Fredericksburg Features

Columns and stories of life from the Fredericksburg area.

RSS feed of this blog

You ask ‘Why?’ Red Pen answers

RED PEN readers often write to ask me about items that have appeared in our paper and why we wrote what we wrote the way we wrote it.

This week and next, I’ll show you some of the questions I receive and share my responses.


A recent AP article by Tammy Webber on Chicago’s Hull House closing said “Hull House Association board Chairman Stephen Saunders did not immediately return phone calls for comment on Friday.”

I see this “immediately” all the time. “The lawyer did not immediately return phone calls for comment.” I bet the lawyer NEVER responded. So why include the “immediately”?

I can explain. It’s a defense against the nasty day-after phone call from the subject (or subject’s lawyer) saying, “I did too call you back! You libeled me by saying I didn’t.”

The reporter really means “did not return a phone call before I turned in this story.”

But explaining that would be even more awkward.


I am a bit of a “word person” and, like you, have nits that drive me up the wall.

As I was reading your article of Jan. 30, 2012, a headline on Page D2 annoyed me: “Descendant of Russian czar is ‘The Bachelor’ in Ukraine.”

My first thought—preposterous. My second thought—impossible. Tsar Nicholas II, Tsaritsa Alexandra, Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, Anastasia and Alexandra, and Tsarevich Alexei all died without issue at the hands of the Bolsheviks, so how can this individual be a “descendant” of the tsar? (Pardon me, but I am never sure which variants of czar/tsar titles to use.)

Is this an acceptable use of the word? If so, I still find it annoying!

A descendant can be direct, as would be the case if, say, the czar were the bachelor’s great-grandfather. But a descendant can also be collateral—that is, having a common ancestor. This bachelor is descended from a sibling of the czar. So he’s a collateral descendant rather than a direct descendant, but a descendant nonetheless.

I had the same momentary question you did when I saw the headline in the paper. Then I thought it through and realized it wasn’t a problem after all.

I loved your last line: “Is this an acceptable use of the term? If so, I still find it annoying.”

I feel exactly the same sometimes when I see or hear phrases that are technically correct but grating to the eye or ear.

By the way, either tsar or czar is correct. The Associated Press Stylebook prefers “czar,” so that’s what you’ll see in most newspapers.

Laura Moyer of The Free Lance–Star is a lifelong compulsive copy editor. A version of this column appeared in her Red Pen blog on You can reach her at 540/374-5417 or