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May 31, 2007

Unfair to Cadillacs

Another irate reader, this one complaining about the phrase "the hulking sport utility vehicle":

"Nicole Fuller's story about 'Click it (and) ticket' contains the above phrase.

"This is an ordinary example of what people call 'media bias'. The description is personal and it is discriminatory.

"Never mind what you think of any car. In many instances, such 'information' is gratuitously added. It amounts to "background" propoganda."

So it is not enough that we are instruments of the East Coast liberal media establishment at war with capitalism, religion, justice and ordinary decent good sense. Now we are also accused of motor vehicle prejudice.

The vehicle in question, should you not have read the story, was a Cadillac Escalade, a vehicle that cannot fairly be described as diminutive, or, for that matter, graceful.

It seems to me that hulking amounts to fair comment. Anyone who chooses to own and operate a gas-guzzling behemoth, or wear fur, or smoke tobacco should be aware that such choices and preferences, though legal, do not excite universal admiration.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:58 AM | | Comments (5)

May 30, 2007

Now hear this

As of now, this blog has a new address:

If you have bookmarked the site, please update with this address. Some comments made on a previous post arrived on the previous platform, which does not translate to the new one. I’m presenting them below.

From Tom:
I'm a Bob Marley fan, but the primary sense of natty is still the one with which you are familiar. "Nattily dressed" is a compliment.

And I agree with Grant; I occasionally consult Urban Dictionary, but I wouldn't accept it as a sole source on usage.

From Jeff Landaw:
Luckily, nobody passed the word to Bruce Hale, author of the Chet Gecko juvenile mysteries. Chet is a 4th-grade student, an amateur detective and, oh, yes, a wall-climbing lizard with a mockingbird partner named ... Natalie Attired.

From Patricia Yeiser:
The word none, a contraction without an apostrophe, is shorthand for no one, or not one. It therefore requires the appropriate tense of the verb, i.e., "none of the dictionaries....defines...The Brits use the plural agreement, and it always grates.

And from me, because I get the last word:

I don’t trust much myself, because, as with Wikipedia, anyone can post anything. But it was only cited to me after two copy editors, from different areas, looked it up there to bolster their assertions.

I am perhaps a little gun shy, since the day some years ago that I wrote a headline that used the word booty to mean loot, only to see the headline ridiculed by the local alternative paper.

As for none, high as my regard for Ms. Yeiser remains, I bow to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which argues in three columns of closely printed reasoning that none, both etymologically and by historical usage, can be used in both singular and plural sense, both in Britain and in America. Garner’s Modern American Usage states more economically that none means not one or not any and that the verb should fit whichever sense is intended.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:34 PM | | Comments (0)

May 29, 2007

Lame prose

Oh, you hear people say, I don't read the newspaper because the articles are so boring.

Boring, they complain. That's not the worst. There are copy editors who long for boring. There are editors who would welcome a boring story like a glass of lemonade handed to them in Hell. These are the editors who work with reporters who are given to Lively Writing. These are copy editors charged with editing copy that — a cruel but necessary thing to say — does not even rise to the level of local television news.

Oh, it can't be all that bad, you say? Here are some examples culled from submissions to the Testy Copy Editors discussion board. See for yourself at

Passages in bold are direct quotations from that Web site.

Item: This one is from the Associated Press:

WASHINGTON — Call him Cool Hand Nuke. Paul Newman weighed in Wednesday on the Indian Point nuclear power facility in the New York suburbs, pronouncing it safer than military bases he had visited.


The actor and salad dressing salesman visited the Buchanan, N.Y., facility on Monday, according to Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear, the company that owns Indian Point.

Newman, the star of such films as "Cool Hand Luke," "Slap Shot" and "Nobody’s Fool," praised the nuclear power facility as an important part of the region’s energy future because it doesn’t produce greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming.

Item: An intrepid editor kept this one out of a newspaper:

Sore backs.

Stiff fingers.

Failing vision.

These women don’t let aging get in the way of hooking.

It's not about what you thought; it’s about crocheting.

Item: If Dr. Johnson complained of Cowley and the other Metaphysical poets that "[t]he most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together," imagine what he would have made of the modern journalist's fondness for the non sequitur:

Springtime is in the air. And along with other signs of spring, such as flowers in bloom, there has been a blossoming in the number of unscrupulous contractors.

Item: Another from the AP:

SHERIDAN, Wyo. — Shirley Weidt says people should stop complaining about the goat in her minivan. After all, there’s plenty of room in the ba-a-a-ack with the seats removed.


Obvious puns, particularly those that rely on non-standard spelling, are juvenile.

Item: And to round everything out, a cliche rung round the world, collected by a single suffering soul:

Fat is no longer a four-letter word in nutrition circles. (Washington Post)
Annuity is not a four-letter word (Sarasota Herald-Tribune)
CRM is not a four-letter word (San Antonio Business Journal)
Debt doesn't have to be a four-letter word (Portland Press Herald)
Come on now. Something has to be a four-letter word.
Soft is a four-letter word (Orlando Sentinel)
Walk is a four-letter word (Brisbane Times)
Zone, once again, is a four-letter word in Lexington (Louisville Courier-Journal)
She also had to introduce a four-letter word to her vocabulary — diet. (Fairbanks Daily News-Miner)

When a writer’s lack of judgment is painfully apparent, it falls to an editor to call a halt.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)

May 25, 2007

Nothing about Rush Limbaugh

The Sun’s Web site registered a flurry of hits last week when articles about the vandalizing of a billboard featuring Rush Limbaugh attracted widespread attention. So did the video from the Preakness last weekend showing young men running the gantlet (NOT gauntlet) over the portable outhouses in the infield.

But this blog concerns itself with precision in using the language, and nothing here will generate the kind of attention that goes to Rush Limbaugh, professional sports and young men being bombarded with containers of beer as they run across the Port-A-Potties. You who are reading it constitute a highly select audience. Bask in your singularity. 

Now for today’s arbitrary pronouncements:

Spree and/or rampage

Tim Sager, the accomplished news copy desk chief at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, takes issue with my suggestion that spree should not be used to describe homicides or shootings or anything other than casual or relatively innocuous activities:

According to the first definition listed in my copy of the much-reviled Webster’s Third, spree means “an unrestrained and usually excessive indulgence in or outburst of any activity: splurge, rampage.”

I think that limiting its meaning to binge drinking or shopping is being a bit more restrictive than necessary. I can’t imagine any reader objecting to the reporter’s diction – or droll sense of humor – when “killing spree” or “murder spree” appears in copy. Prohibitions based on the fact that it’s a cliché are, of course, another kettle of fish.

He is probably right about the direction in which usage is moving, or has already moved. But I still cringe.

Years ago, at A Newspaper Far Away, the copy desk objected to a substantial project about a multi-sate killing spree that the paper labeled “The Killer’s Trail.” The copy desk’s objection was the that man who, the story flatly stated, killed all those people had not been convicted in any homicide and had, in fact, not even been charged in some of them.

No problem, the editor said in a posted memo. “He’s in so much legal trouble he’ll never be able to sue us.”

I wish I had thought to keep a copy of that memo. But recollection of it inevitably links in my mind the phrases killing spree and irresponsible editor.

Natty is tatty

An article came to the copy desk with a phrase about nattily dressed people. And a couple of copy editors came to me wanting to change it to smartly dressed.  Why? I asked. Natty is a perfectly innocuous word, usually applied, with some condescension, to people who wear bow ties.

No, they said; it means gross and dirty. Huh? I shrewdly asked. (It should be explained here that I was talking to colleagues whose memories do not go back before the administration of the elder George Bush, if that far.) So they sent me an entry from Urban

Something gross, low-class or unclean. Originally meaning neat in appearance, the word natty ironically became an antonym for itself over time, thanks in large part to its adoption by Rastafarian slang. When the Bob Marley and the Wailers album Natty Dread was released, "natty" was used positively to describe the "dread" as hip or cool. When people realized that Rastafarians are stupid and don't shower and the "natty" dread is actually gross, the word changed meanings.

Urban is a site for do-it-yourself lexicographers, but it is plain that it cannot be ignored simply on that ground. So I endorsed the change.

Now, as I knot my tie in the morning, I have to wonder; will everyone think me smartly dressed, or just natty?

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 AM | | Comments (5)

May 23, 2007

30 percent

A professor I knew at Syracuse liked to quote an old Army maxim, "Thirty percent never get the word." Understanding this helps to explain why the advice from newsletters and memos at The Sun over the past three decades keeps pointing to the same errors and lapses over and over.

Any attempt to communicate is fraught with hazards. A colleague in graduate school used an ingenious demonstration in composition class to illustrate those hazards. Put two students in front of the classroom, back to back. One has a set of Tinkertoys; the other has the instructions. The student with the instructions tells the other, step by step, how to build a particular construction. He can ask only yes-or-no questions, such as "Do you understand?" The student with the parts can only answer yes or no. Since the instructing student can’t see the structure and the building student can’t see the plan, frustration builds, and the resulting product typically bears little or no relationship to the design.

The consequences of imprecision can be a little more serious than a bungled Tinkertoy construction. Take this text: "Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front — follow the enemy and try to prevent the enemy from carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate." Dictated by the senile Lord Raglan to Quartermaster-General Richard Airey and misinterpreted by subordinates, this order sent the Light Brigade charging to its destruction at the Battle of Balaclava on Oct. 25, 1854. (For the complete sequence of imprecise orders and misinterpretations, see Cecil Woodham-Smith’s The Reason Why.) The Light Brigade, with about 700 men, charged straight down a valley, exposed to fire on three sides. Of the force, 195 returned. Witnessing the charge, General Bosquet, a French commander at the scene, famously observed, "C’est magnifique mais ce n’est pas la guerre."

War highlights lapses in communication, as one sees in Clausewitz’s concept of friction. A general orders an advance. The troops set out in line of battle, but friction — irregularities in terrain, uneven hostile fire, the troops’ varying levels of physical strength — breaks up the order. And ambiguous information contributes as well to the effect of friction. Look at what happens to a project: Once a plan has been formed by someone in authority, friction develops immediately. Perhaps the plan is unclearly formulated, or the details have not been communicated to all the parties involved. Unanticipated difficulties arise, and the information does not move up and down or across the lines. The parties wind up working at cross-purposes, and delay and disorder ensure. Thus we have what we can call [cough] McIntyre’s Ratio: Any project will require three times the anticipated effort to achieve one-third the desired result.

One should not overlook as well the likelihood of mulish resistance. One word for that is mumpsimus. An old priest, the story goes, had been saying mumpsimus in the Mass for sumpsimus (“we have received”). Corrected by a young priest, the old priest said, “I’ve been saying mumpsimus for thirty years, and I’m not going to change my old mumpsimus for your new sumpsimus.” So mumpsimus has come to refer to obstinate persistence in an error after correction. Anyone who has tried to oversee the introduction of a new procedure, particularly at a newspaper, can describe the widespread passive resistance that follows.

The shrewd course is to assume, every time you put subject to verb to object, that something will go wrong.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:24 AM | | Comments (1)

May 21, 2007


Nobody enjoys being edited.

That is the main reason that writers and editors should switch places from time to time. Discovering the other party's perspective can be wonderfully salutary.

Pressed into service on the city desk some years back, Rafael Alvarez, one of The Sun's abler reporters, muttered after a week, "Reading other people’s raw copy is like looking at your grandmother naked."

I was lucky to learn an important lesson early on. I was writing occasional book reviews for a newspaper in a city far away, and one of my reviews was butchered. The editor who cut it for space eliminated transitions and key sentences, leaving the reader with a jumble of disconnected observations.

I walked back to the features department to explain to the editor that I was disappointed, that I had tried to write a short essay, the effect of which was damaged by the cuts. As I talked I noticed two eavesdropping feature writers dissolving in silent mirth. The spectacle of a copy editor complaining about cuts to a text was too rich an irony to contain.

I mumbled a final sentence and walked away, my ears burning with embarrassment. I felt like a fool.

And I was.

First, the paper was gone, and there was nothing to remedy the bad editing.

Second, the editor I had been talking to was notoriously dim. If you turn over your work to someone who is as dumb as a box of rocks, what can you expect?

Third, displaying a writer’s injured vanity makes you look ridiculous. It was a short book review for a provincial newspaper. Perhaps one reader in 10,000 may have even glanced at it.

I have never since complained about the editing of an article I have written. And I generally don't look at anything I've written once it is in print. Even if your text has not been manhandled, seeing it in print will immediately show up all the flaws and shortcomings that you didn't notice while writing.

It's done. Go on to the next thing.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (0)

May 18, 2007

Why they hate us

If copy editors had an anthem, it would probably be this one:

Nobody likes me,
Everybody hates me,
Guess I'll go eat worms.

If we had a motto, it would likely be a remark that Harold Ross, the legendary New Yorker editor, was given to utter at intervals: “God, how I pity me.”

Cue the violins.

What did we expect? Everyone knows that when a copy editor approaches, it's not to deliver good news. We're paid to find errors, and no one much cares to see his or her errors identified.

But if we were to take as hard a look at our own errors as at those of others, we could easily find material for reflection.

There is the copy editor personality, the tendency to reduce the world to binary 1's and 0's, the right and the wrong. It is this tendency that transforms the stylebook from a set of guidelines to a rulebook to be enforced inflexibly. Bill Walsh at Blogslot,, identified this syndrome long ago by pointing out that when the AP Stylebook says to use a hyphen in a half-mile, it doesn't mean that half a mile has to be converted to a half-mile, but just that you use a hyphen in the latter construction.

The 1/0, right/wrong, good/evil, us/them point of view is often associated with a lack of perspective, an inability to distinguish what is important from what is trivial. Previous posts here, on such subjects as the time wasted on meaningless distinctions between lawyer and attorney, over and more than, are illustrative. Articles go into print without a clear focus, recognizable structure, support for assertions or identifiable audience of human beings; but, by gosh, by gee, by gum, over has been changed to more than.

What this all points to is a failure of judgment. Some distinctions of usage are important. Diction and metaphor are important. Structure and focus are important. But addressing the issues effectively demands good sense, and we on the copy desk do not always exercise it.

This gets noticed, and not just in the ranting at Language Log. Example:

A more sophisticated, more polished attack comes from Jacques Barzun in "Behind the Blue Pencil: Censorship or Creeping Creativity," in which he describes how writers are subjected to "the endless queries, suggestions, and alterations that some unnamed hand has sprinkled over their work."

He concedes the need for copy editors. "The spread of specialized knowledge, coupled with that of half-education, has created a new class of authors—people who knew things of value but wrote badly. For the sake of their information, the publisher in effect appointed a semi-ghost to assist the inarticulate and illiterate."

But everyone, incompetent and capable, falls under the sway of copy editors who make unnecessary changes and insert errors, merely to satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences. The result is "ever toward flattening out, standardizing—through pedantry, the literal mind, the love of the usual, which are forms of vulgarity."

To look at the examples of his own work changed for the worse by a copy editor is to feel the force of his argument. The insensitivity to nuance and prose rhythm is appalling. 

The central element and requirement of editing is judgment. Judgment involves not only knowing what is correct and what is incorrect, but also what does not matter. It involves recognition that when something is good, the editor ought to take his hands off the keyboard. It involves rigorous attention to "the inarticulate and the illiterate," who make up a great multitude of writers, and respect for the adept writer, a rare creature. It involves understanding that one size does not fit all.

"Behind the Blue Pencil" originally appeared in the Summer 1985 number of The American Scholar and was reprinted in On Writing, Editing, and Publishing, University of Chicago Press, 1986.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (5)

May 16, 2007

Is there a doctor in the house?

The Sun omitted the courtesy title Dr. with the name of a psychologist quoted in a recent obituary. (The obituary page is the only place in which The Sun continues to use courtesy titles — Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr., etc. — routinely.) And we have heard from a reader who is disappointed at the substitution of Mr. for Dr.

It is, as the Brits say, a fair cop. Whoever told the reporter that we use Dr. only for people who hold medical degrees was misinformed. Our in-house stylebook says that the title, when relevant, may be used for anyone who holds an earned doctorate. (People with honorary degrees are out of luck.)

On this point, The Associated Press Stylebook has finally caught up with what has been Sun practice for some time. The AP, which used to limit Dr. to people with medical degrees, now advises:

"If appropriate in the context, Dr. also may be used on first reference before the names of individuals who hold other types of doctoral degrees. However, because the public frequently identifies Dr. only with physicians, care should be taken to assure that the individual’s specialty is stated in first or second reference. The only exception would be a story in which the context left no doubt that the person was a dentist, psychologist, chemist, historian, etc.

"In some instances it also is necessary to specify that an individual identified as Dr. is a physician. One frequent case is a story reporting on joint research by physicians, biologists, etc."

We can take note of the touching vanity of the academic who insists on appending Ph.D. to his name on business cards, stationery, credit cards and, for all I know, towels. But we limit use of such titles to relevant contexts. 

Issues concerning courtesy titles do not go away:

The reason is that though courtesy titles are used less frequently, people do still use them. And we have to know how to use them appropriately.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 AM | | Comments (0)

May 14, 2007

Editors don't like anything

We copy editors are the skeptics, the nay-sayers, the fault-finders. We look at a text expecting to find it defective and are seldom disappointed.

Last month, when the sump pump failed, the basement flooded, and the carpeting had to be replaced, I first had to shift all the books and bookcases out of the way. Handling those hundreds of books, one by one, reminded me how much they have meant. We became editors because we were readers first, and since Dr. Johnson was correct in saying that no man is a hypocrite in his pleasures, there must be something we enjoy about reading. So instead of complaining today, I offer a look at what pleases at least one editor.

For years I've been presenting in workshops a little gem of a news feature in The Sun by Billl Glauber. His account of the funeral of Ronnie Kray, a British gangster, is meticulously constructed and irresistible to readers. And it’s 700 words long, a reproach to the writers who imagine that anything shy of 3,000 words is beneath their dignity.

Look at the opening paragraph:

LONDON — The streets of the East End were filling with kids and grandparents, shoppers and photographers, all following the six black-plumed horses, the Victorian glass hearse awash with flowers and the 27 Daimler limousines on a final journey from funeral home to church.

Now look at the second paragraph:

Yesterday, Ronnie Kray —  mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic —  was given a funeral fit for a king.

Who among you could resist that?

For years I've been reading John McPhee’s essays, either in The New Yorker or his books. No matter how unlikely the subject — geology, shad, the manufacture of Scotch whisky — he has an eye for the telling detail and the carefully machined sentence. Of Laphroaig whisky he says that it is “so smoky, so heavy, so redolently peaty that a consumer feels he is somehow drinking a slab of bacon.”

Last Christmas I was given a copy of Joan Didion’s collected essays, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, more than a thousand pages of work published over the past 40 years, all of it solid. From "On Self-Respect," published in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, about her failure to be elected to Phi Beta Kappa:

I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and a proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the non-plused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Nearly every page is fascinating in Robert A. Caro's account of how Lyndon Johnson ruled the United States Senate in the late 1950s, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate. The same assurance in managing a complex chronology while illuminating complex personalities runs throughout Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement told through the lens of Martin Luther King's life: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan's Edge. There is heroism there. And a shift in perspective on the same era shows the heroism of the journalists, black and white, who covered the vents; The Race Beat, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, has just won a Pulitzer Prize.

Further back, the historian Robin Lane Fox has traced the classical era from Homer to Hadrian in The Classical World. Here is some of what he has to say about Thucydides:

[He] favored a new and penetrating realism. The gap between expectation and outcome, intention and event fascinated him. So did the bitter relations between justice and self-interest, the facts of power and the values of decency. He was well aware of the difference between truth and rhetorical pleading. ... Thucydides was no cynic, not a person who always imputes a selfish and unworthy motive to participants. Rather, he was a realist, having learned the hard lesson that in inter-state relations, powers simply rule where they can, a fact of life which others, professing justice, obscure or ignore at their peril.

Or this apt description of the people of the Appalachian Highlands from Ellen Gilchrest's Net of Jewels:

This is where my father's people came when they left Scotland. They are cold laughing people, with beautiful faces and unshakable wills. They are powerful and hot-tempered. They never forget a slight, never forgive a wrongdoing. They seldom get sick. They get what they want because they believe they are supposed to have it. They believe in God as long as he is on their side. If he wavers, they fire the preacher.

I'll call an arbitrary halt here, but as a lifelong bookworm, drunk on words for half a century, I know that there is a world of good stuff out there, and I will continue to burrow through it as long as my eyes hold out.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 AM | | Comments (0)

May 11, 2007

Those people talk funny

Coming to a plain in Shinar, they made bricks to build a tower to reach heaven. God, seeing this, was irritated: "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech." Thus, at Babel, the one language of human beings was broken into many languages. 

Genesis has one version of the origin of the confusion of tongues. Another can be found in Nicholas Wade's  recent book, Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors. It wasn't pride or striving to rival God; it was hostility.

Wade ties together archaeological and anthropological information with recent research in genetics to present theories about the evolution of modern humans. If, as Wade proposes, a small group of no more than a couple of hundred modern humans, speaking one language, left Africa 50,000 years ago to become the ancestors of all living humans, what happened to that language?

His answer is that our early ancestors split into small hunter-gatherer groups as population grew. Because hunter-gatherers tend to isolate themselves into small, clearly defined territories and treat competing groups with hostility, it was inevitable that language would evolve into dialects that "serve to distinguish friend from foe."

That is, "The mutability of language reflects the dark truth that humans evolved in a savage and dangerous world, in which the deadliest threat came from other human groups. … Even if the original settlers all speak the same language, dialects quickly evolve in each group’s territory, as a badge of identity and a defense against outsiders."

And even once humans evolve into settled, agricultural and industrial societies, those badges of identity continue to be useful.

The relative isolation of Appalachia and the common heritage of the first Scots-Irish settlers combined to preserve vocabulary and pronunciation from 18th-century British English in the Southern Mountain dialect of my native Kentucky. (That vocabulary and pronunciation still identifies who is native and who is an outsider.)

Perhaps here we can see why pronunciation and usage stir strong feeling. We may no longer be members of bands warring with neighbors who want to poach our fruit and steal our women, but we continue to have a strong need to identify with a group and identify strangers whose interests may be contrary to ours. Group identification comes with positive and negative aspects. Language identifies people by education, by ethnic origin, by social class, by many of the markers that determine who the People Like Us are. The People Who Are Not Like Us become those on whom we can project our fears, our anger, our contempt.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:33 AM | | Comments (2)

May 9, 2007

Liberal orthography

We did not capitalize religious titles in an article on possible successors to Baltimore’s Cardinal William H. Keeler, and one reader is irked by our disrespect for the clergy:

In your article on the Cardinal, I noticed you did not capitalize Cardinal and Pope in several sentences. It would be nice to be a little more respectful. But then again, this is the Sunpaper. They seem to have reverence for the very liberal issues they report about each day.

The tendency in American English through the 20th century into the present has been to reduce capitalization. The Sun follows Associated Press style in refraining for capitalizing titles unless they immediately precede a name. Pope Benedict XVI is the pope on subsequent reference, Cardinal William H. Keeler is the cardinal, President Bush is the president, Queen Elizabeth II is the queen, Gen. David Petraeus is the general, and so on.

The Wall Street Journal, not commonly understood to be a Leninist bastion, matches AP style on pope and cardinal in its stylebook. So does the stylebook of the Religion Newswriters Association. So, for that matter, does the Catholic News Service. No disrespect is intended.

There is an odd kind of backhanded compliment implicit in the reader’s complaint: an assumption that a news operation of more than 300 journalists can achieve a carefully thought-out ideological program on all subjects, down to spelling and punctuation. But I see what gets written and, sometimes groaning, what gets published, and I know that that is just not so.   

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:04 AM | | Comments (5)

May 7, 2007

Pooled ignorance

Two reporters, working within earshot of the copy desk, consult on a style point.

First reporter: How do we write okay?

Second reporter: I think we spell it out.

First reporter: That doesn’t look right.

Second reporter: O-K?

First reporter: With periods or without?

Second reporter: With.

First reporter: That doesn’t look right, either.

Second reporter: Then without.

First reporter: That looks worse. I’m using the periods.

An instructive colloquy, even if it ended in the wrong result. The Sun’s in-house stylebook follows the AP Stylebook: OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs. Do not use okay. A copy editor (guess who) was sitting a dozen feet away, and, moreover, both reporters had access to The Sun’s electronic stylebook, which would have resolved the issue in a few keystrokes.

It is not just at reporters’ desks that such conversations occur. Copy editors, even though their indifference to the stylebook is less pronounced, also lean over to ask a colleague, “What’s our style on X?” Sometimes the newer copy editors, perhaps reluctant to stir up the grizzled veterans, prefer to ask one another.

Such conversations open a little window on human behavior. With electronic resources multiplying and ready at hand, many people still prefer human contact when they have to resolve an issue. And they prefer to conduct those conversations within the group to which they feel they belong.

Not all issues can be resolved by consulting stylebooks or other references, electronic or printed. Personal consultation is also necessary to carry on the oral traditions of the newsroom.

The oral transmission works something like this:

The Editor [to ranking  editors]: How come we said  X in that Page One story this morning?

Ranking Editors [to subordinate editors]: The Big Guy asked about X today.

Subordinate Editors [to reporters and copy editors]: The Big Guy doesn’t like X.

Reporters and Copy Editors [to new arrivals]: X is forbidden.

The universal appeal of Dilbert among employees of large organizations suggests that this pattern of communication is hardly limited to newspapers.

There can be, however, advantages in keeping the oral tradition separate from the written resources. When the Big Guy, irritated at something he dislikes, issues some ukase that is sweeping, ill-advised and incorrect (I hear that this has happened at other papers), the best course is to let it fade over time, then ignore it altogether, and, if challenged, pretend never to have heard it.

But most of the time, you should just look things up. Or ask someone who might actually know.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:29 AM | | Comments (1)

May 4, 2007

Pieces of string

It’s all orts and sorts today.

On a spree

Despite previous cautions, the copy desk’s vigilance slipped on a couple of occasions after the Virginia Tech killings and allowed references to a shooting spree into print.

A spree is, Webster’s New World College Dictionary says, “a noisy frolic.” Or an interval of drunkenness. When the Old Man goes on a toot, he’s on a spree.  Or an interval of “uninhibited activity,” as when the Old Lady goes on a shopping spree. When someone with weapons goes off the rails and kills a number of people, what is happening is a rampage, not a spree. Don’t mistake the casual for the serious.

Arts and letters

A reader has objected to the recent headline: Arts grants to encourage dialogue on race relations.

Here is the complaint: Do you write your own headlines?  If so, you never really explain how a "Humanities" Council makes "Arts" grants.  You do know that these are two different fields, don't you?  That there is both a National Endowment for the Arts and a National Endowment for the Humanities and that they give grants for different kinds of activities?  It's a shame that the Maryland Humanities Council gets stiffed like this, since I take it that many of your readers won't get beyond the headline.

The article concerned the Maryland Humanities Council’s “grant program to fund forums, seminars and other community events aimed at promoting racial dialogue and timed around next year's 40th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Further: “The King initiative grants, which will total $500,000, will be used to stimulate community conversations through the arts and humanities, especially before memories of King's life work start to wane, said Peggy Burke, the council's executive director. [Emphasis added.]”

So apparently a humanities council can make arts grants, according to its own executive director.

First, you may notice that wedging humanities into that headline is going to mean sacrificing other key words, giving the reader less information. Second, the arts have always been understood to be included in the humanities. Using arts as a shorthand for arts and humanities is not ideal, but it does not deprive the reader of accurate information.

A headline — please keep this in mind — is inherently elliptical and approximate. The text has the exact, detailed information. The headline is a suggestion that you should read the damn story. 

What you graduate with

Another reader points out a reference in an article on the gender gap in pay to a pay gap caused by lack of a "high school degree."

The reader observes, “At 77 years of age it's been a while since I was in high school, but am curious as to when high schools began granting degrees.”

The reader it right: High schools confer diplomas; they do not grant degrees.

Will work for sex

In an article about charges in a prostitution case, we published this sentence: Craigslist and other online classified sites have become a popular marketplace for sex workers and their clients; fees are established after the two parties make contact.

A colleague asked, “Do we use sex worker?” No, we shouldn’t. The term sex worker implies that the person involved is engaged in some legitimate employment, like a steelworker or a caseworker. Whatever one may think philosophically or morally about accepting money in return for sex, it remains a crime. We wouldn’t call a hired killer a homicide worker.

In a different context, however, in a society in which prostitution has been legalized, a case could be made for using sex worker.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:38 AM | | Comments (3)

May 2, 2007

Obiter dicta

Steve Auerweck looked up one night from a particularly fetid text that had landed on The Sun’s copy desk and muttered, "I’ve lost the will to edit."

Having briefly given up on the complaints of readers and disputes among journalists, I offer instead a short catalog of purely arbitrary judgments. If you don’t agree, you can start your own blog.

A martini is made with gin, dry vermouth and a bit of lemon peel. Olives are acceptable. And, for those with an open-minded, latitudinarian approach, vodka may be substituted for gin. But some revolting concoction involving applejack, chocolate, peach schnapps and the like does not become a martini merely because it is poured into a martini glass. If you’re going to drink, drink like a grownup.

A gentleman uncovers his head in a private home, church, school, restaurant, library or other sacred place. An exception must certainly be made for yarmulkes, but not for baseball caps, particularly when worn back-to-front.

Also, a gentleman ties his own neckwear. (Note the assumption that he sports neckwear.)

Maintenance of personal hygiene is best performed at home, preferably while alone in the loo, rather than in the automobile or workplace.

Cultivate some vices. If you do not smoke, drink, swear, eat meat, gossip or indulge in fatty, sugared food, how do you hope to escape being taken for a prig?

Give murder mysteries a try. After a long day at work with professional journalists (or whoever your colleagues may be), nothing is more pleasant than to sit in a comfortable chair, with a good light over your shoulder and a drink at your elbow, and read about disagreeable people meeting violent death.

When the person dearest to you first suggests that it would be a good thing to remodel the kitchen, turn over your savings, checkbook and credit card; check into a Motel 6, and subsist on takeout pizza until it is all over. Do not, by word or gesture, express a view, an opinion or a preference. Get out of there fast.

This Saturday, I will stand while the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home" at the Kentucky Derby. Always be true to your native state, no matter how happy you may have been to leave it.

When, at parting, someone enjoins you to "have a good one," it is not compulsory.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:34 AM | | Comments (5)
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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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