The New York Times vs. curse words: TONY's copy chief responds

Is the Times's policy on vulgar language outdated? We asked Noah Tarnow, TONY copy chief, to weigh in.

A still from the documentary film Page One: Inside the New York Times

A still from the documentary film Page One: Inside the New York Times

Who doesn't love a good language argument, amirite? Yesterday, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan published a blog post asking whether the Paper of Record's policy on using curse words in stories—as in, they're verboten—needs to evolve. Anyone who reads the Times regularly knows that its editors find creative ways to circumvent words like shit, damn or fuck. In one such instance, noted by Sullivan, a blog called Get Your Shit Together was not mentioned by name; rather, the line went, "She might have called it, but she changed just one word." Overly cautious? Maybe. But, per Sullivan, it's in line with the paper's house style guide, which discourages the use of curses in favor of "taking a stand for civility in public discourse, sometimes at an acknowledged cost in the vividness of an article or two, and sometimes at the price of submitting to gibes." (At least they have a sense of humor about getting teased for this.)

Time Out readers know that we don't shy away from using colorful language, so we asked copy chief Noah Tarnow to weigh in. Here's what he had to say:

"I basically agree with Sullivan, but she lets the Times off too easily. The paper is exceedingly conservative in its style rules, to the detriment of its readership, and the confusion caused by the article in question is a perfect example. If the mission of the Times—really, any news source—is to inform in a clear and engaging way, it absolutely failed in this case, just because it wanted to spare its (overwhelmingly adult) readership the sight of a word that's omnipresent in our culture.

"Look, I'm all for promoting civility, and using journalistic style to encourage civilized discourse, but come on—how does avoiding the word shit achieve this? It wasn't even referring to excrement in this case, which is the reason it's a 'dirty word.' The quoted author is right, this isn't Downton Abbey; we've thankfully evolved to the point where civility is treating people with fairness and compassion, not cowering before the might of ancient social taboos.

"Anytime someone asks me if obscene language is allowed in TONY, my response is yes: This is a magazine for adults. Sure, there's such a thing as too much—there's no quicker way for a writer to undermine his credibility than to excessively and gratuitously use shit, piss, cunt, fuck, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. But to perform linguistic gymnastics in order to avoid using one of those words when it's part of the proper name of the article's subject seems far more immature to me."

Do you agree with him? Sullivan? No one? Is this an argument that only word nerds care about? Let us know!

Follow Amy Plitt on Twitter: @plitter