Be Careful Where You Stand

Readers following this blog know that I’ve been happily (and gainfully) employed as the Digital Media Editor for Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine since April’s end. It’s a fine job, one that entails largely the understanding and analysis of how readers interact with the Web—from where Urbanite‘s traffic comes (direct links versus referring sites, for instance), in what ways online publications can boost online and mobile readership, and some strategy with respect to how traditionally print publications can attract online readership and loyalty while still turning a profit.

And then, of course, there’s some additional wrangling with various content management system fixes, editing of e-mail newsletters, and the share of writing for the print magazine.

One part of the job I wasn’t alerted to initially was the task of proofreading the magazine (though it certainly wasn’t a task I took on begrudgingly, having learned the importance of editing from former professor turned internship supervisor turned professional colleague, John McIntyre).

In one story, I noted the author’s use of the word “podium,” which was intended as that wooden thing people stand behind while giving a speech or lecture of some kind. At once the blue pen came out. I quickly changed the aforementioned word to “lectern” and forgave the error.

The word “podium,” from the Greek root “podos,” meaning foot (do a Google search), is the wooden dais upon which a person stands so as to be slightly elevated. The “lectern,” derived from the Latin “legere,” meaning to read—it turns out that preparatory school education served some purpose—is the wooden stand, often with a slanted top, behind which a person stands to read from prepared remarks or a book.

In all probability, the distinction—like the “who-whom” distinction—will eventually die out, and either word will suffice for a person thinking of a podium (but actually meaning lectern). Until then, I’ll continue to insist that words have definitions for a reason.

What Editing Is, What Editing Isn’t

Many thanks to those who participated in my (extremely unofficial) copy editing test last week. *At the bottom of this post I have typed out my own answers as I would have responded, along with the responder whom I dubbed the winner of two free beers.

But before we get all pretzel-and-Blue Moon-happy…

The aim of the test was in no way to demonstrate a superior understanding of the rules of grammar, or a more sophisticated method to wording sentences, or any sort of prescriptivist viewpoint.

What I’m railing against is the idea that writers don’t need editors, especially when proper names (“Franzon”) continue to be misspelled in articles and improper usage (mantel vs. mantle) continues to pop up in published stories. The rest of the mistakes I inserted, more or less, are idiosyncratic to their respective style rules (AP vs. Chicago vs. “house” publication styles), which, of course, are known best by teams of copy editors who work with them every day. (At least, in my experience, when it comes to newspapers.)

Indeed, to insist on apposition, for instance, when writing about Night Content Production Manager, John McIntyre, is idiomatic to conventional grammar rules (if you can believe conventional grammar rules ring in my ears like the soulful sounds of John Coltrane). To write out “Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre” without placing John McIntyre’s name in apposition is to follow, generally, AP Style rules (same goes with capitalizing his title, but only when it precedes the proper name).

You see what I’m getting at. The test was not designed to test anyone’s knowledge of idiosyncratic style rules, which are flexible, malleable, and specific to various publications’ standards. (I mean, for chrissakes, first AP tells me email is e-mail, and then they tell me e-mail is email.) It was designed, however, to slap around this idea that gutting copy editing staffs at newspapers will lead to better custodianship of the written word by reporters, and therefore you, the reader, will still receive a bang-up product while they, the newspaper, saves some money.

No. No. No. Might as well just bang your head against a wall instead. And while the newspaper industry continues to “experiment” with piss-poor ways of cutting costs in a dying industry, that’s about the only thing that can numb the pain. Maybe if enough brain cells are damaged, you won’t even notice the errors.

*Congratulations to Erin, who was the first to post her responses and noticed precisely the issues in need of correction. Also, congratulations to MichiganCityDDS, a responder who threw in that hyphen between “dapper” and “looking” (I’m partial to hyphenating), in addition to making the other necessary corrections. I might also point you to the responses of Not a Grammarian; I happen to know he is a professor, and I think it’s interesting to see the variability between how a journalist would correct these sentences versus how an academic corrects these sentences.

My own corrections:

1. “What are you doing?” shouted Regina. “How dare you rest your beer on the mantel without using a coaster!”

2. On a bright, sunny day in Baltimore, Michael set out on his bicycle down to Patterson Park, where he looked forward to reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel.

3. “For shame,” said Betty. “And to think we were about to go outside to grill wieners right as Congressman Weiner was tweeting photographs of his wiener to some girl in Seattle.”

4. I will be attending the play with Sally, who is going to be dropped off by her parents John and Margaret, whom I met last Sunday.

5. The Baltimore Sun’s Night Content Production Manager John McIntyre is perhaps the most dapper-looking gentleman in Baltimore City; indeed he looks like one of the cast members of the AMC show Mad Men.

Reconsider this: you cannot “return” players

It has been roughly two months since I began my foray into the world of semi-professional copy editing at the Baltimore Sun. (I say semi-professional because I’m just an intern.) But, despite my intern status, certain points of journalistic writing and style nevertheless aggravate the hell out of me.

The latest literary agitation comes to me courtesy of sports writers. (No, I don’t hate sports writers or sports sections; I just hate how sports writers sometimes write.) The following is a classic example of the type of “journalese” that John McIntyre—witty, bespectacled, curmudgeonly veteran of the Baltimore Sun‘s copy desk—verbally trounces. (At least, I think…)

“The [insert team's name] return [insert player's name] for a second season.”

E.g.: The Eagles return Mike Vick for a second season.

Two points to note here:

1. Invariably, in journalism, writers should always look to write more colloquially than “journalistically.” Saying “Sen. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.)” is always more clunky than saying “Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer,” or “Maryland’s Democratic Sen. Steny Hoyer.” As a journalist, your job is to disseminate information in a logical, organized and easily digestible format.

2. Nonetheless, I have never heard even the most avid sports-buff friends of mine use “return” as a verb in the above context. People will say “Mike Vick is coming back for a second season,” or “Mike Vick returns for a second season,” or “Mike Vick will be returning,” but never do I hear people say “The Eagles return Mike Vick.” My next question, upon hearing that, is to ask where they are returning him. To the supermarket? The department store? Outside the NFL draft, is there a special store that houses players in hermetically-sealed packaging before throwing them on an AstroTurf field to live their lives in states of football-induced concussive bliss?

Call it a pet peeve, but this is my blog, dammit. So for the sake of all of us, please return “[Team name] return [player name]” constructions to the depths of the journalese vault.