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December 28, 2006

A number of things

Writers struggle to get the quantities right.

Only a die-hard classicist would insist that decimate should be used in its strictest, original sense, reduction by one-tenth. But this sentence from the Associated Press — Environmentalists worry about the large populations of migratory seabirds and crab, the imperiled Stelle’s sea lions and northern sea otters, or the North Pacific right whales, a population so decimated only about 100 are thought to still exist — shows an increasingly common misuse. Decimate should mean to suffer substantial loss, but not to be on the edge of annihilation.

Just how much does the lion share? Democrats oppose the lion’s share of the package, with the possible exception of the reduction for the lowest wage earners and targeted cuts such as the credit for children, and would be all but certain to block its renewal. The lion takes all it wants and leaves scraps for the jackals and other scavengers. So the lion’s share is either the whole thing or all that is worth having. Not just the majority or the bulk. And in the quoted sentence, the term seems to be completely out of place. The lion’s share is what you get, not what you oppose.

Ever since the war in Iraq began to produce U.S. casualties, readers have been writing in to complain that The Sun’s headlines and articles have used troops to mean individual soldiers, as in x number of troops died in the explosion of a bomb. A troop, they insist is a unit of soldiers, and troops should mean multiple units. Yes, and no. The older sense of troop as a military unit survives, but common usage has come to accept troops in the sense of individuals.

Similarly, the word cohort, much as I deplore the usage and shun it myself, has come to be understood as a synonym of companion or accomplice. You and I might prefer to retain the word in the sense of a military unit (though not necessarily the Roman tenth of a legion) as in Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib”: “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,/ And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold. ...” But we appear to have lost that battle. (That is, apart from the survival of the word as a collective noun in demographic contexts, such as my own cohort of baby boomers, now mercifully marching toward the grave.)

We sometimes come across the word majority applied to quantity rather than units, as in he spends the majority of his time. … It should be bulk. And, please, the word vast is not required to indicate every majority that is substantial or decisive. In fact, now that I’ve started on this, there often isn’t any call to use majority at all when most will suffice.

And as for couple, the source of lengthy but unprofitable debate on copy desks, the word, like other collective nouns, can be singular or plural, depending on context. If there is doubt about the context, use the plural. And accompanying pronouns may be made plural without apology. As John Bremner wrote a quarter-century ago in Words on Words, you do not want to be responsible for a monstrosity like “The couple was married two years ago and it spent its honeymoon in Florida. But it was divorced last year and then went its separate ways.” 

One last reminder comes from an admonitory message from a reader of The Sun about our coverage of homicides.

“The story today [Dec. 26] about the number of homicides in Baltimore this year resurrects an old chestnut, i.e. identifying a change in raw crime numbers erroneously as a change in RATE. In the case of crime statistics, the usual population benchmark changes over time, so a reporter or reader cannot deduce changes in rate based solely on changes in raw numbers. Yes, the number of homicides has fallen since the mid-90s but so has the population, so the change in the homicide RATE in the past decade might very possibly be small or non-existent. Inclusion of population data would have enhanced this story. I realize that many journalists chose journalism because they weren't good at math, but that does not justify illogic when reporting stories about statistics.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 PM | | Comments (0)

December 26, 2006

A copy editor's haiku

Tell me a story,
if you can, while avoiding
crimes against syntax.

In the intern’s work
commas cluster on the page,
sprinkled like pepper.

The clock moves so fast
and metro copy so slow.
Time for a smoke break.

Adjectives smother
readers struggling to locate
a lone gasping noun.

Thirty-four inches
on education reform --
caffeine’s not enough.

The bureau’s story
matches its budgeted length.
My eyes fill with tears.

Head specs are too tight.
What is a rim rat to do?
Leave out the vowels.

Project took six months.
The copy desk gets two days.
Spell-check and set it.

This story’s first graph
runs for forty-seven words.
Time to turn the page.

We sit at the desk
making woe and misfortune
fodder for headlines.

Deadline is looming
with seven pages still out.
Proofreading’s a frill.

Proud writer inquires,
Don’t you find this poetic?
Shoot me in the head.

In heaven the staff
will prize copy editors
and know each by name.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:20 PM | | Comments (5)

December 21, 2006

We are not correctional officers

When my wife and I were first together, Kathleen had to come up with some way to explain to civilians what a copy editor does. She settled on "He’s a kind of English teach for the newspaper." Everyone immediately understood what kind of work was involved — and what personality type is attracted to it.

The most common reaction to identification of our job, "Oh, I’d better watch my English," indicates that we are expected to exhibit a finicky precision about details that don’t matter much to anyone else, and to be censorious as well. Fear of being judged is what leads people to watch their language in the presence of copy editors and the clergy. Neither group gets invited to many parties.

We’ve brought it on ourselves. To the degree that we resemble snotty types who officiously correct other people’s grammar and pronunciation — just barely tolerable if done privately and tactfully, bumptious or outright insulting if done publicly — we are not inviting either respect or affection.

So stop editing billboards and road signs, refrain from correcting menus and concert programs, leave the church bulletin and newsletter alone, and pass over in silence any infelicities you discover in personal correspondence.

Dr. Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." In a similar spirit, don’t edit unless someone is paying you to do it.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (5) | TrackBacks (1)

December 19, 2006

Can't we all just get along?

"People suffer injuries. Inanimate objects sustain damage. Didn’t your people learn anything in journalism school?"

The message on my voice mail went on a little longer than that, but the caller, who left no name, spoke emphatically throughout (hence the boldface italics) about the contemptible ignorance of The Sun’s writers and editors.

No doubt I would have been held personally accountable if the caller had happened to read my post on that subject from November


So let me ask. Is there anyone out there who knows of a reason to make this distinction apart from some stylebook shibboleth or managing editor’s ukase? Is there some reputable authority on usage who sanctions this? Show me that I am wrong, and I will dine publicly on crow.

And even if there were some legitimate justification for all the to-ing and fro-ing over suffer and sustain, could we manage to be a little less rude? After all, we don’t put mistakes into the paper intentionally, and some of the things that readers perceive as mistakes are not wrong. There is no necessity to write the kind of Have-any-of-your-editors-ever-been-to-college? letter that has landed repeatedly on my desk.

Some of the snarkier letters end with a suggestion that the whole paper could be straightened out if we just put the letter-writer in charge of the editing.

Not so much. Most civilians — and not a few journalists — dropped on a newspaper copy desk would confront a cascade of articles, many with serious errors of fact, grammar and usage, many with problems of structure or clarity, many moving past deadline, all requiring headlines and formatting for typesetting, many having to be cut because they were moved longer than their budgeted length. And, having dealt with these issues under unrelenting deadline pressure, most civilians — and not a few journalists — would flee gibbering into the night.

You probably couldn’t do any better than we do, which is one reason to keep a civil tongue in your head.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:46 PM | | Comments (7)

December 15, 2006

The best batter you ever ate

There is a touching Jewish tradition of feeding a child a piece of honey cake on the first day of school so that the child associates learning with sweetness. Today, to mark the hundredth post in this blog and to offer readers some pleasure to associate with it, I present my late grandmother’s recipe for sour cream cookies.

Try not to eat all the batter yourself.

Clara Rhodes Early’s Sour Cream Cookies

1 cup shortening

2 cups sugar

3 well-beaten eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

5 cups sifted flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon soda

1 ½ cups nuts (optional)

Drop from teaspoon onto cookie sheet.

Press down.

Bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:54 AM | | Comments (2)

December 13, 2006

We're all students

Hold on to your hats. A monumental change is pending. The Associated Press is weighing whether to abandon the traditional distinction in its stylebook between pupil and student, bowing to popular usage.

The distinction, which The Sun’s copy desk has been enforcing in recent years, to the frustration of our education reporters, rests on the apparently obsolete pedagogy that holds that young children, pupils, are instructed in the fundamentals of reading, writing and mathematics, coming in time to be students capable of pursuing learning with a greater degree of autonomy.

Were I a cynic, I would suspect that this shift in nomenclature is an attempt by schoolteachers, increasingly unable to instruct children how to read, write and compute competently, to shore up their reputations. It is analogous to the way that every jumped-up normal school seems to persuade authorities to confer upon it the title of university. All this will surely become moot when our credentials-mad culture issues a baccalaureate degree with each birth certificate and colleges shrink to institutions dealing with the handful of people who actually want to learn something.

All cynicism aside, those of us who are students of language recognize that it goes where it will, and it appears clearly to be eliminating pupil from common use.

So be it. The Sun, not waiting on laggards at AP, officially drops the pupil/student distinction from its in-house style, effective today.

Let joy be unconfined. Let toasts be drunk. Let the schools declare a half-holiday, and let a Te Deum be sung in the cathedral. All pupils are now students.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (2)

December 7, 2006

Things people get wrong

One service we can provide at is to point out that things you have seen, heard, written and believed to be true for years are, in fact, dead wrong. Actually, we can only make a beginning. It’s a long list.

My learned colleague, Frank Roylance, whose blog on weather you can read at this Web site, points out an erroneous reference in The Sun to the "dark side" of the moon. But we’ll let him speak for himself.

"Notwithstanding John Johnson's reference in the second graf of today's P.1 story, there is no ‘dark’ side of the moon. As you know, all parts of the moon have a 28-day day and night cycle (except perhaps for some high and low spots near the poles). The reason astronomers are interested in the ‘far’ side of the moon is that it is permanently shielded by the moon from Earth's radio noise, and would therefore be an interesting place for radio astronomers to set up shop. Optical astronomers could establish observatories anywhere and get the same 14-day ‘night.’"

The reason that, from a terrestrial perspective, the moon has a "far side" is that its period of rotation and its orbital period around the Earth have become synchronized at 28 days, so the moon always presents the same surface area to the Earth. But it does rotate, and all of the satellite experiences intervals of light and darkness.

A colleague posted a remark at the Web site Testy Copy Editors about the phrase "a device light years ahead of its time," saying, "I thought we settled this miles ago." A light year measures not time but distance, a distance that amounts to about 5,865,696,000,000 miles.

You might find it amusing to consult the multiplicity of "Stoopid Science" postings at that site.

Closer to my own area of interest, language, I have to disappoint you doubly by telling you that the 19th-centrury British plumbing merchant Thomas Crapper did not invent the flush toilet (though he did sell them) and that his name is not the source of the noun and verb crap (which appears to derive from the 16th-century Dutch word krappe, or waste matter).

And we did not get the work hooker for prostitute from Gen. Joseph "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Though the Union troops under his command were inordinately fond of the company of loose women, the word in that sense antedates the start of the American Civil War by some years.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (1)

December 5, 2006

It does too matter

Let’s not waste time, I’ve been advocating in recent posts, on shibboleths and meaningless distinctions. What is implicit in that argument is that there must be meaningful distinctions, and indeed there are.

One of the most valuable admonitions from Henry Fowler in Modern English Usage is that when the language has produced a useful distinction in meaning, a careful writer or editor will strive to preserve that distinction.

Some of these distinctions arise when words undergo differentiation in meaning, taking on new senses. "Most differentiations," Fowler says, "are, when fully established, savers of confusion and aids to brevity and lucidity. …" Other distinctions become necessary when uneducated or inadequately educated writers blur long-established distinctions. Let’s look at some examples.

You can find in dictionaries, which record how people actually use language rather than how they ought to use it, that imply and infer are often used interchangeably. But to hint at a meaning and to reach a conclusion based on a hint are opposite actions. You might as well say that wrapping a present and unwrappiing a present are the same thing.

Many people conflate loath and loathe, though to be reluctant to do something (loath) is substantially different in intensity from despising something (loathe).

One of my learned colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society has suggested that it is time to abandon a fussy distinction between persuade and convince, but I am not persuaded. It still seems to me that convince, given its association with conviction, carries a stronger charge. After all, I can be persuaded to do something even if I am not convinced that it is the right thing to do.

We may be forced to abandon the sense of disinterested as impartial, not having an interest in a conflict — no dog in this fight. But uninterested does the job nicely.

So few, apart from my daughter, have been taught Greek that they do not recognize that the first syllable in dilemma means two. A dilemma is a situation in which one has two equally disagreeable choices — Odysseus caught between Scylla and Charybdis. For other fixes, we have difficulty, problem, predicament, plight, scrape, quandary, jam and others. Let’s leave dilemma to its specific context.

The ignorant confusion of literally with figuratively or metaphorically has become so prevalent that there is a Web site devoted to mocking people who make this mistake. Have a look at

A cousin to that error is the use of ironically in circumstances that plainly involve coincidence or incongruity rather than irony.

It is no waste of time for copy editors to focus attention on legitimate distinctions of meaning, on preserving what Fowler calls "a serviceable distinction." Readers will benefit from precision, provided that we can distinguish what is genuinely useful from superstitions, shibboleths and the arbitrary and idiosyncratic pronouncements of long-gone editors.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)
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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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