Henry Fuhrmann, Times editor and ‘word nerd’ who fought for grammar fairness, dies

No one had really paid too much attention to the hyphen. When it came to race and heritage—as in “African American” or “Italian American”—it was easily overlooked, innocuous punctuation that seemed logical.

Henry Fuhrmann thought otherwise. A journalist and self-proclaimed word nerd, Fuhrmann saw in mere construction an unnecessary and derogatory diminishment of American identities and understood that no battle was too small in the fight for clarity, precision and fairness.

“These hyphens,” he wrote in a 2019 essay, “serve to divide even though they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identities can evoke otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full or fully American citizens.

Tenacious and principled, Fuhrmann campaigned against its use in newsrooms across the country and successfully persuaded the profession’s high court, the Associated Press Stylebook, to overturn his diktat on the hyphen. when referring to “the legacy of an American person”. At a national meeting of editors, Fuhrmann, who was deputy editor of The Times until his retirement in 2015, received a standing ovation for his efforts.

A skilled, intuitive and sensitive practitioner of written language, Fuhrmann died on Tuesday after a brief and sudden illness, his family said. He was 65 years old.

“He was a mainstay among us,” said John McIntyre, who recently retired as editor of the Baltimore Sun. “His campaign to get rid of hyphenated Americanisms was a long and ultimately triumphant labor that was long overdue.”

But more than that, McIntyre said, Fuhrmann’s effort was part of a larger project “to develop an intelligent, informed style for our publications that was free from some of the superstitions and shibboleths that had plagued the business. for a long time”.

Fuhrmann was “always in tune with language as people use it and wanted to make it understandable for people who wanted to use it,” McIntyre said.

While at The Times, Fuhrmann initiated a usage shift from the outdated word “transvestite” to “transgender,” and more recently he championed the fight against the word “internment” when describing the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Being a wordsmith isn’t just about knowing the rules,” said Ruthanne Salido, who oversees one of The Times’ copy desks. “It’s also about being attuned to changes in language that clash with old linguistic rules. Language is a living thing and Henry was forward thinking.

Russ Stanton was editor of The Times when he asked Fuhrmann in 2009 to join the masthead. “He was a trusted advisor and colleague,” Stanton said. “His #1 goal has always been to do well and do his best for our readers. It was his main concern. He set aside politics and personal interests to serve this purpose.

Fuhrmann’s job was to oversee the editorial office, which plays a critical role in the organization of newsrooms and is deliberately isolated from journalists and their editors. Editors are like judges judging grammatical disputes, managing fragile and pugnacious egos, and meeting demands for speed, accuracy, and timeliness.

They bring to the work an appreciation of the underlying rules of language for bringing order to the chaos of prose, and while these rules change and adapt to the currents of culture, they must be applied with accuracy and fairness. . Fuhrmann appreciated these principles as much for life as for language.

The American son of a Danish German Navy member and a Japanese mother, he was born on an American hospital ship in Japan. He grew up in Port Hueneme, and a love for math and calculus led him to Caltech. He wanted to be an engineer, but once he started publishing a student newspaper, he found his calling.

With a bachelor’s degree from Cal State LA and a master’s degree from Columbia University—both in journalism—and a stint in the Times’ Minority Editorial Training Program (later renamed The Times’ Fellowship), he was hired in 1991 as an editor for The Calendar section of The Times, where he brought clarity to many ambiguously and erroneously written sentences.

In the 2000s, he was associate editor of the Business section, and later, as more stories were published online, he helped create style and usage guidelines for the new media where none existed.

“We started a ton of blogs back then,” Stanton said. “It was a different animal from what we were used to. In a newsroom that had high standards and traditional ways of doing things, it took some getting used to, and Henry was key in helping us feel comfortable in that space.

In recent years, as the expediency of social media brought a casual twist to the intricacies of grammar, syntax, and punctuation, Fuhrmann was neither picky nor pedantic. He knew that regardless of the platform, whether it was a report or a tweet, the style and use had to align with the sensibilities of the readers. He applied this sensibility to his work at The Times.

“In an environment where everyone is crisp, on schedule, hair on fire, Henry always found a way to always be reasonable, articulate and kind,” said Salido, who was married to Fuhrmann until 1999. .

Few have navigated the stormy waters of the Times newsroom with such diplomatic skill as Fuhrmann, who led nearly 80 editors and was a tireless advocate for their work.

“He was well aware that speed matters more than ever,” Salido said, describing the breakneck pace online publishing brought to work. “But he was also well aware that you have to get it right, and that often takes a few beats.”

Underlying his tact was a sly wit that bordered on gallows humor, as is often the case in newsrooms, and an ability to admit mistakes, which is not often the case in newsrooms.

When “the greatest typographical error of all time” appeared in The Times in 2012, Fuhrmann accepted responsibility. In a no-nonsense profile of a retired Las Vegas sheriff who was removed from office, one sentence marked a critical transition in the story:

“Cracks in the buttocks finally appeared in [the sheriff’s] public figure “.

Soon corrected and explained, the error allowed Fuhrmann to issue a credo: “Be frank. Admit your mistakes. Pass. And if no one was hurt, take the time to laugh.

Laughter is what former Times columnist Dan Neil still hears when he thinks back to his time with Fuhrmann, who edited the stories that would win a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

Always eager to test the limits of readers’ sensibilities, Neil recalls sitting side-by-side with Fuhrmann at his terminal, “writing my column, cackling like idiots over fine points of grammar and meanings too blue”.

“He never touched the copy but to make it better, smarter. I wish nights like these could go on forever,” Neil said.

With nearly 7,500 Twitter followers, he was also happy to enter the fray on any grammatical dust. Like many, he once declaimed the widespread use of exclamation marks, but later defended them, going so far as to advocate for Interrobang. “The master key [?! combination] would be useful in these difficult times.

On National Grammar Day (March 4), he issued three guidelines each year: “Believe, be not angry. Celebrate, don’t scold. Conjugate, do not castigate.

After leaving The Times in late 2015, Fuhrmann went into “semi-retirement”. He served as an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and last year was named editorial director of Bendable, a library-based online educational platform at the Drucker Institute.

Committed to the profession, he went on to serve on the board of a professional publishers organization, ACES: The Society for Editing, and the Asian American Journalists Assn.

“Henry had a huge impact on young journalists. She was such a compassionate and caring cheerleader,” said Teresa Watanabe, a friend and colleague of The Times. “He was also a legend in the Asian American Journalists Association. for all he did to mentor young students and young journalists and help ensure that coverage of Asian Americans and the Pacific Islands was fair and nuanced.

Matt Stevens was a 22-year-old high school student when he first met Fuhrmann in 2011 at a board meeting of the local Asian American Journalists Association. chapter. “He was that revered patriarch, the wisest and warmest mentor and friend to his peers and to young journalists,” recalled New York Times editor Stevens. “If you ever needed advice or a listening ear, he was there.”

Stevens, who worked at The Times for five years, remembers being called into Fuhrmann’s office after a series of articles that needed correction. “I was scared, he says, but rather than scolding me, he encouraged me. He said he – and the Times – supported me. I thought I was going to be fired, and instead I left feeling empowered and confident.

Proud of his work and the philosophy that guided him, Fuhrmann knew that the copy publishing world he once held so firmly was besieged by downsizing, budget cuts and cost-efficiency measures. He fought against the elimination of work on the copy desk and against requiring his staff to punch a clock.

Such assaults on the profession, McIntyre argues, cast a cloud over his and Fuhrmann’s work.

“The minute and careful attention to language—the precision, accuracy, and conciseness that copy bureaus could give to a story—is gone now,” McIntyre said, “and we see embarrassing gaps in grammar and usage and large stretches of loose writing because it was deemed too expensive to make it better.

For his part, Fuhrmann was happy to have taken the hyphen and to have won. In a tweet closing out 2019, he expressed his gratitude.

“As a legacy,” he wrote, “the ‘hyphen killer’ isn’t bad.”

Fuhrmann is survived by his wife, Lindi Dreibelbis; daughters Elena Fuhrmann and Angela Fuhrmann Knowles; and three siblings, Irene, David and Glen.

Los Angeles Times

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