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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)


I am not a native English speaker, but I enjoy reading your blog enormously. Thank you very much for the great job and please keep it up!

Can you please post the URL of the list? Thanks

Quick question: is "wednesday THE 20th OF october" valid?

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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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