A long tale of verification

Okay. I’m going to describe a particular fact-checking problem to you all. Some of you may be shocked that I don’t know all this information right off the top of my head, but, well, I don’t. (Not that I don’t know a lot of information off the top of my head–I do. That’s partly due to having attended six different colleges for my undergrad–I’ve mentioned I’ve moved a lot–and hence having graduated with damn near forty hours that I didn’t need, all in core-curriculum requirements at some damn school or another. [Good stuff, too–I’m one of the only English majors I know who came out with As in trig and precalc.])

So, anyway, I occasionally–okay, often–have to verify something. Now I’m actually accustomed to calculating the length of days and years on various fictional planets, and I’m pretty damn good with gravity and how multiple moons affect tide cycles and whatnot, because, yanno, it’s what I do.

However, I’ve been working on a chick-lit book with a protagonist who’s a flight attendant, and I have had absolute hell figuring out for sure the proper spelling of something that’s just…ridiculously common. I’m going to describe the process, but y’all are going to laugh at me. *sigh* Even if you laugh, though, if you don’t sympathize, I can pretty much promise you that you aren’t cut out to be a copyeditor.

So here’s what it is, just so you can get the giggles over with: La Guardia Airport. (And I’m using that spelling because that’s what I’ve chosen–if you want to correct me then by all means PLEASE point me to a definite answer.)

This should be extraordinarily straightforward. The airport is named after good ole Fiorello, and his last name, according to Web11 (Merriam Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition–the standard in the industry) has a space between the “La” and the “Guardia.” That should be it.

But…it’s nagging at me. I’m certain I’ve quite frequently seen the airport listed as “LaGuardia,” and I want to verify because place names aren’t always as they should be.

That’s where the trouble starts. First, of course, I Google. With quotes, I get 935,000 hits for “La Guardia Airport”–and Google tries to correct me by asking if I mean “LaGuardia Airport.” Hmm.

With quotes, I get 1,010,00 hits for “LaGuardia Airport.” These seem to be much better-quality hits, too–like the official Port Authority of New York site. But it still ought to be like Fiorello, right?

Wiki has “LaGuardia,” but while Wiki’s okay for factual stuff (I try hard not to cite them as a primary source when making a correction), they suck for spelling or capitalization or hyphenation. To prove it, they also have “Fiorello LaGuardia” on that same page (with no space). Damn.

At this point, I do what I’ve done on many previous occasions–such as checking the names of bars in obscure hotels of cities I’ve never been to. I pick up the phone. I dial the airport in question and begin apologizing to the person who answers: “I’m a copyeditor working on a novel, and I know this is an odd question, but I’m wondering if you could tell me…”

The woman who answers has heavily accented (though very good) English, and she assures me that the proper spelling is “LaGuardia”–without the space. “But,” I say, “Fiorello has the space, so it seems odd.”

“Well,” she says, “I know it may be odd, but that’s how it is. I’ll double-check, though.” She riffles through some papers and comes back with, “Well, it looks as though we have it both ways on our paperwork.”

“Oh.” I sigh. “Is one more prevalent than the other?”

“Well…” She riffles some more. “I think it should be two words.” (Yes, this is a contradiction to what she told me earlier.) “We have it both ways, but I think it should be two words.”

Shit. I thank her politely and hang up.

Now, I’ve mentioned that this is a book with a flight attendant as a protag, right? And therefore flight attendants might be more likely to buy the book, and I just think it’s thus even more important than with some other book to have this right. (Yeah, I’m anal. Again, it’s what I do.) But at this point I’m thinking, How much does this publisher really want to pay me to verify this? Damn.

What I need, I think, is a native New Yorker who might’ve actually seen the signs.

And then I notice that the production editor is on AIM. Well, she’s in NYC. So, even though I hate to bug her, I do so because of these dollar signs flashing in front of my eyes. I query her apologetically, though, and she’s not actually there. Dammit.

Then I get the bright idea to go to Google image search. Maybe I can find a picture of the sign at the airport!”

So I search, and not twenty seconds after I find this sign (which, yay! gives me an answer), the production editor comes back with a quick note that although she hasn’t verified it yet, she’s almost positive it’s “LaGuardia.” “It ought to be like Fiorello,” she says, “but it’s not.”

“It’s not?” I ask, now bewildered again. “But I just found this sign!”

“That’s a pretty crappy sign,” she answers. And she’s right, of course–I don’t even know it’s official, or if I could trust it to be spelled right if it was. It’s not like the actual airport sign at the front of the airport–if such a thing even exists. She then adds, “I asked my coworker, and she thinks it’s ‘LaGuardia too.'” Two New York editors think it’s “LaGuardia.”

Well, the cusswords my mind is forming (at the problem, not at her) are getting increasingly stronger, and since you guys know me somewhat, you’ll know I was at the “Fuck!” stage by now–and starting to string.

“I just want to verify it for certain,” I say (or something like that–I don’t have the log, so all this dialogue is approximate–hoping like hell while I’m saying it that I’m not being incredibly annoying, because it’s not like production editors have time to deal with this shit; they don’t).

But she’s an editorial type, too, of course, and her interest is piqued. She comes back and notes that even the NYT has it both ways!

Damn. I hadn’t even thought of looking there!! How stupid could I get! I do a quick search through, and she’s right–but “La Guardia” is favored by a very large margin.

Now at this point, I decide on “La Guardia” (which is also, btw, what the author [mostly] has). However, I bother her with one last favor: “You don’t commute by there, do you? Do you think you could take a look at the signs if you do? I’m sorry to have bugged you with something that’ll drive you nuts, but it’s going to drive me nuts if I don’t figure it out, too!”

She answers that she does occasionally go by there, but it might not be for several days. I mark “La Guardia” on the style sheet and continue on.

So I got another IM from her, several days later: “I drove by the airport on Friday. You’re not going to believe it. The green signs all point to LaGuardia, but the brown Port Authority sign welcomes you to La Guardia!”

And may I take this opportunity to point out once again that the Port Authority website favors “LaGuardia”?

“I am so blogging this, ” I tell her.

Honestly. This is what it’s like, being a copyeditor!

(And what I suspect is going on, frankly, if anyone cares by this point, has to do with my post on compounding–I’m willing to bet that most native New Yorkers pronounce and think of the term as one word even though it properly isn’t.)

There. Now you know the process by which I drive myself crazy. Aren’t you glad you were curious? ;-P

76 thoughts on “A long tale of verification”

  1. Why didn’t you call me, silly? Except for college, I’ve lived all my life within 7 miles of LGA.

    The brown signs are older than the green ones. The likely situation: it was officially La Guardia, but since we all think of it as one word, it has smushed and become intercapped.

    The first place I went was the PANYNJ website, where they consistently spell it LaGuardia. They own the place, so I’d go with their preference.

  2. “JFK” and “EWR” don’t roll quite so trippingly off the tongue; they are universally “Kennedy” and “Newark” in speech.

    –>Clearly even NYers have their little regionalisms, since everyone I know refers to LGA as “LaGuardia” (pronounced “luhgwardeeuh”), and looks at me funny if I call it LGA (which I do on rare occasion). They vary 50/50 with “I’m flying out of Kennedy” or “I’m flying out of JFK”; and by “vary” I mean the same individual will refer to it both ways.

    Of course, where I live (Flushing), “the airport” means LGA. It might be the reverse for people who live in, say, Rosedale. (Um, no reference to you; Rosedale is squarely in the flight paths out of Kennedy.)

  3. Hi, John. For many things, I agree with you completely that it’s important to know how the character perceives something, which is what I discuss in that compounding post. For a place name, though, I’d like the spelling to reflect actuality rather than pronunciation.

  4. I know, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you crazy(ier).

    It really does fall into the category of “It makes no difference, so long as you are consistent.”

    Hmmm. From a typesetting POV, if you made it “LaGuardia” and we had to break it across a line, it would be broken “La-Guardia.” And that would just look stupid. So I think you made the right call. (That I think this for utterly silly reasons is irrelevant.)

  5. From a typesetting POV, if you made it “LaGuardia” and we had to break it across a line, it would be broken “La-Guardia.” And that would just look stupid.

    Oh!! That is the best point yet, E! Yay! :-)

  6. I don’t have a home page as such, but when I do, I’m putting that quote on it…

    Email me anytime you want to know stuff like that about this marvelous city…

  7. Long ago, there definitely was at least one sign that said BLEEKER ST along that fabled Greenwich Village street, which, as we all know, is actually named Bleecker St.

  8. Deanna,
    This is a question related to my earlier comment. The essence of the question is, “when does something become the responsibility of the author rather than the copyeditor?” If a stewardess would actually refer to La Guardia as LGA or some other term I think it is unreasonable to expect the copyeditor to point this out. The author would be wrong, but then authors often describe things that aren’t correct, such as the flexibility of a body after several hours. What is generally expected in this case? Does the copyeditor point it out if they happen know it is an error? Are they really supposed to do this work for the author? For the type of technical writing that I do (for my day job), we attempt to cross check each other, but we are really collaborators.

  9. Deanna:

    Your main concern is the name of the airport. The correct spelling of the name of the man they named it after is not your bailiwick. If the people who named the airport misspelled the name or changed it, that doesn’t affect what the name really is. Since the Port Authority of New York is in charge of it — not the FAA, not the people who make road signs — the answer would be LaGuardia.

    If you think about it, you could come up with other examples of things named after people, places, or things, but with incorrect or variant spellings. For instance, I live near Seattle, which was named after Chief Sealth. The objection might be that this is simply an illustration of different ways of bringing a name into English, but isn’t that similar to what’s happened with La Guardia/LaGuardia?


  10. As a person who spent over an hour this week making sure a character’s Ouija board was made by the right manufacturer, given its year of purchase, oh yes, I feel your pain.

    Good luck making peace with the answer you settle for.

  11. Ah, but you’re assuming that the Port Authority website is correct, rather than assuming that the official Port Authority sign at the entrance to the airport–the one that actually welcomes you, which is not just a road sign–is correct.

    As I said in the post, I know “place names aren’t always as they should be.” Otherwise there would have been no need to go through all the rigmarole I have, since I would have accepted “La Guardia” upon first looking Fiorello up in the dictionary. There wouldn’t have been a post in the first place. :-)

  12. My eldest daughter subscribes to a children’s edutainment magazine “Which Way USA?” One of the latest additions was about Maryland, and each edition includes a map and gazetteer.
    So, as a non-traditional writer/illustrator/editor, I have a BS in Geography and an AAS in Technical Illustration & Publication, who grew up in Maryland, I was anxious to see their map.

    Not a complete map by any stretch, but it included a few place names that were familiar to me, and one on the southwest side of Baltimore caught my eye, “Reistertown.” Now, I knew of such a place growing up, and it was pronounced “RICERSTOWN”–note the S in the middle. Sure enough, I was able to confirm by looking at a host of other maps & atlases that it really is Reisterstown, with an S.

    Now and again, headlines bemoan how little our children know about geography. Is it any wonder, given that a map with about 10 place names misspells one. On a side note, when I left Maryland ~1970, Lacrosse was the state sport, but according to Highlights for Children, Inc., it’s Medieval Jousting.

  13. I didn’t read your original posting close enough. Believe me, I know that Web sites can be fallible. I update the internal Web site for the medical center I work at, which lists dozens of doctors and the issues they do or do not see. I can’t tell you how many corrections for spelling and ungrammatical sentences I’ve had to make because of the semi-literate supervisor who’s in charge of it.

    That said, a Web site tends to be more official, because of the fact that it’s easily changed in case of error. With a huge painted sign, you can just plant flowers around it in case of error. But I suppose my comment above about my workplace just adds another uncertainty factor to everything.


  14. I did end up looking the term up in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and they recommend “La Guardia.” That’s good enough for me.

  15. Web11 recommends “Web site,” but many of the publishers I work for specify “website” in their guidelines for copyeditors; I definitely prefer it as one word. Even CMS, in their online Q&A, recommends “website” for informal usage.

  16. My experience, in more than 25 years of copyediting, is that the concept of a single, settled “official spelling” is often an editorial myth. The best one can do is decide on a source and stick with it. (I started out as a copy editor in the legal publishing field, where official spelling has importance apart from editorial consistency, but even there, the publishing house picked certain sources as reliable and just went with them.)

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