’s appraisal sat.

When his father died on July 17, Chip Cronkite said he called CBS and then The Times, at 8:01 p.m. Laurel Graeber, who was running the culture copy desk, said she didn’t get the word for half an hour. Work had just finished on the Saturday Arts section, and most of the editors had gone home. Past deadline, Amy Virshup, a deputy culture editor, decided to put Stanley’s appraisal across the top of the Arts front. Graeber said she was worried about a headline, photos and captions. “I was not focusing on details” within the story, she said, thinking those had been handled. Graeber did make one fix, changing the first name of ABC’s anchor to Charles Gibson from Charlie in the title of his program. But the title still had another error, which was just corrected on Saturday — mistake No. 8.

And, it could have been worse. Nicole Herrington, a late-shift editor reading the appraisal casually, decided to check a fact near the top — Cronkite’s age when he retired. It was wrong. He was 64, not 65. Virshup then headed off the same mistake in the Page 1 obituary.

Looking back at it all — a critic making mistakes in haste, editors failing to vet her work enough, a story sitting for weeks without attention and then being rushed through — one sees how small missteps lead to big trouble, leaving readers to wonder what they can trust.

Chip Cronkite seemed philosophical about all the errors. He said his parents had a joke ashtray with the inscription, “Just give me the facts: I’ll mix ’em up when I quote you.”

To The Times, this isn’t a laughing matter. Whitney said: “We cannot tolerate this, and have tightened procedures to rule out a recurrence. I have spoken with those involved, and other senior newsroom editors and I will monitor the implementation of these measures.”

See my previous blog post (“At least they spelled his name right”) for links to Stanley’s Cronkite article and the Times’ correction of it.

UPDATE: In Craig Silverman’s new post on his Regret the Error blog, he uses this as a “teachable moment” and gives some practical tips on how to prevent errors and increase accuracy.

At least they spelled his name right

Reading the New York Times this morning, I spotted this jaw-dropping correction listing seven different errors in one article about Walter Cronkite:

An appraisal on Saturday about Walter Cronkite’s career included a number of errors. In some copies, it misstated the date that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and referred incorrectly to Mr. Cronkite’s coverage of D-Day. Dr. King was killed on April 4, 1968, not April 30. Mr. Cronkite covered the D-Day landing from a warplane; he did not storm the beaches. In addition, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on July 20, 1969, not July 26. “The CBS Evening News” overtook “The Huntley-Brinkley Report” on NBC in the ratings during the 1967-68 television season, not after Chet Huntley retired in 1970. A communications satellite used to relay correspondents’ reports from around the world was Telstar, not Telestar. Howard K. Smith was not one of the CBS correspondents Mr. Cronkite would turn to for reports from the field after he became anchor of “The CBS Evening News” in 1962; he left CBS before Mr. Cronkite was the anchor. Because of an editing error, the appraisal also misstated the name of the news agency for which Mr. Cronkite was Moscow bureau chief after World War II. At that time it was United Press, not United Press International.

Here’s the link to the original article about Cronkite (with the corrections).

At least they spelled Cronkite’s name right. In his August 12, 2007 column, Clark Hoyt, the Times’ public editor, wrote about the paper’s name problem:

The fact is, The New York Times misspells names at a ferocious rate — famous names, obscure names, names of the dead in their obituaries, names of the living in their wedding announcements, household names from Hollywood, names of Cabinet officers, sports figures, the shoe bomber, the film critic for The Daily News in New York and, astonishingly and repeatedly, Sulzberger, the name of the family that owns The New York Times…

So, you ask, what’s the big deal? Doesn’t The Times have more important things to worry about, like getting it right on Iraq and Iran and the presidential campaign?

Yes, a great newspaper has to get the big things right, but it also has to pay fanatical attention to thousands of details every day to prevent the kinds of mistakes that start readers wondering, “If they can’t spell his name right, what else is wrong with the story?”

Or, as Joe Lelyveld said in 2000, when he was executive editor of The Times, “When it comes to accuracy issues, tolerance and the larger view can be dangerous to our health.”

At a retreat of senior editors of The Times, Lelyveld called on them to “sweat the small stuff.” He bemoaned “the malignancy of misspelled names,” pointing out, among other things, that The Times had misspelled the first name of Madeleine Albright, who was then secretary of state, 49 times, despite running three corrections.

Unfortunately, the cancer appears to be getting worse..

I asked Greg Brock, the senior editor in charge of corrections, why he thinks so many names are misspelled in the paper, especially when The Times has so many layers of editing. In theory, every article is read by at least five people after a reporter finishes it, though stories written or changed for later editions often get far fewer checks. Brock said that when he looks into mistakes he gets several common responses:

¶Reporters say they were operating from memory and didn’t bother to check. That’s what one writer said after misspelling the name of Julianna Margulies, the television actress.

¶Reporters assume that a name is spelled the “normal” way and don’t check. That’s what happened with the obituary of Neal Shine, the former publisher of The Detroit Free Press, whose first name was not Neil, as it appeared in the paper. Shine hired me in 1968, when he was the city editor of The Free Press, and he would get infuriated by errors like this.

¶Reporters checking names on the Internet are carelessly misled by other people’s misspellings.

Craig Whitney, the assistant managing editor in charge of standards, has another theory. “Their minds are on higher things,” he said. “They’re looking at the bigger story, and they think they can’t bother with details like that.” Besides, he added, they expect misspellings “will be caught on the copy desk.”

I know the Times is having serious financial problems, but they really should hire back some of their fact-checkers and copy editors.

UPDATE 1: According to Gawker, this is not the first time the writer of the Cronkite article (Alessandra Stanley, the Times’  television critic) has made these kinds of  mistakes:

Alessandra Stanley Corrected Hard

How Many Corrections Does It Take To Get Fired At ‘The Times’?

Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s posts about Alessandra Stanley at Regret the Error.

UPDATE 2: Here’s the link to Craig Silverman’s July 24th column about Alessandra Stanley for the Columbia Journalism Review.

Editors and fact-checkers fix Sarah Palin’s resignation speech

Vanity Fair has given us a fantastic illustration of how editors, copy editors, and fact-checkers can improve any piece of writing– even Sarah Palin’s “word salad” of a resignation speech:

If you watched Sarah Palin’s resignation speech, you know one thing: her high-priced speechwriters moved back to the Beltway long ago. Just how poorly constructed was the governor’s holiday-weekend address? We asked V.F.’s red-pencil-wielding executive literary editor, Wayne Lawson, together with representatives from the research and copy departments, to whip it into publishable shape. Here is the colorful result.

Vanity Fair has posted edited versions of all eleven pages of the speech. Here are pages 1 and 5 of the speech to give you a taste of what they’ve done:

Palin resignation letter edited

Palin

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish blog for the tip.

I think someone needs a vacation…

Thanks to The Stranger Slog for pointing out this hilarious Q&A from The Chicago Manual of Style Online:

Q. Is there a period after an abbreviation of a country if it is terminating a sentence? “I went to U.K..”

A. Seriously, have you ever seen two periods in a row like that in print? If we told you to put two periods, would you do it? Would you set your hair on fire if CMOS said you should?

The editor of the Chicago Manual of Style’s monthly Q&A is Carol Fisher Saller. I enjoyed (and recommend) her book, The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (Or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships With Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself).

See my earlier blog post, The writer’s bookshelf (part 3), for more about The Chicago Manual of Style book and website.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with another of Saller’s classic Q&As:

Q. Oh, English-language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing? This author is giving me a fit with some of her overkill emphases, and now there is this sentence that has both marks at the end. My everlasting gratitude for letting me know what I should tell this person.

A. In formal writing, we allow both marks only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no.

The Washington Post discovers that fewer copy editors = more errors

Craig Silverman at Regret the Error has an excellent post about an important but underreported problem– the increasing number of errors in newspapers caused by the decreasing number of copy editors:

Just over two years ago, the public editor of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a column alerting readers to the fact that the paper had experienced a spike in the number of corrections. He was clear about the cause of the increased errors:

When the Sentinel tightened its financial belt back in June, it lost a wealth of seasoned veterans, many of them editors. Those journalists not only wrote headlines and captions. They also scrutinized the work of reporters — correcting spelling, straightening out syntax, double-checking facts — before publication.

With fewer people to do that now, less of that important work gets done, and the result is more published errors.

Yesterday, the ombudsman of the Washington Post wrote basically the same column:

…Growing numbers of readers are contacting the ombudsman to complain about typos and small errors.

“As a virtually lifelong subscriber, I am disheartened by the increasingly poor quality of the editing of The Post,” wrote Richard Murphy of Alexandria. If typos can’t be caught by a spell-checker, “then The Post should restore a couple of copy editor positions. You have cut that staff too much.”

The Post’s copy editors are among the best I’ve worked with during nearly four decades in the newspaper business. But they’ve been badly depleted by staff cuts as the money-losing paper struggles to control costs. Those who remain are stretched thin while The Post expands to a 24-hour news operation in print and online.

Between early 2005 and mid-2008, the number of full-time copy editors dropped from about 75 to 43 through buyouts or voluntary departures. It has declined further since then, but Post managers won’t provide precise figures beyond saying that six took a recent buyout offer. The need is so critical that most are being hired back on contract through at least the end of the year, and part-timers are taking up some of the slack.

Copy editors are the unsung heroes of newsrooms. Unknown to the public, and often underappreciated by their colleagues, they’re the last line of defense against a correction or, worse, a libel suit…

“By definition, you’ll see more errors when there’s reduced staffing,” said Bill Walsh, the A-section copy desk chief. On a typical weeknight a few years ago, Walsh said, the three copy desks handling national, foreign and business news could rely on perhaps 20 editors. Those desks have since been combined into one desk, headed by Walsh. Today, he said, “there are some shifts where I’m looking at seven or eight people total.”…

These papers are by no means the only ones experiencing a spike in errors due to the loss of bodies on the copy desk. Adding to the problem is the fact that the move online means papers are churning out more content than ever before. Yet copy editors — and magazine fact checkers — are being shown the door.

Carl Sessions Stepp examined how some newsrooms are coping with this challenge is his recent article, “The Quality-Control Quandary,” It’s a must-read. I fear, though, that few organizations are rethinking their quality control process and means of verification. They’re just trying to do more with less. It’s a recipe for disaster.

I looked at this issue in a recent essay I wrote for Harvard’s Neimen Reports….

Here are the related links:

July 5, 2009 column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander, “Fewer Copy Editors, More Errors”

April/May 2009 article in the American Journalism Review by Carl Sessions Stepps, “The Quality-Control Quandary”

Craig Silverman’s essay in the Nieman Reports (Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard), “Reliable News: Errors Aren’t Part of the Equation”

Craig Silverman’s “Regret the Error” blog and his column in the Columbia Journalism Review

Wikipedia “feuding, fighting and vandalism”

Today’s New York Times had an article about Wikipedia’s  “lamest edit wars” (whether Lucky Charms cereal is sold in Ireland, whether the Death Star is 120 or 160 kilometers in diameter) and the recent decision by the Wikipedia Arbitration Committee to block editing from all I.P. addresses owned or operated by the Church of Scientology:

It is an interesting twist about Wikipedia that the most controversial, most heavily trafficked articles — on abortion, politics, virgin birth — are often the most accurate and vandalism-free. Not that people aren’t trying to cause mayhem. It’s just that the frequent visits ensure that vandalism is quickly removed, aided by automated tools that can recognize crude writing before it ever appears.

Leave these high-traffic thoroughfares, however, and things can get a bit sketchier. A few wrong turns and you may find yourself deep in Hatfield-and-McCoy territory. Entrenched enemies engage in combat over the wording of topics so obscure — Armenian historians from the first millennium, for example, or breakfast cereals — that you may wonder: so much fighting over this?

But it is exactly the obscurity that makes these Wikipedia articles ripe for feuding, fighting and vandalism…

I wish the article had discussed Wikipedia’s flaws more critically rather than just as a source of amusement. Wikipedia– the first (and often only) place many people go for information, whose articles appear on the first page of most Google searches– is inherently unreliable and rife with errors, bias, and intentional vandalism, and the quality of individual articles and the information in them varies wildly. I’m not mollified by the fact that most vandalism may eventually be noticed and corrected– at any given time you have no idea whether what you are reading is accurate and who wrote or edited it.

Much of the article concerns the little-known Wikipedia Arbitration Committee:

The Scientology decision, which received plenty of news coverage, brought the Arbitration Committee (or ArbCom) to public view. No doubt, most users of Wikipedia had no idea that there was a court of last resort for disputes on the site.

Tens of millions of people around the world use Wikipedia, but few users — even the most frequent editors — can say how or why it works. The two members of the committee I interviewed agreed that the committee was not vital to Wikipedia’s continued operation… but they said that having a way to ban people of bad faith made the site more friendly, more efficient and more welcoming to new editors.

Wikipedia users elect the panel members, and Mr. Matetsky reports that he is the only active lawyer among them…  He says he often is opposed to outright bans — he abstained on some of the sanctions in the Scientology case — because “to a user who is banned, Wikipedia is ‘the encyclopedia anyone can edit,’ except for you.”

The discovery that Wikipedia is not the anarchic paradise some might imagine can be a shock. Others see hypocrisy, evidence that there is a class of users who control what appears there, people who benefit from Wikipedia’s huge public clout with little public scrutiny.

So I found it rather ironic to read minutes later that a Wikipedia Arbitration Committee member, David Boothroyd, was forced to resign over the weekend for “sock-puppeting,” according to the UK’s Independent newspaper:

A “guardian of the truth” on Wikipedia, the global internet encyclopedia, has been caught up in an embarrassing scandal after it was revealed that he created bogus online identities to change entries on the system.

David Boothroyd – a London councillor by day, a cyber policeman by night – has been forced to resign from Wikipedia’s Arbitration Committee after his alias editing gave rise to a major conflict of interest.

The Labour councillor’s fall from grace comes two years after he fought off stiff international competition to win a coveted seat on the 15-strong committee, which is responsible for settling hundreds of editorial disputes every day.

His membership of “ArbCom” was no longer tenable after it emerged that he had committed one of the most serious crimes in cyberspace: sockpuppeting – the use of multiple online identities to create the illusion of support for a point of view, person or organisation.

A log of publicly available page edits exposes several changes to Tory leader David Cameron’s Wikipedia entry by Mr Boothroyd under the alias of Sam Blacketer, including changing the picture to one “not carrying saintly overtones”.

New York Times style rules: “Consistent, Sensitive and Weird”

Today’s New York Times column by public editor Clark Hoyt discusses the Times’ idiosyncratic and sometimes controversial style and usage rules. For example, the Times does not capitalize acronyms over four letters (they only capitalize the first letter), so while the rest of the world uses NAFTA, the Times alone uses Nafta. The example cited in the column was Navy SEALs, which the Times insists on printing as Navy Seals, despite objections from readers and the Navy:

Cmdr. Greg Geisen, the spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, said SEALs is the name of the outfit, and “we would never, ever, ever in any way, shape or form spell it capital s, small e, small a, small l.” But, he added, “if The New York Times doesn’t want to be accurate, that’s O.K. No one here is going to get irate or offended over it.”

I agree with Hoyt that the Times should change its acronym policy:

I would also make it SEAL. I think the rule on acronyms is too rigid; it leaves The Times virtually alone in calling UNESCO Unesco, UNICEF Unicef and, my personal pet peeve because I am a fan, NASCAR Nascar. Maybe people who read only The Times are used to these, but most people in the Internet age get news from many sources, and The Times stands out as weird and maybe clueless.

The original intent of the rule was to limit the number of all-caps acronyms “looking like pieces of kitty litter all over the newspaper,” said Craig Whitney, the standards editor. But he said that may be less relevant on the Web, and “it is not written in stone that we will always adhere to that rule.”

It’s good to know I’m not the only one annoyed by many of these unusual style choices:

Many Times readers do get offended and irate over style issues like this one, and the complaints often involve an accusation that the newspaper is being disrespectful. In the last few weeks, I have heard from readers who think The Times is showing disrespect every time it refers to the president as Mr. Obama, and from others incensed that the newspaper used the word midget in a news article.

Each case illustrates the challenge of maintaining a consistent style in a changing world, where some people read political motives into simple usage conventions, where words once thought acceptable become objectionable, and where other words once objectionable become part of everyday language. A newspaper has to have rules, the linguistic equivalent of driving on the right side of the road and stopping at red lights, to avoid chaos for readers.

At The Times, a lot of consideration goes into usage issues, and they are often more complicated than they seem at first blush. Why not just call Seals SEALs? Well, what about Yahoo, which wants an exclamation point after its name? What about a rock group with a name containing an obscenity?

Though some of its rules seem eccentric or charmingly old-fashioned, like calling people Mr., Ms. and Dr., The Times does change, if usually slowly.

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

Oops! The New York Times prints a fake letter

I nearly choked on my tea this morning while reading the editor’s note on the letters page of today’s (December 23rd) New York Times:

In Monday’s newspaper, we published a letter over the name of the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, criticizing Caroline Kennedy. This letter was a fraud and should not have been published. Mr. Delanoë’s office has since confirmed that he did not write it.

Printing the letter, which also appeared on nytimes.com until it was removed, violated the standards and procedures of The New York Times editorial department.

It is our practice to verify the authenticity of every letter we publish. Like more of our letters these days, this one arrived by e-mail. We sent an edited version back to the writer of the e-mail and did not receive a response.

At that point, the letter should have been set aside. It was not.

The Times has expressed its regret to Mr. Delanoë’s office for the lapse in judgment that led to this error. We now express those regrets to our readers.

We will be reviewing our procedures in an attempt to ensure that an error like this is not repeated.

Here’s the link to the The New York Times web page containing the text of the original letter and the online version of the editor’s note, which differs slightly from the printed version.

I know the newspaper industry is in serious financial trouble, but hiring a few fact-checkers might save a lot of embarrassment.

Spell-check is evil, but funny: The Cupertino Effect

I enjoyed Cory Doctorow’s BoingBoing post on the Cupertino Effect, “the technical term for a correct word that is consistently erroneously replaced by spell-checkers.” He links to Michael Quinion’s World Wide Words newsletter, which describes the origin of the term and gives some choice examples:

An automated spelling checker attached to a word-processing program is one of the curses of our times. In the hands of an inexperienced, over-hasty or ignorant user it readily perpetrates dreadful errors in the name of correctness. One example appeared in a piece in the New York Times in October 2005 about Stephen Colbert’s neologism truthiness: throughout it instead referred to trustiness, the first suggestion from the paper’s automated checking software….

In 2000 the second issue of Language Matters, a magazine by the European Commission’s English-language translators, included an article by Elizabeth Muller on the problem with the title Cupertino and After.

Cupertino, the city in California, is best known for hosting the headquarters of Apple Computers. But the term doesn’t come from the firm. The real source is spelling checkers that helpfully include the names of places as well as lists of words. In a notorious case documented by Ms Muller, European writers who omitted the hyphen from co-operation (the standard form in British English) found that their automated checkers were turning it into Cupertino. Being way behind the computing curve, I’m writing this text using Microsoft Word 97, which seems to be the offending software (more recent editions have corrected the error); in that, if you set the language to British English, cooperation does get automatically changed to Cupertino, the first spelling suggestion in the list. For reasons known only to God and to Word’s programmers, the obvious co-operation comes second.

Hence Cupertino effect for the phenomenon and Cupertino for a word or phrase that has been involuntarily transmogrified through ill-programmed computer software unmediated by common sense or timely proofreading.

A search through the Web pages of international organisations such as the UN and NATO (and, of course, the EU) finds lots of examples of the canonical error. A 1999 NATO report mentions the “Organization for Security and Cupertino in Europe”; an EU paper of 2003 talks of “the scope for Cupertino and joint development of programmes”; a UN report dated January 2005 argues for “improving the efficiency of international Cupertino”. And so on.

Other notorious examples of the Cupertino effect include an article in the Denver Post that turned the Harry Potter villain Voldemort into Voltmeter, one in the New York Times that gave the first name of American footballer DeMeco Ryans as Demerol, and a Reuters story which changed the name of the Muttahida Quami movement of Pakistan into the Muttonhead Quail movement.

My favorite example is the 2006 Reuters article about bees, captured in Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error blog:

With its highly evolved social structure of tens of thousands of worker bees commanded by Queen Elizabeth, the honey bee genome could also improve the search for genes linked to social behavior….

Queen Elizabeth has 10 times the lifespan of workers and lays up to 2,000 eggs a day….

Update: A new Cupertino reported in the Huffington Post:  “Burka Abeam” for Barack Obama in a newspaper photo caption.

Want more? Regret the Error has an entertaining list of 2008′s most notorious media errors and corrections.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 4)

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their physical or virtual bookshelf.

Usage Guides

Usage guides explain issues of confused or disputed use of the English language. The best ones provide historical perspective on usage problems, give advice on present-day usage, and provide quotations to illustrate usage and show changes over time. 

Usage can cover a wide range of issues, such as grammar, syntax, commonly confused words, capitalization, alternative spellings, and idioms.  Here are a few examples of common usage issues:

  • they/them/their as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as in “A person can’t help their birth.”
  • “alright” vs. “all right” 
  • “shall” vs. “will”
  • “that” vs. “which”
  • “it is I” vs. “it is me”
  • “less” vs. “fewer”
  • “different than” vs. “different from”

My favorite usage guide is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. After I bought the book, I showed it to my husband, but he didn’t show much interest at the time. The next day he happened to ask me a usage question, so I grabbed the book and read him the answer. He took the book from me and started to browse through it, and ever since the book has lived on the reference shelf in his office. He even included it in his end of 2007 recommended books list for the Chasing Ray blog, and this is what he wrote:  

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage- Forget Strunk and White’s flimsy little style pamphlet. What you’ve got here is nearly a thousand pages of distilled commentary on the most vexing grammar and usage questions of our time, such as whether it’s OK to say that one thing is different than another, or whether “my friend and I” can be used as the object of a sentence. The way you judge such a book, of course, is by seeing how often it supports your side of an argument, and so far, the Dictionary has been right every time.

You can browse some sample pages using Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature. For those readers who took issue with the David Foster Wallace quote calling utilize a “puff-word,” here is the M-W entry for utilize, which expresses a different view:

Usage writers dislike utilize because they regard it as a needlessly long and pretentious substitute for use. They generally recommend either that it be disdained altogether or that it be used (not utilized) only when it has the meaning “to turn to practical use or account.” That is, in fact, almost invariably the meaning of utilize in actual usage:

“Scientific knowledge, for example, is developing exponentially–faster perhaps than our culture can… utilize it wisely.” –Milton S. Eisenhower, Johns Hopkins Mag., February 1966.

“…women who want to work at jobs that utilize their full potential.” — Bella S. Abzug, Saturday Rev., 7 Aug. 1976.

Use could certainly be substituted for utilize in any of these passages, but not without some loss of connotation. Utilize is a distinct word having distinct implications. More than use, it suggests a deliberate decision or effort to employ something (or someone) for a practical purpose. Its greatest sins are that it has two more syllables than use and that it ends with the dreaded -ize. It is a common word, nevertheless, and every indication is that it will continue to be one. 

 

Another good usage guide is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Garner includes both word entries and essays addressing larger questions of usage and style. You can browse a few pages on Amazon.com, and Garner’s website has reviews and links to two sample pages from the work.

Here’s an interesting sample entry:  

Cummings, E.E. The poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), a shy man, early in career used the lowercase i for the first-person singular pronoun. (This habit, now commonplace in Internet exchanges, was highly unusual.) Cumming’s critics then began referring to him sarcastically in print as e.e.cummings. The practice stuck, and that was how his name appeared on book covers. Does this mean we should all use lowercase letters in spelling his name? Those most familiar with the man think not, and they use ordinary capitalization. Norman Friedman, the founder and then president of the E.E. Cummings Society, summed up the poet’s “philosophy of typography” this way: “that he could use caps and lowercase as he wished, but that when others referred to him by name they ought to use caps.” Spring: The Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, 1992, at 114-21. Nor is it true that Cummings legally changed his name to lowercase letters. That story appeared in the preface to a biography about Cummings, but his widow angrily denied it.

In contrast with M-W, Garner has little to say about utilize:

use; utilize; utilization. Use is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize and utilization. Utilize is both more abstract and more favorable connotatively than use.

 

There are, of course, other usage guides. Fowler and Follett each have their fans (some are particularly attached to the old 1965 second edition of Fowler, which is very British). As I’ve said before, you should compare different references, find those you like, and use them.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 3)

This is the third in an ongoing series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their physical or virtual bookshelf.

Style Manuals

Style manuals are all about consistency in writing, editing, and publishing. Style includes rules for when to spell out numbers, how to deal with abbreviations and acronyms, which words should be capitalized, and punctuation issues (whether to use a serial comma, when to hyphenate compound words), to list only a few examples.

Anyone who writes or edits books in the U.S. needs The Chicago Manual of Style, the 15th edition (the current edition, extensively revised in 2003). The Chicago Manual of Style calls itself “the essential reference for authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers in any field,” and that’s not an exaggeration. Though the main focus is on the needs of writers and editors of books and journals, the new edition was revised to assist “the increasing proportion of our users who work with magazines, newsletters, corporate reports, proposals, electronic publications, Web sites and other nonbook or nonprint documents. Computer technology and the increasing use of the Internet mark almost every chapter.” If you are still using an older edition, you should upgrade to the 15th edition, as style preferences have changed over time.

The Chicago Manual of Style includes chapters on the parts of a published work, manuscript preparation and editing, proofs, rights and permissions, grammar and usage, punctuation, spelling and compounds, names and terms, numbers, foreign languages, quotations and dialogue, illustrations and captions, tables, mathematics in type, abbreviations, documentation, and indexes. It also includes appendixes on design and production (basic procedures and key terms) and the publishing process for books and journals.  A more detailed table of contents can be found on the CMS website (www.chicagomanualofstyle.org).

The Chicago Manual of Style is available in multiple formats: hardcover book (priced at $55, but available at a discount online), CD-ROM for Windows ($60), and web subscription ($30 per year at www.chicagomanualofstyle.org). The web version is fully searchable and has extra features, such as the ability to add notes, bookmark paragraphs, and create personalized style sheets.

There are also many specialized style manuals for particular types of publications:

Publishers and companies will specify which style manual they use, and many also have in-house style guides or style sheets to reflect individual company preferences and create consistency throughout all of their written material.

The writer’s bookshelf (part 2)

This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their actual or virtual bookshelf.

Dictionaries

You should have– and use– a good dictionary. (You are only asking for trouble if you rely on spell-check.) A recent edition is preferable, as new words are added over time, and changes can occur in spelling, hyphenation, plurals, usage, etc. For example, the current edition of my dictionary lists the word “online” (both the adjective and adverb) as one word, no hyphen. The previous edition of the same dictionary published a decade earlier lists the word (adjective and adverb) as “on-line,” two words, with a hyphen.

There are a number of good dictionaries out there, but many copy editors prefer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (the most recent edition, revised in 2003), which is what I use. It is available in multiple formats: hardcover book (in various bindings, generally priced $22 to $27, but available online for $15 to $20), CD-ROM (which allows you to save the entire dictionary to your computer and easily search it without ever having to load the CD again), and web subscription (for $14.95 per year at www.merriam-webstercollegiate.com). You can also get them in combination– the edition of the book I bought included the CD-ROM and a free one-year subscription to the website for a total of $27 (less than $20 online).

If you need an unabridged dictionary (most people don’t, though copy editors sometimes do), Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary is a classic, but it is expensive. It is available by web subscription at http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com for $29.95 a year.

The mother of all dictionaries is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, which provides the meaning and history of over half a million words, past and present. The OED tells you when each word entered the language and provides over 2.5 million quotations illustrating word usage over time. The OED is available in many formats, all of which are expensive: book form (the 20-volume full set, a two-volume abridged set), CD-ROM, and web subscription (monthly or annually) at www.oed.com. The great news is that many public libraries subscribe to it, so if you have a library card, you may be able to access it for free from your home computer through your library’s website. (For example, on the Seattle Public Library website, the OED is in their list of databases and websites, so if you enter your library card number and PIN, you’ll have full access from home.)

There are many free dictionaries on the web, but I’ll only list a few here:

  • Merriam-Webster offers free web access to an online dictionary and thesaurus at www.m-w.com, though access to their premium works (the Collegiate and Unabridged dictionaries) is by paid subscription only.
  • OneLook Dictionary Search (www.onelook.com) is a special search engine which has indexed over 1000 online dictionaries. By entering a word or phrase into one search box, you can view results from many different online dictionaries.
  • A free online dictionary and thesaurus can be found at www.yourdictionary.com.

Choose the dictionary that best suits your needs. For the casual user, a simple print or online dictionary may suffice. If you write or edit, you should use something more substantial and authoritative. If you are a professional writer or editor, check with your publisher or employer, as they may specify one as part of their house style.