Sunday, May 30, 2004

If It's Not Three Times a Week, Is It Really a Column?

Note to self: Call the syndicates and ask them how they define a column, at least in terms of frequency. But whatever the definition the purveyors to the trade put out there, my gut feeling is that people writing three times a week or more are the most promising objects of study because (a) they more likely are full-time columnists and (b) really feel the weight of frequency, which I am tentatively stipulating as one of the most powerful forces shaping whatever makes a newspaper column different from other forms of personal essay. My job: Post three times a week to see what effect frequency has on my own writing. And here’s another job: Limit – or stretch – my “column” to 600 words, since that's a common length. This section grinds to a halt because I want to post a recent letter I sent to the San Francisco Chronicle. (Columnist as cannibal of all and any available material: another idea!)


Headline says "Assembly hones in again on smokers"


To the Head Copy Editor in Charge:

Dog. This is just not right. It calls for a New York Times style apologia in which you splain (remember when Ricky used to say this to Lucy? That’s precedent enough for me, and I’ve always said English is a moving target) how some Judith Miller of a copy editor succumbed to some Ahmed Chalabi of a dead brain cell and misled an adoring newspaper readership.

But maybe I’m too stiff-necked an old bastard, so:

1) one of my students wrote about how they euphonize sick and unwanted animals at certain local animal shelters. Close enough! Feel free to use in all future headlines.

2) and another wrote about how in the editing of “The Waste Land” T.S. Eliot was advised by his fellow poet, the American master Desert Hound. Close enough! Feel free to use in all future headlines!

3) and another wrote about the old hippie inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s “On the Road.” Close enough! Feel free to use in all future headlines. (This isn’t really an example of error through mishearing, but it’s just so ironic.)

I know copy editors have a hard job. A couple years ago my editing class looked up how often – and how well -- the Chronicle had used the word “lain.” Turned out you used it seven times in six months, and three of those usages were incorrect, and I told the class it didn’t matter because old grammatical distinctions do die, and grammar and usage are descriptive, not prescriptive, and let’s just leave “lain” to the old poets. But sometimes there are shades of meaning worth preserving, and our choices matter because the issue still hangs in the balance, and it’s worth taking a stand. “Home in” is not a dead metaphor any more than “home run” – and just because the idiots on TV news say something doesn’t mean you have to wallow in their wake. Make those of us who know the difference happy. You probably won’t hurt the feelings of those who don’t know the difference. (At least have a meeting and discuss it. Provide everyone a nice bag lunch.)

It’s like the big scoreboard at New Candlestick a couple of years ago when it implored people to scream, “Lets go, Giants,” and I would stand up and yell, “Apostrophe! Apostrophe!” And damn if they don’t put the apostrophe in now, though I doubt it was because my voice carried from high up in the third deck. Somebody noticed, and I have not observed a subsiding in enthusiasm because the Giants put in the apostrophe.

Inna gadda da vida, baby,


J. Michael Robertson/Head Curmudgeon in Charge

Update: The Chron wrote back! It was a very nice email, lacking even the faintest undertone of F*ck U, and I'll get to it in a moment, but isn't it nice how blogging allows you to plug in your update or correction or act of contrition right next to the original post? Though it's not my job to be thinking about the angles and intricacies of blogging, a danger and a charm of blogging is that, just as some very talented major league players, "fall out of bed hitting," as they like to say, bloggers fall out of bed blogging. Blogging is immediacy squared, wisdom on the fly. As a result, bloggers post at 8 a.m. and correct/withdraw/elaborate at 8:15. That is, if you're honest. You can always change the original post, but I guess that's how bloggers lose credibility, when those devoted readers who chase first utterance come back later to find things changed. A newspaper columnist can correct and modify his opinions also, but those modifications won't be attached to the original comment, a juxtaposition that allows the reader to decide just how flawed the original statement was and just how well the "update" actually reflects the degree of imprecision or mendacity in the original. But the blogged correction falls short, of course, if no one returns to examine the original misstatement. Enough! Here's the email from the Chronicle. B. writes:

The copy boys decided I was the "Head Copy Editor in Charge," so your missive of May 28 made its way to my desk. We heard from other "concerned readers" as well.

Those who are in charge of the Head Copy Editor in Charge are divided in two camps. One opposes this as an abomination. The other cites Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary's cautious acceptance of "hone in on." As the supreme leader of all copy editors is the latter camp, we'd best keep at our whetstones.