Vol. 35, No. 1: Paul Martin Sr.

Table of Contents The Wall Street Journal’s last hardcover stylebook, in 2002. The stylebook is…

Paul Martin

had a gentlemanly style, and plenty of substance. In 1987, he started The Wall Street Journal’s Style & Substance editing bulletin that you’re reading now, and even after he retired, he kept contributing to it behind the scenes.

In fact, Paul had emailed us about a grammar issue—as usual, a smart but diplomatic observation—just days before he was hospitalized with a lung infection and died shortly afterward on Jan. 17, at the age of 89.  

In tribute to Mr. Martin, this issue of the bulletin will start out by focusing on some of his favorite grammar tips over the years.

But first, a little background. During a career that began in 1960, Paul not only was a Page One editor and assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal, but for decades also was our last word on grammar, including through the creation of the Journal’s first full-size stylebook in 1981. It was a treat that he was still helping out with this bulletin after handing off the reins in retirement. He got details right: More than once, when proofreading S&S for us, he pointed out that what we were about to criticize as a dangling modifier was in fact a disjointed appositive.

Back in 1993, Paul Martin’s grammarian reputation was so strong that New York Times writer William Safire devoted one of his “On Language” columns to him. In it, Safire discussed the Journal’s love of hyphens in compound modifiers (mutual-fund manager, drug-price increases, etc.). Safire, gently disagreeing with Paul’s hyphenation purity, dubbed him (and by extension, the Journal) the Great Hyphenator. Paul’s family says the moniker was his “proudest legacy,” aside from his offspring. In any case, the Journal’s hyphen-happy style continues to this day.

The Wall Street Journal’s last hardcover stylebook, in 2002. The stylebook is now updated continuously on the WSJ’s employee website.

“Stylebooks have a checkered history at The Wall Street Journal,” Paul wrote in the foreword to the 1995 stylebook. Editors were hostile to the idea for decades, and then only rudimentary guides were compiled until the 1981 comprehensive stylebook. Those early guides had included typo-risky words to avoid like shift, shut and shot (out of “fear of inept or whimsical typesetters,” Paul wrote). That is why, he said, the Journal awkwardly referred to “work turn” rather than the banned “shift” until word-processing systems replaced human typesetters many years later.

Overall, Paul explained, some editors still insisted that common sense was more important than a stylebook. But “what one editor may postulate as common sense another may consider to be common rubbish,” he wrote.

Some of Paul’s tips and bugaboos:

JARGON: As he told Talking Business News in 2013: “Everyone and everything has become iconic, everyone is going forward instead of looking ahead, every executive is tasking everyone to transitively grow the company.” (In Paul’s view, and ours, grow as a transitive verb is better limited to what you do with crops and beards.) And Paul pushed back as he should have against the breathy adjective multiple, pointing out that “several is far less pretentious.”

ACRONYMS: Don’t create alphabet soup by overusing them for groups and organizations, especially if the acronyms are unfamiliar.

INNUMERACY: Though we use such phrases in everyday life, it is impossible that something is 10 times smaller than something else. If it is one factor smaller, it is nonexistent. What is usually meant is that it is one-tenth as large as that other thing.

DANGLERS: In May 2006, Paul wrote in Style & Substance that there “seems to be no herbicide for the kudzu of danglers, as we observe from time to time. But we keep trying.” Appropriately, in the final issue he edited, in 2013, Paul called out this gem from the paper: Having abandoned efforts to buy Sprint Nextel Corp., Dish Network Corp.’s next move may be to resurrect merger talks with a satellite rival. Paul’s commentary: A dreaded dangling participle. The dish is that Dish (and not its next move) may resurrect talks.

This past Dec. 30, Paul, who was as sharp as ever about grammar and editing standards, emailed in his latest suggestion for a “Find the Flubs” quiz item in this bulletin. Here is the email, focusing on a sentence he read in the Journal, followed by his specific guidance on the grammar involved:

Q. Microsoft Corp. has also taken stakes in several startups as part of deals that entail them using its cloud.

A. Entail their using its cloud. “Genitive with gerund.” Or, use the possessive before an “…ing” verb form functioning as a noun. Do you mind my nitpicking? Not me nitpicking.

(The quiz item appeared in last month’s issue. And we never minded Paul Martin’s beautiful “nitpicking.” We will miss it, and him.) 

The danger of FNU

What happens when a defendant known as Fnu Lnu is charged? Answer: A correction (the published kind, not a jail term).

This is exactly what has happened several times over the years in various publications. We recently had to run a correction online (though it was caught in time for print). Prosecutors and other lawyers know that FNU means First Name Unknown and LNU means Last Name Unknown. The abbreviations will show up in indictments and other legal papers such as visa applications (if an applicant has only one name). And then Fnu Lnu will be used in the court system as well, such as for a suspect whose name isn’t known.

The Journal’s correction read: The full names of two of the Belarusian government officials charged with aircraft piracy are not known. An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified them as Andrey Anatolievich Lnu and Fnu Lnu. FNU and LNU are acronyms for “first name unknown” and “last name unknown.” (Corrected on Jan. 20.)

Although the funky abbreviations are pretty routine for lawyers and judges, legal papers don’t do a good job of making this clear for the rest of us. So, be on guard.

Not so ‘great’

A trendy phrase is the Great Resignation, to describe workers’ quitting their jobs. But the term has become one of those overused trend tags. Similarly, we have tried to avoid the gimmicky label Great Recession, in favor of simply the 2007-09 recession. Inevitably, the reality is nuanced and complicated and sometimes the shorthand gets in the way of that understanding, says Editor in Chief Matt Murray. “As always, best to stick as we can to specifics, details, nuance and concreteness,” says Matt.

Train robbers

After our articles about the thefts from railcars in Los Angeles, a reader pointed out that perhaps we were inaccurate to refer to “train robberies.” Yes, literally, it’s not robbery unless you take something from another person directly. The reader said it was a burglary, and that could be better, though a burglary usually involves someone entering a building or other space.

So, the best term for the crime, unless a rail worker was confronted directly, might simply be theft, or even looting. Of course, train robbery is such a familiar term that perhaps there is poetic license. But it is worth keeping in mind.

Rulings & reminders
  • Is it call in sick or call out sick? Call in sick is the phrase that is more common widely, so that will be our default; call out sick is more common in the New York City area.
  • Anthony Fauci is sometimes referred to as the top infectious-disease expert, but a better phrase if the adjective “top” is used is the government’s top infectious-disease official. It’s not a political call. It’s the same as the heads of the SEC or FTC: They are the top officials in their areas, but who’s to say who is the top expert?
  • The Winter Olympics is Feb. 4-20 in Beijing. These Olympic Games are also known as the 2022 Beijing Games or Beijing Olympics, and we uppercase the Games standing alone.
  • The primary spelling is bingeing, not binging, for the practice of watching a lot of episodes of a show (or doing a lot of anything). Also: binge-watching with a hyphen.
  • Block Inc. is the new name for the financial-technology company formerly known as Square. The company’s NYSE ticker symbol SQ hasn’t changed yet.
  • Our annual reminder: Presidents Day, without the apostrophe, is our style for what will be celebrated this year on Monday, Feb. 21. However, because the federal holiday is still officially called Washington’s Birthday (the government never changed it), when there is room the best phrase to explain the holiday and why the stock market is closed is Washington’s Birthday, or Presidents Day.
Heads above the rest
  • “The CEO Who Fired 900 People on Zoom Is Back,” ​by Steve Russolillo.
  • “Microsoft Will Need to Do Activision Duty,” by Dan Gallagher.
Heads that make you go ‘hmmm’
  • “Lending Scrutinized at for-Profit Colleges.”  Uppercase the For- in a headline since it is part of an adjective phrase. (Otherwise, “for” on its own is usually lowercase in headlines.)
  • “Optimism Over Omicron Rises in Europe While Biden Says U.S. Has Tools to Fight It.” Is the It the optimism or Europe or the Covid? The latter, but not necessarily at first read.
Notifications above the rest

Here are some of the top mobile push alerts, both on WSJ’s native app and via Apple News. Our aim is to highlight the storytelling our editors do on locked screens, typically in 140 characters or fewer.

  • Sperm Donor 1558 was a brainy, athletic college student. But that wasn’t the whole story.
  • The humble 401(k) is getting richer in 2022
  • Everyone’s talking about Wordle. Here come the spreadsheets and the arguments.
  • The market rout was a wake-up call for older Americans with a lot of money in stocks. What you should do depending on your age.
Quiz (find the flubs)
  1. Alabama has pitched vaccines at NASCAR races and football games, and offered incentives such as gift cards.
  2. Economists had forecasted 5.5% growth.
  3. Mr. Briscoe’s oldest daughter, Janey Briscoe Marmion, died of cancer in 2018 at the age of 68. [The article goes on to explain that Janey was one of three siblings, two girls and a boy.]
  4. The verdict coming back mixed could hurt Ms. Holmes’s chances on appeal.
  5. In the U.S., whoever takes a photo is the copyright owner, and thus, typically has the freedom to share the photo wherever they want.
  1. Nascar, not all caps, following our style for proper-name acronyms (pronounceable) of more than four letters. (On the other hand, abbreviations that aren’t pronounced as a word, like NAACP, stay uppercase regardless.)
  2. Use forecast for the past tense and past participle.
  3. Old, older, oldest: We meant older daughter. While Janey was the oldest of the three siblings, there were only two daughters, so she was the older one.
  4. Make that: The verdict’s coming…. (Use a possessive form before the -ing verb functioning as a noun.)
  5. Wherever he or she wants. (The “singular they” still reads as bad grammar unless written intentionally for someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns.)

Send questions or comments to William Power and Jennifer Hicks.

ISSN 1054-7041

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