LABELS: capitalization, COPY EDITING, GRAMMAR, JOB TITLES
If you’re writing about the president of a company, do you write his title with a capital P? What if he’s the president and founder?
What if he’s the chief executive officer, which everyone knows stands for CEO and not ceo? Do you capitalize the name of a local restaurant’s signature chili-spice fried chicken or their beef Wellington? And what’s up (literally) with bloody marys?
In a written work, too many capital letters can be the hallmark of an amateur — or a sales pitch. Companies like to treat their products, properties and people as if they’re all proper names even when they’re not. Timid writers seek to oblige, uppercasing words out fear of dishonoring someone’s title or trademark.
But if you want your writing to look more like professionally edited work, you should do the opposite. Newswriting shuns the idea that news articles should be deferential to business. If a nationwide restaurant chain wants everyone to refer to their spicy shrimp tacos as Spicy Shrimp Tacos, too bad.
If the same three words in a generic sense can describe the tacos, that’s how news most news publications lean. Obviously, that doesn’t work with a dish like Hula Pie because hula pie in the generic sense doesn’t mean anything. So the only times you’ll see a traditional news outlet treat a product as a proper name is when the name can’t be interpreted as generic description.
But those aren't the only cases when you should resist the urge to capitalize. Here's my recent column outlining even more.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, EVACUATE, THE WIRE, WEBSTER'S NEW WORLD
In a long-ago episode of "The Wire," a reporter had written in an article that people were “evacuated” from a burning building. Wrong, her editors tell her. You don’t “evacuate” a person from a building. To evacuate a person, she's told, means “to give them an enema.”
The reporter picks up a copy of Webster’s New World College Dictionary — the Associated Press Stylebook’s designated dictionary and therefore the very one that newsroom would use — and affirming that, yes, the editors were right. “Evacuate” cannot be used to describe removing people from a building.
I wasn’t buying it. The fact that the show knew which dictionary to use had impressed me so much that I almost believed they were telling viewers the truth about its contents. But not quite.
So I picked up my own copy of Webster’s New World.
The first two definitions show that to “evacuate” a person can indeed mean to give him an enema. They are: 1. to make empty; remove the contents of; specif., to remove air from so as to make a vacuum; and 2. to discharge (bodily waste, esp. feces).
But the third definition was different:
3. to remove (inhabitants, etc.) from (a place or area), as for protective purposes
That means that you can evacuate a person by removing him or her from a place. And it contains another lesson, too. Never get your facts from people whose primary job is to entertain.
LABELS: COPY EDITING, danglers, GRAMMAR, NOMINALIZATIONS, PASSIVE VOICE, WRITING
Have you ever read a sentence that just didn’t work but you couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong? Have you ever written one?
Reader-unfriendly sentences are everywhere. Many you can fix just by making sure the main clause contains a tangible subject and an action-oriented verb, like changing “It was the act of shooting the bandit that got the deputy a promotion to sheriff” to “The deputy shot the bandit. The mayor promoted him to sheriff.”
Other bad sentences are more complicated. Dangling participles, misplaced prepositional phrases, passive voice, nominalizations and vague words are common culprits. Here's my recent column on how to spot them and how to fix them.
LABELS: BAD ADVICE, GRAMMAR, JOHN MCINTYRE, SENTENCE ENDING PREPOSITIONS, split infinitive, USAGE
Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t begin a sentence with “and.” Don’t use passive voice.
If these rigid proscriptions have been rattling around your head since your school days, veteran Baltimore Sun copy editor and Loyola University Maryland editing instructor John McIntyre would like a word. Well, two words, actually: “Bad Advice.”
That’s the title of McIntyre’s new book, whose subtitle tells you everything else you need to know about what’s inside: “The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.”
It’s a tiny tome. Just 51 pages. But it contains pretty much everything you ever wanted to un-know about grammar but didn’t know you needed to un-know it.
McIntyre explains: “Many of the things you are getting wrong in writing are not your fault: you have been badly advised. You have been taught superstitions about English that have no foundation in the language. You have been hobbled with oversimplifications. You have been subjected to bizarre diktats from supposed authorities.”
From there, McIntyre handily obliterates practically every piece of bad advice you ever got, starting with “one of the oldest zombie rules”: Never end a sentence with a preposition. Here's my recent column rounding up some of the book's best tips.