Style Wars in Cyberspace  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

Style Wars in Cyberspace   

Copy editors take to the blogosphere.

By Coral Davenport
     


After years of grousing among themselves over matters of grammar and punctuation, copy editors are waging their style wars before a wider audience – in the blogosphere.

From Washington to Dallas – we hope that's not a false range – style mavens are holding forth on hyphens, word usage (or is it use?) and the true meaning of Groundhog Day.

Copy blogs aren't quite in the major league of Web logs; one of the most-read of the 20 or so copy blogs garners about 13,000 unique visitors per month. Still, the copy editors' online diatribes have extended beyond the rim to grammar geeks, writers and English teachers, who fill the comments sections with polite but passionate debate on dangling participles and prepositional endings.

The undisputed king of copy bloggers is Bill Walsh of the Washington Post, whose cantankerous posts on language, usage and style (theslot.blogspot.com) have won him a devoted following. "Spoiling sport as only a copy editor would, I am compelled to suggest that the idea of repeatedly reliving the same events is not inherent in Groundhog Day, but rather traceable directly to the Bill Murray movie of that name. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)," he wrote in a February post.

Walsh is especially known for his strong feelings on the hyphen, whose virtues he has extolled in many posts. "Most people don't understand hyphens, so they lash out against them," he says. "I'm a big advocate of the hyphen. If you write 'the orange juice salesman,' you have a salesman who's orange. The orange-juice salesman is more precise."

Like many of his fellow copy bloggers, Walsh says he turned to blogging to vent his frustration after years of toiling behind the scenes, dispensing his wisdom to newsrooms full of unappreciative reporters. "We get into this business because we like to tell people how to write," he says. "This is a way to do that with a larger audience – a chance to show writers how it's done."

As in any online community, copy bloggers reference and link to one another frequently. When John McIntyre, the Baltimore Sun's assistant managing editor for the copy desk, started a language and usage blog on the paper's Web site, he attracted a flurry of links with an early post on what may be one of the copy editor's most grievous peeves: the false range.

Many writers have no idea what a usage sin they commit when employing a false range, McIntyre says, giving the example, "from monogrammed diapers to Zsa Zsa Gabor."

"What is the continuum on which one can place the Dalai Lama and M. Scott Peck, Lou Gehrig's disease and Parkinson's disease, Black Sabbath and Franz Ferdinand? The construction the writers could have used more precisely is that these authors, diseases, performers, topics, whatever are as diverse as," he wrote.

Nicole Stockdale, a copy editor at the Dallas Morning News who has blogged since 2003, says she felt wonderfully validated by McIntyre's false-range post. She linked her blog to McIntyre's and followed up: "The ranges that work have a definite starting and stopping point – from A to Z, from 1 to 92, from Seattle to Miami."

McIntyre says copy editors bear a noble burden. "Imagine you're about to win a major award," he says. "You're beautifully dressed, the crowd is waiting, the spotlight is on – but you have a streamer of toilet paper trailing from your shoe. When someone points that out, you don't like hearing it – but that person has done you a valuable service."

On the Web site of Raleigh's News & Observer, features copy editor Pam Nelson rails against clichés, delves into the nuances of word orders and looks up etymologies (blogs.newsobserver.com/grammar). "I don't want to embarrass people who use language incorrectly, but I do want them to change. The blog is a way to spread the word about using language correctly. It lets writers know that we're out there, watching you – but we're here to help."

When Nelson blogged about "usage" versus "use" in response to a reader who'd written in after noticing "tobacco use" (correct) and "tobacco usage," grateful readers responded. "Thanks so much for looking into this," one wrote. "It was driving me nuts!"

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