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

Nobody had really paid too much attention to the hyphen. In terms of race and origin – as in “African American” or “Italian American” – it was easy to miss, an innocuous punctuation that seemed to make sense.

Henry Fuhrmann thought otherwise. The journalist and self-proclaimed word nerd Fuhrmann saw in the simple construction an unnecessary and derogatory disparagement of American identities and understood that in the struggle for clarity, precision and fairness no struggle is too small.

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

Stubborn and principled, Fuhrmann lobbied newsrooms across the country against its use, and was able to convince the profession’s highest court, the Associated Press Stylebook, to overturn his dictate of the hyphen when referring to “the heritage of an American person.” . At a national gathering of editors, Fuhrmann, who was deputy editor of The Times until his retirement in 2015, said, received an ovation for his efforts.

Fuhrmann, an experienced, intuitive and sensitive literacy practitioner, died Wednesday after a brief and sudden illness, his family said. He was 65.

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

A man leans against a desk with a layout page of a newspaper on it

Henry Fuhrmann in the Times office in an undated photo.

(Fuhrmann family)

But beyond that, McIntyre says, Fuhrmann’s efforts are part of a larger project “to develop an intelligent and informed style for our publications, free from the superstition and shibboleth that have long plagued the business.”

Fuhrmann was “always attuned to the language that people use and wanted to make it understandable to the people who wanted to use it,” McIntyre said.

During his time at The Times, Fuhrmann initiated and more recently advocated a change in usage from the obsolete word ‘transvestite’ to ‘transgender’ Fight against the word “internment” in describing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“Being a word expert isn’t just about knowing the rules,” says Ruthanne Salido, who oversees one of The Times’ editorial teams. “It’s also about adapting to the changes in the language, which resist old language rules. Language is alive and Henry was forward-thinking.”

Russ Stanton was the Times editor when he asked Fuhrmann to join the masthead in 2009. “He was a trusted advisor and colleague,” Stanton said. “His ultimate goal has always been to do what is right and what is best for our readers. That was his overarching concern. He has put politics and personal interests aside to serve that end.”

Fuhrmann’s job was to oversee the editorial board, which plays a crucial and intentionally isolated role from reporters and their editors in the organization of newsrooms. Editors are like judges, deciding grammatical disputes, handling fragile and combative egos, and satisfying demands for speed, accuracy, and timeliness.

They bring an understanding of the underlying rules of language to bring order to the chaos of prose, and even as those rules change and adapt to currents in culture, they must be enforced with accuracy and fairness. Fuhrmann valued these principles for life as well as for language.

The American son of a German-Danish Navy Corpsman and a Japanese mother was born on a US hospital ship in Japan. He grew up in Port Hueneme and his love of mathematics and calculus brought him there Caltech. He wanted to be an engineer, but found his calling when he started editing a student newspaper.

With a bachelor’s degree from Cal State LA and a master’s degree from Columbia University – both in journalism – and a stint on the Times’ Minority Editorial Training Program (later renamed The Times’ Fellowship), he became editor of The posted Times’ Calendar Section, where he clarified many ambiguous and misspelled sentences.

In the 2000s he was deputy editor of the business department, and later, as more stories were published online, he helped create style and usage rules for the new medium where none existed.

“We started a lot of blogs back then,” Stanton said. “They were a different animal than we were used to. In a newsroom with high standards and traditional ways it took some getting used to and Henry was key in helping us feel comfortable in this space.”

In recent years, when the convenience of social media has lent a casual flair to the intricacies of grammar, syntax, and punctuation, Fuhrmann has been neither fussy nor pedantic. He knew that regardless of the platform, be it a message or a tweet, style and usage should match readers’ sensibilities. He applied this sensitivity to his work at The Times.

“In an environment where everyone is caked, deadline-bound, and hair-on fire, Henry has always found a way to always be sensible, articulate, and kind,” said Salido, who was married to Fuhrmann until 1999.

Few have navigated the turbulent waters of the Times editorial board with such diplomatic skill as Fuhrmann, who oversaw nearly 80 editors and was a tireless advocate for their work.

“He knew speed mattered more than ever,” Salido said, describing the rush that online publishing brought to work. “But he was also aware that you have to get it right and that often takes a few strokes.”

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

When The Times published “the best typo ever” in 2012, Fuhrmann took responsibility. In a matter-of-fact profile of a retired Las Vegas sheriff who was being voted out, one sentence marked a critical transition in history:

“At some point, cracks appeared in the butt [the sheriff’s] public person.”

The error, which was soon corrected and cleared up, made Fuhrmann set up a credo: “Be open. Own your mistakes. Go on. And if nobody got hurt, take time to laugh.”

Former Times columnist Dan Neil still hears laughter as he reflects on the time he spent with Fuhrmann, who edited the stories that would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2003.

Always striving to test the limits of readers’ sensibilities, Neil recalls sitting shoulder to shoulder with Carter at his terminal, “bashing my column, cackling like idiots over grammatical subtleties and overly naïve Entendres”.

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

With almost 7,500 Twitter followers, he also liked to get involved in the fight over grammatical problems. Like many others, he once declaimed the rampant use of exclamation marks, but later defended them, going so far as to advocate for the interrobang. “The all purpose [?! combination] would prove useful in these troubled times.”

On National Grammar Day (March 4), he issued three directives annually: “Believe, don’t fret. Celebrate, don’t fight. Conjugate, not chastise.”

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

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

“Henry had a tremendous influence on young journalists. He was such a compassionate, caring cheerleader,” said Teresa Watanabe, a friend and colleague at The Times. “He was also a legend in the Asian American Journalist Assn. for all he did to mentor young students and young journalists and to ensure that coverage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders was fair and nuanced.”

Matt Stevens was a 22-year-old college senior when he first met Fuhrmann in 2011 at a board meeting of the local Asian American Journalists’ Association. Chapter. “He was that honored patriarch, the wisest, warmest mentor and friend to colleagues and young journalists,” recalled Stevens, a staff writer at The New York Times. “If you ever needed advice or a listening ear, he was there.”

Stevens, who worked at The Times for five years, recalls being called to Fuhrmann’s office after a series of reports needed correction. “I was scared,” he said, “but instead of chiding me, he encouraged me. He said that he – and the Times – have my back. I thought I was going to get fired and instead I left feeling empowered and confident.”

Proud of his work and the ethos that guided it, Fuhrmann knew the world of editing he once held so firmly was beset by downsizing, budget cuts and cost-efficiency measures. He campaigned against the elimination of copy desk jobs and requiring his employees to punch a time clock.

Such attacks on the profession, McIntyre argues, have overshadowed his and Fuhrmann’s life’s work.

“The meticulous and particular attention to language — the precision, accuracy, and succinctness with which copy desks could convey a story — is now gone,” McIntyre said, “and we see embarrassing errors in grammar and usage, and great swaths of slack spelling, because it was judged too expensive to do better.”

For his part, Fuhrmann was happy to have accepted the dash and won. In a tweet at the end of 2019, he expressed his gratitude.

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

Fuhrmann leaves behind his wife Lindi Dreibelbis; daughters Elena Fuhrmann and Angela Fuhrmann Knowles; and three siblings, Irene, David and Glen.

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-09-14/henry-fuhrmann-times-editor-dies Henry Fuhrmann, Times editor and ‘word nerd’ who fought for fairness in grammar, dies

Alley Einstein

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