A WORD, PLEASE:

If you open “Webster's New World College Dictionary” to the noun “medium” you'll notice that the dictionary's preferred plural is “mediums.” And if you're an overworked copy editor at an understaffed newspaper who lost sleep the night before wondering how you'll be paying the mortgage in six months, your reaction might be this:

“Mediums? I'll be darned. That's a surprise. For so many years the plural was 'media,' but they must have changed it in recent years to reflect all the people who say stuff like, 'Print and broadcast mediums.' So I'll just leave the reporter's words untouched in the following sentence: 'Two senior Los Angeles Times editors were given new responsibilities Thursday as part of an effort to create a 24-hour newsroom serving multiple mediums.' Now, let's see?.?.?.?Only 15 more stories to edit and then I can go home and do my homework for my online course, 'How to Make a Living Flipping Foreclosed Homes.'”

But if you're a copy editor who's not overworked, who has only two more stories to edit for the night, and who knows that quality work can help build a successful long-term newspaper career, your reaction might be this: “'Mediums?' Look at that. The dictionary actually lists that as its preferred plural. I'd better read the whole dictionary entry in order to make sure I'm not missing something here. Aha! Look here, all the way down by this number 3: 'pl. media: any means, agency, or instrumentality; specif., a means of communication that reaches the general public and carries advertising.' I guess I'd better change 'mediums' to 'media' in this article. Good thing I kept reading.”

You may think that the first copy editor should have done the same. But remember how most dictionaries designate plural forms. For all but the simplest of nouns, dictionaries list any plural forms in bold immediately after the entry word, and the preferred form always comes first. For example, turn to the noun “fish” in the same dictionary and the first thing you'll see after the entry word is: “pl. fish, fishes,” with the two plural forms in bold. It's very rare for a word listed in a dictionary to contain a numbered entry that specifically addresses — contradicts, even — the plural forms listed above.

So it's understandable why any but the most inquisitive, dedicated and well-rested copy editor would stop there. That may be why, on July 3, a Los Angeles Times Business story about changes to the paper's senior editing staff contained the word “mediums” instead of “media” in the sentence I reprinted above. That's right, in the ultimate irony, the story that contained the error was about the paper's own editors.

Typos in newspapers seem to be on the rise. And that's not just me talking. Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander earlier this month wrote about the increasing number of flubs in that paper — sentences that cut off before they're finished, stories that are supposed to continue on B3 but don't, and so on.

According to Alexander, the Post's full-time copy-editing staff shrank from 75 to 43 between 2005 and 2008. He can't even get exact numbers for how many have disappeared since, but knows that at least six more have accepted buyouts — which means that staff is now less than half what it was just four years ago.

My background is in community news, the ghetto of the business.

We were always short-staffed and underfunded.

I simply accepted that quality control was a luxury — a luxury we couldn't afford.

But Alexander opened my eyes when he cited a decade-old newspaper industry study that warned that “each misspelled word, bad apostrophe, garbled grammatical construction, weird cutline and mislabeled map erodes public confidence in a newspaper's ability to get anything right.”

For all you “senior editors” out there, that's something to think about.


?JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “Mortal Syntax: 10120 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs — Even If You're Right.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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