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Copy Desk: Don Podesta and Bill Walsh

Don Podesta and Bill Walsh
Assistant Managing Editor, Copy Desks and National Copy Desk Chief
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; 12:00 PM

Ever wonder how the pages of The Washington Post (and washingtonpost.com) stay so error free? An army of copy editors spend their evenings -- and sometimes very late nights -- poring over stories for spelling, grammatical and factual errors. Copy editors are also largely responsible for the headlines read by Post readers around the world.

This Week: Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor for Copy Desks Don Podesta and National Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh were online Wednesday, Feb. 16, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about editing and headline writing throughout the paper. Have questions, just Ask The Post.

Podesta joined The Post in 1981, working his way through the News Desk's various layout jobs -- National, Foreign and Metro pages as well as Page One. Next, a decade on the Foreign desk included several years as an Assistant Foreign Editor, then Foreign Day Editor and finally a stint as The Post's correspondent in South America, based in Buenos Aires. He returned to Washington as The Post's News Editor, and spent the next four years on the News Desk, mostly laying out Page One. Walsh is the author of two books: "Lapsing Into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print -- and How to Avoid Them," and "The Elephants of Style."

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Don Podesta: Thank you all for your questions. Truth in advertising: I'm only about two weeks into the job of assistant managing editor for copy desks, so my colleague Bill Walsh, chief of The Post's copy desk for national news and a noted grammarian in newspaper cirles, will be joining me to answer some of your questions.


Silver Spring, Md.: Can you walk us through the process from the time the reporter files his/her story to when it appears in the paper? How many editors will look at the story first? Who decides where in the paper the story will be displayed? Who writes the headline, and who is ultimately responsible for approving that headline? A lot of questions, I know. Thanks for answering them!

Don Podesta: Good question. A reporter files his or her story to an assignment editor, who reads the story for content, fairness, completeness, etc. Often the assignment editor is also the reporter's direct supervisor. From there, the story goes to the copy desk. A "rim" editor edits the story for grammar, spelling, usage, factual accuracy and can make suggestions about the structure of the story. The rim editor writes the headlines and any photo captions associated with that story. From the rim, it goes to the "slot" who checks the headlines for accuracy and reviews the editing. The stories are assigned to pages by the News Desk. For stories on Page One, News Desk editors give them one more read. But because everything is on the computer, many pairs of eyes are looking at stories as works in progress all day long, including the eyes of the executive editor and managing editor. Multiple layers of editing all along the process.


Monterey, Calif.: I've always been curious why a separate group like the Copy Desk is in charge of writing headlines, versus the original writer and editors.

Would you please explain the past and/or present rationale behind this separation?


P.S. Can writers ask/beg/demand a certain headline? How often does that happen?

Bill Walsh: Writing headlines is a specialty -- there are outstanding writers who will tell you they couldn't write a headline to save their lives. And there are all sorts of nitpicky rules that we pack into our brains where the reporters pack details about their own specialties. But there's a more practical answer, and that is that the writers have to go home and sleep at some point. At The Post, and pretty much all morning newspapers, the final "specs" for a headline might not be ready until 8 p.m., and that's for the first of at least three editions. The final-edition headline isn't truly final until 1:30 a.m. or so.

But, yes, some writers do try to exert more control over headlines than others. On sensitive and complicated stories I often call the reporter or the reporter's editor at home to make sure we came up with the right interpretation. With today's technology, reporters and senior editors can log on at home and give us a heads-up if a headline doesn't look right -- that works extremely well from my perspective, especially when they don't use curse words :-).


Washington, D.C.: As a former Post rim rat, I can't help but wonder: Don, what does an AME for Copy Editors do? And why did it take the Post so long to create such a position? Thanks.

Don Podesta: The AME for copy editors is charged with improving standards and editing across the newspaper, making the lives of copy editors better and doing a better job of managing this group of journalists. There are also recruiting, hiring, scheduling and performance evaluation tasks. Other newspapers have similar positions for managing copy editors. The Post's newsroom has traditionally been a federal system with strong assistant managing editors running their own sections. It took a lot of research and study to come to the conclusion that centralized management of copy editors would be good for our newsroom.


Washington, D.C.: Your feelings, please, on the word "literally." It has plagued the spoken word for some time, but in the written word, even if used correctly, does it really add anything?

Don Podesta: It adds very little -- and people often misuse it when they mean "figuratively."


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: "All of a sudden" or "all of the sudden?" Or rewrite to "suddenly?"

Bill Walsh: "A." Or "suddenly" would be fine.


Potomac, Md.: Do you ever use "age" rather than the past tense "aged" in the following example: Two girls, age 12, ... I realize you'd use the past tense for "Two girls, dressed in blue," but aged makes me think of aged cheese. What's your opinion? Thank you.

Bill Walsh: "Age" is definitely preferable to "aged." (I don't like either, personally -- usually the fact that the number is an age is abundantly clear from the context. If it really needs to be spelled out, it can be "Two girls, both 12 years old.")


Bloomington, Ind.: This question (or peeve, to be honest) has very little to do with headline writing or newspaper editing. What are your thoughts on writer's "adding emphasis" to quotes, usually from written sources? I say it is perhaps excusable in instances such as "the recipe said to 'mix the eggs, butter, sugar, STRYCHNINE, raisins, and nutmeg in a large bowl' (emphasis mine)" if context is truly necessary, but do we need to say Mozart's "death... 'came too soon for his widow AND FOR ART' (emphasis mine)?" I am partial against the too-frequent abuse of added italics to quotes that can clearly stand on their own, which we then have to qualify (i.e., weaken) by noting that we have wielded an emphatic hand over that which, journalistically, is most inviolate. Thanks for your thoughts.

Bill Walsh: I agree that the technique should be used sparingly if at all. The writer could always quote less of the document to draw attention to a specific phrase.


Vienna, Va.: I think you all do a great job, for the most part. One thing I would ask, though, and I believe it's something that could be implemented at the copy-editing level:

I live in Fairfax County, which, as we all know, is huge. However, in many stories, the Post will say "X happened in Fairfax County." But the story really should say, right off the bat, in which section of Fairfax County the event occurred. If the reporter's editor doesn't make sure the "where" is specified, then it should be the copy editor who makes sure the lede is clear enough.

Bill Walsh: I think our Metro staff usually does a good job of specifying where something happened, even so far as specifying "the Alexandria area of Fairfax County" to differentiate between the city and the far-flung mailing address. Fairfax does pose a lot of problems, though. My pet peeve is a first reference to "Fairfax" without "County" or "City," because the city is politically separate from the county. Colloquially, "Fairfax" means "Fairfax City or the surrounding area of Fairfax County that doesn't have its own name," but that's awfully imprecise.


Fort Worth, Tex.: Style Guru Extraordinaire,which one do you recommend?
Befuddled in Fort Worth

Bill Walsh: We're able to duck questions like this by insisting on more formal wording in the paper, but I'd say "IM'd." (It can't be "IM'ed," because the apostrophe indicated an omitted letter and in this case nothing is omitted.)


Arlington, Va.: What standard, if any, do you use to transcribe foreign names (example Arabic, Chinese)? Thanks.

Don Podesta: We use several sources. We have a gazetter for place names and use the National Geographic Atlas as well. Often we follow the AP's style on transliteration of foreign alphabets, but we will take guidance from our foreign correspondents on the scene when appropriate.


Alexandria, Va.: With machines replacing proofreaders, how can you make sure that words are used correctly? A word may be spelled right, but wrong for the context. ( I can't cite an example at the moment, but this does occur.)

Also, words are supposed to be hyphenated at a syllable break, and one-syllable words should never be split. Your machine haven't been progrmmed to do this correctly, and there are some odd results. Those of us old-fashioned enough to think this matters find it distractingly eye- catching, and it detracts from reading the story. (Also, since I am nit-picking, hypenated words can be split at the hypen, they needn't be kept together as a single word. When this happens at the beginning of a line, there is a large blank space at the end of the preceding line, also distracting.)

Bill Walsh: Machines aren't replacing proofreaders at all. Copy editors, who proofread and much, much more, use spell-check as a tool but read every word that appears in the paper. We're supposed to catch "there" when it should be "their" and "it's" when it should be "its," but deadlines are cruel and perfection is elusive.

Great question on hyphenation. Our computer equipment makes an educated guess, and it does a pretty good job, but again we're supposed to spot the mistakes. I don't think you'll find too many one-syllable words accidentally hyphenated, but catching correct line breaks isn't our strongest point, especially on words such as "project" and "progress," which break differently depending on the context. Most of our editing is done on copy that spreads across our computer screens, not copy already set in newspaper columns, so it is the between-editions proofreading process where we must make a lot of those fixes.


Washington, D.C.: Thanks for doing this chat on such a great topic!

I was an English major in college and have done some editing work in the past.

How do you guys do it?!

I find that my eyes start blurring words together after I've been doing serious copyediting for a significant amount of time.

Don Podesta: Focus, focus, focus. And you really have to enjoy reading and care about news and words. Especially since it's hard for most copy editors to find time for a dinner break away from their desks.


Alexandria, Va.: I find the constant use of puns in your paper very disturbing... they are childish... to say the least.

Bill Walsh: It's a fine line between amusing and annoying, and we all have our own preferences. Mine change from year to year. Another poster complimented our wordplay. Can't please everybody, I'm afraid.


Washington, D.C.: What with all the advances in printing technology in recent decades, do you still have any editors on staff who learned to read copy backwards or upside down?

Don Podesta: At least one -- me. But it's a lost "art." Incidentally, a good reporter should be able to read backwards and upside down, too. You never know what interesting document might be on someone's desk during an interview.


Potomac Falls, Va.: Hi Don and Bill:
I've been wondering about the two different types of headlines that are sometimes used for an article. One is in bold type and the second one is smaller, in italic text. What are the names for these two types of headlines? Thanks.

Bill Walsh: At The Post we say "main hed" and "bank hed." At other papers the smaller headline might be called a subhed or a deck.


Atlantic City, N.J.: Don: Do copy editors actually WRITE anything for their jobs, and if so, what do copy editors "write" most?

Don Podesta: Yes. They write the biggest words: the headlines. They also write photo captions, text blocks in boxes and graphics and sometimes rewrite sections of stories.


Washington, D.C.: On headlines: Often when a story is continued on another page, the headline is different from the original. Sometimes it refers to a point that hasn't been made yet, but will be in the continuation. This is very confusing if one is looking for the rest of a story, especially if there is more than one story on the same topic continuing on the same page. Of all the newspapers I read, The Post is the only one that does this. I know your headline writers are clever, but it makes it harder to read the paper. Would you explain your reasoning, or even better, reconsider the practice?

Bill Walsh: Ah, the jump head. It's a tricky balancing act. I don't like to see the exact same headline on the front and the continuation, though The Post does this sometimes. It's especially funny-looking if the story starts on, say, Page 6 and continues on the facing Page 7. Usually, though, the headlines must be different because they're laid out differently. The trick is to make it clear that the subject is the same while saying things differently enough that the reader doesn't feel as if we're forgetfully repeating ourselves (the little word that appears in the "turn to" and "continued from" lines is supposed to help, but I admit it is little). Some papers make a point of introducing a new element in the jump head, but that's confusing if it's too much of a topic change, for exactly the reason you cite.


Chicago, Ill.: What books would you recommend to improve grammar and bolster writing skills?

Bill Walsh: "Woe Is I" and "Words Fail Me" by Patricia O'Conner are excellent. Bryan Garner's usage manual is a must for the reference shelf. I won't complain if you buy my books, too.


Omaha, Neb.: Can you discuss some specific challenges that you face when editing the online edition vs. the print edition? What are your strategies for dealing with these challenges?

Don Podesta: Good and timely question. We struggle with making our content from the print side more interactive on our website, or "webbier." Some of this is automated with special tagging embedded in the stories by the writers and editors or by the computer system. But we are constantly looking for ways to make the printed text, graphics and other visuals richer on the Web. One example is graphics, which on the print side are two-dimensional, but on the Web can be clicked on to put them into motion or open up windows with additional information that didn't fit in the newspaper for space reasons.


Beaumont, Tex.: What are the rules for punctuation within direct quotations? I ask because I see a lot of instances in quotes where, for example, two independent clauses are joined without the comma that would normally be there before the "and" or "but." Is it up to the reporter to convey the flow of the comment?

Bill Walsh: A quote gets punctuated the same as any other sentence. The reporter conveys the comment, and the editors decide whether the reporter used correct punctuation. Usually this editing can be done without the reporter's input, but there are cases where you need to hear how something was said to decide how to punctuate it. I could see your example with "and" or "but" happening when reported speech is paraphrased, though, when we try to make it clear that the attribution applies to both sides of a sentence. You'd use a comma before "and" in the following example if "Bush said" weren't there, but you'd skip it with the attribution:

Bush said the FBI will handle the domestic side of the battle and the CIA will handle the foreign side.


Vienna, Va.: I really admire the occasional extreme cleverness and sense of humor of headline writers. Is headline writing a full-time job in itself? What does it pay? What are the qualifications? Is there a test to take to qualify?

Bill Walsh: Headline writing is one part of the copy editor's job. There's also polishing the stories -- grammar, usage, style, libel concerns, some fact-checking. And captions. Sometimes the headline that pundits debate the next day as if it were an intricately designed part of a media conspiracy was written in haste. Or panic.

At a place like The Post, you qualify by doing the same job well somewhere else. And then you pass a test, and interviews. The pay varies :-).


Wise, Va.: I am the instructor of a class in advanced journalism that meets at noon at the University of Virginia's College at Wise. I plan to devote the class to learning from your discussion of copy editing.

Here is my question: What do you think are the three most important things a young reporter should know about copy editing and the role of copy editors?

Don Podesta: 1) Copy editors are your friends. Their questions are not meant as challenges to your integrity but to make your story better and ensure accuracy.

2) That said, while copy editors can save you from yourself,don't expect them to do your fact-checking for you. Don't submit stories with holes in them and expect the copy desk to fill them in.

3) Respect the art of headline writing. The copy editor is pulling the reader into your story in just a few words that summarize the 800 words you've written, and it's not easy to do.


The Estates of Riverdale Park, Md.: Hello Don and Bill,

Why doesn't the Post use diacritical marks for foreign words?

Surely your modern printing press can cope with umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes, etc.

Omitting diacritical marks isn't so bad for such common phrases as "creme brulee" (although it looks unsophisticated and ignorant).

But problems arise when you encounter foreign words, especially names, for the first time. Post readers are probably mispronouncing all sorts of words thanks to The Post's odd refusal to help out with a few accents.

And if you don't believe me, ask your wine columnists Ben Gilberti and Michael Franz or restaurant critic Tom Sietsma how they feel about the accent issue.

Don Podesta: Excelent question for which, unfortunately, there is no clean, crisp answer. The Post has been edging into more use of diacritical marks for Spanish words, mostly because of the rapid rise in the Hispanic population in our area. Certain English words that come from the French, such as re'sume' vs. resume take diacriticals as well. But the truth is we don't have enough expert French, Portuguese and German speakers on the staff to know authoritativly which foreign words take an umlaut or cedilla. My guess is that we'll move in the direcion of greater us of diacritical marks over time, but slowly.


Alexandria, Va.: Does the Post use a standard style manual? If the Post uses its own, is it available for purchase?

Don Podesta: We do have our own Style manual, which, if memory serves, used to be available in local bookstores. But now it's on-line on our intranet, for greater searchability and ease of updating. That doesn't mean we might not want to revisit the possibilty of printing a version and selling it. Thanks for the idea!


Anonymous: Are you the last writers awake before the paper goes to the presses?

Could you please give an overview of what a typcial day is for you in terms of how you interact with others in the paper's creation?

Bill Walsh: Writers' bedtimes vary, but few have been spared the shock of a copy editor's early wake-up call.

On the desks that publish live -- national, foreign, metro, business, sports, Style -- the typical copy editor works something like 4 p.m. to midnight. Early in the shift there may not be many stories to edit for the next day's paper, so a copy editor might handle "advance" copy filed early for the weekend.

Things get rolling around 6, and stories written and "content"-edited go to the "rim," which is the term for the rank-and-file copy editors as opposed to the "slots," or supervisors. (Olde-tyme copy desks where shaped like horseshoes to allow for easy passing out of paper, hence the terminology.)

The rim editor reads the story and sends it to a different computer file where the slot can give it a read. Early in the day there are still no headline specs, but as the night progresses, that first read might also include headlines, captions and trimming for space.

Copy editors often have questions for the reporters or their editors, and so those are cleared up in person, through computer messaging or on the phone.

There also might be negotiation with the layout editors about more (or less) space for the headline or the story, or about the choice of photographs.

Copy editors also edit graphics produced by the News Art department.

After 9 p.m., triage mode sets in and both rim and slot editors race to meet deadline. The deadlines vary by section, but essentially the first edition needs to be finished by 10:30.

Between 10:30 and midnight, all the stories arrive back at the copy desks in the form of page proofs. Stories that are "clean" are left alone, but fixes major and minor are also made. And, as news dictates, some of the stories will be tweaked or even rewritten for the second edition.

The rim-slot process repeats itself, and the slots have to clear all the stories by midnight or so for the second edition.

Unless big news is happening, the final edition, closing at 1:30 a.m., is a quiet affair. Many copy desks are down to just one person at that point.

Then, the next day, you check your e-mail and hope there aren't too many complaints about what got messed up.


Washington, D.C.: Have you ever had to yell "Stop the Presses!" after finding a last minute mistake?

Don Podesta: I only called the pressroom to stop the presses once in my 24 years at The Post. But not for a mistake. It was to get the story of Princess Diana's death in the first edition after the presses had just started rolling and we learned of the event minutes later.


Eeeeek: Could you pleeeeeeeeease ensure that homophones are correctly used? Everytime I read that someone was "pouring" over a document, I want to ask "poured what?" There are numerous other examples, not too hard to find.

Bill Walsh: We try. Believe me, we try. A harsh reality of newspaper editing is that the deadlines don't allow for the polish that you expect in books or even magazines.


Laurel, Md.: Which is correct?

"The US has never provEN that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."

"The US has never provED that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction."

My friend and I (both grammar nerds) have a steak dinner on the outcome of this question. I say "provED."

Bill Walsh: Yes, "proved." Generally, "proven" is reserved for something like "a proven technique."


New York, N.Y.: Hi, could you explain whether it is correct to use a comma after the second of three items in a list, e.g., "He bought a daisy, a rose, and a tulip." I've heard that this is the English punctuation and that Amer. usage is no comma after second item (but that looks wrong to me!). Thanks.

Bill Walsh: The "serial comma" or "Oxford comma" is standard in formal American English. Its omission is one of a handful of style shortcuts that newspapers have adopted over the years (that tiny speck of ink and the newsprint it stains add up to real money over millions of editions!).

Even newspapers use the serial comma when necessary for clarity. Without it, something like "the departments of Sewage, Libraries and Parks and Recreation" can be read two ways.


Arlington, Va.: Lisa De Moreas apparently confused Andy Rooney with Mickey Rooney as the star of a Super Bowl commercial. How does such an error get through so many layers of review? I did see the correction.

Don Podesta: It's a frustration, but even editors are human. Last Monday's paper had 87,798 words. That's the length of an average novel. And unlike a novel, which can be months or years in the making, we do it several times a night in a matter of hours. So sure, things like the wrong Rooney will occasionally get by everyone in the chain... and we hate it when that happens.


Columbia, Md.: Enough about words. The Post has more trouble with numbers. You must have lots of mathematically challenged writers and editors. Numerical howlers abound. "Millions" confused with "billions." Columns of numbers that don't add up. Percentages that make no sense. Could you have a mathematically literate editor who passed all articles with numbers in them?

Don Podesta: Raising the "numeracy" as well as the literacy of editors is one of my goals.


Alexandria, Va.: My pet peeve: "utilize" instead of just "use." Why do we feel compelled to "utilize?"

Don Podesta: One of mine as well. People who use "utilize" must think it sounds more sophisticated or important.


Arlington, Va.: Hello, and happy Wednesday!

I am someone who is trying to crack into the field of copy editing. What are some things I could do to prime myself for the rigors of the job? What are some traits or skills that a good copy editor possesses?

Thank you!

Bill Walsh: A solid grounding in spelling, grammar and punctuation is essential. For newspaper work, it's also important to be a news junkie and learn the basics of journalism. Ideally a copy editor starts out as a reporter, but that seems to be less common than it used to be.

You have to be smart but methodical. This isn't easy, because smart people tend to speed-read, and speed-reading tends to gloss over typos.

A good copy editor is like a good "Jeopardy" contestant, with a little knowledge about a lot of things. One day a decade or two ago I caught errors in the date of RFK's assassination and the spellings of Eddy Arnold and Macchu Picchu, all in the course of 15 minutes or so.

(I probably screwed up one or two of those examples just now!)


Takoma Park, Md.: I read a brief article in this morning's Post that indicated the effects of Indian casinos have been an economic plus for Native American communities. Fine, but the item attributed the information to "a report." What laziness! Which "report?" Who did it? A casino development group? The Interior Department? The National Indian Gaming Commission? Moreover, what's the point of taking a stab at attribution unless you fully identify the source? Could it possibly have been that much more difficult or space-consuming to simply give the name of the person or group that published the study?

Don Podesta: Point taken. Our senior editors are always calling for better and more careful attribution; this looks like a dropped ball.


Boston, Mass.: How does one become a copy editor? Is a degree in English mandatory? It is a career I am very interested in, but, alas, I have a degree in History. Would this be detrimental to me in a job search?

Don Podesta: A degree in English is not mandatory, and a degree in history is a plus not a minus. One becomes a copy editor by being hired to work on a copy desk -- it's that simple. In the case of The Post, we recruit from other papers or keep promising summer interns who have done well on our copy desks. The hiring process includes a test and a week-long tryout on one or more of our copy desks. Copy editors are not easy to find, so if you're interested in a career in copy editing, try the papers in the smaller markets, get some experience and work your way up to the bigger papers. Go for it.


Washington, D.C.: How much time does a copy editor typically spend editing a story? How much fact checking of dates, ages, etc. is done by the copyeditor?

Bill Walsh: The time spent with a story varies a lot. A slower copy editor (we are a diverse group!) with a long feature that arrived early in the day and needed a lot of attention might spend 90 minutes with it. A speed demon enlisted to rush through a breaking story might get only five or 10 minutes.

Paradoxically, because of the deadline pressure and the nature of breaking news, the most important stories often get the least attention.

Post copy editors do more fact-checking than those at most newspapers. I don't know why; it's just the tradition. Having Web access at our desks makes that easier than it used to be.


Falls Church, Va.: Don and Bill,

What are your top grammatical pet peeves?

And, what is the funniest blooper that got past the copy desk?

Don Podesta: My own pet peeve is the use of "affect" for "effect" and vice versa. Also using the nominative cases (he, she or I)when what was wanted was the objective case(him, her or me.) The funniest bloopers that I remember are not printable here. But one I do remember catching after the page was made up and ready to go to press was a quote that read "taking from the nitty and giving to the gritty." Turned out the speaker had really used the words "needy" and "greedy," and the reporter had been led astray by the speaker's accent.


Washington, D.C.: I see Saddam Hussein's name used in a number of ways in different papers. Sometimes on second reference I see "Saddam" and other times I see "Hussein." Which is correct and what is the rationale behind using his first name on second reference?

Bill Walsh: Most papers used Saddam in the 1990s to avoid confusion with Jordan's King Hussein. As I understand it, he is known as Saddam in his part of the world, so it wasn't much of a stretch.

Since King Hussein's death, there has been a move (at The Post and elsewhere) toward the more conventional last-name reference.


Gaithersburg, Md.: As a J-student in the 70s, I was taught that the "S" in Harry Truman's name stands for nothing and therefore should not be followed by a period. Yet in The Post I see it with the period more often than not. Have the rules changed? Or am I just getting old and cranky?

Bill Walsh: Somebody once asked Truman about this, and he said he didn't care. So most newspapers chose the conventional punctuation.


Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: Why does The Washington Post allow the phrase "for free" into the paper?

This is wrong. Free is an adjective like "tall" or "red."

Bill Walsh: Correct. When we let that in, we are in error.


Washington, D.C.: Why does The Post not use "Mr." and "Ms." as a general rule in identifying people. Or, if you'd rather, why does New York Times use them?

Don Podesta: I don't know if the genesis was to save space or to be more egalitarian, but it's common practice at most newspapers, and I believe it's Associated Press style as well. We do use Mr., Mrs., Ms. in obituaries as an honorific. But it sounds funny to my ear to say "Mr. Riggins ran for 169 yards," on a second reference to former Redskins running back John Riggins. I'd rather not speculate on why the editors at the Times do things the way they do.


Silver Spring, Md.: What exactly is the deal with "Reagan National Airport" and how did it become Post style (although columnists are free to ignore it)? Seven years ago, the House version of the renaming bill eliminated "Washington" and the Senate did not, and the Senate version was finally agreed upon and signed into law. But The Post (and some other media) act as though the House version prevailed. What sort of reasoning took place to allow the second, fourth, and fifth words of a long name to be chosen as the abbreviation? Why not just National Airport? Or is this just a subtle (or unsubtle) way for The Post to suck up to the Republicans?

Bill Walsh: Newspapers often choose shortened versions of unwieldy names. I think we all know that the airport serves Washington, for starters.


Alexandria, Va.: I wish the world and national briefs could all have headlines instead of just the top one. I suppose it's a space issue, but man, those briefs sure do get lost (and largely ignored, I'd say). Just dreamin'...

Don Podesta: You're exactly right -- it's a space issue. But thanks for your interest.


Washington, D.C.: Bill, you are too modest: Your recommendations for good grammar books did not include your own wonderful contributions, "Lapsing Into a Comma" and "The Elephants of Style."
(Just wanted other chatters to know about these; check 'em out.)

Bill Walsh: Thank you. (I did include a mention, albeit subtly.)

But, in the interest of the public's right to know, there you are.


Lexington, Va.: Not long ago, I was half of a two-person newspaper (reporter-editor team). Many a night I sat there, with a half-eaten sandwich from Subway in front of me, as I labored to lay out the paper using Quark Xpress. It was difficult enough to do this in one night on a 20 to 24-page weekly paper -- so how on earth does each section get done at The Post? And if you have more than one person paginating, how do you make sure your jumps line up? I am thinking particularly about the "A" section, which is typically around 40 pages. Bottom line: How many people does it take to Quark the A-section, and how long does it take them?

Don Podesta: On any given night there are about 14 editors on our News Desk laying out the A section and the Metro section. A handful of layout editors, a.k.a. page designers, do the Style, Sports and Business pages. And the weekly feature sections have their own designers as well. But we don't use Quark. We have a publishing system that has its own pagination software, so the stories being edited by assignment editors or copy editors can be seen in real time by the people designing the pages. Pages, stories, photos, graphics, captions all live in the same database.


Butte, Mont.: I copy edit and design pages at a small daily. How do you unwind after deadline?

Don Podesta: Who says we unwind? Seriously, everyone would answer that question differenly. Personally, I recommend Salsa dancing.


Re: IM: Bill: "We're able to duck questions like this by insisting on more formal wording in the paper, but I'd say "IM'd." (It can't be "IM'ed," because the apostrophe indicated an omitted letter and in this case nothing is omitted.)"

By your reasoning, that doesn't work, either. The "M" stands for "Message" (i.e., "instant message"), so the "e" in "ed" automatically is included. (You wouldn't say "messageed!;") IM'd makes no more sense than IM'ed. I'm a fan of IMed.

Bill Walsh: Interesting point, but I think you have to hit the reset button with an initialism. "POW" is prisonerS of war, but the plural is still POWs. RBI is more controversial, but I think the same guideline applies.

And you have "a" AAA membership, because it's "triple-A," even though it would be "an" Automobile Association of America membership.


Columbia, Md.: I have a problem with the Post's use of the conjunction "if not." About 65 percent of the time that I read "if not" in The Post or elsewhere, I can tell from context that the writer means "and indeed" or something similar. About 15 percent of the time, the context makes it clear that "but not" is meant. For about 20 percent if the "if not"s, I can't tell what the writer means. Since the two meanings of "if not" are opposites, I think the writer always knows exactly what he means, and doesn't consider that the reader may have to guess. In other words, "if not" is not sloppy thinking but sloppy writing.

I wish The Post would stop using "if not." I was going to suggest that The Post use it seldom if not ever, but that would be confusing, wouldn't it? I mean never.

A Post writer might object that she always uses "if not" in the same way, or the Post might say that its usage is consistent (which isn't true), but both would be missing the point. The contradictory and confusing meanings of "if not" are used every day in all print media by bad writers and fairly good writers (but never by really good writers). The Post can fix "if not" only by eschewing it.

Don Podesta: Thank you for the suggestion. Our style and usage committee will consider how to tackle the "if not" problem.


Bill Walsh: I misstated that POW thing a little, but you know what I mean.


Don Podesta: It looks like our time is up. Thanks to all of you for your many good questions and suggestions and apologies for not getting to all of them.


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