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.


‘Awe’ spreads faster than dictionaries can keep up

Wendalyn Nichols wrote an awesome post yesterday for the Web site Visual Thesaurus. As an aside, the Copyediting newsletter editor mentioned the misuse of “awe,” as in “awe, cute” instead of “aw, cute.”

“Awe” comes from an Old English word “ege,” which meant “terror” or “dread.” It has largely retained that meaning, although recently it has been used in a more positive sense, first in relation to something impressive, and lately to describe anything we think is pretty good, such as a blog posting. It’s certainly overused these days, and it may be creeping into descriptions of babies and kittens. Some babies and kittens may inspire “fear or wonder” (Oxford American’s definition). but the word we’re probably looking for is “aw.”

That being said, most dictionaries I checked lack a positive sense for the word “aw.” Oxford American say “aw” first appeared in America in the 19th century and is “used to express mild protest, entreaty, commiseration, or disapproval.” None of those fit the way we use it with babies and kittens.

American Heritage includes “tenderness” in its definition. But that definition is absent in Oxford American, Webster’s New World, Merriam-Webster Unabridged, Macmillan, and the Oxford English Dictionary. So without an American Heritage Dictionary handy, we might be confused how to spell “aw, cute.”

The growing popularity of “awesome” probably influences the misspelling “awe, cute,” as well as “awe, cool” instead of “ah, cool.” (Sure, it’s spelled “ah, cool,” but it’s more often pronounced with a “w.”) American Heritage labels the use of “awesome” for “outstanding” as slang and Macmillan Dictionary notes it is “mainly used by young people.”

I would try to reserve “awe,” “awesome” and “awe-inspiring” for the truly impressive, both good and bad. We might have an easier time with “awe” if dictionaries took a new look at “aw.”

Feeling sick? Control your “nausea”

A squeamish Facebook reader left a note on my wall last night about the very common use of the word “nauseous” to mean “feeling sick” rather than “inducing a feeling of sickness.”

Hello! You’re here just in time. Today I’ve seen the word “nauseous” used in print is two separate publications. Makes me cringe. Is “nauseated” still the correct term to use to mean the feeling I get whenever I hear or see “nauseous” used instead?

“Nauseous” meaning “feeling sick” is a 20th century American invention. It’s frowned on in formal writing, but it’s very common.

Interestingly, in the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest examples of “nauseated,” the word meant “causing nausea” (“the nauseated pleasures of luxury” from 1659). Common at the time was the verb “nauseate,” which was used with an object, often with “at,” as in “I nauseate at their improper use of English.” Toss that one out at a party for fun.

“Nauseated” for “feeling sick” seems to emerge in the 18th century. Perhaps there was no nausea-related adjective to describe the feeling before then. If you go back to the original Latin, “nauseous” meant “causing nausea.”

There is another form of the word that has been used for hundreds of years: “nauseating.” A big majority of the American Heritage usage panel preferred “nauseating” to “nauseous” in a sample sentence. So it may be that “nauseous” is being pushed out of formal writing. Something “nauseating” will make us feel “nauseated.” Or it may be that as “nauseating” replaces “nauseous,” “nauseous” will supplant “nauseated.”

I would uphold the distinction and not use “nauseous” for “nauseated” on paper, but don’t make yourself sick over it.

Sorry; that was too easy, I know, but I couldn’t resist.

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.”

We need not suffer this affective disorder

After seeing “affect” used improperly several times in succession years ago, I photocopied the “AP Stylebook” entry, cut it out, copied it at 200 percent, then doubled its size again, knowingly contributing to deforestation and exacerbating profit declines for the Newhouse family.

Unfortunately, the small act of posting the enlarged affect/effect entry on my desk divider failed to put the issue to a rest. At some point AP updated its entry. It’s now less succinct, but it’s still a good guide. There are many good explanations out there of the correct usage (see a few below), but affect/effect mixups remain a common usage annoyance.

A copy editor friend recently suggested I blog about it. His suggestion came on the heels of another copy editor’s call for help after her brain seized up on the matter.

I did tackle affect/effect in exactly 140 characters one day in a Twitter entry:

“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.”

That, too, failed to put the issue to rest.

To use my copy editor friend’s example, let’s delve into the differences using two nouns, “catnip” and “cats.” Catnip is our subject of our examples; cats are the objects that the verb refers to. Both affect and effect can be verbs, so:

  • Catnip affects cats.
  • Catnip effects cats.

Affect means “to influence.” “Catnip influences cats.” It certainly does. The verb form is usually “affect.” Use it whenever something is taking an action on something that already exists.

Effect means to bring about, to cause. “Catnip causes cats.” Clearly that does not make sense. To “effect” a cat, one must create a cat. To be precise, a daddy cat and a mommy cat fall in love, etc. Their mating effects a litter of kittens.

Very often, we see the verb “effect” used with “change.” To “effect change” means to make change happen. If you “affect change,” you are having an influence on the change, but there would be some form of change with or without you.

As a noun, “effect” is the result of the action. Catnip affects cats with the effect that they act squirrelly.

“Affect” has another verb form, meaning basically “pretend.” “He affected the air of an Oxford don as he explained the usage issue.” The noun is “affectation.” Psychologists also use “affect” to mean an observed emotional state, as in “seasonal affective disorder.”

If this last paragraph adds confusion, ignore it. Those are not common uses. In fact, forget the noun issue altogether. You instinctively know that if it’s a noun, the word is “effect.” The headache comes with the verb form. So, all you need to remember is:

If the object of the sentence is being changed, the verb is affect.

If the object of the sentence is being created, the verb is effect.

Or, more succinctly: Affect is to change; effect is to create.

I hope this blog entry effectively puts the issue to rest. But if you need reinforcement, here are some other sources that address the issue:

Paul Brians’ “Common Errors in English Usage”

Grammar Girl’s “Quick and Dirty Tips

Professor Malcolm Gibson’s “Wonderful World of Editing

Ask Oxford

Wordnik (American Heritage usage note)

Stan Carey’s “Sentence First”

With Twitter, it’s like I never left

This is the bonus extended edition of a column I wrote for the most recent newsletter of the American Copy Editors Society. To learn about ACES and the upcoming conference in Philadelphia, go to http://www.copydesk.org.

There are several reasons I enjoyed going to work every day at a newspaper and felt good after the job was done. Making a difference, of course, was number one. Second was all the one-liners.

It is difficult for we previously employed, sized-down, made-redundant masses of journalists — we no longer are privy to the clever wordplay and mildly inappropriate humor that permeate newsrooms. This witty repartee reaches its fullness on copy desks, especially around 10 p.m. when most anything sounds funny.

But I miss that interplay less than I had feared. I have discovered that Twitter is the new office. It’s not the part of the office that gets things done, necessarily. But there is some of that, too.

In April, my employer of four years invited me to proceed in life without what former ACES president John McIntyre, late of the Baltimore Sun, calls “the surly bonds of employment.” I have been free of those bonds for eight months, and I may never go back.

I may never go back partly because it is unclear what I might go back to. Our ranks have been thinned considerably, with every indication that we are seeing a permanent realignment of newsrooms. There is no guarantee that there would be a recognizable desk to return to.

Beyond that, there is a feeling that I have done my time. I did good for more than a quarter century, stretching back to the Eppler Express junior high school newspaper. (“Eppler’s seven cheerleaders say cheerleading is hard work, but also a lot of fun.” I still remember my first lead on that double-bylined story.)

So now it’s time to move on. I’m not convinced the populace will get along without me. But perhaps I can find some new ways to make myself useful. For my first step, I successfully took over my wife’s office in the guest bedroom.

My “How to Be Laid Off” class taught me that many people who decide to work on their own find they miss the human interaction of a “real job.” But soon I found Twitter, which can be just as distracting as anybody I’ve ever worked with.

Twitter keeps me in touch with like-minded people around the world and in a newsroom near you. It seems perfectly suited to copy editor types, who are comfortable with the brevity imposed by Twitter’s 140-character limit and are never wont to go on about a topic anyway.

The personalities in the Twitterverse are as varied as those at the workstations of the copy desk. It is inhabited by some of those non-newsroom copy editors I’ve only recently been made aware existed. It’s great to go to work every day with freelancers, word lovers, new-media pontificators and some folks who are just plain good for a laugh. And, of course, it’s great to keep in touch with the newsrooms where, it’s heartening to know, there are professionals who still go to battle every day.

When I first signed up for Twitter, a friend told me she tries to follow a number of new people every day. I had assumed Twitter was all about getting people to follow you. But I discovered that, ego aside, Twitter’s strength is not about how many followers you accumulate, it’s about whom you follow. It is a marketing and networking tool for a freelancer, but it’s mainly a useful place to learn and connect. I follow people who might want to hire an editor, and I follow other journalists, work-at-home editors, educators, old friends, new friends, and just about anyone who is kind enough to follow me (except that Brit.ney person who keeps sending me links to her new pictures).

So now my office is filled with chatter, including banter similar to that found on newspaper copy desks — sometimes from people I worked with 10 and 20 years ago. I hear from frustrated editors sharing convoluted constructions and moaning about metro. I hear a lot about people’s children, although I’m never asked to buy wrapping paper for the marching band. One copy editor shares his front-page lineup and tweets about his bicycle ride into work. Another, a freelancer, recently donated a kidney and has been keeping her Twitter friends updated. I hear from industry veterans and newcomers and journalism school professors all wondering where newspapers are headed. And I hear from plenty of people who are wondering “is it that or which,” “when should you use presently,” and, my favorite, “can fish jump?”

It’s always good to feel useful.

Mark Allen is working as a freelance copy editor from his guest bedroom in Bexley, Ohio. He last worked for a daily newspaper, the Columbus Dispatch, in the spring after spending the better part of his career at Michigan dailies. He offers daily tips on grammar, usage and style on Twitter under the name EditorMark. He will periodically be writing about the transition from the newsroom to freelancing for the ACES newsletter.


Math expressions are words, too

Writers often will say they are word people and not math people. And this defeatist pronouncement too often is reflected in their use of simple math. But mathematical expressions are words. They have specific meanings, commonly understood but often ignored in practice.

Most of us have the basic knowledge that allows to check to make sure the mathematical expressions we use hold true in context. If something is “twice as much” as something else, then half of that something also is something else. Right? If I have three apples and you have twice as many, you have six apples. If you give me half your apples and end up with four, we’ve screwed something up.

Don’t ignore the common-sense advice drilled into our heads in high school: Check your work.

This morning’s paper brought a story with more complex math than an exchange of apples, but nothing any of us can’t do in our heads. No calculator was used in the preparation of this blog.

The state of Ohio is capping the amount that insurance providers can charge people who are considered high-risk, such as those with diabetes or other medical conditions. The cost of high-risk plans are limited to twice the cost of the lowest-cost plan for people of the same sex and similar age. Some companies, the story tells us, charged four times the lowest rate, and some people paid $1,000 a month.

Fine so far. But the story also says “The cap is expected to reduce premiums by 50 percent to 70 percent.”

Now, let’s check the math. Starting with that poor fellow paying $1,000 a month, his fee is up to four times the base rate if we use the extremes. So the base rate is no more than $250, and reducing his fee to twice the base rate would have him paying $500 a month.

That assumes no increase in the base rate – a silly assumption perhaps, but we are solving for the extreme here. So, best case scenario, the $1,000-a-month fee is reduced to $500. We don’t need a calculator to know that $500 is 50 percent of $1,000.

Stated more simply, If we reduce something from four times as much to twice as much, we have reduced it 50 percent. No more. Change any of the assumptions, and the savings are less. Nothing we do will get us to 70 percent.

There is one other variable, but it requires that we assume a mistake in the story. The cap gradually decreases and reaches 1½ times the lowest-price premium in 2013. Assuming no change in the lowest-price premium, our $1,000 would be reduced to $375, a reduction of 62.5 percent. That’s short of 70 percent and still represents the best-case scenario. And the story never said those savings would come in 2013 instead of 2010.

Perhaps there is something more in the legislation that will increase savings, making all the assumptions and the quoted 50 percent to 70 percent savings correct. But based on what we’re given, the best anyone can hope for is 50 percent, and most consumers should expect less.

When we see expressions such as “twice as much” and “50 percent of,” we should pull the numbers out of our story and make sure they work together. Surprisingly often, they end up disagreeing.

Review: Grammar Girl’s new iPhone podcast interface

I grabbed Grammar Girl’s new iPhone app hot off the presses Wednesday afternoon, eager to see the next step in multimedia grammar presentation.

Mignon Fogarty got her start as a pioneer in podcasting and now also makes good grammar accessible through books, an e-mail newsletter, videos on YouTube, a Web site, and a presence on Twitter. What makes all these venues successful is they’re all Mignon – friendly, unintimidating, and smart.

The app follows the same formula, opening with the familiar Grammar Girl avatar in purple sweater and pony tail. Beyond is essentially access to a year’s worth of Grammar Girl podcasts along with one bonus podcast.

So, primarily, it’s a podcast interface. Click on an episode and listen or download an episode to listen offline. When I clicked on the app on my iPod Touch while waiting for my son to get out of his music lesson, I was told I had no saved episodes. Then, the app quit. But I wandered far enough from the French horn teacher’s house to find free wi-fi from the neighbors, and I downloaded the bonus episode and one other, using 5.3 MB of my iPod’s memory. Now I can listen at my leisure.

I find it useful to have a Grammar Girl podcast interface; others might question paying $1.99 for content that is free from iTunes or the Grammar Girl Web site.

But along with convenience, the value comes in the promised extras. The initial download includes a podcast discussion of “circumnavigate” and “circumvent” (just about any words that sound alike have been confused at some point). Also planned are photos, just for fun, showing grammar and usage issues. The first one shows a creative spelling of “Star Trek” on a Burger King sign. Future extras may include puzzles and whatever other creative enhancements Fogarty and crew dream up.

The app also includes a screen for checking out Grammar Girl’s Twitter feed and a link to the Web site, which is not set up for mobile but is easily navigable on an iPod. The app also has a background play mode, which allows you to work in other apps while listening.

I’m not a reviewer of apps but a fan of useful tools for good writing. Grammar Girl delivers the same sensible advice in a variety of mediums, and an iPhone app is just the latest format. If you’re a regular listener, this is sure to enhance the experience.

Ta

M. Lynne Murphy, an American-educated linguist living in England, writes the blog “Separated by a Common Language.” She annually seeks two words of the year, the best British borrowing from American English and the best American borrowing from the mother country. The verdict is not yet in for the crossovers for 2009; “staycation” seems an early favorite, despite slightly different meanings in America and in the U.K.

Seeing this inspired me to share my favorite Britishism, practically unknown in America: “Ta.” Not “ta” as in “ta ta,” meaning “so long.” “Ta” as in a quick and informal way of saying “thank you.”

Most sources suggest “ta” is from a young child’s way of saying thank you, dating from the 18th century. It doesn’t seem to me to be a likely mimic — neither of the sounds in “ta” (tah) are found in “thank you.” But whatever the origin, the word appears to be common in English casual speech. Online sources say it is heard in the Midlands and parts of London, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.

While I’m not usually big on slang shortenings, “ta” wins me over with charm and simplicity. I wouldn’t suggest introducing a word that duplicates the perfectly useful “thank you” or “thanks” just based on charm and simplicity, however. “Ta” also has utility.

It is a quarter as long as “thank you” and a third as long as “thanks,” making it an obvious choice for Twitter, where messages are limited to 140 characters. It is greatly superior to the common “THX” or “TY,” and it often substitutes nicely for “h/t” for “hat tip.” Electronic communication is rife with abbreviations that require translation. “Ta” is self-contained.

I do not nominate “ta” as Lynne Murphy’s crossover word for 2009. While I was aware of the word from English relatives, I only heard it commonly used during a trip to England several years ago and in one or two movies in which Hugh Grant played a leading role. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard it used in the United States except by friends trying to humor me.

I do think it’s time to start the campaign for Murphy’s BrE borrowing for 2010. I have been using “ta” on Twitter, with the likely effect people shrugging it off rather than checking the dictionary. No matter. I’ll keep using it in hopes that it catches on. If you say it to me, I certainly will reply “you’re welcome.”

Ta.

Paper’s plan has Twitter users groping for words

After looking through hundreds of comments on Twitter about the “bold” and rather odd reorganization at the Dallas Morning News, one freelance copy editor summarized in a tweet: “Consensus: apocalypse.”

The comments she read through were attached to retweets of a link to a blog of the Daily Observer in Dallas. Robert Wilonsky republished a memo from Bob Mong, Dallas Morning News editor, and Cyndy Carr, senior vice president for sales, that laid out a strategy for “business/news integration” in which editors would report to general managers responsible for different segments of advertising sales.

“I think I just heard the wall fall,” a friend tweeted me. “Journalism: Dead in Dallas,” said another.

Twitter conversations can be an interesting way to gauge opinion. The Web site bit.ly compiles data on links it provides, and it allows a quick look at hundreds of comments added to Twitter messages as people pass along a link.

Reading through bit.ly’s list, at http://bit.ly/info/6d5AHv, one can almost feel the collective gasp.

Here are the comments on the bit.ly list at 3 the afternoon the story came out.They are mostly in order, with Twitter names, links and repetition removed. I didn’t look for the controversial or clever. I didn’t have to. This is pretty much all of them. It’s a long list, but a quick skim will give you an idea:

  • Okay, this is the worst thing to happen in the history of the printed page
  • I just died a little
  • Wait, what?!: wow, Dallas Morning News editors reporting to ad sales
  • Yikes is right. RT Yikes. Dallas News has a bold new strategy. Yikes.
  • Mourning the Dallas Morning News. Because what’s happened there means it’s no longer a newspaper. It’s an ad circular
  • Commenter said: “DMN RIP.”
  • Holy cow!
  • Wow. Unbelievable
  • Ugh; it’s wrong on so many levels.
  • This is not ok
  • More pervasive that you’d think…
  • Really interesting developments in Dallas, where some editors will now report to sales managers
  • OMG! News is all about ad revenue now.
  • uh-oh
  • Dallas Morning News editors now report to ad sales managers. Seems the death of real journalism is upon us
  • Bold strategy n DMN reorg: Breakng dwn old walls (between sales & edit)
  • oh yeah, this is good for society.
  • OMFG. I quit. Journalism R.I.P. “Dallas News, a New “Bold Strategy”: Section Editors Reporting to Sales Managers”
  • I’m devoting a week’s worth out outrage to this
  • Surely nothing bad could come of this
  • Very disturbing: Editors reporting to sales folks.
  • Editors to report to Sales Managers at The Dallas News (Nothing bad could happen here, right)
  • OMG! Stop the madness: Dallas Morning News editors now report to sales managers.
  • So very wrong
  • Newsroom and Sales integration in Dallas? They say progressive. I say bad idea for content integrity
  • Really, is it already time to sell your soul? Dallas Morning News editors now report to sales teams.
  • This memo must be a few years old. Advertisers have been guiding “news” in this fish wrapper for a long time.
  • Yeah, WTF??
  • And the wall came crumbling down
  • Well, the Dallas Morning News has ceased to be a newspaper.
  • First sign of the apocalypse?
  • Recipe for total disaster
  • The end of the world as we know it. Editors reporting to sales people.
  • Whoa.
  • Wha- What?
  • Journalism FAIL
  • Probably not the best way to foster journalistic integrity
  • dear, sweet God in heaven, yes. > Did the Dallas Morning News just jump the shark?
  • It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel … rather queasy.
  • not in my newspaper
  • wow, Dallas Morning News editors reporting to ad sales
  • It’s like the journalism end of days
  • Wow. This is new ground.
  • •ridiculous.
  • If all true, this is nuts
  • Dallas News makes The Onion irrelevant …
  • I just died a little
  • Dallas Morning News sections now report to sales staff. In case you needed more bad news about journalism…
  • Wow indeed! Putting ads in charge of news #journfail
  • wow, Dallas Morning News eds reporting to ad sales
  • This is not ok
  • This is so very wrong
  • Sad state of affairs in “journalism.”
  • that’s transparency, but not substantive change
  • Unbelievable, ridiculous.
  • Another sign of the journalistic apocalypse facing the newspaper business
  • My newspaper and journalism friends, it’s a dark day for journalistic integrity
  • The #DMN has sold its soul.
  • taking things further: Dallas Morning News section editors to report directly to sales execs
  • splain it to me, pls. I just don’t see how sales managers bossing news editors can work
  • If I find out this is happening at B-CS Eagle, I may cry.
  • What could possibly go wrong, journalistically speaking ?
  • A huge nail in the nearly finished newspaper coffin
  • •Scary direction for the DMN.
  • This looks like a steaming pile of bad judgment
  • Wow, this is like the most astoundingly bad idea ever
  • God help us all
  • I have no words
  • DMN turns over editorial content to the ad reps. Can we just count that as another dead paper?
  • Holy schnike
  • OK, you got me. That was a bigger WTF! than me seeing Tiger all over my front page this morning. WTF!
  • So much for church/state
  • Scary
  • Ahhhh!!
  • Is this the future of journalism?
  • La foto de cómo sí desaparecerán los periódicos… y el periodismo. Editores reportando al Jefe de Ventas en Dallas.
  • They’d B OK w/editors replaced by Enquirer staffers
  • No. WHAT?!
  • Editorial to report to sales directorate at Dallas News. Un-bee-LIEVE-able.
  • this is like the most astoundingly bad idea ever
  • Wow!
  • A really different way of doing a newspaper, courtesy of the DMN
  • So what do the editor and managing editor do now?
  • Some Dallas Morning News editors now report to SALES managers… Wow.
  • And people wonder why “news” is so sanitized.
  • “To a dark place this line of thought will carry us.”
  • Well, there goes any trust I had in the DMN. Sales department now supervises
  • Oh. This is not good.
  • GASP!!!
  • Whoa
  • Kinda long, kinda freaky: newspaper hands editorial reigns to the ad sales dept!
  • Another newspaper bites the dust. The Dallas News hands the newsroom over to the sales dept
  • Mr. Editor, tear … down … this … wall!