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November 30, 2007

Favorite British monosyllables

Erin McKean, the lexicographer, evidently on a trip to Britain, commented on Facebook recently: “BrEng is so cute! She just wants to pat it on the head.”

These selections may not be what she had in mind.

Bog: Lavatory, toilet. Not a bathroom, which would have a tub.

Braw: Fine, good, first-rate, a variant of brave.

Bumf: Official forms, memorandums, paperwork. From bumfodder, or toilet paper.

Git: A worthless person, a variant on get —slang for brat, bastard, fool, etc. — from the verb get in the sense of beget. Works best as the culmination of a series of two- and three-syllable adjectives: cretinous pig-faced git.

Gongs: Military medals. Presumably from the resemblance of the disc to the musical instrument.

Loo: Same as bog, but in posher premises.

Naff: Unfashionable, tacky, rubbishy.

Posh: Luxurious, fashionable, elegant. Possibly from push or poosh, a dandy. Probably not from the folk etymology, Port Out, Starboard Home, identifying the better shipboard quarters to and from India.

Prat: A fool, a contemptible or ineffectual person. Etymology unknown to the OED, but an alternate meaning of the word is buttock.

Twee: Affectedly quaint, overdone. (Think of those horrible, horrible houses with every wall and available surface covered with the cutest handmade items. Every time my wife lures me into a crafts store, I break out in a cold sweat and begin to hyperventilate.)

Affectedly quaint, overdone. (Think of those horrible, horrible houses with every wall and available surface covered with the cutest handmade items. Every time my wife lures me into a crafts store, I break out in a cold sweat and begin to hyperventilate.)

Twit: A git with pretensions. Perhaps too widespread now in America to be considered entirely British.

Your suggestions for additional citations are, as always, welcome.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:58 PM | | Comments (4)

Proceed at your own risk

The much-heralded openness and immediacy of electronic publishing, particularly in blogging, has turned out to carry many of the same hazards as print publication.

Take some recent examples: An editorial columnist at the Indianapolis Star is out of a job because he posted comments on the newspaper’s blog that the editor and members of the community found racially offensive.

A reporter at the Dover Post in Delaware was fired last year after his editor saw comments he had posted on his blog, especially a Martin Luther King Jr. Day reference to James Earl Ray and remarks about people the paper was or was not covering. The reporter’s defense was that he was just joking.

The Galveston, Texas, public school district has demanded that a parent remove what it calls libelous material from her personal Web site. The district has threatened to sue for defamation, though an article in the Galveston Daily Times about the situation quotes a legal expert who thinks that such a lawsuit has little chance of success.

Putting things on the Internet enables all kinds of people to see them, and it is publication, just as if it were in a pamphlet, newspaper or magazine article or book. Just as it can be unfortunate when your Facebook account of that night you got stinking drunk and — never mind — turns out to have been checked out by a potential employer, those remarks on your personal blog may come back to haunt you. And if you conduct a blog associated with a publication, like this one, you have the potential for bringing down trouble on the company’s head as well.

I’m not a lawyer, and this post does not constitute legal advice; but there are some commonsense cautions that anyone who blogs, privately or for an employer, should keep in mind.

Nothing is private anymore. Sneering at your boss online or revealing details of your company’s operation can land you in hot water.

People are litigious. You can be sued. And even if the suit has no merit and goes nowhere, the expense of defending against a lawsuit can be heavy. If the suit proceeds and you lose, the damages pile up on top of the legal fees. Think of the guy in Georgia who posted angry comments about his former lawyer. The lawyer brought and won a libel suit, and earlier this year the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld an award of $50,000 in damages.

When you write about identifiable individuals, you’d better be sure that you are factually accurate. And while the law gives a wide latitude to published expressions of opinion, there are limits.

And yes, ordinary prudence should not be overridden.

For further information: An article in The News Media and the Law describes the hazard bloggers may face from libel lawsuits. Blogger Steve Tobak offers some basic information about libel and the things bloggers should be cautious about. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a comprehensive “Legal Guide for Bloggers.”

Finally, shouldn't you have someone you trust look over your stuff before you post it? Maybe edit it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (1)

November 29, 2007

Snap decision

The copy desk changed careen to career over the writer’s objections this week, with the support of one of my arbitrary rulings.

The authorities are in agreement that careen originally meant to turn a ship on its side to clean, caulk or repair it. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage mentions an early citation from Hakluyt in 1600.

Disagreement comes over the development in American English over the past century or so of the use of careen in the place of career, which means to move at high speed, usually recklessly, or to hurtle. Career derives ultimately from the Latin currere, to run, and cursus, or course, as in racecourse.

And there the authorities diverge. Garner’s Modern American Usage insists that careful writers will maintain the distinction. Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words chimes in with agreement.

The New Fowler’s, revised by the late lexicographer Robert Burchfield, says flatly that careen is standard American usage for “to rush headlong.” And Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says (rather snarkily, I thought) that if you want to insist on the traditional distinction, you might want to move to Britain.

The American Heritage College Dictionary, usually helpful with advice on questions of usage, dodges the issue in distinguishing among career, careen and carom, by saying that careen is associated with lurching or swerving, as “influenced by career.”

But I don’t get to indulge in mealy-mouthed equivocations; I have to make rulings. And so, with some hesitation, I came down on career for moving recklessly at speed. And so shall The Sun say, on the sporadic occasions on which anyone on the staff pays attention to those rulings, or until I am overruled or persuaded to reverse the decision.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:37 PM | | Comments (4)

November 28, 2007

Let us now praise famous editors

The reason I’ve been carrying on about the importance of copy editing, here, here and here, is that I am flabbergasted to see newspaper editors and executives abandoning the idea of editing.

Yes, times are difficult for newspapers; Alan Mutter’s Newsosaur blog calculates that newspapers have lost 20 percent of their print advertising in the past decade. If you had lost 20 percent or so of your income, you’d be struggling to cope, too. Difficult times prompt news executives to try new things, as they should.

But the thing that has worked at the heart of print journalism is a system of verification. Reporters research topics and write up their findings, supervised and guided by assigning editors; copy editors check those stories for accuracy and clarity. The system operates to minimize the number of avoidable errors, as well as the greater hazards of libel, plagiarism and fabrication. The result is the credibility of the publication — the reason you bother to look at it.

The system is labor-intensive. Editors do not bring in revenue; they are what the accountants call “fixed costs,” which it is the goal of accountants to reduce or eliminate. You can see the consequences of such reductions in both print and electronic publications, in major papers as well as minor ones — have a look, for example, at a diseased story that fev (Professor Vultee) palpates on Headsup.

In the time I’ve been at The Sun, I’ve had the good fortune to work under three editors who understand the importance of editing and the value of the copy desk to the paper.

John Carroll, who did much to build up The Sun and enhance its reputation in the 1990s, took the trouble to sit in on the copy desk one night — typically an eye-opening experience. Throughout his tenure, he backed efforts to strengthen the editing and hire the smartest people I could find for the desk.

Bill Marimow, his successor, had the misfortune to take the helm as the industry was beginning its great contraction. But he, too, recognized the importance of copy editing and understood that it is not just a matter of manipulating the punctuation and checking the spelling, but also of raising substantive questions. He, like John Carroll, emphasized that when the copy desk identified issues of concern, those issues were to be addressed.

Tim Franklin, the incumbent, probably looks over his shoulder when someone says that McIntyre is mentioned on Romenesko again, but he has the same willingness as his predecessors to walk into the publisher’s office and say that the copy desk has got to be kept up to strength. When he was proposing the current expansion of The Sun’s electronic journalism and I said that we had to assign a copy editor to review the stories going to the Web, he did not hesitate for a nanosecond in agreeing.

And I would be remiss in omitting Mike Waller, a former publisher who had worked for a decade as a copy editor himself. He was an enthusiastic backer of the American Copy Editors Society from its inception, and it was he who told the members of ACES at their national conference in Portland in 1998, “The greatest service you can give to your paper is to ask this question, ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Are you really sure?’ Nine times out of 10 you’ll be overruled, but the tenth time you will have saved the paper.”

It is a deeply confusing environment for newspapers, and their executives are making hard choices. The best editors, like these, are not going to let our core values slip from their grasp.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:21 AM | | Comments (1)

November 26, 2007

Publish and be damned

I think that the editor of the Greensboro News & Record has made a mistake.

In a column published Oct. 9, John Robinson argued that newspaper blogs need not be edited. It was a response to a post on Andy Bechtel’s eminently sensible blog, The Editor’s Desk, asserting the contrary. Here’s what Mr. Robinson wrote:

Every journalist group I've spoken with about blogging has stopped short when I say we don't edit our staff blogs. The editors are more concerned about libel than about the proper use of it's and its. But editing is editing. No good copy editor would stop at editing only for typos and grammar. He or she would edit for style, for content, for libel and for usage. So.... Here's why staff blogs need not be edited:

* Editing slows the process. If part of a good blog post is timeliness, then finding someone to edit it obstructs speed, spontaneity and "striking while the iron is hot." (Yes, I know a good copy editor would tell me to avoid the cliche.)

* Editing promotes uniformity and conformity. Unlike blogs, newspapers have traditionally been built around an institutional voice. The best blogs have a unique voice, the voice of the blogger. Almost by definition, editing would quiet that.

* Trust your staff. Journalists know what libel is, what bad taste is. Trust them to get it right. We tell them, "When in doubt, get someone to read behind you." Yes, we make mistakes in usage, but the point of the post is rarely obscured by the error. And, as previously mentioned, commenters rush to make the correction. Writers are also more careful when they know they are operating without a copy editor's net.

* The cultures of the Web and the newspaper are different. My flip comment is that there are 1,000 retired English teachers scouting for errors in the paper for every one reading the blog. My serious comment is that newspaper readers expect we adhere to the accepted style manuals. Newspapers are used in schools. We're supposed to be right. I know. I get letters every month from readers questioning our grammatical choices. Online, much much less. Or is that fewer?

Well, let’s put a match to a few straw men.

Editing slows the process, for sure. Making things right slows the process. Accuracy slows the process. Unless a nuclear bomb has exploded downtown, an additional 10 minutes for a copy editor to go over the story won’t make much of a difference. (And if a nuclear bomb has exploded downtown, your audience is gone anyhow.) It looks to me as if most blogs are about opining. Explain to me the damage done in delaying a post on how the Ravens stink.

About that institutional voice obliterating the individual voice. We’ve been editing columns and feature articles for years in newspapers, maintaining the writers’ tone. The posts on this blog are reviewed by three editors before publication. (They find errors and raise objections. That’s what editing is for.) Anybody out there think that my distinctive voice has been obscured?

The Web is different. It will be until the lawsuits start prodding editors and publishers into thinking about what they publish. Or until the lack of accurate and clear prose leads readers to look elsewhere.

And finally, trusting the staff. I see those little red spots before my eyes every time I hear someone talking about trusting the staff. I don’t trust any writer, including myself. They don’t pay me to sit in front of a computer screen for hours trusting the staff and admiring the prose. They pay be to be suspicious and skeptical. Is that source reliable? Is that the actual sequence of events? Is that how she spells her name? What is that sentence trying to say? Did you mean to say that the accident occurred on a highway four miles east of Ocean City?

Editing fosters accuracy and clarity. It also takes time and costs money. If newspaper editors are unwilling or unable to pay for quality in editing, if newspaper editors think editing doesn’t matter on the Web because everyone there is too dumb and subliterate to care about accuracy and clarity, then it’s their decision.

But I think there is a price to be paid, and it has not yet come due.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:52 PM | | Comments (2)

November 24, 2007

And mind your manners

I’m just now getting around to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, published in 1994. (Hey, I’ve been working two jobs, and there were all those offspring to educate — well, two, but they were expecting to be fed and clothed as well.) And a line in the first chapter clarified what I’m trying to do here.

In writing about the grammar of language, Pinker says, he does not mean “pedagogical or stylistic ‘grammars,’ which are just guides to the etiquette of written prose.”

This is an etiquette blog. Remember, I don’t care how you talk. Or your e-mails or text messages or personal correspondence of any kind. I am trying to persuade you to mind your manners when you write for publication.

Seeing the issues gum over here as questions of etiquette is refreshingly clarifying. We don’t have to deal with any nonsense about the English language “decaying.” We don’t have to carry on as if journalists’ many solecisms threatened the foundation of the Republic. We can keep the issues in perspective.

All the same, seeing the issues here as matters of etiquette does not mean that they are trivial. Look at “Ask Amy.” Manners count for something. Your rudeness and self-absorption can push your spouse away from you. Your inconsideration and boorishness and questionable hygiene can alienate your colleagues.

Manners count in writing as well. When you write for publication, you are imposing on another’s time and attention. Being accurate and being clear are like wiping the mud off your shoes before entering the reader’s house. What you write either contributes to the collective civility of public discourse or detracts from it. You have, as Highlights should have telegraphed to you from an early age, the choice of being Goofus or Gallant.

The copy desk, by the way, can see which you are.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:56 PM | | Comments (0)

November 21, 2007

Watch your step

I’ve suggested previously an analogy between the surgeon and the editor: We both cure with the knife.

There is a further comparison. Every time an editor goes into a text, he is like a surgeon opening up a human body; there is always a hazard of injuring something that was healthy to start with.

This has been succinctly stated by Erin McKean, a lexicographer and the chief consulting editor for the Oxford American dictionaries, in McKean’s Law: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error."

You can see more of what she thinks at her blog, Dictionary Evangelist.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:55 PM | | Comments (0)

Clueless at the top

Perhaps some will take comfort in learning that fatuous remarks about journalism are not limited to American newspaper executives. One is left wondering, as Casey Stengel did of the 1962 Mets, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”

A European luminary, David Montgomery, head of the newspaper group Mecom, was widely quoted earlier this month on his views that “sub-editing,” the British term for copy editing, is unnecessary. “Reporters out in the field can call up a page on their laptop and put copy straight onto the page without intervention,” he said. “I see a situation where experienced journalists that can be trusted have no barrier to communication with their audience,” he said. He endorses an environment in which “journalists can be freed from humdrum roles and the sub-editing culture can break down.”

This is, to use a British term of art, a load of codswallop.

His idea that the journalist has some direct interaction with the audience used to be limited to the delusional (“I know that what Katie Couric said last night was meant for me”). It may be of interest to hear the spontaneous reporting of a major event, like the explosion of the Hindenburg, but zoning commission meetings? The first look at a medical study about cancer?

For nearly 28 years, I have been paid to read other journalists’ raw copy so that you don’t have to. What our publications, print or electronic, owe the reader is an account that is factually accurate, relevant and clear on first reading. That is accomplished by editing.

But editing, a fundamental element of journalism, appears to be a mystery to some top executives, who do not understand what goes on in their own shops. Mr. Montgomery again: “Sub-editing is a twilight world, checking things you don’t really need to check …Senior people will always monitor the content, a core group will create the product.”

Of course, we copy editors have contributed to this by not demonstrating adequately to our masters how our obscure craft contributes to the quality of the publication.

But, as always, there is also a darker explanation, one that came to me as I read today’s column by my astute colleague Jay Hancock. He writes that while businesses — retail and service — talk about the importance of customer service, they systematically downgrade it. They understand that while the public complains about bad service, consumers aren’t willing to pay for good service: The cheaper price always prevails.

So too, perhaps, in journalism, what our masters privately think is that quality costs too much and doesn’t matter enough. Get rid of the local copy desks. Tell the reporters to file raw copy to the Web site. Talk cant about unmediated interaction with the public to disguise what is really going on. Gamble that you won’t drive off too many customers or provoke too many lawsuits.

Maybe they do know how to play this game.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:13 AM | | Comments (16)

November 20, 2007


OK, so I posted this anecdote already at under the sign-on Capo di tutti copy. A colleague I admire wrote that it made him laugh out loud, so I offer it to my audience here.

One holiday at The Cincinnati Enquirer many years ago, Bob Johnson, the news editor, was expressing his glee at the prospect of news:

"It's a holiday, and family members who don't like each other will gather, and the tension will build, fueled by liquor, and finally someone will snap. Why, one year we had six killed for Easter."

 Bill Trutner, slotman: "We usually have ham at our house."

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 AM | | Comments (2)

November 19, 2007

Media bias

I’ve written before about the reflexive complaints by some readers that there is a liberal bias in the mainstream media. Today, for a change, you can see what someone else has to say on the subject. At Mr. Vultee’s Headsup blog, which is always informative, you can find a typical criticism and his response.

For the prosecution:

Everyone who cares knows that not only The N&O [News and Observer, Raleigh, N.C.], but almost all of the mainstream media are biased toward liberalism. If Vaden or anyone else would objectively research news coverage, not only for political campaigns but across the board, including the war on terrorism, the economy and other important issues, I think they would find it very difficult to rationalize the obvious bias that exists.

For the defense:

With all due respect there, quite a few people "objectively research news coverage" (as well we should; nobody's ever gotten tenure just by making fun of Mitch Albom). And we know quite a lot about it by now. U.S. newspaper endorsements have traditionally tilted heavily Republican. More people in newsrooms describe themselves as Democrats than as Republicans. News tends to reify not just status quo parties but status quo candidates within those parties. Chief executives get a rally effect from international adventures and misadventures alike. Presidential frames get a better ride in the press when there's a lot of consent at the top of the pyramid, compared with times of elite dissent. (That's why Iraq looked and sounded more like part of the "war on terror" in news accounts after Colin Powell went to the UN than it did before.)

For a lot of reasons, then, it's no surprise that when you ask about what the "war on terror" looks like in the mainstream press, a good place to start is "what does the administration want it to look like?" And since wars on terror are about as old as wars on drugs (both predating the Reagan administration), any such effect is likely to be independent of party affiliation.

By all means read more deeply into Mr. Vultee’s excellent posts.

Oh, and just for clarity. I am not the John McIntyre who runs I suspect that his views might not be entirely congruent with mine.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:30 AM | | Comments (1)

November 18, 2007

Think you're smart, do you?

Even though you are reading a blog written by one of Stalin’s stooges who put out the pinko Baltimore Sun, there is a chance that some of you are among those proud Amurricans furious over those illegal immigrants who are swarming into this country to pick vegetables for us.

And as proud native-born Amurricans, you derive much of that pride from knowing so much more about this nation and its greatness than those teeming hordes, etc.

So try this: There is a civic literacy test put out by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that you can take online. If you are like a majority of your fellow citizens, you won’t do all that well. (Thanks to my colleagues at the Sun blog InsideEd for pointing the test out.) You can also read the institute's dispiriting report on its findings.

If you have not learned some humility after that, have a look at the sorts of questions and answers that are now being required of people seeking naturalized citizenship.

As for me, I’m in this country because a couple of centuries ago some Scottish landlord decided that it was more profitable to have sheep on the land than McIntyres. He was probably right.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:17 PM | | Comments (2)

November 16, 2007


There’s another damn “stately home” in this morning’s paper:

“The Laurelford community off Falls Road in northern Baltimore County is resplendent in its variety of stately, custom-built homes.”

“Resplendent” too.

So much to stamp out, and my feet are so small.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:17 PM | | Comments (5)

November 14, 2007

Red alert!

With another grisly holiday season looming over us, the coal-mine canaries on the copy desk are already scenting cliches. The first “jolly old elf” has already turned up, and Thanksgiving is still a week away. In hopes that word can reach you in time, I’m reprinting the post “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” from Dec. 22. 2005:

Nothing is harder to keep fresh than the language about something that happens every year. For several seasons now, The Sun’s copy desk has circulated in-house a memo on holiday cliches to eschew. The list below, compiled by Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, was published in an earlier form on the Poynter Institute’s Web site under the title “Avoid holiday cliches.”

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”)

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires the inclusion of Hanukkah in to holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:01 PM | | Comments (9) | TrackBacks (1)

November 13, 2007

The main things

A couple of weeks ago I talked to the staff of The Retriever Weekly, the campus paper at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I had half an hour to tell them what I thought it was most important for them to know. I know so little that it was easy. At the risk of being tediously obvious, here’s what I advise.

Accuracy comes first. If what you publish is not factually correct, you will look stupid, and your credibility will slowly evaporate. You have to get people’s names right. You have to get place names right. You have to get the details right. If the reader sees that you have allowed factual errors, it won’t matter how elegantly you write.

Clarity comes next. If your writing isn’t clear, it won’t matter that it is correct. You are, in effect, imposing on the reader’s time, and the easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading. Don’t give the reader an excuse. Use conversational language instead of jargon. Cut padding ruthlessly. Read your text out loud to yourself; hearing what you have written will expose awkward spots.

Get to the point. Steve Young, one of my colleagues on The Sun’s copy desk, says that the most useful advice he ever got in college came from the professor who told him, “Say one thing.” Your article, however many subsidiary elements or subtopics it may carry, has to be about one thing. Establish what that is, and tell the reader as soon as you can manage.

Be honest. Plagiarism and fabrication have embarrassed the small and the mighty, campus papers to the big time. You must show the sources of your information; the reader has a right to see that. And you must do your own work. Remember the things you were taught in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.

Everybody needs an editor. H.L. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips.” You are not a better writer than Henry Mencken. Get somebody you trust to look over your stuff and tell you honestly what doesn’t work.

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:14 PM | | Comments (3)

My biggest mistakes

My eminent colleague, Phillip Blanchard, sent an invitation on Facebook * to answer this question: “What's the stupidest thing you've ever done in journalism?” My answer, “So hard to single out one among the multitude,” can be expanded here.

1. Early on, writing a headline for The Cincinnati Enquirer saying that the mayor of Newport had been accused of corruption, for a story about the sheriff being linked to corruption in Newport. (Or the reverse; it was 27 years ago.) I have no idea why I did that, but I earned the reproach of the slotman and the first published correction for which I was responsible.

2. Writing an electronic message on the company machine about someone and mistakenly routing that to the subject. That happened twice, actually, and cost me two friendships.

3. Not pointing out during a tryout at The New York Times that I had caught on a duplicate of daily copy an error that the copy desk missed, and which led to a correction. Actually, this one was two mistakes: not pointing the error out to the slotman so that the error could have been caught before publication, and trusting that the editors looking at my work would notice the catch without my pointing it out. (They told me to find a job on a paper that took editing seriously and call them up in a couple of years. I did the first but not the second.)

4. Seeing in an instant how I could improve, on edition deadline, the deck on the lead headline in The Sun, and making a typographical error in my haste. The morning of publication happened also to be the day that the American Society of Newspaper Editors convened in Baltimore for its national convention. Happily, by the time I reported in for work that afternoon, the managing editor had already savaged several persons and was too tired to bother with me.

5. Staying at The Enquirer two years longer than I needed to, or should have, in the vain and naive hope that the management of the paper would grow less stupid and vicious. ** In mitigation, the birth of twins would have slowed me down in any case.

And yes, there is more, but, dear reader, we will draw the veil over yet more painful experiences. The principal question of the moment is whether my continuing to work in daily newspaper journalism will eventually qualify for an entry under the heading for this post.


* Yes, I’m on Facebook. I originally signed up mainly to spy on my children, but now anybody can join, and several colleagues have.

** Hey, I’ve been gone from the Queen City for more than 21 years, and all the people who were in charge then are gone. I have no information on the current hierarchy.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (6)

November 12, 2007

Conduct for gents

If you are male, there is an excellent chance that you are incompletely civilized. Therefore, after the manner of George Washington’s “Rules of Civility,” I offer some useful precepts:

Take off that baseball cap when you’re indoors. If your accelerating baldness bothers you, buy some hair.

Sleeves are not napkins. Or handkerchiefs.

Your comments on the film everyone else is watching are not as clever as you imagine.

Brown shoes with a blue suit, no matter what anyone has told you, are still a bad idea.

You’re still allowed to open a door for a lady, and you’re equally welcome to light her cigarette, on the off chance that you meet one who smokes, in a place that still permits smoking.

If you must sing, find a choir that will tolerate you.

Never mind what that article told you about pheromones — bathe daily. And wash your hair, too. Apply that mousse with a light hand, so that you don’t look like a seagull caught in an oil slick.

Think about buying a three-piece suit. Nothing befits a paunch better than a vest.

Never take a cell phone call at table. You’re not that important.

You should be tying your own neckties, and you should be thinking twice if you own any with Looney Tunes characters.

If you’re stingy with tips, eat at home.

No one cares how you would manage the Ravens/Orioles/Federal Reserve.

If you’re not at the gym or the pool, wear long pants. No one wants to look at those legs.

Your athletic and romantic exploits are unlikely to be out of the ordinary. Save them for your memoirs, which you can instruct your heirs and assigns to burn without reading.

Perhaps, readers, you have something to add?


Posted by John McIntyre at 3:15 PM | | Comments (4)

House and home-2

Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, which I read while at home fighting off a sore throat, turned out to be better than I had expected. Lots of information about Lincoln’s Cabinet and a not-too-potted-history account of his administration.

There was a little of that annoying popular history “he must have felt as he rode to the cemetery” mind-reading stuff, but not enough to make one fling the book across the room. Somewhat more annoyingly, there were repeated references to “stately homes” — apparently just about anything with two stories.

I’ve been struggling for years at The Sun to stamp out the stately home cliche. For a while anything built before 1950 appeared to be a candidate, but more recently any vulgar mini-mansion squatting on a half-acre qualifies.

Blenheim Palace, which Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor built for the Duke of Marlborough, is a stately home, and Britain has hundreds of them. When Vanbrugh died, one Abel Evans adapted the traditional Latin epitaph sit tibi terra levis (“may the earth lie lightly on you) for the great dramatist and architect: Lie heavy on him, Earth! / For he Laid many heavy loads on thee.

Death duties and the expenses of upkeep have altered circumstances since the grandees built their great structures, as Noel Coward observed in “The Stately Homes of England” in 1937: The Stately Homes of England / We proudly represent, / We only keep them up for / Americans to rent. …

But in America, if you’re not writing about San Simeon or one of those immense “cottages” the robber barons built at Newport, file stately home under cliche, cross-referenced to adjectival clutter.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:29 AM | | Comments (1)

November 8, 2007

A brief recess

I have to take a couple of days off from blogging. Feel free to have a look at the more than 240 previous posts, especially the comments, or check out what my colleagues on the blogroll are saying.
Posted by John McIntyre at 7:14 AM | | Comments (1)

November 6, 2007

Whose story is it?

I was conducting one of my seances on editing at a faraway newspaper, and one of the workshops involved a mixed audience of reporters, assigning editors and copy editors. A reporter — almost certainly the one I had been warned about — raised the question: “What about when the copy desk changes our stories?”

“Well,” I said mildly, “maybe we should consider that they aren’t exactly your stories. They get bylines to indicate the primacy of the reporting and writing, but they are the paper’s stories. The paper holds the copyright. And the copy desk is charged with maintaining the paper’s standards and protecting the paper’s interests.

“If a story under your byline had led to a libel suit, you wouldn’t much like it if you were called into the editor’s office and told, ‘I see you have a problem with your story. You should get yourself a lawyer.’ You want the editor to say, ‘We stand by our story, and we will defend it vigorously.’”

All the assigning editors and copy editors nodded at this set of truisms.

Then at lunch I was told that word was running like wildfire through the newsroom:

“He says they’re not our stories!”

Just so.

Newspaper journalism is a collaborative endeavor, nearer to the production of a film than of a poem or novel. A lot of people are entitled to get their hands on a text, to make sure that it is focused, structurally sound, accurate and consonant with the standards and intentions of the publication. (Sometimes that means taking hands off the keyboard instead of meddling — but not often.)

The final, published text is what matters. No one — trust me, no one who is not paid to do so — wants to examine successive draft versions of newspaper articles. We go to some trouble to make the articles publishable. The writer has his or her place, but so do the rest of us.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:07 AM | | Comments (5)

November 5, 2007

Not just gay talk

A gentleman commented on last week’s post on sexual preference and sexual orientation:

Each term - preference and orientation - is biased, prejudicial and politically charged. The usage speaks to the opinion of the speaker, hitting the reader with the writers opinion, eliciting either a warm fuzzy or cold, hard feeling.

I think that using well defined, accurate terms over euphemisms would improve the report, unless the example that started this was an opinion piece.

I thought we already had such a defined, accurate, non-euphemistic term in sexual orientation. The word orientation identifies a tendency without specifying its origin.

We know that human beings have an inborn proclivity to sexual activity — you’re not going to dispute that, are you? The question is the direction in which that proclivity develops. Since science has not yet determined definitively whether homosexual behavior — which is what all the hoo-hah is about — is inborn or learned or a mixture of the two, orientation is a neutral term.

Or so think, among others, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and former U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher. They all use the term.

And really, do you think when the freshman class shows up for orientation, we are saying that its members have an inborn trait to attend college classes?


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:53 AM | | Comments (4)

November 2, 2007

Orientation, not preference

A Sun reporter who used the phrase sexual preference in an article got a swift rebuke from a reader who admonished that sexual orientation should have been used instead.

The reference slid past the copy desk and into print, perhaps in part because our in-house stylebook did not address the issue. (It does now.)

In the entry gay, the Associated Press Stylebook says, in part, “Include sexual orientation only when it is pertinent to a story, and avoid references to “sexual preference” or to a gay or alternative “lifestyle.”

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage entry on sexual orientation gives an explanation” “never sexual preference, which carries the disputed implication that sexuality is a matter of choice.”

Curious things happen when terms become politicized. Sexual preference might have been innocuous in an earlier age in the context of a man’s finding red-headed women attractive, or a woman’s liking tall men. But the intense emotional charge on the matter of homosexuality — witness the odd uproar over J.K. Rowling’s mentioning that she thinks of a character in her Harry Potter novels as gay — means that responsible journalists will choose neutral terms over inflammatory ones.

No one will dispute that sexual behavior is a matter of individual choice, but political/scientific/religious disputes over whether homosexuality is inborn or learned make it important for the paper not to appear to take sides.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:35 AM | | Comments (7)
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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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