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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)
        

Comments

A colleague taught me at the beginning of the year that the definiton of an expert was am man from more than 20 miles away carrying a briefcase.
Paul Wiggins
Sydney
Australia

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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