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Globe Insiders | To Grammar’s House

The scoop on labels

Louise White went to the store in search of rainbow sherbet and wound up buying a lottery ticket worth $336.4 million -- and put her winnings into an account labeled The Rainbow Sherbert Trust.

Stew Milne/AP

Louise White went to the store in search of rainbow sherbet and wound up buying a lottery ticket worth $336.4 million -- and put her winnings into an account labeled The Rainbow Sherbert Trust.

“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.

Editors were buzzing at the recent news that a Rhode Island woman had gone to a store in search of rainbow sherbet, wound up buying a lottery ticket worth $336.4 million -- and put her winnings into an account labeled The Rainbow Sherbert Trust.

The editors mused about whether they should correct her spelling, or whether an alternate spelling for “sherbet” existed that they could use to match hers. The answers, of course, were no and no. In the end, both spellings coexisted peacefully, with no word of complaint.

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For the copy editor, the little episode was a reminder of a larger principle: People are free to affix whatever labels they want, but we don’t have to adopt the words for our own use.

A current example comes from the Republican campaign, in which rivals of the former Massachusetts governor commonly criticize “Romneycare” and all take their swings at “Obamacare.” The copy editor makes sure that these derisive labels appear only within quotation marks, and that we use such neutral language as “the Massachusetts health care law” and “President Obama’s health care overhaul.”

Longer-standing and more passionate labels involve the battles over abortion. Individuals and organizations proudly call themselves “prolife” or “prochoice,” but the Globe stylebook warns that such references “are fraught with difficulty and should be avoided.” (Indeed, to call someone prolife might suggest that the person on the other side of the debate is antilife.) The copy editor puts aside these labels and refers, with no fear of objection, to “abortion opponents” and “abortion-rights advocates.”

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Few labels have a longer history than that of “progressive.” A movement bore that name in the 19th century; political parties and candidates carried the “Progressive” designation in the 20th century. But the picture grows cloudier in our current time when the copy editor encounters a sentence along the lines of “A survey showed that progressive voters favor Jones by a wide margin.’’ A consultation may be needed with the writer about a substitute wording; in this case, it could be “liberal” or “left of center.” One definition of “progressive,” after all, is “favoring progress or improvement,” and people at the other end of the political spectrum could argue that the label can just as easily apply to them.

And so the labelers go their way and we go ours. The copy editor stands firm for impartial language and accepts that he or she cannot change a formal label to correct the spelling. Even when we’re dealing with a frozen dessert, we needn’t worry about a system meltdown.

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