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April 30, 2007


When I was 7 years old, members of my family called me "Mr. Precise," because I corrected their grammar and usage. People who grow up to be prigs can be identified early on.

This regrettable tendency was only reinforced in later grades by Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, two teachers of the old school for whom there was the right way for everything, and everything else was error. Sentences were written to be diagrammed in an orderly manner, subjects and verbs smiled in agreement, and pronouns respectfully acknowledged their antecedents. Ain't and double negatives were beneath contempt. I once gave a wrong answer on a quiz, and the reaction was consternation, followed by a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger reproach. English was a realm of certainties.

Graduate school in English removed some of the certainty, because no one since, maybe, Milton has read all there is to read. But a graduate student in English who admits to not having read any particular book loses face, so the years at work on an M.A. and a Ph.D. (even when the latter is abandoned unfinished) provide steady practice in bluffing. In the absence of certainty, the appearance of certainty will make do. 

Then came work at a newspaper copy desk.

Copy editors have no illusions about anyone, because we see the work the reporters and assigning editors do, quickly identifying who is reliable and who is not. More than that, we check one another's work. We know where each colleague is strong and where he is shaky. No bluffing here.

If you watched Upstairs, Downstairs, you may recall an early episode in which the saucy parlor-maid challenged the butler, Mr. Hudson, asking why she should pay him any heed. Mr. Hudson answered majestically, "Because I am older than you, and therefore wiser, and besides, I have learnt humility."

On the nights I work on the copy desk, proofs of articles I've edited come back with errors flagged and lapses annotated. Curbside rulings I make on house style have to be revised or reversed later. Authorities I consult to resolve murky issues contradict one another. Reader complaints, full of certainty and scorn, are forwarded to me. Sometimes they are right.

Older I am. Wiser — still open to decision.  But for a quarter-century now I have been schooled in humility.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:30 PM | | Comments (0)

April 25, 2007

Respectfully dissent

Much as it pains me to differ, even in part, with my learned colleague Ms. Yeiser, her comment to Monday’s posting is open to challenge.

Regarding the second sentence in this passage

The DRC process "pretty much takes the community out of the picture," said Alan Zukerberg, an activist from Pikesville. "They're left to basically complaining to their council person, and hope that they're council person can play games."

she commented

How about the deplorable split infinitive, not to mention the incorrect use (not usage, thank you) of the participle "complaining."?  Try "to complain to" and forget the overused 'basically.'  Come to think of it, get rid of the awkward, PC council person - councilman serves well enough. Now we can talk about 'they're.'  On the other hand, why should we expect good grammar from any activist?  And there is nothing remotely interesting about the second half of the compound sentence.  All in all, I should say the entire enterprise is a waste of space.

The objection to the split infinitive is overruled. As a previous post

pointed out, there are no grounds for objecting to the split infinitive in English. It is a "rule" created by grammarians that has no foundation. H.W. Fowler, writing 80 years ago, and Theodore Bernstein, writing 40 years ago, made plain that opposition to the split infinitive is a mere shibboleth.

To be sure, the construction "to basically complaining" is ungainly. But it appears in direct quotation.  This, too, has been addressed here.

In reproducing spoken language as written language, a feat of transliteration in which the writer supplies spelling, punctuation, capitalization and the other components of text, we reproduce the words the speaker uttered. To "clean up" quoted matter, as is the practice of some journalists, is a falsification. We select, and we eliminate nonverbal noises, but we use the speaker's words, however maladroit they may be. Otherwise, we paraphrase or use partial quotes. We don’t want the words the speaker uses in print to be different from the speaker’s words as broadcast on the television or radio.

If it were only that simple. Ms. Yeiser is on the money when she complains that the material quoted doesn't amount to much. Reporters are trained to get quotes for articles, but people, unfortunately, are not uniformly articulate or eloquent. Sometimes we see in print quoted sentences that are banal, obvious, confused, confusing, meandering, flat or empty — simply so the reporter could point out that he or she got some quotes.

To sum up, guilty as originally charged on they're for their. Everyone involved should have known better. Nol-pros on the split infinitive, however inept. We report on people as they actually talk. And a directed verdict of guilty on the misdemeanor of including the second sentence in the first place. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:10 AM | | Comments (0)

April 23, 2007

Spot the error

An invitation from a reader:

See if you can spot the error in the following quote:

The DRC process "pretty much takes the community out of the picture," said Alan Zukerberg, an activist from Pikesville. "They're left to basically complaining to their council person, and hope that they're council person can play games."

It’s an enduring mystery that professional journalists, college graduates who make their living by the language, have trouble distinguishing it's from its or, as in this example, among their, they’re and there. And while any writer might mistakenly type in the wrong word — a synapse misfiring in a moment of distraction — one would have thought that the copy editing and proofreading of the article would have caught this.

A longtime reader complains that we continue to write about opening arguments in trials, "the mark of a novice court reporter." In trials, the opposing lawyers present opening statements and closing arguments.

And there is this, in the lead paragraph of an article:

Health guru Ian Smith paced back and forth on an outdoor stage and yelled out to his audience, at times pleading, cajoling and even bargaining with them to loose weight.

At the least, three copy editors should have had an opportunity to catch loose for lose in this sentence (not to speak of the reporter’s and assigning editor’s responsibilities, particularly for the lead of the story). "Inexcusable,"says the reader who complained about this one.

Well, yes. But still.

Some semesters back, one of my students experienced a flash of insight into copy editing, saying, “You catch 19 errors in a story and then get penalized for the 20th. It' just not fair." A story with only 20 errors may be better than average. Some years back, a veteran reporter set to work on the city desk commented after the first week, "Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked."

The process by which the sausage is inserted into the casing here is by no means as orderly and efficient as we would like. On a given day, assigning editors and copy editors will catch and correct a multitude of errors, some factual, some linguistic. And on that given day, a certain number of errors will slip past everyone, despite our best and most conscientious efforts.

The errors that slip through our hands irritate you and embarrass us. It is the case today, as it was yesterday and almost certainly will be tomorrow:

The Sun regrets the errors.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (3)

April 18, 2007

How are the mighty fallen

Back at the height of the Cold War, Communists were everywhere. (Gather around, little ones; Uncle John is recollecting the Olden Times again.) Newspapers ran regular articles of the "Wake up, America!" variety to explain how the Kremlin was trying to fluoridate our water and make white children and black children attend the same schools. We were under siege by this sinister power, whose tentacles reached everywhere. (We didn’t mind mixed metaphors much in those days.)

Then the Soviet Union collapsed under its own weight, a failed state whose satellites escaped its gravity. The Chinese, sneakily, adopted a form of state capitalism. And the Communist world of true believers shrank to a few troublesome minor states, such as Cuba and North Korea. After that, the greatest indignity: Communism lost its capital letter.

The Sun’s brief obituary notice of Ladislav Adamec described him as "Czechoslovakia's last communist prime minister." In two more paragraphs it mentioned "the fall of the communist regime" and "a communist deputy in the Czechoslovakian federal parliament."

This despite the language remaining in The Associated Press Stylebook to capitalize "Communist, Conservative, Democrat, Liberal, Republican, Socialist, etc., when they refer to a specific party or its members. Lowercase these words when they refer to political philosophy. …"The Sun's in-house stylebook has the same entry.

So the distinction has stood for generations in newspaper stylebooks, but the writers and editors of the Associated Press (along with my colleagues on The Sun's copy desk) have apparently gone in for editorial nullification. The reasoning, I take it, is that our side won, so the loser reverts to lowercase.

What are all the readers who believe that The Sun still takes its orders from Moscow going to think?

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:04 AM | | Comments (2)

April 16, 2007

Due reverence

God help us when we write about religion. Few subjects come with as many associated pitfalls. Here is a small one.

It fell to my lot recently to instruct yet another copy editor on Rev./Reverend. The Associated Press, The New York Times and the Religion Newswriters Association all take the traditional approach: Reverend is an adjective, not a noun, so it is preceded by the when used as a title with a name: the Rev. Billy Graham.

As a colleague summarized the point recently on the Testy Copy Editors Web site (yes, dammit, we’re still testy): "According to this thinking, calling clergymen reverends is akin to referring to judges as honorables."

Of course, there are refinements. Reverend and the Rev. are not used with a surname. It’s not Reverend Graham or the Rev. Graham, but the Rev. Mr. Graham.

Now we all know that people use Reverend colloquially with the last names of clergy, typically because they don't know any better. And that usage may eventually become standard, through the prevalence of ignorance that does so much to influence the development of language.

If you were to question congregants closely, you would probably find them appallingly ill-informed about the tenets of their own denominations. Whether we should also adjust doctrine to conform to ignorance is a question I'll leave to the divinity schools.

Please don't let this impair your enjoyment of my esteemed colleague Gregory Kane’s references to Revvum Jackson and Revvum Sharpton or any other attempt to harness the demotic for effect.

The point here is that if you insist on using archaic forms of address in serious articles, you are responsible for getting them right. 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:05 PM | | Comments (0)

April 11, 2007

Not bewitched by Wikipedia

It was not yet 8:30 on a Saturday morning when a reader wrote in (Don’t people sleep in anymore?) to complain that an article in The Sun had cited Wikipedia as a source.

"You should never cite Wikipedia as a source for a factual article,” the reader complained. “Wikipedia is an unmediated lay collection of information, which is unsubstantiated for the large part. Wikipedia can be used as a general information gathering STARTING POINT, and often has useful links to expert sources, but Wikipedia itself is not credible."

No dissent here. The Sun’s copy desk has been discouraged for some time from relying on Wikipedia, for many good and sufficient reasons. There was the uproar in 2005 when a contributor to Wikipedia, as a joke, posted an entry on veteran journalist John Seigenthaler Sr. suggesting that he had been involved in the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy. This manifestly false and offensive entry remained on the site for months.

Here’s what Wikipedia itself has to say on the matter:

There has been more. Entries for members of the U.S. Congress have been manipulated by members of their staffs for partisan purposes.

A contributor known as “Essjay” who claimed to hold a doctorate in theology and who contributed to thousands of articles, turned out to be a fraud. Read more about Wikipedia in a New Yorker article:

“Essjay,” by the way, was one of the volunteers enlisted by Wikipedia to do fact-checking and oversight of contributions by others.

And, in the Internet application of Gresham’s Law (that bad money drives out good money by devaluing it), Wikipedia entries turn up not only in Google searches, but also as the main entries at and other electronic reference sites.

The impulse behind Wikipedia is of a piece with the naïve enthusiasm that has marked the development of the Internet. Wikipedia would be open to everyone, not just self-proclaimed authorities. Anyone and everyone would be able to contribute expertise, and the enterprise would be self-correcting. It  reflected a giddy Romantic/Rousseauist belief that people are good and that, once freed from the weight of Authority, would flourish in the sunlight.

Copy editors are Augustinian, not Rousseauist. We suspect, deep down, that people are no damn good, prone to error and malice, and we see little to disturb that settled conviction. Yes, the Internet has opened up worldwide communication and given multitudes a voice. It also carries some very ugly things, and the potential for anonymous malice is huge.

That being the case, we see little likelihood that the recent call for self-policing and civility in a New York Times article

will change much.

Sweet as the vision behind Wikipedia may be, the democratic encyclopedia lacks adequate safeguards to prevent plagiarism, inaccuracy and libel. We on the copy desk are suspicious of many things, and Wikipedia is high on the list.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:12 PM | | Comments (5)

April 9, 2007

The English have a word for it

For he himself has said it,
And it’s greatly to his credit,
That he is an Englishman!

For he might have been a Rossian,
A French, or Turk, or Prossian,
Or perhaps Itali-an!

But in spite of all temptations
To belong to other nations,
He remains an Englishman!

Before I got distracted by W.S. Gilbert, I was puzzling over posts by my worthy colleagues at the Testy Copy Editors site. (Yes, dammit, we are testy. All of us. You got a problem with that?)

The post worried over a sentence from an article about the sinking last week of a Greek cruise ship: "'Navy divers searched around the sunken wreckage for a Frenchman and his daughter — the only two passengers still missing.'

"is Frenchman the preferred nomenclature here? shouldn't it just be French man? would you say Englishman or Scotsman?"

In fact, one of the successive comments endorsed French man, because Frenchman looked unfamiliar.

You can see the comments yourself:

These posts were baffling. Of course one uses Frenchman and Englishman, terms of long standing. Samuel Johnson, ever the vigorous nationalist, commented once, "A Frenchman must be always talking, whether he knows anything of the matter or not; an Englishman is content to say nothing when he has nothing to say."

Perhaps the original query rose from a concern that Frenchman might be seen as a sexist term. But in English, a man who is a native of France is called a Frenchman.

It can be startling to discover that terms one has thought of as familiar for years strike colleagues as strange or inappropriate or just wrong. Once, at a newspaper far, far away, the supervising editor one weekend questioned the word Briton in a headline; he had never seen it before.

The headline ran over an article about the Falklands War, about which we had been running articles for several days, and, yes, articles in which we had used Briton as a term for citizens of Great Britain.

You may recollect that George III, our late monarch, said on his accession to the throne, "I glory in the name of Briton." As a native-born monarch of a German dynasty, he was entitled to. And the term was not novel in 1760.

We persuaded the weekend editor to allow Briton to stand — he couldn’t think of any other word that would fit, and I briefly harbored the heretical surmise that not all editors are put in authority because of their intelligence and literacy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:39 PM | | Comments (4)

April 5, 2007

Smelling bias

You may think that there is bias in news articles. So do I. But from that point we might diverge.

Of course, you say, this McIntyre is just a cog in the machinery of the East Coast Liberal Media Establishment, he has openly admitted to having been a McGovern Democrat 35 years ago, and everyone knows that The Sun is still carrying out orders it got directly from the Kremlin.

After that comes the spluttering.   

Oh yes, we in the mainstream media are so powerful that Republicans landed in the White House in five of the past seven presidential elections, controlled both houses of Congress for a decade and appointed a majority of justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. We are one fearsome media juggernaut.

I tend to discover bias elsewhere.

I see unintended and unrecognized bias when we write articles as if being upper-middle-class and college-educated were the norm. The "we" who write and edit drink wine or imported beer, not Bud Lite; "we" jog or  play lacrosse or tennis instead of going bowling; "we" eat field greens, not iceberg lettuce. (Whether we actually do any of these things is irrelevant. Pasty, paunchy, sedentary as journalists tend to be, we write as if we were fit and fashionable.)  "We" write stories for "people like us," stories that alienate readers or potential readers who do not fall into our categories.

I see bias when baby boomer writers expect that everyone remembers pop culture references from 30 years ago. The tobacco industry would "rather fight than switch," which was the commercial slogan for my grandfather’s Tareyton cigarettes, keeps turning up. Last week I excised an allusion to Welcome Back, Kotter, which went off the air in 1979.

I see bias when a feature proclaims that men don’t wear hats. It’s not just that I wear a fedora (Labor Day to Memorial Day, of course); it is that I notice that  many adult black men still tend to wear hats. Are they invisible?

I see bias when an article describes Valerie Plame, in her testimony before a congressional committee, as a "willowy blonde." Such stories contained no physical description of Rep. Henry Waxman — perhaps on purely aesthetic grounds — leaving us in that little world in which women have physical attributes but men don’t.

These failures of perception are matched by the journalistic vice of reliance on prefabricated phrases, like "willowy blonde." Combine unexamined assumptions with unoriginal language, and you get journalism that looks oddly lifeless and out of touch, even to an audience that shares the writers’ biases.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:22 PM | | Comments (4)

April 3, 2007

Judgment day

I am on jury duty this week.

When I have finished dispensing justice in the courts, I'll return to making judgments here.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 AM | | Comments (0)
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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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