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Sure enough, the ad says ‘dong kennel’

I’ll handle this typo delicately. No, wait. “Handle” probably isn’t a good verb...

New campus building comes straight from ‘Star Wars’

Every time I walk by the construction site for the new School of...

Specious vs. spacious and the case of the plausible rooms

The world of real estate often requires a guidebook to make sense of...

Heading to the southwest Midwest by way of confusion

An Associated Press story this week contained the odd description “southwestern Midwest.” I...

When this happens, about all you can do is flush

Poor Denise. Poor dependable, compassionate, positive, respectful Denise. She agreed to have her...

Sow vs. sew and the case of the explosive underwear

A story in today’s Times contains this bit of curious phrasing. As I...

An incumbent recumbent, riding toward re-election

Elections often draw unusual write-in candidates. Strike that. Elections always draw unusual candidates,...

Social media and the importance of free speech

The Kansas Board of Regents has posted proposed revisions to its misguided policy...

In Vegas, anything goes – except kissing behind the hotels

I took a wrong turn in Las Vegas last week (go ahead and...

Watch those chicken cliches. The piper is back with a reset button.

Sen. John McCain plunged into the ugly world of mixed metaphorical clichés this...

Next time you wash your hair, grab this bottle of lice

This ad from the Sunday coupons wasn’t aimed at me. I know that...

A philosophy of writing (and life) for the new year

Lisa McLendon and I created this little gem after classes ended in December....

64,700 holiday clichés later …

This started out as a snarky little post about holiday clichés. My local...

No fish were killed in the making of this jacket. I promise.

I’ve never thought of caviar and wool in the same category, at least...

Rock-paper-scissors and caption writing at the NYT

 The basic rules of caption writing are pretty straightforward: 1. Tell readers who...

For sale: Something new and cheap, but don’t ask what it is

It’s easy to get so caught up in the minutiae of writing and...

Put a bag over your head and sleep away your troubles. Wait. What?

One usually doesn’t put a bag over one’s head in polite company. There...

Another year, another redundancy

In a fit of redundancy, CVS announced this week that it was celebrating...

A quixotic search for the Toynbee tiles of Philadelphia

My son Isaac was the first to spot one. e burst with excitement...

Answer: Leave out in headlines

OK, so maybe leaving out words in headlines won’t motivate all students to...

Say what you mean, but learn to verb the web

The school year started this week with the usual rush of frenetic energy...

Horde vs. hoard and the fading of a grammatical fantasy

I once hoped that the A&E series Hoarders would help people use hoard...

When ‘gad’ is involved, an extra space makes a difference

As the web has seeped into everyday consciousness, run-together words have become a...

Confirmation bias sweeps in with a bad Cockney accent

A line from the book “Midnight Riot” brought a chuckle as I listened...

Help! The web ads are eating my brain!

I’m feeling assaulted by ads on web pages today. I know of only...

Next time the escalator stops, think genericide

The term “genericide” popped out from a story I read this week about...

A hackneyed metaphor flies out of bounds

Good metaphors focus attention on important aspects of a topic, improve understanding and...

Can the Navy survive without its caps?

Deciding that a shift key isn’t such a bad thing after all, the...

When a blog isn’t a blog, and how I got burned by assumptions

Just when I thought I knew what a word meant, I find myself...

Dear Yahoo: If you’d like us to read, clear away the clutter

I don’t usually follow news on Yahoo. In the early days of the...

An editor’s advice for graduates, 2013

Every so often, the dean asks faculty members to pass along words of...

A misused word that brings out the Tolkien in me

If you see a big guy with wild eyes and wild hair running...

An ad with three — that’s right, three! — lessons in one

From the world of online deals comes this marvel: the world’s smallest iPad...

Legislature votes to ban words ‘moderate’ and ‘education’

TOPEKA – In a move expected to reverberate across the United States, the...

Commas have power. Use them, and use them wisely.

A few years ago, Robert Samuelson lamented the declining use of the comma,...

A question that brings tears to a journalist

I spent the morning judging entries for a high school journalism competition. Many...

Why is the Style section mooning me? Or, a lesson in context

I stared hazily at the folded newspaper lying atop the dining room table....

Wonder and disappointment at the end of the driveway

Somehow, my New York Times arrived in the driveway this morning. I had...

Yes, context does count, in pictures and in words

Let’s consider the importance of context. Context allows us to put things into...

A juxtaposition that speaks louder than the end of the world

Flipboard offered this combination last night, by way of The Guardian. Sure enough,...

Factual, yes. Helpful, no. Confusing, definitely.

Done right, context elevates understanding. Done wrong, it distorts or confuses. Place the...

How to tell 1903 from 1930

News organizations do their audiences a favor when they write about history. We...

Affect, effect and the peril of snakebites

Homophones slither through writing like hungry snakes, striking hard and fast when disturbed...

Meet the mind-reading search engine version of Autocorrect

Search engines create the illusion that they can read our minds. Their algorithms...

Keeping jalopies alive in word and spirit

 The word “jalopies” puzzled my students this week. I had used it in...

Watch your spelling. You never know who might notice.

Spellcheck walks into a bar. “Whaddaya have?” asks the barkeep. Spellcheck looks at...

Do yourself a favor: Learn to edit your own work

I sometimes wonder whether people bother to look – really look – at...

Don’t walk on the sidewalk, and other messages from hell

This sign appeared like a mirage above the sweltering sidewalks of Chicago the...

A lesson about ‘refute’ from the NYT crossword puzzle

Lessons often come from unexpected places. Yesterday, it was the New York Times...

Laying down the principles of ‘lay’ and ‘lie’

Two Associated Press leads from Sunday’s newspaper sent up a signal flare. They...

The sky is falling! No, wait. That’s not until tomorrow.

You have to love unexpected jolts of unintended meaning. There you are, sitting...

More language lessons from the App Store

Once again it’s time for Language Lessons from the App Store, a periodic...

How ‘ongoing’ creates an ongoing redundancy

Police officials toss out “ongoing” with a reverence usually reserved for words that...

Peonies, Decoration Day, and the rituals of small-town life

FAIRBURY, Neb. – The peonies bloomed early this year. A mild winter and...

This singer didn’t die. He just capitulated.

To the bulging files of unnecessary haste winning out over thoughtful editing, I...

A 50-year tug of war over ‘hopefully’ ends with a shrug

“Hopefully” entered the realm of acceptability last week, receiving the blessing of The...

Where the classifieds leave off, the aliens take over

You just never know what you are going to find in the classified...

How to gain followers and influence zombies (it’s all in the headline)

Visitors to this site know that I’m prone to irreverence. That’s my approach...

How bad phrasing creates a perpetual student

This morning’s paper brought news of a new scholarship at my university. It’s...

Headline turns an Etta James song into a kick in the teeth

This was not the way to say goodbye to Etta James. “At Last,”...

Teddy Roosevelt channels his inner Bob Dole

Teddy Roosevelt, the president of bully pulpit fame, initially drafted part of his...

Lewis and Clark go in search of a dictionary

In the world of misspelled explorers, Louis and Clark must surely rank alongside...

The genuine, the authentic and the redundant

Let’s consider the possibilities of this product. It’s genuine, which means it’s authentic....

Q&A: Is a family a ‘who’ or a ‘that’?

Jill writes: We got into a debate the other day about whether a...

Read before discarding: A new motto for politics?

I know nothing about Larry Marvin or his Senate campaign in Nebraska. In...

Beware of zombies and 6 other headline tips for 2012

Let’s start the new year with some suggestions for better headlines. I’ve included...

Think graphics, yes, but think storytelling first

Chikodi Chima’s excellent article on infographics raises an important warning. The article, called...

On Black Friday, did anybody really know what time it was?

Forgive me for avoiding the post-Thanksgiving shopping bacchanalia. I don’t like crowds, and...

Colgate’s new box promises whiter teeth, worser grammar

Marketers make their share of errors, but they usually don’t trip over their...

145 words later, a sentence begs to be edited

This is a cautionary tale about the importance of editing. It starts, though,...

Rogue headline kills 1 million homeowners; editors groan

USA Today began the morning with this story of murder and mayhem among...

Say what you mean: NYT headline shows the danger of wordplay

Journalists can’t afford to be misunderstood. Their motto mirrors that of Horton the...

The visual complexities behind a tribute to Steve Jobs

This reinterpretation of the Apple logo, with its visual tribute to Steve Jobs, deserves...

Spelling advice: Use I, not E, unless you really mean Lent

I’ve never thought of laundry as a religious experience. The closest I ever...

In memory of Drew Anderson, 1989-2011

Drew Anderson loved editing. He loved the way words fit together, the way...

What is the future of news?

The Shorenstein Center at Harvard recently challenged people to submit short videos that...

Haste subtracts two days from 9/11. Right, 99?

You know about 9/11, right? Good. Let’s do the math: This year is...

Do you know this man? If so, hunch over and bellow.

When I saw this guy in a Walmart ad this morning, I knew...

Charges cleared in laptop case: A one-act play

Characters The judge: A high-strung man wearing a black robe The bailiff/electrician: A...

Why it’s important to read your own publication

Prepare yourself: It’s double-up week. Prepare yourself: It’s double-up week. In this morning’s...

Thanks to the classifieds, I’ve learned to print sandwiches

Commas appear so easily and seem so innocent that it’s easy to read...

100-year picnics, concrete vibrators and other amazing feats of something

As this hot, humorless month draws to a close, I feel compelled to...

Death by dangulation, or why syntax matters

This bizarre sentence assaulted me in a music app over the weekend. It’s a...

How to look drunk in print (it’s all in the spelling)

  Looking drunk in print is easier than you think. First, misspell “sobriety”...

Anti- vs. ante-, or what Doctor Who can teach us about usage

“Anti-room” is hardly what the author of this audiobook had in mind. It...

Death, life and the Oxford comma (or not)

  Let’s talk for a few minutes about overreaction. Earlier in the week,...

Ordinance vs. ordnance, fact vs. fiction

How do you tell a real military base from a fictional one? Try...

Obiter Dicta becomes KUEditing.com

Although I liked the name Obiter Dicta, many people (understandably) found it obscure....

How to turn a squirrel into a Web celebrity

  I stumbled across this squirrel a few days ago on the website...

Disinterested vs. uninterested and the blurred lines of neutrality

“Disinterested” and “uninterested” have swapped meanings through the centuries. Most of us who...

Believe what you read? It might just cost you

I can’t resist poking fun at signs like this. The absurdity speaks for...

How the Borg took over my yard, and why I refuse to be assimilated

My yard speaks to me. As I tramp atop the tangles of dandelions,...

Accept vs. except and the addling of fast-talking ads

It has been an exceptional week for those of us who own dictionaries....

A headline headline that makes its point twice twice

File this one under “redundancies.” You whip up some French toast and explain...

Lode vs. load, and why you and your mother should care

The term “motherload” performed a pratfall across the classified ads this week and...

Next time you flaunt me in an ad, please change my diaper first

The grocery inserts in this morning’s newspaper included this picture of a baby’s...

How do you undress a fish? With a ‘p,’ of course

A few more typos like this and I’ll begin to think the Times...

The weak in review: Typos, solar-powered birds and the American mind

  It’s spring, and a grizzled editor’s fancy turns to thoughts of the...

When what we say distracts from what we mean

From the recycling, a message about why we all need good editors....

Waiter, there’s sand in my desert

An editor walks into a restaurant in an oasis, famished after a long...

You want respect? Get the punctuation right first.

The next time your job gets you down, think of poor Jaymes Butler....

40+ Sites for Adding Visual Elements to Stories

A handout from my workshop at the 2011 national conference of the American...

Going ballistic: The danger of hastily truncated words

This ad conjured up a vivid image in my mind: A motley collection...

An apostrophe (or not) that keeps people guessing

On this day after the holiday when the United States celebrates its most...

Repelling from the rafters? A comic proves truly comical

You expect entertainment from the comics. Today’s “Girls & Sports” offered some unexpected...

Those other Super Bowl ads, and their invisible language

How many ways can you not say “Super Bowl”? Odd as that sounds,...

Headline trouble of the naughty variety

When you write headlines, you must have a dirty mind. It’s required. If...

Misused words: Taking the ‘dryer’ side for a spin

How, you might ask, did poor Asok get stuck in this bizarre location?...

How reliable is a Google search? Um …

Try this: Type “photosynthesis” into Google. Check out the first result. And blush....

Word choice and the theater of unintended meaning

All the world’s a page, and all the writers and editors merely word...

Those pesky homophones strike again

An e-mail message that arrived last week asked me to “take a peak”...

Lay vs. Lie: The animated short

Something new from Obiter Dicta: an animated grammar lesson. Bananas the monkey helps...

A logo for the dawn of a new … something

Let’s pause for a moment in this new year and ponder the meaning...

How to tell the 1930s from the 1980s

I did a double take when I saw the caption for this picture...

The Year of Blather gets off to a baffling start

I’m beginning to think of 2011 as the Year of Blather. First, The...

Ryan Seacrest gets an inadvertent makeover

Ryan Seacrest sometimes seems omnipresent on TV and radio these days. Or is...

Heading two directions in the same headline

Jacob at Ruby Zippers sends this headline with a simple note: “Eating a...

Dear Cosmo: I’m lost in Wyoming. Yours, Denver.

Dear Cosmo, When the latest issue of your magazine arrived, I ripped out...

A good verb deserves the right mood

I could talk about the mood of verbs until someone felt the imperative...

Look, Ma! I swallowed the cocaine!

The next time you mug for the camera, remember this: That picture may...

Adding weight, not stereotypes, to headlines

Descriptions in crime stories often create peril. Most of the time, the problem...

Why a single pie will never equal 391%

Apathy rules most elections. Even a “high turnout” election barely draws a quorum...

In this election, subliminal messages reign (or is it rain?)

I'm so fed up with ads that promise to "reign in government spending"...

Why this compliment isn’t

Or, how a misused word can make buildings speak....

Seeing plural, missing the singularity

close-up-of-waterfall-md Agreement are as easy as finding the subject of a sentence and...

For National Punctuation Day, a paean to the period

OK, so I’m using “paean” loosely. What you’ll find is a paean in...

Honey, the thermometer says 572 degrees. Honey? Honey?

Just imagine the uses for this gadget. Perfect for home: No more emergency...

Fewer vs. less: It’s as easy as pie

Hold up both your index fingers. Go ahead. Do it. Look around and...

How a virus gave a mosquito a ride

Mosquitoes are vampires of the insect world. Sloppy syntax, on the other hand,...

Lessons from the App Store

App developers tend to know their code structure better than their sentence structure....

Right vs. rite

Some writers are so used to hearing about “rights” that they forget about...

NYT graphic prompts a delicate question: fish or phallus?

An illustration on the the Sunday Business front made my want to shout,...

Chop this “word” into oblivion, please

Never underestimate the ability of headline writers to create linguistic abominations. Tight headline...

It’s summer, and the iron is rotting again

What have garage sales wrought? Actually, I shouldn’t blame garage sales. Garage sale...

The dangers of “true facts”

This is Webb, Jack Webb. He wasn’t a detective, but he played one...

Dear self-appointed gods: Please lowercase thyself

Dana sends this from Colorado, where she seems to have discovered one of...

How advertising turned armpits into vacation destinations

I could never work in advertising. I know that because thoughts of armpits...

Q&A: Why you shouldn’t put acronyms in parentheses

Q. Wayne writes from the business school with a question about abbreviations and...

Stationery vs. stationary and the meaning of mobility

This garage sale ad announced, “We can’t take it all with us!” Perhaps,...

Alter vs. altar and a link to “The Curse”

Melissa sends this in from Indianapolis. It’s from an ESPN.com story that was...

Sorry, Dad. We’re selling you along with the old TV.

This garage sale ad seemed appropriate with Father’s Day coming up. Clean out...

AP on social media: Words of guidance and caution

I hope those of you who have access to AP’s online stylebook will...

Much ado about “adieu”

Shakespeare never wrote about pink lemonade pie as far as I know. Nor...

Give them an “i” for a headline, matey

Kelly sends this from Salina, where there is apparently a shortage of i’s....

Random books and cheeky thoughts meet the painful reality of butt piercing

The title of this book leapt off the sale shelf at me yesterday....

Sale! Save nothing! Or, why you should read beyond the exclamation points

The red and yellow tags at the grocery store shout their messages from...

Staunch vs. stanch

Sue Novak of the Idea Chemist pointed out this headline today. Staunch can...

An editor’s advice to graduates: 2010

More than 200 students from the William Allen White School of Journalism and...

Dear spammer: Here’s to your lousy spelling

You have to hand it to spammers. They litter their messages with clues...

Taking ‘the next level’ down a few notches

“The next level” conveys about as much meaning as a fart in a...

The butchery of “editing”

This is butchery in the metaphorical sense, of course, but it speaks to...

He’s a lectern! But does he know what one is?

For your entertainment and edification, Obiter Dicta offers Lectern Man. Lectern Man was...

A source emerges from hell, or somewhere thereabouts

Jesters of the world have long tweaked the noses of journalists. Hugh Jassel,...

That’s ‘sleight of hand,’ not ‘slight of hand’

“Sleight of hand” means trickery or deft maneuvering with the hands. “Slight of...

Writing Web headlines: An Obiter Dicta extra

A supplement to Obiter Dicta 10, now available for download as a PDF...

Next time, just order the chick wings

This just in from our Department of Unfortunate Coincidences: People are buying more...

Obiter Dicta No. 10: the download

http://obiter.ku.edu/downloads/obiter-dicta/ Obiter Dicta returns to print (and PDF)....

A comics double-take

So I was reading the comics on Sunday and thinking about the Dalai...

Throwing a flag on first and sloppy

Jane sent this screen shot this afternoon. She said the news that “Conner...

Number of homes grows 13-fold! Or not.

Let’s think this through: In a story about census data, one paragraph says...

With egg on my irrational face

My brother, Dave, writes: “Dear Editor, “I was just curious about the following...

From toasted chips to hips

My wife took one look at this package and said it was definitely...

136 ears and still publishing

Lauren sends this from the Oakland Tribune and asks whether it isn’t the...

Stepping in a royal headline error

Health care in the United States has certainly turned into a royal pain...

That sneaky ‘aide’ is at it again

When last we saw our beleaguered school “aide,” he had been hauled to...

Pre-Madonna confusion

How much worse can it get for poor Stanley the cat? His teeth...

How to spot an urban legend

The messages always suggest an impending apocalypse. BEWARE!!!! PHONE SCAM! NEVER DO THIS!!!!!!!!!...

Here’s to agreement, wherever it are

Apostrophes seem to block out all sense of agreement from some people’s brains....

Going north for the winter

Before we get to the problems in this headline, let’s clarify something: This...

How a single word undermines our credibility

This is basic civics: Legislators introduce bills, debate bills and vote on bills....

Its, It’s and Its’?

Valentine’s Day has a confused relationship with apostrophes. (Or is it a confused...

Q&A: Ladies coats or Ladies’ coats?

Juls writes: “I am at work, and my boss is making signs. What...

As Comma goes rogue, Punctuation loses its Essentials

Once upon a time in a land called Punctuation, the Village Editor discovered...

How fame and legend expose ignorance

This teaser headline tells us that a “famous author” was remembered. The deck...

An anagram waiting to happen?

Here’s the question of the day: What are the chances that O, K...

Use vs. utilize, headlines and the art of third thoughts

“Utilize” rarely adds anything but bluster to a sentence. And in a headline,...

Poetry in motion (with a message)

Jesse Trimble of The Miami County Republic sent this to me this week....

A headline that deserves a AAA rating

There’s no real formula for great headlines, although most good headlines share some...

Punning your way into confusion

Headline writers love word play. And word play can be an effective tool...

Asking questions we never answer

When we promise something in a headline, a lede or a graphic, we...

How fast can you see? and other p. 1 questions

I’m almost afraid to get into the car after seeing this list. I’m...

North Pole, meet South Pole

Calling researchers from the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets “arctic scientists”...

Let firsts happen first; the annuals will follow

Event organizers are an optimistic lot. Most of them tack the word annual...

How haste inflates the size of a crowd

Crowd estimates are notoriously inaccurate. The reporter of this story was careful to...

‘Coed’ trouble, doubled

"Coed" certainly has a place in the lexicon of a college newspaper, at...

To ensure agreement, choose your post-holiday subjects carefully

Can an errant clause trip over the Christmas lights and bring a post-holiday...

Grammatically speaking, a cabinet of medical curiosities

To begin the new year, Obiter Dicta takes you on a tour of...

To the bathroom and beyond, one abbreviation at at a time

When I saw this headline on Delicious Popular last month, all I could...

Multi-digit double-entendre

Apparently jealous of the Wall Street Journal’s fingering of a billionaire, the San...

Seeing a sign amid the ‘Idol’ sloppiness

I understand all too well how a reporter, writing on deadline, can type...

Crowing with quotation marks

This headline is too obvious for my taste, but I’ll give the headline...

Stimulus spending as an Olympic sport?

For most people, articles about economics are about as exciting as: (Please choose...

I open the bottle electric

And when I do, I find electric wine! “Gentlemen, look on this wonder!...

Why headline writers should keep their mouths shut

I could say that this headline is in bad taste, but, um …...

If ‘aide’ is on the chopping block, will the ‘e’ go first?

A single “e” can make a big difference. In the case of “aid,”...

Look! Up in the sky! It’s … a bleeding face

Just who are those smiling faces in the clouds? When I first saw...

Watch your neck, Mrs. Malaprop

This grammatical lapse in Maureen Dowd’s column in The New York Times brings...

A reign at Notre Dame comes mainly with the reins

Considering that Notre Dame, like so many universities, treats its coaches like royalty,...

It’s time to close the door on ‘going green’

I know of only two ways to go green in the bathroom. And if...

Is bad usage infectious?

The answer is no, but it sure seems that way. The flu is certainly...

This headline is not all right either

This headline shocked me awake the other morning. It wasn’t what Paul Krugman had...

Unruly hair, heal thyself

A “curing iron” would sure come in handy some days. Bad hair? Zap! Zits? Batchung! Gas? .......

Steering into confusion

I used to work with reporters who would write that something was “thisclose”...

If Russell rustles, does that make him a verb?

I’d like to think that “Russell” referred to Sen. Russ Feingold or to...

Confronting the zombies of troublesome usage

I don’t condone cannibalism, so I’d suggest using “number of people” instead of...

How juxtaposition stole the Halloween spirit

Of course, the combination of this photo and headline raises an interesting issue:...

Finger me not

You were thinking of something dirty, weren’t you? Shame on you! Actually, I was...

Your home it is?

Presumably, Hy-Vee’s copy editor is home with the flu. Well hope for better...

No, it isn’t fair

It’s "fare," as in something offered for entertainment or consumption. When you mix up...

An intents lesson

I suppose it’s possible that the “purposes” we describe here were “intensive” (a...

Lead Head

“Led” and “lead” seem to cause nearly as many problems as “lay” and...

Apostrophes of stone

“We will find no glory in the misuse of the language, no heroes...

But was it charged?

Yes, “battery” is the correct legal term for a beating, and this, no...

A barrel of what?

We don’t hear much about “barrows” in the 21st century, which is no...

Usage that makes you want to flee

When you think about it, it makes little sense that one would look...

How a single letter sends meaning into retreat

Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the...

Down with up!

Actually, "up" is a perfectly good word. Without "up," we could "look at" a...

Believe, feel, think (how to use them)

Many writers use believe when they really mean think. For the most part,...

Clichés

Now and then, a cliché works fine. Most of the time, though, work...

Dangling modifiers

These most often occur with participles or other introductory phrases or clauses, as...

False purpose

This is most common in sports and business writing, but it pops up...

Flabby writing

Tighten writing when you can, eliminating redundancies and other unnecessary words and phrases....

Homophones

These are words that sound the same but are spelled differently. For example,...

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