From spelling and grammar to usage and grammar

UNC’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication is famous (infamous, some students would say) for its spelling and grammar test.

Since 1975, the journalism school has required students to pass the 100-question test with a grade of 70 or better. Few do so on the first attempt, but it’s offered numerous times each semester. Those who cannot pass may not graduate with a journalism degree.

According to the book “Making News” by Tom Bowers, the test made national news at the time of its introduction. It was mentioned in an op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, and NBC News came to campus to do a story about it.

The test is still a true rite of passage, even though nowadays it’s given online and not on paper. It’s also still a topic of conversation and a part of the school’s identity. Everyday people in North Carolina sometimes ask alumni and faculty of the school: Do they still have that test that you have to pass or else?

The answer is yes, but its format is changing. Spelling will no longer be part of the exam.

The content of the test came up last fall when several faculty members were talking about the introductory News Writing course, which is where many students first take the exam. In those conversations, I suggested that memorizing a spelling list wasn’t the best measure of competence in our craft. Why not use a set of questions about word choice instead? Other faculty members agreed to the idea.

Spelling, of course, still matters. Students who misspell words on assignments will still be penalized. As journalism students at UNC will tell you, misspelling the name of a source is a bad idea. That error means an automatic F on that assignment. But the spelling and grammar test will become the usage and grammar test.

So starting this fall, students will be tested on grammar, punctuation and word usage. The usage section will draw from this list (PDF) and include sentences like this:

Its/It’s too late to add a class this semester. (The correct answer is It’s.)

The goal of the revised exam is to better test the students’ knowledge of journalistic writing and editing. In addition, the new test will also better reflect what some employers use in making decisions on jobs and internships.

Congratulations to those students who passed the old test. And good luck to those who will take the new one. I hope you pass!

Thanks to the Park Library for help researching this post.


Q&A with N&Oops

N&Oops is a blog and Twitter feed that launched this autumn to document mistakes in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C. The blog’s anonymous author is a “former journalist who left newspapers voluntarily several years ago and harbors no bitterness toward the industry.” In this Q&A, conducted by email, N&Oops discusses what inspired the blog’s origins and goals.

Q. What is the purpose of your blog, and what inspired it?

A. Basically the purpose of the blog is to point out obvious errors in the N&O, especially the ones that are amusing. For the purpose of the blog, an “obvious error” would be one that could be spotted with doing little or no research.

It’s also somewhat of a social media experiment and something to do for fun. The “Wake Cunty” error was the one that helped push it from an idea to reality.

Q. What types of errors do you see? Are themes emerging?

A. There seem to be a lot of errors in captions and subheadlines. The sports section also seems to have more errors than other sections, probably due to tighter deadlines.

Q. You’ve noted errors in email alerts from and Tweets from N&O writers and editors. Do you think those should be held to the same standard as what appears in print?

A. Errors are errors and typos are typos, regardless of the medium. Readers expect the N&O to have names spelled accurately and correct punctuation, even in tweets and alerts.

Q. Your blog and Twitter feed allow you to remain anonymous. Do you see a time when you would identify yourself?

A. Likely not, as this is intended to be contributor-driven. So far, there have been contributions from at least 10 different people.

Q. What do you see as the endgame for the blog? In other words, is there a “mission accomplished”?

A. No endgame. How long posting keeps up at the current pace depends mostly on contributor submissions and the volume of errors.

William Tecumseh Sherman, media critic

While working on this tongue-in-cheek post earlier this week, I ran across a few quotes from Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman about newspapers.

Apparently, the Civil War commander who famously (or infamously, depending on your viewpoint) marched across the South was not a fan of the press. Here are the quotes attributed to Sherman:

  • “I hate newspapermen. They come into camp and pick up their camp rumors and print them as facts. I regard them as spies, which, in truth, they are.”
  • “If I had my choice, I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from hell before breakfast.”
  • “I think I understand what military fame is — to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers.”

Read more of Sherman’s colorful quotes on other topics here.

Of Obama and Osama

The dominant news story in the United States (and probably the world) for the past week has been the death of Osama bin Laden. The terrorist leader was killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan early Monday.

Reporting on breaking news of this magnitude is difficult. The rush for information almost invariably leads to errors of different kinds. Here are some of those mistakes surrounding the Osama story:

  • Several U.S. senators claimed to have seen photos showing bin Laden after he was shot and killed. The photos were not authentic.
  • This quote attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. spread quickly on Facebook and Twitter: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy.” He never said that, but an American woman living in Japan did.
  • Numerous media organizations — including CNN, The Charlotte Observer and NPR — have mixed up Osama and Obama. I did it myself yesterday on Twitter, so I deleted that Tweet and admitted to my mistake there and on Facebook.

Each of these errors speaks to the need for editors, both formal and informal. Editors at news organizations should be careful to verify information, and readers should be vigilant and notify the media when they detect mistakes. Together, maybe we can get it right.

UPDATE: Errors in Osama infographics were frequent as well. An article on the Nieman site offers excellent advice in how to prevent that from happening again.

I am curious (Chicago)

As an American journalist, I have used the Associated Press Stylebook throughout my career. I’ve found it be a helpful resource on matters of grammar punctuation, word choice and other matters of usage.

I’ve used other stylebooks on occasion, too. When I was in graduate school writing a thesis on a media law topic, I used The Bluebook. More recently, I used the Los Angeles Times stylebook when I worked there during the summer of 2008.

I’ve suggested a “style smackdown” between AP editors and their counterparts from the Chicago Manual of Style at the 2012 ACES conference, which will take place in New Orleans. I’ve since revised that to a “style lovefest” in order to make such a session seem less adversarial. But the idea is the same: Get editors from several stylebooks together for a discussion about what they do and how they do it.

In the meantime, I am contemplating branching out in my style knowledge. Yes, I am style-curious.

I mentioned this weekend on Twitter that one of my goals for the summer is to try to learn Chicago style. Here are some of the reactions there:

  • OH, IS THAT ALL? Should only take a minute or two. (Recommend signing up for online access. Easy-peasy.)
  •  Give up now. The numbers section alone goes from 8.1-8.80.
  • At least it’s logical to ex-journos, unlike APA, where you don’t capitalize book or article titles.
  • It’s a little rough at first, but eventually you become bilingual. Then again, I was only fluent in Chicago 14.
  • CMS made easy: Yes to serial comma; no to spaces around em dashes.
  • Very cool!
My goal is not to become an expert in Chicago style or even fluent in it. I want to know enough to satisfy my curiosity — and so I can ask intelligent questions at a style lovefest, should one take place at the next ACES conference. Let’s hope that happens.

Student guest post: A new definition for love in the OED

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 11th of those posts. Alice Miller is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and is finishing her studies in journalism and art history. She is soaking up all aspects of her final spring in Chapel Hill including, but not limited to, frozen yogurt, friends and sunny afternoons in the Quad.

At the end of March, the Oxford English Dictionary released the newest additions and revisions to its 600,000-word database. Yet, not all of the new changes fit the traditional definition of “word” itself.

Some chat and text originated terms, such as LOL, OMG and FYI have infiltrated the pages, but those stand-ins for longer catch phrases do not compare with the most controversial addition.


Still looking for the word of which I am speaking? You didn’t miss it. The heart icon you probably skimmed over has officially been added to the OED. Often created by a less-than sign and number 3 (<3), the heart icon is a sign of chat culture transforming the English language as we know it.

With not much faith in American English traditions, ♥ was incorporated into the OED. What worries me most about this new addition is that it could foreshadow a trend toward icons representing words. While LOL is a stand-in for “laugh out loud,” everyone knows it, or can look it up and find its clear definition. But with ♥, what does it really mean? Love? Heart? Less than 3?

In 1993, the French Academy, the organization in France assigned to protect the authenticity and integrity of the French language, banned the usage of the word “email.” Rather than incorporating the American term into the French language like a few other phrases have been, they banned it all together and came up with a French replacement of “courriel.”

This example is one of the many times the French Academy has fought to keep American lingo from becoming a part of French language.

While the majority of French citizens still use “email,” I applaud the academy’s attempt to preserve the French language. I think this pride of language could be a trend we look up to the French for an example.

It may be faster to insert on small phone keyboards and help stay in a 140-character limit on Twitter, but I think it is troubling to think that ♥ is considered a word. We have 26 letters in the alphabet, with some that deserve some more usage, so let’s stick to letters and leave the icons out of the dictionary.

Student guest post: Why can’t Microsoft Word be smarter?

Students in J457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the seventh of those posts. Tim Freer is a senior graphic design and editing major at UNC-Chapel Hill. He spends his hours writing, enjoying the company of friends, debating philosophical issues and in the near future (he hopes) traveling the world.

Microsoft Word is easily the most widely used word processor in America. It was what I grew up typing with, and I’m sure most of the people of my generation can relate to that.

Word has long boasted many useful tools for paper-writing, checking spelling and grammar and offering templates for users, along with much more (including long-standing problems that still have yet to be fixed). Especially given the recent technological surge, I can’t help but feel that Word should be a much smarter program than it is.

Considering the vast array of technological wonders we’ve accomplished in the last few years — touch screens, 3-D movies, video chat, video games that map your body movements and transfer them to the screen — you’d think that we would be able to formulate a program that can  provide useful grammatical insight while simultaneously allowing users to format a visually appealing page.

However, that reality remains elusive. At the most basic level, Word is often frustrating, even for a common user like me.  The faulty grammar check is one of the biggest turn-offs: Nothing is more annoying than writing a grammatically accurate sentence, only to see it underlined in squiggly green because Word misinterpreted a comma or an apostrophe.

As a writer, I have conditioned myself to know the difference between sound-alikes like ‘tail’ and ‘tale.’ “The boy stepped on the cat’s tale” is an obviously flawed sentence that Word could never see because its abilities are so limited. This is a very basic example, but it applies to countless other words and grammatical situations; eliminating these misunderstandings could be highly useful for practically everyone.

Grammar is just the start of it. In terms of layout, Word is also ages behind a program like Adobe InDesign, which allows for much easier placement and organization of pictures and text boxes. This makes Word’s on-spot placement and irritating text wrap seem clunky and outdated.

As far as I know, you cannot change the spacing in Word without the format of the entire document reverting back to its original size and font. Even if Word can do that through changing the default settings or doing some other complicated maneuver, the point is that these annoyances are a non-factor in InDesign. Indentations and bulleting are still problematic and inconsistent in Word as well.

Why Microsoft Word has fallen this far behind the technological curve is somewhat puzzling, because it clearly seems to be within our capabilities to improve it. Is it that far-fetched for a program like Word to be able to map word rhythms and patterns, analyze similar-sounding words and multiple meanings, and sniff out those little ‘tale-tail’ mishaps?  What if, similar to Word’s built-in spell check, thesaurus and dictionary, it had a pre-programmed AP style guide (or any other guide, for that matter) that could detect flaws accordingly and suggest changes?

I understand that more complex functions like these could have difficulty analyzing sentences as they are being written, but how much more complex is that, really, than the basic automatic grammar and spell check? Regardless, if the function were not automatic and instead initiated by the user for the sake of revision, that argument becomes more difficult to make.

Before I get ahead of myself, I must clear up one reservation I have with all of this. There is truly something to be said for people being able to formulate sentences themselves without seeking wisdom from a screen. A pampered society is a stupid society (and in this case, a potentially illiterate one). I certainly want my kids to be able to use proper grammar, to write and to spell on their own.

At the same time, at least at a professional level, the utility of a program with a built-in style guide or group of style guides would be undeniable. Though it may be less exciting to create a problem-free, all-encompassing word processor than it is to create a dazzlingly realistic video game, the former could quicken the transfer of news and information around the world considerably. It’s astounding to think of how much more efficient writing and editing news stories could be if newspaper staffs didn’t have to leaf through their AP style guides looking for guidelines that may or may not exist at all.