Wednesday, November 4, 2009

NOVEMBER 3, 2009, 8:00 AM

Colons, Dashes and Trouble

Notes from the newsroom on grammar, usage and style.

Colons can be useful; dashes, ditto. But they should be used sparingly and with care.

Overused, they can seem contrived, a journalistic mannerism. Used carelessly, they can confuse a sentence instead of clarifying. And sometimes a procession of such punctuation is a hint that a sentence is overstuffed or needs rethinking.

A few recent examples:


In making it easier for traditionalist Anglicans to become Catholic, Pope Benedict XVI once again revealed the character of his papacy: to reach out to the most fervent of like-minded believers, even if they are not Catholic. Yet some observers wonder whether his move could paradoxically liberalize the church — or at least wedge it open — on a crucial issue: celibacy.

Two colon constructions in successive sentences seemed like too much. And a pair of dashes added to the awkward, stop-and-go effect.


The results of the violence may prove short-lived — and possibly counterproductive; condemnation of Israel and Hamas is likely to grow after the United Nations Human Rights Council voted Friday to endorse a report detailing evidence of war crimes in Gaza.

This odd combination of dash and semicolon seemed clunky and potentially confusing. How about no punctuation after “short-lived,” then a period after “counterproductive” and a new sentence starting with “condemnation”?


Less romantic and — with instantly available pornography online and graphic sex talk, including on Mr. Hefner’s own show, “The Girls Next Door,’’ on TV — it’s a time that makes Playboy’s ideals seem quaint. Mr. Hefner — who uses the word “cat’’ to describe himself, as in, “I’m the luckiest cat on the planet’’ — doesn’t think much of today’s cultural landscape.

The first dash may have belonged before the “and.” But beyond that, the succession of dashes, commas and clauses makes this passage awfully tough to decipher.

In a Word

This week’s grab bag of grammar, style and other editing missteps, compiled with help from colleagues and readers.


News of the government’s plan to on average halve pay for the top 25 employees of firms that took two bailouts ricocheted down Wall Street on Wednesday.

We’re prepared to split infinitives when that makes the best sentence, but this was awfully awkward.


Those cold figures threaten an image of the battle [Henry V's victory at Agincourt] that even professional researchers and academics have been reluctant to challenge in the face of Shakespearean prose and centuries of English pride, Ms. Curry said.

Nothing wrong with well-wrought prose, but that “band of brothers” spiel definitely qualifies as “poetry” or “verse.”


The case, which centers around a private contract between the two brothers, will be followed closely by investors and global companies, particularly as they look to developing countries like India for growth. … Their Supreme Court case centers around a resource India desperately needs to develop: natural gas. India is rich in energy resources including natural gas and coal, but bureaucracy and political infighting have kept these resources from being exploited.

The Times’s stylebook says this:

center (v.). Do not write center around because the verb means gather at a point. Logic calls for center on, center in or revolve around.


For years his name was anathema. Reviled as a Nazi collaborator whom an Israeli judge said had “sold his soul to the devil,” Mr. Kasztner, a journalist and official in Israel’s ruling leftist workers party, Mapai, was denounced in court, demonized in print and spat upon on the street.

Recorded announcement: Make it “who.”


Wanting design help, Ms. Sperling responded to a posting on The New York Times Web site (which is no longer online) offering to match people struggling with “a furniture budget that feels too tight,” with a professional designer.

NYTimes.com is no longer online? Oh, no, that’s not what we meant. (Also, the two “with” phrases in a row were awkward.)


As for the cost of the makeover, which ran more than $500 over budget after Ms. Sperling purchased the coffee table and lamp from West Elm and bought mohair for the side chair (“That was my splurge,” she said), Ms. Sperling seemed nonplussed. “I’m happy to spend a little extra,” she said, “to make the investment in some pieces I’ll have around for a long time.”

“Nonplused” (one “s” is the dictionary’s first spelling) means “bewildered; at a loss.” Here it seems we meant something more like “unfazed.”


“But it [parents' yelling] effects a child. If someone yelled at you at work, you’d find that pretty jarring. We don’t apply that standard to children.”

“Affects,” not “effects.”


In offices, churches, hospitals, college dorms and schools — and even at yoga classes and in apple orchards — the fear of swine flu is turning age-old rituals on their head. What used to be O.K. is not anymore, as the flu has ushered in new standards of etiquette that can be, in turns, mundane, absurd and heartbreaking.

The tone of this Page One story was somewhat conversational, but there still was no need for this colloquialism.


More than seven decades after her death the aviatrix Amelia Earhart still fascinates.

With a new movie about Earhart, this precious term for “female aviator” keeps popping up. Better: pilot, aviator. We know she’s a woman. (Also, a comma after “death” would have made this more readable.)


After Deadline examines questions of grammar, usage and style encountered by writers and editors of The Times. It is adapted from a weekly newsroom critique overseen by Philip B. Corbett, the associate managing editor for standards, who is also in charge of The Times’s style manual.

from the New York Times

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