baltimoresun.com

February 1, 2012

Moving on

Today You Don’t Say relocates to a new Web address and new software. You will be able to find it at http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/, where the first post, “Dunce English,” is already up.

Though no further posts are contemplated at this address, it will remain open, available for you to read previous posts and also to comment.

I hope to see all of you at the new address.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:11 PM | | Comments (5)
        

January 31, 2012

A spell of rough weather

There was a mild dustup today on the Internet over, of all things, spelling.

The rhubarb started when Anne Trubek flung down the gauntlet with a suggestion in Wired that we abandon standardized spelling in favor of something more fluid: “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity. Period. There is no additional reason, other than snobbery, for spelling rules. Computers, smartphones, and tablets are speeding the adoption of more casual forms of communication—texting is closer to speech than letter writing. But the distinction between the oral and the written is only going to become more blurry, and the future isn’t autocorrect, it’s Siri. We need a new set of tools that recognize more variations instead of rigidly enforcing outdated dogma. Let’s make our own rules. It’s not like the English language has many good ones anyway.”

The copy desk at Wired promptly picked up trhe gauntlet and entered the lists: “ Let’s concede that the rules are ‘arbitrary contrivances’” as Trubek says. The problem is that she draws the wrong conclusion. No, it doesn’t matter how we spell any given word; what matters is that we agree on some particular spelling. Standards are what make communication possible—as any network engineer will tell you. The Internet itself is a set of standards. Our spelling system, for all its oddities, is a universal, inclusive code.”

Before this ruction turns into a donnybrook, let’s keep some things clear.

Ms. Trubek is correct that English got along fine for several centuries without standardized spelling, which dates mainly from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with the spread of public education. And a good deal of what has been written in the past century—personal letters, for example—fails to observe all the orthographic niceties.

And everyone can agree that English orthography is a large shaggy, ungovernable beast, the issue of Mother Tongue’s inveterate liaisons with other tongues. Noah Webster, George Bernard Shaw, and countless other reformers have imagined that they could tame it, but it has thrown them all.

Ms. Trubek argues, in part, that spelling conventions are just snobbery, shibboleths. But, as Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster observes, cultures use shibboleths to make judgments. The making of such judgments is inescapable in the social subtexts and supratexts of language.

Besides, she gave the game away by conceding that “standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity,” which is pretty much the point that the copy editors’ response makes.

So what we are left with after this afternoon’s shindy is this: If good spelling is the most you can boast of, you are probably entitled to our sympathies. But it is useful if you would like to make yourself understood. As to English’s chaotic spelling, it might help to think of it as you do of the family you were born into. There’s only so much you can do with it.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:20 PM | | Comments (10)
        

January 30, 2012

Later this week ...

This week will see some changes to this blog as it shifts to a different software, and these are the things you will want to know

First, there will be a new address, which I’ll announce when the shift is made.

There will be an RSS feed from the new address.

The old address on the Moveable Type platform will remain open. You’ll still be able to see the old posts and comment on them. (It would be a shame to lose the epic topic drift of the “London beckons” comments of a year ago.)

Comments at the new address will not be moderated, so you will not have to wait for me to get around to noticing and approving them.

As with the other Sun blogs, you will only see a portion of the beginning of each post, which means you will have to click on each–one page view—to see the entire text.

After the changeover, I may come back around to collect any stragglers. Please let me know if you encounter any difficulties.

Your word of the week is scathing, and I would appreciate your not saying anything terribly scathing about this switch.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (9)
        

January 28, 2012

English majors to the fore!

A Tribune news brief in the January 29 Baltimore Sun:

Alejandrina Cabrera, a city council candidate in Arizona, is appealing a lower court decision that barred her from seeking office because a judge determined that her English was too poor, one of her lawyers said Saturday.

I wonder how a judge would have ruled had he been called upon to decide the qualifications of the elder Richard Daley to be mayor of Chicago on the basis of his mastery of English. Or in Baltimore, what the adjudication would have been for the late and beloved Councilman Mimi DiPietro, whose heroic struggles with intelligibility were legendary.

A few years back, I made sport of Taneytown, Maryland, as its elected representatives weighed a measure to make English the official municipal language. In angry defense, Paul Chamberlain posted this comment on the blog—I represent it verbatim:

Only individuals who have no idea of the intent of this Resolution, spew such ludicrist comments. Please feel free to email me personnally so I can enlighten you on why an Elected Official would actually be pushing forward what his Constituents are asking for and what the actual intent is for such as measure.

Imagine Mr. Chamberlain dragged in shackles before an Arizona judge, and his fate.

But I see a glimmer of hope in these proceedings for my fellow English majors, long unemployed, or under-employed in labors typically performed by illegal immigrants.

Summon them to the courts, I say. Let them serve as advocates and filers of amicus briefs and magistrates. Let candidates for public office be led before them to demonstrate their fluency with the language. Issue them badges that they may frequent news conferences and speeches with an eye to putting the bracelets on any public figure who commits syntactical misdemeanors.

We serve and correct.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:44 PM | | Comments (7)
        

January 27, 2012

Grammarnoir 1, in audio

Click on this link to listen to a podcast of the complete installments of the first Grammarnoir serial, first published in 2009 on the occasion of the first National Grammar Day.

http://www.baltimoresun.com/bal-grammar-noir-podcast-20120127,0,3990692.mp3file

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:39 PM | | Comments (2)
        

January 26, 2012

Rules of the game

Yesterday I suggested that it might be profitable to consider prescriptivists as Platonists and descriptivists as Aristotelians, a conceit that garnered some appreciative comments.

But Janet Byron Anderson, tweeting as @janetbyronander, was not impressed: “ IMO, the dichotomy isn't helpful. A descriptivist who writes and publishes has to respect, guess what, RULES!” and “A prescriptivist who writes, publishes has to respect, guess what, a language's anatomy.”

Not entirely sure of the import of the second tweet, but I don’t plan to guess what. She got me to think about rules, because the people who are shocked whenever I try to be reasonable about language brandish the Rules and accuse me of turning my coat.

But the Rules are not of a piece, and there are different categories, with varying weights, among the things people think of rules:

Unnoticed rules: Unless you are learning English as a second language as an adult, there is a whole network of subterranean rules of grammar that most native speakers never think about. The order of adjectives is an example.

Explicit rules: There are many of them, but they are often complex, with many exceptions and variations. Try to explain subject-verb agreement to a non-native speaker, making clear how “Ham and eggs are my favorite breakfast combination” and “Ham and eggs does not constitute a healthy breakfast” are both grammatically acceptable.

Conventions: Writers in the eighteenth century regularly inserted a comma between the subject and verb in a sentence. We don’t any longer. English orthography is a swamp of maddening conventions. And they, too, are subject to change; we no longer write to-day and to-morrow.

Superstitions: The things Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—no stranded prepositions, no split infinitives, none always a singular—have been exploded and rejected, not only by the descriptivist tribe, but by a multitude of prescriptivists. And yet, given a ghastly immortality by generations of defective schoolroom teaching, they persist against all reason.

Shibboleths: There are many usages that are not wrong but which people seeking advantage over their fellows preen themselves on avoiding. Ain’t, I suppose, is the classic example, hopefully a comparatively recent addition—though the peevers maintain a vast and ever-increasing store.

House style: These are the narrow conventions that individual publications or publishing houses insist on. They are very specific for legal, medical, scientific, and technical publications. And, of course, there are those sad souls on copy desks who think that the Associated Press Stylebook belongs on the shelf with the statutes of Hammurabi and Justinian.

Individual aesthetic preferences: Everyone has them, and tinpot authorities—managing editors, self-appointed Guardians of the Language, that ilk—love to impose them on the weak and unwary.

So when Ms. Anderson demands that I respect the RULES, I would appreciate knowing to which of these categories she refers.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:34 AM | | Comments (3)
        

January 25, 2012

A new taxonomy

Are you weary of the prescriptivist/descriptivist false dichotomy? I know I am. Try a fresh taxonomy.

Hard-core prescriptivists, like the members of the risible Queen’s English Society, are Platonic idealists. Though they will grudgingly concede that language changes over time, they still think that English is an external, pure reality, of which our daily jabberings and scribblings are but a smudged shadow.

When they talk about establishing an academy or some other authority to realize the ideal in our mortal world, you can see, as in the Republic, just how disagreeable the result would be.

Descriptivists and moderate prescriptivists (like your most humble & obed’t. servant), by contrast are empirical Aristotelians, examining the world as it is and making efforts to classify it and understand its operations.

So, here are the loaded dice. Play with them.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:11 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Cocking a snoot

Please excuse my neglect of you this week, but my custom is, when I have nothing to say, to say nothing.*

Today I want to explain why Bryan Garner’s tweeting as a snoot troubles me a little.

Mr. Garner, whose excellent guide to English usage I have repeatedly commended to my students and colleagues, takes the term snoot from the late David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” which has been collected in Consider the Lobster. SNOOT was a family acronym, variously explained, for Wallace’s family custom of identifying other people’s errors in grammar and usage.

Mr. Wallace explains: “There are lots of epithets for people like this—Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it.”

SNOOTs are “just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd.” They “combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly literate adults.”

You get the drift.

Mr. Garner is tweeting SNOOTitude about both written and spoken English, viz., “If you say 'anyways' instead of 'anyway,' you're no snoot." “If you write ‘wet the appetite,’ you're no snoot. The correct phrase is ‘whet the appetite.’ ”

You get the drift.

It’s harmless enough, and informative, but I wince a little every time he expresses the snoot view. The source of discomfort can be identified in a passage from the Wallace essay: “We know how very few other Americans know this stuff or even care, and we judge them accordingly.”

This reminds me of my callow youth, when, as a weedy, unprosperous English major, I was a thoroughgoing and unrepentant snob about language, having little else with which to prop up any sense of superiority. It has been a continuing struggle over the years to get free of that tendency, with many lapses.

We do, of course, judge people every day, by their clothes, their accents, their choices of food and drink and how they consume them, their income, their neighborhoods, their social class, their education, their taste in music, their automobiles. We are human, and we all do that. It is a way of sorting out the world. But such judgments, we have to keep reminding ourselves, are always partial, and superficial.

Both David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner use snoot in a light, playful, ironic way, knowing perfectly well what attitudes snooty represents. It’s their attempt to have it both ways that leaves me itching.

I remind my students every semester that I don’t care how they talk or how they text. Not my bailiwick. What I care about is how they write and edit for publication. Professionally, I “judge accordingly” how texts for publication are appropriate for the subject, the publication, and the audience. Those are the matters for which I come to the bench to pronounce judgment—and even there we don’t wear the black cap any longer.

 

*I might, however, have reminded you Monday that the word of the week, cozen, was available.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (1)
        

January 23, 2012

Best-of joke of the week: "The Remarkable Pig"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:19 AM | | Comments (1)
        

January 22, 2012

Rules of the road

When I asked readers whether there are subjects they would like to see addressed here, one expressed interest in my “takes on life in and around Baltimore City,” For that reader I want to explain my satisfaction in the increasing number of speed cameras and red-light cameras in the city.

In the main, Baltimore drivers are like American drivers everywhere. They see use of the turn signal as a sign of weakness. Those who drive SUVs imagine that the purchase of a large, expensive, vulgar piece of machinery grants an exemption from Newton’s laws of motion. No one understands the meaning of signs advising YIELD—perhaps too many letters?

But it is distinctive here that one of the favorite local pastimes is driving through red lights and stop signs. That is why the informal rules of the road here, as opposed to those fussy statutes that no one pays much mind to, require you to pause one beat, two beats, three beats, after the light turns green before proceeding.

I observed the Baltimore Pause one day at the intersection of Harford Road and Hamilton Avenue and still was nearly broadsided by a woman sailing through the intersection. (She was gabbing on a cellphone at the time. The prohibition against talking on a cellphone while operating an automobile is another of those fussy little statutes.)

So I welcomed the arrival of the red-light cameras, which have had some effect in curtailing the practice.

Then came the speed cameras, which have produced howls of outrage. A couple of my colleagues, The Sun’s esteemed local columnist Dan Rodricks and the estimable business columnist Jay Hancock, have railed against speed cameras in print, suggesting that they are an infringement on personal liberty and a low scheme to fill municipal coffers.

I demur. I drive to and from work on stretches of Perring Parkway and Hillen Road that some drivers apparently mistake for the Bonneville salt flats. I once turned the corner at Hillen Road and 31st Street to see an SUV lying upside down in the median—and wondered just how fast one has to be traveling to accomplish that.

The speed cameras are set so that you don’t get nicked until you exceed twelve miles in excess of the posted limit. That’s thirty-five on the broader streets, twenty-five on neighborhood streets and the more crowded areas. So I figure if your need is so urgent to be doing fifty or fifty-five miles an hour on a city street, you ought to be in an ambulance, not an automobile.*

As to the money, I have suggested before, and repeat here, that drivers who get dinged for exceeding the speed limit might just think about the fine as a toll. People who want to get somewhere faster pay for the privilege on the Dulles Toll Road and the Intercounty Connector. If you want to drive fast in Baltimore, go ahead. And pony up.

 

*I, too, have been nicked. Preoccupied, I exceeded the limit and got caught by a speed camera near a school and paid the forty-dollar-fine, taking it as a reminder of the unwisdom of driving while distracted.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (3)
        

January 21, 2012

The need not to know

I remarked the other day on Twitter and Facebook, “I find myself operating more and more on a need-not-to-know basis.” Let me flesh that out a little.

I am on a permanent need-not-to-know setting for the entire Kardashian family, their retainers, minions, and devotees.

For similar reasons, I do not require further information about the squalid career arc of Lindsay Lohan. I already have Scott Fitzgerald as a cautionary example, and a more interesting one, of youthful promise blighted.

With luck, it will now be several months before Tim Tebow is much talked about again. No particular animus here—he seems like a serious and devout and athletic young gentleman. It’s just that ostentatious public displays of piety are not to my taste.

Neither, apparently, to the Founder’s (Matthew 6:5-6).

It’s nice that you are cooking a tasty dinner for yourself or the family, but unless you are prepared to divulge recipes or cookery techniques, I do not need to be informed on Facebook.

The same with what you’re drinking, unless you’re buying.

What anyone wore on the red carpet.

Public non-apology apologies (“I’m sorry if I offended anyone”) can be dispensed with as a waste of time, attention, and breath.

I am fairly sure that there is no information I need in any online top-x-number list that demands a separate page view for each item to jack up the site’s page view count.

Make that any top-x-number list.

As you have likely concluded from previous posts, published fulminations about how the Young People/Twitter/slang/whatnot are “destroying the language” may be safely ignored. And should be.

Peeves. I have little or no interest in your pet peeves. Probably you have no interest in mine, which makes this post something for your need-not-to-know list.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:11 PM | | Comments (17)
        

January 20, 2012

Test your wits

The holidays past, the winter doldrums upon us, some distraction, some entertainment, some event would be welcome. Let me suggest, if you are local, Quiz Night at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson.

It is tomorrow night, January 21, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. or so. For $20 a person, you will get an excellent dinner—you may want to supply your own booze and a few snacks—and an opportunity to pit your wits with the teammates at your table against the competing tables.

The quizzes themselves, some questions easy, some questions challenging, over a variety of topics, have been compiled by an expert quizmaster, who will preside over the activities.

There is no point in being coy here; I am the quizmaster.

Trinity Church is at 120 Allegheny Avenue in Towson. You can call the church office today at 410-823-3588 to reserve space at a table for yourself or your party. Or you could show up a little before 6 p.m. tomorrow and a place will be found for you.

Proceeds go toward the expenses for the church’s youth group’s pilgrimage, so your evening of entertainment will also benefit a worthy cause.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (9)
        

January 19, 2012

Send me a man who reads

The more [cough] seasoned [cough] readers in the audience will recognize the headline for this post as the tag from a series the International Paper Company ran in magazines back in the 1960s. It intended to foster the idea that readers were inherently better employees and more successful.

It was also repunctuated by some wag to represent a more characteristic American attitude: “Send me a man. Who reads?”

I think of that slogan at the start of every semester, when I distribute to my editing students a form on which they are invited to give me contact information and a few facts about themselves to help me get some sense of who they are. One of the things I ask for is the title of the last book they read for amusement—the last book they read that was not assigned for a class.

I have learned, in the interest of economizing classroom time, to add, “If it takes you longer than thirty second to remember the last book you read, leave that item blank.”

Someone always does. Sometimes a handful.

The idea that we have undergraduates who don’t read books distresses me. Of course, I know that they do read. They don’t spend quite all their time keeping up with the Kardashians. They read in print and electronically. They read articles.* They read blog posts. They exchange these items on Facebook and elsewhere.

But reading a book, even a popular novel, requires some measure of sustained attention, and reading a serious book requires concentration and intellectual effort to comprehend and absorb the material. This is the same kind of concentration and assimilation that are required if one is to edit texts analytically, and that is why I have an interest in my students’ reading habits.

Just as one worries about students who are conservative in college—what in God’s name will they be like when they’re fifty?—one worries about students who are not building up their intellectual capital and skills at a time when they have leisure and opportunity.

 

*This morning I saw an undergraduate student reaching for a newspaper. A printed newspaper! It was almost as exciting as if I had spotted a passenger pigeon feeding.

And please, I’m not just bashing undergraduates here. Many of my colleagues and acquaintances do not seem to be hitting the books all that hard, either.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:54 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Do that voodoo that who do

A suggestion came yesterday from Heidi Landecker at the Chronicle of Higher Education that I might return to the who/whom matter. She referred me to a post at Lingua Franca, the Chronicle’s blog on language.

Glancing at the beginning of that post, in which a reader scolded Geoffrey Pullum for a sentence beginning “Who are you supposed to trust,” I sent out a tweet: “Some fool is challenging Geoffrey Pullum over ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ There'll be nothing left but a smear on the carpeting.”

As it turns out, Professor Pullum was uncharacteristically subdued, pointing out that English has registers, that whom is now generally limited to the formal register, supplanted by who in the normal register. For “normal,” read “informal” or “conversational,” the register in which most non-academic, non-legal writing is performed.

It is scarcely a state secret that whom is on the way out and has been for some time. One mark is that even educated writers regularly get whom wrong, using it instead of who when the pronoun is the subject of a clause that is itself the object of a verb or preposition.* One cannot pinpoint the day and the hour on which it will look and sound as archaic as thou and thee, but it is clear that that day is approaching. I’ve been there before.

One commenter at Lingua Franca, nordicexpat, someone more impressed by empirical information than shibboleths and peeves, did a little checking and found this:

There's almost always a significant difference between what people say and what they think they say, which is why linguists increasingly use corpora (a collection of texts in machine readable form) rather than intuition to support their claims. If you check the Corpus of Contemporary American English (a 425 million word corpus) you will only find 150 examples of "whom" appearing at the beginning of a sentence. If you limit your search to spoken English, the number drops down to 23. If you look at the British National Corpus (a 100 million word corpus), you will find only 20 examples of "whom" appearing at the beginning of a sentence. And, again, if you limit the search to spoken English, the number drops down to 3. While I am sure that there are many people who say that would readily use "whom" instead of "who" in a construction like "Whom are you supposed to trust?" the simple fact of the matter is that not many people do.

Of course, everything reasonable is ignored, as one can see by a comment from one Sandy Thatcher:

Is Normal governed by any norms at all, or is this just a free-for-all, viz., anything that anyone thinks is ok in any given context is thereby ok? Do we abandon subject-verb agreement? Do we accept the lazy failure to distinguish "less" and "few"? Are we ok with the illogic of people saying "center around"? I get the point about appropriateness for context, but once you are on that slope, where do you stop sliding?

This is typical of the one-drip-in-the-dike-and-all-Holland-is-underwater attitude that one gets in discussions of usage. Evidently our entire educational system is so flawed that educated, literate adults feel unable to make informed judgments about the use of their own language and cling to the schoolroom grammatical voodoo of their childhood.

 

*Oh, you want to see how it works? Try this: Unless you pay attention to the evidence, you’ll fail to recognize who knows what they’re talking about. (Yeah, singular they, too. Choke it down.)

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:12 AM | | Comments (3)
        

January 18, 2012

What's your pleasure?

At Johnson, R.L.G. invites readers to suggest what he should blog about. It would be unworthy to suggest that he does this to spark some reader-generated content on a day when inspiration flags.

But that’s precisely the case with me. I’m happy to make the same offer. Some of you are already in the habit of sending me links, questions, suggestions, alarums. So I’ll always take requests.

I make that offer partly out of apprehension that I go on too much about the same things. That is why I suggest that if you are upset about Wikipedia’s being unavailable today during the protest against SOPA, you could give a try at consulting reputable sources. But I’m not going to fulminate about the unreliability of Wikipedia as I have so often in the past.

 

Reminder: What with the holiday and the delayed posting, and then the first day of classes* followed by making all those paragraphs yesterday, I’ve neglected to remind you that your word of the week is available. It’s pleonasm. Cozen is already cued up for next week, but we needn’t get ahead of ourselves.

 

*Those young people worry me. If they are just going to sit there staring at me for the next twelve weeks of classes, it’s going to be a long slog. There is, however, one who appears to recognize jokes, which is faintly encouraging.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:15 PM | | Comments (8)
        

January 17, 2012

And so it begins

Today is the first day of spring term classes at Loyola.

In a quarter of an hour I will walk into a classroom and once more deliver the Harangue.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:04 AM | | Comments (0)
        

January 16, 2012

Best-of joke of the week: "The Castaway"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (1)
        

January 14, 2012

The mark of scorn

You will excuse me for not getting exercised over the decision by Waterstone’s the British bookseller, to drop the apostrophe from its name.* The Apostrophe Protection Society appears to have its knickers in a twist, as it has in the past over Harrods. Not me.

The society has its work cut out for it. The semicolon has its defenders, and needs them, because that punctuation mark appears to inspire dislike or unease. The lowly comma—It’s a pause mark! It’s a syntax mark! It’s both!—falls into the hands of undergraduates who think they can make texts error-free with promiscuous comma insertion. But the apostrophe has more trouble and causes more trouble than any other feature of punctuation.

Its dual functions, indicating possession and elision, get entangled. You can make letters plural—all A’s—and numbers (in some stylebooks)—1980’s—but if you make nouns plural you get the scorned greengrocer’s apostrophe—melon’s. If you make proper nouns plural—the Smith’s—you demonstrate past inattention in English class.

It often drops out of place names—the Fell’s Point/Fells Point thing in Baltimore gives rise to the occasional kerfuffle—and appears inconsistently in maps and signage.

Of all the errors, the most common is the it’s/its blunder—It’s just a spelling mistake! It’s an illiteracy! It’s more than the one and less than the other—catches everyone who writes, because it takes very little for the wrong neuron to fire.

The reason, David Crystal explains in a link provided by Stan Carey,** is that the apostrophe is relatively new to English, its uses were only codified in the nineteenth century, and people have had trouble applying it from the start to the present.

It is a mess and a muddle, and eliminating all the inconsistencies is a doomed venture.

Therefore, little ones, here’s some advice from Mr. John.

Don’t obsess about Waterstones and Harrods and other commercial ventures that may or may not use the apostrophe. Branding is its own little world. Spare yourself stress by not fretting over signage and menus and the other public places where the apostrophe has been omitted or improperly inserted. It’s not your business, and you couldn’t fix it all anyhow.

Put your head down and make sure you know what you’re doing in your own writing. Watch out for the it’s/its error, because you know you’re going to make it sooner or later. Check whatever style guide you use to find out when you want to make plurals with the apostrophe and stick to it. Other people’s results may vary. That’s all right. You can’t weed the world, but you can cultivate your garden.

 

*Stan Carey has a sensible post about this matter at Sentence First, with links. If you are not regularly reading Mr. Carey’s thoughtful posts on language, you are missing the good stuff.

**Didn’t I already tell you to go to Stan Carey’s blog?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (24)
        

January 12, 2012

Stay away from question heads

One of the best reasons to avoid question headlines: They invite mischief.

A Baltimore Twitter account tweeted a link to a website with this unconvincing come-on: “Do you want to know the 3 types of commercial landlords?”

I RT’d, asking, “Venal, negligent, and predatory?”

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:57 PM | | Comments (1)
        

What the Dickens

It falls to my lot to write little front-page capsules for The Sun, directing readers to articles of interest inside the paper. Last night, one of the likelier-looking ones was John Fritze’s article explaining that veteran congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Western Maryland had made clear his intention to run for re-election in his remapped district. I summarized that and, for the boldface lead-in, wrote: BARTLETT IS WILLING.

Today I learn from Mr. Fritze that a number of readers wrote to him to say that the allusion to Dickens* had gladdened their hearts.

It’s just a little thing, but it illustrates what must be done to make an allusion effective. The allusion must work on its own, not depending on the reader’s catching an echo. For the reader who does, the allusion is an additional treat, a lagniappe.

 

*For the non- Dickens-inclined: In David Copperfield, the minor character Barkis expresses his matrimonial interest in Peggotty by saying, “Barkis is willin’.”

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:51 PM | | Comments (5)
        

January 11, 2012

Watch this space

I’m pleased to tell you that work has begun on “Grammarnoir 4: Final Edition.”

As previously, it will appear on this blog in a series of weekly installments, beginning in February and concluding on March 4, National Grammar Day.

Today, for you, a little taste, a paragraph from Part 1, “A belle in the night”:

“This is quite satisfactory,” she said, adjusting her skirt to allow me to admire the line of her thigh. Her vocabulary was Downton Abbey, but her accent was Keeping Up With the Kardashians. Her clothes said Saks, but her eyes said floozy. The little cross at her throat murmured piety, but what the decolletage blared was entirely secular.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:44 AM | | Comments (10)
        

January 9, 2012

Gag me with a copy editor

I think it’s fair to say that Benjamin J. Marrison, editor of The Columbus Dispatch, is forthright. Here is what he said in an article in yesterday’s editions: “Thursday’s front page made me want to vomit.”

Thursday’s front page misspelled the first name of the president of the United States, twice. And Mr. Marrison went on to recount other instances of embarrassing errors creeping into his pages.

I’m not going to badmouth The Dispatch, where I have been a guest on a couple of occasions, and some of whose copy editors I have known for years and whose chagrin I can share. What Mr. Marrison describes can happen, and does happen, at any newspaper. At any publication. That is why I’d like to address the situation broadly, beyond The Dispatch.

The brutal fact is that American newspapers, coping with drastically shrinking revenue, have drastically reduced the levels of editing, with a concomitant increase in errors, slipshod writing, and other defects. Copy editing, in particular, was seen at the corporate level as a cost center, an expensive frill, money wasted on people obsessing with commas. Copy desk staffs have been decimated, more than once, or eliminated outright with the work transferred to distant “hubs,” where, unlike Cheers, nobody knows your name.

So let me pose a couple of topics for publishers and editors to consider.

It seems clear from the reports of the few remaining ombudsmen (another frill) that readers are complaining about errors in print and seeing their number increase. One of the unexamined assumptions of the War on Editing is that readers, comfortable with the lack of editing standards on the Internet, would be fine with low-grade stuff in print. I know that newspapers notoriously do little audience research, but have you made any effort to determine whether this is actually the case? Do errors make your readers want to vomit, too?

The other unexamined assumption was that, with the elimination of copy editors, reporters would pull up their socks and make greater efforts at accuracy, knowing that there would be fewer checks on their articles. How’s that working out for you?* Anybody holding the reporters responsible? (Remember that what is everyone’s job is usually no one’s job.)

Newspapers are struggling to learn new tricks. They are beginning to adjust to Web-first publication instead of holding on to stories for hours-old appearance in print. They are trying to juggle photo, video, Web, and print, though they have not yet figured out how to do so efficiently. They are beginning the attempt to engage with readers through social media. And they are doing this with fewer people than they have had in decades. It’s very difficult.

One can hope that in time, as they master the new tricks, they will relearn some old ones: accuracy, clarity, quality.

 

*I know that at The Sun I find typos and other errors in the SEO (search engine optimization) fields of articles reaching the copy desk. Since those articles are approved for the Web before reaching the copy desk, Google and the other aggregators that have made a pass at those articles will have picked up the errors and spread them abroad.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:08 PM | | Comments (20)
        

A little light housekeeping

Sorry to have no video joke on offer this week. The holiday staffing schedules got in the way of recording, but the joke of the week will return next week.

There is still time for you to sign up for “Charged Language: Dealing with the Unspeakable in Copy,” my audio conference for Copyediting newsletter. It runs 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. this Thursday, January 12, and you’ll have an opportunity to express your own concerns and views about dealing with profanity, vulgarisms, euphemisms, and similarly ticklish topics.

Sometime this month You Don’t Say will move to a different software platform. The Movable Type software on which you are reading it now is aging and creaky, and You Don’t Say is about to shift to the software used by most of The Sun’s other blogs. There will be advantages—and, I regret to say—disadvantages to this shift. I will give you further details when the changeover is closer.

One of my favorite recent tweets is from Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster: “Don't defend your dislike of a word by calling it ‘wrong.’ Opinion is unassailable; misstatement is not. I have facts and a trebuchet.” My advice: Don’t mess with lexicographers.

Your word of the week is fustian.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 AM | | Comments (1)
        

January 8, 2012

A nation of immigrants hates immigration

My colleague Steve Kilar has an article in today’s Sun about the likelihood that encouraging immigration is the only means by which Baltimore can hope to replenish its diminishing population. The arguments put forth in the article seem plausible enough, but I want to focus a little on the sadly predictable comments.

It is apparently an article of faith for many people that immigrants come to this country to live luxuriously off welfare, supported by the native white working class, whose jobs they are taking away.*

Of course, anyone whose last name is German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, or Asian in origin is very likely descended from immigrants who were widely despised as trash—lazy, improvident, dirty, and unable to speak or write proper English.

Assimilation over a couple of generations is well attested. But this fantasy of a horde living large off the rest of us makes it difficult for people to cope with the realities. Assimilation is only one of them.

Another is that many of these illegal immigrants are working, are in fact performing tasks that are too unpleasant or ill-paid to attract the native-born. Many of them are also paying part of their wages into Social Security, buoying up that system.

But the most difficult reality to cope with is the number. If the estimate of about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States is correct, there is no way that a population of that size can be excised without enormous ill consequences. It would require establishment of a police state beyond anything ever seen in this country, and the economic dislocation of the removal of that labor force would be immense.

George W. Bush recognized this, and his attempt to deal forthrightly with the issue was thwarted by his own party. Any sensible effort by anyone else is immediately shouted down by xenophobic, racist demagogy, of the sort supplied by the commenters on Mr. Kilar’s article.

It will take people with courage to address the issue effectively, but courage has not been on abundant display in the recent political scene.

 

*That people are able to hold these two ideas simultaneously says something about their mental processes, but we go on. This article also gives the commenters an opportunity to scorn the impoverished, dangerous, crime-ridden, black/Hispanic city, but we’ll give the racism a pass this time as well. Although, the readers who bash Baltimore might want to take note that the level of immigration in Baltimore Country is greater than that in the city. The white fastness may not be as secure as they think.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:26 PM | | Comments (9)
        

January 7, 2012

How work sustains us

A cheerful reflection to brighten your day, from one of Philip Larkin’s letters:

“One wakes up wanting to cut one’s throat; one goes to work, & in 15 minutes one wants to cut someone else’s—complete cure!”

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:25 PM | | Comments (8)
        
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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