February 23, 2015

Skunked Terms



Hopefully, decimate, healthy: If you want to be right, you can use them any way you like. But if you want other people to think you're right, well, that's another matter entirely.

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A Dead Giveaway in a Headline
Posted by June on February 23, 2015


People sometimes ask me whether, as an editor and grammar buff, I'm constantly annoyed by errors -- so much so that it sucks all the pleasure out of reading. This usually comes from people who themselves are driven nuts by the many typos they see in print and figure I must have an acute case of the same ailment.

My answer is always: kind of. I am sometimes distracted by errors, but reading for content, which I do in my own time, is very different from proofreading. My mind's in a whole different place, so little typos don't demand too much of my attention.

Headlines are different. When I'm looking at the headline for an article, my brain hasn't yet fully kicked in to reader gear. So that's probably why the most distracting things to me when I read are miscapitalized headlines.

I can sometimes tell right away whether a pro edited an article just by how its headline is capitalized. As you've probably noticed, most places capitalize the first letter of most words in headlines, but not all. Little words like "in," "at," "and," and "the" usually start with lowercase letters even when the other words in the headline start with caps.

People used to seeing this style guess that the criteria for deciding whether to lowercase a first letter of a word in a headline is all about size: Little words can start with lowercase letters. But that's not true.

In the most standard editing styles, "in" starts with a lowercase letter, but "is" doesn't. Neither does "it." The difference? "It" is a pronoun, "is" is a noun, and "in" is a preposition. Pronouns and nouns have important jobs in a sentence. They're the actors and the actions. Prepositions are less consequential. That's why most style guides follow a headline style of lowercasing the first letter of short prepositions, but not of pronouns or nouns: Candidate Says It's in the Bag.

And that's something only pros seem to know.

June Casagrande is a writer and journalist whose weekly grammar/humor column, “A Word, Please,” appears in community newspapers in California, Florida, and Texas. more

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  • A Reminder About "John and I" vs. "John and Me"

    June Laura: The choice between "I" and "me" depends on the sentence structure, and your example isn't a sentence. It's just some nouns. So either "Marsha, John, and I" or "Marsha, John, and Me" could be correct. It's when a verb is present -- or even implied -- that the rules kick in. If the photo caption is an implied way of saying, "Marsha, John, and I visited the Eiffel Tower," then you need a subject for the verb "visited." And because "I" is the subject form, it would be correct in this context. In "The Eiffel Tower dwarfs Marsha, John, and me," the object pronoun "me" is correct because it's the object of the verb. But there's a twist here: A truncated photo caption like this might be understood to mean "HERE ARE Marsha, John, and I/me," and that structure is a weird one. Think about "Here we are" then flip it into "Here are we." That's kind of what a photo caption might mean. And note that, while this works with "we" (a subject), it doesn't work with "us" (an object). Here we are. not here us are. So subject pronouns like "we" and "I" make more grammatical sense here. However, to follow this rule to the letter would be a bit like saying, "Laura is taller than I" in casual conversation. Grammatical, sure. Natural, not really. So grammatically, if the caption is a truncated way of saying "Here are Marsha, John, and I/me," you can choose either. "I" would make a bit more syntactical sense, but "me" would probably be more natural. And that's the form I'd use in almost every casual situation: Marsha, John, and Me.

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    laura Which is correct in a situation such as a caption to a photo labeled "Marsha, John, and I"? It looks odd to me, and I think "I" should perhaps be "me," but I can't find any proof. If I turn it into a sentence it should be me?[This photo shows] Marsha, John, and me. What do you think?

  • What to Capitalize in a Headline

    June Jim: That was my summary of how I see it done and some in-house policies I've known about. I don't see it cited in the AP guide, either.

  • 'Born Of' or 'Borne Of'

    Ken That's why copy editors would do well to actually read classic literature and not limit their efforts to "two passes of a text". What you speak of is a palpable distinction familiar to anyone who is not a stranger to the great works of literature. Unfortunately, this has become a minority group, as the bite-sized culture takes firm hold.

  • 'Born Of' or 'Borne Of'

    burp Your test relies on the correctness of Helen Reddy's spelling. I found 373M hits on Google for "man born of woman", and only 25M hits for "man borne of woman", but one of those 25M hits is Job 14:1 (1611 King James Bible): "Man that is borne of a woman, is of few dayes, and full of trouble."