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January 29, 2007

States do not have colors

It is well past time to retire the red state/blue state cliche.

The best reason is that it is a cliche, a kind of automatic writing that releases the writer from the unpleasant challenges of imagination and thought. 

But there is a subtler reason for shying away from these terms, lying in the tendency of words and images to warp perceptions.

As the presidential election of 2004 drew to a close, everyone saw on television and in newspapers and magazines the red-state/blue-state electoral maps: that huge expanse of red covering most of the continental United States, with touches of blue at the fringes.

Those maps serve the same purpose as the Electoral College, converting close popular votes into decisive electoral votes by beefing up the electoral numbers for smaller states. (Each state gets the number of votes in the Electoral College equal to the number of its U.S. representatives, a measure of population, plus its two senators ). The Founders settled on the Electoral College formula in part to ease the apprehensions of the smaller states that they would be politically overwhelmed by the larger ones, and to check excesses of popular enthusiasm.

New York City, for example, with 8 million people, has a population greater than the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming combined. New York state gets two electoral votes for its senators, and the other six states get 12.

So the red-state/blue-state maps show what the Founders wanted the Electoral College to produce: a vote so decisive that no one could quibble.

Shortly after the 2004 election, I came across a set of electoral maps showing different ways in which the vote could be represented graphically. The most interesting one showed the red vote/blue vote in each state. Instead of a nation overwhelmingly red, it showed a nation split, often nearly evenly, everywhere. That image coincides more neatly with the actual popular vote, which gave President Bush a slim lead over Senator Kerry.

Another interesting set of maps, “Maps and cartograms of the 2004 U.S. presidential election,” can be found at this Web address:

These maps represent the vote by population, rather than by state. One knows that California has more liberals that Utah. For that matter, it probably also has more conservatives than Utah; it’s a big state. But its sheer weight of numbers is not adequately represented on the conventional electoral maps.

Here, at last, is the point. Campaign strategists have to keep their eyes on the electoral maps because it is those weighted votes that determine presidential elections. But red-state/blue-state thinking is dangerous for voters. Yes, the country is polarized, but not by state against state. It is polarized among voters within each state. The Others are not Out There somewhere, but among us. Utah is not likely to go Democratic anytime soon, and the Republican Party appears to have consolidated its hold over most of the South. But there are tinctures of blue in the reddest of red states. And there are degrees of variation in the views of both conservatives and liberals.

I am not — and The Sun’s graphics and design desks are fully aware of this — a visuals person. Words are my domain, and in that domain I have a responsibility to watch out for language that stereotypes and distorts. The conflict between the Blue and the Gray, which produced lingering political stereotypes, has been over for nearly a century and a half. We should be able to retire the Red and the Blue as well.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:55 AM | | Comments (3)

January 26, 2007

Things that we ought not to have done

Looking for errors in daily newspapers is like fishing with dynamite; it’s just too easy to be morally sound.

But all the same, lapses great and small thrust themselves upon us as we read. CO2 levels force / evacuation of inn, a headline proclaims, but the article explains that a Holiday Inn was shut down after people were exposed to carbon monoxide, which is CO. And CO would not have worked as a headline word, because it would not be immediately clear that a chemical compound is indicated.

A little reminder that using scientific notation as headline shorthand is an easy way to go astray.

“Older and wiser, my loyalties have changed,” a sentence in another article informs us. It’s probably good that one’s loyalties get wiser as they grow older, but it’s probably even better to say that as I have grown older and wise, my loyalties have changed.

Those introductory adjectival phrases that grammatically refer to the subject of the sentence bear watching.

“The United States has long alleged that Iranians have been funneling money, weapons and training for armed groups in Iran.” Those sly dogs, funding themselves. Closer attention to the context of this article from the Los Angeles Times would have made it clear to the editor and copy editor that Iraq is the word that sentence is looking for.

The wrong word correctly spelled, the perennial bugaboo of copy editors.

A reporter at a Russian restaurant decides to sample the vodkas and begins with the cheaper ones — not that I would have advised that, but I wasn’t consulted. (I was once given a bottle of imported flavored vodka but was never able to determine whether it had been drained from a Jeep or a corpse.) The reporter chose garlic pepper vodka — again, not that I would have recommended it. He described it as looking like oily pools of water in the gutter, adding, “Taking this shot felt like slurping down one of those. I almost wretched.”

The verb for choking and gagging is to retch.

Fair reporting demands that I own up to being one link in the chain of editors who managed to get a headline into print last week saying that former U.S. Rep. Bob Ney of Ohio had been sentenced to 30 years in prison. The published correction pointed out that the sentence was for 30 months, as the article had plainly said.

All, all have fallen short. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:41 PM | | Comments (1)

January 23, 2007

The few, the proud, the attentive

As I drove to campus this morning, a news story on the radio about the new passport requirements featured an American couple checking in at a hotel in Toronto who had had no idea that they would be required to display passports on their return. They were indignant. How could they have been expected to know that?

Well, they could have read about it in the newspaper, or they could have watched a broadcast news program, or they could have listened to the news on the radio, because the new passport regulations have been mentioned repeatedly in all those media.

That couple appears to be part of a large population, which my students at Loyola are preparing to join, that lives in willful disregard of much of the external world. You see these people on The Tonight Show when Jay Leno goes Jaywalking and discovers widespread, ludicrous ignorance. You read about them in polls that find citizens who cannot name one of their United States senators, or, for that matter, any senator. You hear about them in reports that yet more people have been gulled in one of those Nigerian get-rich-quick Internet scams that have been widely exposed.

If nothing else, I tell my students, self-interest should lead you to seek out information. It isn’t people my age, after all, who will be sent in uniform to Iraq. Yet when I goad them into reading news stories by administering current-events quizzes, the results are not impressive. 

It is not just that fewer people are reading newspapers. (Though that is bad enough; I would very much like to have the confidence that daily journalism will be a going concern long enough to fund my pension when I finally achieve that rocking chair on the front porch of the Old Editors’ Home.) It is that they are not harvesting information from any source. 

The whole enterprise of editing for journalism — print, broadcast, online — is that we strive to make information accurate and clear for our readers, viewers and listeners so that they can make informed choices about the way they lead their lives. Choices great and small, about their political destinies, about the products they buy, about their choices of amusement. The prospect of living in a world increasingly populated by people who are both uninformed and incurious is not one to contemplate with relish.   

We keep at our questioning on the copy desk. Is that right? Do we know that for sure? Can that be explained more simply? Can we get to the point sooner? What effect will this have on the reader? That is what we do.

All the while we wonder: Is anyone paying attention?

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:42 PM | | Comments (5)

January 18, 2007

Attention, troops

My learned colleague, Tim Sager, who oversees the copy desk at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, sent a lengthy comment on the post about readers who complain about troops as referring to individual soldiers rather than to military units.

The original post is at

Mr. Sager’s remarks:

We get the same complaint from time to time.

I always send the offended reader the following quotes from Eisenhower and Winfield Scott:

Eisenhower: “People of Western Europe: A landing was made this morning on the coast of France by troops of the Allied Expeditionary Force. ...”

“Nothing is easy in war. Mistakes are always paid for in casualties, and troops are quick to sense any blunder made by their commanders.”

In neither of these examples is Ike referring to units of cavalry commanded by a captain and equivalent to a company of foot or a battery of artillery.

The usage, of course, predates Eisenhower. It was very common during the American Civil War and in histories of that war written by Union and Confederate veterans. For example, in 1861 Yankee Gen. Winfield Scott famously said of Robert E. Lee that “Colonel Lee would be worth fifty thousand troops to our side."

Scott was no spring chicken when the Civil War began and was probably as resistant to neologisms as he was to new military tactics.

People who complain that this is a new usage haven’t been paying close attention to the language for at least 200 years – and probably much longer.

It is also worth pointing out that troops is a term that can encompass soldiers, Marines and Air Force personnel, without giving offense to anyone’s preference in nomenclature.

And, before I go, it is worth repeating the oft-made and seldom-heeded caution that someone who proceeds through thick and thin, in spite of all obstacles, who sees to it that the show goes on, come what may, is a trouper, not a trooper. From troupe, or company of performers.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:56 PM | | Comments (0) | TrackBacks (1)

January 16, 2007

Clear your mind of cant

About a year ago (I treasure these things), the president of MediaSpan Media Software explained the change of the company name in these words: "The name change coincides with internal synergies we are leveraging across the entire MediaSpan organization to expand our product offerings."

No doubt some more adept student of hermeneutics than I could mine a meaning from that sentence, but I suspect that it is, like many corporate pronouncements,  mainly a kind of white noise meant to lull analysts and shareholders into a refreshing repose. (Unless it means that we will get more work out of fewer people, surprise, surprise.)

Observers as diverse as George Orwell in his classic "Politics and the English Language" and Ken Smith in his refreshingly angry little book of 1991, Junk English, have pointed out how commonly catchphrases, vogue usages and other prefabricated verbal units are used to conceal an unpleasant meaning or to disguise the speaker’s/writer’s complete absence of thought. If we wish to agree that the English language is being corrupted -- a dubious proposition -- it is surely more at risk from perpetrators of meaninglessness than from people who use ain’t or hopefully.

It is a hard thing to follow Dr. Johnson’s advice to "clear your mind of cant." The derivation of the word itself suggests a source of the problem. Cant, or "insincere or meaningless talk used mainly from convention or habit," as Webster’s New World College Dictionary helpfully explains, comes from the Latin cantus, or song, or from the verb cantare, to sing. Cant is like the annoying jingle that lodges in the head. It sounds like meaning but has no substance.

So people who want to appear to be deep thinkers lard their speech and writing with words like paradigm (model? pattern? concept?). Or they string together a series of these buzzwords, in the manner of the president of MediaSpan. Or they lean on tiresome catchphrases like think outside the box. They are exceptionally fond of the noun-noun-noun compound. These are easy to make up -- growth baseline indicators or service delivery system or liability incident documentation. If your own inventiveness flags, do a Google search on jargon generator to find a device customized for your business or profession.

Their attachment to euphemism is equally profound. I’m wary of the news media’s recent infatuation with the word surge to describe the administration’s plans in Iraq. A surge is a sudden and temporary phenomenon. Reassuring, eh? Escalation, of course, carries the connotation of a previous administration’s foreign involvement. But troop increase is factual and straightforward, though difficult to wedge into the space allotted for headlines.   

Very little can be done for people for whom the combination of pomposity with lack of imagination or actual intellectual dishonesty is irresistible. But we can school ourselves to speak plainly, to insist on meaning, to resist, to clear our own minds. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:49 PM | | Comments (0)

January 11, 2007

Lawyer letters

Paul Moore, our public editor, gets most of the complaints, but there are certain classes that I can reliably expect to be forwarded to the copy desk. Among them are letters from law firms complaining that The Sun has used some company’s trademark or service mark improperly. Whenever we allow Instant Messenger (an AOL product) or Rolodex or Styrofoam to get into print, we can expect to get a sharply worded lawyer letter informing us that we have stepped on the client’s interests.

Typically, we get these letters when we have used the name of a product in some generic or metaphoric sense. Some of these instances reflect ignorance or laziness. Disposable plastic foam cups and plates, for example, are not made of Styrofoam, which is used mainly in insulation.

And the expression that some defeated politico or disgraced lobbyist will be “taking his Rolodex with him,” which one sees repeatedly in print, uses Rolodex as a metaphoric shorthand for contacts or connections, without any regard to possession of the actual product. Why a writer would use such an arrant cliche is a little puzzling. It is not, I think, that the writer mistakes an expression seen a thousand times as originality. I suspect that the writer, having seen the expression a thousand times, appropriates it, thinking, “I’m running with the big dogs now.”

I have been given assurances in the past that these lawyer letters have little import in most cases. The firms that write them have to show that they are vigilant in defending the client’s intellectual property by challenging every instance they come across. If they did not, the client’s trademark or service mark could go the way of xerox or kleenex. But the likelihood of a particular reporter's or newspaper's facing dire consequences is slight.

Please — I am not a lawyer (or an attorney)
so do not mistake this post for legal advice. I do not suggest disregarding these letters.

One extra-legal reason to heed these legal cautions is self-interest — which I would prefer to dress up in loftier, ethical terms. The Sun, too, produces intellectual property, our articles and images. When some broadcaster pads out a newscast by essentially reading from our paper without naming us as a source, we are affronted. So, in the tit-for-tat world of Kant’s categorical imperative, if we want our name (or brand in the winsome jargon of marketing) to be acknowledged and respected, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge and respect the brands of other companies.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (2)

January 8, 2007

A mongrel language

English started out Germanic, deriving from Anglo-Saxon (A 14th-century John Simon would have said degenerating from Anglo-Saxon), but then picked up all sorts of lumber from the French and Latin used by Norman overlords. In its magpie fashion, it has been picking up shiny pieces of other languages ever since.

The problem for many writers is that some of those pieces wrenched from other languages retain their original properties.

For example, a recent Sun article referred to the Rev. Marion Curtis Bascom, a  Baltimore civil rights leader, as a confidante of Martin Luther King Jr. Confidant, a close friend, one with whom confidences can be shared, comes to English from French, where it has two spellings, masculine and feminine. And so, in English as well as in French, a confidante is a close female friend. The Rev. Mr. Bascom was a confidant of the Rev. Dr. King.

The inane pleonasm close confidant also turns up occasionally in copy, but don’t get me started on that. You know how I get.

There are also a number of survivals of Latin and Greek in English. Take as an example alumnus (male graduate), alumna (female graduate), alumni (group of male graduates or male and female graduates) and alumnae (group of female graduates). One regularly sees errors such as this one posted on a University of Florida technology help desk: “I've been an Alumni for a while and have checked my email constantly. Why has my email suddenly disappeared?”

The frequency of an alumni in writing should tell you pretty much all you need to know about the current worth of a bachelor’s degree in this country.

A knottier question is what to do about Taliban, which is in its original language a plural noun. Talib (student) is the singular. Many articles in the news media use Taliban as a singular for the guerrilla organization, though The Sun has, somewhat inconsistently, stuck to the plural. I suspect that the singular usage may prevail over time — unless the situation in Afghanistan is resolved and Americans can return to forgetting that the country is there.

All this is what makes English treacherous. Some borrowings retain their original characteristics while others are naturalized into the language. This compels writers and editors to pay attention. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:22 PM | | Comments (2)

January 4, 2007

The comfort of error

It’s a word. It’s a story. It’s a psychological phenomenon. It’s mumpsimus. Here is the derivation as explained by the late John Bremner in Words on Words.

“A young priest once corrected an old priest for saying mumpsimus instead of sumpsimus (‘we have received’) in the first prayer after Communion in the Latin Mass. ‘Son,’ said the old priest, ‘I’ve been saying mumpsimus for thirty years and I’m not going to change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.’”

Mumpsimus has come into the language, at least into that dusty and disused part of it explored by grammarians, readers of the OED, copy editors and other fringe types, to mean an error of long standing, or a mulish persistence in such an error after having been corrected, or the person mulishly persisting.

The psychology lying beneath the anecdote that gives us the word is instructive. First, not that it’s an older priest corrected by a younger. We see the reflexive resistance to any kind of instruction from some stripling, some mere whippersnapper who has the impudence to tell us how to do our business.

But deeper than the reaction is the tendency of our habit-ridden species to clutch at The Way We Have Always Done It, especially when The Way We Have Always Done It has its roots in early experience.

Thus, the instruction from your well-meaning but ill-informed grammar-school English teacher never to end a sentence with a preposition takes its place along with such formative maxims as raising your hand before you speak, not cutting in line and always using a Number 2 pencil on the answer sheet.

Thus, when your journalism professor or your first city editor made the Olympian pronouncement that a moving object cannot collide with a stationary object, you filed that in the same category as Newton’s First Law of Motion.

Then some tiresome twit at The Sun’s Web site comes along to tell you not only that you are wrong but that you have been sunk in error for years. Gee, thanks, you think. How did I ever get along without you? Say, don’t you have to be off to teach the pope how to say Mass? 

That’s all right. We copy editors are schooled not to expect gratitude.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:45 AM | | Comments (0)

January 2, 2007

It didn't take long

First day back on the job in the new year, first e-mail dispatch of the day, ominously headed “Go back to school.”

“Come On...your headline ‘Bushes Pay Respect to Ford’ refers to shrubs, not people!!  (Though I think the Sun probably would argue differently about the President).  Try ‘The Bushs.’”

Well, no. Making names such as Bush plural by adding es is standard English. This can be found in, among other sources, The Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

I suspect that the writer may be generalizing from the example of Kennedy being made plural as Kennedys. The principle is that whether s or es is used to form the plural, the name itself, the root word, remains unchanged. Otherwise, es is used with names, as with other nouns, that end in ch, j, s, sh, x or z.

The new year has started, and school's in session.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:32 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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