Thursday, April 30, 2009

American Copy Editors Society

I'm traveling today to Minneapolis for the annual national conference of the American Copy Editors Society (ACES). I hope to see some of you there!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Don't Be a Dick, II

"This was a bad actor and the country's better off,'' Cheney says, "the world's better off, with Saddam gone and I think we made the right decision in spite of the fact that the original NIE was off in some of its major judgments. ''

Ooof. "Major judgments" aside, the world is better off with Dick Cheney off the world stage. Just saying.

By the way, more words that make me sneer like Dick Cheney:

-bounty: OK for paper towel brand, otherwise avoid
-mantled: came across a photo caption "mantled in white"; I just about lost my composure
-bold: it's for sissies; if you're bold, you don't have to state it

Just sayin'. (That one's for

Sunday, April 26, 2009

SNOOTie Columnist

In today's New York Times Magazine, William Safire takes the typical cheap shot at copy editors:
In his current compilation of a lifetime’s profound essays and speeches, Garner wades into language and legal controversy and often lets his hair down. He recalls a breakfast with Justice Antonin Scalia, who declared that he cared a great deal about words and their proper use. “There’s a word for people like me,” Scalia said. “An essayist in Harper’s coined it.” Garner helped out by recollecting SNOOT, an acronym for “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time,” described by the novelist David Foster Wallace as “this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column.” (Those misteakes are inserted by subversive copy editors.)
What's worse than a SNOOT? Safire and Dick Cheney. First Safire inserts a gratuitous quote referencing himself, then he slams copy editors. Granted, he first mentions The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. Still, it's a cheap shot.

Just keep calm and carry on.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Why I Love the Language Log Blog

"I happened to be browsing through my copy of Bury's History of the Later Roman Empire and came upon a passage I had forgotten about."

I find it incredible that someone just happens to be browsing The History of the Later Roman Empire and stumbles upon a passage he had forgotten, as opposed to the thousands of other passages. But yes, folks, that happens at the Language Log. Check it out for kicks.

Image from Language Log

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Elements of Corrections

Oops! Corrections in today's New York Times on its article "'The Elements of Style' Turns 50": 

Because of an editing error, an article on Wednesday about a 50th-anniversary edition of the book “The Elements of Style” misspelled part of the publisher’s name. The publisher is Pearson/Longman, not Pierson/Longman.

The article also overlooked an element of style in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage in referring to Roger Angell’s introduction for the fourth edition of the book. He wrote the foreword, not the “forward.” (As The Times stylebook notes, a “foreword” is the word before Chapter 1.)

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What Font Are You?

I'm Helvetica, duh. Take the quiz and find out which font you are.

You are Helvetica

You fit in well to most situations. You're not flashy, and prefer clarity to knocking people over with your style. A tad quiet perhaps, but not stuffy, and you've got very strong opinions under there somewhere. When you get drunk, you start looking more like Impact.

Take the quiz on

Loco for Local Food

Food journalist Corby Kummer writes in the May issue of The Atlantic of "budding locavores." I've already established my foodie creds, but I'm not a strong advocate for the "locavore" movement.

It reminds me of my years as a Berkeley undergrad, and too much effort spent as a strident vegetarian. Though I refused to eat meat, frequently I patronized a local veggie Chinese food restaurant hungering for its "mock" tofu chicken. (I wish I had had the moo-lah then to enjoy Alice Waters's budding foodie movement at her iconic Chez Panisse in Berkeley.) Sometimes we go too far in avoiding something, that we lose sight of our original goal. 

I do have to hand it (not hoof it) to my vegetarian diet, though, that when I was in graduate school in London I never ate beef, which later caused much consternation over mad-cow disease.

I may have dodged the BSE prion, but the budding locavore disease is a bit too strident. On Earth Day, we should be cognizant of our impact on the planet. Eating local is great, but let's not lose our minds going loco for local foods. 

Cards, ornaments, and clothing options with the above logo can be purchased here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Word of the Week

There's a new word in town, kids. It's called the Homogecene.

Burkhard Bilger used the term in his article on creepy crawly Florida, "Swamp Things," in the April 20 edition of The New Yorker.*

"Florida has become an open-air zoo, richer in species than ever before," Bilger writes. "To others, it's the harbinger of a new and depressingly undifferentiated age, when the old biological borders begin to fade and every place starts to look like every other. Ecologists have even give it a name: the Homogecene."

According to one source, ecologist Gordon Orians coined the term "Homogecene" for the modern era in which humans are tending to homogenize the world's flora and fauna through transport across once insurmountable barriers. Others call this the era of "creeping sameness."

I know that creeping sameness feeling. Whenever I walk around my neighborhood--Logan Circle, in Washington, DC--the local fauna is more and more depressingly undifferentiated. But I don't think that's what Bilger or Orians were really getting at.

*If snakes are anathema to you, don't read the sections in the article on 12-foot-long Burmese pythons slithering through south Florida.

Photo courtesy

Monday, April 20, 2009

Seven Seas, But How Many Oceans?

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of our planet, so it’s not surprising that naming conventions differ around the world. In the United States, we’re taught that there are four great oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic Oceans. Some in the Southern Hemisphere, however, claim a fifth: the Southern Ocean (or Great Southern Ocean), also called the Antarctic Ocean.

Many countries and mapmakers don't recognize the Southern Ocean. The World Factbook has an entry for Southern Ocean but says "inclusion of the Southern Ocean does not imply recognition of this feature as one of the world's primary oceans by the US Government." And according to the National Geographic Society, “The Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans merge into icy waters around Antarctica. Some define this as an ocean—calling it the Antarctic Ocean, Austral Ocean, or Southern Ocean—but there is no international agreement on the name and the extent of a fifth ocean.”

The tide may be turning, though. One tireless advocate for oceans in general—and for a fifth ocean designation in particular—is eminent oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who co-authored the new Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas, published by National Geographic. That atlas includes an entire chapter on the Southern Ocean and notes: “Nations are actually voting on the existence and naming of a separate Southern Ocean. Whatever the outcome of this great geographic debate, there are unquestionably distinct currents, water characteristics, and biological communities in the ocean surrounding Antarctica."

Satellite image of Antarctica and surrounding waters by NASA

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Linguistics Master's Lashing

The Language Log blog often has interesting posts on, well, language. Run by the Institute for Research in Cognitive Science at the University of Pennsylvania, the blog tends toward an academic and heavy linguistics bent. I like it because a wide variety of folks post on the blog, and the discussion in the comments section is a cut above most comment sections. Sometimes a cut too above.

Geoffrey K. Pullum (above left) is a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and seems to be a pretty cantankerous chap. His smack-down of The Elements of Style on its 50th anniversary last week, entitled "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice," garnered a lot of press. I think he overstates the importance of Elements, but he makes a valid point that "English syntax is a deep and interesting subject. It is much too important to be reduced to a bunch of trivial don't-do-this prescriptions."

Yesterday Pullum directed his scathing intellect toward when I commented on his post about an item in The New Yorker that mentioned the pronunciation of the Gaelic word machair as "mocker," more or less. My comment:
I had the same reaction–about reading the article itself, not the linguistics aspect. It all sounds too technical for the lay reader. I understood what the writer was trying to say with the pronunciation, but I don't fully understand your point.

Pullum's response:

You don't understand my point? I'm saying that without being a civil engineer you know how to say "suspension bridge", and a writer who described a suspension bridge as "a kind of long flat thingy hanging from a couple of massive straight-up poles by a whole lot of huge cable thingies so cars could cross the river by driving on the flat bit" would be taken as a moron, but a writer who is seriously trying to describe the pronunciation of a word gives a much less accurate description than that and he gets published in The New Yorker, and I say this indicates there is something wrong with the culture. Do I make myself clear yet? —GKP

Thanks for the crystal-clear, pedantic explanation, Mr. Pullum. I'll keep off your comments section. But I'll share one more comment from another reader of the post.

@Mark F. wrote:
Every academic thinks it's a scandal that their own field isn't better understood by the public at large. I'm not sure why knowing the IPA symbol for the ch in Bach is like knowing the name 'suspension bridge', rather than like knowing the particular name for big cables that go between the vertical supports.

Friday, April 17, 2009

John Waters Talks Teabagging

What do Rachel Maddow, Anderson Cooper, and John Waters (right) have in common? Other than the obvious, they're all also talking teabagging these days. At BoingBoing, Waters discusses the etymology of the term that has news anchors and pundits all in a tizzy this week. 

Loosing Your Mind

Wordies* often have pet peeves. I listed some of mine in a recent post, and someone recently left this anonymous peeve in a comment:

"The misuse of lose versus loose is the one that drives me nuts."

It's not brain surgery. Lose is the verb; loose is most commonly an adjective. (You can "let loose," but that seems less commonplace these days and usually isn't misused.)

Why the confusion? According to Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, "The verb lose rhymes with choose, and the urge to spell it with an extra o sometimes proves irresistible."

Resist the urge, I say. But don't lose sleep over loose vowels.

*I made up this word. But if "foodies" is in the dictionary, it follows that people who are interested in words can be called wordies. Wordies of the World Unite!

Purchase the above poster here.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Drop-Dead Date

When a colleague on a project I'm working on asked me last week about the "drop-dead date," I was alarmed, and also amused. Alarmed, because his question immediately signaled that the project was going to be late. And amused, because of the ambiguity of the question itself.

"Drop-dead," as an adjective, was coined around 1970 to mean striking, as in "drop-dead gorgeous." So the thought of my colleague asking about my striking date made me laugh.

The beauty of language, though, is that it's constantly evolving. Drop-dead now also means the cut-off point, and that's what my colleague was asking about. Isn't it great that the English language is very much alive and nowhere near its drop-dead point?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Power of Words

Magazine designers often make me crazy. They love to play with font sizes and colors and add lots of design doodads seemingly to get you to read the articles. But all the gizmos usually just distract from the actual words on the page. 

Sometimes, though, designers use words to create powerful images, made stronger by the words themselves. Case in point: this week's cover of The Economist. Using words from President Obama's speech on nuclear disarmament in Prague, the striking design of a mushroom cloud adds urgency to the words themselves. 

Likewise, National Geographic used the same design conceit last December to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The words are inspiring, made even more so by the elegant design.

My compliments to the designers, and my thanks to them for taking words seriously and imbuing them with a greater depth of meaning. 

Image at right: Copyright 2009 National Geographic Magazine 

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

When the pen is mightier

Note the space between "pen" and "is" in the above title.

That tip came from columnist Sean Means, of The Salt Lake Tribune. Means wields a mighty mean pen in his article "Thinking dirty isn't everyone's cup of tea," wherein he extols the virtues of the potty-minded copy editor. "One of the unwritten rules of the newspaper business is," Means writes, "always employ at least one dirty-minded person on the copy desk."

Here's to job security.

(Be sure to read his article for a hilarious double entendre right-wingers have unintentionally stumbled into.)

T-shirt pictured above is available here.

Monday, April 13, 2009

First Portuguese Puppy

As you probably know by now, the First Puppy, "Bo," has finally been appointed by President Obama and the First Family. (The White House blog page has another cute photo.) We're all familiar with Labradors and Poodles and Chihuahuas, but what's a Portuguese water dog? 

I don't know much about Bo yet, but I do know that there are two "u"s in Portuguese. Be on the lookout for misspellings, such as Portugese.

White House Photo by Pete Souza

Friday, April 10, 2009

Their Driving Me Crazy

"As of April 6, 2009, their will be one interoffice messenger run..."

reads a sign (emphasis added) on the mailboxes in my office--at a major publishing and "global media" organization, no less.

Goofing up there (pronoun/place), their (possessive), and they're (contraction of "they are") is one of the most common mistakes in written English. Always double-check when you use any of these words; spell-check won't help you out.

Need reminding? Buy the T-shirt pictured above, here.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

I Adjective Adverbs

It's a pretty simple concept: adverbs modify verbs; adjectives modify nouns.

If Big Bird's plans to fly are under way, we know that "under way" modifies the verb "are," and that we use the adverbial phrase, with two words.

If we're talking about underway aerial fueling, "underway" modifies the noun "aerial fueling," and therefore calls for the one-word adjective.

Why do so many people (including a copy editor colleague) get it wrong? When in doubt, look it up. Don't be a bird brain.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Don't Be a Dick

"I think they're in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency," Dick Cheney said of the war in Iraq, on May 30, 2005.

He was wrong by a long shot, but he hit one of my Five Top Overused Phrases:

  1. last/death throes: dying is a bitch, yet sometimes things just won't die
  2. thanks to: unless you're actually thanking someone, just say no thanks
  3. swath: section or area should suffice
  4. decimated: nearly always misused
  5. tasty: so it has taste; is that good, bad?

Avoid these, and I promise I won't sneer like Dick Cheney.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Grammar Tease

Perfect for summer: tees that show your disdain for improper grammar usage. Both T-shirt styles, for men and women, are available at (They also sell prints.)

Special thanks to Apocalypstick Now for the idea.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Towing the Line

Another embarrassing admission: I once made the mistake of using the phrase "towing the line" in an article I wrote. Granted, it was long before the turn of the last millennium (the early 1990s, to be inexact), and I can't even find the article in my pile of clips. But it's out there somewhere, sure to show up on the World Wide Web. (Don't you miss the vastness conjured by that phrase? "Internet," the nom de bore, doesn't sound nearly as grandeur.)

What's worse is that "toe the line" is such a cliché, so blasé; I surely wouldn't use that tired phrase today. That doesn't stop people from using it. I was reminded of my own lapse of judgment (unfortunately not caught by the copy editor who edited my piece) by a comment last week on John McIntyre's You Don't Say blog ridiculing Fox News for the running banner: "Towing the line."

This new millennium can be such a bitch. I'm just glad I wasn't publicly ridiculed for my goof in grammar oh so long ago.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Opera Edits

When not editing, I occasionally appear as a supernumerary for the Washington National Opera. "Peter Grimes" by Benjamin Britten, is currently at the Kennedy Center. I was hoping to be in the production, but they needed only one adult super, and the role was for an older man, so I obviously wasn't picked. (Veteran supernumerary Dr. Joseph Marshall, a.k.a. "older man," is extraordinary onstage playing, what else, a doctor. Bravo!) 

I had the pleasure of attending the performance on Wednesday. (As did Rep. Barney Frank, an opera aficionado, apparently.) I love Britten's "Billy Budd" and was hoping to love "Peter Grimes" just as much. It was a terrific production, but the slow first act dragged on too long, though the second and third acts were much better. I can't recommend it for the uninitiated opera-goer, but for hard-core opera buffs, you won't be disappointed.

Although "Peter Grimes," like "Billy Budd," is sung in English, there were supertitles that made following the story easier. Since the opera was originally written in English, the supertitles were spot on--none of the typical misspellings or bad syntax that you find in translated lyrics. (With the prices they charge for tickets, you'd think they could hire a copy editor for all supertitles.)

I was surprised, however, to find a typo in the Playbill synopsis: "a woman to care fore him." As with many non-profit organizations, the WNO is facing severe budget constraints and even had to cancel its Wagner "Ring" cycle planned for next season. (They've also pimped out Plácido Domingo to do a special concert on May 1, cheesily called "From My Latin Soul," to raise some much-needed cash.) Too bad the freelance copy editor budget seemingly has taken a hit as well.

Photo of Christopher Ventris in "Peter Grimes" courtesy WNO

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Number Nuts at the New Yorker

I love the New Yorker. It's my favorite magazine. Since I work for a magazine and I read a lot of them, that's saying something. It's impossible to read every article in every issue, but I do read it every week and don't let them pile up, like a lot of people. (I'm not pointing fingers.) Now that it's available online, I can read the best articles before it even arrives in my mailbox. (And yes, that is the eventual death knell for magazines as we know them.)

While I love the magazine, that doesn't mean that I don't have issues. My issues are typically about how the New Yorker is copy edited. My latest pet peeve is how they treat numbers. Without putting too fine a point on it: They are insane when it comes to numbers. A recent case in point, from the March 30th edition, page 34:

...he had played in thirty-three of fifty-five events of the series, and had won around seven hundred thousand dollars. The buy-in at the Bellagio was fifteen thousand dollars, cash only. Ferguson paid with three five-thousand dollar chips... In all there were four hundred and forty-six players at forty-five tables.

Argh. Why spell out all those numbers? A judicious use of numerals would make it much easier for the reader and save space:

...he had played in 33 of 55 events of the series, and had won around $700,000. The buy-in at the Bellagio was $15,000, cash only. Ferguson paid with three $5,000 chips... In all there were 446 players at 45 tables.

Even more maddening is that they are seemingly inconsistent. In the same issue, on page 46, they use numerals: "$3.4 billion." If numbers work in one instance, they can work in a lot of instances. I just wish the New Yorker would take a look at its style guidelines and catch up with the times. Better yet, they can hire me and I can help them out.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Word of the Week

At work I often choose a Word of the Week and try to use it as often as possible. Thing is, I usually end up choosing the same word (it starts with a "c") and use it to slander recalcitrant colleagues. It helps relieve stress, but I've gotten into a rut. So it's time to change my ways.

Thus a new feature on my blog: Word of the Week. This week's word also starts with a "c" and comes from James Wood's review of the book Lowboy that appeared in the March 30th issue of the New Yorker:

"Lowboy's chiliasm is obscurely meshed with fears of global warming."

chil·i·asm: millenarianism

What kind of definition is that? Thanks for nothing, Merriam-Webster Collegiate. (The M-W unabridged is more helpful: the theological doctrine that Christ will come to earth in a visible form and set up a theocratic kingdom over all the world and thus usher in the millennium.) 

Maybe this is a dumb idea. Will I ever use this word again? If I've gotten this far without ever having known this word existed, will my life be any less empty if I immediately expunge it from my memory?

Let me know if you have any words you'd like to see in Word of the Week.