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September 27, 2007

Nerds of the world, unite

Of the two constituencies who are drawn to this blog — readers of The Sun in Maryland and farther-flung copy editors and others with a professional interest in the written word — the latter group ought to be made aware of the American Copy Editors Society. (The former group might have some anthropological curiosity.)

ACES, the first national organization for professional copy editors, is a little more than 10 years old. It drew 300 people to its first national conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in September 1997. Its subsequent national conferences have provided the most concentrated and capable instruction in editing and the allied arts to be found in this country.

It has also set up an educational foundation devoted to assisting students who are pursuing a career in editing — and there are, too, such people.

Its Web site has a wealth of free reference material and other information. Membership, you will discover there, is laughably cheap. Have a look.

I mention this because the very concept of editing as copy editors have traditionally practiced it is threatened at many of the nation’s newspapers. Editing takes time, and it is labor-intensive. It is therefore not cheap, and some managers, lacking an understanding of what is required to produce a reputable publication, have formed the idea that shortcuts in copy editing, or its virtual elimination, will improve their situation.

One thing you can do to resist this pernicious trend is to join ACES, uphold its work, contribute to its educational foundation, attend its conferences, give a face and voice to the otherwise anonymous role of the copy editor.

If you are already a member (bless your heart), re-up. If you are an editor and not a member, sign up.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:42 PM | | Comments (1)

September 26, 2007

A new arrival

You push the rock up the hill every day, and every night it rolls back down.

Still, the effort to establish clarity and precision in the use of English, against widespread miseducation and misunderstanding, makes for steady employment for editors.

Among the stalwarts at shoving the boulder is Kathy Schenck, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee. She is a formidable editor and, as of this week, the author of Words to the Wise, a blog on language.

Her first two posts are models of clarity and good sense, and they are already engaging readers in the comments section. Look in on her.

If enough of us put our shoulders to it, I fondly hope, one day that damn rock will stay put.

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:39 PM | | Comments (1)


Those nouns that swing both ways really vex copy editors.

Over at the Testy Copy Editors discussion board, the perennial concern over whether couple should be treated as a singular or plural has surfaced again. (If you’re not a member, you can sit in the visitors’ gallery and watch the debate.) That this should come up at all can be attributed to two factors entirely independent of grammar. The first is the copy editor’s yearning for one-rule-fits-all principles; everything is either right or wrong, and there is no need for discretion. The second is the tendency to act on what one recollects from one’s Associated Press Stylebook, acquired during the second Eisenhower administration.

Couple, like many collective nouns, is either singular or plural, depending on context. The AP rule is actually quite clear and reasonable:

“When used in the sense of two people, the word takes plural verbs and pronouns: The couple were married Saturday and left Sunday for their honeymoon. They will return in two weeks.

“In the sense of a single unit, use a singular verb: Each couple was asked to give $10.

You’ll notice that the sneaky AP omits whether the pronouns should be singular or plural when the noun is singular. Is that $10 their contribution or its contribution? If you balk at using a neuter pronoun for human beings, swallow your objections to the singular noun/plural pronoun construction, or rewrite the sentence as a plural.

A second issue about couple comes up in an inquiry from a reader of this blog (and bless all of you who write and comment):

Many journalists, especially sports writers, leave out the preposition "of" in Phrases like "a couple batters" (in a baseball game) instead of writing "a couple of batters." "A couple batters" seems fragmented to me when I expect to see the prepositional phrase "of batters." To me, it's sloppy writing, but I am not sure that it is actually ungrammatical.

It is both sloppy writing and ungrammatical. Idiomatic English requires the preposition of with couple. Omission of the preposition is a casual or colloquial usage. The people who adopt it in writing are either uninformed (highly likely) or devoted to a misguided effort at breezy writing (also highly likely, and not inconsistent with the former).

You are welcome to sneer at them.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:40 AM | | Comments (4)

September 25, 2007

Some stuff

From time to time, some minor fixation, previously unnoticed, moves like a virus through the copy desk. I don’t think that we used to find some in the sense of about with a number to be objectionable, as in “some 35 opposition leaders,” but now I see a change indicated every time it turns up in a proof.

Let’s clarify. Some as an adverb to indicate an approximate number is a well-established usage, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which explains that it is most commonly used in this sense with round numbers. Merriam-Webster’s identifies a secondary sense in which the word is used with an exact number as a mild intensifier to indicate surprise.

The late John Bremner objects to the usage in Words on Words as something “that has crept into newspaper jargon.” Theodore Bernstein’s Careful Writer also deplores it, but only in the specific context in which it refers to an exact number rather than an approximate one. He also dismisses constructions such as some thirty-odd leading figures as redundant (which it is). My learned colleague Bill Walsh agrees that about is preferable, but with round numbers, and calls some “a wimpy cross between about and I know.

Fowler, the New Fowler’s and Garner’s American Usage are silent. Perhaps they did not find it a serious issue.

Expressions using some as an adjective to indicate approximation are commonplace, such as “to have been married some years.” Functionally, it is equivalent to about. The question is whether it can also serve legitimately as an adverb.

I can’t say whether some suspicion of colloquialism or some regional difference may be in play. But some fails to set off the editing alarm in my head. I changed that sentence that had been marked in proof — that “police in Islamabad had orders to take some 35 opposition leaders into preventive custody” — to “about 35 opposition leaders,” but I don’t think that the change made for much of an improvement.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 AM | | Comments (5)

September 24, 2007


If you expect to be a serious writer, you will know the tools of the craft as familiarly as a carpenter knows his hammer and saw, a pianist her scales. That means, among other things, mastering the common figures of speech, or tropes.

The tropes of traditional rhetoric, like other tools, they can be wielded to disastrous effect in inexperienced hands. Here are some brief descriptions and advice on the most common tropes: alliteration, antithesis, assonance, chiasmus, climax, hyperbole, irony, metaphor, metonymy, onomatopoeia, parallelism, periphrasis, personification, puns, rhetorical questions, simile and synecdoche. For further information, Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Reader is thorough and informed.

Alliteration: A figure of speech in which initial or medial consonants are repeated in successive words. Used sparingly, it can touch up prose. But it is so obvious and mannered that it easily becomes laughable, as in Spiro Agnew's "nattering nabobs of negativism." Be judicious.

Anthithesis: A figure of speech that opposes contrasting ideas, typically in parallel structure, as in Neil Armstrong's words on setting foot on the moon, July 20, 1969: "That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," It can be overdone; please do not imitate Charles Dickens' "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. ...

Assonance: A figure of speech in which vowel sounds are repeated in successive words: "pie in the sky by and by." It can be less obvious and intrusive than alliteration, but it should still be employed sparingly.

Chiasmus: A rhetorical structure, a variant of parallelism, in which two pairs of words "criss-cross," the order of the pair reversed in the second instance. The pattern is x, y / y, x. A familiar example is John F. Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country": country, you; you, country. The term comes from the Greek letter chi, our x.

Climax: A figure of speech in which terms, phrases or clauses are arranged in increasing order of importance, as in the Declaration of Independence's ringing "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor." An attempt at climax that collapses ludicrously is called bathos, a kind of unintentional anticlimax in which the intention to achieve a high effect falls flat: "Osama bin Laden is wanted for conspiracy, murder, terrorism, and unpaid parking tickets." The term was coined by Alexander Pope in "Peri Bathos; Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry" in 1727.

Hyperbole: A figure of speech that operates by exaggeration for effect. Use sparingly. Hype, the most common modern form of hyperbole, is extravagant or excessive promotion of a subject, and is to be avoided.

Irony: A word or expression used to suggest the opposite of its meaning. This figure of speech can be tricky. Ironically is often misused in references to things that are merely coincidental. A thing is ironic only when some contrary or contradictory element is present. Example: "Pro football teams share television revenue under the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, a form of collusion often credited with the National Football League's financial success. Ironically, it's an exception that baseball could employ but doesn't." No irony there.

Metaphor: A figure of speech that implies common qualities in two things that are unlike: "The ship plows the sea." Successful metaphors tend to be both brief and apt., drawing attention to the subject rather than to the writer. Unsuccessful ones are inapt, mixed or extended beyond usefulness. Inapt metaphors are like those that drew Samuel Johnson's censure of the Metaphysical poets: "The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together." An example: "Like well-fed thighs stuffed into too-tight pants, the road needs room to spread." Mixed metaphors distract by their inconsistency: "The pools are the third rail of Columbia politics. No one on the Columbia Council seems eager to rock the boat. ..." Swimming pools are a subway and a boat — two contradictory images, neither particularly appropriate. Extending metaphors tends to make them forced or strained: "On misty days the sky and water marry on Prince William Sound, a ceremony overseen by the bridesmaids of jeweled mountains." Such metaphors tend to push toward allegorical levels, inviting additional correspondences. Who's the father of the bride here? What clergyman is officiating?

Metonymy: See synecdoche.

Onomatopoeia: A figure of speech in which sounds are represented phonetically. Many common words are onomatopoeic, such as buzz. But extended efforts to represent sounds tend to become ludicrous: "Its songs are the sounds of whirring dragonfly wings and grasses rustling in the hot spring wind: 'Tchi-tchi-tchi, jyuuuu jyuuuuu jyuuuuuu, jyuuuuuuu.'" This is a trope to avoid.

Parallelism: A figure of speech in which words, phrases or clauses are arranged in similar structure. Keep grammatical structures parallel: The commission traveled through the state, holding public hearings, observing school activities, and taking testimony from parents, teachers and administrators: holding, observing, taking. Parallelism sorts things out in an orderly manner for the reader; violating parallelism suggests disorder and confused thinking. But do not make things parallel if they are of unequal weight or significance.

Periphrasis: A figure of speech in which a descriptive word or phrase is substitute for a proper name, or a proper name is substituted for some other thing: the Sultan of Swat for Babe Ruth, Jim Crow for legally enforced segregation. These circumlocutions can easily grow tiresome.

Personification: A figure of speech in which human qualities are attributed to inanimate things or abstractions. Many conventional personifications — Mother Nature, Old Man Winter, Jack Frost — are so hackneyed as to be useless.

Puns: Plays on words come in three forms: antanaclasis, when a word is repeated in a different sense; paranomasia, which uses words that sound alike but are different in meaning; and syllepsis, or zeugma, in which a single word is yoked to two different senses. Antanaclasis is represented by Benjamin Franklin's "If we do not hang together, we will hang separately," paranomasia by the inevitable headline about cats that uses purr-fect, syllepsis or zeugma by Alexander Pope's "Here thou, great Anna! whom three realms obey / Dost sometimes counsel take — and sometimes tea" — take to mean both consider and drink. When original, plays on words enliven writing. When obvious, they grate. Shun wordplay that requires tricky spellings, which is clumsy. Do not pun on people's names, which is childish. If a play on words seems at all familiar, it should be avoided.

Rhetorical questions: A trope much esteemed in classical orations, the rhetorical question — which asks a question for which no answer is required, so as to assert or dent something obliquely — tends to look stilted. Recollect the tedious and pretentious discourse of the unctuous Mr. Chadband in Dickens’ Bleak House: “My friends,” says Mr. Chadband, “peace be on this house! On the master thereof, on the mistress thereof, on the young maidens, and on the young men! My friends, why do I wish for peace? What is peace? Is it war? No. Is it strife? No. Is it lovely, gentle, and beautiful, and pleasant, and serene, and joyful? Oh, yes! Therefore, my friends, I wish for peace, upon you and upon yours.” If you find that you must frame rhetorical questions, pray refrain from answering them.

Simile: This figure of speech, a form of metaphor, compares two things by saying explicitly that they are alike: "My love's like a red, red rose." It is hard to get in trouble with these brief comparisons unless they are incongruous.

Synecdoche: See metonymy.

All right, all right, I toyed with you on metonymy and synecdoche, but the two figures of speech are so similar that the experts do not always agree on the differentiation.

Metonymy is the substitution of an attribute of a thing for the thing itself. The brass, for military officers, is a metonymy.

Synecdoche is the substitution of a part for the whole. Bread meaning food in general — our daily bread — and hands for the crew of a ship are examples of synecdoche.

Whether the crown for the British monarchy is a metonymy or synecdoche is something you can pass the coming cold winter nights by arguing over.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:07 AM | | Comments (3)

September 19, 2007

Great moments in copy desk history-II

John Scholz, who distinguished himself on the copy desks of the Courier-Journal in Louisville and the Washington Star before coming to The Evening Sun many years ago, was the kind of copy editor who got into tussles with the assigning editors.

When he retired from The Sun, I recalled a classic Scholz remark that encapsulates the often-thorny relations between the copy desk and the assigning desk.

Returning one evening from a prolonged set-to over at the business desk — more than a rhubarb but less than a donnybrook — he announced triumphantly:

“They have agreed to forgive me for being right.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:08 PM | | Comments (0)

See you in church

No subject is more treacherous than religion. Any religious group—religion, denomination within a religion, sect or congregation—is apt to use particular terminology. Getting the details wrong risks making us look foolish or, worse, offensive.

In Judaism, the Reform branch has sometimes appeared in our pages as reform or even — Lord, spare us — reformed. We don’t always remember to capitalize Orthodox in this context, or in Russian or Greek Orthodox contexts.

The title for an Anglican (Episcopal in this country) bishop is the Rt. Rev. but for a Roman Catholic bishop is the Most Rev. (The Associated Press Stylebook gets us off the hook by allowing Bishop for both.) We have been berated for referring to the outgoing archbishop of Baltimore as Cardinal William Keeler rather than William Cardinal Keeler, though the former style is the modern preference, as detailed in AP style and the Religion Newswriters online stylebook and Catholic News Service stylebook.

You may have seen already the post about the Rev. and the widespread misuse of the title.

Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy are divisions of a religion, Christianity, but are not themselves separate religions.

Some male Episcopal priests prefer to be styled as Father, others as Mr., and we’re supposed to find out the preference.

Nuns use the title Sister, but whether the title is used with the surname or first name varies from one order to the next. We’re supposed to find out that preference, too.

Baltimore is a Roman Catholic archdiocese, but its archbishop is not necessarily a cardinal. It is at the discretion of the pope to elevate an archbishop to the cardinalate.

We also have to learn the local geography. A former colleague takes us to task today for confusion about the name of his congregation, Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in the city. There is also a Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church, an offshoot of the Park Avenue congregation in Baltimore County. And there is a Brown’s Memorial Church, which is not Presbyterian.

No one need hope more than a journalist that God is merciful as well as just.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (0)

September 18, 2007

Stormy weather

The journalistic addiction to exaggeration resists all treatment.

Consider how frequently we find some burst of public criticism described as a “firestorm”:

And in 1993, ABC's NYPD Blue set off a firestorm by showing the bare posteriors of various characters.

In a move that even Republicans said would spark a firestorm, President Bush spared I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby Jr. from prison

[Paris Hilton’s] early release caused a firestorm of criticism over whether she was getting special treatment because of her wealth and fame.

In a firestorm, the intense heat of an explosion or series of explosions ignites all combustible material. The resulting updraft draws in oxygen from the surrounding area, making the fire larger and even more intense.

Though firestorms can develop in large forest fires, the term has become more commonly associated with great fires in cities. An atomic bomb can create a firestorm. In the Second World War, the Allied incendiary bombings of Japanese and German cities created immense firestorms. If you have read the account of the bombing of Dresden in the late Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, you have a sense of what a firestorm amounts to, with survivors walking across a vast ashen crust discovering human bodies reduced to charred chunks.

To suggest that Dennis Franz’s ass or Paris Hilton’s release from jail can generate a firestorm trivializes the term.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:08 PM | | Comments (2)

September 17, 2007

Broad stripes, bright stars

We’re veering off-topic today. This is a Baltimore blog, and last Wednesday was Defenders’ Day in Baltimore.

Defenders’ Day marks the Battle of Baltimore over Sept. 12-14, 1814, the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The official celebration fell on the weekend before, and it is echt Baltimore.

My wife and I have been only once — management scum I may be during the week, but on Friday and Saturday nights I do honest work on the copy desk — when I was able to get free on a Saturday evening. These are the elements of a Defenders’ Day observance:

* Baltimoreans gathering with blankets and folding chairs on the grass outside the fort as the sun goes down and the breeze comes up from the harbor.

* A short concert by a military band.

* A drill by War of 1812 re-enactors in period uniforms, with the smoke of black powder from their muskets drifting over the crowd.

* A patriotic address by some notable.

* Fireworks, of course.

* The singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

And above the whole event flies a replica of the huge flag, its sewing overseen by Mary Pickersgill, the original now resting in the Smithsonian, that the fort displayed in 1814. (Never mind that the flag Francis Scott Key glimpsed through the night of the bombardment may have been a smaller “storm flag.”)

It seems particularly appropriate today that “The Star-Spangled Banner” should be the national anthem. “God Save the Queen” is more stately, despite its silly lyrics, and the “Marseillaise” is more stirring. Its superiority to the native competitors that have been proposed — “American the Beautiful” (treacly tune) or “God Bless America” (banal lyrics) — lies not in its difficult vocal range but in its words.

Written at a time when the young nation was under attack, invaded, the American militias trounced by the British regulars at Bladensburg, the Capitol and the White House burned, it expresses no cheap triumphalism. The first verse, the one that people sing and remember, ends with a question, a challenge to those who sing it. Are we still the land of the free and the home of the brave?

Though reading the first verse as a perennial question is not how Francis Scott Key intended his poem to be understood, it echoes a concern much on the minds of the Founders. When the 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin was asked at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787 what it had produced, he answered, the story goes, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

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

September 14, 2007

One in 10

The word decimate comes to us courtesy of the inspired old Roman custom of punishing a mutiny by choosing by lot and executing one in every 10 men in a legion. Same root as decimal.

I doubt that even a die-hard purist would seriously insist on the English word’s retaining a literal etymological sense of one in 10. But how should we understand it in English? Using it in what one can argue is the most legitimate sense — to suffer a substantial damage — risks misunderstanding by the multitude of readers who have come to think of it as meaning to suffer an overwhelming loss.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary thinks that the looser usage rises from a misunderstanding that the word means to execute nine of 10. And in a nation that appears to have more citizens who can reach Old Church Slavonic than can calculate a percentage accurately, that theory carries weight.

I suspect that considerable responsibility for the looser meaning lies with sportswriters, who are addicted to using the language of warfare to describe grown men playing children’s games:

Dons decimate UCD bullpen

Celtics decimate Raptors

It took years for fans to forgive baseball for its apparent greed that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series, a reaction that cost the sport millions of dollars in revenue and threatened to decimate the sport.

That last example shows how far we have gone to turn a word that means the loss of a percentage of a countable total into a word that just vaguely means to damage seriously or cripple. And if sportswriters bear responsibility, they do not bear it alone:

Frequent hurricanes decimate sea turtle beaches

Global warming to decimate China’s harvests

Former Sen. Thompson’s entry could decimate second tier of ’08 hopefuls

So the precise writer is left in a fix. To use the word in the narrow sense may be misunderstood. To use it in the broad sense is distasteful. If I were you, I would avoid it altogether, unless it is possible to use it in a specific context, such as with percentages, to show exactly what you mean. Leave the sloppiness and hyperbole to the people whose taste runs to that sort of thing.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:22 PM | | Comments (8)

September 12, 2007

The top 10

If you want to appear literate, you will have to avoid errors in grammar and usage. These are hardy perennials.

It’s and its If you are not a copy editor, you would be astonished to discover how many professional writers confuse the contraction it’s from the possessive its. Sometimes it’s a mere typographical error; the wrong synapse fires, and the finger hits an unintended apostrophe. Sometimes it’s just sloppiness, the product of an I-don’t-have-to-pick-up-after-myself-somebody-else-can-clean-it-up attitude. But it always looks subliterate.

Who and whom Linguists have been predicting for decades that whom is doomed. It will fade out of the language except for some stock phrases — for whom the bell tolls — and attempts at creating an archaic effect. Who will serve as both subject and object. But not while I’m alive. The most common confusion comes when who is, or ought to be, the subject of a noun clause that functions as the object of a verb or preposition. In the sentence The voters will chose whoever they think is the stronger candidate, the subordinate clause whoever is the stronger candidate must have whoever as its subject.

Subject-verb agreement Generally, phrases that fall between the subject and the verb do not, and should not, influence whether the verb is singular or plural. In the sentence The lobbyist, along with the four congressmen he is accused of bribing, is to testify at a hearing, the subject is lobbyist.

Misplaced modifiers An initial phrase that functions as an adjective, describing a person, place or thing, is assumed in English to refer to the subject of the sentence. In this one, Since their birth Nov. 19, doctors and nurses have noticed distinct differences in the babies, the ready reader will conclude that it was the babies who were born Nov. 19, not the exceptionally precocious doctors and nurses. Usually, the remedy is to place the modifier closer to the word modified: Doctors and nurses have noticed distinct differences in the babies since their birth Nov. 19.

Plurals and possessives When you drive down the street and see the charming shingle hanging from a mailbox that says The Smith’s, you can be confident that the Smiths were inattentive in English class. We do not form the plurals of singular nouns by adding ’s. If the mailbox next door proclaims The Jones’, that family is no better off. Here’s the pattern: Singular Smith Jones Plural Smiths Joneses Singular possessive Smith’s Jones’s or Jones’ Plural possessive Smiths’ Joneses’

Punctuation of clauses Compound sentences — two independent clauses separated by the coordinating conjunctions and, but or or — must be joined by a comma: He filed the story, and she began to edit it with trepidation. Compound predicates — a single subject with two or more verbs — do not require a comma: She opened the story and grimaced in alarm. Why many writers reverse these patterns is an enduring mystery.

The comma-splice run-on sentence — two independent clauses linked by a mere comma — is commonplace in British English but still deplored in American English. Use the damn semicolon; that’s what it’s for. Obnoxious pleonasms If you have been reading these dispatches, you should know better than to get me started on redundant expressions that betray the writer’s inattention to what he or she is saying: safe haven, mass exodus, free gift, advance planning, end result and a multitude of others.

Failed distinctions If you can tell the difference between imply and infer, comprise and compose, go to the head of the class. To imply is to hint or suggest. The root ply, or fold, from the Latin plicare, suggests that meaning is folded into a sentence. To infer, from the Latin inferre, to bring or carry in, is to draw the meaning out of the sentence. At your birthday, you wouldn’t mistake the action of putting a gift into a box for the act of taking a gift out of a box. Why, then, would you confuse the parallel actions of imply and infer?

Comprise means to include or contain. The alphabet comprises 26 letters. Compose means to make up on constitute. The alphabet is composed of 26 letters. The phrase is comprised of is an error at all times and in all places.

Confusion of homonyms Lead (a verb pronounced as leed) and lead (a verb pronounced as led) are homographs; they are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings. Writers frequently use lead as the past tense of to lead, and the spell-check function on your computer will not touch it. Lead (a noun pronounced as led) and led (the past tense of lead) are homophones; they are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings. Don’t bother me for an exhaustive list. Go to Alan Cooper’s Homonyms.

Persistence in superstitions If you are still contorting sentences to keep from leaving prepositions at the end, or to move adverbs from their rightful place between the auxiliary and the main verb, or to avoid split infinitives, or to keep since from meaning because, just stop it. These are all superstitions of usage that have been repeatedly exploded. Buy Garner’s Modern American Usage, read the entry on Superstitions, and clean up your act.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:51 PM | | Comments (6)

September 10, 2007

OED, please note

A colleague was perplexed to come across the word cribbery while proofreading a page of religious notes. He had never seen the word before, and it did not turn up in printed or electronic dictionaries, including the Oxford English Dictionary.

What I suspect — and a superficial Google search confirms — is that it is a largely regional term. Mainline churches, particularly Episcopal, Presbyterian and Methodist — in the Mid-Atlantic frequently list on their Web sites that they offer cribberies. There are examples from Massachusetts and Ohio, but the word most commonly appears with congregations in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Many churches offer nursery care for children during services. Some announce that they have nurseries and cribberies or a combined nursery/cribbery. A cribbery specifically offers care for infants and toddlers, sometimes with a trained staff member rather than a volunteer parishioner. The derivation from the word crib is obvious, as is the indication that care for infants is included.

The Google search also turned up examples such as this one from a personal Web journal: The honeys done talk my ear off on what they did at T's ma duke's cribbery. In this and similar examples, cribbery appears to derive from crib in the slang sense of a person’s apartment or house or jail cell. And perhaps some examples also derive from underworld slang for a brothel. Probably not a sense that any Anglicans are encouraging.

If you were not previously aware of the word, your vocabulary has now benefited from a modest expansion, and the lexicographers have a little more data for their swelling files.

And an update: I believe that the paragraphing problem in some RSS feeds has been resolved, thanks to the advice of Mary Hartney, whom I hired as a copy editor before she was elevated to the multimedia desk. When your abilities are modest, always hire smarter people.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:16 PM | | Comments (4)

Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance

Some of the readers of this blog, I discover, get it in an RSS feed without paragraph divisions.

I’m at a loss to explain this, having no technical knowledge of the mechanics. The Movable Type service on which this blog is published allows me to write in Microsoft Word and paste the text on Movable Type. I don’t know HTML coding (never learned DOS, either) and am at the mercy of other members of the staff with technical expertise who are trying to figure out how to fix the problem.

I am reminded of the reporter at The Sun who, when confronted with a gross error in mathematics in one of her stories, answered, “Well, I never was any good at math.” It is possible to detect in that statement a kind of perverse pride — I concentrate on the big, important things, not on mere numbers; that is for other people to check out.

And if pride does not lurk in that remark, then complacency surely does.

Reports of the failure of our educational system to produce graduates trained in mathematics and science — partly because of lack of interest among the populace in pursuing these studies — point out that we have to import college students from other countries for these majors, and also export technical jobs. That appears to be just fine with us, because, you know, we’re just not really any good at math.

My own defective education was highlighted recently when I read Charles Seife’s Decoding the Universe, which has interesting things to say about information theory and entropy. But my own grasp of mathematics is so sketchy that I had difficulty grasping this popularization of science.

An ugly realization, made uglier by awareness that at my age, it’s unlikely that I will do much to remedy the defects.

But maybe at the least I can get some tutoring on how to operate this blog more effectively.

When a lady asked Samuel Johnson why he had defined pastern as “the knee of a horse” in his great dictionary (It is part of the foot just above the hoof), he did not make any elaborate effort to explain away the mistake but answered simply, “Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance.” Admitting one’s errors and failings is healthy. Accepting the ignorance as a given is not.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (2)

September 6, 2007

The stark facts

The headline was in all-caps, bold:


The article beneath presented disturbing statistics. In middle-class suburban schools, African-American students were failing the state’s high school assessment tests. In suburban Baltimore County, a third of the high schools had pass rates of 60 percent or lower, and below 50 percent in neighborhoods that are largely African-American.

A colleague buttonholed me to say that the headline was stark and disturbing. I agreed. This is an outcome that no one wanted, and it is disturbing. The people quoted in the article found it disturbing. I find it disturbing and discouraging. But it is a fact, though an ugly one, and the headline states an ugly fact in a straightforward manner.

It is true that blacks can look a little starker than African-Americans, but both terms are widely accepted in current usage, and there is only so much space in a headline. It is also true that The Sun’s design guidelines call for an all-caps headline on the front-page “centerpiece,” which makes the headline even more emphatic.

Emphatic is perhaps a little mild. The headline undoubtedly jolted readers. But it is true, and it tells the reader something that was not widely known but which is important to know. African-American readers may not like to see it, may regret that it looks unflattering. But it is true. Racist readers — and despite their frequently expressed disgust with The Sun, we appear to still have a few — will see their belief confirmed that black people are biologically inferior to white people. But that is not a fact; it is a prejudice unsupported by science.

What is important is that something — educational environment, home environment, social environment or some combination of these elements — is going badly wrong for these children and must be addressed by public policy. The Sun, like all reputable newspapers, presents facts.

We struggle to verify factual statements and place them in a comprehensible context. They may not be facts that you want to see. But they are facts that you need to know.

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:02 PM | | Comments (1)

September 5, 2007

Great moments in copy desk history

More lore.

This occurred, I was reliably told, at a metropolitan daily newspaper. The figures involved, a columnist, a managing editor and a copy desk slotman, are still alive, so I am concealing their identities.

The central figure of this burlesque is the columnist, who does not speak. For convenience, call him Plodder. He is the marquee local columnist, and he is famously lazy. (Yes, I know, you are shocked, shocked, etc.)

You probably know the kind of column: inconsequential bits stuck together with ellipses and spit. The kind of column that includes funny bumper stickers readers have seen. The kind of column that has Departments Of. (When Plodder’s Department of Names That Match their Occupations included a urologist named Leake, the managing editor killed the item.)

Scene: The newsroom of one of America’s newspapers. No, no, no, it’s not in Baltimore. The copy desk slotman, at the center of the U-shaped copy desk, is preoccupied with getting copy typeset for the first edition. The managing editor approaches from behind the slotman, trailed by the pre-eminent local columnist.

M.E.: I hate to interrupt, but we have a problem.

SLOTMAN (not looking up from his work): What is it?

M.E.: We’ve lost the Plodder column.

SLOTMAN (still not looking up): What do you mean?

M.E.: I mean it’s gone. I can’t find it in the system. Tech support can’t find it. It’s been obliterated somehow.

SLOTMAN (shrugging, his eyes on the copy): Well, what does the copy desk have to go with it?

M.E. (grinning at his own wit): Well, I thought we’d have one of the copy editors write a Plodder column.

SLOTMAN: Can’t do it.

M.E.: Why not?

SLOTMAN: We don’t have anybody dumb enough.

Plodder turns on his heel and stalks away. Curtain.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (2)

So you call yourself a journalist

Among the many things the Internet has thrown into confusion is who counts as a journalist.

This is not an idle or abstract question. Whom we call journalists has immediate implications for libel law and for whatever legal protections the courts and legislatures allow to remain for the practice of journalism. But putting information out on the Internet is manifestly a form of publication, and we have to face thorny questions.

The first is whether journalism can be called a profession. Medicine and the law have well-marked pathways to qualification. One studies a prescribed curriculum, passes examinations, receives certification from organizations of practitioners, is licensed to practice. Teaching and the cloth have similar but looser paths to practice. One does not necessarily have to have an education degree or teaching certificate to teach, and journalists may be akin to self-ordained storefront preachers.

The older sense of journalism as a craft learned through apprenticeship has not vanished. I myself (Lordy, lordy, children, hold on tight; he’s headed back to his youth again) got my training in journalism by working for six summers in high school and college at the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Kentucky. I never formally studied journalism.

There was a good reason. (Oh, children, children, he’s in a loop.) At Michigan State, where I was an undergraduate in the early 1970s, you could not take a course in journalism without first going through the Introduction to Communication sequence. I took the first course in the sequence, and it was a mistake. The text was a photocopied series of feeble essays by the department chairman, who attempted to disguise the absence of substance with references to Heraclitus and other figures whom I doubt he had read. The class sessions were enlivened by a series of short videotapes featuring two members of the department engaging in what they apparently thought to be donnish repartee. It was grisly.

The two graduate students in charge of my section grew visibly impatient with my complaining, so I shut my mouth, conducted a project (an unscientific and entirely unreliable survey), collected an “A,” shoved the text down the trash chute in Akers Hall, and shook the dust of that department from my sandals. When, years later, I abandoned a graduate degree and looked for employment, The Cincinnati Enquirer offered me a three-week tryout on the copy desk and promptly put me on the staff. I have been what is called a professional journalist for the 27 years since.

Now please, please, please do not conclude that I scorn the study of journalism. The curriculum has grown more substantial over the past 30 years, and the people who get degrees in journalism, especially graduate degrees, do substantial work. There are areas of journalism, including statistical analysis and computer-assisted reporting, that few people are qualified to perform.

But it is still the case that who has a grasp of the English language and who can internalize the values of news gathering can work as a reporter or editor without ever having studied journalism formally.

So anyone can be a journalist. Edmund Wilson called himself a literary journalist. He wrote essays and reviews for The New Yorker. If the word journalist can include Edmund Wilson, Matt Drudge and Geraldo Rivera, who can be shoved out the tent? In America, we have always resisted any kind of certification or licensing of journalists, and the roster of distinguished writers and editors at newspapers and magazines who lack journalism degrees suggests that the resistance was a good idea. That leaves us at the point that anyone who calls himself a journalist and publishes information on the Web has to be considered a journalist, at the bare minimum.

But we want and need to be able to make distinctions. If posting information on the Internet where anyone can read it constitutes publication, then what publication can be called journalism? Is the family Christmas letter posted on a Web site journalism? If it comments unfavorably on my table manners or drinking at the holiday table, do I have grounds to sue for defamation? There are laws to protect whistleblowers who expose corruption in the corporations or agencies where they work. Should we have equivalent protections for amateur journalists who do the same thing?

I am not a lawyer or student of the law, so I have no ready answers for the thorny questions. But I see that, just as the traditional publishers of journalism must grapple with the novel circumstances the Internet has thrust upon them. so too must the legislatures and the courts come to grips with the issues of what constitutes journalism and who can be called a journalist. What we will want is the widest scope for providing the public with information, combined with protections against recklessness and deceit.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:40 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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