Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Wanted: A Copy Editor

A Charlotte Sun columnist and all the newspaper's copy editors marred their description of yesterday's big event. No, we don’t mean Steve Baumann’s ridiculous – and clichéd – column lede (“Don’t tell my boss, but I stayed home yesterday to watch the inauguration ...”). We’re referring to his uncorrected, erroneous use of the phrase “an historic.”

As a grizzled newspaper man, Baumann is certainly familiar with his profession’s guide to words and their uses, the AP Stylebook. It is expressly specific on the book's alphabetical Page 1 “A,” third entry down, about the article for this particular adjective: it should be “a” as in “a historic.” Of course, one organization’s stylebook isn’t the language's bible (and even editors can't change a direct quotation from a speaker). But, when a highly educated columnist expounds, readers expect a professional standard.

Baumann, apart from not using the standard, isn't hearing his own language. “An” accompanies a word that opens with a vowel sound. Baumann has not (to date) spoken of or written “an history book,” or “an hopeful event,” or “an highly educated columnist.”

“Think Howard Cosell”

But who am I? Here’s the thinking of the copy editor’s copy editor, Bill Walsh, in a passage from his book, The Elephants of Style:

For choosing a or an, spelling doesn't matter; pronunciation does. A is for consonant sounds; an is for vowel sounds. The ever-popular an historic is incorrect, at least for American speakers, because historic does not begin with a vowel sound. Even those Americans who say "an istoric" will admit that they say "historic," with the consonant h, when the word stands alone. I don't care whether "an istoric" rolls off your tongue more easily than "a historic"; you don't go altering your pronunciation of a word in order to change the article you use before it. Your comfort is none of the language's concern. Most of the times I've heard "an historic," however, it has been from blustery types who heartily pronounce the h. Think Howard Cosell.

Ain’t Headlines Gotta be Accurate?

Another reason editors are paid to read stories before publication is to write headlines. It always helps if an editor understands what she/he has read. Luke Wilson writes today about his dismal attempts at cooking and sets the scene: “I don’t ... have famous restaurants beating down my door ... nor do I have TV food guru Rachel Ray calling me for cooking tips ...”

Unfortunately, the “copy editor” sums up the story as “Rachel Ray ain’t got a thing on me,” which is precisely opposite the columnist’s point. And apparently also without reading the story, the front page editor decides he/she likes the snappy country colloquialism so much – which the columnist never uses, by the way – that it winds up on the front page as a teaser. Ain’t that cute?

And speaking of cute, it would be respectful to readers in DeSoto County (where the school superintendent reports a 99 percent literacy rate among the general population and 100 percent among newspaper subscribers) to eschew fake dialect entirely. Today's front page "Hoggin' the show" is condescending -- just as all the rest of the newspaper's editors' attempts at country cute have been. Yes, it happens a lot.


  1. I bleeve the Food Network star spells it R-A-C-H-A-E-L too. Grr. And triple grr on the g-droppin'.

  2. This newspaper chain lacks any journalists. The ones who did work there left long ago. The young journalists beginning their careers stick with the newspaper because they need a job. However, the only thing they are learning at Sun Coast Media Group are bad habits, ethics and standards and practices.