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To Grammar’s House

The dirty little secret

Cartman, a character on “South Park.”

Comedy Central

Cartman, a character on Comedy Central’s “South Park.”

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

There is a secret that no one warns newbie copy editors about. But all copy editors eventually learn this cardinal rule: It takes a dirty mind to put out a clean newspaper.

Yes. That’s right. To be a copy editor it helps to have watched “South Park.”

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Copy editors must be on guard for language that may offend some (do we really need to say “vibrator” in that story?); unfortunate typos (like an errant “t” before the word “its”); and phrases that may inadvertently be too suggestive (like an obit that says “their time in the car fueled their romance” to explain how one man fell for his future wife commuting to college).

Sometimes, the job is clear. Like with the typo. Just remove the extra “t” and move on.

Other times, the solution involves an awkward conversation with a boss, or calling reporters to ask them if they really meant to say that.

Globe news stories, for example, don’t usually mention vibrators and blow-up dolls. But recently a story about the Chelsea Housing Authority included those words. Someone in the agency allegedly thought those were appropriate gifts for a retiring employee. This required a ruling from a deputy managing editor. The Globe’s policy is not to say things just for the sake of being titillating. In this case, the boss OK’d the words because they had a purpose: illustrating the nature of a sexual harassment case.

Sometimes the wording crosses the line. A co-worker once dealt masterfully with a story about Internet domain names in which the reporter invoked an image from a classic “Seinfeld” episode. (The one where Jerry and company have a contest over who can... oh, just Google it.) The boss’s ruling in that case: the reference wasn’t appropriate for the story.

At most companies, such conversations would land you in HR. But on a copy desk, it’s just a fact of life.

Urban Dictionary has made things easier. Now, when copy editors stumble across questionable language or references that co-workers may be unfamiliar with, we can direct them to that website to look up the phrase . . . and spare ourselves an awkward conversation.

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