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June 29, 2007

Appearances of impropriety

My wife is still cheesed off about the sign.

It was a dozen or more years ago. She was volunteering for a candidate for municipal office, and she mentioned one evening that she planned to put a campaign sign in front of the house. “You can’t do that,” I said.

“Why not?” she asked. “I live here.”

“The problem is that I live here, too, and I work for The Sun, which means that I would be advocating a candidate. I can’t be seen to do that.”

She didn’t put up the sign, but she still gets a little huffy at the reminder that my job constricts her freedom.

Now there is a brouhaha, kerfuffle or what you will over the publication of a list of political contributions by employees of various news media. (It’s a plural, remember?) Since the original publication of the list on, there has been widespread discussion of the propriety.

Some of the people listed have claimed that since they are not reporters, they are not journalists. Sorry, but if you work in a news organization, as a designer or a clerk or just as a damn anonymous copy editor, you are identified with that operation, and your activities will be used as a foundation for cries of “Aha! Bias!”

So I don’t contribute money to political parties or candidates or lobbying organizations. I don’t put partisan bumper stickers on the car. (My daughter, without my knowledge, stuck on a bumper sticker that reads, “People who think they know everything annoy people who do,” but she is a Swarthmore grad, and facts are facts.) There are journalists who do not vote in elections lest they compromise their impartiality, a principle I respect without endorsing.

All that used to be a matter of private judgment and discretion, but in recent years it has increasingly become a matter of employers’ policies. The Sun, like The New York Times and a number of other news organizations, has a detailed ethics policy. A good bit of it has to do with avoidance of financial impropriety, such as using association with the paper for personal benefit, but it also includes prohibitions on political activities, such as running for office, signing petitions, contributing to partisan organizations.

When the ethics policies were first put in force, a number of colleagues raised the question, Why should working for a newspaper mean that I should surrender some of my civil liberties? Especially since the corporations that employ journalists are free to make partisan contributions.

It is a troubling question. But suspicion about the news media’s probity, with repeated instances of plagiarism and fabrication in recent years, and a generation’s worth of accusation of political bias and agenda, compels us to show that we have clean hands. And an ethics code, imperfect mechanism as it is, can help to direct us away from unconscious bias, which is far more insidious and widespread than the overt kind.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 PM | | Comments (0)

June 27, 2007

The sophisticates will get it

Arriving at the big time, I was quoted by Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log in an article drawing out the distinction between plagiarism and allusion:

It is, of course, a subject on which a great deal can be said, and those who read Mr. Pullum’s article might find some interest in a related article that I wrote for the Poynter Institute. “Allude at your own risk” can be found at this location:

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:38 PM | | Comments (0)

June 26, 2007

The plural media

The plural form of the word medium, a neuter singular in Latin, is media. Even if you are a monoglot American — and it wouldn’t kill you to learn a little Latin — this should be easy to remember.

While no one insists that every word naturalized into English from Latin or Greek should retain its original inflections, there are good reasons to insist on media as a plural.

First, as a point of fact, we have more than one medium of transmitting information. We have entertainment media and news media. Among them newspapers, magazines, book publishers, radio, television, the Internet, films and music recordings take distinctive forms and have diverse interests.

Second, as a consequence, any sentence containing the phrase the media is will be an overbroad generalization, probably to score political points. On the left, the media are faceless tools of corporate interests, narcotizing the public into acceptance of mindless bourgeois-consumerist oppression. (If you think that The Sun is a lefty publication, your education in socialism has been sadly neglected.) On the right the media are Marxist subversives undermining religion and morality by narcotizing the public into a porno-atheistical torpor. (Think of all that smut in The Atlantic Monthly.)

Keeping media as a plural form is a step toward greater clarity of thinking.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (0)

June 25, 2007


Back in harness, with some catching up to do.

I had an exchange with Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe about the words pompous and pretentious, which she holds to be used rather indiscriminately as terms of abuse. Here’s where you can find her column “Pomp and Circumstance”:

She is probably right, but discussing the matter with her compelled me to clarify my own thinking. To be "pompous" is to be self-important in a particular way: expressing possession of superior knowledge or status in a condescending manner. Pomposity in language tends toward inflating diction, flourishing obscure terms, insisting on more formal syntax and vocabulary than the occasion demands.

In journalism, it is typically the source, not the writer, who is pompous. The "intialialese" subheading in the "abbreviations" entry in Garner's Modern American Usage gets at this: Instead of using abbreviations "for the convenience of the reader by shortening names so that cumbersome phrases would not have to be repeated in their entirety," many writers "allow abbreviated terms to proliferate, and their prose quickly becomes a hybrid-English system of hieroglyphs. ... This kind of writing might be thought more scholarly than ordinary, straightforward prose. It isn't. Rather, it's tiresome and inconsiderate writing; it betrays the writer's thoughtlessness toward the reader and a puerile fascination with the insubstantial trappings of scholarship."

A minor example that I gave was the bureaucratic tendency to omit the definite article before the abbreviation for his or her agency — EPA has ruled rather than the EPA has ruled. It strikes me as displaying pomposity for this reason: Using language that is distinct from idiomatic, conversational English sets the speaker apart, and when the distinctive language is abstract and technical (scientific, medical, legal, bureaucratic), its use labels the speaker as a member of an elite. He is on the inside, he knows the lingo, and he condescends to reveal a little of the mystery to the gaping, slack-jawed outsider. It hints at importance greater than yours: I'm a busy man, I am too busy to waste time on definite articles, so I have adopted this clipped speech by which we insiders identify one another.

The reporter drawn into the gravitational pull of the sources argot is likelier to be demonstrating echolalia than pomposity. To merely mimic the language of the source is just lazy or careless.

If you would like a more memorable description of pomposity than anything I can deliver, take this passage from Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution:

“This earth carries aboard it many ordinary passengers; and it carries, also, a few very important ones. It is hard to know which people are, or were, or will be which. Great men may come to the door in carpet-slippers, their faces like kindly or fretful old dogs, and not even know that they are better than you; a friend meets you after fifteen years and the Nobel Prize, and he is sadder and fatter and all the flesh in his face has slumped an inch nearer the grave, but otherwise he is as of old. They are not very important people. On the other hand, the president of your bank, the Vice-Chancellor of the—no, not the Reich, but of the School of Agriculture of the University of Wyoming: these, and many Princes and Powers and Dominions, are very important people; the quality of their voices has changed, and they speak more distinctly from the mounds upon which they stand, making sure that their voices come down to you.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (2)

June 18, 2007

A few days

A great pity to be taking time off the week after this blog recorded its greatest number of hits to date, but I have vacation coming and intend to use it. So don’t think that I’ve gone missing. Amuse yourselves with the bloggers listed on the “Smart people” post from June 14, and I’ll be back to opining in a few days.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 PM | | Comments (3)

June 15, 2007

Went missing? Get lost

Little did I realize going in to this that bringing up the went missing issue would be like challenging Lou Dobbs on immigration.

A sampling of a million or so Google hits
(British and Commonwealth citations omitted)

The Night My Sister Went Missing by Carol Plum-Ucci

Went Missing: Unsolved Great Lakes Shipwreck Mysteries by Frederick Stonehouse

The Day I Went Missing by Jennifer Miller

A 19-year-old man in a wheelchair went missing from the state-run facility for disabled people where he lives for seven hours and injured his knee before he was found, officials say. [Boston Herald]

Navy Pier security officers were working with Chicago Police to find a 16-year-old high school boy who went missing during a field trip to Navy Pier on Thursday morning. []

A dog, who went missing after Hurricane Wilma two years ago, was reunited with her family.[Associated Press]

People go missing far more frequently than is reported, so why is it the white female gets the attention?

In 1999, my best friend (an african american school teacher, 31) went missing over 30 days in Missouri. [Two reader responses on Anderson Cooper’s blog on CNN]

I have a particular issue where one of my vault robots went missing from Vault Management. [Reader’s post on the Symantec Technology Network]

Mysterious transfers started when ATM card went missing [Chicago Sun-Times headline]

Seven years ago, then-23-year-old Amy Bradley went missing while on a Caribbean cruise with her family. []

“The Day Aristotle Went Missing: A Parable” [Title of Harvard Business Online article]

Pfc. Warren Rarick went missing on a Korean hill in '51 [San Francisco Chronicle headline]

Mason City marks 10 years since anchorwoman went missing [Quad-City Times headline]

A Connecticut teen who went missing for a year is expected to return to school Monday. [WTSP Tampa, Florida]

The commentary

You want I should try Lexis-Nexis next?

The factual context: Went missing is a neutral term for the action by which people, pets or objects come to be absent without ready explanation. It can imply abduction, flight, innocent wandering off or, apparently, software malfunction. As a shorthand for the act of disappearing from notice, it is idiomatic. The expression, apparently British in origin, is increasingly common in American usage, as the samples above indicate.

The social context: It grates on some readers. It is unfamiliar or disagreeable to their tastes, and therefore it is affected and illiterate (quite a straddle there), ungrammatical (how?) and a stench in the nostrils of all right-thinking people.

The question when an expression appears to come into vogue is whether to accept it or resist it, and the choice is almost always one of personal preference. I continue to distinguish between gauntlet and gantlet in my own writing, though I recognize that the tide is running against me. You are welcome to choose otherwise (unless you write for The Sun, in which case I am obliged to pull you over and issue a citation for violating house style).

Some stands are principled and defensible: Maintaining the distinction between imply and infer preserves an important difference of meaning in the face of sloppiness, carelessness and outright ignorance. Judging an idiom like went missing is a different matter. The important things to determine are whether the expression in fact carries a useful meaning, and whether one’s opinion is informed or merely idiosyncratic.

I acknowledge formally that my own taste for British murder mysteries may have warped my judgment. It’s a fair cop.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:58 AM | | Comments (5)

June 14, 2007

Smart people

Perhaps you are tiring of my voice. (Imagine what my children must have endured.) So take a look at some of the other people who are writing intelligently and practically about language. Get some relief.

Bill Walsh
Bill, a colleague of many years in the American Copy Editors Society, works at some newspaper to the south of Baltimore. His two books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style, abound in trenchant, sensible advice about usage. His workshop on Rules That Aren’t Rules has pulled in crowds at ACES conferences, and his blog, Blogslot, will repay your time:

Doug Fisher
Doug, who teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina, has wide-ranging interests in journalism, and he comments with perspicuity about the emerging trends in the business. When I want to make sense of what is going on in newspaper and electronic journalism, I go to Common Sense Journalism:

Fred Vultee
Fred, who works out of the University of Missouri, keeps coming up with penetrating structural analyses of sentences and articles. If something is published with a blurred focus, a weak spot, or sloppy thinking, Fred will dissect it before your eyes. He is one sharp reader.

Pam Robinson
Pam, one of the co-founders of ACES, a news service editor based at Newsday on Long Island and an indefatigable cultivator of talent, writes on a broad range of interests touching on journalism: language, politics, editing — the whole shebang. In agreement, she is an invaluable ally; in disagreement, a worthy foe.

Ruth Walker
You can find Ruth Walker’s Verbal Energy blog at The Christian Science Monitor. She starts with language and expands into history, culture and contemporary society. Her work is thoroughly researched, clear and unfailingly interesting:

Jan Freeman
Jan Freeman’s column, The Word, appears in The Boston Globe. She challenged me this week on calling bureaucratic jargon pompous, and the exercise of explaining what I meant compelled me to inspect my ideas more closely. Her column should have a similar effect on you:

Paul Martin
Paul R. Martin, formally retired after a distinguished career at The Wall Street Journal, continues to put out a newsletter, Style & Substance, for the paper. Look in on it to find out how much precision and rigorous self-examination contribute to the making of one the nation’s great newspapers:

Pam Nelson
At the News and Observer in Raleigh, Pam Nelson puts out the Triangle Grammar Guide, addressing issues that provoke or pique readers. Test your own mettle as a writer or editor by working through her periodic quizzes.

Andy Bechtel
Andy Bechtel teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His commentaries on what he reads in newspapers or online are refreshingly direct and free of academic jargon. His blog is The Editor’s Desk:

Nicole Stockdale
They gave Nicole Stockdale a new job at the Dallas Morning News, and that seems to have put a crimp in her blogging. Have a look anyhow at A Capital Idea to see what things engage a smart editor’s attention:

And never ignore my many colleagues carping away at the Testy Copy Editors discussion board:

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (3)

June 13, 2007

Missing in action

Over at Crawford Kilian’s Ask the English Teacher blog, some readers are in a lather over the expression went missing. Apparently people find it ungrammatical or illiterate or just plain grating. Here are his posts:

We have plowed that ground before ouselves:

Professor Kilian points out that the term is common in both British and Canadian English, and any reader of British murder mysteries or viewer of Midsomer Murders would find the term commonplace. The ears it offends appear to be American. (Where do you imagine that English came from in the first place?)

But it is a serviceable expression, with a specific meaning not otherwise provided so economically.

Missing is a state. We have no quarrel with saying that someone is missing or was missing. The difficulty is in expressing how the person got that way. One suggestion is disappeared; but disappeared has a sinister ring to it, suggesting that the absent person fled or was abducted. Disappeared doesn’t seem quite the word for someone who took off for a long weekend and forgot to stop delivery of the paper.

We don’t seem to have a problem with was reported missing, or at least no one has yet written to complain about it. But it looks, on examination, odd as well. It is a shortened, idiomatic expression meaning that someone made a report that another person was absent without explanation. To go missing is a short, idiomatic expression meaning that at a given point, someone identified another person as being absent without explanation. The latter is necessary because the time the report was made is probably not the time that it was noticed that the person was gone.

If you want to come up with an expression that encompasses the same nuance of meaning as economically, be my guest. Otherwise, get over it. It’s not as if I’m suggesting that we start writing about trams and lifts and lorries, or using plural verbs with government.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:23 PM | | Comments (3)

June 12, 2007

More than parsley

A distressed colleague wants me to stamp out the misuse of garnish for garnishee in the paper.

No can do.

Garner's Modern American Usage prefers garnish as the verb and garnishee as the person or institution, such as a bank, indebted to someone whose property has been subject to garnishment. Garnishee as a verb he calls "historically unwarranted and therefore ill advised." Since Mr. Garner is also the author of A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, I took him as more authoritative than The Associated Press Stylebook, which continues to prefer garnishee as a verb — this despite the entry in Webster's New World College Dictionary, the basis for AP style, which also lists garnish as the preferred verb form and describes garnishee as a verb form as "now rare in U.S. legal usage." So I boldly and arbitrarily changed our in-house stylebook.

The same colleague complained of seeing awhile pop up in sports copy and insisted that the word does not exist. But awhile is a perfectly good adverb. I've been doing this awhile, and I know. But it does regularly get misused as the object of a preposition. The usage should be in a while, not in awhile. On that point I won’t hesitate to reproach.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 PM | | Comments (1)

June 11, 2007

Short stuff

Ampersands and acronyms preoccupy a correspondent seeking guidance from your humble pedant.

“Whenever the Sun (or the Washington Post or the New York Times) refers to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, it does so as ‘the Centers for Medicare and [sic] Medicaid Services.’ Since the agency's official name uses an ampersand, I'm curious why newspapers use ‘and.’

“I find it especially peculiar because when then-Secretary Tommy Thompson renamed the agency (from the Health Care Financing Administration), he declared that the abbreviation for the new name would be ‘CMS.’ Why only one ‘M’? He claimed that by using an ampersand instead of an ‘and’ in the name, both ‘Medicare’ and ‘Medicaid’ could be represented by a single ‘M.’ (Any comment you can provide on that alleged rule would also be greatly
appreciated.) Yet the newspapers that use the ‘and’ still abbreviate the name in subsequent uses as ‘CMS,’ which puzzles me. I'd imagine the typical reader assumes this is a typographical error and one ‘M’ was inadvertently omitted. If the explanation is that newspapers use ‘CMS’ because that is the abbreviation the agency itself uses, then why not use the ampersand, since that's part of the name the agency itself uses?”

The stylebooks of the Associated Press and The New York Times both insist on using the ampersand when it is part of the formal name of a company or agency or of a composition title: AT&T, Procter & Gamble, House & Garden. So we should all probably be using the ampersand instead of and for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Since, however, the ampersand means and, and the substitution in no way confuses any reader, I don’t expect to lose any sleep over this issue.

Abbreviations of various kinds are a thornier issue. I was unaware of the principle by which Mr. Thompson justifies CMS rather than CMMS, and I have found no warrant for it in the standard references at hand. But agencies and business have taken a free hand in constructing abbreviations.

Look, for example, at the USA Patriot Act, which is actually the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act. (I leave it to other commentators to speculate whether such straining for effect in legislation does any more to strengthen the country than having thousands of passengers partially disrobe at security checkpoints does to make air travel more secure.)

But this question does offer an occasion for some general reminders.

Among various forms of abbreviation, an acronym takes the first letters of the words of the name to form a pronounceable word.

An initialism takes the first letters of the title to make a term that is pronounced letter by letter: FBI, CIA.

Most importantly, writers who are thoughtful of their readers will omit acronyms and initialisms as frequently as they can, because the multiplication of abbreviations tends to baffle or irritate readers. I doubt that one reader in a hundred can explain that CMS means Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, with or without the ampersand. That is a good reason not to use it.

The battering of readers with acronyms is a hallmark of bureaucratic writing, a substantial contributory factor to the overall pomposity and obfuscation of such prose. One element of that pomposity that is spilling over into journalism is the tendency to omit the definite article before acronyms and initialisms: CMS reports that instead of the CMS reports.

Angels and ministers of grace preserve us!

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:47 AM | | Comments (1)

June 7, 2007

Emily Dickinson on the copy desk

The writer slow to recognize —
The double Genitive —
Despite his claims to skill — in Prose —
Is still no friend — to Me.

And yet he chronicles the Smith’s —
As Grocers label Cuke’s—
In disregard of where he puts —
His lax Apostrophes.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:13 AM | | Comments (5)

June 5, 2007

Get rid of it

If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, a colleague or, hell, a human being, you would do well to purge stale, formulaic expressions from your writing and conversation. The list below is far from exhaustive, but it’s a respectable starting point.

At the end of the day
A pretentious way to say ultimately or finally.

At the 30,000-foot level
A perspective from which you cannot tell what is actually going on down there.

Building to a crescendo
A crescendo is a steady increase in volume, not the highest point. Didn’t your piano teacher teach you anything?

In the final analysis
Save it for the day you graduate from therapy.

In the wake of
If you’re not on the water, you’re not in the wake of anything. Try since or because of.

Information superhighway

Have you traveled on an interstate highway lately? Surrounded by tractor-trailers and people in hulking SUVs going 90 miles an hour? You want the Internet to be like that?

It’s all good
No, it’s not.

Long battle with cancer
Dying is bad enough, but to be sent off with a cliche is just sad.

Mission critical
Squeezing half a percentage point out of the profit margin does not mean that you are Jack Bauer saving the nation from a nuclear explosion.

On the ground
Meaning where people do the actual work and face the actual difficulties, as opposed to the serene empyrean from which you observe them. Don’t be such a prat.

Past experience
When else would you have had it?

Taking it to the next level
So you’re saying that your work is like a video game?

That dog won’t hunt
Favored by faux-Southerners.

Thinking outside the box
An infallible indicator of unoriginal thinking.

This point in time
Means now.

Wake-up call
Just go back to sleep.

War on terror
Terror is an emotion. Good luck with armed combat against it. A war on terrorism, that is, opposition to those who foment terror, has a marginally greater chance of victory.

A final caution: It is futile to expect that most writers will abandon cliches, because the very familiarity of well-worn expressions is what provides comfort, along with the illusion that one is being profound. I’m reminded of one of the favorite expressions of the late Bob Johnson, my first news editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer, who liked to point out, You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass. If looking up a hog’s ass is a fruitless endeavor, then looking up a dead hog’s ass is doubly nugatory.

Still, since that’s where we are, we might as well enjoy the view.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:44 PM | | Comments (9)

June 4, 2007

Tossing the glove

Settle back — don’t rock the boat— and check your sunscreen as we paddle through some backwaters of the English language.

I mentioned “young men running the gantlet (NOT gauntlet)” in a previous post

that led a reader to comment: “I don’t have a hardcopy dictionary handy here (sorry), but the couple of online dictionaries I checked show ‘gantlet’ as a variant spelling of ‘gauntlet.’”

That is the simplest explanation, a variation in spelling, and it is not wrong. But wait — there’s more.

A gauntlet is a glove, originally a leather glove covered with metal plates, worn by knights in armor. The word crept into English from the French in the 15th century and survives today as a kind of long glove and in a metaphor. The metaphor rises from the chivalric practice of issuing a challenge by throwing down a gauntlet. Chivalry is long gone, but we still say throw down the gauntlet to mean issue a challenge and take up the gauntlet to mean accept the challenge.

A gantlet is a trial by ordeal, originally military, in which one person runs between two rows of men who strike him with objects as he passes. As with knightly challenges, we don’t do that much anymore, but the word survives metaphorically to represent a punishing ordeal.

We got gantlet from the Swedes, not the French; the word gatlopp (road, running course) metamorphosed into English in the 17th century as gantlope, then gantlet. (You can check for yourself in the Oxford English Dictionary, if your eyes can hold out.)

Gantlope and gantlet swiftly merged into gauntlet in an age that had no standardized orthography. The process, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments, was folk etymology, “the substitution of a familiar word for an unfamiliar one.”

And from that point the authorities have diverged. Merriam-Webster insists that any attempt to maintain a distinction between gauntlet and gantlet is misguided and futile. Garner’s Modern American Usage says that the trend is to use gauntlet for both senses, adding, “Like many trends, this one is worth resisting; keep gantlet for the ordeal.” In that, Garner stands with Theodore Bernstein and John Bremner, two stalwarts of a past generation who insist on the distinction. R.W. Burchfield’s revision of Fowler’s Modern English Usage says simply that gantlet is a variant spelling found in American English.

When the gods quarrel, mortals have to make choices. I like the gauntlet/gantlet distinction and follow it in my own writing. I enforce it at The Sun because it remains lodged in the AP Stylebook and our in-house stylebook, and no one cares enough to lobby for a change. What you want to do is, of course, entirely up to you.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:57 AM | | Comments (3)

June 1, 2007

All the answers

A bonus post. Feel free to copy the text below and post it at your work station.

The copy desk answers your questions

1. No.

2. Sorry, no.

3. Seek counseling.

4. No can do.

5. Second door on the left.

6. Not for this edition.

7. Reboot.

8. Not a chance.

9. I said no.

10. Elmo Lincoln.

11. Absolutely not.

12. When hell freezes over.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:04 PM | | 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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