LABELS: COPY EDITING, Journalism Standards
I recently asked a handful of friends, all writers or advanced degree holders, the following question: If you noticed an unusually high number of typos and grammatical errors in an online news site -- a site with which you were not familiar -- would it diminish your confidence in the information being reported?
The initial answers included a lot of waffling: Some very good writers have bad grammar, my friends replied. Not all blogs have editors. Stuff like that.
No, I responded, I’m not talking about blogs or creative writing or commentary pieces. I’m talking about news: Would too many typos raise a red flag about the accuracy of the news itself? After more hemming and hawing, the consensus was “Maybe, maybe not.” Their answer disturbed me.
High-quality media outlets have long followed the same basic playbook for reporting the news. At the same time, they have also used copy editors and proofreaders. That’s why excessive typos are, in fact, a red flag about the content. It’s not that quality copy editing is necessary to quality reporting. It’s simply that the two have traditionally gone hand-in-hand. When editing standards go missing, an informed news consumer must wonder whether reporting standards are missing, too.
Twenty years ago, news consumers didn’t need to understand how journalism works. They didn’t need to know at what point a reporter could call someone a murderer instead of an alleged or accused murderer. They didn’t need to know which sources journalists can use (for example, eye witness accounts) and which they cannot (for example, secondhand eye-witness accounts). They didn’t need to know that reporters interviewing sources about one side of an issue are obligated to talk with someone from the opposing camp. And they didn’t need to understand the hazards of using unnamed sources. Instead, they just opened their newspapers in the morning and reaped the rewards of the highly regimented procedures that made up professional journalism.
Then came the explosion of commentary programs and news aggregators -- both of which could lure advertising revenue away from traditional news operations because they didn’t have the tremendous overhead costs of actually gathering the news. Suddenly, the journalists operating from the old playbook were looking like an endangered species. Major news agencies were laying off reporters and closing bureaus around the globe as non-news-gathering organizations undercut their advertising rates and the public got more of their news from blogs and commentary programs.
The journalists bound to traditional news-gathering practices and ethics were now mixed in with an exploding number of news suppliers playing by their own rules. The process that news consumers had always taken for granted could no longer be taken for granted.
The burden now falls on the reader to discern good information from bad. And in a system that relies on an independent press to safeguard freedom and democracy, media literacy -- understanding how news is properly gathered and being able to spot the clues that it’s not -- is no longer optional.
An L.A. Times reader a while back wrote in the letters section a little story about sentence-ending prepositions: “An editor once rewrote a sentence of Winston Churchill's in which Churchill ended a sentence with a preposition,” the reader noted in the paper’s letters section. “Churchill reportedly fired back, ‘This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put!’"
That’s a great story, as delightful as the grammar rule that elicited it. Unfortunately, both are pure myth.
Variations on the Churchill story have been circulating for a long time, for obvious reasons. It’s fun to retell. In the most popular version, however, Churchill wasn’t against sentence-ending prepositions. He was for them. The quip, as the story usually goes, was actually a rant against editors who would twist a sentence into ugly knots simply to avoid a preposition at the end.
So the Times reader who told this story seems to have gotten the moral backwards. But his errors don’t end there.
In recent years, researchers have determined that Churchill probably never said any such thing. Instead, the quip probably came from an unbylined writer for the Strand magazine and was later misattributed to Churchill, who also wrote for the Strand.
And what about the rule itself? Here are the experts on that alleged rule.
“Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else.” -- William Strunk Jr., “The Elements of Style”
“The preposition at the end has always been an idiomatic feature of English. It would be pointless to worry about the few who believe it is a mistake.” -- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage
“Superstition.” -- H.W. Fowler, author of Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
“Good writers don’t hesitate to end their sentences with prepositions if doing so results in phrasing that seems natural.” -- Garner’s Modern American Usage
“‘Never end a sentence with a preposition.’ … Wrong.” -- Washington Post Business Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh
“Good writers throughout the history of English -- from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Alison Lurie and David Lodge -- have not shrunk from ending clauses or sentences with prepositions.” -- “Word Court” author Barbara Wallraff
“For years and years Miss Thistlebottom has been teaching her bright-eyed brats that no writer would end a sentence with a preposition if he knew what he was about. The truth is that no good writer would follow Miss Thistlebottom’s rule. -- Theodore M. Bernstein, “The Careful Writer”
LABELS: COPY EDITING
Learning copy editing can be hard because there are so many little rules that, in the real world don't matter, but in editing do. For example, in editing, there are strict rules on when to use "that" and "which" that don't apply in the real world. However these words come naturally to you is probably right.
It's even harder when you have to learn two or three different editing styles because the styles can disagree on how you do certain things. Case in point: spacing around dashes. In Chicago editing style, a dash (meaning an em dash or a long dash) should touch the word on either side of it, with no spaces in between. But the Associated Press Stylebook specifies the opposite: a dash should have a space on either side.
Styles also have different rules on the serial comma, also known as the Oxford comma, which is the comma before "and" in a list like "red, white, and blue." Chicago says to include that last comma, but AP's style is to always omit it: "red, white and blue."
But the hardest thing about working in multiple editing styles is that they use different dictionaries as arbiters of all matters not covered in the style guide. As a result, there are countless points on which they could differ and you just can't know what they are until you look them up. "Healthcare"/"health care" is the quintessential example. AP's designated dictionary, Webster's New World College Dictionary, has it as one word. That means you can "healthcare" as a noun or even as an adjective, as in "a healthcare policy." But Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, which Chicago uses, says "health care" is two words. So that's how you write it as a noun. But, in keeping with the hyphenation rules that say to put a hyphen in compound modifiers (think: two-word adjectives), "health-care" does take a hyphen when modifying a noun: a health-care policy.
Maybe someday everyone will be on the same page. Until then, I'll just try to stay sane.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, PUNCTUATION
Did you know that you're never supposed to double-space between sentences? Most people don't. Almost daily, I see writers putting two spaces after every period -- half of which an editor will have to delete.
Why do people do this? Because once upon a time, long before anyone ever heard the term "word processing," it was correct to double space between sentences. It was logical, too. Back then, typewriters typed in what was called "monospace." The same amount of space was allotted for each character. A capital W got as much room as a tiny little period. Picture that and you can see how much it would help to double space. With just a single space after it, a period looked almost as though it were floating between words. So it just made more sense to always put a double space after any terminal punctuation mark, including question marks and exclamation points.
But that was a long time ago. In the interim, word processing programs starting spacing letters in a more visually appealing way. Eventually, book publishers, periodicals, editing styles and even academic writing rules have came to the nearly unanimous conclusion that there should be just one space after each sentence.
If you've developed the bad habit of double spacing between sentences -- or if you worry you might have -- don't forget how helpful search and replace functions can be. In Microsoft Word, for example, you can just type period-space-space into the "search" field and "period-space" into the replace field and the computer will find and clean up every one at once, or let you approve each change individually.