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Column: A Word, Please: CNN passage brings up issues of possessives, lowercased titles

This week, it’s time for another trip through the tortured mind of a copy editor — a place where minuscule issues of grammar and punctuation undetectable to normal humans become massive, glaring irritants.

Ready? See if you can spot the offending issue in this sentence from a recent article on CNN’s website.

“DHS’ acting Director of Cyber Division of the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, Samuel Liles, said that by late September, the intelligence community concluded that 21 states ‘were potentially targeted by Russian government-linked cyber actors’ with scanning of Internet-connected election systems.”

Before you answer, note that I’m not talking about the quotation marks. CNN correctly used double quotes, but I changed them to single quote marks when I made the whole excerpt a quotation. That’s the rule: quotations inside quotations get single quote marks.

No, the thing that jumped out at me from this CNN passage was the possessive DHS’.

It’s possible that CNN has a style rule that calls for this. But they’re a TV network more than a text news outlet. And based on the editing standards I’ve seen on its website, it seems text is a secondary concern for CNN, at best.

Instead, that DHS’ is more likely just a bad interpretation of the rules for forming possessives. Here’s where I think they got lost.

To form a possessive of a proper noun ending in S, Associated Press editing style says to just add an apostrophe: James’ office, Bess’ hat, Charles’ job.

This differs from AP’s policy on generic nouns ending in S, which usually take the extra S: the boss’s office, the bus’s wheels, the cactus’s needles.

AP’s in the minority on this, by the way. The Chicago Manual of Style and other publishing guides say that all nouns ending with S get an S after the apostrophe regardless of whether they’re proper names or not.

Clearly, CNN was using something like AP style when it made DHS’ a possessive. But the AP style rule doesn’t apply here because DHS is not a word that ends in S. It’s an abbreviation for Department of Homeland Security.

The rules for forming possessives of words ending in S don’t apply to abbreviations, at least not in my experience of paying way too much attention to things like this.

Another thing that jumped out at me from that CNN passage was the capitalization of the job title “acting Director of Cyber Division.”

That’s not necessarily wrong. It’s every publication’s prerogative to capitalize job titles as they see fit. But it rubs me the wrong way.

Many professional publications avoid capitalizing job titles unless they come right before the name: Vice President of Strategic Communications John Doe or John Doe, vice president of strategic communications.

But some editing styles take this even further by saying the job title is capitalized before a name only if you might address someone that way. So Chef Mary Smith but not manager Mary Smith.

I come from the avoid-capital-letters-whenever-possible school. To me, it just looks more professional to write “the menu features the chef’s signature roast chicken” than “the chef’s signature Roast Chicken.”

The former is how the New York Times would write it. The latter is how the corporate office’s marketing department would write it.

The same is true of job titles. Marketing writers talk about their company’s Chief Technology Officer, Manager of Operations and Head of Bunk and Trundle Bed Sales, while many serious journalists would interpret those words as being descriptive generic terms and thus lowercase them.

But the CNN sentence gave me two new reasons to advocate lowercase job titles.

First, an all-lowercase policy would have prevented the awkwardness of the lowercase word “acting” in front of uppercase “Director.”

Second, if they were using “director” in a generic sense instead of as a proper noun, they could have inserted “the” before “Cyber Division,” avoiding an awkward wording.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.


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