Category Archives: Uncategorized

Write Forcefully, Not Tentatively

Not a day goes by without seeing mistakes in spelling and grammar in our daily newspapers. That’s a given, since all of them that remain (and especially the ones that publish three times a week!) have cut back on editors and turned reporters into tweeters and bloggers. Most of these information compilers had little ability to write correctly to start with, and now they must file more articles with less time and less, perhaps nonexistent, oversight on what they write.

Look at this one:

Mariners announce tenative 2017 regular season schedule


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Collective Nouns and Pronouns the Right Way

One of the most frequent errors I see in newsletters, emails and even in the media is non-agreement of collective nouns and pronouns. Most people know that collective nouns take singular pronouns (that is, a company wins its award, not their award). When the collective noun in question is a company or team name, however, confusion reigns; all the more so if the proper name is plural. Two recent examples:

AgriLife is one of the country’s largest purveyors of products for a simpler lifestyle. They have been very successful providing cheese-making kits to their customers for the past two years.

Smith Brothers Food Markets wants to emphasize their growing line of cleaned and pre-cut vegetables for busy, active cooks.

Team: Is it singular or plural?

Team: Singular or plural pronoun?

In both sentences, all the pronouns should be singular (it, its, itself, not they, their, themselves). While generic collective nouns (such as army, crowd, team) can be singular or plural, depending on whether the group is acting in unison or as individual members, named businesses, schools and organizations are always singular.

This seems logical to me. Many individuals comprise a business, company, governmental unit. school, or team, but each organization operates as a single entity.

As noted above, however, when the members of an unnamed group act in unison, everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement. But when an organization’s members act as individuals, taking separate or different actions, then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement. While grammatically correct, this generates awkward-sounding sentences:

At the rehearsal, the cast took their places so that each actor could see the spacing between them.

The council disagree whether they should overturn the mayor’s veto.

If deciding whether a particular collective noun should be considered singular or plural confuses you, there are ways to write around it.

  • Substitute a plural noun for the collective noun, allowing use of the more natural-sounding plural pronouns: The cast (actors) earned $500 each for their roles.
  • Add the word members after a collective noun. Members, serving as a plural antecedent, requires a more natural-sounding plural pronoun: When the curtain falls, the cast members take their bows. The council members voted to return the surplus money to the taxpayers.

Still having a hard time with this collective thing? There’s a smarter, more effective alternative: Give up and hire an editor!


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Word Sick? How to Find Relief

pen_and_paper“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”

That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”

Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.



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Improve Your Interviewing Skills

Among my many aggravations, none is more constantly inview than bad interviewing. Not interviewing for a job, but interviewing in an information-gathering, journalistic sense. Bad examples appear every day on TV, radio and the Internet.  Most of these talking heads don’t know how to conduct an interview. They make me want to holler.

In my dual roles as newspaper editor and professor of news writing, I taught and coached many inexperienced and aspiring journalists in how to conduct interviews. Not so they would become “gotcha” interviewers like Mike Wallace, but to help them come away from each interview with useful information and catchy quotes for their articles.  But interviewing people is hard, and it’s a hard skill to develop. An interviewer own confidence and personality are part of it, but there are also mechanics involved.

John McPhee

John McPhee

I recently noticed many of the points I had stressed in my classes and training sessions were reiterated in a 2014 New Yorker article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who regularly contributes essays about writing to that magazine. A few of the interviewing tips we have in common (with McPhee’s words in quotes) are:

  • “Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.”
  • “Don’t rely on memory.” Regardless of how you’ve accumulated notes or recordings from an interview, transcribe them and flesh them out as soon as possible afterwards.
  • “Make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.” In other words, don’t take notes surreptitiously, when you think no one is looking.  Do it openly, and be up front about who you are and why you are asking these questions.
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.  While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”
  • “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.”

I’ve got a few a few more suggestions about interviewing.

  • An interviewer’s  most valuable questions are follow-ups  to the previous question that elicit further response: For example, “why?” “how?” “what did you mean?” or “could you please repeat that?”
  • Keep questions short while encouraging longer responses by asking the followup questions above.
  • Never suggest an answer with your question. For example, the question “How huge was that decision?” leads the responder to the prescribed answer. Questions should let the interviewee supply the descriptions, not merely agree with or refute the questioner’s.
  • Make an interview as conversational as possible. Look at the interviewee. Don’t let note-taking bog it down.
  • Before the interview, find out as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing.
  • Have at least a short list of questions ready when you start, and always be ready with the next question. Don’t allow dead air.
  • If you have questions that might irritate the interviewee, save them for last.
  • Don’t ask stupid questions.

McPhee also agrees with my personal philosophy on editing quotes to enhance their conciseness and communication without altering their content or meaning. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with,” he writes. “You have to trim and strengthen them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand:  you trim and straighten, but you do not make it up.”

To bring that kind of editing sense and sensibility to your own documents, you probably need a professional. Hire an editor.


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How to Get Your Juju Working

Hart Seely’s The Juju Rules: Or, How to Win Baseball Games from Your Couch has received many deserved accolades since its publication in April 2012.  Part personal memoir, part ode to the New York Yankees and part manual for obsessive fan behavior, The Juju Rules is a book any fan of baseball writing would enjoy.

Juju has a long tradition in baseball and in baseball literature. It was a favorite topic of Henry “Author” Wiggen, the pitcher-writer-narrator of The Southpaw and other Mark Harris baseball novels. To Seely, “Juju is the anecdotal science of influencing the outcome of sporting events through seemingly unrelated acts, in the comfort and privacy of your home. ”

This got me to thinking, though: Does juju differ from mojo? After moving into Safeco Field in 1999, the Seattle Mariners used the slogan “Sodo Mojo” for a few seasons, and it worked better than any other slogan they’ve had before or since (including the ill-timed “Believe Big” (2008), which resulted in a 101-loss season and declining attendance). With Sodo Mojo, the Mariners won 116 games in 2001, an all-time record for Major League Baseball.  On the other hand, the Mariners are one of only two major-league franchises never to have reached the World Series, let alone win it (with better juju, the Yankees have won 27).

Muddy Waters

When the Mariners introduced their slogan, few fans understood it without a dictionary. “Sodo” refers to the area where Safeco Field is located (SOuth of the demolished KingDOme,  or alternatively, SOuth of DOwntown). “Mojo” is more-or-less a synonym for juju.  Wikipedia notes that mojo  is “a magical charm bag used in voodoo, which has transmuted into a slang word for self-confidence, self-esteem or sex appeal,” as in blues guitarist Muddy Waters’ signature song, “Got My Mojo Workin’.”

My exhaustive research could only deduce that both mojo and juju can refer to a spoken or otherwise transmitted spell or to an object manipulated for that purpose. Both of African origin, the words mojo and juju can denote a magic spell or hex, a magical power (as in he works his mojo on the tennis court, or the blues band has lost its mojo), or  to a fetish, charm or amulet and the magic they possess.

Well, Frank Sinatra called it “Witchcraft,” Dr. John called it gris-gris, the Mariners called it mojo, and Seely is calling it juju.   “All thinking fans instinctively recognize the secret influence we wield over sporting events,” Seely writes in an essay on “We know enough not to change seats during a rally or to announce that our favorite point guard hasn’t missed a free throw in his last 40 tries. We never mention the no-hitter in progress, and we keep doing whatever it takes, as long as the dice are rolling our way. We practice juju, a mystical connection to the sports universe that has been around since the first foot-race between man and lion.”

Juju or mojo? If you can’t pick the right word on your own, hire an editor.

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MLB Managers Get E’s for Grammar

While it’s not part of their official job description, two Major League Baseball managers provided useful grammar lessons this week. Who says sports isn’t educational?

Mariners manager Eric Wedge (center) addresses players at spring training.

Seattle Mariners manager Eric Wedge benched starting shortstop Brendan Ryan after the normally slick-fielding Ryan failed to complete two double plays because of poor relay throws to first base. Asked whether he told Ryan why he was sitting, Wedge said to reporters, “I think it’s inferred.” Seattle Times reporter Geoff Baker blogged that Wedge had replied “with a long, drawn-out roll of the r’s” to emphasize his point.

Sorry, Skip, but it’s “E-Wedge” on that one. Riding the bench might make Ryan infer that was his manager’s message, but Wedge was actually trying to imply it, not infer it.  Use “imply” when something is suggested without being explicitly stated, and use “infer” when someone is trying to arrive at a conclusion based on evidence. To imply is active: Wedge’s action with Ryan implies that the manager is benching the shortstop because of the poor defensive execution, while Ryan might infer that Wedge didn’t think highly of his recent level of performance.

Eric Wedge

Wedge certainly comes across as a stern, no-nonsense guy in his media interviews and also in recent TV and radio commercials in which he talks off-the-cuff about winning and player accountability when they come to the ballpark.  Current Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen, on the other hand, has as a former player and then a manager with the Chicago White Sox, carefully developed a different persona:  a full-nonsense guy. If Major League Baseball were casting the new film version of the classic TV comedy The Three  Stooges, Ozzie could easily play Larry, the one with curly hair. Ozzie tried to blame his latest gaffe, praising Fidel Castro in a Time magazine interview, as an unfortunate facet of English being his second language (he was thinking one thing in Spanish but saying another in English, he claimed). Still, Guillen appeared genuinely contrite at his press conference held to explain his comments and admitted the furor has left him sad, embarrassed and feeling stupid. “I am stupid,” he said at one point, “but I’m not dumb.”

Ozzie Guillen

Well, not exactly. If Ozzie had wanted to say he was “incapable of human speech,” he would have been correct, but obviously lying. However, since “stupid” and “dumb” are really synonyms (both defined as “lacking intelligence”), then Ozzie’s statement is clearly incorrect. If Ozzie admits that he’s stupid, he is also admitting he’s dumb – about as dumb as he was when he started praising Fidel Castro in the first place.

Of course, using baseball managers as examples of proper wordsmithing implies they ought to know something about it. They don’t. That’s why they need an editor.

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The KISS Method: Keep It Short, Stupid


USA Today Founder and Columnist Al Neuharth

When Gannett began publishing USA Today in 1982, journalism pundits roundly ridiculed the five-day-a-week paper for its “McJournalism” style: short, punchy articles as lean as editors could make them. Today, in the Internet Age, that style almost seems long-winded, at least compared to 140-character-or-less tweets.

USA Today founder Al Neuharth’s Plain Talk of March 25, 2011, discussed how he writes his weekly column, which is never more than 300 words.

“When I do the first draft,” Neuharth wrote, “it sometimes runs 500 words or more. That’s easy. Trimming it down is difficult. That sometimes takes me two or three hours.

“Getting things short and to the point us the most important thing we should keep in mind in our personal or professional lives. In writing or speaking. From grade school to high school to college to our job.

“Long-winded stuff loses the attention of listeners., readers, viewers, friends, even family. That’s true in one-on-one discussions, group gatherings or the mass media.”

That’s great advice. But when you don’t have the time to polish   writing yourself, find yourself a good editor.

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Writing It Down Makes You Think

The late William Safire.

The late journalist and editor William Safire, like me a Syracuse University alumnus (he dropped out after two years, but later became a trustee), wrote:

“Composition is a discipline; it forces us to think.

“If you want to ‘get in touch with your feelings,’ fine — talk to yourself; we all do.

“But, if you want to communicate with another thinking human being, get in touch with your thoughts.

“Put them in order; give them a purpose; use them to persuade, to instruct, to discover, to seduce.

“The secret way to do this is to write it down and then cut out the confusing parts.”

Amen to that. If you need some help in the process, find yourself a good editor.

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My Current Aggravation: Final Four Clichés

On the eve of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament Final Four, let me offer my own Final Four of phrases that are driving me into my own version of March Madness:

  • Ball screen: This is what we used to call a pick–a damn good, one-word description of the maneuver.
  • Matchup: As in a matchup between two teams.  In other words, a game.
  • Well coached: In a tournament that includes (at least theorectically) the top 68 teams in their division (out of 345), are any poorly coached? And exactly when does a team change from “well coached” to “extremely well coached?”
  • Score the ball: As in “this player can score the ball,” or what used to be just “score.” Do we really need to say “the ball?” What else is the player going to score?

Perhaps the best solution for Final Four watching might be to turn off the sound and listen to music instead. For those who prefer to listen to the commentary, remember to bring your red pencil as well as your beer–or just drag an editor along to watch with you.

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Setting Precedent for Presidents Day

Four presidents adorn Mount Rushmore: A day for all or one?

We know for sure that it’s the third Monday in February. But how do you spell the name of that holiday?

The two sources I use most frequently, the Associated Press Stylebook and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, differ. The AP says Presidents Day, with no apostrophe.  M-W has it as Presidents’ Day. The New York Times devoted an article to the debate, broadening the discussion to include other disputed apostrophes, but reached no definitive conclusion.

So what’s right: President’s, Presidents’ or Presidents Day? All of them, and any of them. Just pick one, and stick to it. Being consistent is more important than being right all the time.

And if you don’t have the time to check every word yourself, hire a smart editor to do it for you.

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