It was the word “evacuate” that stopped me.
I was on the verge of signing up for a digital subscription to the Globe and Mail today when I spied a headline on their site that read “Around 200 Quebecers ordered to evacuate as several Quebec rivers at risk of flooding.”
Many may not see the problem with that headline these days, but there was a time when such usage by an editor would have drawn a rebuke from my newspaper’s stylebook editor, Joe Gelmon, who has since passed on to wherever cranky old editors go when they shed their mortal coil.
It might also have earned the editor a yellow sticky note from our executive editor, with the words “Pls see me” written in red grease pencil and signed quite distinctively with a red swirl around his initials: “MH”.
Mark Harrison — now deceased and the greatest editor I ever knew — was a stickler for such details on top of his many other journalistic responsibilities. He would go through the print edition every morning with a red grease pencil, circle all the grammar errors and other related issues, and call on the carpet those deemed to be responsible (irresponsible?) for letting the mistakes slip through.
So, what’s wrong with the usage in the headline, you might be wondering.
As Joe pointed out in the last version of his stylebook, which was the bible of our newsroom back in the day:
“evacuate means to empty (a building or place). Firefighters evacuated the building. They didn’t evacuate the people; they moved them out. And don’t say that the residents evacuated. That suggests they emptied themselves.”
It was the latter image in Joe’s stylebook that stopped me from signing up with the Globe and Mail today. It was seared into my memory all those years ago when the first edition of his stylebook was published.
In truth, I was already suspicious of the Globe and Mail’s copy editing before I came across the headline that evoked the image of people emptying themselves. In another article, they used the word “diagnose” incorrectly: “… an Ontario couple had been diagnosed with the contagious new strain.”
“diagnose is used of a disease or problem, not a patient. You can say Radz’s ailment was diagnosed as melancholia or that melancholia was diagnosed, but you can’t say Radz was diagnosed . . .”
Then there was the typo in the Globe and Mail’s horoscope projections for 2021 in the Virgo entry. Yes, I am a Virgo, which may explain a few things about this post to anyone in the astrological know.
In all fairness to the Globe and Mail, they are not the only newspaper giving short shrift to grammar these days. They are all doing it, including my paper — and perhaps none worse than wire services like the Canadian Press that feed them, which recently declared that when referring to flags lowered after a national tragedy, it should be referred to as flying at half-mast rather than half-staff on land. I ignore that rule, as well as the one that says we should use “mould” rather than “mold” for shapes. I will forever stand with Joe and Mark on that one.
“mold, not mould, for a shape, mould for what you get on the cottage cheese when it’s been in the fridge too long.”
I could list hundreds of grammatical errors and issues found in my paper and every other paper these days, some far more serious than others.
Take the expression “confined to a wheelchair,” for example. Disability rights activists point out that people who use wheelchairs don’t spend 24 hours a day in them. They are far from confined to them, and it is insulting to suggest it. It would be OK to say someone uses a wheelchair. But I see “confined to a wheelchair” in newspapers often.
Then there is the word “handicapped,” too often used for anyone with any kind of disability. Joe pointed out that we should use the word “disabled for both mental and physical disabilities,” then told his stylebook readers to “See also euphemisms.”
Too many of today’s new crop of copy editors and writers don’t know the difference between words like “probably” and “likely,” and use “likely” (which means “probable”) when they really mean “probably.”
One younger copy editor told me that word usage evolves, so it’s OK to use “likely” instead of “probably.” It’s OK to say “people are diagnosed with something” even if the medical profession would disagree with that usage. Heck, it’s even OK to say someone was electrocuted after touching some hydro wires even if they survived the shock.
I’m doubting there are any rebukes from stylebook editors and “Please see me” notes from newsroom managers these days because, the truth is, they do not seem to be up to speed on grammar, either. They, too, don’t know the difference between “likely” and “probably,” and they probably don’t care. Error-filled articles sit on their newspaper websites for eternity, unless someone like me — the last of Joe and Mark’s faithful followers — clean them up.
So, what gives? Why such sloppy copy editing in newspapers these days?
Part of the reason is that copy editors are a dying breed. Newspapers have been forced to downsize and lay off staff, and they made a conscious decision to cut corners on grammar. That is what Joe’s successor told me when he asked if I was interested in taking a buyout as our newspaper started its many rounds of cutbacks — this from an editor (also now deceased) who would recast a page if the word “likely” was used incorrectly. He was a proud editor at a time when editing truly mattered, and it really hurt to see him making such concessions.
Which is not to say my paper or any other papers are error-strewn pieces of garbage. My paper has been forced to narrow its reporting focus. We can’t cover everything anymore. But our reporters generally do superb jobs in the stories they do cover — especially in covid-related stories in 2020.
The new crop of copy editors are told to put more focus on social engagement, to get words into headlines that will draw in readers. It’s all about clicks in the digital world, with Twitter and Facebook being the main avenues of drawing in readers to newspaper sites. Indeed, Twitter has also become the new wire service for so many newspapers and other media outlets. I’ve seen so-called news stories composed of one tweet after another. Hey, why spend time tracking down someone for an interview when you can just copy and paste their tweet urls directly into a story?
Such is the modern age of journalism, and I expect it won’t be long before writers and editors will be referring to Canada’s Parliament Buildings as a vessel when flags are flying at “half-mast” after a national tragedy.
I think of Joe and Mark often, and others from that era, too. They were my teachers. I miss them so much — even Mark’s “Pls see me” notes.
So, will I subscribe to the Globe and Mail’s digital edition? Oh, Mark, oh, Joe, forgive me, but I probably will. Despite the sloppy copy editing, there is still a lot of good reporting to read there, and their business section is second to none. Of course I’ll cringe every time they use the word “evacuate” incorrectly, but we must be brave in this new digital world, yes?
May you both rest in peace. I suspect it won’t be too long before I’ll be joining you. Brothers, you won’t believe what I’ll be telling you.