« October 2006 | Main | December 2006 »

November 29, 2006

Oh, the suffering

An irate Sun colleague complains about a point of our house style, saying, "It was shown to me Monday night that our style is now to say that people suffer, not sustain or receive, injuries — and that would be a reversal of the Sun style on which my news-writing sensibilities were honed. We are cheapening the meaning of ‘suffering’ to include, in the case in point appearing in Tuesday's editions, teenagers who received graze wounds in a shooting. Style should make sense. Misuse of the word ‘suffering’ does not."

Well, it may or may not be a reversal of our house style, and to call it a "misuse" appears to stretch a point.

The paper’s in-house stylebook from 1958 says, "Injuries are received, not suffered or sustained." The admonition is repeated in the 1979 edition. The Associated Press stylebook I was issued in 1986 when I came to work on The Sun’s copy desk, says that injuries "are suffered or sustained, not received.

The current edition of AP says, that injuries "are suffered, not sustained or received.

You put your left foot in; you take your left foot out. … The point of this hokey-pokey with injuries becomes even more obscure as it turns out that this looks to be merely a journalistic preoccupation. To suffer injury is consistent with entries in the standard dictionaries — the Oxford English Dictionary listing examples from the 16th century. Moreover, I do not find anything on this point in Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, the old Fowler or the new Fowler, John Bremner’s Words on Words, or Theodore Bernstein’s manuals of usage.

Much as it wounds me to tell a colleague that a core precept of his formative years in journalism was hollow, I have no idea where these various distinctions on verbs with injury came from, or why anyone should ever have paid attention to them.

Elsewhere on one of the copy editing discussion boards, the old issue of whether collide can be used with a moving object and a stationary object has risen yet again, with the usual insistence that two objects must be in motion to collide. But Merriam-Webster’s says that there is no foundation for the distinction, and R.W. Burchfield, former editor of the OED, says emphatically in the New Fowler’s that a car "can collide with a tree, a bollard, or any other fixed object, as well as with another moving vehicle."

Enforcement of shibboleths and observance of meaningless distinctions is not the best use of our time.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:17 PM | | Comments (2)

November 27, 2006

Whose side are you on?

A posting elsewhere praises this blog, in part, because "politics don’t seem to come into play anywhere, an admirable modus operandi for someone who blossoms from the notoriously-leftist Sun."

Well, a quarter-century ago I blossomed in the notoriously rightist Cincinnati Enquirer. I still recollect vividly the editorial The Enquirer published in the early 1980s about genital herpes. (Remember when people worried about herpes?) It acknowledged that the disease was painful and incurable, as well as a source of embarrassment and even shame to its sufferers. It then concluded (I write from memory), "But if apprehension about contracting herpes should lead people to forgo promiscuous sexual intercourse, then the disease will have served a useful social purpose."

I walked around for a week with "useful social purpose" echoing in my head, muttering to myself, "I work for a newspaper that has endorsed a disease."

In The Sun, some years later, I read a lengthy article saying that a number of medical schools had dropped training in the performance of abortions, a circumstance that alarmed proponents of abortion rights. Running about 1,500 words, the article relegated to a couple of paragraphs, about two-thirds of the way through, an indication that there might be medical professionals who held a principled opposition to the performance of abortions. It was clear, at least to me, that the author’s commitment to abortion rights overrode the responsibility to put the issue in a meaningful context.

Most of what my colleagues on the copy desk and I are concerned with has nothing to do with the left or the right. Misstatements of fact, errors in grammar, slipshod or ignorant usage, slack writing, opaque writing and self-indulgent writing appear in ample measure to occupy our hours on the desk.

And many of the complaints we receive about our purported bias are tendentious complaints from people who simply do not like what they see reported. The Sun is, on any given day, a propaganda organ for a cell of Bolsheviki and a craven apologist for corporate interests, a nest of anti-Semites determined on the destruction of Israel and a dupe of Zionists. We speak for a racist white establishment — we are a racist white establishment — that is in the pocket of the NAACP. We are rabidly anti-Catholic and a puppet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

But the heaviest criticism over the past 15 years has come when we tampered with the crossword puzzles.

Noise of this kind obscures efforts to identify and deal with actual bias. On the copy desk we try, and should try more vigorously, to spot the unexamined assumptions in articles. Given that many journalists today are middle-class, or even upper-middle-class, and college-educated, we ought to be alert to the limits of that perspective and not project it as a universal point of view. We should examine how articles are framed, to make sure, as in that abortion story, the whole context of the situation is represented. The little things, the misspellings, errors of fact, slips in grammar, need attention because they erode our credibility, little by little. But the big issues require attention, too. We’re trying to represent a complex reality to our readers, which shouldn’t be oversimplified.

And we should vow to leave the crossword puzzles alone.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:35 PM | | Comments (3)

November 22, 2006

Find an expert

A former managing editor of The Sun, Kathryn Christensen, made a valiant effort a few years back to stamp out the word expert in our pages.

In effect, she argued, anyone who was willing to return our telephone calls got to be proclaimed an expert. Using the word freely, she said, made us look naïve and gullible, too easily impressed by titles and credentials. And she was quite right. Having studied a subject and earned some kind of degree in it does not make one an expert. An expert is someone whom the people who hold those degrees look up to and quote.

But in the newspaper, a 20-year-old degree from Malted Barley University’s School of Sophistry, combined with a current position and hectoring undergraduates and inflating grades at Excelsior Normal College and Diploma Mill, makes you a sage. And once you have returned a reporter’s call the first time, you can be assured that you will be quoted again.

In that, journalists reflect a culture that mistakes the display of degrees for learning. As someone who observed a graduate department of English from the inside for six years, I can assure you that any correlation between the award of a Ph.D. and actual erudition is often coincidental.

In the interest of disclosure and that vogue word, transparency, I should point out that I am not expert, either. Having learned some grammar in elementary school in Eastern Kentucky 40 years ago, and gone on to earn a B.A. and an M.A. in English literature, I wound up a newspaper copy editor. I never studied Anglo-Saxon, philology or linguistics. What I know I learned by reading manuals of usage and weighing the arguments of various authorities.

If you find anything in this blog of value, it is because I can persuade you by argument and example, not by flexing any supposed authority.

So don’t call me an expert on anything. And be very careful about applying the term to anyone else.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:05 AM | | Comments (1)

November 20, 2006

You just can't win

In this space on Nov. 1, I wrote: "Last week, I saw a reference in a wire service article to that hoary term, a candidate’s war chest. Those of you who watched Lou Grant a quarter-century ago (and if you did, you were probably a journalist) may recall a sardonic remark by Charlie Hume, the managing editor, played by the late Mason Adams. A green reporter who had been sent out to cover a political campaign for the first time was turning in substandard work. Someone made a weak defense of the work, and Adams, his lip curling, said, ‘I know. I read it in the story about the war chest.’"

The front page of The Sun for Nov. 14 carries an index item about Sheila Dixon’s fundraising in the campaign to be elected mayor, with the headline — you guessed it — "War chest."

On Oct. 27 a post resisted the tendency to indulge in phonetic spellings such as helluva, gonna, shoulda. Then, on Oct. 31 The Sun published an article with gonna in a headline. A headline!

On Nov. 4 I re-posted the annual prohibitions on seasonal cliches, such as "’Tis the season."

A colleague at the Testy Copy Editors Web site

then posted, "Well, I spammed the newsroom with the text of the column and a link to it. Two section editors responded, one saying I was a party pooper trying to take all of the fun out of the holiday season, and one defending his right to lazy writing on the grounds that Christmas is about tradition (I guess implying that cliches are traditional?)."

Another colleague reports an identical response in a different newsroom.

None of this should come as much of a surprise. I have at my desk copies of The Sun’s various in-house newsletters on writing an editing for the past 30 years, and the same errors recur with depressing regularity. The mistake of referring to opening arguments at a trial instead of opening statements. The almost universal failure to use comprise properly or to refrain from saying that something reaches a crescendo. The apparently insoluble who/whom conundrum. The inability to make the heroic effort to discriminate between it’s and its.

Yes, it is the task of the copy desk to correct errors small and great. (We also serve who sit and fume.) But just once it would be nice to leave work after rolling the rock to the top of the hill and to return the next day without finding it at the bottom.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (9)

November 15, 2006

Married to the dictionary

A reader takes exception to the South African government’s legalizing gay marriage by sending this note to The Sun.

I have taken this definition of marriage from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Main Entry: mar·riage

Pronunciation: 'mer-ij, 'ma-rij

Function: noun

Etymology: Middle English mariage, from Anglo-French, from marier to marry

1 a (1) : the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law (2) : the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage <same-sex marriage>

If homosexual partners want to be in a lawfully commited relationship then this new state of relationship needs it's own lawful title.

Marriage title belongs to male comitting to Female!

Response. The reader appears to have overlooked the second definition under this entry, and also to have overlooked a significant section of the first. That is that marriage is, in part, a legal, contractual relationship. It is defined by the state to ensure the orderly transfer of property and the safety of minor citizens. As a legal relationship defined by the state, it is therefore whatever the state determines it to be. That is why, for example, the state recognizes civil marriages that a religious denomination might not consider valid.

But the larger point that the reader overlooks is that the dictionary does not legislate language; it follows language. There was resistance in many quarters when the earlier sense of the word gay was overtaken and overwhelmed as a synonym of homosexual. But the usage became widespread over time and is now well established in the language — and in current editions of dictionaries.

If gay couples continue to live in relationships that society determines to be legal and contractual, and the populace calls these relationships marriage, then marriage will be the word for it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 PM | | Comments (5)

November 13, 2006

Here endeth the lesson

Writers striving for effect will sometimes attempt to mimic the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible — King James English. This is usually a mistake.

In the first place, writing, say, the Ten Commandments of anything is almost as hackneyed a device as opening an article with "Webster’s defines. …" And tricking out some mundane event with the cadences of the Bible or the Book of Common Prayer is like wearing spats with sneakers. The incongruity is glaring.

But, and this is the main thing, the writer invariably gets the grammar wrong, promiscuously fastening –eth and –st suffixes on any verb form that comes to hand. People who know the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer and Spenser and Shakespeare understand that these archaic forms of speech followed an established grammatical pattern. This is it.

First-person singular: I do

Second-person singular: Thou dost

Third-person singular: He, she or it doeth or doth

First-person plural: We do

Second-person plural: You do

Third-person plural: They do

Imperative: Do it

Now go, and sin no more.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:47 AM | | Comments (4)

November 8, 2006

Speak English, or else

The city of Taneytown, Md., a municipality of something more than 5,000 people located 35 miles from Baltimore, is considering making English its official language.

If the council proceeds to enact this measure, then I say it is time to stop trifling with half-measures. I am prepared to move to Taneytown to serve as municipal English magistrate, and I am drafting provisions to put teeth into the ordinance.

Using it’s for its.

First offense: a godly admonition.

Second offense: a stern warning.

Third offense: a tattoo of the letter I on the forehead, for Illiterate.

Sounding the t in often.

Fine of $5.00 per occurrence.

Pronouncing nuclear as nucular.

Fine of $10 per occurrence.

Pronouncing mischievous as mischeevious.


Failure to make a subject and verb agree, as in the sentence on Taneytown’s Web site saying that “the City and surrounding area is rich in historic landmarks.”

One hour at noon in the stocks in front of the town hall.

Allowing annoying typos into print, as in the mayor’s State of the City report on the Web site: “He has come to use with some new ideas and some of those have already been put into action” (emphasis added).

This is a serious offense because of the presumption that no copy editor has been employed to vet the text.

Dismissal of appointed officials, impeachment of elected officials.

Saying between you and I.

Forfeiture of driver’s license for 30 days.

Using whom when the pronoun is the subject of a subordinate clause.

Spend the night in the box.

Saying or writing the obnoxious pleonasm safe haven.

One week at a re-education camp shoveling pig manure.

As H.L. Mencken wrote, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” So let the people speak. Provided their English is acceptable.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:54 PM | | Comments (18)

November 7, 2006

Mistakes were made

Our indefatigable readers are quick to point out our lapses. But as it happens, not all that disturbs them is in error.

An attendance issue

"Once proud of their community of freshly painted houses and well-kept yards, some Toddville holdouts are openly embarrassed by the presence of so many empty buildings. Windows are without panes. Roofs are bare of shingles. The tenacious Phragmites reed has crept past unattended fences to claim lawns and threaten small family cemeteries.

"What would this sort of mistake be called?

"Untended fences are not the same as ‘unattended fences’ -- while I might enjoy attending an opera (well, maybe not...) or a baseball game (more likely ...)  this ‘attending a fence’ deal leads to some images straight out of Lewis Carroll.  Is it the Fence Queen and Her Court?"

Response. Though not as common as it once was, the sense of attend as "look after" or "take care of" survives in the language.

Singular and plural

"How can you expect respect when a sentence with such poor grammar as ‘The company and regulators revealed in March that a typical BGE customer would see a 72 percent rate hike in their monthly bill’ appears in your paper? Parallel construction (a customer -- their bill??) is a pretty elementary grammar rule. Please. Edit."

Response.We have not embraced the construction at The Sun, but our resolve is eroding. You can find my post on this issue, from Jan. 12, 2006, in the archive. Since then, James Kilpatrick has given up the struggle, saying in a column, "Face it, fellow fogeys, our gonfalon is a gone gonfalon! The old order has indeed yielded, and now everyone has their own cup of tea."

Past tense

A caller questioned the usage in a sentence saying that a man stood, walked to the edge and "leapt" into the water. She wanted to know whether that should have been "leaped."

Response. Leapt has been an acceptable past tense for leap in English for going on to 500 years, though leaped may be gaining on it.

Hard to get hold of

A reader was outraged at a sentence in an article about basketball reading, "The slightly more orange, slipperier-when-wet ball the league has decided to use."

He found it difficult to believe that the reporter "cannot spell S-L-I-P-P-I-E-R ! What in heavens name is SLIPPERIER???????????????????????"

Response. Actually (cough) the comparative form of the adjective slippery is slipperier. Pronounced SLIP-ri-er, no doubt, but appearing in dictionaries spelled slipperier.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:44 PM | | Comments (4)

November 4, 2006

Still no prisons? Still no workhouses?

Halloween may be just past and Guy Fawkes day tomorrow, but already the holiday catalogs clutter the mailbox and Christmas merchandise creeps onto the shelves. So before the impulse to use prefabricated phrases can overpower the unsteady hand, here is a reminder from The Sun’s in-house policy on holiday cliches to eschew. This list, compiled by Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, appeared as the third posting of this blog and was also published in an earlier form on the Poynter Institute’s Web site under the title "Avoid holiday cliches."

"’Tis the season": Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

"’Twas the night before" anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is "A Visit from St. Nicholas.")

"Jolly old elf": Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any "Christmas came early" construction.

"Yes, Virginia" allusions: No.

"Grinch steals": When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, i.e., by ignoring him.

"Turkey and all the trimmings": If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

"White stuff" for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" are, if possible, even more tedious than the original.

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality is a comfort. It is for such people that television exists.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:57 PM | | Comments (3) | TrackBacks (1)

November 1, 2006

Sick of it, just sick of it

Within a few days this graceless midterm election will be over, and we will be spared, for a brief interval, the bombardment of smarmy, idiotic campaign ads and robotic telephone calls.

But since the 2008 presidential campaign will shift into a higher gear on Wednesday, November 8, we are unlikely to be spared the daily fusillade of political blather that journalists appear incapable of forgoing.

There’s the horse racing lingo, front-runner, dark horse, dead heat, long shot, the home stretch, that survives in journalism even though fewer and fewer people ever go to the track.

At A Capital Idea, my fellow blogger Nicole Stockdale pointed out this week that the tipping point has long since tipped over into cliche.

Last week, I saw a reference in a wire service article to that hoary term, a candidate’s war chest. Those of you who watched Lou Grant a quarter-century ago (and if you did, you were probably a journalist) may recall a sardonic remark by Charlie Hume, the managing editor, played by the late Mason Adams. A green reporter who had been sent out to cover a political campaign for the first time was turning in substandard work. Someone made a weak defense of the work, and Adams, his lip curling, said, "I know. I read it in the story about the war chest."

It was a mark of the hack back then, and it still is.

My own editor is fed up with references to political observers. Political observers, sometimes identified as knowledgeable political observers or seasoned political observers, purvey the conventional wisdom. I’ve often been curious for more detail about the political observers who talk to reporters. People from the candidates’ campaign staffs? Bartenders and taxi drivers, the old standbys for the hack? Other reporters on the bus? The six people the reporter always talks to because they’ll pick up the phone? A digest of the nameless observers quoted in all the other articles that day?

At that, the conventional wisdom provided by political observers is less irritating than the shaky conclusions drawn in articles about opinion polling. Another fellow blogger, FEV at Heads Up, has written extensively about flawed poll stories.

Stories that do not identify the sampling group — likely voters being a somewhat more reliable indicator than the population at large.

Stories that do not identify who sponsored the poll.

Stories that do not take into account the margin of error: If one candidate polls at 52 percent and the other at 44 percent, in a poll with a margin of error of 4 percentage points, it is misleading to say that one candidate is clearly ahead. It’s entirely conceivable that the two could be tied at 48 percent each.

Stories that cite phone-in polls or Internet polls, which are worthless because the results come from a self-selected population.

See his October 22 entry, "How not to screw up poll reporting."

Many articles about opinion polls are as useful as predictions of the severity of the coming winter, as determined by the thickness of the bands on woolly bear caterpillars.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (3)
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