Inside the Slot’s Head

We’re a sucker for the ins and outs of newspaper style, so we enjoyed today’s “Ask the Post” Q&A with Washington Post Assistant Managing Editor for Copy Desks Don Podesta and National Copy Desk Chief Bill Walsh, who famously once said, “Split infinitives are the chicken cacciatore of English usage.”

While much of the conversation revolved around the intricacies of Middle East foreign policy and the globalizing influence of Marcel Proust on the rise of the economic superpower in Asia (NOT!), Podesta and Walsh managed to sneak in a few silly questions about grammar and style at the Post. For instance, we learned that an article’s main headline (denoted by bold type) is a “main hed” and the second smaller italicized one is the “bank hed.”

And we learned that, according to Walsh, “Deadlines are cruel and perfection is elusive.”

More fun follows after the jump, and if you’re a real copy dork, here’s Bill’s blog.

A selection of the finer style questions addressed today:

Washington, D.C.: Your feelings, please, on the word “literally.” It has plagued the spoken word for some time, but in the written word, even if used correctly, does it really add anything?

Don Podesta: It adds very little — and people often misuse it when they mean “figuratively.”


Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C.: “All of a sudden” or “all of the sudden?” Or rewrite to “suddenly?”

Bill Walsh: “A.” Or “suddenly” would be fine.


Fort Worth, Tex.: Style Guru Extraordinaire, which one do you recommend?

Bill Walsh: We’re able to duck questions like this by insisting on more formal wording in the paper, but I’d say “IM’d.” (It can’t be “IM’ed,” because the apostrophe indicated an omitted letter and in this case nothing is omitted.)


Wise, Va.: … What do you think are the three most important things a young reporter should know about copy editing and the role of copy editors?

Don Podesta: 1) Copy editors are your friends. Their questions are not meant as challenges to your integrity but to make your story better and ensure accuracy.

2) That said, while copy editors can save you from yourself,don’t expect them to do your fact-checking for you. Don’t submit stories with holes in them and expect the copy desk to fill them in.

3) Respect the art of headline writing. The copy editor is pulling the reader into your story in just a few words that summarize the 800 words you’ve written, and it’s not easy to do.