« July 2007 | Main | September 2007 »

August 31, 2007

It is too a word

Against my better judgment, I weighed in on a minor issue on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board: the use of the word pled. What set me off was the label on the post, “Don’t tell me ‘pled’ is now becoming an actual word.”

I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone that pled is about to become an actual word. It has been an actual word in English for well above four centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a passage using it from Spenser’s Faerie Queene. Usage authorities such as Robert Burchfield and Bryan Garner — doesn’t anyone first look at a book anymore? — explain that pleaded is dominant in British English and that both pleaded and pled are in common use in American English.

So, on the first point, pled is in fact a word. It has a spelling and pronunciation, an etymology, a history of usage. Its meaning is recognized and understood by speakers of English. Xzzybbt is not a word. It is a random agglomeration of letters with no pronunciation, etymology or history beyond having been created at the beginning of this sentence. When editors say that something is “not a word,” they are using an imprecise and irritating shorthand to say that an actual word is not a standard usage or not to their taste.

This puts us in the range of choice. There are two current past-tense forms of to plead. Which is preferable? Those of us who have spent years enveloped in the hermeneutics of the Associated Press Stylebook — examining the microscopic changes announced in each year’s edition as avidly as Kremlin-watchers used to study the lineup of Soviet officials atop Lenin’s tomb on May Day — know that the AP prefers pleaded. Garner’s Modern American Usage agrees. There is a rational basis for the choice: pleaded more suitable for formal use, pled more colloquial.

This does not, however, explain the vigor with which some people denounce pled. One ACES post calls it an ugly-sounding word, though I can’t see that either pleaded or pled contributes much to euphony. (Should we prefer bleeded to bled?)

Ear is as annoying a word in editing as voice. By voice, a writer commonly refers to some maladroit individual turn of phrase that an editor of taste and backbone, assuming that any remain on the premises, would have excised from the first draft. By ear — “it doesn’t sound right; it sounds ugly” — a copy editor usually means, without further explanation or support, “I don’t like it.”

Don’t mistake me: An ear for the language is indispensable, particularly in the effort to achieve a conversational style and avoid cant, jargon and pretense. But “it doesn’t sound right” must be followed by a persuasive explanation. And an editor has to be on guard against the hazard that his or her ear has been corrupted by bad examples or unreliable guidance.

Ah, don’t start with me; you know how I get.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 PM | | Comments (5)

August 28, 2007

What ya gonna do?

Commenter Steegness wondered in a post Tuesday how The Sun’s policy of not changing the words in direct quotes meshes with the injunction to avoid phonetic spellings such as gonna except in limited circumstances. Does changing gonna to going to constitute “cleaning up” a quote for the speaker’s benefit?

The thing to keep in mind is that the newspaper presents articles of different kinds. What may be inappropriate in a straightforward news story, for example, may be permissible in the looser tone granted to a columnist. No one wants the editorial page, the features cover and the sports pages to sound exactly alike.

But throughout we are converting the spoken language to the written language, and the two do not coincide, as anyone who has grappled with the vagaries of English spelling recognizes. Spelling is a convention of written English that does not exist in spoken English, but we must use it when representing speech.

That gonna for going to has become so commonplace in both speech and writing as to get an entry in Webster’s New World College Dictionary — “phonetic sp. of going to (in informal pronunciation)" — leads us to permit it in the paper in certain contexts.

But we remain resistant to phonetic spellings in general, which can be (a) distracting to the reader and (b) insulting to the subject.

When Dudley Fitts translated the Lysistrata of Aristophanes, he gave the Spartan women Southern accents. Whether or not you think it was an apt choice, it is the kind of choice that fiction and drama offer to practitioners. I want to argue that while journalists may make use of literary techniques, journalism has more limits than fiction or drama. Ah doan think yew wahnt the payper to show how Suthrons tahk, for example.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (7)

Once more into the breach

First, learn to distinguish the derriere from the elbow.

I find this sentence in this morning’s print edition:

Watchdog first reported the breech in April, and the hole remains.

The word breech names the rump or buttocks. It’s allied etymologically to break. It’s where things break apart or split. The breech of a gun is the back end of the barrel. Breeches, alternatively britches, cover the rump. Or should.

Watchdog was reaching for breach, which is also related etymologically to break. To breach a thing is to break through it. That is why Henry V urges his comrades “once more unto the breach,” to break through an enemy’s lines or wall. The word can also be the noun for the opening in the defenses. One can also breach a contract — break it — by failing to adhere to its provisions.

There is sometimes also a confusion with broach, which means to break something open by making a hole in it. (Same root as brooch, the Middle Latin brocca, a spike or point, the thing one uses to make the hole in a container.) One broaches a keg of beer. An excellent idea. Fancy a pint?

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (4)

August 27, 2007

Just write what they said

The odd thing is, journalists don’t like to read much.

Write a memo longer than a single page, and no one will get through it. Maybe not even as far as the bottom of the first page.

Some weeks back, when a minor controversy erupted over the publication of journalists’ financial contributions to various political campaigns and causes, a common defense was that the contributors just hadn’t read their newspapers’ ethics policies, or didn’t think they were bound by them.

More recently, a column by The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Deborah Howell, on the paper’s policy on rendering quotations found that members of the staff either didn’t know the policy or chose to flout it.

The Sun has an explicit set of guidelines on the matter, which may be news to members of our staff who have not troubled to look into the guidelines:


a. Do not alter quotations, even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. It is our job to report what people say, not to make them look better.

b. It is acceptable, in converting spoken language to the conventions of written language, to omit "uhs;" "ahs" and other non-verbal noises. In questionable cases, ask for clarification, paraphrase, use partial quotes or omit.

c. Do not routinely use phonetic spellings, such as "gonna," or dialect, except when relevant or to convey a desired touch in a feature or column. It tends to look condescending.

d. Avoid fragmentary quotes and bracketed inserts in quotes whenever possible, and particularly when a quotation is selected to be featured in display type. Paraphrase in indirect quotes if partial quotations would be cumbersome.

The rationale has been explained twice in this blog, once in March 2006 and once in April 2006, though it is possible, despite the fevered enthusiasm for this blog among the staff, that some colleagues unaccountably missed the posts.

It all comes down to this: We convert speech to written English by supplying spelling and punctuation — the conventions of writing. We don’t include every mumble or false start; we don’t publish unedited transcripts. Instead, we select significant statements. And when we put words within quotation marks, they are supposed to be the written versions of the words the speaker uttered.

Now that the words people utter can turn up on the radio, on the television, on YouTube, we have to make the written version correspond to the words people can hear, or we sacrifice a portion of our credibility with every discrepancy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:10 PM | | Comments (5)

August 23, 2007

That golden age

School’s about to open, so we can expect to encounter articles telling us that kids today don’t know much and that schools today don’t teach much and that the country is therefore going straight to hell.

This newspaper is going straight to hell, too. Nothing is as good as it was in 1962. Make that 1956. Or 1942. Do I hear 1922?

On examination, that golden age when things were as they were meant to be keeps receding. I was a student in a public school in Eastern Kentucky in the 1950s and 1960s when we were taught, by rote and in no uncertain terms, what was right and what was wrong. We diagrammed sentences. Mrs. Jessie Perkins had us write out and submit each week all 20 spelling words 10 times each. And quizzed us on them.

And yet I can’t say with any authority that most of my classmates turned out to be highly literate, precise or expressive writers.

College students, we’ll hear, have no interest in learning, because they spend all their time getting hammered in beer pong or other drinking games.

And yet I recall that Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, from 1928, opens with a chapter in which two officials at an Oxford college are aware that the students are out of an evening of amusement as they listen to “the sound of the English country families baying for broken glass.”

Somewhere or another we’re also likely to hear complaints about the way the English language is degenerating shamefully. These complaints come from the kind of person David Foster Wallace describes in “Authority and American Usage” (an Atlantic Monthly article reprinted in Consider the Lobster) as the “usage-authority, a figure who pretty much instantiates snobbishness and bow-tied anality.” *

And yet I see all kinds of lively inventiveness reflected in place like Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary Web site. Or I go into the back files of newspapers from those golden years and find just as much cant, cliche and slovenly usage as turns up today.

It wasn’t all that better then, whenever then was, and holding up today to scorn by comparison with an imagined past distorts perceptions about the present — which is probably bad enough without that.

* Could we all just lay off the bow tie, already?

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:01 PM | | Comments (2)

August 22, 2007

The pickles are ours

We had surmised that the likeliest reason for our inability to locate documentary proof of The Sun’s having published the headline You can put pickles up yourself was that it had appeared in an early edition of the paper and had then been subbed after someone noticed the unintended double meaning. (Our archive is limited to final editions of the paper.)

Now comes a first-person account from one Phil Evans validating The Sun’s claim to the headline:

“Being 73, my memory is suspect, but here's what I recall.

“The headline appeared in The Evening Sun in the 1960s. At the time I was a young city editor. On the day in question, the first copies of the first edition arrived in the newsroom around 10 a.m., I spotted the headline on the lead story in the food section. I went immediately to the Women's Department and confronted the food editor, a spinster of considerable age, and suggested that the headline be changed. When she asked why, I decided that an explanation would be awkward and took it upon myself to make the change, which I did before the next edition. So, the headline ran in just one of the five daily editions The Evening Sun was producing in those days. I don't know if the same headline ever appeared in The Washington Post.”

Mr. Evans’ memory is just fine with us, and The Sun’s claim, or more properly The Evening Sun's claim, to the (somewhat dubious) honor of having produced this legendary headline stands unchallenged.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:30 PM | | Comments (1)

August 21, 2007

The most important part of the story

Let’s do away with bylines, says Craig Stoltz, who goes on to explain that he means eliminating the single-author credit at the top of a news article in favor of a listing of all the people involved in the reporting, writing and editing of the article.

Mr. Stoltz has highlighted a point not well understood by many readers, that a newspaper article is a collaboration involving a number of people. The byline indicates the primacy of the reporting and (sometimes) the writing of the article, but many hands may have been involved in the final, published version.

The paper’s institutional responsibility for the published article used to be represented by a lack of bylines. A byline was once something that a reporter earned by an unusual effort. (Watch out, children, he’s back to the Olden Times again.) Exceptions were made for columns and other opinion pieces. Today, of course, a 20-line brief will arrive with a reporter’s name appended to it, and reporters accumulate bylines as avidly as a Cheyenne warrior counting coup.

I wonder sometimes whether readers pay much attention to bylines. Surely teachers know who has the education beat, and lawyers know who is writing about the courts. Fans of sports teams know which reporters are writing about the Ravens and the Orioles, and express strong feelings about them. But I suspect that readers do not generally pay bylines much attention.

Giving the names and e-mail addresses of reporters does allow readers to respond directly, and sources or potential sources are able to identify whom they want to talk to. But this could be dealt with easily with contributor credits at the end of the article. In small type.

Names alone will not be enough to satisfy some readers. Some weeks back a gentleman named Bill Dennis, who calls himself the Peoria Pundit, posted remarks at insisting on being given background information about the authors of news articles:

“A piece journalism cannot be fairly evaluated unless the the person doing the evaluating knows what could be operating behind the scenes to inject bias into the reporting. Yes, I want to know of the guy writing about politics is a former Young Republican and if the woman writing about hazardous waste gave cash to the Sierra Club. …

“Without full disclosure and tranparency, news consumers will just continue to assume to worst. In the absence of accurate information, people will fill in the blanks with assumptions. Let news consumers know who the reporters really are what they really stand for, and their trust in the news will grow, not lessen.”

To which I responded with a snotty note, also published at

“So we can't understand a newspaper article unless we know the background of the reporter. Well, let's supply that. While we're at it, let's supply the background of the desk editor who assigned the story, and the managing editor who demanded extensive revisions, and the copy editor who reconstructed sentences and wrote the headline. Probably the page designer and photographer should be included as well. By the time we have given the reader a potted biography of every journalist connected with the story, a 300-word recast press release will carry more apparatus than a variorum edition of ‘Macbeth.’”

I confess a nostalgia for the time when articles could be about the subject, not about us.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:00 PM | | Comments (3)

No holes in the sky

The Associated Press is to be congratulated for its distinguished addition to the roster of pleonasms.

An article about the mine cave-in in Utah, which The Sun ran in Monday’s editions (without any apparent challenge from the copy desk), carried a reference to underground tunneling.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (2)

August 20, 2007

What I've learned

On Sept. 2, I will mark my 21st anniversary at The Sun. It is remarkable how little I’ve learned over this span, but there are a few salient points to pass on.

The paper was always better 10 years ago. (The late Harold A Williams’ The Baltimore Sun, 1837-1987 contains a reference from the 1880s to The Sun as “a once-great paper.”)

Never, never, never, never, never mess with the crossword puzzles.

The reader is always right, though not infrequently wrong.

The worst errors will show up in the big type. (Like pubic safety deputy in a headline in the Maryland section on Aug.8.)

To a reporter, a 50-inch story is, by definition, twice as good as a 25-inch story.

The dumber the comic strip, the fiercer the loyalty.

A reporter, seeing a copy editor’s deletion of an adjective or prepositional phrase, will react as if a chapter has been ripped from the Pentateuch.

The only time the assigning desk will move the copy on time is on a day before a national holiday.

Leave the crossword puzzles alone.

No reader cares as much as a thin belch about how hard you worked on the story or photo or headline.

The printer will run out of paper just as you attempt to proof Page One.

A new editor will change everything. The next one will change everything back.

The name with the CQ mark (meaning that the reporter has checked the spelling and it is correct as stands) must always be checked.

The reader who spots the error you let into print after you caught 19 others will write to ask if anyone on the staff has been to college.

There is no such thing as too much coffee.

Don’t even think about touching the crossword puzzles.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:21 AM | | Comments (4)

August 16, 2007

Equine-powered itinerant produce retailer

There was an unusual degree of interest, by the standards of this blog, to the post about the traditional Baltimore terms a-rab and arabber:

I forwarded it to a group of professional colleagues. Here is what some authorities say:

Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of The Vocabula Review:
I imagine A-rab can look jarring in headline type, but Arabber looks misspelled or misbegotten or perhaps worse and does not in the least sound respectful to anyone unfamiliar with the Baltimorian tradition. I’m no fan of politically correct language, but in this instance, since I dislike stereotyping and racial profiling even more, I would likely call them street vendors or merchants — despite what the Sun’s house style dictates.

Erin McKean, chief consulting editor for American dictionaries at the Oxford University Press: I'd like to keep the caveat that it's hard for someone who isn't a member of a particular group (e.g., Arabs) to pontificate about what would be offensive to people who ARE members. … I think that Arabber should not be taken to be insulting to people from the Gulf/North Africa etc., but then again I'm not Arab. It's important to remind people, I think, that one string of alphabetic characters can carry more than one meaning, and although the meaning that's the strongest emotionally can 'bleed' over onto the other meanings, it doesn't necessarily have to happen. I only know the word Arabber from the wonderful show HOMICIDE.

Joe Grimm, recruiting and development editor at the Detroit Free Press: I am sure that some people want to hold onto the term, given its historic origins. But language evolves, as does society. Many Arabs found work as peddlers (city and country) in the Midwest, as well. Today, Detroit has the nation’s highest concentration of Arab Americans and so we do, of course, listen. The fundamental problem with occupational terms like this one is that they were simplistic in the first place and have become offensive as we have outgrown them....To use the identifier for an ethic group as the name for an occupational group is bound to be confusing. It gets worse when you consider that in some areas, like Detroit, the mispronunciation AY-rab is a pejorative and is used by some people as an insult. Fighting for its preservation has the unintended consequence of validating the slur. I understand that some people will fight to preserve a tradition. I understand, too, that some people would see that as an effort to preserve and protect a slur and to keep them down. In this case, I would have tradition stand aside and let the language evolve. I would use the more specific term: peddlers.

Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor at Houghton Mifflin and member at large of the board of the Dictionary Society of North America: Regardless of what the history of the word is, one cannot avoid the reality of modern-day context. Even though you can linguistically and etymologically justify the use of Arab in the contexts you mention, the fact of the matter is, sociologically, a significant portion of your audience is going to take it another way. In this regard, it isn’t an issue of being correct, it’s an issue of how you want to be perceived. … Even though there’s this longstanding Baltimore tradition of Arabs and Arabbers, the reality of the modern day world might caution one before using it. I don’t live in Baltimore, so I can’t judge the degree to which it’s ingrained in the culture there. … From a strictly lexicographic context, you’re right, the term does have that sense, but ... other concerns might override its use.

One respondent to the blog says that the late Julius Westheimer traced the origins of the words to 19th-century Baltimore, when street vendors had to get a huckster’s license from a municipal official, Albert Rabb, who signed the licenses “A.Rabb.” It’s a charming story, and if someone is able to trace the existence of such an official and such a practice, I’d be less likely to suspect folk etymology.

And one colleague at The Sun insists emphatically that the term must derive from arable, or suitable for producing crops. It applies to land fit for plowing. This, too, smells of folk etymology.

I’m tempted to say that people who come to a place bear an obligation to learn the local customs and expressions before they take offense. If you were to go to Britain and be urged by an Englishman to “keep your pecker up,” you would be ill-advised to conclude that he is soliciting a sexual encounter. The expression is the equivalent of urging “chin up.” Likewise, if you come to Baltimore, you might take the trouble to learn that arabber does not carry any pejorative color here and is not intended as a slur.

At the same time, as more and more people come to Baltimore who did not grow up here, and as our journalism goes out on the Internet well beyond our core circulation area, we incur a much greater risk of needlessly offending people by hanging on to the venerable term.

Sometimes there are no good solutions.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (6)

August 15, 2007

The lore

When journalists gather, they tell stories. You’d expect that, I suppose, but some of the best ones do not run in newspapers. They become part of the oral lore. Some of them become legends in the business.

Last week, taking part in a seance in Washington at the convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, I had time to sit with Doug Fisher of the University of South Carolina and Fred Vultee, now of Wayne State University.

(The panel on which I sat spoke to the issue of maintaining quality in the new media environment, and everyone there nodded in solemn agreement at the need to have articles for Web sites edited by copy editors, as we do at The Sun, if we are to maintain the standards of accuracy and clarity that we uphold in print editions. I said that everyone agreed. Everyone. DOES ANYBODY OUT THERE HEAR ME? Sorry.)

Doug’s story, which I steal without shame, was of an Associated Press bureau and the barrage of questions it was accustomed to getting in the evening from a newspaper in the area. One night the bureau’s big story was of a peculiar homicide — a man stabbed to death with a pen.

The editor at the newspaper had a long list of questions for the AP bureau chief. What about this detail, and that detail, and the other detail. Finally, at the end of this catechism, came a question in the best get-the-name-of-the-dog tradition of journalism: What color was the pen?

Pausing only for a moment in exasperation, the bureau chief answered, “I don’t know, but it’s red now.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)

August 13, 2007

A man breaks into a house

One evening, after dinner out, a homeowner returns to the house to discover a burglar on the premises. The burglar dashes out, and the homeowner, understandably startled, catches only a glimpse of him. The police report describes the burglar as “a black male in his 20s.” No further details are available. When the crime is reported in The Sun, no description is given.


The Sun’s guidelines on writing and editing say this:

Providing a crime suspect's description is a public service. These descriptions, when possible, should strive to obtain all of the elements listed below. (When you cannot obtain all elements, tell readers as thoroughly as possible why a complete description could not be obtained. For example, did witnesses give police conflicting accounts? Was the victim unable to describe the suspect because of the suspect's methods?). Sketchy descriptions such as “white male” or “black teen-ager” that are not helpful in identifying anyone should be avoided.

 Sex.
 Race.
 Age.
 Height.
 Weight.
 Build.
 As complete a description of clothing as possible.
 Additional details of complexion; hair and eye color; and identifying
marks such as scars and tattoos, to set the suspect apart from others of the same sex and race.

The “public service” that the guidelines entry mentions is assistance in identifying and apprehending the culprit. A description such as “a black male in his 20s” is of no help in identifying a suspect. In fact, such a description could impede investigation if police were deluged with calls about the scores of people who could fit such a description.

That particular description, “a black male in his 20s,” might also reinforce the sentiments of people who fear and dislike African-Americans, and those people do not require additional stimulus from the newspaper.

It is odious to speculate on people’s motives, but it is also difficult to avoid the impression that some such fear and dislike may be behind the denunciations that poured in over an article about the rape of an 88-year-old woman and the blog posts here about the issues of identifying race in crime stories:

So let me point out, once more, that the day after the initial article on the crime was published, The Sun published a follow-up article with the police sketch of the criminal. If you have been listening to crank theories that The Sun conspires to conceal crimes committed by African-Americans, read the explanation here, and think about that picture.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:31 PM | | Comments (5)

A pebble in the path

Little things do us in. For want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and all that.*

A reader of The Sun sends in a complaint about an article in which the first sentence refers to two people, “neither of who live. …” He comments, rightly, that neither takes a singular verb in this case. Moreover, the object of the preposition of should be whom.

Fair enough.Then he adds, “Unfortunately when I see a lead paragraph with a grammatical error I don't have much interest in continuing to read it.”

He is perhaps a little disingenuous — he had enough interest to write to us — but the point is worth remembering. The easiest thing a reader can do is to stop reading. No one who buys the paper or checks in online is obligated to read our articles. No one who starts reading an article is obliged to continue with it. And readers are easily thrown off if little things distract them.

Little errors in grammar and usage diminish our credibility with the readers who notice them. (Not all readers are fussbudgets about grammar, but we gain nothing by irritating those who are.) Little errors in points of fact diminish our credibility with readers who know better. An opaque paragraph brings the reader to a dead stop. The eight paragraphs of throat-clearing it takes to get to the point of the story test the reader’s patience. That strained or wooden headline blocks the reader’s path to the text.

It doesn’t take much.

But it takes a great deal to capture and hold the reader’s interest: factual accuracy, precision and clarity of language, competent structure and organization, apt headlines. And at bottom, a decent regard for the reader, someone who does not deserve slipshod work. They can spot it, and they will drop it like a stone.

*In the unlikely event that you are under 40 years of age, the nursery rhyme, which perhaps prefigures the vulgar version of chaos theory, goes like this: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the rider was lost. For want of a rider, the battle was lost. For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (1)

August 9, 2007

A-rabs and Arabs

In Baltimore, by long-standing convention, a street peddler operating a horse-drawn cart of fresh produce is called an A-rab, pronounced AY-rab. Why we are asked, in an age of greater sensitivity about derogatory ethnic terms, do we perpetuate this one?

The term A-rab or Arabber for a street peddler has a long history in Baltimore. The city has an Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 that seeks to preserve this 19th-century tradition.

The word arab in the sense of a peddler appears to derive from street arab, or, according to the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary, a “homeless vagabond in the streets of a city or esp. an outcast boy or girl: GAMIN.” The Oxford English Dictionary locates this sense of “a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street” in a citation from 1848. That’s the sense in which the term can be found in the Sherlock Holmes stories from the Victorian era.

This association of wanderers with Arabs likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula. By extension, the person wandering the streets has been transformed from a vagrant to a vendor. The term street arab has fallen largely into disuse over the past century.

The Sun’s insistence in its house style that the Baltimore street peddlers are to be referred to as A-rabs, not Arabs, is a means of differentiating the local patois from the ethnic term. Whatever stereotypes of Arabs may be current in American culture, the Baltimore terms, A-rab and Arabber, indicate a respect for people who work very hard to make a living, and also an affectionate respect for a local tradition.

Nevertheless, since A-rab can look jarring in headline type, we are revising our stylebook to give preference to the alternative Arabber.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:46 AM | | Comments (13)

Credit where credit is due

Rummaging around in the Internet the other day, I came across some mentions of a famous headline.

The way to make a headline famous, of course, is to make it fabulously bad. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN comes readily to mind.

The headline of ill fame in this case rested above an article on the food page about home canning and preserving:

You can put pickles up yourself

On the Internet, citations identify The Washington Post as the paper that carried this headline. Now I know and admire many colleagues on the copy desk at The Post, and the paper does very well in its little way. But You can put pickles up yourself is, according to what I have been told for two decades, a Baltimore Sun headline, and a Richard Reeves column (also available on the Internet) agrees.

John Plunkett, a former assistant managing editor at The Sun, has the impression that the headline ran in the 1950s, beyond the reach of our electronic archive. The able Carol Julian of our library staff made a diligent search through clip files and microfilm without success. But she has more substantial work to do.

Actually, I ought to have more substantial work to do, management scum though I am. But I stand here in defense of my paper’s honor, and I issue this challenge:

I claim You can put pickles up yourself for The Sun, and if you say otherwise, prove me wrong.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (4)

August 8, 2007

Vent your spleen here

Nothing so invigorating to start the day as a good, solid blast of spleen, and no target better than The Sun. Or so it would seem from the calumnies that have come pouring down on the head of the reporter and the reader editor since we innocently omitted the race of the assailant in a sketchy description included in an article about a rape.

See this:

That arch-Tory Samuel Johnson once spoke admiringly of Lord Bathurst to Mrs. Piozzi: "Dear Bathurst was a man to my very heart's content: he hated a fool, and he hated a rogue, and he hated a Whig; he was a very good hater."

Hate is very readily transferred from the person or thing hated (a public official, a political party, a trend in fashion) to the thing bringing the thing hated to mind (a newspaper). Sometimes the two combine neatly.

In Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism by Eric Burns, we find examples of the abuse that newspapers heaped on the Founders: President Washington was described “variously as ‘a gambler, a cheapskate, a horsebeater, a dictator, and a most horrid swearer and blasphemer.’ He was labeled ‘treacherous,’ ‘mischievous,’ and ‘inefficient.’ He was said to favor ‘stately journeying through the American continent in search of personal incense” and to enjoy ‘ostentatious professions of piety.’ He was, appearances notwithstanding, a ‘frail mortal’; no less was he ‘a spoiled child, despotic,’ ‘a tyrannical monster.’”

Newspapers, in fact, offered a double charge. Those you agreed with fanned the flames of your dislike, and those on the other side occasioned an additional burst of contempt.

The violent dislikes fostered by American newspapers were burlesqued in Mark Twain’s short story “Journalism in Tennessee,” in which the narrator takes a post as an associate editor of the Morning Glory and Johnson County War-Whoop. His initial effort at an editorial is found too bland, and the editor undertakes to revise it:

“While he was in the midst of his work, somebody shot at him through the open window,
and marred the symmetry of my ear.

"’Ah,’ said he, "’that is that scoundrel Smith, of the Moral Volcano—he was due yesterday.’ And he snatched a navy revolver from his belt and fired—Smith dropped, shot in the thigh. The shot spoiled Smith's aim, who was just taking a second chance and he crippled a stranger. It was me. Merely a finger shot off.”

Our readers and colleagues seldom resort to firearms, but their dislike burns with a hard, gemlike flame. A few years ago, on the occasion of a prominent Baltimorean’s death, no notice appeared in The Sun. He had taken his detestation of this newspaper to the grave, and his family honored his memory by refusing to cooperate with our obituary desk.

Thus we trudge on, providing information and amusement to those who seek them, and furnishing an invigorating flow of blood to the brain to those who dislike what they read.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:33 PM | | Comments (1)

August 7, 2007

Race and crime

The Sun ran an article last week about the rape of an 88-year-old woman that included this description of the assailant: "between the ages of 20 and 30, about 6 feet tall and with a slim build. He was wearing a gray shirt and tan or khaki pants." Our reader editor, Paul Moore, is still getting complaints from readers that we omitted to include any description of the assailant’s race.

Well, we did, or rather the original draft of the article did describe the assailant as black, and the copy desk deleted the racial identification.

The reason is that our editing guidelines say that we identify someone’s race in articles when it is clearly relevant — and particularly in crime stories, when it is part of a complete description that would assist in identifying the perpetrator.

My own view — not meaning to steal Mr. Moore’s thunder, should he address this — is that we should have run all or nothing, and my preference is for nothing. The copy editor in omitting the racial identification did not go far enough. The entire description should have been deleted from the article. Omitting the racial detail alone invites the reader to default to the assumption that the assailant was white. And the remaining details potentially point to too many people to be useful.

A slim 6-foot-tall man, between 20 and 30, wearing a gray shirt and khakis, could be any one of thousands of men in the Baltimore area. Specify that he is African-American or white or Hispanic or Asian, and you have still not narrowed the field by much. If the police report had described a tattoo, or a limp, or a scar, or a piece of jewelry, or some other distinctive detail or details, the description could have had some potential usefulness in apprehending the assailant.

Otherwise, the effect of publishing the available details, including race, would have had no more effect than to make white residents suspicious of black men, and that suspicion, this being America, is already there.

The community’s disgust at this ugly crime is understandable, and everyone, including the staff of The Sun, wishes to see the criminal arrested and tried. That is why we publish descriptive details when they offer a chance of helping to bring a criminal to justice. That is why we omit them when they serve no useful purpose.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 AM | | Comments (16)

August 6, 2007

Just throw the ball already

On Saturday last, I was inflicted on a crowd of young people at the Associated Collegiate Press summer journalism workshops. It went pretty well. Of the three dozen who endured my workshop on achieving conversational English, only two walked out while I was talking. During the five critiques of campus newspapers, no one threw a punch.

The big surprise: There are people under 30 who read newspapers! Where have they been hiding in recent years?

The other surprise: They were mostly receptive to my well-worn wisdom:

Write the way a literate, informed adult would talk.

Shun jargon and journalese.

Grammar, syntax and usage are the tools of your craft. Master them.

There are a few real rules in English and a host of bogus rules. Learn the difference.

And, most of all, get to the point. Take this sentence: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The creation of the universe has a 10-word lead. Why does this story need more? (One of the editors from Wheaton College in Illinois said that that line was going up on their wall.)

I know, I know; you’ve heard all this from me before, but they are new to the game.

That last point turned out to be the major focus in the critiques. Page after page displayed articles that began like this:

There was a meeting Wednesday night in Room 410 of Pooter Hall of the Committee on Review of Committee Recommendations for the Formation of Committees, at which subcommittee reports were presented.

You just want to scream, “Did anyone say anything? Did anything happen?”

We know that readers scan, and we know that they move on fast when they encounter an obstacle or dullness. If we want them to read past that first sentence, that sentence has to get to the point of the story fast. Getting to the point without a lot of throat-clearing is one of the hard things to learn.

So here is the thing to remember always (and here, after 14 paragraphs, I am prepared to get to the point myself, and it’s a sports analogy):

The crowd doesn’t care about the windup; the crowd wants to see the pitch.

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:07 AM | | Comments (3)

August 3, 2007

More in sorrow than in anger

I had expected better.

I’m halfway through William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists Triumphant, 1854-1861. It is the continuation of the author’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854, and it is a substantial work. Professor Freehling, formerly at Johns Hopkins, now at the University of Kentucky, has constructed a formidable account of the regional differences — within the South as well as between the South and North — and class and economic differences in the series of crises that led up to the Civil War.

Anyone who is drawn to the Confederate apologists’ argument that the Civil War was not about slavery will find correction in Freehling’s explanation of how slavery was inextricably intertwined with political issues (the Southern states’ political power in Congress tied to slavery, the Whigs’ collapse over the failure of the Northern and Southern wings to straddle the issue), economic issues (free labor vs. slave), demographic issues (the increase in immigration sharply outpacing population growth in the slave states), and other elements. The North, he argues, found slavery intolerable not out of a deep concern for the slaves or their freedom, but over the Slave Power’s intolerable repression of republican liberties, its sway over the rest of the nation.

It is, as I said, an impressive work, and it is marred by minor blemishes.

Sixteen years ago, when I read the previous volume, I encountered numerous typographical errors and slips in usage. Sloveholders was one. I wrote to the publisher, Oxford University Press (Oxford University Press!), to deplore the slack copy editing. (Samuel Johnson said in his Life of Milton, “No man forgets his original trade: the rights of nations and of kings sink into questions of grammar, if grammarians discuss them.”)

The OUP did not trouble to reply.

Now I discover the same scattering of minor irritants throughout this book: discrete for discreet, censoring for censuring, damming for damning, and more of the same. I don’t blame Professor Freehling for them. He had much on his mind, and besides, as Mr. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility.” The fault lies with the publishing house.

Copy editing, I know full well, is time-consuming and expensive. It must be done by human beings, not machinery, and by human beings with intelligence and expertise. If a house as distinguished as the Oxford University Press can’t be troubled to correct these minor flaws and distractions in an important work, then what other publisher will take more care for the quality of its imprint?

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (2)
Keep reading
Recent entries
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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected