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January 30, 2006

You could look it up

If you are interested in consulting works on language and usage, these sources are helpful. Just keep in mind that there are numerous points on which the authorities do not agree, and you, like editors, will have to exercise judgment and taste.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. Perhaps the single most comprehensive single-volume reference for the American writer and editor. It is sensible and evenhanded. Some entries give more academic-historical information than you may want.

R.W. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Updated, with contemporary lexicographical information by a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, but still with a strong British cast.

Garner’s Modern American Usage is an updated and expanded edition of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. It is handy, sensible and conversational in tone. It is the work to which I usually turn first. Mr. Garner is also the author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter in the 15th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style.

H.W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. British and dated, but a fundamental work. Perhaps the only reference book on grammar and usage ever to be read widely for amusement.

Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage. Less fun than Fowler, but more up to date.

Ken Smith’s Junk English. Trenchant, impatient and passionate.

John Bremner’s Words on Words. The author is not as amusing as he imagined himself to be (Neither, sadly, am I), but his advice remains sound.

Bill Walsh’s Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – And How to Avoid Them. Material from The Slot Web site converted into a book. Up to date, sensible, and not nearly as cranky as the subtitle would suggest. His second book, The Elephants of Style, also repays attention.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly, is at variance with Associated Press conventions followed at most newspapers, but its advice on the language is shrewd and thoughtful. Worth having and consulting.

Theodore M. Bernstein’s The Careful Writer. Somewhat dated, but still useful.

Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. I have a sentimental attachment to the 1962 edition on my shelf. I’m not persuaded that the updated editions are equally successful.

The appendix on grammar in Webster’s New World Dictionary is a useful summary.
Laura Kessler and Duncan McDonald’s When Words Collide, fourth edition.
The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition.
The standard Harbrace College Handbook.
Edward P.J. Corbett’s The Little Rhetoric and Handbook. Sage and succinct.
Frederick Crews’ Random House Handbook. A college textbook, but comprehensive, clear and literate.
Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s The Well-Tempered Sentence and The Transitive Vampire. Great fun — worth reading for the example sentences alone.

For a history of the development of the English language, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal is highly readable.

In our time, to be “innumerate” — mathematically illiterate — is as dangerous as any other form of illiteracy, and newspapers tend to be particularly innumerate. To remedy that, consult two useful books by John Allen Paulos, Innumeracy and A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper.


Three of my colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society maintain Web logs that you might find worth a look.

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, whose books are mentioned above, runs Blogslot.

Nicole Stockdale of The Dallas Morning News maintains A Capital Idea.

Douglas Fisher of the University of South Carolina writes Common Sense Journalism.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:48 PM | | Comments (2)

January 26, 2006

Irritations: The false range

A tic that many journalists appear unable to resist is to assemble a list of disparate items inappropriately linked by the construction range from ... to or ranging from … to. Here are some typical examples.

Some scientists believe that embryonic stem cells, which can form different types of body cells, could help provide cures for a range of illnesses from Lou Gehrig's to Parkinson's diseases.

You start the game as an up-and-coming rocker and use the miniature Gibson SG guitar controller to play along with a musical soundtrack of tunes that range from Black Sabbath to Franz Ferdinand.

Pupils write the skits and plays that deal with topics ranging from bullies to drugs to divorce.

Millions of copies of self-help books, by writers ranging from the Dalai Lama to M. Scott Peck, have been purchased by readers seeking road maps to happiness.

What is the continuum on which one can place the Dalai Lama and M. Scott Peck, Lou Gehrig’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, Black Sabbath and Franz Ferdinand? The construction the writers could have used more precisely is that these authors, diseases, performers, topics, whatever are as diverse as.

To have a range requires a set of objects, persons, topics or attributes within a limited set.

The proverbial phrase from soup to nuts means the whole thing, an entire dinner considered as a sequence of courses.

When Samuel Johnson opened The Vanity of Human Wishes by writing, “Let Observation with extensive View,/ Survey Mankind, from China to Peru," China and Peru stand for the entire globe, as a progression through the nations.

Prices can have ranges; heights and weights can have ranges: specific points along a line with an identifiable beginning and end.

My learned colleague, Bill Walsh, expresses the same irritation in The Elephants of Style, but in still moments of the night I fear that he and I and other editors are no more effective than King Canute ordering the tide to stay its motion.

Still, if you also have irritations that you would like to see vented here, please feel free to share.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:11 AM | | Comments (9) | TrackBacks (1)

January 24, 2006

The wayward comma

“Comma jockey” is one of the derisive terms by which copy editors are sometimes described. But if we don’t ride them, who will?

The problem with commas is that they serve two distinct functions that are easily confused.

Some commas serve essential syntactical purposes, such as marking the beginning and end of an appositive phrase. Omitting one of them can confuse readers and force them to back up, making that distracting beeping sound.

Some commas are purely discretionary, representing the writer’s sense of where a pause should fall, particularly in the representation of spoken language. In this understanding, punctuation is analogous to rests in musical notation: the comma an equivalent of an eighth note, a semicolon a quarter note, a colon a half note, and a period, or full stop, a whole note. 

This is the kind of comma that James Thurber describes, explaining why Harold Ross, the editor of The New Yorker, would countenance a comma in the sentence, "After dinner, the men went into the living room." Thurber, in The Years with Ross, says that the comma was "Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up."

Any given text is likely to display both functions of the comma.

What is a little bewildering is the tendency of many writers to omit the comma where it is necessary to mark the separation of independent clauses and to insert it in compound predicates where it is unnecessary.

In The reporter completed his story in good time, and his editor moved it to the copy desk in good shape, the comma before the coordinating conjunction and is essential for syntactical purposes. In The reporter completed his story in good time and left a number at which he could be reached, there is no grammatical need to insert a comma before and, though many misguided writers would. 

As for the dreaded-in-English-classes comma-splice run-on sentence, in which two independent clauses are linked by a feeble comma rather than the sturdier semicolon, British writers are addicted to it in all contexts, and American writers favor it in the representation of speech. All others, beware.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (2)

January 19, 2006

More in sorrow than in snarking

There it glared from the front page, a boldface headline over a photo caption. Icemen cometh.

Not the front page of The Sun, but the cover of a paper I respect, among whose copy editors I number many admired colleagues. And yet someone missed that the –eth suffix in English is applied only to third-person singular verbs. He, she or it cometh. No one or no thing else.

This particular blunder is common among writers striving for an ill-advised archaic effect. Never mind that affecting the tone of the Authorized Version of the Bible (That’s what it says on the title page, not King James Version) is usually ineffective unless you are the Monty Python troupe. Never mind that alluding to Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, a play known more widely for its title than for its content, is a cliche, and probably a damnable one. If you must attempt this, at least get the grammar right.

While I am carping about false archaisms, let me mention ye, which turns up in signs for faux-Colonial enterprises, viz., Ye Olde Booke Shoppe, and which people tend to pronounce as yee.

There was a runic character in Middle English called the thorn, which stood for the th sound. Manuscripts often represented the thorn as a letter resembling y, and early printers, who lacked a thorn character in their fonts, also used a y in abbreviated forms of the, that, they and them. It was almost certainly meant to be pronounced as th.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, from which this information has been extracted, suggests that “few things could be less important than a disquisition on the pronunciation of antiquarian ye, but a fair number of commentators have troubled themselves to remark on the subject, and they have disagreed.”

What it is safe to say is that the facetious use of ye for the is, like the –eth suffix, a stale gimmick best avoided.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:46 AM | | Comments (2)

January 16, 2006

Misplaced elegance

Baltimore looks for prestige, for a little extra cache, or so a recent article suggested before the copy desk got at it.

The right word, of course, is cachet, pronounced ka-SHAY. A cache, pronounced kash, is a place where supplies are hidden for safety, or the supplies themselves. As a verb, to cache means to store something in a hidden place, as campers hide their food in a place where bears won’t find it.

This particular confusion of usage is more common than one would like to think, and The Sun has inveighed against it in Publish and Be Damned, our in-house newsletter on writing and editing. Apparently to little effect.

Cachet, in the sense of possessing distinction, derives from the same root as cache. In pre-Revolutionary France, the crown used the lettre de cachet, a secret, sealed letter containing a warrant, to imprison someone without trial. The cachet was the seal that kept the letter secret. A cachet has thus come to mean a seal or stamp on a document and, by extension from the lettre de cachet, a mark of official approval. Odd that a negative connotation should metamorphose into a positive, but that is how language works.

Why anyone would confuse the two words is obscure, but I suspect that some responsibility must fall to Cache, a retailer of women’s fashions that has added an acute accent to cache to suggest cachet. Now you see the peril of allowing retailers to influence English usage. (Macy’s uses a little star instead of an apostrophe in its logo, but that doesn’t mean that you should use little stars instead of apostrophes.)

Seek instead the prestige that comes to those hardy souls who use words in their correct senses.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:46 PM | | Comments (3)

January 12, 2006

Everyone is entitled to his/her/their opinion

A knotty difficulty in contemporary English usage is exemplified in a sentence that I use in my copy editing class at Loyola.

Anyone who tells you they know when this craziness will be resolved is kidding themselves.

The mixture of singular and plural pronouns and verbs has traditionally been regarded as an error in grammar. The problem is that the indefinite pronouns anyone, everyone, etc., do not have a corresponding indefinite singular objective or possessive pronoun. In English we have only his/him, hers/her and them/their. (It/its, being neuter and non-human, are ruled out.)

The ways out of the difficulty are all unsatisfactory.

The traditional remedy is to make all the pronouns masculine: Anyone who tells you he knows when this craziness will be resolved is kidding himself. But this practice, which Henry Fowler called “an arrogant demand on the part of male England,” violates the contemporary decorum of acknowledging that there are women in the human race.

The traditional remedy plus balance is ungainly: Anyone who tells you he or she knows when this craziness will be resolved is kidding himself or herself.

The modern equivocation is to take refuge in the plural: People who tell you they know when this craziness will be resolved are kidding themselves.

The gathering momentum is to accept everyone … they constructions, for which there is abundant precedent in English. R.W. Burchfield in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage cites a passage by Samuel Johnson, and other latitudinarians recall that Jane Austen was fond of every body … their.

But though the indefinite they has become commonplace and acceptable in British usage, it remains a stench in the nostrils of American purists. That, as Bryan Garner remarks in Garner’s Modern American Usage, leaves “a happy solution elusive.”

Like the national debt, this remains a problem for our children and grandchildren to resolve.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:15 AM | | Comments (6)

January 10, 2006

What they taught you was wrong

As Will Rogers said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”

We sometimes get complaints from our readers about things that are not wrong. Unfortunately, generations of English teachers have taught what H.W. Fowler termed “superstitions” or “fetishes” — “unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

In Garner’s Modern American Usage, one of the most sensible and useful manuals on usage currently available, Bryan Garner presents his nominees for the top ten superstitions of English usage. Among them:

Never split an infinitive or a verb phrase (auxiliary form and main verb).

Never end a sentence with a preposition.   

Never begin a sentence with “and” or “but.”

Never use “since” to mean “because.”

These and other shibboleths have been embedded in grammar books for a long time, and their origins, which you can find described in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, are interesting. In the 18th century, when an emerging middle class was making money and coming into political power, it created a market for books on how to use English properly. The people who set the standards had, of course, been educated in Latin and Greek (English not having become a university subject until the end of the 19th century), and they thought that to be correct, English grammar had to follow the grammar of the classical languages. John Dryden, for example, saw that Latin sentences do not end with prepositions, and so he concluded that English sentences ought not.

English is complicated enough on its own. There’s no need to struggle over rules that are not really rules.    

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

January 6, 2006

An aroma of skunk

Some words you use at your own risk.

In the 1970s and 1980s in particular, beginning a sentence with "hopefully" would draw glares and sneers from purists. An adverb of emotion, they might patiently lecture, cannot be used to modify a whole sentence. It is the speaker who is hopeful, not the sentence.

Sadly, they were wrong. (See?)

And yet, though "hopefully" is a satisfactory substitute for the stilted "it is to be hoped that" or "one hopes that," and has been in widespread use in American English for more than seventy years, it is best avoided. Not because it is wrong, but because so many people have made it a shibboleth of usage.

It is, to use Bryan Garner’s label in Garner’s Modern American Usage, a "skunked term." The change in meaning from "in a hopeful manner" to "it is to be hoped that" is recent enough that traditionalists scorn it, no matter how widely it is current. If you use it, you will provoke them, and it is not in your interest to cheese off any group of readers if you don’t have to.

"Contact," the "hopefully" of its day, went through a similar process. It was originally a vogue term among business people in advertising and similar fields, and using it in the 1940s and 1950s marked the speaker as a vulgarian. As the means of getting in contact have multiplied, it has become innocuous. Only a handful of mossbacks would be likely to complain about it today.

Newspapers, including this one, were caught short earlier this year when "refugee" very quickly became a skunked term when applied to victims of Hurricane Katrina. The victims, along with their advocates and sympathizers, thought that "refugee" injured their dignity by equating them with impoverished residents of the Third World. Use of "refugee," though technically correct and eminently defensible, was abandoned in articles about Katrina, for the sound reason that a word that must be explained and defended at every use is a word to be avoided.

Editors, like generals, have to be able to see when it is most prudent to retreat.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:06 PM | | Comments (0)

January 2, 2006

Ain't it the truth

You and your beloved are dining for the first time with your beloved’s parents, at the most formal restaurant in town. Midway through dinner, you belch thunderously. People at nearby tables turn around to look. You blush. You have committed a solecism, a breach of etiquette.

That word solecism derives from the Greek soloikismos, which means the ungrammatical use of words. (The residents of Soloi spoke a dialect of Greek that speakers of Attic Greek found contemptible.) The double nature of that word, equating grammar and manners, reminds us that questions of grammar and usage are often also questions of class.

Or of even greater matter. Our word shibboleth comes from a passage in the Book of Judges in which the Israelites use pronunciation of the word as a test to identify Ephraimites, who said sibboleth because they “could not frame to pronounce it right” and were accordingly slaughtered. In English, a shibboleth is an otherwise meaningless standard by which we identify those who are not like us and therefore — well, you know.

Nancy Mitford’s famous essay of 1956 on “U and non-U” English — upper class and no — established class lines by speech. Paul Fussell’s book Class, published in 1983, set up a tripartite scheme: “Proles say tux, middles tuxedo, but both are considered low by uppers, who say dinner jacket or (higher) black tie.” Our language is full of markers and shibboleths.

In all the years I was growing up in Eastern Kentucky, I don’t recall using a double negative, and I don’t believe that I uttered the word ain’t until I was in college. There was a strong taboo within the family meant to preserve our precarious hold on gentility. (Brought up to be a proper prig, I have since loosened up a little.)

We will see in further investigations at this site that much of the carrying-on about the purported decay of the language involves submerged superstitions, shibboleths and class assumptions. As George Bernard Shaw said in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Not just the British.

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