Everyone’s a Grammarian  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   October/November 2005

Everyone’s a Grammarian   

By Robin T. Reid
Robin T. Reid (rreid@ajr.umd.edu) is a former AJR associate editor.     


Few words irritate me more than "facilitate." It's one of many editorial pet peeves that I've developed or picked up from other editors. "For example" is another pet peeve, a phrase that was verboten at the Baltimore Sun several years ago because, the metro copy desk was told, then-Executive Editor John S. Carroll disliked it.

It turns out Carroll never laid down such a rule. In a recent interview, he recalled a similarly mysterious guideline that held sway over the paper's editors when he arrived at the Sun as a reporter in 1966. "Nobody was allowed to be described as 'notorious,'" Carroll says.

Some peeves are justifiable. Sam Boyle, a crusty editor at the Philadelphia Bulletin, hated "reportedly" because he said it really meant "we don't know." AJR asked journalists about the serious or silly pet peeves that they have developed, encountered and enforced:

Dick Friedman, senior editor, Sports Illustrated: "I once had a colleague at TV Guide go ballistic because I used 'gifted' as a verb. As in, 'He gifted him with a Porsche.' Gee, I don't know; it's in the dictionary."

Allan Fallow, managing editor, AARP Books: "In the pages of a Time-Life book, you could not instruct the public to 'chop the onions finely'; ex-Managing Editor Jerry Korn insisted that adverb technically applied to the person doing the chopping, thus giving him or her a mincing appearance. Instead, he mandated all Time-Life cookbooks would henceforth command the reader to 'chop the onions fine,' employing an adjective that properly described the post-chopped condition of those vegetables."

Tonia Moore, copy editor, Center for Public Integrity, formerly of the Baltimore Sun: Moore can't stand it when writers use these words: "'Dramatically': Unless the action is taking place on a stage or screen, it's history. 'Kicking off': same with this unless the action is on a football field. 'Erect/erection': You can 'build' or 'construct' something, but never, never these. It's amazing how many times the reporters tried to sneak them into development stories!"

Eddie Dean, freelance writer, Rockville, Maryland, and former feature writer for Talk magazine: "One editor didn't like us to use the nonsensical word 'lifestyle' even though that was the title of one of our paper's sections. He was right, of course."

Andrea Billups, staff correspondent, People magazine: "I once worked at a paper where the top editor banned in a memo use of the term 'nitty gritty,' claiming it was Jazz-era slang for female genitalia. Having looked it up, I'm fairly sure that it's not. I suppose I would agree that it's jargon, though. But that was never the argument. It seems, in retrospect, a tad nutty if you ask me, but most editors, if they last long enough, come up with these insipid sacred cows that they enforce just because they can. Maybe it's just editorial dementia."

Len Hochberg, an editor with MLB.com, Major League Baseball's Web site, and former night sports editor at the Washington Post: "Here's kind of a weird editor-ism from my days at the Post. One of the editors always changed the word 'last.' The thinking was that a player couldn't have hit a home run in his last at-bat; the team couldn't have won its last game, or won four of its last five games because it wasn't the 'last' (final) at-bat or game; there would be another the next day. So, the editor always changed such things to 'The team won four of its past five games.' Which I thought was ridiculous logic. So, I countered, 'By that thinking, we'd never be able to say the Giants beat the Redskins last night.' And that's when the editor realized the nonsense and backed off."

Linda Fibich, Washington bureau chief, Newhouse News Service: "'Declined comment.' As in, 'No thank you; I had a comment for breakfast.' A source declines TO comment."

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