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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

http://blogs.baltimoresun.com/about_language/2006/11/oh_the_sufferin.html

.

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)
        

Comments

The good news is that in the near future – if Wall Street has its way – these obnoxious, crabby, frequently ill-informed readers with way too much time on their hands will have a great newfound abundance of legitimate complaints to register about the quality of the editing in U.S. newspapers.

The bad news is that they will have to trek all the way to a fetid shanty in Bangalore to badger the new “editors.”

I'm reminded of a line from "Babylon 5" in which a personally odious cop grits his teeth and reminds his critic, "I protect humanity from threats you'll never even know about." When an armchair copy editor wants to play gotcha -- and let's all admit that we understand the temptation -- you can take comfort in the staggering pile of errors and weaknesses you've corrected, even the number of reporters' careers you've saved. A little shibboleth violation here and there never hurt anybody, and it's nice to know people are actually reading.

Harrumph. I know people who say we went over to the dark side when we forgot that children are reared and chickens raised.

Mind you, I have my own obsessions. I'm still fighting a rear-guard action to preserve the distinction between babies and chicks.

So John, you must be at least a distant relative of Miss Manners, champion of the silk-gloved smackdown.

This seems to me rather like the pupil/student distinction the recent demise of which you recently wrote. That is to say, it is a distinction I never noticed until you pointed it out.

"ukase"

Ah, a great word I'd forgotten !

Then again, I got to use "bifurcated" in this week's edition.

You have to live for the details, I guess.

To be serious for a moment, inanimate objects can't suffer. To me, that's the distinction. I don't get all worked up over the difference, but when clarity is important there does seem to be a clear difference between suffer and sustain.
In real life I'm much more likely to get an ear chewing for using "suffer" in describing people with diseases or disabilities.

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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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