Twitter is a great place for a conversation

In a year of discovery on Twitter, I have acquainted myself with an amazing group of editors, linguists, lexicographers and other word lovers. I don’t consider myself an expert on language, just a practitioner. I haven’t diagrammed a sentence in 30 years. And I am much better at cleaning up other people’s copy than I am at avoiding my own mistakes.

A longtime debate among some word aficionados is whether language rules should be enforced or whether we should let language evolve. It seems a silly debate. Of course, both are true. Language would not exist without conventions, but those conventions evolve to fit changing times. Sometimes this evolution is based on fashion; sometimes it is based on utility.

As a newspaper copy editor, my job was to enforce rules and put up at least an honorable defense to change. Language can be wild and confusing, and trendiness can get in the way of the basic goal of language: clarity. Newspapers can be playful with the language, just not loose.

So a newspaper copy editor probably falls somewhere right of center. Some would say solidly to the right as a member of the prescriptivist’s caucus.

Twitter is not newspapers. It may be written, but sentence structure more closely resembles spoken language than written. Twitter conversations can veer wildly to left.

John Metcalfe took a look at what could be called the wingnuts of Twitter in a story in today’s New York Times. On one side, those who seem to type with their elbows on their Blackberrys and iPhones; on the other side, what the story calls “self-appointed Twitter scolds” who endeavor to enforce the rules of “proper English.”

But that story looks at the extremes, and the middle path almost always turns out to be the superior one. I’m not familiar with any of the people in Metcalfe’s story. The people I know through Twitter are mostly careful with the language, but don’t revel in the imperfections of others. They might note a particularly enjoyable public typo or commiserate over an example of careless writing, but they don’t seek to embarrass or scold.

I was asked about the issue several weeks ago by Metcalfe, and I told him I had never heard of the practice and that I couldn’t fathom whey someone would bother. I explained that I’m loath to publicly make note of anyone’s errors, and I don’t correct Twitter talk. If a friend makes a gaff that could be embarrassing, I am careful to pass a note along privately or through a Twitter account that has only a few followers.

It turns out I didn’t really say anything then that would add to Metcalfe’s story. I gave a better answer, I think, when I was asked about my approach to language policing on Twitter moments ago.

“It’s better to be helpful than to be chiding, to support rather than attack,” I said.

This is not to say that I condone those who don’t care enough about their readers to put together a coherent 140-character statement. But I have a simple technique for dealing with it. I don’t follow them.

5K run contributes to an informed society

Note: If you read to the end, there is an appeal for money.

After a year away from the desk — a tumultuous year for newspaper copy desks everywhere — my respect and admiration for my colleagues has only increased. So, too, has my expectation for a positive future.

I became a journalist because I believed in the power of information and I respected those who worked to keep us informed. I became a copy editor because I wanted to be sure what ended up in the readers’ hands was the best possible telling of the stories that shape our communities and our world.

You would think this would be a lousy time to be in college looking at a career in copy editing. But there are many young people in college today focused on copy editing with the same motivation that drove me. They have the brain power to excel at anything, but they choose to enter the risky, mostly thankless field of keeping us all informed.

Despite the conventional thinking, these future copy editors are entering a field that is more important than ever. The number of news sources is increasing, and we need to be able to turn to those sources that are concerned with the public good rather than those focused on driving an agenda. Newspapers are not dying, and news copy desks will not disappear. The demands on the desk will be greater, but the foundations will not change.

The American Copy Editors Society believes in a strong future for copy editors and every year awards thousands of dollars in scholarships to those entering the field. I am looking forward to meeting this year’s honorees this week in Philadelphia at the ACES annual conference. This year’s scholarship winners are Shannon Epps of Hampton University in Virginia; Emily Ingram of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Robin Kawakami, who graduated last year from City University, London; William Powell, who graduated in December from the University of Missouri-Columbia; and Caitlin Saniga of Kent State University in Ohio.

To encourage others along the path of these five copy editors, I’m planning to run in my first 5K this week through the streets of Philadelphia to the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (a la Rocky) and then onward to the Tavern on Broad, where I’m told raw eggs will be provided. I’ve been walking 5K for the past several weeks, so I’m pretty sure I won’t collapse en route. Last night I ran half the distance, the most I’ve ever run, and I hope to keep up with younger, more fit copy editors for at least the first half of the route.

The run is a fundraiser for the ACES Education Fund. Officers have a goal of building a $130,000 endowment to make the fund self-sustaining. I no longer have an office in which to solicit contributions, but if you’ve read this far, I encourage you to help me with a worthy cause. I’m asking for donations of just $1, which you can send to me via PayPal. I’ll make the donation to the fund in all your names, and I’ll tweet a special thank you to all who contribute.

Donations should be made via mnallen@mac.com by clicking on the “Send Money” tab at the PayPal site. Sorry I don’t have a button. Maybe next year I’ll have figured that out.

Details on the run are here: http://www.aces2010.org/program/activities/fun-run

Details on the ACES Education Fund are here: http://www.copydesk.org/edfund

And please take a look at the fine copy editors honored this year: http://www.copydesk.org/news/10_scholars.php

I am grateful to you for your support.


Happy April-fool-day

My seemingly innocent retweet of Grammar Girl this morning gave rise to a lengthy discussion of personal preference regarding the apostrophe in “April Fools’ Day.” Or “April Fool’s Day.” Or “April Fools Day.”

Grammar Girl is careful to check multiple sources, and she found agreement on the plural possessive construction. But one publisher disagrees. The good people at Oxford University Press prefer “April Fool’s Day” on both sides of the Atlantic.

For some reason, the issue struck a nerve, and many people decided to weigh in. So, as we never had a hashtag for the discussion, I’ve cut and pasted the tweets and retweets below. This is just a quickly edited compilation, so please forgive me for any spacing and punctuation issues. For best results, zip down to the bottom and read up.

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@Allen02: @EditorMark April Fools’ Day is my birthday. Because I wish to share the glory (rather than be singled out as the fool) I prefer the plural

@PurplePenning:@EditorMark After all this discussion, I think they’re laughing at us. ;-)

But are we laughing at them or with them? RT @PurplePenning: Seems no-apostrophe form follows AP on descriptive phrases: day FOR fools.

RT @PurplePenning: @EditorMark Seems like no-apostrophe form (Aprils Fools Day) follows AP guide for descriptive phrases: day FOR fools, no apostrophe.

RT @PurplePenning: @EditorMark To avoid an untenable editing position, should proponents of the Oxford comma embrace the Oxford apostrophe? ;-)

@kristy_campbell @EditorMark No joke. Son did report on origin of holiday – chose 1 over many. I’ll be moving the apostrophe going forward. Makes more sense.

Sometimes I play one on Twitter. RT @corb21: @EditorMark so, are you saying you’re a fool?

RT @Compain: Cost prohibitive. RT @EditorMark: I’m all for it! RT @corb21: April Fool’s Day would be ok, if we bought presents for fools …

No joke? RT @kristy_campbell: I thought it a celebration of a singular fool who didn’t mark the new calendar ordered by the Pope.

RT @KARENPRGIRL: We already have Election Day. RT @corb21: April Fool’s Day would be ok, if we bought presents for fools on that day….

I’m all for it! RT @corb21: April Fool’s Day would be ok, if we bought presents for fools on that day….

OED’s earliest reference: “No wise man will tell me that it is not as reasonable to fall out for the observance of April-fool-day” (1753).

RT @FrancisAdams14: @EditorMark I’ll rephrase, rewrite, recast to do away with ambiguity: All Fools Day.

RT @AvrilFoole: @EditorMark I vote for April’s Fool day, so we can have one every month.

RT @MetaPhoenix: We can argue if the correct spelling is Fool’s or Fools’. Either is acceptable. The former is more aesthetically pleasing.

RT @4ndyman: @EditorMark: Can we call it April Fools’s Day, in honor of all those fools who don’t know how to use an apostrophe anyway?

And multiple fools. RT @paxr55: re: Mother’s Day. Yes, but we usu. have but 1 mother. Cf “my [singular] mother” and “our [plural] veterans”

It’s a style question. So, take your pick, but be consistent. (But majority says plural possessive.) RT @FrancisAdams14: What’s your take?

But, “Mother’s Day.” RT @paxr55: Yes. Cf. Veterans Administration RT A vote for nonpossessive April Fools / via @corb21 … All Saints Day … .

And another: RT @DistantHopes: Why does there have to be ownership of a Day? Could it not just be … dedicated to the plurality of fools?

A vote for nonpossessive: RT @corb21: I’d look to other examples …All Saints Day for one…it’s not All Saint’s Day. I think April Fools Day.

RT @tao_of_grammar: @EditorMark I like “Fools'” because it assumes multiple fools and a day just for them (us).

Touche! RT @lburwash: @EditorMark NYPL says “Fools’.” Canadian Press says “Fool’s.” Hmm, clearly more fools in the US. ; )

Interesting. Checked 4 other style guides—no entries. RT @StanCarey: Oxford Manual of Style: “April Fool’s Day (one fool) *not* Fools’ (US)”

Again, those Oxfordians: RT @lburwash: @EditorMark Canadian Oxford Dictionary, my go-to for Canadian spellings, says “Fool’s.”

I can’t find an entry in the Chicago Manual of Style, but the Facebook page goes with “Fools’.” http://bit.ly/aTnc38

Oh, interesting! The debate heats up: RT @jennhoegg: @EditorMark CP stylebook goes with “Fool’s.” [Does CP have preferred dictionary?]

AP Stylebook also says “Fools’.” Oxford folks stand alone. RT @jennhoegg: I am reassured there is now consensus, because I prefer Fools’.

It’s “April Fool’s Day” according to Oxford American and OED. But American Heritage, WNW, M-W, Macmillan dictionaries prefer “Fools’.”

Oops, a point of contention for we word fools: RT @OrangeXW: At least one dictionary lists “April Fool’s Day (also April Fools’ Day).” .

RT @GrammarGirl: The proper spelling is “April Fools’ Day.” Really. No joke.