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March 29, 2006

Where THAT WORD came from

A common, but erroneous, belief circulating among feminist writers is that the phrase "rule of thumb" derives from an archaic, oppressive, patriarchal custom or legal ruling that a husband may beat his wife freely so long as the stick is no greater in circumference than his thumb.

Actually, if you consult Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (a trove of interesting facts), you will find that "rule of thumb" means "by rough approximation," deriving from the worker’s custom of using the thumb for measurements: "The first joint of the adult thumb measures almost exactly 1 in (2.5cm)."

The misconception of the origin of the term is an example of folk etymology, by which popular lore ascribes meanings and origins to words and phrases.

Another example is "Welsh rarebit," which some mistakenly consider to be the original term for what is now called "Welsh rabbit." On the contrary, "Welsh rabbit" is the original and correct term, indicating that the cheese-and-milk-on-toast dish is a substitute for meat. Brewer’s entry mentions "mock turtle soup" and "Bombay duck" (a dried fish with curry) as comparable terms.

Folk etymologies develop to give people a sense of context and historical understanding. One clue in identifying them is that they tend to fit meaning and origin too neatly together. When a high school classmate solemnly informed me that the most popular Anglo-Saxon monosyllable is an acronym for Fornication Under Consent of the King, I knew that something about that could not be right. A dictionary acquainted me with the Middle Dutch word fokken, and all was plain.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (3)

March 27, 2006

Warts and all

A reader has complained that we are too sloppy at The Sun to catch and correct typos, citing these passages: "I know where you live and I am going to braek …" and "He was having an anfare."

Looks bad.

But what the reader did not take into account was that the passages were extracted from e-mail messages the article was quoting. Our practice in quoting texts is to present them as they were written, rather than correcting minor errors or making capitalization, abbreviations and other details conform to our house style.

Not all publications are scrupulous to this extent. Some also follow long-standing newspaper practice of "cleaning up" quotes. The reason for doing so is usually to spare the subjects being quoted any embarrassment. It is not a good reason, because it usually involves doing someone a favor. Yes, for example, it could be embarrassing for a quotation to reveal that a school principal doesn’t make subjects and verbs agree. But a journalist’s responsibility is to present people as they are, not as better than they are. (The latter task is the job of the press agent or spokesman.) Besides, if a school principal, or a senator, or a college president doesn’t make subjects and verbs agree, that may be something the public ought to know.

At The Sun our standard is that the words within quotation marks should be the words uttered by the speaker. This is a more complex matter than it may first appear, because spoken language is by no means easily converted into written language. What occurs is more like a transliteration from another language. Punctuation must be supplied, along with standard spelling. "Um," "uh," coughs, snorts and other nonverbal sounds are omitted.

At the same time, we do not typically indulge in phonetic spellings. Trying to represent dialect is imprecise and distracting, and it can appear that the writer is trying to make the subject look ridiculous. In Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger hit on the technique of representing the stresses and emphases of speech by italicizing individual syllables. That way lies madness.

What we aim for in quoting people is not a raw transcript, but a representation of their actual words within the conventions of standard written English. Warts and all.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (6)

March 22, 2006

Up or down

A reader of The Sun has complained about what he calls a misspelling. He is offended that we do not capitalize president in all references to the president of the United States. We write President Bush but the president, and the reader finds this disrespectful and incorrect.

Some other readers have questioned why The Sun does not capitalize evangelical in articles about evangelical Christians.

These usages are not errors or marks of disrespect, but examples of house style. Publications establish house style for consistency wherever usage presents a choice: capitalized or lowercase, word or numeral for a number, abbreviated word or spelled-out word. The Sun, like most American newspapers, follows the style set by the Associated Press, with a number of local variations and exceptions. In AP style, president is lowercased unless it precedes the name of the person holding the title, and evangelical is lowercased unless it is part of the formal title of a denomination or other organization.

The point of a house style is not that the excluded choices are wrong, but simply that whenever there are two (or more) acceptable ways of writing a thing, house style chooses one to minimize distraction to the reader.

Most newspapers used to capitalize president in all references to the U.S. chief executive (Should we capitalize chief executive?), but AP style reflects the prevailing tendency in American English over the past century to reduce the amount of capitalization.

The word evangelical is a more difficult issue, because many evangelical Christians capitalize the term, and that usage can be found in many dictionaries — though dictionaries are records of what people say and write, not guides to what they ought to say and write. But evangelical cannot be identified with particular denominations, such as the Orthodox churches; it is a viewpoint, like conservative. Neither is it an adjective former from a proper noun, like Pentecostal.

We could capitalize it — we could also capitalize fundamentalist or charismatic or, for that matter, mainline. But rather than multiply capitalizations, we elect to follow the AP in this case.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 AM | | Comments (0)

March 20, 2006

Standing up for the semicolon

British writers are addicted to a practice that causes American grammarians to recoil in horror: They link independent clauses with a comma. In Britannia, the comma-splice run-on sentence causes no shrieks of dread. Neither, increasingly, does it on these shores.

But for the squeamish, She punctuates properly, it’s no great feat begs to be corrected. With a coordinating conjunction — She punctuates properly, and it’s no great feat — or with a semicolon — She punctuates properly; it’s no great feat.

But the semicolon has fallen out of popularity, neglected, ignored, even shunned. Oh, you can occasionally compel writers to resort to it in a complex series, but in general they shy away from it like a vegan at a bull roast. This reluctance may have something to do with the pronounced American preference for informality: "No semicolons here, dude; we left them behind in Europe, just like we junked aristocracy and teaching Latin to schoolchildren and dressing like adults."

It’s a pity. The semicolon is still useful for sentences that involve complex, what do you call them, thoughts.

Nicholson Baker gives the semicolon its due in "The History of Punctuation," a review essay of a book on that subject from The New York Review of Books, reprinted in The Size of Thoughts. He even devotes some admiring space to the 19th-century penchant for combining the semicolon with the dash. (Semicolons combined with dashes! A guilty pleasure, like Strasbourg pate.)

But those palmy days are gone for good; the semicolon survives, but in an attenuated state, preserved temporarily from extinction by that dwindling band of writers and editors who also struggle to breathe a little life back into whom.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (3)

March 14, 2006

Errors, emendations and apologies

The Augustinian view

Copy editors have a deeply Augustinian perspective on human experience: We know that everyone is fundamentally prone to error. That gives us a degree of confidence in our job security, but it also haunts us that we are as disposed to go astray as everyone else.

You may have noticed from comments on previous entries that readers of this blog are quick to spot slips or inconsistencies. (How kind.) Being corrected is humbling and salutary, and though I wince at the errors that my editor and I have allowed to get past us, I am touched that there are readers who care that much about getting things right.

Someone else’s words

For experienced writers and editors, words and phrases make up melodies that stick in their heads. (One reason that some students are surprised at being caught in plagiarism is that words and phrases do not echo in their heads.) The negative side to this verbal memory is that someone else’s words may well emerge from the subconscious as if they were your own.

I fell into this unconscious mimicry while searching for a title for this blog last December. "You don’t say" popped into my head and seemed just right. So I was mortified, on looking up something in the program for last year’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, to realize that "You Don’t Say" was the title Hank Glamann gave to his workshop on common errors in language. I knew that perfectly well; I had scheduled his session. But I had buried the title.

I’ve apologized to Hank, who, with his customary graciousness, says that no harm has been done.


Joey Harrison’s comment on "The wayward comma" entry that the musical analogy would more properly refer to eighth, quarter, half and whole rests rather than notes is well taken.

"Soupstained," replying to the "More in sorrow than in snarking" posting, suggested that I stretched a little too far in explaining the etymology of cachet. He (or she) may be right. I was extrapolating from the etymological information in the Oxford English Dictionary and may have wandered into ground on which I do not have solid footing.

A former colleague, on hearing the announcement of this blog, wrote, "That is going to lure all manner of nerds." You know who you are.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:59 PM | | Comments (1)

March 6, 2006

Aw, shucks

Though I am out of the office this week, I couldn't leave this message from a reader, a lawyer in Cincinnati, lying about:

Your blog is outstanding.  …

I'm not familiar with the personalities of the players in  the copy-editing community, but I can say that after the past few  months of tracking your blog, Doug Fisher's blog, Nicole Stockdale's blog,  and Bill Walsh's blog, I have tremendous regard for the work that all of  you do and the standards that you strive to maintain.  I suspect that  the effort to maintain your blogs is a labor of love, but it must take at least  some time from your days. … I'll say thanks. It's nice to have a place to go  online to learn something useful. You copyeditors are incredibly  sharp.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 AM | | Comments (2)

March 1, 2006

A singular controversy

Not since Eris flung the Apple of Discord into the wedding reception of Peleus and Thetis (Paris, the three goddesses, Helen, the fall of Troy, all that, remember?) has there been such carrying on as we have seen since Peter Fisk of the Tampa Tribune posted this question on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board:

"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

"An additional $18 billion in six-month bills were auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent."

Which one do you like better, and why?

You can follow the brouhaha on the ACES board:

Or you can follow the continuing controversy at Bill Walsh’s blog in the posting "A bunch of us is wrong" and the attached comments:

You can read about the English language’s German origins and the ill-advised attempts by grammarians to make it Latinate (although English has always been a bastard language, with DNA from both parents). You can read some closely considered arguments. You can add synesis to your working vocabulary. You can savor some thoroughgoing dogmatism.

But first, here is what I think.

It is plain that the subject with which the verb has to agree is $18 billion. The noun bills is the object of the preposition in and therefore cannot be the subject of the sentence.

Sums of money can be considered as singular or plural, depending on context: Five dollars is all I have on me. So we are dealing with what amounts to a collective noun, like couple.

If, in context, the sense of the sentence is that a sum of $18 billion was auctioned, then the singular verb makes sense. If, however, the context suggests that bills totaling $18 billion were auctioned, then the plural verb comes in.

Here is where that prepositional phrase has an impact. Although it cannot be the subject of the sentence, it can help establish the context in which the subject is to be understood as a singular or plural. The sentence reads plural to me, though I deeply respect the convictions of those who hold otherwise.

This sort of question is better discussed over a couple of pints than over the Internet. But don’t ask me whether a couple of pints was or were all I had.

A hiatus

I will be on vacation next week and do not expect to post again until the week after.

And please don’t ask whether it should be an hiatus. One quarrel at a time.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 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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