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'Spider-Man' and other amazing Catches of the Day

November 21, 2004|by TERRY HEADLEE

One of our newsroom's copy editors recently caught the misspelling of Spider-Man in a news story being edited for publication in our newspaper.

I would have bet almost anything that Spider-Man was spelled like Superman - as one word without the hyphen.

But it's not.

The copy editor that night correctly placed a hyphen in the word and then - and I found this more incredible - made the "m" uppercase. The change was logged into an e-mail sent to me each night for inclusion in a daily memo called "Catch of the Day."

"Catch of the Day" actually is a compilation of mistakes in grammar, punctuation, style and spelling that our copy desk editors catch once reporters file their stories each night. It's a valuable learning tool that we borrowed from a Florida newspaper earlier this year to give all staff members a daily lesson on grammar and accuracy.

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I read the "catches" each morning, review the brief explanations from copy editors on why a specific change or correction was made, then send the entire list out in an e-mail to our newsroom.

Our copy desk makes some fairly amazing catches each day, but for some reason, the "Spider-Man" reference floored me on this particular morning.

"That can't possibly be right," I remembered saying out loud as I grabbed the Associated Press Stylebook (our authoritative source on such weighty issues).

The Spider-Man reference wasn't in there - though Wal-Mart was (note the hyphen and uppercase "M") as well as Kmart (no hyphen, no space, lowercase "m").

So I did the next best thing - I grabbed our Sunday comics section.

"Well, shoot," I said.

There it was - a hyphenated word. Actually, it's technically "The Amazing Spider-Man," but no point in quibbling with too many details at this point.

All those years of reading Marvel Comics as a kid, not to mention the daily comics pages, and the hyphen never registered in my brain.

I guess part of the explanation - and I'll spread the blame around on this one - is that I've seen the word spelled wrong so many times through the years (including on the boxes of the video games and action figures; check it out sometime) that I just assumed that it was right.

Seriously. Some words are wrong so many times that you incorrectly assume they are correct.

Take the word "nonprofit." Note there is no hyphen, even when used in a sentence to modify the word "organization."

That's because under the so-called rules of prefixes that we follow, you generally only use a hyphen when the last letter of the prefix ends with a vowel and the first letter of the following word begins with the same vowel.

Still, many of the press releases we receive from nonprofit organizations include a hyphen and thus, occasionally, the word will be punctuated wrong in our newspaper.

Not to complicate things, but we choose to generally follow AP style at our newspaper, which means a word or phrase will be in contradiction with most dictionaries.

For example, words such as fund-raiser and work place are both one word in the dictionary, but not in newspapers that follow AP style.

Just trying to keep it straight as to whether a word is one word, two words, or hyphenated can drive you nuts.

For example, under AP style, firetruck is one word, not two. Pickup - as in pickup truck - is not hyphenated and neither is sport utility vehicle. Part-time is either hyphenated or two words, depending on whether you use it as an adjective ("a part-time job") or an adverb ("She works part time.")

As you can imagine, these examples will show up a lot in our daily "Catch of the Day." I always seem to get confused with all right, which is never spelled "alright" - though I should point out that Webster's lists alright in its dictionary, but does note it is a disputed spelling. The AP Stylebook notes that you can stick a hyphen in all-right if used colloquially as a compound modifier: "He is an all-right guy."

Anyhow, that's why we started "Catch of the Day" - to help keep all of this straight and to correct the conventional wisdom when it's wrong. And since we are in the business of publishing thousands of words and sentences each day, we need to get it right the first time.




Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He may be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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