Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Copy Edit du Jour

... to ascertain the approximate time of death

changed to ..

... to figure out the time of death

(Here in newspaper land, nobody "ascertains the approximate" anything -- ever.)

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LL Blackwell said...

But those words are so big and beautiful!

Oh wait, bigger is not better in journalism, is it? o_O

June Casagrande said...

Well, it was in a story in which the writer thrice used the word "utilize" (adeptly spanning chapters 1 and 2 of "How to Irk a Copy Editor.")

Joel said...

As far as I can tell, as it is used, there's no real difference between "use" and "utilize" other than a couple of syllables and an awkward, abstracting suffix. It does sound somehow technical, precise, passive, impersonal--which could, I guess, be good things. I have pledged to not use it unless I mean to obfuscate or mock (which, of course, I often do).

An engineer coworker who is also a good friend loves to use "utilize" and the like. He is, in many ways a good writer. I harass him about his preference for the ponderous all of the time. I ask him what does "utilize" mean that "use" doesn't and his answer is pretty much "it sounds better." Better? I'm sure it only makes things worse that he's not just an engineer but we work for the government. I suppose engineers, lawyers (and myriad other "professionals") and bureaucrats are supposed to make things more complicated and less clear.

On the plus side, there is no end of stuff for me to make fun of.

June Casagrande said...


Yeah, there's nothing wrong with "utilize" -- EXCEPT that it's not consistent with the tone of most newspaper articles and other informal publications.

"Approximately" is another perfectly fine word that just ain't so fine in newspaper style.

Editors long ago decided that "use" and "about" created a cozier and more engaging experience for a reader. This may have even compounded the words' power to alienate by telling readers: This article will not accommodate you with the language you're used to. So prepare to feel the drone ...

Or maybe I'm just having one of those days.

Anyway, nice to hear from you!

Faldone said...

"Figure out" is a little breezy for this context. I think I would go with "determine" if you don't like "ascertain". I would leave in the "approximate", too. Removing it suggests that the time of death could be determined precisely.

June Casagrande said...

I guess I shoulda 'splained the context: The story was about a fun interactive "You solve it" mystery game.

I actually thought when I was editing it that, if the death were real and not fictional, I would have used "determined." In that case, "approximate" would have been meaninginful, too. But as the story was about a game in which people "figure out" stuff, I opted for breezy.

Adrian Morgan said...

I just noticed myself using the word "utilise" in my own writing, so I thought I'd come over here and explain why. It's too complicated to explain the original context in detail, but it's basically like this.

If I assassinated you (ha! crossthread!) by dropping a rock on your head, then I would have used the rock but utilised the law of gravity.

Actually, I promise not to do either.

June Casagrande said...

I'll buy that. In fact, I'll buy anything you say -- now just step away from the big rock.

Just kidding. I do see your point. Not sure how I feel about "utilized a law," though.

Plus, I think with a "to" afterward, "use" would seem natural: "I used the law of gravity to facilitate the fatal bonking."

(My brain's kinda bendy today. So I take no responsibility for anything I say.)

Adrian Morgan said...

I feel that I should give you an update on the utilising gravity thing. However, it's kind of a long story, so I'll give you a link and as brief an explanation as I can.

Basically, I was judging a story-writing competition I created, and used the word "utilise" in my comments on the winning entry.

The author objected to one of my other comments on the story and accused me of being arrogant, but I sorted that out with a touch of disarming humour. You know how it is when you criticise the writer's favourite line?

June Casagrande said...

That's really interesting stuff. I like the piece I read, though I didn't see what the "challenge" was, I think I know. (But don't want to say here lest I prove myself a doofus.)

Funny you talk about tangling with a writer. I had to edit a piece the other day that began with the line (which I'll disguse here): "There is no exact formula for tracking the quality of an Agassi victory."

As a copy editor, it's my job to say: Sorry, dude, I saw what you were aiming at with those words, but those words missed. Long story short, turns out the guy was a somewhat bigshot sports writer (whom I didn't know because I don't know sports). He was -- according to the section editor who spoke with him -- seriously affronted at my saying his lede didn't work.

I suggested that what he was really getting at was better captured by the phrase, "the anatomy of an Agassi victory," and suggested an alternate lede.

He won. In part because I failed to make clear my big issue: "Track the quality of victory" means precisely nothing.

Back to the link: Was that your photo there under a different moniker? It's a good photo.

(Yikes. I do go on when I'm hitting the Halloween candy ...)

Adrian Morgan said...

The only way to find out what the challenge was would be to click on the link to the "Describe a Game" challenge description. The short answer is that the contestants had to describe a fictional game being played.

And yes, that's my photograph from a few years back.

I'm not getting into the quality/anatomy thing, as it sounds like the sort of story that one needs to know more about in order to comment.

June Casagrande said...

Ah, thank you.

And you're probably smart to stay out of the quality/anatomy thing. Basically, no one agreed with me. But I stand by my crazed rant: "tracking the quality of a victory" doesn't say anything.

(Picture me stomping a foot and huffing and puffing.)


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