« A favorable report | Main | Become a better person »

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)


"Clotpoll" surprised me; I think I've always seen it written "clodpoll" or "clodpole." A tour of several dictionaries seems to indicate "clodpoll" is the preferred spelling, but apparently Shakespeare and Johnson used "clotpoll." Interesting.

If it was good enough for Dr. Johnson, it's good enough for me.

Are you deliberately misspelling McClatchy for sardonic effect?

Just sheer carelessness. Fixed.

Came for the clotpolls, stayed for the staunch.

I think of "clotpolls" as a polite way to say "Sh*it for brains", since "clot" can be used to mean a mixture of mud and manure found in farm yards.

It is still in use, by some of us. See the URL if interested.

> In a weak moment, the lexicographers at Webster’s New World College Dictionary . . .

Hear! Hear! They also tell the gullible that "so" can mean "very", as in "He is SO handsome.", which my (old, sexist) Funk and Wagnell's says "smacks of a schoolgirl's undelining."

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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

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

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