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August 31, 2006

Here lies ...

A complaint from a reader of The Sun.

Headline: MARC train strikes and kills man laying on the tracks

The headline should conclude with "lying on the tracks." It's correct in the article.

Grrrrrr. There are a number of galling things about this error. First, it is so elementary. Second, the correct word was right there in the first paragraph of the article. Third, and most discouraging, that headline went through the hands of the copy editor who wrote it, the copy editor who checked the electronic version and the copy editor who saw it on a page proof.

But it should come as no particular surprise. My students at Loyola, mainly juniors and seniors in journalism or English, pretty much look blank when I start carrying on about lie and lay. They are accustomed to hearing people say that they were laying down, and the usage is equally familiar to them in print.

The lengthy entry on the subject in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that lay and lie were used interchangeably as intransitives well into the 18th century but that a distinction was then codified in textbooks, to limited success. "If the grammarians and the schoolmasters and the schoolmarms and the usage writers have succeeded in largely establishing the transitive-intransitive distinction between lay and lie in standard discursive prose, they have not done so well in speech." As noted.

Merriam-Webster’s continues to say bluntly that the distinction has become "a social shibboleth — a marker of class and education." But if educated people —and I am not about to get into a discussion of whether the students who are awarded degrees at the school where I teach can be called educated — no longer observe the distinction, then its utility even as a social shibboleth is compromised.

We may well be close to the point at which the two-century-old distinction, which has been eroding in common usage, is finally effaced. But there is still that remnant of English speakers on whom laying for lying grates, and copy editors are expected to be aware of their preferences.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (6)

August 28, 2006

What's this about Realtors?

A reader’s query.

In a … story about a Baltimore stream reclamation project, the reporter quoted a person whose field is real estate.

"This is our little spot of heaven. It's just gorgeous, and it's unbelievable the way they are destroying it," said Pat Perkins, a Realtor who lives next to the wooded park.

Whoa! Capital R? At a picnic today with an editor, I lamented that some sort of publicity push for the real estate industry has infiltrated the palace. He told me - immediately - that the AP stylebook has always capped the R.

1) isn't it sad that this came up at a picnic?

2) why would the AP cap the R in realtor and not, say, the L in linebacker?

That capital letter in Realtor has irked editors for decades, but there is a reason for it. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains that the word was invented and trademarked in 1916 by the National Association of Realtors. It is captialized because it is a trademark, and technically, it should be used only to refer to a member of the association. The term real estate agent is generic, and that is the usage we typically prefer.

If I wanted to dignify my work further, I presumably could make up a word, say Correctorificator, register it as a trademark, put it on business cards and demand that any who writes about me use that word, capitalized.

That would be silly.

We recently published articles about Dr. John Cameron, one of the foremost practitioners at Johns Hopkins, which is one of the nation’s pre-eminent teaching hospitals. He is called a surgeon, lowercase. Though some publications operate otherwise, The Sun calls George W. Bush, along with his predecessors, the president, lowercase. Benedict XVI is the pope, lowercase.

To get a capital letter for their job descriptions, they would have had to go into real estate.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (1)

August 24, 2006

What I don't care about

For reasons I do not begin to understand, the TypePad software scrambled the order of paragraphs in this entry, which I have now restored.

A reader summoned up the courage last week to write, calling the process "a terrifying ordeal." He explained, "With every letter of every word, I find myself imagining harsh judgment being passed down."

Take a deep, cleansing breath. Maybe you should lie down for a while with a cold cloth on your forehead. Come back to this blog when you feel a little steadier.

Feel better now?

Let me explain what I don’t care about.

I don’t care about your personal correspondence.

I’m an editor, and I am paid to edit. I do not edit when I am not being paid. I am not being paid to scan your letters for typos, grammatical oversights or stylistic infelicities. It’s nice that you thought to write. It’s nice to get mail.

The exception is the letter from a job applicant, something that I am paid to evaluate. Jim Schottelkotte, the managing editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer when I was hired there 26 years ago, reflexively threw out, unread, any letter from an applicant who misspelled Schottelkotte, on the theory that anyone who couldn’t be trusted to get the name of his potential boss right couldn’t be trusted on anything else.

I don’t care about your e-mail messages, either.

I write mine with standard capitalization. But that’s just a matter of taste. Write everything lowercase, if you like. Invent your own conventions of punctuation.

It’s nice to get messages, but I’m not being paid to correct them.

I don’t care about public signs, menus, etc.

If the Smiths choose to suspend from the mailbox a wood-burned shingle with the legend "The Smith’s" on it, I may conclude that they, like most people, paid very little attention in English class, but I will pass by. If a menu displays pretentious capitalizations and risible descriptions of the dishes, I can always just order another bourbon. If a chain vendor of overpriced merchandise chooses to call itself "Cache," with an accent aigu over the e because it looks, you know, sophisticated, like French, I’m not obliged to walk in and explain the difference between cachet and cache, or to point out that the past participle of the French verb cachet means "secret" or "hidden." (I admit that I did admire the honesty of a local store, since closed, that called itself "Daddy’s Money.")

(Also, I admit to being snotty about that clothing store. But really.)

I don’t care how you talk.

Use ain’t freely; be my guest. Use double negatives. Hell, use triple negatives. Say nukulur. We’ve had at least three presidents who did — Eisenhower, Ford and the incumbent — and the Republic still stands. I may dress like a fop and talk like a pedant, but you have no such obligation, and I have no responsibility for you. Like, you know.

What I do care about

I am paid to edit texts for publication, seeing to it that they conform to the conventions of that version of English — one of many versions, all legitimate —called standard written English. It is a dialect that has some rules, many conventions and a multitude of perplexities. I have my hands full with it, and I don’t have either the time or the slightest inclination to enforce those rules and conventions beyond their legitimate scope.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 AM | | Comments (3)

August 21, 2006

Those amazing wordsmiths

A short guide to the zoology of newspaper writers. I did not originally intend to post this but have been prevailed upon to do so by some of the readers who requested private copies.

The Crown Prince and/or The Princess Royal

The prize bull and prize heifer of the sacred cattle have typically won prizes — real prizes, sometimes with money attached, not the stuff that state press associations hand out like candy corn at Halloween. Consequently, they have been exempted from routine work. Production of a story, once or twice a year, is an event in the newsroom.

Mute Inglorious Milton

Mute Inglorious Milton has the misfortune to work on a beat or a section largely ignored by the rest of the paper. He/she may be diligent and accurate, may even be able to write clearly, but there is no chance that he/she will ever be summoned from the suburbs to work downtown, much less ever become The Crown Prince or The Princess Royal.

The Supreme Pontificator

As a writer of analyses or reviews and a master of the Authoritative Tone, The Supreme Pontificator has no peer. He/she has never been wrong. Or at least has never acknowledged a misjudgment. Moreover, he/she speaks ex cathedra on any subject in any article. Read his/her articles to learn what God would think if God had the inside information.

The Supreme Pontificator is destined to become a distinguished member of the Columntern (See below).

Who Touched My Story

Who Touched My Story will demand an accounting of every keystroke during the editing of his/her story, often calling the copy desk on edition deadline with this inquiry. Who Touched will contest every attempt to untangle syntax or regularize a mixed metaphor. Corrections of errors of fact will not be met with gratitude.

Who Touched has become such a nuisance that assigning editors have given up the struggle. His/her copy is subjected to peristalsis rather than editing, and when a copy editor has the temerity to raise a question, Who Touched will answer, "My editor thought that this story was fine. Why are you questioning it?"

Mirror, Mirror

"Did you read my story? What did you think of my story? Did you like it better than yesterday’s story? What was your favorite passage? What’s the headline on my story going to say? Is it on Page One? Why isn’t it on Page One?"

Mirror, Mirror is apparently unaware that anyone else is writing or that the paper and its editors have any concerns apart from the burnishing of his/her article.

By the Word

By the Word believes that a 1,500-word story is, by definition, twice as good as a 750-word story. Accordingly, an article on some continuing story with three paragraphs of incremental developments will be padded out with a couple of dozen paragraphs taken from the archive. By the Word is particularly deadly when covering crime and courts, because a story on the third day of jury selection will require a recapitulation of the complete circumstances of the original crime, with context taking the reader back to the time Cain smacked Abel.

The Duckbilled Platitude

The Duckbilled Platitude never met a cliche he/she didn’t like. But he/she is as busy as a one-armed paperhanger. At the end of the day, racing against the clock, he gives 110 percent trying to find the smoking gun. And the next day he is back in the saddle again. Trying to get Duckbilled to give up cliches is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Columnist Party Apparatchik

The members of the Columntern write about their children, their pets, their interminable waits queuing up with the rabble at the motor vehicle bureau. When whimsical, they write columns that Dave Barry might have been able to make funny. When channeling Walter Winchell, they produce little apercus and apothegms about life, held together with ellipses and spit.

When one Apparatchik achieves the status of Supreme Pontificator and takes one of his/her extended vacations, the paper reprints past columns.

The Columntern is not subject to editing, because, as Anthony Trollope said, "One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it." Or more simply, as Don Hebb put it, "What’s not worth doing is not worth doing well."

High Camp

High Camp has learned from colleagues, taking the Authoritative Tone from The Supreme Pontificator, adopting the self-absorption of Mirror, Mirror, appropriating the gift of unoriginality from The Duckbilled Platitude, and experimenting with the risible pretensions of Goodbye English Prose (See below), he/she confects a rococo prose unlike anything else on land or sea. Many writers talk about developing a voice; High Camp has Voice. The effect is very much like what P.G. Wodehouse or S.J. Perlman might have accomplished if they had taken no account of the actual meanings of words.

High Camp flowers in features sections.

Plain But Earnest

Plain But Earnest is diligent, so diligent that if he/she were any more productive it would sink the whole operation. Plain But files every day, sometimes more than once. Everything in Plain But’s notes goes into the story — stray details of no particular moment, meaningless quotes ("But he said it"). Plain But has no literary aspirations. In fact, the only structural principle Plain But has mastered in constructing an article is randomness.

Goodbye English Prose

Goodbye English Prose is all literary, all flair, all the time, operating under the misapprehension that he/she is creating for the newspaper what H.L. Mencken called "beautiful letters." Goodbye English loves metaphors, no matter how strained or grotesquely inappropriate to the subject. Goodbye English will drag in the most obvious allusions or quotations from English literature to demonstrate that he/she is an educated/cultivated/sophisticated/sensitive artist.

An editor who questions Goodbye English’s fulsome effects will witness an instant metamorphosis into Who Touched My Story.

Disclosures and disclaimers

"Duckbilled platitude" is borrowed from a poem by E.E. Cummings (NOT e.e. cummings, dammit). "Goodbye English prose" was the headline suggested by an Australian journalist during a workshop featuring a particularly overripe specimen. And "mute inglorious Milton" is, of course, taken from Thomas Gray’s "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," a poem once familiar to just about anyone who had made it all the way through high school, but now, sadly, no longer so.

Reporters/writers reading this posting should be aware that the archetypes described here were developed out of more than a quarter-century’s experience as a newspaper copy editor and should not necessarily be identified with any specific person working within striking distance of my office.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:53 AM | | Comments (2)

August 18, 2006

Taking our medicine

A reader of The Sun favors us with this observation.

Congratulations to the Sun for inventing yet another new word ….the neologism

"obstinance” …. ("His obstinance prompted the committee of lawmakers..."). Perhaps some day she'll write about the value of "abstinacy" as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies.

This particular neologism dates to A.D. 1475, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, which also quotes citations from 1708 — Ward’s Hudibras Redivivus, “For if a Prince declares his Want To those whose Duty 'tis to grant, And they, thro' Obstinance, deny The Sov'reign Pow'r a due Supply” — and 1987 —“Wittgenstein was rather pleased with the resolve, obstinance, spite or whatever it was making him stick by his decision to remain in England over the vacations.”

All the same, obstinance is at the very best an alternative for obstinacy, which we ought to have used, for at least the reason that our electronic dictionary identifies obstinance as a misspelling. Maybe a reporter/assigning editor/copy editor might have paid a little more attention to spell-check.

Another reader complains about the recent headline “'Fundraising Success Tied to Whom Is  Helped," saying, “It should say: ‘Fundraising Success Is Tied to  Who Is Helped.’ ‘Who’ is the subject of the verb ‘is  helped’ and should be in the subjective mode. The object of the  preposition ‘to’ is the entire clause ‘who is  helped.’ "

Please notify the person in charge of writing headlines to bone up on  proper grammar and forward this to the editor in charge.

There we are guilty as charged, to the chagrin of the person in charge of the persons in charge of writing the headlines. (That would be me.) The hands' grog ration will be stopped.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 AM | | Comments (1)

August 12, 2006

Our amazing wordsmiths

No one has written in response to the "Linnaeus on the copy desk" posting to ask for a similar set of classifications of reporters and writers. Do I have to drop a hint with a clang?

Here's a start. What follows is a set of titles for categories of writers. Now comes audience participation! Interactivity! You do the work.

The Crown Prince and/or the Princess Royal

Mute Inglorious Milton

The Supreme Pontificator

Who Touched My Story

Mirror, Mirror

By the Word

High Camp

The Duckbilled Platitude

Columnist Party Apparatchik

Plain But Earnest

Goodbye English Prose

I have written entries for these categories, which are available to readers of this blog on request. But I’m reluctant to publish them, because I’d rather not have to pay someone to start my car for me every day.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:20 PM | | Comments (2)

August 10, 2006

Local option

Whenever The Sun runs an article or photo caption that mentions people sitting on stoops, I cringe. I know that I will soon be hearing from longtime readers of the paper complaining that Baltimore rowhouses have steps, not stoops, and that the writer who wrote stoops is betrayed as an outlander.

As reporters cycle through the chains that own so many American newspapers, sometimes staying no more than a couple of years in any one place, they lack the time (and inclination?) to familiarize themselves with the language and customs of their temporary cities. The credits with their bylines might as well read Not From Here.

But anyone who wants to achieve credibility with the readership ought to find out what the readers call their soft drinks — soda, pop, tonic — and their sandwiches — subs, grinders, po’ boys, hoagies.

Anyone who wants to render quotes accurately will need to develop an ear for the syntax of speakers in the area. In Pittsburgh and the German-heritage areas of Pennsylvania, for example, a speaker may say that the car needs washed.

Sensitivity to these little touches shows the reader that you have taken the time and trouble to get acquainted with them, that you are not some outsider indifferent to their customs. Or worse, that you harbor some degree of scorn for them.

And let us, please, forgo the use of locals (rhymes with yokels) to refer to residents of an area. It is inherently condescending. It telegraphs to the reader, "I’ve come to this sleepy little burg for a day to write about the quaint customs of these ho-hums, and I am going to get out of here as fast as I can."

Better drop sleepy from the adjectives describing small towns or rural areas while you’re at it. Unless you are some cosmopolitan familiar with the mores of New York, Paris, Rome and the other great cities, you probably didn’t come from anyplace more impressive yourself.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (5)

August 8, 2006

Going native

One of the most insidious dangers about covering a specific area, or beat, is that over time the reporter begins to sound like the subject.

The crime reporter’s stories begin to read more and more like a police report, in which a victim of an accident is "ejected from the vehicle" instead of being thrown from the car. Men and women become "individuals." People do not go anywhere, but "proceed."

The business reporter starts writing about companies that are trying to "grow the business" or "grow profits." (Plant in spring; then fertilize and irrigate as needed.) Another presents quoted material about "internal synergies leveraged across the entire organization to expand product offerings," as if such arrant cant were intelligible.

And the writer covering a government agency begins to write like a bureaucrat. A small but telling mark of this tendency is to omit the definite article before the initials of an agency. We conventionally say that the FBI investigates people suspected of terrorist intentions or that the CIA monitors the movements of people suspected of espionage. (Acronyms, abbreviations that are pronounced as words rather than letters, such as NASA, do not take the direct article.)

But now it has become a fad to say that NSA intercepts telecommunications or FDA has approved a new drug or USDA is testing for mad cow disease. If you look at quoted statements by employees of these agencies, you will find them dropping the definite article, as if using it somehow limited the dignity of their department. Or perhaps they just mean to adopt a clipped, stripped-for-action tone. It is an annoying affectation, and one that reporters would do well not to imitate. Journalists are expected to report on people in business and government, not to mimic them.

Please note the exceptions. The definite article runs with the acronym when the acronym functions as a noun, not when it serves as an adjective. You would write NSA security procedures.

And there are abbreviations, such as those for the names of colleges and universities, that do not take the definite article. I live in dread that some copy editor will read this posting, convert it into a rule covering all possible circumstances, and start insisting that Morgan State University should be referred to on second reference as the MSU. Spare me.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:57 PM | | Comments (4)

August 3, 2006

Linnaeus on the copy desk

Since copy editors are anonymous, many readers of this blog can have little idea of what they are like. For their benefit, and for the amusement of the copy editors who do look in here, I’ve compiled a partial catalogue of the denizens of the desk.

The Pouncer

The Pouncer takes his motto from Gore Vidal: "It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail." When the Pouncer discovers an error in a story, he brandishes it aloft and proclaims it. The error is like the dead bird your cat deposits on your doorstep to show how hunting is done.

Because the Pouncer is smart, he is usually right. Unfortunately, he has to establish his own worth every night by showing the defects of others. So if nothing substantial presents itself, he will take a story and worry it like a terrier with a rat until he can make an issue of something.

He is beloved by reporters and assigning editors alike.

By the Book

You can predict all the changes By the Book makes in copy. Since always becomes because, half an acre becomes a half-acre, and attorney becomes lawyer (or maybe the reverse). No sentence ends with a preposition, and neither does any line of a headline. Everything for By the Book is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong; there is always a correct way to do everything, and everything must be made correct. By the Book’s copy of the AP Stylebook (copyright 1982) has been annotated more comprehensively than the Talmud.

Thanks for Sharing

"Hey, this obituary has a funny line in it."

"Did you see what Wall Street said about the company stock on Romenesko today?"

"Here’s a real cute picture of a cat wearing a bonnet." (Why, on edition deadline, is she looking at Internet images of cats?)

The big-hearted Thanks for Sharing can’t keep anything to herself. If it’s unusual, or amusing, or heart-wrenching, she has to let you know about it because you might otherwise miss it. Never mind that you are — what do we call it? — working.

Mote Man

The devil is in the details, and Mote Man is on the lookout for the devil. He, like Gilbert’s Major-General Stanley "knows the kings of England, and he quotes the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical." If the story says that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mote Man knows that Constantine established a toleration of Christianity. If the story says that John F. Kennedy was the youngest man to become president of the United States, he knows that Theodore Roosevelt was younger when McKinley was assassinated. Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected president.

But since Mote Man’s attention is devoted entirely to recondite distinctions, he is capable of sending through a story about Iran bearing a 48-point headline that says Iraq.

Speed Demon

Speed Demon can turn a story around faster than anyone else on the desk. If you hand Speed Demon a page proof, it will be returned to you marked "OK" before you have been able to sit down again. Speed Demon handles twice as much copy as any other editor on the desk, and is quite proud of that.

Speed Demon also lets through twice as many errors as anyone else on the desk.

Stuck in First

Sitting near Speed Demon is Stuck in First. As one colleague once said of another, "He only has one gear." (And don’t write in to tell me that that should read "has only one gear." Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much, and besides, IT’S A DIRECT QUOTE.) Every story that passes through Stuck in First’s hands is meticulously edited, clean and correct. And if you can pry two or three stories out of those slow-moving fingers by edition close, it is a good night.

The Correspondent

If you sit near the Correspondent, you hear her busy fingers on the keyboard, tappity-tappity-tappity-TAP. And you think, that’s good. Busy at work. Should be able to close the edition early tonight. Then you notice that the Correspondent has been working for 45 minutes on a routine 12-column-inch wire service article on the discovery that it gets hot in the Midwest in the summertime. That’s when you realize that all that music of the keyboard has been Instant Messaging to friends, some of them probably also on the copy desk.

Team Player

Team Player designs dynamic pages, writes crisp headlines, and sets priorities under deadline pressure. A self-starter, Team Player acts proactively to take action, communicates effectively with stakeholders, and displays a positive attitude. Team Player has broad editing experience, excellent news judgment and leadership skills and a desire to innovate. Team Player understands and embraces the company’s core mission, values and goals.


The Zoo

Now don’t get me started about the reporters.


I am Pouncer, Speed Demon, Mote Man, Thanks for Sharing, Correspondent, By the Book and, sometimes, Stuck in First. I have at one time or another displayed all these behaviors. Learning humility is easy on a copy desk, because in identifying the faults and failings of others, one holds up a mirror to oneself.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (4) | TrackBacks (1)

August 1, 2006

Take that

Phil Evans, a reader, inquires:

Do you answer readers' questions? If so, in the sentence, "It appears [that]

today will be hot." how do you explain when you must include "that" or when

it's OK to drop it?

I advise employees of a nonprofit child advocacy agency on writing and

frequently preach the value of short sentences. Perhaps as a consequence, I

see a lot of sentences that (?) I believe should include "that", but do not.

I believe the missing "that's" are considered function words and are

supposed to express a grammatical relationship. Even if that statement is

accurate, I have no idea of what it means. I am at a loss about how to

explain the correct usage to staff members who are experts in matters other

than writing.

You will understand my ignorance on this subject when I confess that (?) I

was a journalist most of my life including ten years at The Evening Sun.

We will speak no ill here of The Evening Sun.

Mr. Evans is correct that that is a function word. A function word, the Oxford English Grammar will tell you, is a class of words, such as conjunctions and prepositions, that indicate grammatical relationships between words or groups of words. Lexical words, such as nouns, indicate content rather than relationship.

That as a conjunction introduces dependent clauses, thus marking the relationship with the main clause.

It is often omitted, more commonly in speech than in edited texts, particularly when the main clause and dependent clause are both short. Think of the line from O Brother, Where Art Thou?, “We thought you was a toad.”

Such a construction is called a contact clause.

The Associated Press Stylebook offers useful advice. That can be omitted when a dependent clause follows the main clause immediately, as in the O Brother example.

It must be used when an adverb of time follows the main verb. They found out on Thursday that their ship had sailed.

Some verbs idiomatically require the use of that. They include advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state. And it must be used before subordinate clauses that begin with after, although, because, before, in addition to, until and while. We are confident that until journalists start paying attention to the stylebook, there will be work for copy editors.

Journalists as a group tend to omit that, often to the effect of muddying meaning. The AP’s best advice is “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.”

For my part, it is sobering to calculate how much time I have spent over the past 26 years inserting that into awkwardly phrased copy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:18 PM | | Comments (3)
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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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