Thursday, March 27, 2008

Slotman on stage

"Those Infernal Apostrophes

"Q. Why does The Times insist upon using apostrophes when pluralizing abbreviated numerals, for instance, 1900’s rather than 1900s. Most publications use the latter since the former is ambiguous. If written out, would you write nineteen-hundred’s?

"— David Friddle

"A. Gee, Mr. Friddle, we stopped insisting on that more than a year ago, when we changed the stylebook to drop the apostrophe in most of those cases. So now it’s supposed to be the 1900s, not the 1900’s. It’s also now supposed to be the ’60s (not the 60’s), and DVDs, not DVD’s. If you are seeing those constructions, it’s because sometimes old habits die hard, and we had been doing it that way since the least the mid-1950’s. Er, mid-1950s."

Almost half a century ago, when I began my newspaper career as a copy editor for the Evening Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, I tried to explain to my friends just what a copy editor does. "Yeah, corrects grammar, writes headlines," they would airily say after my highly detailed ten-minute explanation. Grrr.

Right now Merrill Perlman, director of The New York Times' copy desks, is again fielding questions from readers on the "Talk to the Newsroom" blog at the paper. Her remarkably lucid answers are poster children for the term "explanatory journalism."

I have never seen outlined so well what I used to do.

And her responses to questions of style and grammar make excellent sense. They are honest, too; mistakes are sometimes made, even by (especially by!) the old hands, as evidenced in the foregoing example about apostrophes.

As for the headline of this post, "slotman" refers to the occupant of the interior seat of a horseshoe-shaped desk on whose outer rim a battery of copy editors ("rim men") once sat. Long into the 21st century, decades after copy desks had been replaced by computer terminals in cubbyholes, we aging newsies often called copy chiefs by the old name.

Merrill Perlman is a helluva slotman. Or slotperson, if an anachronistic term can be P.C.

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