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December 31, 2007

Don't make me come over there

Now we all want to clear out, shudder briefly at what befell us during the year that is passing, and lift a cup of cheer with someone in the hope of better things to come. But if you want better times to come, there are some things you should stop doing.

Empty adjectives

An article from the McClatchy papers came over the wires with a reference to “Britain’s prestigious Oxford University.” If McClatchy imagines that its readers are such clotpolls* that they have to be told that Oxford is in Britain and has developed a certain academic cachet, then newspapers are in much worse shape than any of us imagined.

Misplaced adverbs The Los Angeles Times, a cousin in the happy family of Tribune newspapers whose work I respect enormously, filed an article with this sentence:

Such attacks typically are claimed by the Sunni militant group al-Qaida in Iraq, which Gen. David Petraeus said remained the greatest threat in the country.

Someone at the Times trembles in fear of the error of the split verb, which, like Sasquatch, the Yeti and the Loch Ness monster, is much talked about but does not exist. In idiomatic English, as distinguished from the argot journalists are prone to lapse into, adverbs fall between the auxiliary verb and the main verb: are typically claimed.

Otherwise, this sentence from the same article

Petraeus reiterated that progress on the security front has not been matched on the political front, with leaders of Iraq’s main ethnic and sectarian factions deadlocked on key power-sharing laws

would have to be written progress on the security front not has been matched.

Blurred distinctions

I changed the phrase staunch the bleeding to stanch the bleeding. A copy editor handled the article and changed stanch to staunch. Drunk with the power of the slot, I changed it back again.

Stanch, from the French estanche, means to stop, and it is conventionally used to mean halting the flow of blood. Wounds are stanched. Staunch, which comes from the same French root, originally meant watertight and came by metaphoric extension to mean firm, principled, determined.

The two spellings were used interchangeably in the 14th and 15th centuries, but that does not mean that it is a good idea for you to do the same. Over time, their senses have diverged, stanch remaining a verb meaning to stem a flow, staunch an adjective meaning steadfast or loyal. And the standard manuals maintain the distinction. In a weak moment, the lexicographers at Webster’s New World College Dictionary allowed that staunch is acceptable in both senses, but we are not bound by their judgments. Mr. Fowler said that when a useful distinction has developed in the language, the thoughtful writer will maintain that distinction.

So run along now to your end-of-year diversions (we don’t need the details). In the year that is about to begin, keep your nose clean, write as You Don’t Say advises, and everything should go smoothly.


*Clotpoll is a venerable word for a blockhead or dolt. Clot is allied etymologically to clod, and poll, of course, means the head. That’s why we have political polls, which count heads. And clotpolls trust them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 AM | | Comments (5)

December 30, 2007

A favorable report

Steve Young is out of intensive care.

Since being transferred from Sinai to Johns Hopkins last week, his brother Hank reports, he has improved, though with occasional reversals; he was taken off the respirator earlier this week and moved to a regular hospital room at Hopkins yesterday.

The complications for which he was treated are clearing up, he is being weaned off the sedatives and painkillers with which he has been treated, and he could begin physical therapy as early as tomorrow. He is, as you might imagine, impatient to be up, about and out of the hospital. All this is the best of news to the scores of people who have been offering their love and support from a distance.

That distance will have to be kept for a time. Though now alert, Steve was prevented by the medication from full awareness of the enormity that has befallen his family, and it is only now that he is beginning to cope with the loss of Matt and Abby. The family therefore feels very strongly that this is not a time for him to have visitors other than family members, and they urge you to respect this wish.

There is nothing, however, to prevent you from sending cards and messages of sympathy and encouragement. This is what the rest of us are able to do to help sustain him through these coming days of grief and recovery.

I will continue to post news on this blog as it comes to me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:40 PM | | Comments (0)

December 28, 2007

Gresham's blogs

Not that I know much more about economics than a hog knows of Chaucer, but I have heard of Gresham’s law: that money of low value will circulate more freely than money of higher value but the same face value. In the popular form, bad money chases out good. By extension, cheapness cheapens everything. *

One reason for readers to be leery of blogs is that many of them have not yet been housebroken. Their failure to follow these basic principles casts a shadow over the blogs that do. The cheap drives out the better. The same thing happens on unmoderated comment sites: soon the flood of anonymous racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic and xenophobic trash drives reasonable readers away.

Thursday’s New York Times carried this correction about one of its blogs:

A post in The Medium blog that appeared on Monday about the Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and his purported adoption by white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups contained several errors. Stormfront, which describes itself as a “white nationalist” Internet community, did not give money to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign; according to Jesse Benton, a spokesman for Paul’s campaign, it was Don Black, the founder of Stormfront, who donated $500 to Paul. The original post also repeated a string of assertions by Bill White, the commander of the American National Socialist Workers Party, including the allegation that Paul meets regularly “with members of the Stormfront set, American Renaissance, the Institute for Historic Review and others” at a restaurant in Arlington, Va. Paul never attended these dinners, according to Benton, who also says that Paul has never knowingly met Bill White. Norman Singleton, a congressional aide in Paul’s office, says that he met Bill White at a dinner gathering of conservatives several years ago, after which Singleton expressed his indignation at the views espoused by White to the organizer of the dinner. The original post should not have been published with these unverified assertions and without any response from Paul.

It is highly commendable of The Times to acknowledge this error of judgment and to insist on adherence to the fundamental principles of journalism in its blogging as well as in its print edition. Don’t print statements of fact unless you have checked them out. Don’t print damaging statements of fact about people without giving them an opportunity to respond.

Add to those two these two: Don’t make things up. Don’t pass off other people’s work as your own. They are not complicated propositions.

Check it out. Be fair. Be honest.


* I admitted in the first sentence that I’m an ignoramus. But go ahead anyway and comment on how stupid I am to misunderstand or misapply Gresham’s law.


Posted by John McIntyre at 3:23 PM | | Comments (2)

December 27, 2007

Turning a corner

Word comes from Steve Young’s brother Hank that Steve was taken off the respirator yesterday and has been breathing on his own for a full 24 hours. Though he needs occasional infusions of oxygen through a mask, no further intubation is anticipated.

He is also able to talk, though disoriented from his long period of heavy sedation.

His family is hopeful that by week’s end, if his progress continues satisfactorily, he could be moved out of intensive care and into a regular hospital room at Hopkins to continue convalescing.

Finally, some news that allows all of us to be hopeful.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:30 PM | | Comments (1)

December 24, 2007

Twelve days

Tomorrow begins the 12 days of Christmas, which will extend through Twelfth Night, the eve of the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6. All that holly-jollying you have been hearing for the past four weeks has taken place in Advent.

This is not to spoil your fun (as one might by pointing out that Jesus almost certainly wasn’t born on Dec. 25, or in Bethlehem, but we’ll leave the scholarship for another time). This is to point out that even though you may have been operating with the understanding that Christmas would be over sometime tomorrow night, you have eleven more days beyond it to make merry.

So if it is your custom to keep Christmas, You Don’t Say wishes you joy in the singing of carols and hymns, the exchange of gifts, the feasting at table and the spread of goodwill. And if your custom follows some other religious tradition or is determinedly secular, You Don’t Say hopes that the seasonal expression of benevolence will take you within its compass.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (6)

December 21, 2007

Encouraging words

Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, has circulated a memo with word about Steve Young’s condition received today from Steve’s brother Hank and the family pastor, the Rev. Thomas Blair:

Steve has been transferred from Sinai Hospital to Johns Hopkins for further treatment of acute respiratory distress syndrome. His condition is somewhat improved, though he is still heavily sedated and on a ventilator.

But his X-rays look improved, and apprehension about any opportunistic infection is reduced. The doctors estimate that he might be well enough to be taken off the ventilator in another two or three days, and they are describing his condition as “recoverable.”

Calls and visits are discouraged, but I am forwarding cards and notes sent to me at The Sun. I don’t expect to post about his condition over the next several days unless there is some significant change. Thanks to all of you who have expressed your concern for Steve and his family.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:43 PM | | Comments (1)

Lord Lytton's heirs

Each year San Jose State University presents the winners of its Bulwer-Lytton bad prose contest, named in honor of the 19th-century British novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The inspiration comes from the opening of Lord Lytton’s Paul Clifford: “It was a dark and stormy night. ...” The 2007 winners of the Bulwer-Lytton competition display a generous range of rococo effects.

Once, on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, some of us collaborated on an entry during slack time. (Yes, children, in the Olden Times copy editors sometimes had slack time during the shift.) I still admire it, though it won no prize:

Little did the lesbian mah-jongg champion who had shared his bed for three hectic seasons suspect that, having been run out of Brisbane, where he had been sent to oversee his family’s interests in the profitable eucalyptus-smuggling trade, for improper congress with a koala, Billy Bob Vanderbilt made a fortune selling worthless CDs to Thai whores in the mid-1960s, or that his past was about to catch up with him for the last time.

And yet our own feeble efforts paled in comparison with the work of fellow journalists filing unintentionally hilarious straight copy.

There was this little gem sent to The Enquirer’s copy desk about an FBI agent assigned to the Covington office (an FBI agent, mind you):

A specialist in coordinating bank robberies while in Denver, Huggins in recent years became involved in white collar crime and public corruption.

Or, in Baltimore, this datebook item that reached the copy desk:

The Hemlock Society of Maryland will meet at 1:30 p.m. March 24 at the Miller branch of the Howard County Public Library, 9421 Frederick Road, Ellicott City. Participants are asked to bring a dish to share.

Or, to return to the florid mode, this:

Spring arrives in Central County like a beautiful, young woman moving through the mist of our dearest memories.

After a bold introduction by the golden forsythia, she arrives with her attendants in bouffant Bradford pear and lacy weeping cherry. Dancing softly above the moist earth, tiny flower girls transform into pansies, daffodils and tulips.

As the music swells, all eyes turn to see the one most anticipated. Blushed with perfection, she is the dogwood.

It would be nice to look at Lord Lytton’s oeuvre and be able to say, “They’re not writing prose like that anymore.” Sadly, one can’t.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (3)

December 20, 2007

Second anniversary

The first You Don’t Say post burst upon an unsuspecting public on Dec. 20, 2005. Two years later, with the 278th post, this blog has a small but apparently loyal following. Imagine my astonishment.

It’s not the crowds that throng the sports blogs, or the restaurant blog, or even the dating blog, but a hardy band of fellow editors, teachers and admirers of the flexibility and riches of the English language.

I’m grateful for your attention, your willingness to correct and contradict, your kindness in the occasional note of appreciation, and your recognition that there is a reasonable middle ground between mossback purists and the teeming anything-goes crowd.

It has been a pleasure to link arms with Bryan Garner and Bill Walsh and Doug Fisher and Fred Vultee and Andy Bechtel and Kathy Schenck and Pam Robinson and Phil Blanchard and all the other advocates of sound editing and good sense with whom I have swapped remarks and ideas over these past two years.

I plan to keep this up as long as I still have anything useful to say.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 AM | | Comments (8)

December 19, 2007

The bivouac of the homeless

They were living under the Jones Falls Expressway in the back of the Sun building, a couple of dozen homeless people with improvised shelters of tarpaulin and scrap materials. City officials forced them to move, providing temporary housing for those willing to accept it. The articles in The Sun referred to their encampment as a shantytown.

That is almost certainly an exaggeration. A shanty, by traditional definition, is a crude dwelling, a cabin, a hut, a hovel. And a shantytown, says the Oxford English Dictionary, is a “suburb consisting of shanties” or “a poor or depressed area of a city or town.”

When we think of shantytowns, we typically summon up images of those vast, permanent or semi-permanent tracts of improvised housing — canvas, plastic, scrap wood, scrap metal — found on the outskirts of the cities of Brazil or India, home to hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands.

In this country, when we think of shantytowns, we may recall the Hoovervilles in which the unemployed of the Great Depression lived. One such Hooverville on the Anacostia Flats in Washington housed about 15,000 Bonus Marchers in the spring and summer of 1932, until they were expelled by troops under the command of George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur. (Not the nation’s finest hour.)

By a stretch, one might call the long-standing encampment of the homeless on the grounds of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church at the foot of the Jones Falls Expressway — “Bum Park” in local parlance — a shantytown, but it is hard to see how those two dozen unfortunates across the street could be considered to constitute such a settlement.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (0)

December 18, 2007

Premature optimism

Word today about Steve Young’s condition is less comforting than what we heard yesterday. His difficulty in breathing has increased significantly. He continues to be treated in the intensive-care unit at Sinai Hospital for pneumonia and infections from his injuries in the fire.

This is discouraging, but his condition, though worse, is stable, and his family expects that the treatment will be successful.

And his family has been touched by the outpouring of expressions of concern and contributions. Please continue to keep them in mind.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:44 PM | | Comments (0)


The stew

A gallimaufry, naturalized in English from the medieval French, is a stew, a dish of miscellaneous ingredients. By metaphoric extension, it has come to mean a composition of mixed items. The native English equivalent is hodgepodge, a variant on hotchpot, deriving from words for shaking ingredients in a pot. Or you may prefer farrago, from a Latin word for mixed fodder for cattle. In any event, today’s post is a jumble (which the Oxford English Dictionary concludes may be an onomatopoeia) or a medley (from the Anglo-French medler, to mix).

Finally good news

A colleague who visited Steve Young at Sinai Hospital yesterday reports that he is slowly recovering: still sedated, but making enough progress in recovering from pneumonia that there is a possibility that he could be transferred out of intensive care tomorrow.

Your tax dollars at work

A recent article on a Defense Department study of sexual assault at the military academies included the discovery that “perceptions exist that there is a negative stigma associated with reporting sexual assault.” I’m sure that a negative stigma must be the worst kind. But still, with concerns about cutting back on various programs for the public, it’s comforting that the Defense Department is generous in offering two words where one suffices.

Who’d a thunk?

The Associated Press distributed this opening sentence to an article about a collision of two trains in Chicago: “Federal transportation officials said Saturday their main priority as they investigate a train collision in Chicago’s South Side is to figure out why both trains were on the same track at the same time.” You can’t slip anything past those sleuths at the NTSB. Or, for that matter, those wordsmiths at the AP. I’m reminded of the sheriff we once quoted who similarly got to the heart of an investigation: “We think it’s the work of one individual or a group of individuals.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (0)

December 14, 2007

More on Steve Young

Bob Byrnes, a Sun copy editor, visited Steve Young at Sinai Hospital earlier today (Friday). Steve has been transferred back to intensive care for treatment of pneumonia. He appeared a little groggy but managed a short conversation. This means, of course, that he will be unable to attend the funeral tomorrow morning of Abby and Matt.

I was touched to see the notice today that the board of the American Copy Editors Society has voted to contribute $500 to the Young Family Fund. It was a generous thing to do. Solidarity among colleagues has marked ACES in the ten years since its founding and continues to grow.

The Park School and the Calvert School have also set up funds.

And cards and notes to the family can be sent to their church:

Second Presbyterian Church 4200 St. Paul Street Baltimore, MD 21218



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:22 PM | | Comments (1)

Johnsonian maxims

There’s a title that will draw readers like the newsroom moochers to cold pizza.

This is how Samuel Johnson opened the preface to his great dictionary of the English language in 1755, with a profession of humility that later opens up to reveal a sturdy pride in his abilities and his accomplishments:

“It is the fate of those who toil at the lower employments of life, to be rather driven by the fear of evil, than attracted by the prospect of good; to be exposed to censure, without hope of praise; to be disgraced by miscarriage, or punished for neglect, where success would have been without applause, and diligence without reward.”

He was referring specifically to the lexicographer, a “humble drudge.” But surely those lower employments of life can include other humble drudges, among them the copy editor.

Another humble drudge is the teacher, whose challenges (again akin to those of the copy editor) are admirably summed up in Johnson’s Life of Milton:

“Every man who has ever undertaken to instruct others can tell what slow advances he has been able to make, and how much patience it requires to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.”

Either passage would look fine tacked above a copy editor’s desk.

But not to neglect the writers. Here’s a remark Johnson made at dinner with the Literary Club in 1773, when the conversation turned to advice on writing:

“I would say … what an old tutor of a college said to one of his pupils: ‘Read over your compositions, and where ever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.’ ”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:20 PM | | Comments (0)

December 13, 2007

Writing comes first

An anonymous commenter to this blog carried on at some length about what he* imagined to be my contempt for reporters.**

Well, that’s just not so. I’ve stated repeatedly that reporting and writing are primary, editing secondary. All those years in graduate school, I never fell into the trap of imagining that, say, the commentators on Jonathan Swift were somehow superior to Swift. They were dependent on him, in the root sense of the word, hanging from. Besides, just last week I went out drinking with a group of reporters, and no one found it necessary to summon the constabulary.

I’ll concede, though, that the focus in this blog on pathology rather than healthy tissue may have given rise to that mistaken impression. Some corrective comments are in order.

When Bill Glauber was The Sun’s London correspondent, he filed a news feature on the funeral of Ronnie Kray — “mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic” — one of the notorious Kray brothers from the 1960s. I’ve used that story in dozens of workshops and classes; it is a model of observed detail meticulously selected, of skill and economy in organization. And it runs just a little over 700 words, showing that a perfectly satisfactory news feature does not require 3,000 words and the heaving and sweating that typically accompany such productions.

A couple of years ago, I was the copy editor for Bob Little’s articles in The Sun on the Army’s failure to supply troops in Iraq with a $20 tourniquet that could have prevented numerous deaths from hemorrhage. His text came to the copy desk, clean, clear, thorough and precise. There was almost nothing to correct or question.

Last week Julie Bykowicz filed an article on the Baltimore state’s attorney’s office use of probation violations to jail defendants who had been acquitted of other charges. It was solid reporting, explaining the technical legal circumstances with clarity, and highlighting cases of people involved. She shows that it is possible to write about technical legal questions without putting the reader to sleep.

Diana Sugg and Abigail Tucker have written numerous articles for The Sun about people in situations that carry a tremendous emotional charge, and they have been successful in writing those stories in a chaste style that never resorts to cheap, tear-jerking effects.

In our Business section, Eileen Ambrose’s columns are models of straightforward, lucid advice, and Jay Hancock’s columns always impress with their acuity and edge.

These are a mere handful of examples. In 21 years at The Sun, I have seen a steady growth of respect and civility between the reporting staff and the copy editors. I have also seen a confirmation of a view long held on the desk: that the best reporters and writers tend also to be the most receptive to questions and concerns from the copy desk. The most defensive writers usually have the most to be defensive about; the professionals understand the process.


* Though the author was anonymous, I use the masculine pronoun out of a reluctance to think that remarks that rude and ill-thought-out could come from a lady.

** Yes, I could link to the post so that you could see the comments yourself, but I gave them an airing once, and I don’t feel obligated to give further currency to remarks that are little better than raving. (“Seek counseling” would be my advice.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (1)

December 12, 2007

The psychology of editing

A reporter’s ego can be, and often is, like a Venetian spun-glass globe: very large and extremely fragile. It. Must. Be. Handled. Very. Carefully. *

The assigning editor has a difficult job, more challenging in the psychological dimension than the copy editor’s. The assigning editor has to cultivate, encourage, sometimes mentor. The assigning editor has to be an advocate for the reporter’s work with other editors, carrying the story into budget meetings and lobbying for its placement on the cover. At the same time, it falls to the assigning editor to point out shortcomings and curb the writer’s excesses, oversights and misjudgments.

The trap is this: I have here a reporter whom I see every day, whose work I promote in the newsroom, who is sensitive about criticism. Out there I have tens of thousands of readers, whom I never see or hear from, who will find this story opaque, dull or amateurish, and who will drop it like a stone after looking at two or three sentences. Which party will I favor?

The trap for the copy editor is simpler. The reporter has turned over his story. It’s his story. He remembers vividly the circumstances of its conception, he carried it through a long gestation, and then, in strain and struggle, he brought it into the world. That story is his child. And here comes some S.O.B. from the copy desk, saying, “Mmmmm-MMPH, that is one ugly baby.”

The way around these traps is professionalism. And it has to be learned, because the psychological reactions can be suppressed but never eliminated. No one likes being edited, but professionals submit to it.

The professional demand is for all concerned to look at the text as an artifact, a thing, a production that is separate from the producer. To point out shortcomings in this thing is not to identify them with the producer of the thing. So professionals, writers and editors, try to avoid the second-person pronoun. It is the story, not your story. Refer carelessly to what you did wrong here, and armed missiles start to rise out of silos in Montana. (Restrict the second-person pronoun to instances of praise.)

This is an artificial little dance, but it can be learned, and performance of it ultimately benefits the reader, the party who is otherwise pretty much ignored.


* Imagine, for illustrative purposes, a former reporter who has gone on to a fresh career in which he finds success, money, and recognition and praise far more widely than was ever possible within the compass of the circulation of his old newspaper. And yet it galls him, scalds his soul, that the editors in that newsroom never gave his prodigious talents the recognition they were due. Imagine that this hypothetical former reporter now embarks on a new project — payback time — in which he will be able to hold up thinly disguised representations of those philistines to scorn and ridicule.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:27 PM | | Comments (2)


Funeral services for Abigail Young and Matthew Young will be conducted at 10 a.m. Saturday at Second Presbyterian Church.
Posted by John McIntyre at 7:28 AM | | Comments (5)

December 11, 2007

An opportunity to contribute

Many of you have asked how you might to contribute to Steve Young and his family during their distress. The Sun has set up a fund through M&T Bank so that employees and friends of the family can make such donations.

Employees can make checks payable to the Young Family Fund and take to the Cash Office on the fourth floor at the Calvert Street office. Donations from people not employed by The Sun should also be in checks payable to the Young Family Fund and mailed to this address:

The Baltimore Sun

C/O Young Family Fund

501 N. Calvert Street

Baltimore, MD 21278-0001

Attn: Cashier's Office

In addition, the Tribune Co., which has an established employee relief fund, has made a substantial contribution to the family to assist them as they struggle to recover from this terrible misfortune.

Steve remains a patient at Sinai Hospital.

And people continue to write about their responses at the first post on this site. It might do you good to go back to look at the comments, which may touch your heart with their affection and concern and deep sadness.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:49 PM | | Comments (0)

December 8, 2007

A delay

Publication of the obituary for Abigail and Matthew Young, originally planned for The Sun’s editions of Sunday, Dec. 9, has been delayed.
Posted by John McIntyre at 8:00 PM | | Comments (0)

And now this

Matthew Young died this morning at Sinai Hospital. He was 16.

Steve was transferred yesterday from Shock Trauma to Sinai, and he was with his son.

The Sun is preparing an obituary of Matt and his sister, Abby, which should run in the main Sunday edition. I will link to it from this site.

Please keep Steve, Nancy, Laura and Carrie in your thoughts.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:08 PM | | Comments (3)

December 6, 2007

In deep sorrow

It’s never good news when the telephone rings early in the morning. Today it was grim.

Fire broke out at 4 a.m. today at a house in the Roland Park neighborhood, the home of Steve Young, a deputy chief of The Sun’s copy desk, and his family. You can see the report, updated as we get fresh information, at

Steve’s 11-year-old daughter died, and his 16-year-old son is on life support. Steve himself has been listed in critical condition at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

His colleagues on the copy desk and elsewhere in the newsroom, as well as colleagues who have moved on to other endeavors, are devastated that this staggering misfortune has overtaken a friend we have worked alongside for nearly 10 years.

If it is your practice to say prayers, it would be kind of you to utter them for Steve and his family.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:48 PM | | Comments (44)

Stop it; just stop it

One of our newer copy editors wonders about verbs, asking which is “more correct”:

Although they are probably second-guessing ... Although they probably are second-guessing ... I think "are probably" (and thus "are also," etc) is the better form, but it keeps getting changed when I flop it.

Score one for the tyro.* The former example is perfectly correct, and anyone who changes it to the latter is (a) mistaken and (b) wasting valuable time.

In idiomatic English, adverbs have typically fallen between the main verb and the auxiliary for centuries. Some authorities have mistakenly warned against “split verbs,” on the analogy with split infinitives. Of course, reputable authorities have repeatedly exploded the split infinitive superstition, and they have similarly dealt with the compound verb issue.

There you have it: Three sentences with four examples of splitting a compound verb in exactly the way that a native English speaker not corrupted by newspaper journalism would write or say.

From Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage (1971): “There is no rule in English that forbids separating the parts of a compound verb. Indeed, more often than not, the natural position for an adverb is just ahead of the main verb it modifies.” His example is “a plan that has been gradually evolving.”

From John Bremner’s Words on Words: A Dictionary for Writers and Others Who Care About Words (1980): “Splitting an infinitive should not be confused with splitting the parts of a compound verb, as in “I have often walked down this street before.” Those who would ban splitting a compound verb are even more antediluvian than the antisplitinfinitive troglodytes.”

Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) includes “Never Split a Verb Phrase” as a sub-entry under the heading “SUPERSTITIONS” and quotes three other authorities, including Eric Partridge’s remark, “There is, however, a tendency to move an adverb from its rightful and natural position for inadequate reasons.”

I have been campaigning against this nonsensical warping of English at The Sun and in newsrooms around the country for more than a decade. Like General Grant, I propose to fight out on this line for as long as it takes.


* Tyro, novice, beginner, from the Latin (natch) tiro, or young soldier, recruit.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:00 AM | | Comments (5)

December 5, 2007

Told you so

The Examiner in San Francisco has taken down posts on its Web site that were written by a prolific unpaid blogger. It turns out that the blogger simply copied and pasted large extracts of text from other publications and ran them under her own name. It turns out further that the blogger, apparently inexperienced in the conventions of blogging and publishing, was given no supervision or guidance by the paper.

The comments from Jim Pimentel, the executive editor of the Examiner, as reported in, are instructive. "They're blogs. They don't get edited," he said. "We don't give any direction to people on what to write in their blogs. And that's standard operating procedure."

Mr. Pimentel further told Matt Smith, the SF Weekly reporter, that “the Examiner has a less-strict standard for accuracy and attribution in stories that appear on the Web. That's because online stories can be changed as journalistic problems emerge, while printed stories require publishing corrections, he said.”

Further: "’There are obvious different standards,’ he said. ‘Content in the [printed] Examiner runs through different editors, so there's a level of accountability that I have to the newspaper. But as we've seen on the Internet, that accountability isn't always there.’"

But we can all take comfort in learning that the Examiner reserves the right to delete blog posts that are plagiarized or libelous.

So you open up a publication to people who are not schooled in the niceties of attribution or confirmation of accuracy, you allow them to put anything on the Web site without meaningful oversight, and then you are surprised when people inform you of improprieties. Who could have foreseen it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:15 PM | | Comments (2)

Like playing the piano with mittens on

You go in to work, sign on the machine and slog through the complaints about the copy desk’s outrages against language, imagination and common human decency.

Apparently professional journalists are no more adept than the population at large to distinguish between who and whom. And, God save the mark, we ran a headline that used impact as a verb.

But those were more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger complaints. The real eye-popping, high-blood-pressure, uh-oh-these-people-know-where-I-sit complaints come when the desk has, in the familiar phrasing, “drained the life out of the story.”

Some time back (it’s good to use examples involving people who no longer work at the paper), an irate reporter pointed out that in her lead sentence, which referred to some act being as difficult as “nailing Jell-O to the wall,” the copy desk had changed Jell-O to gelatin. The substitution of the generic term for the specific, she argued, flattened out the sentence and robbed it of flavor. Her editor backed her up.

And so it had, though for a reason. *

There is no doubt that the change dulled down the sentence, and I apologized meekly. But what I didn’t say — she might have hurt me — is that it was a cliche to start with. Skeptical? Go to Google and see for yourself how many tens of thousands of times the difficulty of nailing Jell-O to a wall has been mentioned. (A couple of sites tell you how to do it.) Moreover, nailing Jell-O to the wall is itself a variant on an older cliche, nailing a custard pie to the wall, which has been attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright, Theodore Roosevelt and, for all I know, Erasmus of Rotterdam.

The copy desk had failed twice, by not challenging the cliche in the first place (something you’d think a moderately awake assigning editor might have done) and by making a bland substitution instead.

I leave it to you to imagine how joyfully the message is received that everyone is wrong.


* A digression on the reason: Whenever we use the brand name of a product in an article, chances are good that we will get a lawyer letter advising that we are infringing on a trademark. Companies know what happened with xerox, and they are determined to keep their products in the upper case. So their hirelings at various law firms have to be vigilant, because if they neglect to challenge casual uses of the product name, some judge may later rule that the name has become generic. And thus the legal system ticks along in its principal task, the production of legal fees.

The Sun gets such a lawyer letter every few months, and they are forwarded to me, because no one else wants to touch them. Mainly, these signify that the law firm has been zealous on behalf of the client; in my time at The Sun, no such letter has led to further legal action. And I periodically caution the copy editors against use of trade names, to show that we are not scofflaws.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (2)

December 4, 2007

First not always best

David Michael Ettlin, who retired this year after four decades at The Sun, was a witness to history. He was one of the reporters in the courtroom in the old U.S. Courthouse on Calvert Street on Oct. 10, 1973, the day that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pleaded no contest to charges of tax evasion and resigned from office.

No one was permitted to leave the courtroom until the Agnew plea had been completed. Ettlin, who was a stringer for Reuters as well as a reporter for The Sun, knew where he could get to a telephone fast. The phone he knew about was closer than the phone the Associated Press reporter knew about, so Reuters beat AP on the Agnew plea by two or three minutes.

In the glory days of wire services, a minute or two counted. AP, United Press International and Reuters battled to be first with breaking news. The time involved was of no great consequence in conveying the news to the public, but it was of immense prestige, like counting coup among the Comanche.

Today, in addition to wire services, bloggers and other independent sources race to be first to put the word out, and it would be strange if being first were not still a source of bragging rights. But being in a hurry to be first is risky, as was demonstrated last week during the hostage incident at Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign office in Rochester, N.H.

Fox News and the Huffington Post Web log spent a couple of hours posting information about a man said to be the hostage-taker. They were wrong, and the whole sorry account can be found, with acid commentary, at Doug Fisher’s Common Sense Journalism.

So much again for the much-hyped immediacy of Internet journalism and the elimination of “barriers” between the reporter and the reader. Somewhere there should have been an editor peering over the writer’s shoulder and asking the questions: “Are you sure he’s the one? Who says so? What’s your source? Is your source reliable? Do you have confirmation from another source? Yes, we want to get this out, but we want to get it right.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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