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July 26, 2006

Bring me the head of a usage commentator

Joe Wheeler, a reader in Raleigh, N.C., writes to express “a long-held grievance I have with professional speakers, news anchors, reporters, actors, writers, and my neighbor down the street.  My grievance is in the use of ‘bring’ when ‘take’ should be used.  This simple English rule has been tossed out the window, and I would like to see it being pulled back into the mainstream consciousness.  I found the below version of the “bring and take” rule at this Web site:

“When you are viewing the movement of something from the point of arrival, use ‘bring’: ‘When you come to the potluck, please bring a green salad.’ Viewing things from the point of departure, you should use ‘take’: ‘When you go to the potluck, take a bottle of wine.’  Paul Brians’ Common Errors in English Usage

“It is an easy concept, and I do not understand why it has been removed from the basics in learning to speak English.  I thought maybe it was only coming from the Northeast with children coming south to attend college, but after I heard Tom Brokaw us the word ‘bring’ improperly during a newscast and many Hollywood movie stars using ‘bring’ instead of ‘take’, I started to realize that it is now an epidemic that needs to be pushed back. 

“I know I may sound crazy with talk of epidemic, revolution, and maybe even the fact that I brought this to your attention, but I am sincere in my feeling that something has gone awry, and I need some advice on where to push back, to get schools, government, and mass media to listen.”

Mr. Wheeler is quite correct that bring connotes motion toward the speaker or writer, and take motion away. But there is an additional dimension to usage of this pair of words that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage treats with magnificent condescension.

“Although one might imagine,” Merriam-Webster’s begins, “that most native speakers of English have mastered the directional complexities of bring and take by the time they are old enough to read, a surprisingly large number of usage commentators have felt it incumbent upon themselves to explain this subtlety to adults. … [The directional distinction] is a point well made, and it holds for all cases to which it applies. It does not, alas, apply to all cases of actual use of these verbs. …”

That “alas” is a bit much, but “holds for all cases to which it applies” is rather splendid.

But let’s get to the point. Merriam-Webster’s quotes the 1984 edition of the  Longman Dictionary of the English Language, which says, “Either verb can be used when the point of view is irrelevant.” The entry continues with an example of a couple who are about to leave home for a concert; the wife says, “Don’t forget to bring the umbrella.” Merriam-Webster’s says that the wife “is already thinking of being at the concert and possibly needing the umbrella. The notion of direction exists entirely in her head; it does not refer to her immediate external surroundings.”

A simpler way of putting it is that the umbrella is going to be with them the whole time, neither moving toward them or away from them. And if the wife had used take, the same circumstances would apply.

This is not to say that Mr. Wheeler’s concern is necessarily misplaced. Given the shakiness of education in the Republic, and the widespread misapprehension of the descriptivist approach to language that anything and everything are OK, it’s entirely possible that journalists and stars of motion pictures are misusing bring and take when the directional context is clear and appropriate. But all the same, we can probably ferret out more productive occasions for expressing our irritations and frustrations.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:17 AM | | Comments (4)

July 24, 2006

A blonde walks into a bar

Some weeks back, a Sun reporter wrote an article on the speculation that Kristen Cox, the state disabilities secretary, would be chosen by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. as his running mate—and described her in the opening paragraph as a "petite blonde."

That was ill-judged, and it was ill-judged of the assigning desk and the copy desk to allow it into the paper. Ms. Cox is slender, and her hair is indeed blond, but the noun blonde is loaded with unfavorable connotations. (No, I am not going to direct you to the Internet sites that anthologize blonde jokes.) And the phrase petite blonde can easily be read as condescending, despite the author’s intention otherwise. We certainly heard from readers who interpreted it as such.

Presenting physical descriptions of people in news articles is perilous. Such details add color and concreteness but can easily be misread and cause offense. A long time ago, at a newspaper far way, a reporter who was assigned to cover a routine trial found that the subject was beneath his dignity as an artist. So he enlivened his text with such devices as repeated descriptions of the defendant as "a little old lady in a purple polyester pants suit."

It’s not bad enough to have been hauled into a court of law as a defendant in a criminal proceeding, or to have been convicted. Added to that must be a newspaper article read by thousands of people in which a reporter makes snarky remarks about your lack of fashion sense.

I was on the copy desk of that paper, and I saw to it that the "little old lady in a purple polyester pants suit" references, among similar touches, were excised.

One problem for editors, though, is that the reaction to gratuitous or inappropriate descriptive detail can easily turn into a reflex to delete all descriptive detail, just to be safe. That, too, is ill-judged, because it robs stories of the kind of observed detail that brings people and circumstances to life for the reader. Sometimes, I concede, our copy editors at The Sun go too far.

The tests for descriptive details are the same as for any other element in an article: Do they contribute directly to the reader’s understanding, or are they some kind of excrescence representing the writer’s desire to show off? Do they accomplish the effect the writer intends, or do they stimulate unintended and unfortunate associations?

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (1)

July 19, 2006

Coffee on the piazza

Responding to a chorus of readers interested in details of my recent trip to Italy (well, a duet), I can try to satisfy their curiosity while attempting to connect the trip to the actual subject of this blog.

I spent two weeks in Cagli, a town of 10,000 in the Appenines northeast of Rome where Loyola College runs a four-week summer program. The students learn some Italian, report and write news features about the town and its people, take photographs, do videography and combine everything in Web pages. I come in toward the end as the copy editor of their texts. But there is time for other activities.

On a day trip to Gubbio, one of those vertical medieval cities built into a hillside, I saw the relics of Bishop Ubaldo (d. 1160). The relics of Bishop Ubaldo ARE Bishop Ubaldo, whose mummified corpse lies in a case, dressed in cope and miter. In the same cathedral that afternoon, I heard a string ensemble, with timpani and organ, rehearsing an 18th-century concerto for a wedding later in the day. The beautiful and the grotesque, side by side. (Bishop Ubaldo, incidentally, is the patron saint of those who suffer from migraine or demonic possession. He looks as if he might have experienced both.)

On another day trip, to Urbino, I saw the graduates from the university celebrating. Urbino's graduates do not wear mortarboards; they are crowned with wreaths of laurel, and after the ceremonies, they wear their laurel wreaths around town in their street clothes. (The male graduates are then ceremoniously dunked in a fountain by friends.)

I spent a great deal of time loafing in the piazza in Cagli, practicing dolce far niente (the sweetness of doing nothing), drinking coffee or Prosecco, and joining the other faculty for two-hour dinners. One restaurant featured a pasta I had never had before, strozzaprete ("strangle the priest"), strands of pasta twisted together. The proprietor's 82-year-old mother, who makes all the restaurant's pasta by hand, came out of the kitchen to accept our compliments.

But it’s not all niente, or, for that matter, dolce. Editing the stories produced by 33 undergraduates is not work for the faint-hearted. And here we come back to the preoccupations of this blog.

Some aspects of the students’ writing were startling. It is not just that they tended to be unacquainted with the conventions of news features — many of them were not journalism majors — or that they had difficulty with structure. The startling thing was their sheer lack of acquaintance with the mechanics of writing. I don’t mean making subjects and verbs agree (well, actually, I do); they could not be counted on to punctuate direct quotations properly. It appears that what training in writing most of them had had was directed more at expressiveness than at precision.

Then, after a good deal of head-shaking with colleagues about the way the world is going straight to hell, and at an accelerated pace, I saw their photographs. The images were impressive. And their videos, once they got the hang of using the cameras and editing, were also quite good. It came to me then that these students, who appear to be representative of their generation of undergraduates, are more oriented toward the visual than the verbal. They don't retain much from lectures, and they don’t appear to do a lot of reading under their own steam. They look at me, and I look at them, and both of us see an alien sensibility.

For details about the Cagli program:

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (2)

July 17, 2006

Take this prescription and call me in the morning has discovered logomachy.*

An article by Robert Lane Greene, “Revenge of the Language Nerds,” was posted on Thursday, July 13 ( It reviews Far From the Madding Gerund, essays from Language Log (q.v., ) by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum.

Mr. Greene has some remarks on the eternal struggle between the prescriptivists and descriptivists, pointing out that the prescriptivists have published a lot of books but that the descriptivists catch up with this one.

It is wholesome for him to point out that the caricature of the descriptivist viewpoint — that anything a native speaker of English says or writes is by definition legitimate — is a straw man. No serious linguist thinks that.

Unfortunately, in describing the “militant grammarians” such as David Foster Wallace, the author of a well-reasoned critique of the philosophical underpinnings of descriptivism, Mr. Greene presents the other straw man, the prescriptivist as the blind follower of nonsensical rules about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions.

If Mr. Greene had paid closer attention to the Wallace essay that he cites, a review in Harper’s of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, he would have found there a robust defense of reasonable and informed descriptivism. It is in Garner’s original book and in the revised Garner’s Modern American Usage, after all, that one finds an entry on superstitions of usage, among them the prohibitions on splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. 

My eminent colleague, Bill Walsh, has presented workshops at the annual jamborees of the American Copy Editors Society on “Rules That Aren’t Rules,” and his books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style are striking examples of reasonable prescriptivism.

And in its own little way, this blog has tried to explain repeatedly that there are fewer rules of English that many people have been taught, that thoughtful writers and editors acknowledge changes and variations in the language, but that the anyone wishing to write precisely has to make judgments. The enterprise that my fellow copy editors and I have embarked on, despite the drubbings we get from Mr. Pullum’s colleagues at Language Log, is to formulate reasonable judgments.

But read the Slate article — and the Wallace article — and form your own conclusions.

*(For a definition, see You Don’t Say #37, “There is a word for it,” May 3, 2006.)

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (0)

July 13, 2006

Let a hundred flowers bloom

[Be advised that the previous posting, "Shoot if you must this old gray head," to which this one refers was apparently dropped for a time but has been restored.]

It didn’t take long for comments (two)  on the previous posting to show up. Here’s one. "I care about language but question that distinctions like McIntyre’s ‘dilemma’ are any longer relevant. Language belongs to the people who use it. Let it evolve."

When Odysseus had to pass between Scylla and Charybdis, he faced a dilemma, a choice between two equally disagreeable possibilities. (Yeah, yeah, I know. Homer again. Don’t start with me.) If you find that dilemma is the word for your situation, if difficulty, problem, predicament, plight, quandary and fix are somehow inadequate to your purpose, do you find me crouching athwart the keyboard? Do I seize the pencil from your hand? Go ahead.

Of course the language belongs to the people who use it. We have the English language because Anglo-Saxon fell into the hands of illiterate peasants in the 11th century, and they, because they were ignorant of proper grammar, spent the next several generations simplifying its monstrosities.

And yes, of course, it evolves as surely as tectonic plates shift the landscape about, usually imperceptibly, sometimes abruptly. An uneasy stability sometimes develops. Regiments of schoolteachers have been unable to eradicate ain’t from the language. But schoolteachers are people who use the language, too, and they are the reason that ain’t has remained restricted to colloquial usage.

I’m an editor; my job is to make judgments about language for my publication. I don’t edit your conversation. You may spell and capitalize in e-mails any way you please. I don’t edit menus or billboards. I don’t edit anything unless I am paid for it. But when I edit for The Sun, I enforce the standards and preferences the paper has established. (Standards and preferences over which I admittedly have some influence.) My job is to insist on as much precision in usage as we can achieve, without resorting to fussiness and pedantry. That requires judgment. This blog describes how I arrive at those judgments. You can take them or leave them.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:10 PM | | Comments (3)

Shoot if you must this old gray head

A recent comment on a comment took what looks very much like a shot at the author of these postings: “Alas, usage rules based on actual usage by Actual People Who Know What They're Doing With English have little chance against entrenched rules based on ... uh ... well, decisions by the lexirati. Sorry. :-) See also: that/which.”

Newly humbled to learn that I am a lexirato rather than an Actual Person, I’d merely like to restate some points that should have been clear to readers of this blog since its first numbers last December.

English has far fewer rules than many people are taught, and much of what people have been taught is flat wrong. You can end a sentence with a preposition, split an infinitive, separate an auxiliary verb and main verb with an adverb, use “none of them” with a plural verb, and do many other things with impunity. None of these things violate (See?) English grammar and usage.

What I have tried to do is to follow the principle — not a rule — of H.W. Fowler that when there has developed in the language a useful distinction of meaning, careful writers and editors will observe that distinction. Yes, Fowler showed the bad judgment to be British, white, middle-class, classically educated, opinionated, and dead for more than 70 years. He made a number of cranky points, but his distinction is still a useful one.

That is why a precise writer will not confuse loath and loathe, rebut and refute, mantel and mantle. A precise writer will not use enormity to mean a big thing or dilemma to mean merely a difficulty. That is why it is reasonable to use that with restrictive clauses and which with nonrestrictive or parenthetical clauses; it is not a rule, but doing so contributes to clarity. (Yes, tell me again that the Brits use which for both. It’s not a rule to use elevator instead of lift, but it’s a good idea for writers in the United States to do so.)

Whom does this principle hurt? A reader who does not make fine distinctions will not notice, and the reader who does will appreciate them.

But you Actual People out there remain free to disagree. Fire away.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (4)

July 10, 2006

Heads above the rest

It is little understood among the reading public that the headlines on newspaper articles are not written by the authors of the articles. They are instead written by my fellow anonymous drudges, the copy editors (Editing on computer terminals, we can no longer properly call ourselves ink-stained wretches).

Generally, what filters back to the copy desk from the readership is complaint. Sometimes because a headline is inaccurate or ill-judged in tone. Sometimes simply because the reader does not like what it says. Sometimes because the reader does not fully understand the limitations of condensing the sense of a 1,000-word article into eight words, mostly of one or two syllables.

And yet, sometimes we pull it off. I offer you some examples of recent headlines in The Sun that display merit you may have overlooked. I also drag the names of the headline writers out of obscurity for a moment in the light.

$1.7 million Mercedes

hits zero in 10 blocks

Jerry Bayne summarized an article about an automobile that conked out after being driven 10 blocks, leading to a lawsuit. Jerry also wrote the headline for an article about a Chinese electric automobile with a top speed of 23 mph:

One for the road — slowly

For a Dan Rodricks column on extravagant executive compensation, Paul Bendel-Simso came up with this.


set sights

on a really

gross profit

As some people got jittery over the approach of June 6, 2006, the date with the ominous abbreviation, Peggy Cunningham wrote

On 6-6-06, no apocalypse

If you’re reading this, the world hasn’t ended yet

Maryann James had to come up with a compact headline for a feature on a library Web site designed for children under 5.

Baby steps toward books

For a business article, John McClintock produced this.

New Microsoft leaders

Face a tightening Web

Software king struggles to find profit beyond its core business

When Katie Couric made her interminable farewell to morning television, Emeri O’Brien produced a headline for the news story in the features section.

For Couric, ‘Today’ is past

For a food section article on the ability of diners to take unconsumed wine from a restaurant, Linda Schubert provided this.

Why don’t you put a cork in it — and take it home

Robin Smith had an extremely tight head spec for a Page One article about the traffic snarl that developed as a religious convention drew 50,000 people into Baltimore.

Prayers and oaths

And Robert Swann came up with an evocative headline for an article on how Kristen Cox, Gov. Robert L Ehrlich Jr.’s running mate, came to be blind.

Losing sight of the stars was just the beginning

My colleagues on the copy desk struggle every day to make the headlines accurate, clear, succinct and — as you see, whenever the opportunity offers itself — lively and imaginative. It is not a task that most people could do at all, much less do so well.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (1)

July 6, 2006


The cats no longer even look up at the low growl from the living room in the morning. It’s just The One With the Big Feet snarling at his newspaper.

This morning, not even through the first cup of coffee, I came across a reference to two men being tried in the deaths of three children as "the accused killers."

We don’t use that construction. Or at least we’re not supposed to. The Associated Press has said in its stylebook since before the Dutch bought Manhattan that accused killer, accused murderer and similar constructions are forbidden.

The reason is simple. When you write "accused killer," you are identifying the person as a killer who happens to have been accused of the crime. In articles about sexual abuse of children by clergy, "accused priest" did not mean someone who had been accused of being a priest, but someone who was a priest who had been charged with a crime.

The rationale behind the reason is also simple. Newspapers should take seriously the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings. It is not our business to convict people of crimes before judges and juries have acted.

That is also the reason that newspapers are careful about the word murder. While in common usage it can mean a killing, it has a stricter legal meaning. Legally, a person is not a murderer until conviction for murder. Someone who has caused the death of another person and is convicted of manslaughter, for example, is not a murderer. So we avoid using murder until a defendant stands convicted of the charge. Killing and, for the Latinists, homicide are perfectly clear and satisfactory terms.

For this morning’s lapse, we can hold accountable an accused reporter, an accused assigning editor and a clutch of accused copy editors.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)

July 5, 2006

Who cares?

Never wear brown shoes with a blue suit.

Take off your hat when a lady enters the elevator.

A gentleman ties his own neckwear.

Wear Panama hats and seersucker suits between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Or so I was brought up to believe. Today, most men don’t wear hats at all, though it would be nice if they would take off their baseball caps in restaurants. Fewer men wear ties at all. These rules for gentlemen (I dare not presume to speak for the ladies) are already archaic. They represent the kind of principles that my older sister once dismissed impatiently as "silly little rules that nobody else knows or cares about."

To these "silly little rules," add many of the rules or principles of grammar and usage. You don’t have to make subjects and verbs agree, or pronouns agree with their antecedents. You can put chocolate in a cocktail and call it a martini. You are free to chew with your mouth open. This is America.

Except that there are still some people to whom precision matters. The Sun recently ran an article that referred to "military court-martials." Well, who else but the military conducts a court-martial? And the proper plural is courts-martial. We have a lot of military personnel among our readers, and at least some of them, reading that phrase, may have wondered, "Do their reporters and editors know their business?"

Precision matters to some readers, and those are the readers — literate and informed — whom we ought to prize and cultivate. The reader who is unaware of nice distinctions of meaning will sail through without noticing (If you wear no hat, there is nothing to doff when a lady enters the elevator). The informed reader will hold the publication in respect.

Here are a few examples of useful precision in usage.

Anxious/eager. To be anxious about something is to experience anxiety, jitters, apprehension. To be eager is to have an enthusiastic anticipation. If you are anxious to see the morning paper, you are worried about what is in it. If you are eager to see the morning paper, you expect good news.

Enormity. Not an enormous thing but a dreadful thing. The word may suggest scale, but it has nothing to do with physical size. The Holocaust and Stalin’s purges are enormities. The Mall of America may be huge, but it is not an enormity (except, perhaps, in aesthetic terms).

Fulsome. Not full of or abounding in, but nauseatingly excessive. Fulsome praise is not merely ample, but the kind of flattery that only the vainest can swallow without gagging.

You can misuse these words, and many others, and the literate reader will gather your intent in context, but you will sacrifice respect.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 PM | | Comments (4)
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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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