Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Two Captain on the Porches, Please...

This past weekend I was pleased to take part in the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, held this year in Philadelphia. I was on a lively panel entitled "Your Grammar Questions Answered," with Merrill Perlman, who managed the copy desks at The New York Times for many years, and Bill Walsh, multiplatform editor for The Washington Post. For an hour and half, the ACES crowd peppered us with all manner of grammar questions, from the well-worn to the unexpected.

In any forum on English grammar and usage, there are certain "greatest hits" that often get asked. So I wasn't surprised when such old friends as "singular they," "beg the question," and "ensure vs. insure" came up. Another standby was affect vs. effect — one participant mentioned the helpful mnemonic RAVEN: "Remember, Affect Verb, Effect Noun" (well, most of the time).

But there are always some curveballs in the mix. A great question came from Emily Guendelsberger, a copy editor for the Philadelphia Daily News. She explained that her friends enjoy a mixed drink known as a Captain on the Porch. (Must be a Philly specialty.) Emily wanted to know how we would refer to more than one Captain on the Porch, for instance when ordering drinks at a bar. "Captains on the Porch"? "Captain on the Porches"? Or even "Captains on Their (Respective) Porches"?

The panel agreed that "Captain on the Porches" would be appropriate if the name of the drink had become fixed enough to be treated as a unitary phrase. "Captains on the Porch" sounds a bit formal, though properly pluralized on the model of compounds like attorneys general and mothers-in-law. Bill Walsh was reminded of the classic Onion headline, "William Safire Orders Two Whoppers Junior." (Bill even favored us with Burger King's "Special orders don't upset us" jingle from the '70s.)

Away from the grammar panel, there were many contentious discussions of stylistic points, as you might imagine among a covey of copy editors. The big news at ACES came at the "Ask the AP Stylebook Editors" session, where the Associated Press gurus announced some changes to the style guide. No more Web site, they decreed; from now on, the AP will spell it as website. (See Merrill Perlman's "Language Corner" column at the Columbia Journalism Review for more on this.) Most of the conference attendees accepted the change as long overdue. The New York Times, I should note, is still a holdout for Web site. The paper's not called the Old Gray Lady for nothing.

An AP change that met with more head-scratching was the announcement that the colloquial abbreviation of microphone would henceforth be spelled mic rather than mike. Bill Walsh pointed out that this presents a spelling inconsistency when using the verb form. "Just to clarify," he asked, "if I have an M-I-C attached to my shoulder, I'm M-I-K-E-D up?" Strange but true, according to the AP.

If you'd like to read more about the conference, check out the live blog and the live tweets that were posted from Philly. It might be a tough time for the nation's copy editors, but they're certainly rolling with the punches and adapting to new online forms of communication. And if you'd like to support their good efforts, why not order a "Talk Wordy to Me" T-shirt or mug? Proceeds go to the ACES Education Fund, which gives scholarships to aspiring copy editors.


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 20th 2010, 8:07 AM
Comment by: Herb B. (Ruidoso, NM)
It is almost comforting to know writers who make their living assembling words for others to read have the same difficulties as we who only write for a limited audience of friends and family.
Some of these same 'word problems' were presented so many years ago in the challenging senior English class of my high school.
I am still confused by most of what has been presented here except the teacher's insistence that a gerund takes a possessive. This, among others, has had a permanent effect on me. And, as I read newspaper and magazine articles it becomes more clear how important concise wording is to accurately communicate an event.
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 9:35 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
'Beg the question' is a pet peeve of mind. It seems I only hear or see it now with the meaning 'raises the question'.

I think that copy editors of good conscience should change every 'beg' so used to 'raise'.

But then, I'm a dinasaur!

Another occasion when a smiley is needed! LOL (I hate doing that!)

'Affect' and 'effect' can be helped along by stressing the pronunciation (and that's proNUNciation, not 'noun', another peeve. Can I have a 'peeve' without it being a pet?

I persist in disliking all those football announcers who leave quarterbacks laying around after being tackled. I don't think that's something we want in family television. Which raises the question, is football (American and Canadian style) family television? Or perhaps that question was begged.

That's what makes 'beg the question' so tricky!

Ben, I did check out the convention blog and some of the links, especially The Grammar Lady. However, one of HER links caused my computer problems. Since it wouldn't stay 'linked to', I assume the security had trouble with it. The link had to do with 'lie' and 'lay' and her explanation of it. Reading the comments became impossible. I didn't stay around as I live in fear of catching something nasty, having it 'laid' on me, so to speak!
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Winston D.
What continually bothers me is the misuse of your vs. you're. And if I see "your welcome" once more, I'm going to take my welcome and leave!
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 11:28 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
I would support 'mike' for 'microphone', using 'Mike' from 'Michael' as a pattern.

Admittedly the C in microphone has a different semantic origin from the C in Michael, but aurally the process of abbreviation would be identical: taking the opening consonant-vowel-consonant sound and representing that in the simplest, most obvious way as 'mike'.

How does AP pronounce 'mic'? If it rhymes with 'sic' I assume they know more Michaels as Micks than Mikes.

A weirdly analogous abbreviation is 'bic(ycle)' > 'bike'. Weird because the abbreviation has either leapfrogged to the second 'c' or somehow morphed 'bice' into 'bike' for no apparent reason.

Finally, one wonders how those in the recording and performing world abbreviate 'microphone'. Possibly 'mic' when writing because it's shorter and more 'techie-looking', and 'mike' when speaking the word.

Re: Web site. I expect the Old Gray Lady still writes 'e-mails' or even 'E-mails', and never 'emails' as the rest of us do (don't we?).
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Geoff: Mic and mike are pronounced the same -- it's just a spelling choice. Mic does seem to be preferred by those in the recording/performing world -- in fact, I heard the AP originally called for using mike, but folks in their broadcast division complained that it should be mic.

As for e(-)mail, both the AP and the New York Times continue to use the hyphen.
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Thanks Ben. As always happens, today I spotted the word in my own newspaper (The Guardian) and it was 'mic'. So the AP and NYT are in good company!
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 8:08 PM
Comment by: Mark A. L.
I am surprised to learn that the AP ever considered "mike" a standard replacement for "microphone." I am not a techie, but in my limited contact with professional recording and sound reinforcement I have seen only the spelling "mic" on countless devices and in the pages of industry publications.

The spelling "mic'd" is a common solution to the verb problem.

~ML
Tuesday April 20th 2010, 10:55 PM
Comment by: Bill W. (Washington, DC)
Read the engraving in tiny spaces on the sides of tape recorders and you see "mic." (And "vol"!) Read well-edited newspapers, magazines and books and you see "mike."
Wednesday April 21st 2010, 7:48 AM
Comment by: Geoff A. (United Kingdom)Top 10 Commenter
Anonymous makes a good point. 'mic' is an abbreviation in the same way that 'vol' or 'rew' or 'rec' are abbreviations.

Since 'mic' is pronounced like the first syllable in 'microphone', 'mike' has come into being by analogy with the name Mike, as well as with other words such as 'bike', 'like', 'hike', etc.

There is, I think, a term in semantics for this kind of analogous copying but I can't recall it.

The New York Times and the British newspaper, The Guardian, ARE well-edited because they have rules of grammar and spelling and punctuation that their journalists are committed to keeping. The fact that one may disagree with one or more of their rules doesn't make them ill-edited.
Thursday April 22nd 2010, 7:12 PM
Comment by: Gerri B. (Quincy, IL)
I've always thought "mike" seems right because we spell the shorten form of bicycle "bike," not "bic."
The music people on my staff stand by "mic."
To me, in this case, the hallmark of a well-edited publication would be that it practices consistency in using whatever form it chooses — and that when the context is unclear, the full form of the word is used.
Wednesday April 28th 2010, 12:23 PM
Comment by: Neal WhitmanVisual Thesaurus Contributor
I agree with the choice of Captain on the Porches, since you're not talking about actual captains, and the entire phrase is the name for the drink. For comparison, what if you want to order more than one Sex on the Beach? Now we don't have the complication of having the first noun be a count noun, so there's no issue of deciding between * Sexes on the Beach(es) and the clearer choice of Sex on the Beaches. (The choice is still not completely comfortable; one guy the Straight Dope forums writes, "I'm gonna flaunt [sic] the rules and order fuzzy navels and sex on the beaches (is that the plural?)."

Of course, if these names got shortened to just Sex and Captain, the plural endings would then fall to the only nouns available: Sexes and Captains. I suspect that this is what happens in places where these drinks are popular, and servers have to ask bartenders to make a lot of them.
Wednesday April 28th 2010, 2:41 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Neal: Your analogy actually came up at the ACES panel, as captured by this live-tweet from Audrey Kuo: "Walsh, on plurals: 'How many sexes on the beach have you had?' Zimmer: 'Sex is not countable in the same way.'"
Wednesday April 28th 2010, 3:09 PM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I won't ask...

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