Carets and Sticks

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March 17, 2004
Those incidents
Ohio involved someone shooting a gun, but only the one in which a bullet hit a person was a shooting.

Dictionary definitions vary in their rigor about this point, but think about it: If the neighbor kid is practicing with a .22 and a tin can, do you think a series of shootings is going on next door?

So, what do you call it when a guy fires a gun into a tree or a door frame -- or, unsuccessfully, at a person? I don't have a good answer. Shooting incident isn't great, but it's better than shooting. In the Columbus case, sniper incident also works.

Feb. 27, 2004
That [editorial comment withheld] movie
is called "The Passion of the Christ." I can understand "Passion" as a headline shortcut, or even "The Passion" on second reference, but I'm puzzled to encounter so many first references to "The Passion" as if that's the name of the thing. Those last three words aren't a subtitle. (Are they?)

Nov. 25, 2003
for $500, Alex:

LOOKING FORWARD to the Macy's Day Parade? Well, what the heck is Macy's Day? It's the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, of course, but that odd common error has been published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Cox News Service, the Jupiter (Fla.) Courier, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Florida Today, the Palm Beach Post, the Tampa Tribune, the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times, among others, and that's just this year.

SPEAKING OF ODD COMMON ERRORS, "Indira Ghandi" appears in the current issue of Washingtonian magazine. Indira, Mohandas and Rajiv, of course, shared the name Gandhi.

VICIOUS CIRCLE is the expression, not "vicious cycle."

IT'S THE NATIONAL ORGANIZATION FOR WOMEN. For, not of. My newspaper recently committed that error.

MY NEWSPAPER also recently mentioned a "hot dog-eating contest." Now, how hot could a dog-eating contest be? What the Post meant was a hot-dog-eating contest.

"FREE" means "for nothing." So "for free" means "for for nothing."

SPEAKING OF "FREE," in an odd and uncommon error, I recently read about somebody being home-free. The expression, assuming you don't mean homeless, is "home free."

June 25, 2003
During Wimbledon
, we hear a lot about "break-point opportunities" and "break-point chances."

In this land of opportunity, we love opportunities to add extraneous words. What the tennis commentators mean by "break-point opportunity" is "break point." What the hockey announcers mean by "power-play opportunity" is "power play." The "opportunity" or "chance" or "shot" is redundant at best.

To be more accurate, the extra words are just plain wrong. A break point is an opportunity to break serve, so a break-point opportunity would technically be an opportunity to get an opportunity to break serve. That's not that farfetched a reading: If 15-40 is a break point (a double break point, to be more precise), isn't 15-30 a break-point opportunity? If a penalty in hockey means a power play, isn't a referee's whistle during a scuffle a power-play opportunity?

June 25, 2003
Speaking of Wimbledon
, ignorance of the "comma of direct address" apparently isn't confined to the States.

Just as countless American teens write "hi mandy" and "hi jason," as though Mandy and Jason were "hi," one of the British tabloids lent support to adopted Brit Greg Rusedski by printing a full-page sign for spectators reading "COME ON GREG." Comma. Please. Otherwise it's the title of a gay porn movie.

April 21, 2003
The suspect
was described as . . ."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: No. There is no suspect; that's why police are giving out a description!

When a local television newscast or a poorly edited newspaper contains such a sentence, the person being described is almost always the robber or the killer or the rapist -- the perpetrator.

Exceptions: Suspect is appropriate if an unidentified person being sought was seen leaving the scene of a crime but not actually committing the crime. It's appropriate if there is actually a suspect, a named person, and he's being described because he's on the run and not being labeled a perpetrator because of libel laws (but such a description would probably include the suspect's name).

Usually, however, it's an example of journalists mindlessly parroting cop-speak. Suspect means "person suspected of committing a crime" in English, even if it means "criminal" to the police (if you're into that whole innocent-until-proven-guilty thing, it's best not to think too much about that).

I wonder: Do the dictationist-reporters also call their dogs "K-9 units"?

April 3, 2003
I trust
that journalists will be unanimous in condemning the idea of
faking pictures. Perhaps we can channel our outrage over such an incident into something better than 50 percent opposition to faking quotes.

March 18, 2003
Attention, online news sites:
It's protester, with an e. Demonstrator has an o. I don't make the rules; I just enforce them.

Dec. 20, 2002
I've made
a very unscientific study of what language tics are bothering me most as 2002 wanes, and at the end of the day, the winner for cliche of the year is . . .

"At the end of the day."

Days do end, and sometimes it's necessary to refer to that, so I'm not advocating a search-and-destroy mission for those words. But the phrase appears to be taking over the world as a substitute for other cliches, such as "When all is said and done" and "When the dust settles." In a slightly more scientific study, I searched the LexisNexis database for appearances of "At the end of the day" in The Washington Post. The growth of the cliche was striking: The phrase appeared 39 times in 1980, 140 times in 1995 and 273 times (so far) in 2002.

The cliche is not a 2002 phenomenon, of course. The most significant leap appeared in 1998, with 213 appearances -- up from 142 in 1997. This year just happened to be when this irritant, at least for me, leapt from the background, like the one-minute-unnoticeable, the-next-minute-intolerable noise from the newsroom TV that nobody from the day side ever bothers to turn off.

What to use instead? Ultimately comes to mind as one possibility. You're the editor. Use your imagination.

Oct. 18, 2002
This sentence
appeared in my newspaper, The Washington Post:

The sniper has struck morning, noon and night, but his most recent targets have been near highways.

Police were looking on the "time" side of the time-space continuum, I suppose, so he eluded them by striking in "space" instead.

I don't mean to pick on editors who probably had very little time to go over this story; I'm just using a handy illustration of a common error:

"But" is not a toy. When you see it as an editor or are tempted to use it as a writer, ask yourself whether it's actually pointing out a seeming contradiction or whether it's just there for decoration. Does the highway thing contradict the "morning, noon and night" thing? Of course not. Usually, then, you could repair the damage by changing "but" to "and." In this case, however, the two parts of the sentence aren't even that closely related. Get me rewrite!

Aug. 28, 2002
In a quick look
at a very good newspaper the other day I saw both each others' and childrens'.

Let's review: Each other is what it is. It exists outside the realm of singulars and plurals, and so there is no plural -- there is no each others. So the possessive cannot be each others'. The possessive is each other's.

Children is already plural. Childrens makes no sense; just as you don't say kidses, you don't say childrens. So the possessive cannot be childrens'. The possessive is children's.

July 2, 2002
A belated
corporate-malfeasance item: Enron got in trouble for activities that were off its balance sheet, or off-balance-sheet activities. The hyphen-phobic write of off-balance sheet activities, which sounds more like a description of what happens when you go to bed drunk. A more common error by those afraid of putting more than one hyphen in a sentence is the botching of the adjectival form for ages. A man who is 24 years old is a 24-year-old man. What, then, is a 24-year old man? That would be someone who's been an old man for 24 years. And 24 year-old men? A very odd way to refer to two dozen baby boys.

June 7, 2002
This is nothing new
to those who have read my book or who are even the slightest bit aware of their surroundings, but again I feel compelled to point out that "Star Wars" is a 1977 movie. The current bit of magical-alien-spaceship-future-robot bullshit is "Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones" or "the new 'Star Wars' movie" or "the latest 'Star Wars' movie," but it's not "Star Wars."

Sorry for the rude characterization, but I just can't stomach this stuff. I have no imagination.

May 1, 2002
There's nothing wrong
with the word within, but often it's used when a simple in would do. Observe:
No. A range provides a beginning and an end; ranges make no sense with within, because within comes equipped with its own beginning: now.
No. In! In the next week makes perfect sense. Yes! That's what the word is for. The meaning isn't in five business days, because that would exclude one, two, three and four business days.

Feb. 12, 2002
"Why, it's
zero percent!" would be an appropriate answer to the question "What percentage rate are you paying on your car loan?" Free of the constraints imposed by the structure of that question, however, you could surely find a better way of expressing that idea than "zero-percent financing." "No-interest financing" works, for instance, as does "interest-free financing." Or you could simply call it "free financing," just as you'd refer to something as "free" and not "costing zero dollars and zero cents."

Oct. 3, 2001
I wrote a brief review
of the newly updated Associated Press Stylebook for the October-November issue of the newsletter
Copy Editor. Click here to get a copy of the review in Adobe Acrobat PDF format.

(There's a good chance the Adobe Acrobat reader is already on your computer, but click here if you don't have it.)

Aug. 3, 2001
Recently at a newspaper
close to my heart, a perfectly good sentence about something's impact on something else was changed by an editor who apparently interprets the maxim "Impact is not a verb" to mean "Impact is not a word." Worse yet, this editor changed the noun not to effect, but to affect. Moral: Master the basics before attempting to cultivate pet peeves.

July 16, 2001
It appears to be time
to smooth things over. On Page 205 of
my book, I warn against getting confused by soothe and adding an e to the verb smooth. "Never seen that one before," one of my co-workers commented. So I felt a little vindication when a recent edition of Style & Substance, The Wall Street Journal's excellent in-house usage newsletter, pointed out such an error in the Journal, saying "Misspelling smooth does not soothe."

A few days after I read that newsletter, the aforementioned co-worker missed a smoothe in a story he edited.

A few days after that, a Washington Post story (not in my section) contained the phrase "sooth your soul."

Never seen that one before.

June 27, 2001
Here's a major gripe of mine
that, amazingly, I've never before discussed in print: bylines without the word "By." I'm not talking about publications in which that's the style; that affectation is annoying, but at least it's intentional. I mean stories on which the writer has apparently never read the publication before and the editor has neglected to notice the most basic of errors at the very beginning of a story, where fatigue is no excuse. It's true that ignoring such "furniture" is an occupational hazard, but the byline is a pretty important piece of furniture. Read past it and you'll miss not only the very common "By"-gone goof, but also the more-common-than-you'd-think phenomenon of writers spelling their own names wrong.

March 8, 2001
Carets and Sticks
is not intended as a forum for pouncing on the missteps of other editors, but just as I couldn't let "hi-tech" or "T-ball" go without comment, I must comment on the mention of tennis legend "Jimmy Conners" on the front page of the March 7 Wall Street Journal (another of my favorite publications). As a tennis fanatic, I'm especially sensitive to the misidentification of such a major name. In fact, my wife spotted this error; when I should have been reading the day's papers I was off playing tennis. The amazing thing about the "Conners" error is that, unlike Barbra Streisand and Nicolas Cage and Courteney Cox Arquette and countless other celebrities, Jimmy Connors spells his name the normal way. There are Connerses out there, I'm sure, but I can't remember ever hearing of one. My guess is that a non-tennis-fan copy editor assumed that a reporter writing about tennis couldn't possibly flub one of the biggest names in tennis history. We copy editors make these kinds of judgments when we're short on time, which we almost always are. Note to writers: The copy desk is just the backstop. You're still expected to get things right in the first place.

March 4, 2001
On the cover
of the May 11 issue of Entertainment Weekly, one of my favorite magazines, a headline reads "STAR WARS GOES HI-TECH." Hi, tech! Hello, technology! How's it goin'? Hi-fi was one thing, a whimsical spelling to accentuate a rhyme. But you wouldn't write "hi-fidelity," and there's no point in writing "hi-technology" or "hi-tech," no matter how tight your headline specs might be. Even the abbrev-hpy high-tech industry isn't trying to foist the "hi" spelling on us.

Feb. 17, 2001
This might not be truly ironic
in the eyes of a constipated purist, but I'm pretty sure Alanis Morissette would let me get away with that term. My book, which decries bad writing and editing, received a good review in the Feb. 12 issue of the Weekly Standard. Tracy Lee Simmons, director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, called it "thoroughly delightful" in a review in which he also praised Barbara Wallraff's "Word Court." But you might not get a positive impression of the two books if you merely look at the headline. "Writing Right: A pair of recent books get it wrong," it reads. The reviewer and the magazine's managing editor have apologized for that very odd misstep. Damn copy editors! Isn't it ironic? Don't ya think?

Feb. 15, 2001
"Cliff Notes
to the Post's 'Deadlock' series," reads a
Slate headline. You'll find "Cliff Notes" on 14,214 Web pages, according to AltaVista. I used Cliffs Notes as much as anybody, but apparently only I (and the authors of a pitiful 5,382 Web pages) remembered seeing an "s" in "Cliffs." I wish this didn't bother me so much.

Feb. 13, 2001
With dictionaries and other mainstream publications
tripping over their feet to use "website" and "email" in an attempt to look like Techie McTech to their readers, I find it deliciously amusing that the excellent PC Magazine, of all publications, continues to stick with "Web site" and "e-mail." I guess that's the difference between being secure in your knowledge of the subject matter and being a big, fat poseur wanna-be.

Feb. 9, 2001
A new retronym
came with my overpriced Web order from Joe's Stone Crab in Miami. A retronym, for the uninitiated, is a term that seems redundant but may (or may not) have become valid as the world evolved. Before the electric guitar, acoustic guitars were simply guitars. Before roller skates, ice skates were simply skates. And so now Joe's Stone Crab sends me its signature product packed in wet ice. Yes, I know about dry ice, but wet ice? . . . Several of my co-workers are arguing with me in defense of a similar term: unique visitors. Webheads writing for dimwits use this term to make it clear that multiple visits to a site by the same person are not counted as multiple visitors. Duh! Note my use of the terms visitors and visits. If you told me four of your relatives came over for dinner last night, I'd rule out the possibility that it was just Uncle Joe and Aunt Minnie but both stepped out for a smoke at one point. Visitors means visitors.

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