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February 28, 2006

Strict construction

A reader complained about the headline on an article about the United Nations report on the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. rebuts report on Guantanamo, saying:

“The word ‘rebut’ means to refute or disprove. The article cites no evidence put forward by U.S. officials to disprove or contradict the allegations in the UN report. Rather, the article states that U.S. officials ‘rejected’ the report, ‘blocked consideration of [ICRC] reports,’ ‘won't publicly discuss’ what has been done to prisoners in their control. This is not ‘rebuttal.’ Unless the headline writers and the reporter have all misunderstood the meaning of the term rebuttal, use of this term in this context  is very disturbing. … To say that the US has ‘rebutted’ the UN's allegations of mistreatment of prisoners appears to be whitewashing at best.” 

The reader is quite right that the strict meaning of rebut means to oppose an assertion while supplying supporting information. It would probably have been better for the headline to use the word reject, as the article does.

That said, there is a looser sense of rebut, meaning to dispute or oppose in reply. That loose senses of the word are common can be seen in the reader’s own letter and in dictionaries, where refute is given as a synonym of rebut. But to refute is a stronger term in its strictest sense; it means to disprove conclusively. Very few arguments are ever conclusively overturned, so we tend to avoid that term altogether.

Whether to allow a loose use of a word or to adhere to the strictest sense can be a difficult question of judgment for writers and editors, and there is always room for discussion. We take a hard line on imply/infer, despite entries in some dictionaries that register them as synonyms. As a previous posting pointed out, we have given ground on to host.

The reader had a concluding question, “Are headlines written at the Sun or are they just reprinted along with the stories from the other newspapers?”

For good or ill, our own copy editors write the headlines for the paper. When we are right, we stand by them. When we are wrong, we take our medicine.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:50 AM | | Comments (0)

February 25, 2006

That which we dispute

A useful distinction that American grammarians and editors make is to differentiate between that and which, which linguists call illegitimate.

The sentence above embodies the distinction: that as a relative pronoun introducing a restrictive/limiting/essential clause (depending on what terminology you were taught), which as a relative pronoun introducing a nonrestrictive/non-limiting/nonessential clause.

You remember Annie Get Your Gun: "The girl that I marry will have to be/ As soft and pink as a nursery …" — of all the girls in the world, the one I marry will have to have these qualities. It is a limiting clause, specifying one out of a number of possibilities.

From My Fair Lady you’ll recall the lines "A man was made to help support his children,/ Which is the right and proper thing to do …" — the which clause supplying additional, parenthetical information not essential to the sentence.

Or to put it more simply, a which clause is set off by commas, and a that clause is not.

That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log (, who appear to hate copy editors’ guts. But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

It is true that British writers use which for both restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as linguists point out. It is also true that the distinction American grammarians observe is essentially a preference. But as a moderate (rather than headstrong) prescriptivist, I agree with H.W. Fowler that careful writers and editors will strive to maintain useful distinctions of usage.

Failing to maintain the that/which distinction in American English can lead to ambiguity, especially now that writers bafflingly tend to introduce nonrestrictive clauses with that.

For example: "It's fair to say that he's vulnerable," said Republican Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, a member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government's response to Katrina. That wording, "the Government Affairs Committee that has been investigating the government’s response," would suggest that there are multiple Government Affairs Committees and that we are here specifying the one investigating Katrina. But it is not an essential or restrictive element, and it would read better set off with commas as a which clause.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:36 PM | | Comments (13)

February 20, 2006

Quiz yourself: just the facts

Preoccupied as we are with punctuation, grammar and usage, we on the copy desk know that precision in language also extends to factual accuracy. So when we deal with sentences like the examples below — all the work of professional journalists — we see what we are up against in the combat with error.

See what you can diagnose in these eight sentences before you consult the answers below.

(1) And 42 percent of the students with low grades are boys, compared with 28 percent who are girls.

(2) He brought a luna moth to school, and recently, when she saw a 14-foot woodpecker, it was he who told her it was a pileated woodpecker, a scarce bird in Maryland.

(3) In the opening scenes, he’s literally bending sideways as he walks, ducking in and out of doors like Groucho Marks.

(4) Silent auction in West County: Among the wonderful items up for sale is a live thoroughbred horse.

(5) Divers Clinton Suggs (left) and Victor McCaugherty pause during their dive to replace a hole underneath Dam No. 5 near Williamsport.

(6) And the magazine was almost always right — until 1936, when the editors confidently predicted that Pennsylvania Gov. Alf Landon would soundly defeat Franklin Roosevelt.

(7) The seven-member group, the Pasadena Citizens Task Force on Radium in Well Water, was split down the middle.

(8) The train tracks are believed to be part of the Underground Railroad by which slaves found their way to freedom.

Here is the commentary.

(1) I wonder what the other 30 percent were.

(2) Though I am no ornithologist, I expect that a 14-foot woodpecker would be a scarce bird in any state in the Union.

(3) Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Karl all went by Marx.

(4) It’s doubtful that a dead thoroughbred would fetch much at auction, unless, of course, the bidder manufactured dog food.

(5) This photo caption doesn’t show whether the hole is being replaced by a larger one, a smaller one, or a new one of the same size. Replace a hole? Repair a hole.

(6) Alf Landon was the governor of Kansas in 1936.

(7) Visualize how an odd-numbered group can be split down the middle.

(8) The Underground Railroad had routes, guides and safe houses, but not locomotives, trestles and tracks. The name was metaphoric.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (2)

February 16, 2006

Bad words

The discussion of the appropriateness of publishing cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad underlines that while newspapers in the West have broad freedom to publish, virtually all exercise levels of discretion over what goes into print.

A newspaper could print any or all of the vulgar words for body parts or sexual congress without fear of punishment for obscenity — a circumstance that was not always the case in this country. And most newspapers have style guidelines severely restricting the occasions on which offensive ethnic terms or other slurs can be published.

When people left homeless by last year’s hurricanes objected strenuously to being described as refugees, The Sun and many other newspapers ceased to use the word in that context. That was a defensible decision to refrain from offending readers pointlessly.

Each newspaper establishes its own level of decorum, or lack of it, to reflect the tastes and preferences of its audience. When it was disclosed, for example, that Monica Lewinsky had preserved a blue dress as a souvenir of an encounter with President Bill Clinton, The New York Times did not use the phrase “semen-stained dress” until several paragraphs into the continuation of the story on an inside page. The Daily News, in contrast, ran the headline SHE KEPT SEX DRESS.

Diction and decorum are elements of the identity a publication presents to its readers, and editors make multiple decisions every day on the suitability of material and language.

Editing goes on everywhere. When the Commonwealth of Kentucky made Stephen Foster’s “My Old Kentucky Home” its state song, no objection was heard to the second line: “’Tis summer, the darkies are gay.” In a more enlightened era, the legislature rewrote the line to the less objectionable “’Tis summer, the people are gay.” Replacing the odious darkies with an innocuous disyllable was easy enough, but the legislature did not address gay, which, as a rhyme word, would be harder to replace.

Of course, it may be that the good people of the commonwealth have no particular objection to gay. Besides, the song is mainly sung on Derby Day, at which point the singers are typically so far gone in liquor that they are little likely to attend to the words. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (4)

February 13, 2006

Not a dime's worth of difference

The good side of the mild obsessive-compulsive disorder that copy editors exhibit is concern for precision in the language. The bad side, which I reluctantly admit is more common than I like, is a tendency to insist on distinctions that aren’t worth making.

For example, many copy editors insist on the venerable Associated Press Stylebook principle that over should be limited to spatial relationships, with more than preferred with numbers. A statement that a tree is over a hundred years old will be reflexively changed to "more than a hundred years old." (And "a hundred" might well be altered to "100.")

An entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces this "hoary American newspaper tradition" to William Cullen Bryant’s Index Expugatorius of 1877, points out that over in the sense of more than has been in common usage in English since 14th century, and says, "There is no reason why you should avoid this usage."

The distinction between attorney and lawyer has also eaten up an inordinate amount of time on copy desks. While an attorney, a person acting on behalf of another, need not be a lawyer, the distinction, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, is not generally observed even within the legal profession. (Mr. Garner is also the author of A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage and editor of Black’s Law Dictionary.) That this is, at best, a gossamer distinction can be demonstrated by the tendency of one copy editor to alter lawyer to attorney in copy, while the next alters attorney to lawyer on page proof. This pointless ballet is another waste of energy.

Another editing tic is that like must be used only to indicate resemblance and that such as must be used to introduce an example. An error like that would likely be changed to an error such as that, to little purpose. Several standard works on usage do not even mention such a distinction; those that do are not in agreement on its importance. This suggests that editors might have better things to do with their time than to make these substitutions.

The central judgment an editor must make is the distinction between what is important and what is not. These examples point to the hazard of removing the mote while overlooking the beam.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (8)

February 9, 2006

Italian Englished

I was asked this week to explain why The Sun refers to the site of the Olympics as Turin rather than its Italian name, Torino. As my children discovered long ago, asking me a question runs the hazard of yielding more than the questioner ever wished to know.

There are long-standing conventions of using Anglicized versions of foreign place names, of which Turin for Torino is one. Similarly, English-language publications refer to Rome, not Roma; Milan, not Milano; Venice, not Venezia; Florence, not Firenze; Naples, not Napoli.

These conventions are not limited to Italian place names. We write about Vienna, not Wien; Moscow, not Moskva; Prague, not Praha; Warsaw, not Warszawa. We write Munich, not Muenchen — but if we did, we would substitute the diphthong ue for the u with an umlaut in the original German, which is another convention of English practice.

The Olympic Movement refers to "the XX Olympic Winter Games — Torino 2006" as its title for the event, but its Web site routinely refers to the city as Turin.

Where there are multiple legitimate ways of saying a thing, such as alternative names or alternative spellings, the choice of which one to use is a matter of a publication's house style, and house style is a matter of arbitrary choice to encourage consistency and avoid distracting the reader. The Sun's house style favors using the conventional English versions of foreign place names, and so we are using Turin. Other publications are free to make other choices.

One underlying reason for this preference in house style is that extensive use of foreign terms risks the appearance of pretension, like the finicky hyper-pronunciation favored by some announcers on classical music stations.

Our preference for Anglicizing extends to the vexatious questions of diacritical marks, such as umlauts and accents, grave or acute. Yes, they are part of proper spelling of names in their languages, but using them in English-language publications presents problems. For one thing, wire services do not transmit accent marks. For another, inserting them would prove laborious for editors. For still another, where would one stop? Spanish, French, German, OK. But what about the Scandinavian languages? Czech? Polish? Hungarian? Lacking a battery of linguists, how could we even be sure that we were getting them right?

On most days, English is a sufficient challenge for us.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:55 PM | | Comments (4)

February 6, 2006

Strike the colors

Like General Lee, an editor has to know when it’s time to surrender.

But not without a fight.

Fourteen years ago, a memo from the editor of this paper deplored the persistence of the word host as a verb in our pages. So the copy desk included it in the house stylebook’s prohibitions and rooted it out of copy.

But, despite being dismissed by purists as a vulgar vogue usage, it persisted elsewhere. A couple of years ago, the Associated Press Stylebook changed its entry on host to permit its use as a verb, and The Sun’s copy desk grudgingly gave way. If host as a verb grates on your ear, you don’t have to use it, but you can’t deny it to anyone else.

A similar pattern occurred with contact. In the 1940s and 1950s to contact, emerged as a vogue in advertising circles and among other captives to fads. It, too, failed to sink under the scorn of purists, and, as the means of getting in contact with one another — telephone, fax, computer, cellular phone and others — multiplied, it became increasingly common. Today even mossbacks allow it.

The writers who wag their heads and bewail the decay of the English language might fasten on these examples. But it is probably more sensible to see them as evidence that the language simply changes, as it always has. Nouns become verbs, and verbs nouns. Words shed old senses and put on new ones.

Like the tectonic plates in geological theory whose shifting and grinding explain volcanoes and earthquakes, the language we speak and write is moving beneath our feet, sometimes slowly, sometimes explosively. Whom may vanish from the active language altogether except as an archaism, as some grammarians have forecast (though not while I’m alive). Everyone … their appears to be moving toward acceptance in standard American English, though against considerable resistance.

But since we cannot tell with any certainty where the language is going, it is left to us to exercise judgment, individually and collectively, about what constitutes clarity and precision. We resist when we judge it right to do so, and we surrender when it is prudent.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (2)

February 2, 2006

Irritations: Obnoxious pleonasms

We reported in The Sun this week that President Bush “proposed new initiatives” in his State of the Union speech. An initiative is an action or proposal that is started or introduced. The word comes from the Latin initiare, “to begin.” So an initiative is a beginning, something new, and “new initiative” is redundant except in cases that contrast an initiative with previous acts or proposals.

“New initiative” is a tautology, a repetition of a meaning in different words. Or, if you like, it is a pleonasm (from the Greek pleon, “more”), or redundancy of expression. Pleonasms can constitute repetitions for deliberate effect, as in William Faulkner’s Nobel speech about the “old verities and truths of the heart,” but they are most commonly errors.

Journalism is littered with redundant expressions:

Advance planning: Planning is, by definition, done in advance.

Close scrutiny: To scrutinize is to examine closely.

Consensus of opinion: A consensus is an opinion that a group of people have come to share.

Final results: The result is the outcome, the final thing. This tautology turns up in articles about elections, in which speaking of early returns and final returns would be more accurate.

Mass exodus: The word exodus means the departure of a large group of people. Adding mass adds nothing.

Safe haven: A favorite of pretentious bureaucrats. A haven is a safe place; a safe haven would be a safe safe place. This subliterate phrase is presumably the result of confusion with safe harbor. A harbor can be a safe or an exposed anchorage, which makes that distinction meaningful.

And there are a number of misunderstood abbreviations:

ATM machine: It’s an automated (not automatic) teller machine.

HIV virus: Human immunodeficiency virus.

PIN number: Personal identification number.

The expression SAT test used to be redundant, when the initials stood for Scholastic Aptitude Test or Scholastic Assessment Test. But the Educational Testing Service has decided to use the initials only, asserting that SAT does not mean anything. I am not inclined to dispute that.      

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:52 AM | | Comments (3)
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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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