Sorry, Mike: The students pick mic

Each semester, I have my editing classes settle a few style questions. This exercise helps students understand that style isn’t stagnant and that they can have a role in shaping style choices in the classroom now and in the newsroom later.

Here’s how it works:

  • We discuss a memo that I wrote when I was a wire editor at The News & Observer. The paper’s managing editor requested the memo after questioning why wire stories in the paper referred to “Myanmar” while the BBC called the same country “Burma.” (More on that here.)
  • I ask the students to break into groups of four to resolve several style quandaries. These change from semester to semester, depending on recent news events. Examples have included Mumbai vs. Bombay and refugee vs. evacuee.
  • Each group of students conducts research on the meanings, uses and histories of terms. They look at what other publications do and what guidelines in the AP stylebook may be applicable.
  • Each group offers its recommendations. The class as a whole discusses them until we come to an agreement. We then use the students’ style recommendations on assignments for the rest of the semester.

This time, I picked two serious style quandaries and one I hoped would be on the lighter side. Here they are and the students’ recommendations:

Freshman vs. first-year student. “Freshman” prevailed, though a few students preferred “first-year student.” A sports-minded student noted that “first-year student” would be awkward when writing about athletes who redshirt.

Ground Zero vs. ground zero, in reference to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York. This was a pretty even split across two sections of the class. Some groups said that the World Trade Center area was a unique place that deserved a capitalized term. Others said that wasn’t fair to similar places, that there are other “grounds zero.”

Mike vs. mic, as a short form for “microphone.” This, to my surprise, was the slam dunk. Not one student took up for “mike.” Some hadn’t realized that the word could be used that way. Many said they were influenced by campus fliers and other advertising for “open mic nights.” A few others said “mike” looked like a person’s name, a viewpoint I took in this post. For both sections of the editing course, we adopted “mic” as an acceptable short form for “microphone,” should that come up again this semester.

5 thoughts on “Sorry, Mike: The students pick mic”

  1. One way we looked at it when deciding to go with “mike” at our paper was that we don’t use “frig” as shorthand for refrigerator – we use “fridge.” Plus, when I get to “mic” in a story, I always think “mick” first. I don’t like how it slows me down as a reader.

  2. My two cents as a student who has been through this exercise in Professor Bechtel’s class (and as a fan of any good argument):

    1) Freshman is definitely more preferable than first-year student, especially in the sports context. I don’t think the term freshman is as sexist as some make it seem to be, but honestly, I wish there existed a better word than either of these.

    2) Since this term applies specifically to the New York City site, I think it should be Ground Zero. All other locations could be referred to as ground zero without confusion. The capitalization distinguishes the terms.

    3) Mic all the way. An “open mike night” just makes me wonder why a guy named Mike wanted to get on stage and express himself for anyone interested in attending.

  3. Great exercise! I think I’ll try it, but I’m not sure how much weight to place on phonetics-by-democracy.

    Frig/fridge is a special case, because “frig” is already a highly entertaining word on its own. I hope y’all at least touched on the issue of whether a clipping is a word on its own — meaning the short form of “bicycle” is “bike” — or just a shorter form of the “real” word (in which case a bicycle should be a “bic”).

  4. Mic is horrible! You don’t say nuc for nuclear or coc for coca-cola. You don’t say bic for bicycle. Mic reads like “mick” and doesn’t conjugate well at all (mic’cing? micced?)

    It used to always be mike until maybe the 80’s–sound engineers seem to have started using it because “mic” is the abbreviation on sound boards, but it makes no sense and hurts to read.

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