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February 28, 2007

Serenity now

Mike Pope, an excellent fellow (he reads this blog, so how could he be otherwise?), answered back to my “Now for the name-calling” post

and gave permission for me to quote him. Excerpts from his note folllow.

I'm not sure whether it's an honor to be featured as the Cranky Guy of the Week, but it does give a body pause to think that a bunch of editorially inclined folks will be scrutinizing one's rants. :-)

I am an editor (technical) and I spend pretty much all day every day cleaning and tightening prose. In this, you and your readers and I are all on the same page, allowing for certain differences in context. Like y'all, we in our little group aim at, and occasionally despair of, clarity in writing. In fact, we have a running email thread to which we add the howlers of the day, which often consist of sentences with the suppleness of a brick wall.

But I'm sure you've deduced — or hope you have — that my various comments are aimed at undercutting the hyperbole about language that suggests that the barbarians are at the gate, and that only the most concerted effort will enable our noble language to survive. History suggests, of course, that English will get along — indeed, blaze along — just fine without the ministrations of our particular priesthood. Or indeed, in spite of our tender attentions.

Words like impactful and leverage and (one of ours) instantiate aren't "gibberish," of course. Lots of people use these terms every day with no noticeable loss of communicative ability. They surely can be strung together into sentences that are hard to parse or in which the sum of the words is less than their parts. But people can just as easily do that with words that are real, in-the-dictionary words, as we know all too well. Unclear writing (and thinking) don't require words whose status remains lexicographically "under consideration." One impactful doth not chaos make. For that, we need entire bureaucracies. :-)

It was Peter Zicari, another excellent fellow who stepped in it by incautiously using the word gibberish in a comment, and it was I who stepped into it further by presuming to classify Mr. Pope as one of the unthinking, anything-goes, permissivist-linguist axis. All of us were perhaps relying more on our reflexes than our thinking.

English is getting along just fine. It is a world language, more pervasive than Latin was in its time — one reason that efforts to “protect” it by making it an “official language” of some municipality look particularly silly.

But it is also mutable, as Robertson Davies pointed out in The Rebel Angels: “Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom  Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams.”

This is why efforts to “preserve” the putative “purity” of English are also silly.

What is not silly is the effort, which Mr. Zicari, Mr. Pope and I are engaged in daily, is to establish what constitutes, for today, for our readers in our publications, clarity and precision in the use of the language. To that purpose we bend not only our learning, but also our taste and our judgment. It is not the barbarians at the gate whom we address — they all seem want to learn English. It is the citizens inside whose carelessness and affectations mar their own prose.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:10 AM | | Comments (1)

February 26, 2007

The data is/are in

Donald Norris, a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (I’m starting to get a better class of customer) has written to complain about our singulars and plurals.

“I enjoy reading the Sun, among other things, for the quality of the writing which is almost always very good. However, once in a while a reporter slips and an editor doesn't catch it. Here's one example:

“‘Hopkins officials said they believe the data...WASN'T compromised.’”

“The last time I looked, data was a plural noun...and I tell my students this. Now, if they read the paper (which is doubtful and sad) they'll have this to show me when I remind them that data are, not is.”

I answered that, sadly, there are  problems in the English language for which there is no clear right or wrong, no apt solution. Data is one of them.

Garner's Modern American Usage calls data a "skunked" term, meaning that there is no way to use it without irritating some group of readers.

I know that it is the plural of datum; my daughter holds a degree in Latin and Greek from Swarthmore, and I am well advised to show respect for Latin. But as Garner points out, data has, "since the 1940s, been increasingly treated as a mass noun taking a singular verb," and the singular form is growing increasingly rare, to the extent that using it can look pretentious.
The Associated Press Stylebook, the basis for The Sun's house style, says emphatically, "A plural noun, it normally takes plural verbs and pronouns." Then, the weasel entry: "See the collective nouns entry, however, for an example of when "data" may take singular verbs and pronouns."

Scientific usage appears to use data increasingly as a collective noun in a singular sense, as does computer science. The language appears to be headed irreversibly in that direction, and I am loath to engage our copy desk in a pointless struggle.

Would God that data were our only problem. (At least we still have some of the subjunctive with us.) There is widespread misunderstanding among journalists about Taliban, which is a plural that the news media (still a plural) insist on making singular. The singular form, talib, means “student.”

And a year ago, my learned colleague Bill Walsh got into a tussle on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board over the sentence "An additional $18 billion in six-month bills was auctioned at a discount rate of 4.545 percent." He insisted on were, and the fur flew. Actually, either usage can be justified. If the $18 billion is considered to be a total sum, it can legitimately be considered a singular subject. (Five bushels is what my truck will hold.) But it’s hard to insist that 18 billion of anything are a singular. So context and intent should govern the decision.

Except, as with data, context is often of little help. Go figure.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 AM | | Comments (6)

February 20, 2007

Not interested

My students look vaguely baffled — it is one of their most common expressions — when I try to explain that the traditional and established meaning of disinterested is impartial, not having an interest in the matter at hand. A judge, I tell them, is supposed to be disinterested, not caring which side wins or loses at trial. To be disinterested means not having a dog in that fight.

Then they go back to using disinterested, as do their fellows, to mean uninterested, with only a flickering recognition that they are trapped for a semester in a classroom with some old guy who carries on about things that no one else cares about.

Gordon S. Wood writes about the importance of that word, that concept, in the last quarter of the 18th century, in Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different:

Disinterestedness was the most common term the founders used as a synonym for the classical conception of virtue as self-sacrifice; it better conveyed the threats from interests that virtue seemed increasingly to face in the rapidly commercializing eighteenth century. Dr. Johnson had defined disinterested as being ‘superior to regard of private advantage; not influenced by private profit,’ and that was what the founders meant by the term. We today have lost most of this earlier meaning. Even educated people now use disinterested as a synonym for uninterested, meaning ‘indifferent or unconcerned.’ It is almost as if we cannot quite imagine someone who is capable of rising above a pecuniary interest and being unselfish or impartial where an interest might be present.” 

Disinterestedness, like journalistic objectivity, is not easy to achieve. We can thank psychology and literary criticism for insights in how deeply our interests are embedded in our actions and in our language. And who among us has not had to come up against the bitter realization that we have not lived up to our own standards of conduct?

But, of course, it wasn’t thought easy in the 18th century, either. It was part of the cultivation of qualities of learning and manners that contributed to the meaning of another antique word, gentleman. Now, before you level against me the charge of patriarchal elitism, I admit to everything. I am two-thirds of the way toward being a dead white male, and it’s too late to turn back.

All the same, there is something about that concept of disinterestedness, of the effort to rise above our own inherent selfishness and grubby concerns to entertain a wider perspective, and to act on it. Words can carry a substantial freight of meaning, association, history. Disinterested is one of those words, with a weight that impartial does not quite display. It should be worth something to us to maintain its traditional heft and dignity, rather than to allow it to be submerged among the multitude of the uninterested, who couldn’t care less.

Or, of course, it could just be that the Old Man is on a tear today.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:35 PM | | Comments (2)

February 12, 2007

Now for the name-calling

A reader of these dispatches posts a strong response to another reader’s comment about impactful and other vogue words that they can amount to “gibberish.”

Here’s the whole thing:

And here’s the comment in question:

If one wants to argue for the benefits of standardized language and lexicon, arguing that the alternative is linguistic chaos is counter-productive. Thousands -- tens of thousands -- of languages have worked perfectly fine without the need for, for example, a written language and certainly for a dictionary. Using "impactful" is not gibberish; it's an alternative that for various reasons, entirely social and zero percent linguistic, is considered substandard in some circles (only). To argue that it's in some way unclear or not useful, or to pronounce that a term is the ever-popular and overworn "not a word," is to do nothing more than show that one fundamentally does not understand how one's own native language is used (or even works, either grammatically or evolutionarily). Moreover it reveals a deep streak of snobbishness that suggests that the speaker believes that anyone not up to the speaker's idiosyncratic and markedly non-democratic standards is an incapable user of the language, and communicates in "gibberish." (Why not just go ahead and call it "grunts," then?)

One of the things I’ve struggled to accomplish in these operations is to keep a distance from dogmatic grammar snobs while maintaining that useful and important judgments can be made about language and usage I don’t intend to stoop to the canard that to linguists anything said by a native speaker is legitimate — a dressed-up version of the undergraduate’s “What does it matter how I say it if I get my point across?”  But I think that Mr. Zicari’s comment about “gibberish” is a little more solid than rhetorical excess.

Take this example, forwarded to me by a colleague. It’s a statement by the president of MediaSpan Software, explaining the company’s change of name: “The name change coincides with internal synergies we are leveraging across the entire MediaSpan organization to expand our product offerings.”

This is not quite gibberish — I suspect that it means that the company will try to get more work out of fewer people — but it doesn’t make it easy to ferret out a meaning. The fondness of cant terms such as synergy and leverage can serve the purpose of concealing meaning or, equally well, concealing a lack of meaning.

The year I abandoned my uncompleted doctorate in English, I came across a dissertation abstract that said — the author’s own summary, mind you — that Jonathan Swift thought true love to be superior to false love. The thought of having to read several thousand words leading up to this remarkable conclusion was a serious deterrent to the academic life. This was also about the time that the nimble thoughts of Messrs. Barthes, Derrida and Foucault swept over the American academy, leading to the production by less gifted practitioners of a prose stodge defying comprehension. Some might call it gibberish. Some have.

But that is all right. As an amateur rhetorician, I am most concerned with the way that speech and writing are directed at an audience. Since the bulk of academic writing is aimed not at increasing the store of knowledge but at achieving tenure and promotion, it is just as well that it goes largely unread by other academics not on the tenure committee. Similarly, bombast that people in business lather on one another tends not to disturb me, since the market will determine their fates anyhow. Live and let live, I say.

As an editor of journalism, my concern is that we provide the long-suffering public information in the dialect called standard written English, with whatever economy and precision in the use of words we can achieve. That includes scraping away the superstitions and shibboleths that have attached themselves to the craft (which the linguists have been helpful in pointing out) as well as looking suspiciously at examples of cant and fad that are trying to attach themselves. In that enterprise, we find that some words are better than others.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:06 PM | | Comments (3)

February 8, 2007

Automatic writing

Hey. kids! Writing doesn’t have to be hard! It’s easy! All you have to do is punch in a few ready-made phrases, and you’re done!

Take this little test to show yourself what you can do. Fill in the blanks in the sentences below, and then check them against the answers at the bottom.

But don’t peek!

1. She grew up in a _______ home on a ___-_____ street in a _____ suburb.

2. The drug dealer grew up in a _____ neighborhood in the ____  _____.

3. He died last week after a ____  _____ with cancer.
4. She received a _________ award from the university.

5. In a matter of seconds, his dream turned into a ________.

6. The Cabinet officer defended his __________ policy.



We told you not to look at the answers first.

Eyes back to the top, bub.

With the answers, at no additional charge, you get commentary.

1. She grew up in a stately home on a tree-lined street in a leafy suburb.
Blenheim Palace, built by the Duke of Marlborough, is one of the stately homes of England. (An epitaph for Sir John Vanbrugh, the architect, plays on the traditional Latin wish that the earth may lie lightly on the dead: “Lie heavy on him, Earth! for he/ Laid many heavy loads on thee.”) 

Today, of course, any brick 4BR, 4BA valued above a couple of hundred thousand dollars can be called a “stately home,” especially if it is surrounded by  those tall leafy objects.

2. The drug dealer grew up in a gritty neighborhood in the inner city.
Gritty has become the adjective of choice for down-market, unattractive, lower middle class or impoverished — not the sort of place where journalists choose to live. And inner city no longer means a neighborhood deep in the city. It can be a neighborhood at the city limits. The phrase is a code for saying that poor people, probably black, live there. 

3. He died last week after a long battle with cancer.
Using this metaphor for a lingering disease relieves the writer of the burden of coming up with something original.

4. She received a prestigious award from the university.
Yeah, and she probably has the prestigious “World’s Best Mom” coffee mug on her desk. If an award has genuine prestige — the Nobel Prize, say — no one calls it “prestigious.” And if its prestige is limited to about 50 people, then prestigious is a meaningless and wasted adjective.

5. In a matter of seconds, his dream turned into a nightmare.
You can use an obvious antithesis like this over and over. Jesse Jackson’s “Never look down on anybody unless you're helping them up”  shows how easily this sort of thing can be done.

6. The Cabinet officer defended his controversial policy.
Well, if were non-controversial, there would be no need to defend it. Controversial is one of those empty adjectives used to tell the reader that this story is very, very important. Why the policy is controversial, or who is involved in the controversy, can be skated over.

Please note: If some killjoy on the staff has prohibited controversial, merely because it means nothing, feel free to use contentious instead. It has much the same effect: an additional word without significant additional meaning.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:05 PM | | Comments (1)

February 5, 2007

Not in the dictionary

Samuel Johnson, who knew about lexicography, said, “Dictionaries are like watches: the worst is better than none, and the best cannot be expected to go quite true.”

The comments on last week’s post about impactful

have reminded me of one of their limitations: They can tell you what a word is, how it is used, and where it came from, but not necessarily who uses it. The social nuances of language are subtle, difficult for lexicographers to capture in their nets.

The use of contact as a verb is one example. Widely scorned in the 1940s and 1950s as an irritating vogue usage, it has settled into the language over the past few decades as the means of getting in contact with one another have multiplied. It is now a neutral and acceptable word.

But why was it first execrated? I suspect because of who used it. My impression is that it became a vogue word in advertising circles, which incurred the scorn of people who despised Madison Avenue parvenus.

There are two sides to vogue words; as shibboleths or argot, they enable an in-group to identify its members and establish solidarity, but they also, of course, signal to non-members that they are outside the group.

Sometimes non-members want to be outside the group. There is no question that impactful is a word, that its meaning is clear to all who hear or see it, and that it has a history in the language. The question the dictionary can’t settle is whether you want to be the sort of person who uses it.

When Mike Waller, a former copy editor. was publisher of The Sun, you could hear his growl echo down the hallway when someone filed a memo about “growing the business.” You can grow cotton, and you can grow corn, but to grow the business is advertising/marketing/circulation argot. It may eventually take root in the language, but for now it’s a weed.

My wife, Kathleen Capcara, grew up in Columbus, Ohio, where she was mystified in English class to be taught that to learn is an intransitive verb. Who, she wondered, would get that wrong? But I grew up in eastern Kentucky, where there was a supply of bullies ever willing to learn me not to give myself such airs as a bookworm. Learn as a transitive has a long history in English, probably surviving in Appalachia as a remnant of the 18th-century English of the first Scotch-Irish settlers. But no one heard that usage coming from my mouth, because it  would have identified the me as subliterate.

When, in the preface to Pygmalion, George Bernard Shaw wrote, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him,” he referred to class-bound accents, but vocabulary is also part of the impression. Detecting those nuances — and determining which ones are important to take account of — is an element of the judgment editors are expected to exercise.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (3)

February 1, 2007

Oh, the impact

In the cutthroat world of professional copy editing, being seen as an authority carries risk.

Some months ago, at the afternoon news meeting, Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, commented that a particular story seemed “impactful.” He paused, quizzically, and addressed the room at large while looking at me: “Is impactful a word?”

Now, he plainly did not mean the question literally. Everyone in the room understood what he said and meant, recognizing impactful as a back-formation from impact. What he was asking was whether impactful is a legitimate word, an acceptable word in standard English.

Answering the intended question rather than the literal one, I said, “No.”

It would have been better to give the labored, technical explanation, because he spent some time later on the Internet, announcing gleefully that carried an entry for impactful. “How about that?” he asked me.

No doubt the people at are model citizens who wipe their feet before coming indoors and who are kind to their mothers, but I’m skeptical of their lexicography.  So I did a little research of my own and was permitted to address the afternoon news meeting thus the next day:

“I have a prepared statement.

“I will not take questions afterward.

“The word impactful, which appears in Merriam-Webster’s unabridged dictionary and online as an entry from Webster’s New Millennium Dictionary of English, is not listed in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, the American Heritage College Dictionary, the Encarta World English Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary or the Oxford English Dictionary.

“Given the dubious status of the word impact as a verb, which several authorities recommend against, and the lack of citations for impactful in standard references, The Sun’s copy desk affirms yesterday’s curbside ruling of its chief that impactful may be used in direct quotes, if the writer insists on it, but not otherwise in the paper. This decision remains in effect until the word achieves a more secure purchase on the language, or the A.M.E./Copy Desk is overruled by Higher Authority.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (19)
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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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