Editors fight the good fight for clear communication

This is a bonus extended edition of a column I wrote for the most recent newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. It seems an appropriate topic as we prepare to pause on Thursday, National Grammar Day, to celebrate the nation’s editors, grammarians, usage experts, English teachers, linguists, word bloggers, Scrabble players, and greengrocers.

In a packed room of frightened copy editors at one of the penultimate sessions of ACES 2009, one question particularly hit the point: Sure, there are other jobs, but where else can I contribute so powerfully to the public good?

That had been my nettlesome question for weeks. It was less than a month since my last day at a daily newspaper. For the first time in 20 years, I had nothing to do with the local paper, no influence on the community’s focal point of public discourse. I wasn’t sure if I’d be satisfied wherever else I might land.

One of my first applications was for a copy-editing job at a company that does Web-based marketing for drug companies. No one bit at that application. I would have been compelled to take the job had it been offered, and I probably would have found some satisfaction in it. Some.

But, face it, beyond newspapers, where can you so directly and honestly give people information they need to get by? It’s hard to replicate that sense of accomplishment elsewhere.

“Nobody goes into journalism for the money,” former copy editor and reporter Leigh Roessler said. “You go into it because you feel like you can help people.”

Roessler got into community activism when she was free of ethical considerations imposed by her newspaper job. She helped form an area commission for her Columbus, Ohio, neighborhood.

“If you’re involved in journalism, you know more than 99.9 percent of the public how government works,” she said.

Roessler is now business manager for Huber and Co. Interactive, a Web and social media firm. She stays out of local politics to avoid a conflict of interest involving a client, so she spends her volunteer time at church and her daughter’s school.

She also serves as her company’s copy editor. But after a career in editing, there is no shame in trying something else.

An editor friend once told me that, years ago, he heard Kurt Vonnegut say something along the lines of “Never be ashamed of what you have to do during the day in order to write at night.” Whether we write our novel or become community activists or go to band-booster meetings, there are ways to be worthwhile to society beyond having our work in the daily newspaper.

One thing I’ve learned from the nonjournalist copy editors I’ve met is that one can be happy and influential editing on the outside. Editing at any level is fighting the good fight for clear writing. Copy editing’s core is the same no matter who signs your paycheck. Copy editors help the process of communication by correcting errors and improving clarity. Poor writing often is a simple form of obfuscation, and copy editors beat the drum for clear writing. Everyone benefits when we understand each other.

Rob Reinalda, formerly of the New York Daily News, was a news editor at the Chicago Tribune before 2008’s layoffs. He landed at Ragan Communications, where he is executive editor and helps a host of others with that clarity thing.

His job is still about “providing good information” to the readers. He said he tries to maintain journalistic standards, including clear language, fairness, balanced reporting and sound structure. He sets style for his company and does more writing than he could on the desk, including scripts for Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl podcasts.

I used to think of copy editors employed by private companies as working for the owners or the shareholders, while I nobly worked for the readers. It turns out, every editor is working for the readers and we all get paid by someone else so we can do it. It’s a great system, and it’s not just journalists who enjoy it.

The breadth of the influence out here is less clear. A few score people might have read a scholarly article I edited compared to tens or hundreds of thousands who have read a front-page story I improved. But that bit of scholarship might contribute to emerging thought and have just as much influence as one more story about the economic meltdown. We all lament how fleeting newspaper stories can be. Hundreds of thousands of words are pieced together every night and end up in the recycle bin by the end of the day. Edit a book, though, and your work may outlive you.

Lament the lowering of standards and the gutting of a noble institution. But don’t think defrocked newspaper copy editors are done making a difference.

To learn about the American Copy Editors Society and its upcoming conference in Philadelphia, go to http://www.copydesk.org.

Cleaning copy: 29 or so pitfalls to avoid

I put this two-page list of tips together for a small newspaper chain recently. It’s available as a PDF on my Web site, http://www.markallenediting.com. I’m posting it here mainly in the interest of getting your feedback so I can touch it up. if y0u find it useful, feel free to download it from the Web site.

Below is a list of four of the most common issues to hit the copy desk. What follows is a list of some of my Twitter tips (@EditorMark) that might be particularly useful to reporters.

1. Errors in math. Don’t ignore the common-sense advice drilled into our heads in high school: Check your work. I would put the error rate in number-intensive stories at about 20 percent. Reread your stories, pull out the numbers, and make sure they work together. Quick tip: For percentages, divide the part by the whole and multiply by 100. Also, remember extremes usually do not tell the reader what is typical. “Up to 70 percent” off at a store means some things are 70 percent off, most are not. Same goes for claims by politicians and other public officials.

2. Errors in parallel structure. Once you’ve put down a verb, everything that follows in a list must agree with that verb. The same holds true for bulleted lists. This is often forgotten, and so we get “plans to cut police positions, library hours, and to reduce spending on parks.” Read what you have written (and don’t be afraid to move your lips as you do so).

3. Misplaced and dangling modifiers. Don’t be afraid to rewrite or divide a sentence to avoid confusion over the intended object. “A Wisconsin man was reported stabbed by Beloit Police.” “Frozen solid, Bruce walked out onto the lake.” Read what you have written.

4. False continuums: The snowstorm brought everything from fender-benders to school closings. So those are the extremes? Where does the increase in sales of plastic shovels fit? Make a list if you must, but avoid the “everything from” construction unless you can actually fit all your items on a line.

Tweeted tips

“That” often is superfluous. But don’t omit it without carefully reading what’s left. Keep it in for clarity; omit if excessive.

Ships “founder,” meaning they take on water and sink. A sailor on the doomed ship might “flounder,” or thrash about trying to stay afloat.

For something to be “historic,” it must be important to history. If it just happened in the past, it’s “historical.”

Do not call charter schools “taxpayer-funded private schools.” Governance models vary, but all charter schools are public schools.

To “flout” is to mock or otherwise show disdain; to “flaunt” is to show off. “Flautist” is a fancy-schmancy way of saying “flutist.”

AP says “mike,” not “mic.” OED has references to “mike” dating to 1920s, “mic” to 1960s.

Don’t say “margin” if you mean “ratio.” Ratio is the relationship between two numbers; margin is the difference: 2-1 ratio; 12-point margin.

If you feel bad, don’t say “badly” unless you have a poor sense of touch. It’s the same as with smelling bad or smelling badly.

It celebrates all mothers, but Mother’s Day keeps the apostrophe inside as a singular possessive, as does Father’s Day and New Year’s Day.

“Biweekly” means every two weeks. But for 150+ years, it also has been used to mean twice weekly. Avoid confusion and say what you mean.

You “lay” something. But, annoyingly, “lay” also is the past tense of “lie.” Lay an object down. Lie down. He lay down. (It was laid down.)

“Currently” usually adds nothing; use it rarely and thoughtfully for clarity. Never write the horribly verbose “at this point in time.”

Don’t call two quarters of GDP decline a “traditional” definition of “recession.” The recent convention often is rejected as simplistic.

To “clamor” is to make a lot of noise. To “clamber” is to awkwardly climb or move (probably from “clamb,” an old past tense of “climb”).

“Discrete” means distinct or separate (the island of Crete is a discrete part of Greece). “Discreet” means quietly careful or judicious.

“Defuse” means disable a bomb. It can be used figuratively: to defuse a tense situation. “Diffuse” as a verb means to spread out or scatter.

You can be both interested and “disinterested.” “Disinterested” means impartial. Don’t care? Then you are “uninterested.”

Avoid using “fumes” to mean “vapor.” Fumes usually are smelly or toxic vapors. Vapor is any diffused matter floating in air, such as steam.

Don’t fear “effect” as a verb. To “affect” is to influence; to “effect” is to bring about. “Effect” something and you can take the credit.

“Who” is the proper pronoun for the subject of a sentence. If your pronoun is not doing anything, use “whom.” “Who” does stuff to “whom.”

“Alright” is common, but it’s a nonstandard spelling of “all right,” which prevails in formal writing. Stick with two words, all right?

“Irregardless” is a nonsensical variant, formed by adding the negative prefix “ir’” to “regardless,” which already has a negative suffix.

There is no need to write the awkward “’til.” Till is a perfectly good word that means the same thing. “Until” is best for most writing.

One who “begs the question” is pretending that restating a question answers it. Consider “raises the question.”

“A while” is two words if it follows “in” or “for” — that’s when it acts as a noun. “Awhile” is an adverb.

It’s all right, I think we’re gonna make it

The Kenny Loggins song “I’m Alright” from “Caddyshack” is stuck in my head as I write this (it’s catchier than the Who’s “The Kids are Alright” or Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”).

Last night, I tweeted about alright, which is considered nonstandard by most dictionaries and not a word at all according to many stalwart prescriptivists. I said:

“Alright” is common, but it’s a nonstandard spelling of “all right,” which prevails in formal writing. Stick with two words, all right?

That brought a defense of the word from one copy editor and an immediate counter from another. The ensuing discussion over two dozen tweets involving 10 people culminated with this tweet that I woke up to: “You will pry alright from my cold, dead hands. Not sooner.”

I had hoped to avoid that, of course, and, in fact, I accept that alright inevitably will earn its place between already and altogether. But if I find alright while editing someone’s copy, I will suggest it be changed to the accepted all right.

None of the dictionaries I commonly use lists alright as fully acceptable. American Heritage calls it “nonstandard” and Oxford American calls it a “variant.” Other dictionaries are less categorical. Webster’s New World says alright is a “disputed spelling of all right.” The Oxford English Dictionary refers to it as “a frequent spelling of all right.” Merriam-Webster is the most accepting, only hinting at a dispute: “In reputable use though all right is more common.”

Bryan Garner, in the third edition of “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” created a five-point scale to show to what degree a disputed word has entered the lexicon. Stage One is Rejected and Stage Five is Fully accepted. Alright rates Stage Two: Widely shunned, although it could be argued that is common enough to warrant Stage Three: Widespread but … .

The English language is a great democracy in which popular opinion sets the course. We may individually defer to the writers of our high school grammar texts, but ultimately there is no single compilation of the Laws of Grammar that we are bound to follow. We collectively set the course. As with any democracy, it sometimes gets ugly.

That “alright” is a word is indisputable. There it is, seven words to the left. There it is in song titles and 37 million times on Google (and 72,500 times on Google Scholar). There is a question as to whether it should be a word, but a better question might be “why not?” There is precedent for making words by dropping the second l in the preceding all.

The American Heritage usage note on all right suggests that the combined form missed the boat only because it came along so late. The OED corpus suggests people didn’t start commonly using “all right” to mean satisfactory until the 18th century. Words like altogether and although already were in use by the Middle Ages, before dictionaries and usage guides.

“Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” (published by Merriam-Webster) devotes nearly two pages to alright. It suggests that there are reasons to differentiate between the stresses placed on all right vs. alright. As one person tweeted: “I’ve graded some tests and papers that were alright; definitely not all right.” That distinction would have been allowed to flourish, Merriam-Webster’s usage guide says, “if it were not so regularly suppressed by copy editors.”

For now, I will keep suppressing, albeit with a margin note explaining the dispute.

As Arthur Crudup (and later Elvis) sang, “That’s all right, that’s all right, that’s all right now, Mama, any way you do.”