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June 29, 2006

Author, author

Little did I realize what I would stir up by including in the posting on The Sun’s test for copy desk applicants the question "Who wrote ‘The Iliad’?" (You can read the comments attached to "If I’m so smart …" from June 5.)

For the purposes of The Sun’s test, "Homer" is a satisfactory answer. That is the conventional shorthand for authorship of the epic poem, even among classicists. Writing "No one knows, but Homer is the name conventionally given to the author" or "Homer is the name conventionally given to the author or authors who reduced oral transmissions of the story to writing" would earn bonus points.

But the intention in posing the question is not to establish an applicant’s bona fides as a student of classics; it is to weed out applicants who would answer "Virgil" or "Dante" or leave the question blank. (Please, for mercy’s sake, don’t quibble with me about whether it’s "Virgil" or "Vergil.")

The discussion does, however, open up reflections on what authorship means. The answer to the question "Who wrote The Waste Land?" would be T.S. Eliot, of course. But it is conceivable that someone who has examined the facsimile of the manuscript that was published only about 30 years ago would answer, "T.S. Eliot, with the assistance of Ezra Pound, who marked whole sections of the original poem for deletion." Presumably that is one of the reasons that Eliot dedicated the poem to Pound, "il miglior fabbro," "the better craftsman."

Authorial questions grow even more complicated in journalism, because the article that you read in the paper under the byline of a reporter has been through the hands of, at minimum, an assigning editor, a copy editor and a slot editor (an antique term for the copy editor who oversees the work of a particular desk, or group of copy editors). Additional changes may be made as a consequence of proofreading. And a major article will likely have been through many other hands, undergoing extensive revision.

That byline represents the primacy of reporting and writing, but it would be a mistake to think that what lies beneath is the reporter’s unmediated work. Even columns and reviews are subject to some degree of editing. The primacy of reporting and writing explains why reporters, not editors, win the prizes. The nature of editing explains why newspapers take collective, institutional responsibility when something goes awry.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:53 PM | | Comments (8)
        

June 28, 2006

It's just that way

Oliver Wendell Holmes the younger famously said in his book on the common law, "The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." Much the same can be said about language.

During the just-past graduation season, a colleague lamented that we no longer say that a student was graduated from a university. To say in active voice that the student graduated implies that the student performed the action. Rather, the university conferred a degree upon the student.

Whatever the logic of that point, was graduated, a construction common during the first half of the 20th century, was steadily fading out during the second half and is now almost completely gone. The active graduated has replaced it in common usage, and that is just how it is.

At the same time, graduated as a transitive form — "he graduated high school" — has remained a colloquial usage. Fastidious writers avoid it, but it will bear watching.

Much of the language is idiomatic: the usual way that words are used or arranged, or a construction that has a meaning different from the literal sense of the words. Idiomatic comes form the Greek idiomatikos, "peculiar," ultimately from idios, "one’s own." Idiosyncratic comes from the same root.

One of my professors in graduate school grew irritated with a student in his Anglo-Saxon class who kept developing rationales for the assignment of gender to inanimate objects. In the several languages that do this, the professor insisted, gender is always arbitrary — idiomatic. Establishing a rationale for assignment of gender would only be persuasive if it could be predictable, not worked up after the fact.

Recognizing the prevalence of idiom is particularly important in English, a magpie language that has both Teutonic and Romance components. (We retain alumnus, alumni, alumna and alumnae, and the plural of nouveau riche is nouveaux riches. That’s the way we do things here, thank you very much.) In such a language, reasoning by analogy will not get you very far. Think of those tiresome questions posed in little articles or poems on English, such as "If the plural of mouse is mice, why isn’t the plural of house hice?"

Margaret Fuller, intoxicated by Transcendentalism, said, "I accept the universe," and Thomas Carlyle, told of the remark, supposedly said, "Gad, she’d better." Accepting English, as it is and as it is developing, is also the sensible choice.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (0)
        

June 8, 2006

The copy editor copy-edited

A fellow journalist has taken the trouble to go over the previous posting in detail. The posting is republished here, with his comments in brackets.

The newspaper habit got hold of me early. My fifth-grade teacher, Ronnie Fern, assigned the entire class to read a daily paper, choose one article from it and write some sort of commentary.

[Which paper did the entire class read and which article did the entire class choose before the entire class wrote some sort of commentary?]

It quickly became clearer than it had been theretofore that there was a wider world outside Eastern Kentucky. 

[This odd sentence might be improved, but not fixed, if you had just said "clearer than it had been." I know, it is fun to use words like "theretofore."  The one I like is "moreover."]

The paper to which my parents subscribed was The Cincinnati Enquirer, for which by a quirk of fate I later worked. My grandparents got the Lexington Herald. When in high school I went to work during the summers at The Flemingsburg Gazette, a weekly with a circulation of about 3,000, I went through the Louisville Courier-Journal first thing every morning.

[I’ll give you the comma as a typo. Otherwise, the foregoing is a run-on sentence.]

At Michigan State University, I read the State News, a student paper more ambitious than many small dailies, and in graduate school I subscribed to the Herald-Journal in Syracuse. For nearly 20 years now, I have been reading The Sun every morning, typically uttering a good round oath and flinging it across the room at the discovery of some fresh error or infelicity that had slipped past the copy desk. Good or bad, I’ve read them all. 

[Here’s a new one for you:  How do you fling a good round oath across a room?  Here’s another: you mix up your tenses here. The  sentence is cast in present perfect, "have been reading." Therefore, the past-perfect "had slipped" is wrong.  The correct verb form, I believe, is "has slipped."]

Along with my other tastes – pipe tobacco, bourbon whiskey, Anglican liturgy – this appetite for daily newspapers marks me as one of a breed headed for extinction. My undergraduate students at Loyola College can barely be encouraged to read a print newspaper at bayonet point, and their scorn for the electronic version is equally ripe.

[ripe?]

Phil Meyer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has projected – he likes a good laugh – that at the current rate of circulation decline, the last newspaper reader will die in 2044, by which point I should by all that is decent have climbed the golden staircase myself. 

[You really ought to avoid splitting predicates.]

Yes, I look at electronic articles, skimming the Internet throughout the day. It’s not the same as sitting down in a comfortable chair each morning, with a good light and a cup of strong coffee, to survey the world’s follies. Pointing and clicking are somehow more tedious and laborious than turning pages. And though I am not some lips-moving novice frightened by rows of type, I find reading long texts on a television screen more fatiguing than on a page, where the Lord meant for type to appear.

[delete:  "for."]

If the printed newspaper should disappear, I would mourn it. If it should not be replaced by an electronic equivalent, I would despair.

That is because newspapers are something more than a vehicle for publishers to turn over cash to stockholders, or merchants to hawk their wares, or reporters, bless their hearts, to pass off the hackneyed forms of journalese as literary art. The newspaper has been essential to the formation of a democratic society.

[Ah, come on.  "essential to the formation of a democratic society?" Somebody’s gonna accuse you of hackneyed writing.  .  .  .  Two papers that were thought at the time to be "essential to the formation of a democratic society" were the one started by Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton with appropriated government funds to promote Federalist views and another, started by his rival, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, with misappropriated government funds to promote opposing Republican views.]

Hannah Barker’s Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695-1855 explores how the development of newspapers both expressed and reinforced what came to be called public opinion, helping to transform subjects into citizens concerned with the governance of their country and influencing that governance.   

[He should have stopped with . . .the governance of their country." ]

It was newspapers that helped to realize what Alexander Hamilton, in the first number of The Federalist, called the task of the American people, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." 

[Even old Alex fell into those wordy constructions, didn’t he?  "whether capable or not" actually means "whether capable."  The "or not" is  superfluous.  Then, he turns around and picks up a new "whether."  I don’t know if -- okay, whether ---this sentence even could be diagrammed.  I think that if the entire sentence had been  cut, the first number of The Federalist would have read a lot better.]

What my colleagues and I try to do every day in The Sun is to fit the entire world into the compass of its pages.

[Which pages?  Pronouns usually refer to the nearer precedent noun, rather than to the more remote.  I think it’s clear that the "its" does not refer to "compass," since "its" is part of a prepositional phrase that modifies "compass."  So, in this case the noun would be  "world." So you are saying "fit the entire world into the compass of the world’s pages." Obviously, the reader can figure out that you mean The Sun and not the world, but readers should not have to figure out the meaning of sentences.]

It can’t be done, but we try to include as broad a sampling of human experience as we know how to do: political news, international news, financial news, crime news, medical news, reviews of movies and restaurants, innocent amusements, all so that you, the reader, can make informed choices about your life. Choices about how to vote, how to invest your money, where to spend your money, how to talk to your children (or parents). The choices that you might otherwise make as a consequence of accident or force. We make that picture of the world as complete as we can, and we struggle to make it as correct as we can.

That is the enterprise to which I have devoted more than a quarter-century of my life, and that is the enterprise that we who share in the effort are exploring how to keep it going, on paper or in pixels.

First, though, a break. I will be gone for the next two weeks, June 12-26, for Loyola College’s summer journalism program in Cagli, Italy. Apart from tormenting the undergraduates about their prose, the great pleasures include morning cappuccino in the piazza, a glass of Prosecco at the end of the day and spirited discussion of the most important question of the day (where to dine).

But there will be no daily newspaper, and I will miss it.

And, on my way out the door, one response to my generous colleague: I suspect that Alexander Hamilton is beyond the reach of revision.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (8)
        

June 7, 2006

That cup of coffee, that morning paper

The newspaper habit got hold of me early. My fifth-grade teacher, Ronnie Fern, assigned the entire class to read a daily paper, choose one article from it and write some sort of commentary. It quickly became clearer than it had been theretofore that there was a wider world outside Eastern Kentucky.

The paper to which my parents subscribed was The Cincinnati Enquirer, for which by a quirk of fate I later worked. My grandparents got the Lexington Herald. When in high school I went to work during the summers at The Flemingsburg Gazette, a weekly with a circulation of about 3,000, I went through the Louisville Courier-Journal first thing every morning. At Michigan State University, I read the State News, a student paper more ambitious than many small dailies, and in graduate school I subscribed to the Herald-Journal in Syracuse. For nearly 20 years now, I have been reading The Sun every morning, typically uttering a good round oath and flinging it across the room at the discovery of some fresh error or infelicity that had slipped past the copy desk. Good or bad, I’ve read them all.

Along with my other tastes – pipe tobacco, bourbon whiskey, Anglican liturgy – this appetite for daily newspapers marks me as one of a breed headed for extinction. My undergraduate students at Loyola College can barely be encouraged to read a print newspaper at bayonet point, and their scorn for the electronic version is equally ripe. Phil Meyer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has projected – he likes a good laugh – that at the current rate of circulation decline, the last newspaper reader will die in 2044, by which point I should by all that is decent have climbed the golden staircase myself.

Yes, I look at electronic articles, skimming the Internet throughout the day. It’s not the same as sitting down in a comfortable chair each morning, with a good light and a cup of strong coffee, to survey the world’s follies. Pointing and clicking are somehow more tedious and laborious than turning pages. And though I am not some lips-moving novice frightened by rows of type, I find reading long texts on a television screen more fatiguing than on a page, where the Lord meant for type to appear.

If the printed newspaper should disappear, I would mourn it. If it should not be replaced by an electronic equivalent, I would despair.

That is because newspapers are something more than a vehicle for publishers to turn over cash to stockholders, or merchants to hawk their wares, or reporters, bless their hearts, to pass off the hackneyed forms of journalese as literary art. The newspaper has been essential to the formation of a democratic society.

Hannah Barker’s Newspapers, Politics and English Society, 1695-1855 explores how the development of newspapers both expressed and reinforced what came to be called public opinion, helping to transform subjects into citizens concerned with the governance of their country and influencing that governance.

It was newspapers that helped to realize what Alexander Hamilton, in the first number of The Federalist, called the task of the American people, "by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

What my colleagues and I try to do every day in The Sun is to fit the entire world into the compass of its pages. It can’t be done, but we try to include as broad a sampling of human experience as we know how to do: political news, international news, financial news, crime news, medical news, reviews of movies and restaurants, innocent amusements, all so that you, the reader, can make informed choices about your life. Choices about how to vote, how to invest your money, where to spend your money, how to talk to your children (or parents). The choices that you might otherwise make as a consequence of accident or force. We make that picture of the world as complete as we can, and we struggle to make it as correct as we can.

That is the enterprise to which I have devoted more than a quarter-century of my life, and that is the enterprise that we who share in the effort are exploring how to keep it going, on paper or in pixels.

First, though, a break. I will be gone for the next two weeks, June 12-26, for Loyola College’s summer journalism program in Cagli, Italy. Apart from tormenting the undergraduates about their prose, the great pleasures include morning cappuccino in the piazza, a glass of Prosecco at the end of the day and spirited discussion of the most important question of the day (where to dine).

But there will be no daily newspaper, and I will miss it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:10 PM | | Comments (0)
        

June 5, 2006

If I'm so smart ...

Because newspapers publish articles about everything, copy editors have to know at least a little about everything to be effective at their jobs. That is why The Sun requires all aspirants to the copy desk to take a brutal applicant test.

It has 10 questions in each of 12 categories. Arts, business and economics, current events, English grammar and usage, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports. In the past 11 years, only one applicant has scored above 90 percent in the general knowledge section (oh yes, there is a separate section on editing). That was an editor whom I fired, a know-it-all who could not get along with colleagues on the desk.

Think you’re up to it? Here are some questions, not from the current version.

1. What have "The Girl of the Golden West" and "Madame Butterfly" in common?

2. Define arbitrage.

3. Name two nations other than Russia that emerged from the former Soviet Union.

4. What is the difference between "apprise" and "appraise"?

5. Vladivostok is a seaport on what ocean?

6. Who was Sojourner Truth?

7. What is the significance of the Dred Scott decision?

8. What legal areas does the 14th Amendment to the Constitution concern?

9. Who wrote "The Iliad"?

10. In the United States, how many millions are there in a billion?

11. Define the term "gerrymander."

12. Briefly define "Rig-Veda."

13. Briefly define "Australopithecus."

14. Briefly define the term "hat trick" in hockey.

Think you’re ready to take a seat on the desk? Keep in mind that I’ve revised the applicant test twice since these questions were on it, and on neither occasion did I make it easier.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:20 PM | | Comments (24)
        
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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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