11 September 2016

Don't Bury that Lede

James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren
featuring guest star James Lincoln Warren

Today’s article takes an international bent, one at which the British might cock an eyebrow, South Africans pretend not to look superior, Australians mutter, “WTF?” and Canadians cringe. “Oh, not another American diatribe to confuse the issue.” Yes, I’m talking about spelling, but words of particular interest to writers.

I’ve lived and worked in the UK so I’m a bit schizophrenic about the topic. On good days I might give myself an A- but other days barely a B. When it comes to those plural-singular collective noun & verb combinations, I want to shoot myself, e.g, “Manchester are a great team.” Manchester what? Even Liverpool and Leeds disagree… for different reasons, but do they say Manchester suck or sucks? No… yes… maybe… I’m off on an unwinnable rant.

We can blame the devil in Noah Webster for part of our dilemma, but no one ever credited natural language with logic. It’s up to us poor writers to struggle against the darkness. And the not so poor– Stephen King reportedly insists upon certain ‘international’ spellings. Double points to him because he provides a web page so readers can report typos and other errors.

Story v Storey

Our steadfast friend, James Lincoln Warren, has previously suggested we should use ‘storey’ to refer to a floor within a building and ’story’ for literary uses. JLW writes:

The reason I prefer “storey” to “story” when describing a level of a building above the ground floor is because it is more specific. “Story” can mean several things, but “storey” means only one thing.

For whatever it’s worth, etymologically, both words derive from the same origin, Latin historia. In medieval “Anglo-Latin”, historia was used in both senses as with “story”, i.e., “narrative” and “floor”. The Oxford English Dictionary therefore considers “storey” a variant spelling of “story”, and doesn’t show an example of the spelling with the “e” until Dickens, which suggests to me that the inclusion of the “e” in the architectural spelling is quite recent.

Brilliant and simple, right? So if we use story and storey, why not further distinguish other words the same way?

Cosy v Cozy

We North Americans recognize (or recognise– more on that later) two great British inventions, the cosy and the, er, cosy. One popularly keeps tea warm and the other warms readers of golden age mysteries.

Some American authors happily use this spelling, but exceptions abound including our own Fran Rizer, and why not? She writes Southern cozies with a ‘z’, thank you very much.

I like cosy as a noun, but when it comes to verbs and adjectives, my senseless sensibilities kick in. “She cosied up to him,” seems wrong, like she quoted Agatha Christie while serving him a pot of tea.

But if we expand our North American use of cosy with an ’s’, I suggest we negotiate ‘-ize’ endings. The poor zee (or zed) sees so little use, why not allow it to participate in ‘authorize’ and ‘pressurize’ and ‘legitimize’?

Celebrate, crossword puzzlers, celebrate!

Lede v Lead

The first time I came across ‘lede’, I had to look it up to make certain I wasn’t misreading it. The use of ‘lede’ as a variant of ‘lead’ is even newer than storey, dating back to the late 1950s or early 1960s.

Lede has been used to mean a headline, but more precisely refers to the opening paragraph of an article or story that summarizes (not summarises) the content following. Waffling Wikipedia suggests lede/lead combines the headline and first paragraph, but the ever precise Grammarist narrows its definition:

Strictly speaking, the lede is the first sentence or short portion of an article that gives the gist of the story and contains the most important points readers need to know… allowing readers who are not interested in the details to feel sufficiently informed.

In more dramatic forms, the lede can compare with a hook, but perhaps less obviously in, say, legal and technical writing. Professional journalism practices say a lede must provide the main points of a story, interest the reader in the story, and accomplish those goals as briefly as possible.

Newspapers used to be set in hot and cold lead (molten metal, Pb), so the lede of a hot lead could be cast in cold lead. As an interesting footnote, the American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language comments upon lede:

Obsolete spelling of lead, revived in modern journalism to distinguish the word from its homograph lead, strip of metal separating lines of type.

Bury the lede” uses only the lede spelling. It’s sometimes misunderstood as burying a lead article within a newspaper, but it more narrowly means to begin an article with unessentials and postpone revealing salient points or facts until deeper in the body. For example, an editor might bury the lede for popular or political reasons.

Kerb – Curb, Tyre – Tire

If we succeed in making the spelling choices in the English language smaller while making the meanings more exact, why stop with these words? Why not use certain British nouns in exchange for North American verbs? “I tired of the tyre against the kerb, which curbed my enthusiasm.” Yeah, that works.

The words clew/clue seem to have sorted themselves out, although an author like  James Lincoln Warren might employ ‘clew’ in nautical and historical writings.

Back to crime writing, what the hell do we do about ‘gaol’, an unholy Norman abomination that dismays even the Welsh? We turn to James once more:

Interestingly, in Samuel Johnson’s definition of GAOL in his dictionary, he writes, “It is always pronounced and too often written jail, and sometimes goal.” He does, however, also list JAIL under the letter “I”. (There is no "J" section).

Publishing News

Congratulations to James for two stories soon to appear in Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazines. Tip your boater to him at the New Orleans Bouchercon.


  1. Nice to hear news of James.
    I can tell you the use of lede was at least until recently alive and well in journalism circles.
    As for a tea cozy- every proper Scottish household used to have at least one and often a fancy one "for good".

  2. Such a fun post here, Leigh! And so nice to see James Lincoln Warren and to celebrate again his good news (saw on Facebook earlier). Congrats!

  3. Janice, here in Florida and the Deep South, we need uncosies. I picture an Alice-in-Wonderland invention to keep tea cold. Or, just a Thermos, if you don’t mind iced tea associated with kidney stones… or not… or the subtle ADD transition to a health topic.

    Art, James will check in a bit later, and I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.

  4. Talk about wearing two hats...in my case, one on top of another! In Canada, we're taught the Brit way, but our publishers want the US, for marketing purposes. Slightly crazy-making? (Note that's a zed.)

  5. A delightful column, Leigh--and yes, it's great to hear good news about JLW. He will always be, to me, the final authority on all things word/language-related.

    James, see you in New Orleans!

  6. I have a story involving a newspaper reporter that was published several years ago. There's a mention near the beginning of the lede, which the editor "fixed" to lead without asking me before the story was published. As a former reporter, I was embarrassed.

  7. Hi Melodie, and a tip o’ the toque to you! I think it was the Ferguson brothers who said no one in Canada knows how to spell and just fake it. That seems to work!

    Hey, John! That’s how the article came about. In days of old, JLW delivered cogent observations on language topics such as the Oxford comma. His remarks about storey stuck in my head and I checked with him about it. In discussing other word candidates, I happened to mention gaol and voilĂ , he came up with the Sam Johnson entry on it.

    Oddly, that brought back an early experience: I thought I’d come across ‘gaol’ spelled ‘goal’ in one of the classics such as Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, etc. Later, I thought I must have misread it, but now I wonder.

    Barb, I sympathize, and yet I expect people who know you guessed the truth. So frustrating, isn’t it?

  8. A fun article, Leigh. So far as cozies are concerned, I go along with Good Reads, Amazon, and the publishers using the z, but in Callie Parrish's case, they're not true cozies anyway. Her stories are cozyesque. I'm still exercising (exercizing?) by genre-jumping just as Magdelena's exercise was jumping to conclusions. In October, my first horror novel is being released by Odyssey South. The title is The HORROR of JULIE BATES, and I'm more excited about this than any previous work. Best wishes to all SleuthSayers and readers!

  9. When we were on a tour of Scotland this summer one day on the bus our tour leader read us a list of British words to see how many we understood. Thanks to reading British mysteries I knew a bunch, but I can't remember what they were now. Thanks for bringing James back, Leigh, and James, congrats again on your recent sales; well deserved.

  10. Hi Fran! Good to see you. Congratulations on your latest. I look forward to hearing more about Julie Bates!

    Thanks, Rob. It is good to see James again!

  11. So you pour tea from a sheep’s bum? What's this thing with sheep? Couldn't you have showed cosies of flowers or shepherd's huts?

  12. Anon, who says it's the sheep's bum?

    (Where's my Grey's Anatomy?)

  13. Now I have a version of the song "Liza with a Z" going through my head. ("Cozy with a Z/Not cosy with an S/'Cause cosy with an S/Goes SSsssss, not ZZzzzz...")

  14. Thanks for the article, LWL, from a cosy-tyre-kerb-storey kinda gal.

    Greetings, JLW – good to see you again. Congratulations on your latest literary endeavours*. Trust all went well during your term as Master of your Lodge and that you and Margaret are fighting fit. (If your photo is anything to go by you look younger than ever!)

    [*Struggling (wo)manfully not to appear superior over the ‘u’ in endeavours.]

  15. When I got married, way back in 1973, American wedding invitations still used old-fashioned phrases and British spellings--e.g., the bride's parents requested "the honour of your presence" at the ceremony. When my mother and I went to order the invitations, I rebelled against tradition and said I wanted the American spelling of "honor." The lady at the stationery store was shocked, and my mother was embarrassed that I'd made a fuss, so I yielded to social pressure. "Honour" it was. Back then, I think there was a feeling that British spellings were somehow more correct than American ones--American spellings might do for invitations to a picnic, but for formal occasions, one had best stick to the British. I don't know if that's still true; I'll have to take notice the next time I get a wedding invitation.

  16. Hi Jeff! Good to see you! Maybe we can commission a song, an ad(vert) for this spelling movement of one.

    Hey ABA! Don’t you think the pronunciation of ‘superior’ sounds lot like ‘smug’ when said with a smirk? What an iron-clad memory you have, much like a vault. And you’re right– JLW does look younger, damn it.

    Bonnie, you’re right about the ‘Britishness’ of requesting the favour/honour at a formal event, followed by that bit of French, RSVP. Curiously, my mother’s people from their little rural corner of the Midwest had an English way of words and phrasing.

    In proposing my mad cosy/cozy noun/verb scheme, I should admit I can never remember license is a verb, not a noun. I need a grade school mnemonic, like “You can C a noun, but not a verb…”

  17. Bonnie, my niece got married last weekend. She used the British spelling of honor on her invitation.

  18. Here is a simple rule. Just remember that lead rhymes with read, but read does not rhyme with lead. Also, while lead does not rhyme with read, read always rhymes with lead.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>