That’s not my problem

Imagine that I did a small favor for you such as making change for a $20 bill. You say: “Thank you.” I respond with “no problem.”

Would you find my reply to be ungrammatical? Would you consider it rude? According to this list of grammar gripes on the NPR site, some people would.

A couple of things about that item in the list surprised me. First, that NPR would include it as matter of grammar. Second, that people continue to edit casual conversation, including personal email.

To my ear, “no problem” is fine between friends or family members to acknowledge gratitude for a minor task. It doesn’t break a grammar rule to say it or write it.

You’re welcome.

A gluttonous gourmet

Homer Simpson, one of the great gourmands of popular culture.

Earlier this week, The Associated Press held a Twitter chat with guest editor J.M. Hirsch. The topic was food.

It was a fun series of tweets, and I learned, among other things, what “spatchcocking” is.

But this tweet gave me pause:


I understand that a gourmand is a glutton. But why can’t a gourmand also appreciate fine food, albeit to excess?

Some gourmands may prefer fast food and cheap beer, but others may enjoy fine wine and steak dinners at the fanciest restaurants. Either way, the gourmand is overindulging, perhaps to the point of obesity.

Is it possible for someone to be a gourmand and a gourmet? I believe so.

An example is R.W. Apple, a famous New York Times reporter. He took great pleasure in food and drink, and he had refined tastes. The headline for this Apple column on his favorite restaurants, published shortly after his death in 2006, originally called him a “global gourmand.” It was later changed to “global gourmet.”

The change was unneeded. In its obituary, the NYT mentions Apple’s “Falstaffian appetites” and “surplus pounds.”

To my eye, Apple was a gourmand and a gourmet. Either word would work. I hope that the AP Stylebook would agree.

Degrees of definition

The embellishment of resumes is all too common. On occasion, such exaggerations and fabrications have brought down football coaches and business leaders.

The issue has popped up during the election season in Wake County, North Carolina. Paul Coble, a former mayor of Raleigh and current member of the county’s Board of Commissioners, is seeking re-election. Coble says that he holds a degree as a Registered Health Underwriter, but a Raleigh blogger says that “degree” is the wrong word for what Coble earned. In response, Coble told The News & Observer that it was a matter of semantics.

As director of a certificate program at UNC-Chapel Hill, I took a particular interest in the dispute. The certificate in technology and communication is an online, three-course program. It is aimed at mid-career professionals who want to refresh their skills and pick up new ones.

The program is valuable, and those who complete it should include their participation on their resumes. But I would discourage anyone who completed it from calling it a “degree.” It should be listed on a resume as a “certificate.”

Some course credit obtained in the certificate program can lead to a master’s degree in digital media. That would require more coursework and a final project, however.

I’m not sure that Coble’s claim matters much to voters, but it is disingenuous. As of this writing, the RHU “degree” reference remains on his page on Wikipedia and on his campaign’s website. News organizations that list Coble’s credentials should edit accordingly.

Q&A with Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston, co-directors of The Irina Project

Barbara Friedman and Anne Johnston are faculty members at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UNC-Chapel Hill. They are also co-directors of The Irina Project, which examines media coverage of sex trafficking. In this interview, conducted by email, Friedman and Johnston discuss the project and offer guidance to reporters and editors covering this issue.

Q. What is The Irina Project? What do you two hope to achieve?

A. The Irina Project, or TIP, combines scholarly research with community engagement.

The purpose of our work is to first, better understand the ways that sex trafficking is covered in news media and second, to illuminate and comment on news routines and lapses that may result in audience misunderstanding or apathy toward the crime of sex trafficking.

Our aim is to bring together with journalists a range of groups most knowledgeable about trafficking: survivors, health-care workers, social workers, law enforcement, for example, as a way to widen the range of sources and stories and otherwise improve the norms of coverage. We’re working now on a Web-based resource that will include access to experts (database of experts, multimedia clips/interviews), resources (news, legal information, statistics, legislation, publications, organizations); reporting tip sheets; and social networking (blog, Twitter, wiki). It will bring together journalists, data, and knowledgeable sources in an effort to increase awareness of and promote the responsible reporting of sex trafficking.

Q. What are some of the common problems you see in media coverage of sex trafficking? How can journalists better cover this topic?

A. In our 2008 study — the first systematic analysis of news coverage of sex trafficking — we found that trafficking was typically reported as breaking (crime) news with little or no context, and rarely included the voices of the trafficked. In subsequent studies, we found these same patterns in coverage. These patterns of coverage, we argue, lead to victim-blaming, misdirected resources and poor policy decisions that hurt individuals who are trafficked.

Trafficking is a complex topic, so it’s no surprise when journalists find it challenging. Some suggestions are to approach the story from a wider range of angles, such as public health and human rights; and to draw upon a bigger pool of sources, including those most closely involved with and profoundly affected by the issue.

Further complicating things is that statistical information on trafficking is often suspect given competing agendas, the limitations of data collection and the fact that sexual exploitation is historically an underreported crime.

Journalists must keep up with a mass of data generated by an increasing number of governmental and non-governmental sources, and they must find ways to mine the data in their communities to identify the stories and accurately report on this topic in a way that informs community-based conversations and policy decisions. To do this, they need knowledge of data sources, subject experts and contacts, as well as proficiency with the approaches and tools useful for identifying and analyzing trends and presenting clearly, without sensationalism, potentially complex data in trafficking stories.

Q. What guidelines on word choice would you offer for editors who are writing headlines, captions and tweets about this topic?

A. As is true when covering other forms of violence, editors working on stories about trafficking must be especially careful with language. To do otherwise not only risks misrepresenting the issue, but may jeopardize the safety and recovery of trafficking survivors. Here are just a few suggestions:

    • Never use the term “child prostitute.” The term implies that a child has made the choice to become involved in prostitution.
    • Take care not to conflate the terms “prostitution,” “trafficking,” and “sex work.” These are contested terms among distinct communities. If unsure of the differences, see the laws in your state and municipality, and consult expert sources.
    • Rather than “pimp,” which has been normalized and trivialized in popular culture, use “trafficker” to communicate the seriousness of the offense.
    • If a trafficking survivor is included in the story, follow his/her lead, e.g., whether he/she wants to be identified by name or photograph.
    • Avoid cliché images like women in chains, as it perpetuates stereotypes about trafficking.
    • Avoid picturing and identifying individuals arrested for prostitution.

Q. You two were recently selected for the Thorp Faculty Engaged Scholars program at UNC. What are your plans for that program and for the project overall?

A. We’re thrilled to be part of the FES program, having admired so much of the work that’s come out of it already. Our research of trafficking will continue, but we want to find more ways to translate our research findings into practical applications for reporters.

We recognize the need to connect with a much wider range of communities—communities with which we are less familiar (in comparison to news organizations), which may be wary of the media (such as survivors), and/or whose aims might appear to be at odds with journalism. Our goal is to bring these communities together, united under a shared goal to raise awareness about sex trafficking and its consequences and to propose solutions.

And of course, as faculty at UNC become more dependent on external funding, we want to be more effective at identifying funding sources and writing successful applications. The FES will bring us together with experienced scholars who have struggled with similar concerns and developed strategies to address them.

I remember Calif.

The Associated Press recently announced a significant change in its style on abbreviations for U.S. states. The change takes effect today (May 1).

For decades, the AP Stylebook called for editors and writers to abbreviate state names when they accompanied the names of towns and cities. Example: “She drove from Macon, Ga., to Roanoke, Va., in seven hours.”

There were exceptions, of course. Some cities were deemed significant enough to stand alone. Some state names were so short that they were never abbreviated.

The new style recommends spelling out all state names in story text and, when possible, in headlines. So we’d edit the earlier example like this: “She drove from Macon, Georgia, to Roanoke, Virginia, in seven hours.” But the abbreviations will remain in datelines, captions and lists.

Not everyone is on board with the change, which AP says reflects a more global view of editing. The McClatchy-Tribune wire service said it would ignore the new style, as did McClatchy’s Washington bureau. Gerri Berendzen, a copy editor at the Herald-Whig in Illinois, said on Twitter that newspaper would also keep the old style.

As the writer and editor for this blog, I use AP style, so I will go along with this change. Of course, you are free to do otherwise, and I will respect your choice. After all, stylebooks are made up of suggestions, not commandments.

So no more Mo. A fond farewell to Fla. I’ll remember you, Calif. We’ll see less of each other from now on.

Student guest post: Competing with evolving language

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing posts for this blog this semester. This is the last of those posts. Stephanie Zimmerman is a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill double majoring in music and journalism.

It is an editor’s job to make writing accessible to readers. The writing must be clear, factually accurate and stylistically and grammatically consistent. But how much emphasis should editors really place on grammatical and stylistic consistency in the age of the Internet?

Look on any social media site, and you’ll probably find an abundance of grammatical errors. Some errors, of course, cannot be overlooked because they obscure the meaning of a sentence. However, there are many common mistakes people make that do little to obscure meaning.

For example, an error that people often make unknowingly is the distinction between quantities: number vs. amount, less vs. fewer and over vs. more than. People using “number” and “amount” interchangeably is one of my peeves, but the distinction really doesn’t change the meaning of a sentence to make it unrecognizable (which is probably why people so often confuse the use of those words).

“Number” is used to describe a definitive quantity that could, theoretically, be counted: “The number of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.” But if you were to replace the word “number” with “amount” in that sentence, it would make just as much sense to the reader: “The amount of people waiting in line for tickets is outrageous.”

Why do we continue to make the distinction in our writing? Well, that’s the rule, obviously. But isn’t our goal as editors to make things understandable for the reader? If the reader can understand the sentence just as easily, why bother changing it?

Part of the reason is consistency. It is important to have a style to follow so as not to confuse or turn off readers. For example, some stylebooks allow the serial comma, while others forbid it unless the clarity of the sentence is at stake. Each is acceptable practice, but using the serial comma inconsistently seems unprofessional to readers and looks like an editorial mistake.

From a linguistics standpoint, people often argue that all forms of the English language are appropriate if they make sense to the reader. They also cite language change as a reason to not worry so much about distinctions that people often ignore. Michaela Neeley, a linguistics student at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that since language is constantly evolving, sticking to outdated rules that most people overlook causes writers and editors to be behind the rest of the population with language rules and practices.

It is true that stylebooks and even dictionaries sometimes take a while to catch up with the rest of society. The online Merriam Webster dictionary still uses a hyphen in the word “e-mail,” but language has changed so that it is more common to see the word without the hyphen today.

So where do editors stand on the issue? Where should the line be drawn between outdated, old-fashioned grammar rules and incorrect usage that is becoming incorporated into the mainstream English vocabulary? Is it OK to be grammatically incorrect as long as it doesn’t affect readers’ ability to understand what you are saying?

Grammatical distinctions exist for a reason. Even if readers understand what you’re saying, inconsistency looks unprofessional, and even if they know what you’re trying to say, some readers may be put off when you use what they were taught was the incorrect use of words such as “number” and “amount.”

However, stylebooks are beginning to eliminate some of the distinctions I mentioned earlier. In the newest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, it is now acceptable to use the word “over” when referring to quantity.

As far as when style and grammar changes should occur, I think it is better to proceed with caution. It would help publications to know their audiences in order to better gauge when to make stylistic changes, but being behind the times stylistically is usually better than being hasty to jump on language changes that may not yet be accepted by the majority of readers.