The annoying nature of your irritating behavior really aggravates me

An in-class exercise asked us the difference between "aggravating," "annoying" and "irritating." Feeling excessively responsible, I grabbed a dictionary to look them up.

The first word under the entry for "annoying"? Irritating.

How aggravating. How is that supposed to help me distinguish the subtle distinctions between these words? Fail, Webster. Not quite epic, but still a fail.

Then again... if Webster makes little distinction between these words and if most speakers confuse them or use them interchangeably, can we really say these fine degrees of distinction exist?

To precisely use words that express precise ideas is a great tool for great writing. But when the lines between words become so blurred that readers don't recognize the difference anymore, then who is going to appreciate all of our dictionary searching and stylebook scouring to find just the right word?

Choosing the right word is important -- but it's equally important not to cling onto fine-grained distinctions that may not really exist anymore.


lines, cut and head

I think writing cutlines is extremely difficult. You have to say so much in so few words. But you have to tell the reader everything: where, who, when, maybe why or how, and maintain concision and interesting language. I always seem to leave one of those elements out.

I prefer headlines. I have less space, but that makes it easier. I know I need to be brief, and hopefully snappy and clever... but it is okay to leave some elements out. It is easier for me to come up with a two-word quip to draw in interest than to summarize a complex event in thirty words.

Then again, maybe I just *like* headlines better. There is more room to play, and to have fun. I like playing with language.


On my pink soapbox, burnin' a bra. 'cept I hate pink.

This rant has nothing to do with editing. But:

I think part of feminism is recognizing women's failings. The standard of blameblameblamelamentlamentlament isn't very productive, because it allows us to avoid looking at the problems, and our own role in them -- and our own role is what we have most control over, and can most easily change. So best to start there before turning to criticizing society.

Now, this said, two disclaimers: I know many strong women feminists, and simply by living so independently and by being such badass women, they help change things and provide inspiration to less badass women like me. Secondly, I cannot and will not speak for my parents' or grandparents' generations.

But for my generation, I think we are largely holding ourselves back by clinging to traditional roles. Yes, these roles are hard to transcend, but that's what makes it worthwhile.

I read an article in Self magazine last night in which a woman was writing to an advice columnist about how now that she started working part time her husband was griping about the hassle of shifting household chores. Shifting, probably meaning he actually has to do some now. And she wants to know, what can I do to ease this transition and the columnist says, explain to him how this is good for both of you and blah blah blah. What?! A husband is upset that he now has to participate in household chores while his wife works (only part time)? Well, since the '50s are over, it seems this husband should be told to suck it up and that he had a nice free ride for a while, which is now over, and that ovaries are actually not a requirement for washing a dish or changing a diaper.

But I don't think that husband is 100% to blame here. The wife in question clearly expected to do the majority of the housework from the beginning, and thus enabled the husband to believe that he was entitled to a free pass. And when things change, she further enables him by carefully treading to complace his ridiculous objections. How would it been if she would have talked with said husband about dividing the housework fairly from the beginning of the marriage? At this point, it is up to us to set the standards and set these precedents.

I have another friend who views herself as a strong, independent woman. In many ways, she is. But she still refuses to transcend traditional roles -- she wants a man to woo her, to ask her on dates, to pay for them. She refuses initiate
a date, but waits for the man to come to her. What kind of message does this send to men who are trying to participate in a feminist world? Well, it confuses the shit out of them. Are we equal, can we do the same things as them -- or not? Do we want chairs pulled out for us, or will we be offended?

Looking at myself, I too like to feel wooed and like it when a man offers to pay for me on a date (though I often refuse). But why do I want this offer? I tell myself I think it is a nice gesture for both parties (women should offer too), and that I am a poor graduate student. But I think it really ties into supporting traditional gender roles.

Look, I can buy a guy a drink at a bar, or buy my boyfriend flowers. (I once dated a guy who wanted me to buy him flowers; I thought that was very kickass.)

I think many feminists at this point would tell me that I am not helping the cause by criticizing women. I agree that society is a problem, but we make up 51% of society. And many of our actions and attitudes serve only to reinforce traditional gender roles. How can we make progress when we are part of the problem?

I think we all need to examine our own beliefs and intentions and simply ask ourselves where they come from. Am I cooking dinner for my boyfriend because I enjoy cooking (and do so for my friends too), or is it because I just expect to cook dinner? Next time a female friend complains that men never ask her out, or tells how her boyfriend took her to a nice dinner, or talks about all the laundry she does, just ask her why.


Peer editing

This week in class we peer-edited each other's papers, or rather, "coached" each other.

I find peer editing can range from extremely helpful to incredibly worthless, and it doesn't seem to depend on the person editing, but on the environment. I think it is crucial to develop a collaborative environment in which reporters, students or colleagues recognize that they can all work together to produce a better product.

I rarely find myself disagreeing with suggestions that others make about my writing, so any time I get a paper back covered in ink, I find it extremely helpful; this has happened a few times and my editors have pointed out things and suggested ideas I never would have thought about.

On the other hand, it is far more common that I receive a paper back with just a couple hesitating marks here and there; this is the only type of editing I find unhelpful. Unless we have that understanding and supportive environment, it is extremely difficult to feel comfortable marking up someone else's paper.

I find the same with my students. They have a workshop before each major paper in which they spend the whole class period working with various "compaƱeros" to improve their papers. I find it interesting that since we are working in a foreign language environment, students zealously mark grammatical errors with almost no hesitation. It seems less intrusive to correct second-language grammar than first-langauge grammar.

What is difficult is to get them to make meaningful comments about content. It isn't that they don't have meaningful comments to make, but just that critiquing content in this way is a very foreign experience. Many of the lesson plans I work from suggest very specific ways to elicit this feedback (How interesting is the title, on a scale of 1 to 5?), and this seems to be the best way to create meaningful critiques, as it gives direction rather than overwhelming students by giving them a free-for-all to critique any and everything.

Peer editing is a tricky thing.


street cred

Do typos really hurt someone's credibility?

I used to think not. Even brilliant academics make typos that sometimes go unchecked.

Last week in my reporting class, we received a handout about interviewing techniques by an apparently prestigious interviewer (whose name now escapes me), and I found three typos in about three pages. I wasn't even reading carefully at that point, so it's possible there were quite a few more.

And I thought, "Why should I read this? This guy probably knows what he's talking about, but he can't even take the time to clean up his typos." And it did hurt his credibility. And I did wonder if there were other errors, perhaps more important ones.

This is in part because I know how seriously journalists take these minor errors and how meticulously they normally try to avoid them. So either this guy was eschewing the standards of his profession, or he simply didn't care/edit carefully when writing this article.

So I wonder if it is just because I expect journalists to so carefully avoid any minor typo/misspelling/misplaced hyphen that I am immediately suspicious when they do. If the standards were a bit more lax -- not free-for-all, anything goes, but just less hyper-sensitivity to errors not affecting meaning -- would I (and readers) not take such errors to heart and not treat them as such serious damage to credibility?


Roman, Arabic, even, odd, manipulated...


I become very frustrated when numbers are misused, because as a former math major, I sort of love them like I love language. (Except differential equations, I could never stomach those nasty little things.)

I become more frustrated when people whose job it is to understand the numbers attempt to avoid them like I avoid phone calls from Blockbuster when my two-week-old movie is still in my DVD player. Hey, guess what... it's a journalist's job to deal with numbers.

That said, many journalists do not like numbers and would prefer not to spend their time crunching numbers. The number of numerical errors that slip into newspapers has been stated and restated ad nauseum.

Instead of pounding numbers into the heads of people who do not like them and who tend to be more word-inclined, it seems a solution might be to have a dedicated numbers editor. I know the last thing newspapers want is to hire more staff, but this would increase efficiency -- the numbers person, who knows what they are doing, could crunch all figures and stats, and edit any part of a story with any number whatsoever. Knowing what they were doing and unhindered by a dislike for the work, they would work efficiently and leave the reporters free to report and write and continue the rest of their one-man band. But maybe we could take at least this one man out of the band and give him his own instrument.


check this out!

Where this = everything.

This is what I now do, check every single little thing out to make sure it is correct.

Last year when I bought my AP Stylebook, I sort of thought the whole thing was silly. After all, the Stylebook is composed of arbitrary conventions that AP has decided its writers should use.

I started looking up words and phrases (Is it Capital Hill or Capitol Hill?) when I had to for my editing class on quizzes. But I quickly developed an editor's eye and began looking up suspicious words at all times. I found myself pulling out the Stylebook for research papers, memos, and even activities I design for my Spanish students.

It's not just the Stylebook; whereas before I found minor conventions to be, well, minor, I have begun to realize their importance. I find myself having the need to check things out where I would have passed over small details before.

In the letter of interest I just e-mailed to a prospective employer, I found myself googling the company name to find out if it is Proworld, ProWorld, or Pro World (the second is correct). It's not that I would have refused to do this before, but it probably wouldn't have even occurred to me. Look, I just looked up how to spell occurred in the dictionary. And this is my personal blog, and I never would have cared before.

My desire to know (not just the big stuff, but the devil of the details too now) is growing exponentially. This class is good for me.


"*** ***** ** this"

Do you know what words the above stars refer to?

Neither do I. I suppose English offers hundreds of possibilities.

And this is one problem that I have with the deletion of expletives from quotes in newspapers. I'm preparing to write a paper examining the issue, focusing how Blagojevich's "bleeping golden" comments were edited (or not) and printed.

At first, I was prepared to argue that there is no difference between "f---" and "fuck" (no, I do not edit myself) because both words refer to the exact same thing, and have the same meaning. This seems akin to saying "gato" (from Spanish) and "cat" have the same meaning.

However, I spoke with a linguist who talked about the idea of creating a linguistic community. She pointed out that only "in" members of the community can interpret coded messages with deleted letters. So when I use "f***", I am speaking in code, and assuming that readers will be able to understand what I mean. This creates a feeling of trust and connection.

In addition, readers who aren't "in" are unable to interpret the message. For those who are interested in protecting children from foul language, this is important. A child who doesn't already know the word "fuck" could learn it from reading this blog entry, or a news story with unedited quotes, but he won't start saying it after reading a censored version.

Another consideration is that the words are shocking, and this may be important to express the full weight of the context. For instance, Blago swore repeatedly, and I think this says something about the situation, and about his personality and attitude. I'm not sure if this could be conveyed as well using "expletive deleted." I think that when situations are offensive, sometimes the reader needs to be offended, because offense if the appropriate response.



Disappointing reporting

On my way home from the gym the other morning, I saw what is becoming a familiar scene of mangled steel and wrecked concrete at the overpass on Springfield Avenue near Neil in Champaign.

A semi had ignored the low height and driven right into the underpass, getting about four feet in before it became stuck.

In the year and a half I have lived in Chambana, I've witnessed stuck trucks here three times. Three times in less than two years! That is ridiculous. And yes, the overpass is low... apparently much lower than most. It's marked with a small yellow sign announcing its height and blinking yellow lights that must be all too easy for a sleepy truck driver to overlook.

I excercised an impulse that I think few people share with me in these times, which was to look to the local newspaper for an explanation of the event. To its credit, the News-Gazette ran a photo with a great, unique angle as the main art on the front page the next day. It's too bad I can't find the photo; it really says it all.

But the reporting was lackluster.

The Gazette reported the event as if it were a funny oddity instead of an apparently serious problem. For one, it is lucky that no one is injured in these crashes. Secondly, this damage costs the truck companies and likely the city money in repairs. And thirdly, there is no reason for a city to have an overpass that trucks periodically crash into.

I wanted to know why this keeps happening, and who, if anyone, will do anything about it.

But the caption failed to even make mention of the other recent events.


hard-to-see photos

We saw in class this week, and were asked to make news decisions for several gruesome photos.

Editors must decide every day when such photos are necessary to tell the story, when they are appropriate, when they offend too much, when they provide too much of a shock to swallow with morning coffee.

I believe that the shock value of a photo should correspond to the weight of the story. Disturbing, bloody events occur around the world daily, weekly, milisecondly. But when something important happens, and it is disturbing, readers need to be disturbed through images that convey the intensity of a situation.

In the case of Pennsylvania treasurer R. Budd Dwyer's suicide, I would use the first photo, when he pulls out the gun, but not later ones that show the gun in his mouth or his death. The situation is an intense one, and since it involves a public official in a public meeting, readers should be made aware through the dramatic photo with the gun. However, the situation is less than monumental, so readers should be spared the full gruesomeness; to show it would just be dramatization.

For a less wide-sweeping issue, I would err on the side of caution more. For instance, I don't think I would run photo, because the victim's tragedy is private, not public. The public doesn't need to be shocked here, and the family doesn't need their tragedy aired all over the media to make a point.

For a case like 9/11, I would have aired some of the most intense photos because this *was* a monumental moment, and the public needed the full effect to grasp the intensity and horror of the situation.

In summary: intensity of photos should be weighted to importance and far-reachingness of story.



In my news editing class this week, we discussed this video from the BBC, which includes quotes from Obama's inauguration speech.

The Poynter institute accused the BBC of twisting Obama's quotes to make it seems like he was talking about alternative energy when he was really talking about science in general and health care specfically. BBC claimed it was using the quotes in "montage" format and that they were not intended to be interpreted as one continuous piece.

My first reaction was to ask myself: Journalists splice quotes often in news stories. I know I've taken what I considered irrelevant parts out of the middle of quotes before, joining two sentences that were not in fact said together by the speaker. Usually I stick in "s/he said" between the spliced quotes to separate them, but not always.

So is this wrong?

Worse, the BBC actually reversed the order of two of the quotes. And I again ask myself, what have I done? I'm sure I've separated two sentences spoken one after another by a source and put them in different paragraphs, maybe with some of my own words and other information in between, or other quotes in between.

And then maybe I've decided to change the order of topics in the story, and suddenly the quotes are reversed, and in the wrong order.

So is *this* wrong?

I don't know.

Obviously preserving the meaning is important. We try to do this. But to discern what a speaker really meant is difficult. And I wonder if I would be upset having my words spliced and diced and shuffled around like that to make a story flow better, if I were the interviewee.

It's tough to say.

But I will say that my initial reaction upon hearing the BBC video was to notice the clear cutoffs at the end of each quote, which indicated to me that the speech was not continuous. Also, something about the tone of the video signaled to me, "collection of Obama's various thoughts on topic X" But if it wasn't this way for everyone, then maybe it was misleading.



So I do have a few...

grammar pet peeves.

Last entry, I boldly proclaimed myself as a descriptivist of language. Now I am going to counter that and sort of backpeddle a bit. The descriptivist in me has taken note of a few grammar points that I see broken every day, and I expect I will continue to see even more.

Apostrophes: people love them. A little too much. Well, I think what is happening is that people have been so bashed for leaving them out in "it's" (contraction) and mixing up "your"/"you're" and "their"/"they're"/"there" that they have become hyperzealous about the punctuation mark, so afraid of leaving it out that they stick it in everywhere. Plurals are commonly taking on apostrophes.

I was first outraged to see a sign at my high school talking about "ID's" (as in identification cards) several years ago. My professor speaks of his "TA's," and I have even seen it recently with non-caps plurals too. It perplexed me because there is no cause for an apostrophe -- they're used for possession and contractions -- but I think it makes people nervous to see especially capitalized plurals and then that naked "s". And the more they see it misused, the more it will *be* misused.

Adjectives vs. adverbial phrases. My friend Lee, a Spanish linguist, is embarking on an incredibly interesting study. At the risk of letting the cat out of the bag, she is looking at how people misuse time phrases such as "every day." "Everyday" -- one word -- is an adjective.

"Misusing these words is an *everyday* occurrence" (everyday modifies occurrence).

Every day -- two words -- is an adverbial phrase.

"No, really, it happens *every day* (every day modifies happens)."

There are several other phrases that I wish I could remember, but the point is the lines are being blurred through analogy ("although" is one word; is "eventhough"?). I had not noticed this phenomenon at all until our discussion, but now I see these mixings-up every day (or is it everyday?) in reputable sources. I saw it one day on a Dove candy wrapper.

I also wonder this: language changes. Grammar changes. We no longer say "thee" and "thou." How long will it take for these errors to become standardized? And at what point would AP change their standard? It's too early to call the changes standardized right now, far too early, but will AP be ahead of the curve or behind it?


a new attitude

Trudging steadily through the syllabus and first pages of reading for my news editing class, I find myself, a former linguistics student, wanting to protest some rules of grammar. (Okay, many rules of grammar.) Linguists, in general, are descriptivists of language rather than prescriptivists of grammar rules. They say that communication is the key and that users of a language set its rules.

Last year, as a grad student in linguistics, I would have said that "ur" and "ain't" and "stanch" when I mean "staunch" are fine, because my reader/listener knows what I mean; communication is not inhibited.

This year, as a grad student in journalism, my job is to squelch the apostropheless possessives, add the missing double letter, and leave a trail of red ink everywhere on otherwise understandable text.

In a way, going through and forcing everything to conform to a set of rules is something I can do with zeal and excitement. After all, the rules tie into a fundamental understanding of how words work and what they mean. I can see how respecting the rules is something you can only do when you fully grasp the intricacies of language, and I have a love affair with the intricacies of language. And even though I can understand "thx u 2 gtg," it is definitely more jarring to an already hard-to-engage reader than having an expected order and form for text. Predictability renders the structure invisible, allowing a reader to focus on meaning.

So I am adopting a new attitude. I will always be a linguist at heart. But now I am a journalist too. And I have my red pen ready.