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.