Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Food Porn

My friend Maggie says she reads cookbooks like novels, savoring every word in every description and recipe. Another friend in San Francisco told me, when I used to work for Bon Appétit, that when the magazine landed in her mailbox, she would draw a bath, slink into the warm water, and devour every recipe and photo. "It's food porn," she said, emphatically.

Sorry, but recipes just don't do it for me. What I do look for in a recipe, though, is clarity and precision. I'm not a chef, but I can follow a recipe, as long as it's well-written. I'm not talking prose here. I just want easy-to-follow instructions and procedures. After reading countless recipes for four years on the job, I can quickly discern if the recipe is going to work for me or not.

I also have a lot of respect for the copy editors who make sure that the recipe holds up: that all the ingredients are used in the order they appear at the top of the recipe; that simple, declarative sentences spell out the procedures clearly; that the recipe makes sense to a lay reader. (I'm not blowing my own horn here; I wasn't a copy editor at Bon Appétit, I edited the feature articles and benefitted from the copy editors' work.) It's not easy, but the result is extremely important. It's the difference between a good recipe (that is, one that works), and just words that sound good accompanied by food-porn photos.

Photo of the Queen of Food Porn, Nigella Lawson, doing pasta

Monday, March 30, 2009

Long Live Chuckles

Having finished The Subversive Copy Editor, I can highly recommend it. Carol Fisher Saller packs a lot of great information in relatively few pages. Though it's mostly geared toward book editors, her advice on copyediting in general is solid and worth following. I only wish I had read this book more than a decade ago, when I was working on my first large freelance copyediting project and which I seriously flubbed up. Had I read it, I would have known that communication is key on any project. Keep the channels of communication open with everyone on the project, and you will likely do a good job, or at least not royally screw it up.

What I enjoyed most about the book is Saller's droll humor. Each chapter begins with a question submitted to the Chicago Manual of Style online Q&A forum, which Saller edits. Her pithy answers that come at the end of the chapter were too good to wait for, and I always skipped ahead to read them. She also sprinkles her wit throughout her writing, and I often found myself chuckling out loud at her observations.

That's what got me thinking about Chuckles the Clown from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Remember the episode when Chuckles, dressed as Peter Peanut, was crushed to death by a rogue elephant in a parade? Everyone thought that was hysterically funny, except Mary, who thought it inappropriate to laugh at his misfortune. That is, until the funeral, when Mary lost it and laughed hysterically herself, until she feels humiliated and breaks down sobbing.

In this case, I kept chuckling as I read the book, but by the end I was sobered by the sheer tediousness of my profession. (One entire chapter is devoted to the joys of word processors.) I didn't exactly lose it, but it made me wonder: Is that all there is? Is the sum of my work just a punch line everyone laughs at while I toil away, awash in tedium and monotony? Sobering indeed.

Friday, March 27, 2009

King Herod Strikes Again

A keen-eyed Argentinian reader emailed the other day to point out two grammatical errors in a recent article we did on King Herod. The text read: "The condition of the sarcophagi fragments confirm..." And in display type on the same damned spread: "The condition of the sarcophagi confirm..." She's right: It's the condition that confirms, not the fragments or the sarcophagi that confirm.

The errors are obvious once someone points them out, but it's also an easy mistake to read right over. Some call this construction "agreement by proximity" and argue that the last noun in the phrase governs the verb, in this case plural sarcophagi. Think of it as guilt by association. But that doesn't hold up here.

Why didn't we catch it? I think a lot of folks were blindsided by the article's BIG claim that Herod was innocent of the Massacre of the Innocents. Maybe so, but I'll lay the blame on Herod for this massacre.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Johnny Come Lately?

File under: I Feel Your Pain.

Sometimes creating an editorial style and sticking to it can get a little, um, sticky. Folks at the gay blog Unzipped.net (it's mostly rated PG, but I don't recommend clicking on this link if you're at work) posted the following side note the other day:
Did you know that our style guide at Unzipped calls for the word commonly seen as "cum" to be spelled out as "come"? It's true! It's an annoying rule, not to mention a confusing one (how do you know if we're talking about "come" the synonym for "move" or "come" the stuff that shoots out of cocks?), so we try to keep things simple by using universally understood words like "jizz", which is inexplicably acceptable per our style guide because it, unlike "cum," is considered slang. WTF.
Jizz? Jimmy Cagney, eat your heart out.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bugging Out

Some very cool lifelike sculptures of insects by Missouri-based artist Gary Staab were recently installed in the courtyard where I work. 

When I asked a colleague if she had seen the bug sculptures yet, she looked at me as though I had four heads. “They’re not bugs,” she admonished me. “They’re insects.” I knew that. I had merely forgotten that folks take critters seriously where I work. Although “bugs” and “insects” are commonly used as synonyms, entomologists make a distinction between the two: True bugs have a feeding tube instead of chewing mouthparts and are a subgroup of insects. All bugs are insects, but not all insects are bugs. Staab's sculptures of a beetle, dragonfly, praying mantis, and leaf-cutter ants all depict insects, not bugs. 

So what’s bugging you? Are there any slips of English usage that creep you out?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Foodie Fight

Foodies are the new sticklers. Alexis Fitts, in the March/April issue of Mother Jones, writes, “Who reads more nuance into punctuation rules than copy editors? Food activists!” As if parsing “organic” weren’t enough to keep them busy, they’ve got their arugula all in a twist over the apostrophe in farmers—as in farmers’ markets. “Market managers who maintain the apostrophe believe it indicates that 'farmers’ markets' exist 'for farmers and by farmers,' ” Fitts says. That’s a tenuous claim these days, however, as Daniel Duane points out in his accompanying article, “Foodie, Beware.” Instead of haggling over apostrophes, foodies ought to be figuring out how to keep the farmer in farmers markets.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Crank It Up

"Express: 15 items or fewer," the sign reads. As much as I hate to admit this, it warms my heart every time I go to my neighborhood Whole Foods market and see that someone knows the difference between less and fewer. They also care enough to buck the "15 items or less" trend other stores succumb to. Does that make me a grammar crank?

Photo of Whole Foods in Plano, Texas, by Scott Brown

Friday, March 20, 2009

Copy Editor's Lament

In tribute to laid off colleagues, Christopher Ave, political editor at the St. Louis-Post Dispatch, wrote the poignant and at times pointed "Copy Editor's Lament (The Layoff Song)." You can listen to it on Ave's blog, Music for Media.

Photo by Tim Barker

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Czech It Out

Do you know where Czechia is? It’s not a fictional place—devised perhaps by Franz Kafka, although its capital is Kafka’s birthplace, Prague. That’s right, it’s the Czech Republic. How did we get from Czech Republic to Czechia?

In short, it’s for convenience’ sake. As a one-word name for Czech Republic, Czechia is sometimes used, just as America or the States are used as shortened names for United States of America. After Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” in 1993, the newly formed Czech Republic sought a shortened name. That same year, the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs approved Czechia, or Česko, literally Czechland in the Czech language. But apparently not everyone in the newly dubbed Czechia agreed.

Tomáš Tureček, who edits the Czech-language edition of National Geographic, noted in 2002 that “we still have not come up with a shorter name for our country, and that’s a hot topic for Czechs. The problem is that 50 percent of the population likes the word, but the rest don’t. By last year, however, the Czech Geographical Society endorsed Czechia. “According to experts,” Tureček says, “the name Czechia is the only one correct version of our shortened country name” in English.

Does that imply there are other short names? Apparently so. Some use “Czech,” as in “I was in Czech last week.” (Similarly, "Dominican" is used as a short name for the Dominican Republic.) Czech as a country name sounds odd to me, but so does Czechia, and neither are widely accepted short names in English. But just as language evolves, so too do place-names. This may be the first time you’ve heard of Czechia, but I’m pretty certain it won’t be the last.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Hitchens Hath Hatred for Copy Editors

Hell hath no fury like that of Christopher Hitchens. This week Hitchens heaped his wrath upon copy editors at the New York Times. In "Terrorists, Dissidents, and Copy Editors" posted on Slate.com, it seems there's little difference in Hitchens's thinking among them. The reason for his contempt? The media, not even specifically the NYT, are labeling terrorist thugs in Northern Ireland as "dissidents." Hitchens invokes no greater power than the OED in his argument that dissident "describes only attitudes and not actions." Point taken. But lumping copy editors with terrorists is beyond the pale, really. Then again, Hitchens always takes no prisoners. 

Obviously doctored photograph above copyright The Onion, 2009

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

After Deadline

If it's Tuesday, then it's time to check the latest dispatch on After Deadline at the New York Times online site. Updated weekly and written by Philip Corbett, After Deadline discusses language usage and gives recent examples that ran in the NYT. Corbett is also in charge of the Times's style manual and gives updates to changes. This week's topic is verbs. There's also a lively comment section, where readers, mostly sticklers and purists (read, cranks), add their own two cents.

Monday, March 16, 2009

What a Hoot

I don't consider myself a stickler when it comes to applying so-called rules of grammar. But sometimes I fall into sticklerdom. A recent case in point: who versus whom. "Who are you going to call?" came across my desk in an article I was copyediting. "Whom are you going to call?" is grammatically correct but stilted. Using "who" in these cases is common but incorrect. We've used it in the national magazine I copy edit, in order to be less formal; then we get letters from sticklers.

What to do? "The best rule for dealing with who vs. whom is this: Whenever whom is required, recast the sentence. This keeps a huge section of the hard disk of your mind available for baseball averages," William Safire wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1990.

Since the sentence was cliched and an overworked construction (remember the movie Ghostbusters?), I asked the editor to rework the sentence. The editor obliged and then gave me the above magnet with a painting of an owl by The Mincing Mockingbird, who sells his wonderful creations on Etsy.com. "If you were an owl," the editor told me, "you would definitely say 'whom'."

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Subversive Copy Editor

If you haven't heard about the latest book on copyediting, which hit some bookstores this week, you are behind the curve. The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller, Q&A editor for the Chicago Manual of Style Online, has been getting rave reviews. Copyediting Editor Wendalyn Nichols praised the book in the February-March 2009 issue, writing that Saller "has hit this one out of the ballpark." John McIntyre blogged about it yesterday: "If you are a copy editor, an aspirant to copy editing, or a writer dealing with copy editors, a $13 investment in the paperback edition will be money well spent on your career." 

My local branch of Borders doesn't have the book yet (and told me it won't be published until next month), so I'm investing in my career via Amazon. I'll report back with my thoughts once it gets here. 

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You Don't Say

John McIntyre, who calls himself a "veteran drudge," writes my favorite blog on language usage: You Don't Say. The chief copy editor for the Baltimore Sun, McIntyre sports bow ties and an ironic wit that keeps his informed opinions and posts lively but not pedantic. He may look old school (his videotaped jokes certainly are), but he's solid on language, usage, and journalism. His blog also attracts devoted followers that post intelligent comments and provoke sometimes spirited debate. 

Check it out. You might just have something to say yourself. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

You Say Mere, I Say Lake

When I was a young American graduate student in London, my apparent mangling of the English language often elicited howls of laughter—or mere bafflement—from my British friends. One evening in particular, my friends were quite amused when I announced that I needed to change my pants before heading down to the pub. How was I to know that “pants” is short for “underpants” and that I had just informed them I needed to change my underwear? (What we call pants in the U.S. are called trousers in the U.K.)

Maybe that’s why today I am particularly attuned to British word usage in American publications. When I’m editing manuscripts and see “jumper” instead of “sweater,” or “lift” instead of “elevator,” my impulse is to change the phrase to American usage. But because a number of freelance writers that have been schooled in British usage write for the magazine I edit, I often resist that urge in order to preserve their writerly voices—as long as the usage is clear.

That’s how a lake became a mere in a recent issue. An Irish photographer wrote of “the surreal stories of Lake Katwe, a volcanic mere” in Uganda. I wasn’t familiar with the British term “mere,” which means “an expanse of water,” as in a lake. We could have avoided using the word by saying “the surreal stories of volcanic Lake Katwe.” The text editor, however, liked the use of the unfamiliar term and wanted to keep the original language. Another colleague questioned why we used the word—and seemingly sent the majority of our American readers to the dictionary to look it up—when it just means a lake.

Yes, a mere is just a lake. But what’s your take on British terms in American publications? Is it proper to use them, or are they just daft?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pixilating News

I'm the copydesk director at a monthly magazine that prints lots of pictures. Occasionally photographs are pixelated—where the pixels that make up the picture are pronounced. Not sure how to spell the word, a colleague tried to look it up in the dictionary. No luck. There’s pixel and pixilated (meaning “somewhat unbalanced mentally” or “bemused”), but not pixelated. Given the dramatic shift from film to digital photography, that surprised me.

When issues like this come up, I turn to Merriam-Webster’s Language Research Service, which answers specific questions about words and their usage, for free. A response to my query emailed to lrs@Merriam-Webster.com arrived within a few days:

“We’ve been tracking the term ‘pixelated’ for some time now, and I expect it will be entered in our Collegiate Dictionary soon. Although the term is about 20 years old, it was largely used only in technical publications until relative recently. Furthermore, its meaning has changed somewhat over the years; in the earliest evidence I could find the word was used to refer to an analog photograph that had been digitized. 

“ ‘Pixilated’ is indeed an entirely different word, but I’m afraid that because spellcheckers rely on dictionaries and because we lexicographers require evidence that a word is truly established in the lexicon before we consider it for entry, ‘pixilated’ is found in published, edited texts as a variant spelling of ‘pixelated.’ Given the word ‘pixel,’ however, I suspect that the ‘pixilated’ spelling will eventually fall out of use.

“In any case, you and your colleagues should certainly not hesitate to use ‘pixelated.’ Just as you use our dictionary as a source for spelling and word usage, we use your publication as a source for evidence of how the lexicon is changing and expanding. In many ways it’s the editors of publications such as yours who determine what goes into our books.”

I was chagrined to hear about the variant spelling “pixilated.” (Those darn spellcheckers; when typing this blog I had to overrule the “autocorrect” in Word to spell “pixelated” every time I typed it.) But learning that what goes into the magazine I edit has a bearing on what ultimately goes into the dictionary I rely on every day was downright pixilating.

"Pixilated" original painting by Alan M. Clark