« Shoot if you must this old gray head | Main | Take this prescription and call me in the morning »

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)




I know my nauticals from my gronicles. I teach sailing. I write about the history of certain obsolete sailing boats. I sail. I paddle. Why else live on the Eastern Shore? -- it isn't the whopping salaries we get here.

And yet, the very idea of a person "crouching athwart" is tough enough to slip a bowline around, without "crouching athwart a keyboard."

Care to describe how this would appear in real life? I'm curious, even if I'm not completely convinced that a keyboard has any athwart a'tall. A'tall ship, perhaps.

Or is it that you were just back from the Johnny Depp movie?

John you off da hook!

As Kelly Bundy (a fictional TV sitcom character, daughter of the similarly fictional Al, and prone to voicing malapropisms) once said--conceivably in reference to Scylla and Charybdis, but more likely on whether or not to criticize someone: "I'm on the horns of an enema!"

>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

"Ignorant, illiterate peasants" knew their grammar perfectly (er, "properly") -- they used their language all day every day, and in so doing followed hundreds -- thousands -- of rules. You don't have to literate to know how to use language articulately, or even precisely.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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