These days, everyone’s a writer. And a reporter. And an editor. Thanks to the Internet, you can report any “fact” you want, be it a UFO sighting in your rumpus room or incontrovertible evidence that Donald Trump has a full head of hair.
There are benefits to this democratization of reporting. We get more information from a greater diversity of perspectives. But this comes with a downside: There’s a lot of bad information out there, and it’s on us to sniff it out.
Say what you will about the bad old days of near media monopolies. At least back then you knew news gatherers were following the same playbook — confirming facts with multiple sources, observing rules about what types of information must be attributed versus what can be stated as fact by the writer, seeking comment from multiple sides of an issue, and following countless other rules from Journalism 101 that were once standard practice.
Today, we’re often left guessing how reliable a news source is. But if you know what to look for, there are clues in the copy editing. A publication that follows the rules of professional editing is more likely to observe the rules of professional reporting. That’s why, when I see the following errors, I lose confidence in the news source.
1. Poor headline capitalization. Professional editing guidelines say to capitalize the first letter of most words in headlines and titles. But prepositions of three or fewer letters, as well as conjunctions and articles, are usually not capitalized. So a red flag goes up when I see things like this recent Yahoo Finance headline: “Stocks Pull Back: Why it Might Not Last.” Chances are, the editor was used to seeing correctly capitalized headlines like “Senator in Hot Water” and “Talks on Trade Stall” and figured that, like “in” and “on,” the word “it” should be lowercase. But “it” isn’t a preposition. It’s a pronoun.
2. A comma or period after a quotation mark. People who don’t know much about editing assume that punctuation is logical. Bad assumption. Look at the following two sentences. Does Alfred E. Neuman’s catch phrase contain the word “worry”? Yes, his catch phrase is “What, me worry?” Both of these are correct. A question mark’s placement relative to a quotation mark depends on whether just the quotation or the whole sentence is a question. But commas and periods have a different rule. In American English, a comma or period always comes before a closing quotation mark: Yes, his catch phrase contains the word “worry.”
3. Commas without partners. Commas work in pairs any time they set off parenthetical information, like the Inc. after a company name or an inserted thought. Unskilled editors show their ignorance through sentences like “John Doe, a Pushcart Prize winner is working on his second book.” A pro would put a comma after “winner.”
4. Hyphenation of ly adverbs. Compound modifiers like show-stopping and little-known are often hyphenated before a noun. But compound modifiers containing ly adverbs are not: a recently unearthed specimen, a happily married couple, hastily drawn plans.
5. “Quotation marks lite.” Professional editors know that single quotation marks can’t be used any time you want to call mild attention to words, as in: His ‘expertise’ is highly suspect. Single quotation marks are only for quotations within quotations. “I heard Joe say, ‘Go away,’” Bob recalled.
6. Backward apostrophes. If you’re writing something like “the ‘60s” where an apostrophe comes before the first letter or number, word-processing programs will assume you wanted an open single quotation mark and curve your mark with the opening to the right, like the letter C. But an apostrophe, if curved at all, curves in the other direction. Editors at quality news organizations know to fix these.
JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.