« August 2006 | Main | October 2006 »

September 26, 2006

What the journalists read

A recent poll of journalists by the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association came up with a listing of essential books every journalist should have. The first two on the list were Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and The Careful Writer by Theodore A. Bernstein.

I freely admit to a long-held affection for Strunk and White. My copy of the 1962 paperback edition, acquired in high school, is on a shelf in my office. It was invaluable then, when I first aspired to write, and many journalists, myself included, would benefit from paying attention to White’s precepts. "Write with nouns and verbs." "Revise and rewrite." "Do not overwrite." "Do not overstate." "Do not affect a breezy manner." "Do not use dialect unless your ear is good." "Be clear." And, of course, Professor Strunk’s original advice: "Omit needless words."

But affection should not obscure reality, and the reality is that Strunk and White alone will not get you far enough along. Neither will The Careful Writer, a thoughtful and useful book that also shares space on a nearby shelf, but which is 40 years old and increasingly dated.

The journalists who contributed to that list did not include reference books — Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and Garner’s Modern American Usage — of which you see mention at this site with monotonous regularity. Grammar and syntax are the tools of our craft. You’d think that professional writers and editors would want to have the most up-to-date, comprehensive and authoritative tools within reach.

If you went to your doctor and saw on his desk William Osler’s The Principles and Practice of Medicine from1892, you might be impressed with his curiosity about medicine’s past, but you would be reassured to see that he also had a current edition of the Physicians’ Desk Reference.

There’s an item on the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association list with which I am unfamiliar, David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction. Perhaps it is there as an example of notable prose. I hope it’s not an expression of a sentiment that newspaper journalists have something in common with the dodo.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:21 PM | | Comments (3)

September 21, 2006

Spell it, but don't say it

You surely noticed the attention that the primary race for state comptroller got, in The Sun and elsewhere in Maryland news media. What you may not have noticed is that nearly everyone mispronounces the title. Comptroller is pronounced "controller," n, not m, no p. (Some dictionaries list the pronunciation that matches the spelling as an alternative pronunciation.)

Reliance on the spelling as a guide to pronunciation is also probably why many people say the t in often — but the word is uttered as "offen." Some sound the l in almond, though the word is pronounced "ah-mond." These look like examples of hypercorrection, a misguided attempt to sound proper and refined. An extreme example is the finicky and affected overpronunciation of foreign words that you can hear on some classical music stations.

But some mispronunciations reflect class distinctions, as when people put an extra syllable in athlete, rendering it "athalete," or pronounce cement with the accent on the first rather than the second syllable (Think of the Beverly Hillbillies’ swimming pool, the SEE-ment pond), or call for the PO-lice when they are in difficulty.

So there you have the language trap for English speakers: Try too hard, and betray yourself as hopelessly middle class; or try not at all, and reveal your proletarian background. You may find this "IN-tre-sting," or you may find it "in-ter-ES-ting," depending on where the way you talk places you in American society.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:38 PM | | Comments (3)

September 19, 2006

We don't say that here

Reader, please be advised that somewhere in this post you may find words that you do not see, or want to see, in the printed newspaper.

In 1968, when as a high school student I started work at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., there was a strict decorum to be observed in writing about people’s deaths. No one ever died of cancer; people died "after a long illness." No one ever committed suicide; people sometimes "died suddenly."

Forty years ago, cancer was so feared that even naming it could be a taboo. Suicide, like mental illness, was not merely something terribly sad for a family; it was so shameful that polite people would not speak of it openly.

Euphemism, the substitution of a mild term for one thought objectionable, has a long career in newspapers. In Britain, for example, where the law on libel is stricter than in the United States, Private Eye developed a system of code words for writing about the indiscretions of the great and the mighty. "Tired and emotional," for example, was widely understood to mean "drunk in public."

Differing levels of sensitivity about charged language can be seen throughout the news and entertainment media. Cable television features shows that use language not to be heard on network TV. Lewis Black can appear on HBO with dozens of utterances of one of Anglo-Saxon’s most popular verbs (Aw, c’mon, you know what I’m talking about). The same show could not be edited into acceptability for any of the networks. Alternative newspapers and magazines, which are targeted to more specific audiences, can get away with language that many readers of general-circulation newspapers would find objectionable.

Some of this is a good thing. Offensive ethnic and racial terms do not appear in metropolitan dailies or on network television, except perhaps in certain extraordinary contexts. Some may object that this is censorship or political correctitude, but it does serve to diminish some of the incivility in public discourse.

Gauging the tastes and sensitivities of readers is a delicate matter. A previous managing editor circulated a memo more than a decade ago urging the copy desk to "keep ‘sucks’ and other tasteless street language" out of the paper. Even though sucks is widely current in colloquial speech, and even though it appears that to people under the age of, say, 40, it connotes mere disapproval or scorn and carries no association with fellatio, the ban remains in place.

The word frigging creeps into the paper, sometimes in comic strips, because it is thought to be, like freaking, a euphemism for that ever-popular Anglo-Saxon verb. That to frig is a very old verb meaning to masturbate appears to have escaped general knowledge in an era of unreliable public education.

If you found the caution at the top of this posting titillating, I regret to inform you that sucks and frigging are as raw as it gets, unless you also find masturbate and fellatio offensive. Sorry.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:48 PM | | Comments (1)

September 16, 2006

Gnats, swarms of gnats

Forget, for a moment, the major irritations of journalism, the search for auguries in shaky polling results, the stories about Tom Cruise, the speculations about Katie Couric’s gravitas, or lack of it. You can dodge those — the headlines will tip you off. It’s the multitude of irritating little lapses or excesses that accumulate and fatigue you, like grit in your shoe. They are everywhere, and they are of many kinds.

The pretentious


The poorly understood

We keep using the word burgeoning to describe development that is overwhelming the countryside like kudzu. But to burgeon means to sprout or put out buds. Yes, it indicates growth, but properly the early stages.

The flat-out wrong

President Bush, in his speech on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, said, "If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened. They will gain a new safe haven, and they will use Iraq's resources to fuel their extremist movement."

The annoying pleonasm safe haven has apparently rooted itself in public discourse, but it is nonsense. A haven by definition is a safe place. The expression is probably a mistake for safe harbor; anchorages can be secure or exposed. Safe haven has been repeated so often as to have become a kind of noise that does not lead people to associate the words with much in the way of meaning.

We also take note of a staff story explaining that a judicial decision will receive close scrutiny and another with a reference to an armed gunman.

The cliched

In The Sun in recent days you could have read about war-torn Lebanon, war-torn Darfur, war-torn Iraq, and even war-torn Europe (in a reference to the Marshall Plan). Prefabricated phrases, stock expressions and standing epithets multiply like zebra mussels in the Great Lakes.

Journalese and headlinese

If you are mulling anything other than wine, or decrying some development in public life, or eyeing some phenomenon, you live in that curious parallel universe that exists in the pages of newspapers. People there speak and write in ways that no one else does or ever would.

Pick your own

Surely there are further examples of the gnats that you vainly try to brush away from your face when you read the paper or watch a news broadcast. Care to share any of them?

Corrections and amplifications

A reader at a desk not far from mine saw the references to Italian pronunciation in the posting "You said it" and pointed out that Guido is not the Italian form of William. That's Guglielmo. Guido is the Italian equivalent of the English Guy.

A colleague from the American Copy Editors Society wrote to point out that in the same posting my errant hand neglected to put the second t in Dashiell Hammett’s surname.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:29 PM | | Comments (3)

September 11, 2006

You said it

Responses from readers of The Sun or this blog.

How people talk

David, a reader of this blog, raised an apt question in response to the posting "Going native," on use of the definite article with the abbreviations of the names of organizations.

One would HOPE you wouldn't need to be so particular in describing the appropriate venues for a direct article. If it doesn't make sense to say it, why would we write it?

It is an oversimplification to say that writing is simply a version of speech — there is a great deal of writing that is concentrated in a way that speech is not and that is entirely effective on its own terms. But to the degree that journalism aspires to a conversational tone that makes use of the vocabulary and rhythms of speech, yes, if you wouldn’t say it that way, you shouldn’t write it that way.

But, as I was trying to show in the "Going native" posting, writers’ ear for the language is frequently corrupted by the tendency to mimic that language of the subject or source.

We say that people opt for products or services, instead of pick or choose. We write that people are tapped for public office, as if they were walking down Fraternity Row. We publish crime stories that use words like heist and fingered as if Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler were on the staff. We foist opaque jargon from business, law and government on our readers. We often write in a way that no one speaks, which distances us from our audience.

More on the definite article

A reader in Florida complains about a reference in an article to "government set-aside contracts for the disabled" and another to "the addicted and psychiatrically disabled."

There is no "the" disabled, the form is derogation. Please do not label people. When Mel Gibson employed this form he was met with immediate reprobation, we have a social contract not to publicly derogate the group he chose. Please extend that contract to all of us.

The National Organization on Disability does say that many disabled people find references to "the disabled" irritating, but that seems to fall well short of derogatory or insulting.

We have been at some pains to make sure that language that is outright offensive, such as cripple and crippled, does not appear in the paper. Most of the staff appears to have been schooled to write uses a wheelchair rather than wheelchair-bound.

But we do use the definite article with an adjective in identifying groups of people, such as the poor or the wealthy, without any intention of stigmatizing anyone, and without apparently giving offense. To take the reader’s complaint to its logical conclusion, we would have to stop referring to Catholics, Protestants, Muslims or, for that matter, Americans, because we thereby label people.

Transposed letters

A reader in Indiana points out a tendency to get names wrong.

There is one rule of Italian spelling all American copy editors should know. In Italian, GUI is pronounced "GWEE" as in Guido, the Italian form of "William." But GIU is pronounced "JEW" as in Rudy Giuliani.

Apparently American writers know a lot more Guidos than they do Giulianis, because every so often GIU-liani becomes transcribed as GUI-liani. At the newspaper where I work, a "Guiliani" headline made it past the slot, (and probably past me, sadly) but thankfully was killed on a proof.

And it's not just Rudy Giuliani. When the Italian journalist Giuliana Sgrena was kidnapped in Iraq, several of the wire services misspelled her first name as "Guiliana."

When I last checked the archive of The Baltimore Sun, "Guiliani" yielded 27 hits, but I am too lazy and too poor to figure out whether the Sun actually misspelled the mayor's name, whether there actually are some Guilianis running around this great country of ours or whether The Baltimore Sun's search engine is sophisticated enough to convert searches for "Guiliani" into results for "Giuliani."

Guilty as charged. We did misspell his name. I found 37 hits, some in articles that also spelled the name correctly.

It doesn’t help much that we usually got it right.

A question about pronouns

I need a place to go for a simple question: When you caption a photo, do you say "John and me on the mountaintop?" or "John and I on the mountaintop?" In other words, are you implying This is... John and I? or This is a photo of John and me?) An eternal puzzle.

Is there a website for these questions? I've checked a couple of style manuals and can't find it addressed.

If you look up "it's me" in Garner's Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, you'll find support for the informal use of "me" that has persisted in common usage for centuries. Your caption is a parallel case, because the implied sentence is "It is John and me on the mountaintop." Merriam Webster's makes the interesting argument that "it's me" sounds right to English speakers because the first-person pronoun falls in the clause where a direct object would. It also sounds less pretentious.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:53 AM | | Comments (0)

September 7, 2006

Fascism in fashion

I am, frankly, puzzled by the sudden vogue for calling Islamic militants fascists or Islamo-fascists, a point my learned colleague Pam Robinson has addressed at her blog, "Words at Work."

Fascism, to the extent that it means anything in particular, is one of the two principal 20th-century forms of totalitarianism. Communism and fascism both involve control by the state of all aspects of their citizens’ lives. This is, of course, an oversimplification, but the fundamental point is that fascism requires the apparatus of a state. And while communism purported to be international, fascism was a nationalist movement, in Italy, in Germany, in Spain and elsewhere, identifying itself with particular states.

The cheapening of the word can be laid in part to my generation. In the fabled ’60s, liberal and radical college students started out by denouncing unseemly links between the university, the state, the military and industry — a legitimate if occasionally overstated form of social criticism. In time, that discourse degenerated to the point that anyone who insisted that students attend classes and take examinations was called a fascist.

So I shouldn’t be surprised that the word is now applied to a loose confederation of militant groups, not states, that use terrorist tactics against states.

These militant splinter groups seem to envision something far older than 20th-century fascism, the authoritarian or theocratic state, the imposition of a religious regime on a populace. Denouncing Islamo-theocrats lacks the punch of Islamo-fascists and has the additional potential to irritate the splinter groups in this country to whom theocracy sounds like an appealing idea.

But perhaps a better parallel is with the Hashshash, the Nizari sect or cult of Ismaili Islam that is more familiarly known in the West as the Assassins. Thriving in the 11th to 13th centuries, the Assassins conducted a campaign of terrorism against the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad and the Fatimid caliphate in Cairo. (You can look it up in Britannica, as I did.) Though they operated out of strongholds, they did not constitute a state; their aim was to unsettle established regimes, and they succeeded in making a great deal of trouble until the Mongols crushed them.

For anyone interested in history rather than cheap and inaccurate rhetorical brickbats, there is a parallel to be drawn with Osama bin Laden that is more compelling than Hitler or Mussolini or Franco.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 AM | | Comments (4)

September 5, 2006

I'm an ink-stained wretch myself

No doubt there will be ugly consequences from my flippant remarks about Realtors last week if I should ever try to sell my house. I risk cheesing off another couple of occupations this week, which may cost me if I ever wind up in prison.

Greg Garland, an industrious and careful reporter who has written about upheaval in the state prison system, has received a note from a correctional officer complaining, as many have in the past, at The Sun’s use of the word guard. Corrections personnel often find the word demeaning and offensive.

Replying, Greg explained that editors here “see the word ‘guard’ as descriptive of what these people do rather than as a slur. In fact, correctional officers ‘guard’ us from the bad guys who are housed in prison and they traditionally have been known as ‘prison guards.’ It is not intended to denigrate the work being done by those who hold the job.”

Moreover, he also explains, the constraints of space in writing headlines make correctional officer a virtual impossibility, and it is often necessary to vary terms in text to avoid awkwardness in the writing — "A correctional officer who had been standing near the correctional officer who was stabbed reacted quickly to disarm the inmate." Both terms, correctional officer and guard, are in use in the paper, both are readily understood by readers, and no offense is intended.

The Sun has also relaxed its house style to allow the occasional use of cop, which has also been seen as a derogatory term.

Some years ago I was asked to prepare a response to a member of the state Board of Social Work Examiners who complained that The Sun uses the term social worker in reference to people who are not licensed as social workers. The contention was that legislation in 1976 limits the use of social worker to professionals who meet state certification. There was even an objection to the use of social work as a college major.

The difference between social worker and Realtor is that social worker had decades of history as a generic term before any legislation was passed. Without any disrespect for the august might of the Maryland General Assembly, we do not think that it holds sway over common nouns.

I suppose we could next expect to hear from another certification board that we cannot call anyone a teacher who has not been certified as such by state standards, even though there are multitudes of teachers who have no such certification. 

Our practice at The Sun is to respect the interests and preferences of special-interest groups insofar as it is practicable, but to favor words in common use as they are commonly understood.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:58 AM | | Comments (0)
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