“To Grammar’s House” is a regular column by the Boston Globe copy desk on the style and language used in the newspaper.
Quick quiz: which of the following is a proper title?
A. Former President Bill Clinton
B. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
C. Assistant Secretary for Policy and Planning Carl Stanley McGee
The copy editor rejects choice A, knowing there is no such office as former president, and changes the capital “F” and capital “P” to lower case. Choice B is also wrong; the copy editor changes it to Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. The third title is correct, but it is such an eyeful that the editor rearranges the construction to make it read: Carl Stanley McGee, assistant secretary for policy and planning.
Dealing with such designations is routine business. But the task becomes trickier when the identifying words are less formal.
A recent case in point involves the term “front-runner,” which appeared innumerable times in late 2011 and early 2012 in coverage of the Republican presidential race. The copy editor was careful to avoid being too sweeping, especially when polls were inconclusive and no votes had been cast, and tried to indicate that we were not bestowing the status on our own. So, over the months, readers encountered such wordings as “presumed front-runner” and “purported front-runner.” They were told at various points that Mitt Romney was “considered the national front-runner”; that Rick Perry was the “newly christened front-runner”; that Newt Gingrich was “newly anointed as the front-runner.” Romney and Gingrich shared front-runner status at one time; earlier, Romney and Herman Cain co-held the designation.
As votes piled up and candidates dropped out, use of the term became less delicate. Ultimately, the words were set aside and Romney became known as presumptive nominee.
Another designation to draw scrutiny was that of “mogul” - specifically, the references to Steve Wynn and to Sheldon Adelson as “casino mogul.” The term was applied to both men so often that one reader wondered if we used “mogul” only when writing about people of Jewish extraction and hence were hinting at the most pernicious of stereotypes. In fact, an examination of the archives showed the Globe using the term widely, applying it to people ranging from convenience store operator Christy Mihos to entertainment figures Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and Simon Cowell to former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling (in his case, a “would-be video game mogul”).
But widely used or not, the term does appear to go further than may be intended: One definition in our dictionary is “a powerful or important person, especially one with autocratic power.” So the copy editor puts the word aside and serves the reader better by characterizing Wynn or Adelson as “casino entrepreneur” or “casino developer.”
As to that M-word, you can count on seeing it when we write about Vermont skier Hannah Kearney, our Olympic moguls champion.
Charles F. Mansbach is the Globe’s page one editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.