« April 2006 | Main | June 2006 »

May 31, 2006

An unfortunate lapse

A very angry reader has complained about a subordinate headline in a sports section: "Howard's Ben Helman has not let the fact that he is confined to a wheelchair stop him from competing for the track team." He points out, quite rightly, that the term "confined to a wheelchair" is trite and disparaging, contrary to both The Sun’s house style and Associated Press style.

The use of a wheelchair, as many advocates for the disabled point out, is to increase mobility. The point of the article in question is what Ben Helman can do, not what he can’t. So "confined to a wheelchair" is misleading as well as insensitive. Our house stylebook forbids the use of "wheelchair-bound" and insists that "uses a wheelchair" is accurate and preferable. It has done so for at least 13 years.

One of my professors in graduate school liked to quote a maxim from the Army: "Thirty percent never get the word." Well, The Sun’s headline-writing copy editors have now gotten the word once again. All of them.

The efforts of newspapers to avoid disparaging or insulting terms, and to refer to disability only where it is relevant, have been largely successful. You are highly unlikely to see the subject of an article referred to as a cripple. We have also striven to avoid excess or silliness in the other direction. We use disabled because people with disabilities are unable to perform certain tasks. We do not call them differently abled or challenged. Euphemism can be as diminishing as outright insult.

None of this amounts to pandering to a group’s preoccupations and interests. The efforts of newspapers to purge their pages of offensive racial and ethnic terms, stereotypes about women and gay people, and condescension toward the disabled reflect attempts to foster a more civil and respectful society. Unfortunately, we don’t always pay close enough attention to what we say.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:05 PM | | Comments (3)

May 30, 2006

Which side are you on?

"And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites. And when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said, ‘Let me go over,’ the men of Gilead said to him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No,’ they said to him, ‘Then say shibboleth,’ and he said, ‘Sibboleth,’ for he could not pronounce it right; then they seized him and slew him at the fords of the Jordan. And there fell at that time forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites."

The 12th chapter of Judges gives us a Hebrew word, shibboleth, which means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, "stream in flood" or "ear of corn" — more likely the former, in this context. English, always ready to appropriate words from other languages and cultures, happily took it on. It can mean either a characteristic of a particular group of people, or a catchword or marker adopted by one group to divide its members from outsiders.

Given the human proclivity to choose up sides, it was inevitable that language, like skin color, dress and other markers, would be put to the use of differentiating Them from Us. Pronunciation, as in Jephtha’s test for the Ephraimites, is one. When I was growing up in eastern Kentucky, I had very few traces of the Southern Mountain accent that is the dominant regional dialect. ("Why, John Early, you talk just like somebody from up North.") One of the things that hurt Lyndon Johnson in following John F. Kennedy into the presidency is that Kennedy’s Boston accent had sounded polished and sophisticated to the public, and Johnson’s Texas accent made him sound like some kind of a rube.

Written language is full of test cases as well. As I’ve suggested in previous postings, the scorn for hopefully among the usage mavens of the 1970s and 1980s reflected class values more than usage, hopefully having had an extensive past as a sentence adverb. Contact as a verb had been scorned in the 1940s and 1950s as a vulgar usage common among advertising executives — Not Our Sort, you know.

Writers and editors may well be unconscious of the shibboleths that they make use of. And even when they are aware of them, it can be a difficult point to decide whether to abandon them or to observe them to avoid irritating their adherents. (Of the two previous sentences, the first ended with a preposition, and the second began with a coordinating conjunction, violating a couple of long-held shibboleths.) Assuming that the shibboleth has no substantial foundation in clarity, grammar, usage or meaning, the choice is whether to humor a self-identified elite or to challenge it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (3)

May 24, 2006

Don't forget to write

It’s not just odd that people read this blog; some actually write to it. Here are some reader responses from several weeks’ worth, my smartass remarks appended. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists both "smartass" and "smart-ass." Don’t bother writing to express a preference.)

Tom writes that "I think the ‘podium’ battle has already been lost ... how many people actually know that the podium is what the lectern stands upon? I'm guessing about 1 out of a thousand."

Then let’s write for the one. The nine hundred and ninety-nine won’t notice.

Tom also recommends his Banned For Life list at


I heartily recommend it. Much, much spleen.

MJM asks, "Since, as you say, ‘an e-mail’ seems to have become accepted, could you address the inevitable outcome: that people then refer to the plural ‘he sent e-mails to the others’ rather than the collective ‘he sent e-mail to the others’? Is ‘e-mails’ also becoming acceptable?"

Once we have swallowed the camel, it’s pointless to strain at the gnat.

Mike Livingston weighed in to say, "I give up on ‘an e-mail,’ but the distinction between ‘accident’ and ‘collision’ is not trivial. ‘Accident’ implies that the event could not have been foreseen or prevented, and that's rarely the case. ‘Collision’ is objective; ‘accident’ is always debatable."

An apt point.

Kate G. asks, "Oh, I *like* ‘sic.’ Does that make me a nerd?"

I’m afraid so.

Lisa complains, "You say ‘nerds’ like it's a bad thing ..."

I was a bookish kid with thick eyeglasses who despised all known forms of sport. I majored in English. I write a blog on English usage and teach copy editing. I have a daughter who is on the point of graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Latin and Greek. When I use "nerd," I speak with authority.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (2)

May 22, 2006

Only in the paper

David Glasgow has an inquiry: "One rule I can't seem to wrap my mind around is the insistence of certain style manuals to eliminate the comma preceding ‘and’ in a list: e.g., ‘Peter, Paul and Mary.’ If a comma represents a pause in the spoken version of text, doesn't it just make sense to include that last one? (‘Peter, Paul, and Mary’?)

"Furthermore, those who advocate the elimination of the final comma must make concessions for cases in which the series itself contains elements joined by ‘and,’ lest they produce eye-twisters such as ‘Don't tell anyone, but my morning cup of coffee usually contains sugar, half and half and a shot of Kahlua.’

"Have you yet set the print-word universe in order on this particular point? Would you please?"

Mr. Glasgow’s faith that I have any influence on the "print-word universe" is touching. It’s hard to trace any influence I have in my own newsroom. And the omission of the final comma in a series, which Bryan Garner speculates was originally adopted by newspapers as a space-saving measure, has become one of those habitual patterns difficult to shake.

He should take some comfort, however, the Associated Press Stylebook does say that the final comma should be used in a series if "an integral element of the series requires a conjunction." That is, if the final comma is necessary to spare the reader confusion. Pour another cup of coffee and get out the Kahlua bottle; you can use that comma.

The serial comma is not the only point at which newspapers vary from the practice of virtually everyone else in the world. For years, newspaper style was to use quotation marks instead of italics for the titles of books and other elements commonly italicized. It was difficult or expensive to use italic type (A computer system at a paper where I once worked obstinately raised every italic character a couple of points above the line). Moreover, the wire services could not, and still can’t, transmit italics, and so the Associated Press eschewed them.

Now that virtually every paper can reproduce italics without difficulty, there is no reason to have a house style that is different from that of virtually every other print medium, but habitual attitudes are hard to shake. When I promulgated a ukase that The Sun would use italics in the conventional manner, there was considerable eye-rolling among the copy editors and muttering about their groaning under the iron heel of McIntyranny. One copy editor still glories in discovering obscure cases to flummox me.

I almost regret the decision as I use this blogging software, which bewilderingly changes type sizes and spacing, or even shifts elements around, whenever I use boldface or italics. I suppose I could bring myself to learn HTML coding and nerve myself to manipulate the minuscule typeface in which TypePad puts the coding, but I’m a newspaperman, and new things do not come easily.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:10 PM | | Comments (0)

May 17, 2006

Nix not; neither shall you nab

Do you nix? Do you nab? Do you decry? Mull? (Well, maybe a little wine at Christmas.) Tout? (Only at the track.)

Newspapers are overly fond of dated slang and specialized language, which we in the business call journalese. When it is found in headlines, where short, snappy words are prized, it is called headlinese.

This dialect is familiar to generations of longtime newspaper readers, and familiarity has led to comfort with it. Unfortunately, as those generations of loyal readers are recorded lovingly in the obituary columns, the language looks increasingly dated and alien to living readers.

Journalese is a hard habit to break. One of our reporters once filed an article about a burglary that said that suspects had been fingered in the heist. Now, I like Raymond Chandler’s work as much as the next man, but I don’t think that the slang of the 1940s does much for readers in the current century.

For copy editors, the habit is even more deeply ingrained, because of the cruel and unforgiving limits of headline specs, particularly in one-column heads. Nix for prohibit or repudiate, decry for condemn or disparage, mull for consider, tout for promote or publicize, cite for illustrate or point out, slate for schedule, and eye for examine or consider are hard to resist.

(But before you badmouth my colleagues on the copy desk for lack of originality, let me invite you to show me how well you can summarize a 600-word article with six to eight words. Accurately. To fit in an assigned space. In three minutes.)

It is one thing for us to use this dated and increasingly obscure vocabulary in the printed edition, where at least we can expect some comfort with the conventions. But our headlines are also translated onto the electronic page, where they are not likely to draw the gaze of newer readers.

If newspapers are going to extend beyond their traditional audience, either in print or online, they are going to have to find ways to make the language more conversational, in a more contemporary idiom than the journalese of half a century ago. And that goes for headlines, too. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:31 AM | | Comments (4)

May 15, 2006

Always was wrong, always will be

The persistence of certain errors, like the spread of kudzu and the zebra mussel, is remarkable but not encouraging. Today, we’ll look at some common irritants.

1. Comprise. Comprise is the box that contains the contents, not the contents themselves. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. The alphabet is composed of 26 letters. The construction is comprised of is always wrong. The word is so frequently and wantonly misused that I have sometimes been tempted to ban it from The Sun. But then some blessed soul on the staff files an article in which it is used correctly.

Gady Epstein and Stephanie Desmon did so in one of their articles on the crab fisheries of Maryland and Asia: “…what is called swimming crab — a category that comprises both the blue crab caught off parts of North and South America and the species caught in Southeast Asia.” When such a sentence comes across the desk, copy editors lean back and sigh in mute gratitude.

2. Crescendo. One of our writers recently described something as “building to a crescendo.” A crescendo is a steady and sustained increase in volume. It is a building to a high point, not the high point itself. Doesn’t anyone take piano lessons any more, or listen to Rossini overtures?

3. Podium. A Web site on public speaking offers the advice “Stand behind the podium, don’t lean on it or slouch behind it.” Crouch, maybe. Apart from the comma-splice run-on, the problem here is that a podium is a platform on which a speaker stands. Podium, from the Greek podion, foot; same root as podiatry. A lectern is the stand on which the speaker rests notes.

4. It’s/its. The failure of many journalists, college graduates who make their living by the written word, to distinguish between the contraction and possessive, A DISTINCTION THAT IS WITHIN THE GRASP OF MANY CHILDREN (Sorry, mustn’t shout), occurs far more frequently than most readers of the paper could imagine.

What misuses make you cry out and fling the paper across the room? (Try to control yourself if you’re reading on a video screen.) Literally? Ironically? Lie and lay? Tell Uncle John.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:43 AM | | Comments (11) | TrackBacks (1)

May 10, 2006


Tell me where it hurts.

The scattered readers of these postings have begun to respond to the invitation to air their peeves.

Mike Livingston writes: I'm still not happy with "e-mail" as a countable noun. As one of my favorite house stylesheets put it, ‘You cannot send an e-mail any more than you can send a mail.’ You can send e-mail. You can send an e-mail message. You can e-mail a message. But you cannot send an e-mail.

Even Bill Walsh has softened on that point. Am I the last one standing?

Run up the white flag. Merriam-Webster and a number of online references list both senses of the word, and it appears to have been broadly accepted. Even e-mail as a verb (Ick.) has become commonplace.

The style sheet you mention reasons by analogy to mail, but analogies in English usage are slippery. There are other words that can have a collective and a singular sense. For example, talk can mean conversation, but one can give a talk.

A digression here. In checking the OED, which does not yet have an entry for e-mail as a message, I came across an 1877 citation for email, "a process which consists in flooding colored but transparent glasses over designs stamped in the body of earthenware or porcelain."

Cassidy writes: Here are some peeves past and present from various folks on my copy desk:

impact (should be effect or affect)

over (should be more than)

accident (should be wreck, crash, collision)

wreck (should be crash, collision)

over (should be during, as in "during the weekend")

My personal peeve is "over" to mean "more than." It's probably a losing battle, but I keep fighting.

Impact is still identified so strongly with pretentious bureaucratic writing that it should be shunned.

The distinction between wreck and accident or collision eludes me. It doesn’t appear in any of the usage manuals I regularly consult and appears to be someone’s idiosyncratic preference. I’d be interested in hearing the reasoning for it. As for collision, R.W. Burchfield says that there is no foundation for the belief, expressed in the AP Stylebook and some other authorities, that it can only be applied when two objects in motion strike each other. "A car can collide with a tree, a bollard, or any other fixed object, as well as with another moving vehicle," he says in The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. He does, however, prefer hit.

Over for more than is a common usage, and the rule against it is a shibboleth.

Dan writes: Ah. a place to vent. My pet peeves:

Both (If the two people or items are listed, you don't need it)

Redundant phrases (ATM machine, hearken back, join with...)

Reply: What most vexes me is the execrable safe haven.

Watch out for hearken back, which is not a pleonasm but an error. Hearken means to attend to or heed. Hark back is the expression that means to be reminiscent of.

Alison Parker writes: I kept fighting to allow over for "more than." I also stood for "hark back."

You are fighting the good fight.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:26 PM | | Comments (8)

May 8, 2006

Because I say so

Yes or no. One or zero. Right or wrong. Copy editors tend to be strongly binary. Everything in usage should be reducible to a rule. But experience is messy, and language mirrors experience. In reaching for precision, it is easy to overreach.

Previous postings here have dealt with distinctions so gossamer as to be not worth making — since and because, attorney and lawyer. Each editor tends to have a set of idiosyncratic preferences that do not stand up well to examination.

I have a distaste for contracting has, out of a concern that, because it is the same as the contraction for is, ambiguity might result. But if pressed, I would have to admit that She’s been doing that for years is highly unlikely to be misread as She is been doing that for years.

I also dislike the use of swarm as a transitive verb. The bees are swarming over the clover is fine with me — more honey for the biscuits — but The lawyers swarmed the accident victim makes me flinch. Unfortunately, I gave in to an impulse to look up swarm in the Oxford English Dictionary, which records uses of swarm as a transitive as far back at the 16th century.

Purely personal peeves are difficult enough to cope with, but they can become intractable when linked to some real or fancied authority.

I once worked with a copy editor who was a dictionary fundamentalist. He wrote a headline once about an Army officer who was killed, calling him a GI. Another copy editor remonstrated, but the first copy editor referred to an entry in Webster’s New World, "of or for veterans of the U.S. armed forces," that he claimed justified the usage. No amount of explanation—that GI, as in GI Bill, can have that sense, but that the word as a noun is limited by common usage to enlisted personnel of the Army – persuaded him. In the end, he was simply overruled. (Not for the first time.)

If any of you out there want to subject your own peeves to scrutiny, send them in. There is no guarantee that your objections will be sustained.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:32 PM | | Comments (3)

May 3, 2006

There's a word for it

Dispute over proper usage did not begin 30 years ago with John Simon and Edwin Newman. There is even a word for it, logomachy, which Samuel Johnson defined in 1755 as "a contention in words; a contention about words."

As Henry Hitchings explains in Defining the World: The Extraordinary History of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, there is a very long history in English of "quarrels over what was in and what was out, over proper and improper usage, over the need to regulate language and the need to indulge it."

The current warring parties are delightfully delineated in David Foster Wallace’s 2001 essay, "Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage," first published in Harper’s

and reprinted as "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Wallace labels one side "Popular Prescriptivism, a genre sideline of certain journalists (mostly older ones, the vast majority of whom actually do wear bow ties) whose bemused irony often masks a Colonel Blimp's rage at the way the beloved English of their youth is being trashed in the decadent present. The plutocratic tone and styptic wit of [William] Safire and Newman and the best of the Prescriptivists is often modeled after the mandarin-Brit personas of Eric Partridge and H. W. Fowler. …"

They are opposed by the Descriptivists: "Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively — via "freewriting," "brainstorming," "journaling," a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology. For another thing, the very language in which today's socialist, feminist, minority, gay, and environmentalist movements frame their sides of political debates is informed by the Descriptivist belief that traditional English is conceived and perpetuated by Privileged WASP Males and is thus inherently capitalist, sexist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic, elitist: unfair."

Life, of course, is always more complicated and more interesting than mere polarities. As Hitchings points out in his highly readable book on Johnson, the great lexicographer started out with a typical 18th-century impulse to "fix" the language and prescribe proper usage by illustrations of the best models of usage. But Johnson, though never what one would call a descriptivist, came through his immense labor to understand that language is more fluid and changeable than any attempt to fix its meanings permanently can contain.

Similarly, Wallace makes the case for a modified, balanced, reasonable prescriptivism based on judgment rather than shibboleth. The starting point of his essay (with its extensive, entertaining and maddening digressions in footnotes, which the publisher of his book has chosen to reproduce in type cruel to the eye) is a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (since revised and retitled as Garner’s Modern American Usage). He praises Garner’s refusal to be dogmatic, his effort to establish authority on usage through reasonable appeals to the reader and sensible acceptance of the ways language develops and changes.

Joining the company of Mr. Hitchings and Mr. Garner is the modified-presciptivist, gray-haired, bow-tie-wearing, Anglo-Saxon-Scottish, white-male drudge pictured above.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:27 PM | | Comments (2)

May 1, 2006

Objet rechauffe

The "Speak English, please" posting, which suggested that the term objet naif in a newspaper story was a little recherche, even de trop, drew a quick reply from a reader.

"’Naif’ appears in standard English dictionaries as a variant of naive and can thus hardly be considered ‘baffling.’ People with limited vocabularies should consult a dictionary instead of expecting everyone else to dumb down their prose."

Don’t expect a volte-face from this quarter anytime soon. The article in question, in addition to using an obscure term, delayed for six paragraphs the information that the objet in question was a piece of pottery made by a child.

Journalism aims for clarity, not obscurity. The aim of the newspaper headline is to attract the reader’s attention in a coup d’oeil. The aim of the newspaper article is to present a subject in language as widely understood as possible. Achieving a succes d’estime with newspaper writing requires more than a bricolage of terms and details that are likely to be unfamiliar, sans explanation or adequate context, to a significant number of potential readers.

If your limited vocabulary drives you to a dictionary, you should find the italicized Gallicisms therein, treated as having been naturalized in English. Whether that means that they are good choices for a general-circulation newspaper is a question of judgment.

Honi soit qui mal y pense.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:39 PM | | Comments (1)
Keep reading
Recent entries
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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected