Weather or not (context drives clarity)

It’s hot today. Hot enough that Nixel  — which defines itself as a communication platform that connects public safety, municipalities, school, businesses and residents — sent a text out warning about the heat.

Nixel suggested I stay hydrated. (If you know anything about Nixel, usually its texts advise avoiding I-70 — or some such road — for the next 30 minutes because of a traffic accident.)

The text made me think about the word “hydrated,” which is a perfectly good word, especially for short space, but which seems less than conversational. How many times did you mom yell to you before you headed out to the park, “it’s hot outside, stay hydrated”?

Yet, I couldn’t find any one-word synonyms for “hydrated” on any of my favorite dictionary websites. “Drink plenty of water” isn’t exactly thesaurus material.

Mom would probably really yell this: “It’s hot out, take a water bottle.” That implies a lot but doesn’t really say “stay hydrated.”

Meanwhile, think of the word “hot.” It has plenty of synonyms. Sixty-one on But the problem there is that “hot” also has plenty of definitions. (On, 37; on Merriam-Webster online, 24.) And they’re not all weather words. For instance, two are “sexy” and “currently liked or wanted by many people.”

So as a copy editor, you have to think about context and well as definition when choosing a word. If I asked three people to explain the two-word sentence “he’s hot,” without context, I might get three explanations. (He has a high temperature; he’s extremely attractive; he’s angry.)

In a story, the context is probably clear. But that’s not always the case in headlines, tweets and other short bits of text. That’s why it’s important that headlines words that are both strong and unambiguous. (Search the web for ambiguous headlines and you’ll surely see this one: “Prostitutes appeal to pope.” Need I say more.)

Back to Nixel and the heat advisory text. I couldn’t find a better, succinct way to say “drink plenty of appropriate fluids,” so “stay hydrated” is fine with me. It’s clear and concise, even if it isn’t conversational.



Active duty for the undead

Sometimes I think journalists have an obsession with zombies.* (Or is it that the world at large has one right now?)

If you have a zombie thing, why not put it to good use as an editing agent. The zombie rule can help you determine if the sentence you are writing is passive.

I first heard about the zombie rule from American Copy Editors Society colleague Andy Bechtel, who said he wasn’t the originator. How does it work? If you can add “by zombies” to the end of a sentence and the sentence makes logical sense, then the sentence is passive.

“The parking ticket bill was passed (by zombies).” Get it? It’s a passive sentence. Whereas “The City Council passed the parking ticket bill (by zombies)” doesn’t make sense. So active sentence.

One of ACES grammar stalwarts, Lisa McLendon of the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas, just did a fun video about active and passive voice and the zombie rule. She demonstrates it better than I could. So watch it! (Yes, I used an exclamation point.)

* In addition to Lisa’s video, another ACES colleague, Fred Vultee, also mentioned zombies in his blog this week.