Every editor’s nightmare – a letter from a retired English teacher!
We got ... er, received one last week.
She wanted to take issue with the editing that had added several commas to an obituary.
“... I believe all those additional commas are not only unnecessary but also incorrect,” she wrote.
LATE COLUMNIST James Jackson Kilpatrick, who wrote about language as well as courts and government, always said that journalists had to write for the ear as well as the eye.
That means we need to respect the rules of grammar that determine use of punctuation, but we cannot disregard the way that language “sounds” as people read.
So, even if a comma has no grammatical justification, it might be needed to slow down the reader so that the written text resembles speech, which promotes comprehension.
Thus, editing involves many subjective decisions that might not follow the “rules.”
Rules – even those of grammar – become more like guidelines in the editing process.
THAT SAID, OUR former English teacher was by no means wrong in her criticism of the commas.
“The commas you added are incorrect,” she wrote. “In most cases, they have separated a compound subject.”
Well, not quite.
In most of the cases she noted, the commas separated a compound predicate in a sentence with a simple subject.
We agree that most of the commas were grammatically unnecessary and probably should not have been added.
But an editor might argue that readers sometimes need a break – to take a mental breath – before the second predicate in a long sentence, or that a comma might serve as a logical break if the compound predicate involves two matters with only a tenuous connection.
This editor would have preferred that the editing in most of those cases had also inserted a pronoun in the second part of the predicate to create a compound sentence.
But that’s just an editing nerd talking.
WE DO APPRECIATE that discriminating readers comment on not only what we write but how we write it.
Newspaper news and features follow a form and style that is different from other kinds of writing.
To appeal to a broad audience with different levels of education, we tend to use shorter words, shorter sentences and shorter paragraphs to promote comprehension.
An analysis of everyday speech shows that newspaper writing follows that conversational style.
People talk in a simple language with a well-understood vocabulary because ... well, because they want to communicate without having to repeat themselves constantly.
Big, unfamiliar words confound listeners – and readers – and long sentences tax their memory.
But we must avoid “See Spot run” construction.
Good newspaper writing is simple, not simplistic.
SPEAKING OF STYLE, we are making some editing adjustments to conform with preferences in the 2013 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook.
Although our following AP style does not guarantee better writing, it does avoid inconsistencies that tend to annoy readers.
For example, a style change in recent years means that we now use “website” as one word after having previously written “Web site.”
Although your dictionary recognizes both “judgment” or “judgement” as correct, AP’s preference is the simpler form.
Thus, you will read “judgment” on our pages – if we’ve edited properly.
OTHER AP STYLE changes for 2013 include the return of “doughnut.”
That spelling preference was dropped from the 2010 edition, but must have been brought back because of the proliferation of “donut” in media text.
Alas, “barbecue” has not returned to the AP stylebook, but we still prefer that spelling over any other that might include a “q.”
You might notice that we now use “dumpster” – with no capitalization – to refer to any large metal trash bin.
Previously, Dumpster was capitalized out of respect for the trademark of a specific manufacturer, but the term apparently has taken on generic status in our language.
On the other hand, Styrofoam remains a capitalized trademark name for a brand of plastic foam that is used to insulate coolers and other containers.
Despite everyday use of Styrofoam as a generic term, the AP stylebook advises, “Cups and other serving items are not made of Styrofoam brand plastic foam.” For such references, we use the generic terms “plastic” or “plastic foam.”
Even if casual conversation uses Frisbee to describe any plastic flying disc, that’s actually a proper name, and misuse could get you a letter of reminder from the trademark attorneys at Wham-O Corp.
They’re very protective of their brand name.
WE ALSO WILL spell “underway” as one word in all uses, and we will drop the hyphen in “moped,” as AP now prefers.
Every few years, AP’s stylebook editors ask their print and broadcast members for suggested changes.
AP this year changed the stylebook’s “numerals” entry to more closely conform to this newspaper’s style – a suggestion this editor made 2 years ago (maybe others did, too).
Under that change, numerals are now preferred for all distances and dimensions, even for numbers nine and under, which typically are spelled out.
The new edition of the stylebook devotes four pages to that subject, with almost 200 specific examples of when to use numerals and when to spell out.
But for the record, AP Stylebook committee failed to adopt most of this editor’s suggested changes.
No. 1 (that is AP’s preferred style) among those recommendations was an entry to recognize “only” as the most misplaced word in the English language.
Don’t believe it? Then properly place the word “only” in this sentence: She said she loved me.
When you figure out where it goes, let the editor know.