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January 31, 2008

A threadbare aristocracy

Responding to yesterday’s post, my esteemed colleague Denise Covert disagreed respectfully — a startling phenomenon, unaccustomed as I am to being treated respectfully — and entered a spirited defense of the knowledgeability of copy editors:

But you cannot teach them to be a human sponge for all manner of knowledge, from local institutional knowledge (sadly missing lately due to so many buyouts/layoffs) to general potpourri. Like mild OCD, only certain people are like that, and it is those people who are the truly successful copy editors.

Be at ease, Sister Covert. I’m not belittling the intelligence of copy editors, or of other journalists. Though the dolts I’ve encountered in newspapering over the years have been numerous, they do not appear to exceed the general distribution in the population. And if it seems odd that so many of them have reached positions of authority, one need only look at, say, the United States Congress or the upper reaches of the clergy for comparison.

But the comment on yesterday's post merely underscores the point I was trying to make yesterday. Journalism — good journalism, with effective editing — does require intelligence and analytical ability, but not highly specialized knowledge unavailable elsewhere. Copy editors in particular are most effective when they posses a wide fund of general information, and those are people I look for in hiring. But that information is easily acquired through wide-ranging reading and retention.

It may be true that in an age of superficial education and a prevalent self-absorption that encourages inattention to the world around them, people may be astonishingly ill-informed. Look at the people Jay Leno quizzes on the street. But that doesn’t mean that information is accessible only to an elect.

The melancholy truth is that in our grand Republic, it is as true today as it was 80 years ago when H.L. Mencken wrote: “Here [in the United States] the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy."

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:56 AM | | Comments (1)
        

January 30, 2008

Here's the secret password

Professor Doug Fisher, proprietor of the Common Sense Journalism blog, is concerned that we copy editors do ourselves a disservice by allowing a perception to persist that we are a mysterious black box with workings that no one else can understand. To many at newspapers, we’re a bread machine: Someone puts in the ingredients and pushes a button, and at the appointed time a loaf comes out.

What prompted Brother Fisher’s ruminations was a blog post by Lynn Bering, freelance journalist in Clarion, Pa., who wrote: “Copy editors know stuff writers don’t. It’s like a secret society with complicated rules and secret handshakes. I am too impatient to be a copy editor and I lack the extra brain cells it requires to acquire their finesse in editing.”

Let me pull back the curtain. Copy editing is not like deciphering Babylonian cuneiform or reconstructing the genetic code. Like everything else in journalism, if it were too difficult, journalists couldn’t do it.

Copy editing is editing. The copy editor looks at a text and asks really obvious and simple-minded questions: Is this accurate? Is this clear? Where does this information come from? (These are also the questions that good writers pose to themselves.)

Yes, copy editors also address the structure and organization of articles, but the arsenal of devices available to journalists is not extensive. One police story, one obituary, one profile is very much like all the others. Journalistic articles are basically a series of set forms that are easy to imitate. That is how they can be produced rapidly.

And copy editors concern themselves with grammar and usage. Once again, one does not need an advanced degree in linguistics to parse the sentences in newspaper articles. The grammar I learned from Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig in grades five through eight in public schools in Fleming County, Kentucky, in the1960s is surprisingly adequate for most purposes in newspaper editing.

The copy desk also has to code articles for typesetting. I hate to be tiresomely repetitive, but if newspaper pagination systems were really difficult to master, journalists couldn’t manage them.

The specialization in copy editing does not rise from arcane knowledge but from uncommon temperament.

The best copy editors are mildly obsessive-compulsive; they are driven to see that the details are right. Mildly obsessive-compulsive, because if they weren’t obsessive to a degree, they wouldn’t care; and because if they were too obsessive, they’d never be able finish editing a text.

Copy editors work anonymously. No one outside the newspaper knows who they are or what they do, and it’s not uncommon at some papers for senior managers to be unable to identify them by name. If you think that a 10-line news brief is incomplete without your name at the end, you probably have no business on the copy desk.

Copy editors work under pressure. Reporters kvetch about deadlines, but copy editors actually have to meet theirs. There is never enough time to do everything that ought to be done, much less what one would like to do, so copy editors, like emergency room personnel, are constantly calculating triage.

The flaw in the copy editor personality — the urgent issue to address — is the naïve but touching belief that doing a job conscientiously and well is all that is necessary to be appreciated by one’s employer.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (8)
        

January 29, 2008

Beware the Fourth of March

Consider this a warning: March 4 is National Grammar Day.

Though this blog is listed as participating in the event, I feel a tremor of apprehension at how the various mavens, snobs, SNOOTs, elitists, prescriptionists and precisionists, drunk with power at getting a day all their own, might comport themselves.

Shall we see people who say “between you and I” clapped into stocks in the public square? Will insurgents sweep through markets, tearing down signs announcing TOMATO’S and CUKE’S? Will newspapers and magazines find themselves buried under sacks of mail full of letters that begin, “Have any of the members of your staff attended college” or “Are any of your employees native speakers of English?” Will the air above our great cities fill with smoke as mobs armed with pitchforks and torches storm the publishing houses that have dispensed with copy editing? Will straggling crowds of journalists who have written about safe havens and mass exoduses and the HIV virus shuffle through the streets on their way to re-education camps where they will shovel manure until they are rehabilitated?

Well, we all love a spectacle.

Or will the participants take a more civilized and informed approach? Perhaps to sit down with that high school English teacher who forbade splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, explaining gently that there is nothing wrong with either in English. Or to hand out copies of Garner’s Modern American Usage to those in need of clarity. Or read David Foster Wallace’s "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays for its fun and good sense.

Or to resolve not to be so prissy and self-important, letting people indulge in the demotic of their choice when they talk or write casual electronic messages, and focusing attention on the way people write for publication.

Or perhaps just to hold on to that letter or memo or article a little longer, to go over one more time to see what might be cleaned up.

And you, you civilian, you non-maven, you reader. On that fateful Tuesday, it won’t be necessary to hug a copy editor — nobody wants that. But you might murmur a quiet word of thanks.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (3)
        

January 28, 2008

A Britney-Spears-free zone

Let’s have a quick look at the important events of the day.

Grunty baby polar bear learns to crawl (CNN)

Mayor guilty of dog-napping? Vote for weirdest story (MSNBC)

Firm offers ‘heartache leave’

A company gives workers one to three paid days off after a bad break-up (Yahoo)

11-Year-Old Boy Deaf for Nine Years Suddenly Cured (Fox News)

New Jersey Cop Tickets Fellow Officers Last Day on Job (Fox News)

Jury to Be Picked for Mom Accused of Microwaving Baby (Fox News)

There. Informed?

But wait. If you were expecting a load of solemn head-shaking and grave tsk-tsking over our degenerate times, you are being spared. A century ago, Alfred Harmsworth, later elevated to the peerage as Lord Northcliffe, bestrode the London newspaper scene like a colossus. Here is how Piers Brendon describes the means of his success in Eminent Edwardians:

“Northcliffe’s success was largely built on his receptiveness to, and his mirroring of, public opinion. He was always reluctant to insult his readers gratuitously by telling them what they did not want to know. [emphasis added]. They did want to know about hats — ‘Terrors of Top Hat Wearing’ was a favoured early headline — and about skirts — ‘The Battle of the Skirts: Long v. Short’: ‘What a great talking point,’ said Northcliffe. They wanted to know about first-class murder and highly-spiced scandals, decorously presented, of course — Northcliffe’s private sexual habits may have resembled Mussolini’s but his public attitudes, like those of most Edwardians, were products of the fertile union between Mr Podsnap and Mrs Grundy. They wanted to know about baby-farming and ill-health, about sport and money, about rumours of war and royalty, about scientific marvels and strange things found in tunnels. In short, they wanted entertainment disguised as information. [emphasis added]”

Or, as a somewhat earlier analysis concluded, “All things are wearisome; no man can speak of them all. Is not the eye surfeited with seeing, and the ear sated with hearing? What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look, this is new’? No, it has already existed, long ago before our time. The men of old are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them.” [Ecclesiastes 1:8-11]

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:27 AM | | Comments (0)
        

January 27, 2008

Say it louder

They’re talking among themselves over at Testy Copy Editors about whether they should have allowed something to reach a crescendo. As usual, the discussion moves quickly from the word itself to the politics of editing. Let’s separate some of the elements for examination.

From the start, you know from piano lessons or high school band or listening to Rossini overtures that a crescendo is a steady increase in volume. It isn’t the loudest point, but the progression from the softest to the loudest. It isn’t the peak of Mount Everest; it’s the climb.

Dictionaries, which register widespread usage by people who blur distinctions, blur this one, recording that many speakers and writers of English use the word in the slacker sense.

The choice should be easy. Whenever you see a technical word used in an imprecise or inaccurate way — such as schizophrenic to mean being of two minds about something — you know that this will be a minor irritant to the informed reader. And why would you want to irritate the smarter readers?

But crescendo was the writer’s choice, and the writer put it in the lead paragraph, and procedure must be followed. One envisions something like this: The copy editor walks hesitantly to the assigning desk and stands there, cap in hand, until the assigning editor turns his majestic brow. “Please, your worship,” the copy editor says, “begging your pardon, and mayn’t I change this one little word to keep our writer from looking like a horse’s ass?” The assigning editor allows one grave nod and turns aside, while the copy editor backs away, saying, “Thank’ee, sir, thank’ee; you won’t regret it.”

Let’s look at the noble sentence in question: A dreary week of gray skies, drizzle and snow flurries will reach a crescendo today, with a strong storm expected to drop 1 1/2 inches of rain on the South Bay. We’ll have to assume that, since the writer doesn’t appear to know the strict sense of the word, reach a crescendo must mean to attain the highest pitch of intensity. So, apparently, a week of fluctuating and not much substantial weather will come to a climax today as Jove hurls his thunderbolts from the summit of Olympus and California gets an inch and a half of rain. Wow.

It might also occur to those of you familiar with newspaper journalism that in such contexts, reach a crescendo is also a damn cliche.

The thing, though, that troubles me most, is the tone of some of the responses to the original question. I sense, from the repetition and context of the word “purist,” a hesitation to make distinctions, an apprehension of being labeled as preoccupied with trifles. And if what I sense lurking in the background is the case, that my fellow copy editors have internalized the those-fussbudgets-on-the-copy-desk-are-at-it-again attitude one gets in newsrooms, then we have hobbled ourselves and compromised our effectiveness. Diminuendo.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (3)
        

January 26, 2008

Transparent pie and dressing balls

I have been a consumer of Kentucky cookery, not a student of it. But, maundering in nostalgic longing, I’ve been unable to resist writing about it. You know about my grandmother’s sour cream cookies, and I told my fellow Sun blogger and expatriate Kentuckian Steve Sullivan about my mother’s bourbon balls. Now that I’ve written about fried chicken and other exotic victuals*, you’ve raised questions that must be addressed.

About those transparent tarts (which my family always called transparent puddings): I have no idea where the name transparent comes from, and neither did my grandmother when I asked her, some 45 years ago. Transparent pies and tarts are very much like pecan pie without the pecans.

The pie filling, according to one recipe, uses eggs, sugar, butter, vinegar and vanilla extract. Another one omits the vinegar while adding flour and cream. Some use milk instead of cream. My grandmother insisted that the addition of cream made it chess pie rather than transparent pie, but one source says that cornmeal is what distinguishes chess pie. I am not citing any of the Internet sources for these variations, because I can’t vouch for their authority. Some transparent pie recipes on the Internet use margarine.

My information on dressing balls is even sketchier. Dressing is a regional term for stuffing. Dressing balls are stuffing cooked outside the bird. Some recipes call for stale bread; as I mentioned, my grandmother ground up her own stale biscuits for the base. Never having paid attention to the manufacture, I can’t tell you whether she used broth or giblets, or onion and celery, or eggs, or spices beyond salt and pepper. Her dressing balls, rolled and cooked on a cookie sheet, were brown and slightly crunchy on the outside, deliciously soft and moist on the inside.

Her salt-rising bread was memorable, and I remember her telling another woman her secret for making it rise: She cheated and used yeast.

 

* Victuals, pronounced vittles, is from the Latin victualia, or provisions. This is the first occasion I've ever had to use the word.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:19 PM | | Comments (1)
        

January 24, 2008

A chat with Steve Young

Steve Young came to the door without his cane to greet me this morning, with one visitor going out as I was coming in. He needs the cane for getting about but only intermittently. He’s wearing a brace while his fractured pelvis and cracked vertebrae heal, but he is getting around without overmuch difficulty and going regularly to physical therapy.

He’s mildly concerned about his short-term memory and attention span, which are a little out of kilter still because of the weeks he spent under heavy sedation. But he is appalled at daytime television and holds reality TV in contempt, so we can be confident that his judgment is intact.

He listens with interest to scraps of gossip from the newsroom and nods sagely at the word that everything is going straight to hell — the normative situation at daily newspapers from time out of memory. He is eager to come back to work, expecting that he will try to return in March if his recovery from his various injuries permits.

He and his wife and eldest daughters are living in temporary quarters — you can write to them for the next few weeks or so at 6607 Parkway Drive, Baltimore, MD 21239. They are bearing one another up as they struggle to cope with the loss of Matthew and Abby.

And he is deeply grateful for the expressions of concern that have appeared on this blog and in the many letters of condolence he and the family have received. “It has made a difference,” he said. So all of you who have followed this story since that awful day in December, feeling helpless, convinced that your gifts of food or money, your cards and letters, and your prayers were inadequate, be advised: You have eased four troubled hearts.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:07 PM | | Comments (2)
        

January 23, 2008

Diktats, edicts, fiats and ukases*

All rulings about a publication’s house style are arbitrary. When there is more than one possibility for writing something — a number as a word or a numeral, a title abbreviated or written out, a noun capitalized or lowercase — a house style picks one for the sake of consistency, so as not to distract the reader.

But the power to make arbitrary rulings tempts those who wield it to enshrine their personal preferences in the publication’s policies. Editors, managing editors, assistant managing editors, copy desk chiefs and other tinpot autocrats leave their traces behind, sometimes shackling their staffs for years after their own departures.

Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey Jr., The Sun’s managing editor during the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s, affectionately memorialized in Russell Baker’s The Good Times, despised the verb gutted. It was an ugly word, he said, that was not to appear in his newspaper. The rule against it, from the “Whims and Foibles” section of The Sun’s 1958 stylebook, survives today in the electronic version.

It is widely disregarded, not just by the reporters, many of whom cannot be troubled to consult the stylebook, but also by copy editors, who are expected to have a working knowledge of the stylebook.

(I can, however, make a case against gutted. If we are writing, as we usually are, about burned buildings rather than fish, I don’t know what the writer means by gutted. Is the interior destroyed, with only the shell standing. Or is the interior seriously damaged but partially intact? Or something else. More precision would be good.)

Another departed managing editor hated the word escapee. The -ee suffix, he argued, is appended to verbs to indicate that an action is done to someone. But a prisoner who escapes is the actor, and therefore should be called an escaper. The logic is impeccable, but the English language does not operate by logic. While escaper is indisputably in the language — the OED cites a passage in the King James Bible — escapee has been the word in wider use for well over a century. We went along with escaper for a while, to placate authority, but escaper last appeared in The Sun in September 2001 and is not likely to make many future appearances.

As these two examples attest, while it’s easy to make a rule, it’s extremely difficult to enforce it in a newsroom full of journalists accustomed to going things their own way. Over time, a combination of defiance, lax enforcement and failure to instruct new employees further weakens the rules.

The real surprise is how long the bad ones survive. I’m confident that readers of this blog could offer a bounty of examples.

 

* All four are arbitrary rulings. Diktat is German, so no more need be said about authoritarianism. Edict is from the Latin verb edicere, “to proclaim.” Fiat is also from Latin, “let it be so.” Ukase is Russian, the word for a decree by the czar.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:51 PM | | Comments (8)
        

January 22, 2008

What winter is good for

I encroached on Elizabeth Large’s dining turf. Now, to complain about winter, she encroaches on science turf. Coming full circle, I can, by stepping on her toes again, tell her what winter is good for:

Toddies.

Put a teaspoon of sugar in a good, stout drinks glass, squeeze the juice of a quarter to half a lemon into it, stir till the sugar is dissolved, and leave the spoon in the glass. Pour in a quantity of boiling water, to taste, no more than a cup. The spoon will radiate some of the heat away so that the glass doesn’t shatter. Add a healthy glug, again, to taste, of bourbon (Old Forester is a fine bourbon ordinaire). Sip. Repeat as needed.

If you lack the fortitude for the unadulterated toddy, brew a mug of strong black tea and add the ingredients as above.

Though you should really support the economy of my native Commonwealth of Kentucky by using bourbon, I will not denounce you if you substitute brandy or rum.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:04 PM | | Comments (1)
        

The glamour of grammar

It turns out that glamour, a word we customarily associate with beauty or charm or a high level of attractiveness, comes from the same root as grammar, which we customarily associate with drudges such as your ob’t. Servant.

The Oxford English Dictionary explains how this came about:

“In classical Gr. and L. the word denoted the methodical study of literature (= ‘philology’ in the widest modern sense, including textual and æsthetic criticism, investigation of literary history and antiquities, explanation of allusions, etc., besides the study of the Greek and Latin languages. Post-classically, grammatica came to be restricted to the linguistic portion of this discipline, and eventually to ‘grammar’ in the mod. sense. In the Middle Ages, grammatica and its Rom. forms chiefly meant the knowledge or study of Latin, and were hence often used as synonymous with learning in general, the knowledge peculiar to the learned class. As this was popularly supposed to include magic and astrology, the OF. gramaire was sometimes used as a name for these occult sciences. In these applications it still survives in certain corrupt forms, F. grimoire, Eng. GLAMOUR.”

The word glamour came into English by way of Scotland, where it originally meant, the OED says, “Magic, enchantment, spell; esp. in the phrase to cast the glamour over one.” It made its way to beauty by way of magic, since the allure secured by magic was illusory and dangerous.

Now, as Fortune’s wheel creaks along, we appear to be circling back to a Medieval culture in which knowledge of grammar is peculiar to a learned (though neither wealthy nor prestigious) class, and in which mastery of grammar might as well be magic to those unlearned in it.

My students, for example. Or many journalists, some of whom appear to have given up the struggle to master its/it’s, who/whom, comprise/compose and other arcana. Or the exponents of the true democracy of the Internet, where one word is just as good as any other word.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:52 PM | | Comments (4)
        

January 20, 2008

The One True Fried Chicken

As I walked past the deli counter at the grocery the other day, a platter of fried chicken tempted me briefly, but I walked on. With my grandmother and mother both gone, the chances of my ever tasting the One True Fried Chicken again in this life are negligible.

Nevertheless, hope flickers in this vale of sorrow and disappointment, and so I offer to those of you who cook what little I know of the technic* of my mother’s cookery. (I would even be willing to evaluate experimental productions, without fee.)

First, get hold of small pieces of chicken. Large pieces take longer to cook and therefore soak up more grease.

Soak the chicken in milk for a time. (I don’t know, overnight, a couple of hours? I wasn’t a damn spy in the kitchen.)

It’s OK to take the skin off if you have dietary concerns, but it’s better with the skin on. Similarly, you can use vegetable oil rather than lard. Save the lard for the pie crust.

Dredge the pieces of chicken in cracker crumbs rather than flour. Crispier that way. Any seasonings you mix in are your business, but salt and pepper are enough.

Put enough oil to cover the pieces of chicken in your grandmother’s iron skillet. All right then, your mother’s iron skillet. If you don’t have an iron skillet that has been seasoned for a least a generation, we might as well abandon this project right now.

Turn the heat on — gas or electric, it doesn’t matter — and throw three or four grains of popcorn into the skillet. When the corn pops, the oil will be hot enough.

Ease the pieces of chicken in, turning them to cook evenly. When they are the right shade of golden brown, take them out and let them rest for a few minutes on paper towels. They should taste just as good eaten warm or cold.

If you can master this, you will have revived a remnant of civilization in a world given over to inferior fried chicken, opening the minds of those you feed to the prospect of more graceful living.

Sometime, too, we need to talk about country ham. The real dry-cured stuff, not that stuff you find in the grocery that has been injected with saltwater for curing.

And after that how to replicate my grandmother’s homemade biscuits, which is what the ham should be eaten with.

  

*Technic is, sadly, a seldom-used word to identify skill. It derives, like technical and technique, from the Greek techne, or practical and applied knowledge; it is distinguished from episteme, which can be understood to mean abstract or theoretical knowledge.

 

 

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

January 17, 2008

No apologies

Please add to your list of proscribed lame devices this example from an Associated Press article describing a rare snowfall in Baghdad:

For a couple of hours anyway, a city where mortar shells routinely zoom across to the Green Zone became united as one big White Zone. As of late afternoon, there were no reports of violence. The snow showed no favoritism as it fell faintly on neighborhoods Shiite and Sunni alike, and (with apologies to James Joyce) upon all the living and the dead.

The other merits, if any, of this length of prose aside, with apologies to is a construction that a writer uses to identify an allusion that he fears the reader might not catch. It's a written equivalent of a nudge in the ribs.

If you lack confidence that your readers will catch an allusion, you probably shouldn’t make it.

With apologies to is also the construction commonly used to introduce an imitation of a well-known poem or other work of art. Most such parodies fail to impress — and if you doubt me, you can look up the feeble items disclosed on a Google search of the phrase “with apologies to Robert Frost.” Mr. Frost doesn’t need your apologies, but it would be good of you to shut up.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:45 AM | | Comments (5)
        

January 16, 2008

It's over when it's over

An annoying element in the coverage or primary elections — not as consequential as the inept prognostications or as annoying as the banal chatter, but still worth deploring — is the talk as the count proceeds of final results.

We’re back in obnoxious pleonasm territory. A result is an outcome or a consequence. The result is where the process ends. You can have preliminary returns, and you can have disputed or contested returns, but the result is the final count.

And it’s not just in election coverage that this pointless construction pops up:

Final results for U.S. existing-home sales in 2007 — to be released later this month — are expected to be down 12.7 percent from 6.48 million in 2006, the group said.

Despite the final results of 2007, in announcing the Ravens would seek a new coach, owner Steve Bisciotti left the definite impression that he feels his team is closer to the top of the NFL dog pile than it is the bottom.

Final figures or numbers for home sales would be fine if it’s necessary to make a contrast with previously announced statistics, and the outcome of 2007 for the Ravens is a matter that requires no further elaboration.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:41 PM | | Comments (3)
        

January 15, 2008

Stop me if you've heard this one

Hack, the word for a drudge who will write for hire, typically an inept writer, derives from hackney, a horse that is available for hire by anyone, and therefore likely worn out and of little use. The related adjective hackneyed describes something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have become trite.

If you are a reader of newspapers or magazines, or a listener of speeches and sermons, you have encountered many hackneyed openings. I don’t purport to have an exhaustive list, but here are a number of those deadly commonplaces that a writer of any pretensions to originality will shun.

The dictionary definition

Webster’s says … should immediately put you off. To begin with, there is no such thing as Webster’s. There are a number of dictionaries from different publishers that use Webster’s in their titles.

Any opening that you recognize from a sermon or letter to the editor should immediately strike you as useless.

King James English

Many writers who attempt a bogus Jacobean English get the grammar wrong. Take, for example, a headline, The taxman will certainly cometh. The suffix -eth is used only with third-person singular, present-tense verbs — not with plurals, not with first or second persons, not with future tenses. Similarly, the suffix –est -is used only with second-person singular, present-tense verbs. In addition to being wrong on the grammar, such writers are mistaken in imagining that dressing up a contemporary event in archaic clothes will look novel or interesting.

The official declaration

“It’s official,” followed by some statement, is staler than the Halloween candy in the back of the hall closet. Saying, “It’s official,” means that something long anticipated has come to pass — i.e., is not particularly newsy.

The lone word

Gonorrhea.

The one-word, one-paragraph lead is supposed to grab you by the lapels and seize your attention.

The second paragraph will get around to telling you what the article is about, often in an anticlimax.

The “that is” gambit

You open with a statement that points in one direction, then feint in to another, with a mechanical transition. Actress Geena Davis already has an Oscar. Now she’s shooting for the gold. Olympic gold, that is.

The “that is” is the giveaway that you are straining to link two things that really have no connection.

The interrogatory lead

Have you ever wondered how haggis is made?

No, and so I turn the page.

Posing a direct question to the reader leaves a broad opening for the reader to turn aside.

The “not alone” transition

Writing an anecdotal lead — in which one person’s experience turns out to be emblematic of the subject of the article — requires an eventual transition into the body of the story. That transition is the weak joint, the point at the reader’s interest may be lost. We have often sacrificed that interest with the “not alone” transition: X is a person in a hell of a mess. X is not alone.

The anecdotal lead has become such a commonplace piece of business in the trade that every reader recognizes the structure. An editor can excise the X is not alone transition every time without making any difference to the article apart from shortening it by four superfluous words.

The greeting

Another lame transition from the anecdotal lead to the body of the story: the description of some woeful situation, followed by Welcome to the world of. … This device should always be unwelcome. Similarly, the two-or-three-paragraph lead describing a person, followed by Meet John Doe, has also worn threadbare.

If you have ever resorted to these elderly measures, or been complicit in their publication, it is not too late to repent and resolve to sin no more.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (7)
        

January 14, 2008

Blurred meanings

This is how the Los Angeles Times describes a prisoner’s escape from a jail in Colorado: He pushed up a ceiling tile, hoisted himself up into the ventilation system and climbed until he reached a roof. Then he shimmied down the wall on bedsheets fashioned into a makeshift rope.

Shimmying is what Blaze Starr did on the stage of the 2 O’Clock Club. The verb refers to shaking (Blaze Starr) or wobbling (a misaligned automobile), and there was once a dance called the shimmy. When one tries to go up or down on a rope or pole by gripping with the hands and legs, one shinnies.

This distinction is one of many being blurred by casual and inattentive use of the language.

Utilize, for example, once meant to use to advantage, a narrower and more precise meaning than the more general to use. But utilize has become such a favorite among managers, bureaucrats and other pompous distorters of language that it might as well be abandoned as useless.

Burgeoning, I see, is a new favorite among journalists, who think that it describes something growing rapidly and extensively, like the suburbs around cities. Its original sense, now being rubbed away, describes something that is just beginning to grow. Budding or sprouting would be an apt synonym, but that sense has pretty much been swallowed up.

When you read that someone is trying to squash a lawsuit, you can be sure that the writer is not paying attention. To squash is to crush, as one steps on a bug. To quash is to annul or cancel or quell or suppress. But the misuse will not apparently be put down.

And, before I go, I want to take up a useful distinction once more, despite repeated failure to gain traction on the point: A careful writer might well maintain that convince and persuade are not equivalent terms.

Convince, with its etymological relationship to conviction, is the stronger word of the two; it implies that doubt has been overcome by certainty, whereas persuade rises from the sense of urging an action. To illustrate: I can be persuaded to do something even though I am far from convinced that it is a good idea. Similarly, persuasive can nudge you to one side, but convincing will keep you there.

This distinction is not my invention. At the debate in Virginia on ratifying the U.S. Constitution, with James Madison advocating ratification and Patrick Henry passionately arguing against, John Marshall wrote, “Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade. Mr. Madison had the greatest power to convince.”

Persuaded? Better yet, convinced?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (2)
        

January 11, 2008

Yo don't think so

The Sun’s editorial board discovered recently that Professor Elaine Stotko at Johns Hopkins had published on the discovery of a new epicene pronoun (neither masculine nor feminine, but not neuter) among African-American schoolchildren in Baltimore. Yo can substitute for he or she, or their, filling a much-discussed gap in the language.

The linguists at Language Log offer a more detailed and technical investigation of this phenomenon than was possible in The Sun’s brief editorial.

So now we see a spontaneous solution to the vexing everyone ... their problem: Instead of everyone has an addition to her or her pronouns, we have this available: Everyone has an addition to yo pronouns.

Well, maybe. English has always gleaned indiscriminately from other languages, and, within English itself, all sorts of slang words and usages have made it into the mainstream. But not all do, and predicting what will stay or drop out in language is more treacherous than predicting what voters will do in a primary some weeks away.

But there are a couple of points on which I am willing to risk a forecast.

First, artificial attempts to alter the language, such as George Bernard Shaw’s quixotic campaign to simplify English spelling, usually fail. The attempts to manufacture an epicene pronoun for English have been well-intentioned, numerous and unsuccessful. Dennis Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has compiled a lengthy list of such nominees, and they are hilarious.

Second, I think I can see the direction in which the language is moving, because it already has in Britain and increasingly appears to be doing so in the United States: acceptance of they and their as a gender-neutral pronoun referring back to the singular. Everyone sees that there is no need for an addition to their pronouns.

Garner’s Modern American Usage is one of the foremost manuals to advocate this, and the celebrated linguist Steven Pinker articulated a persuasive grammatical analysis on this point in The Language Instinct.

Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, my eighth-grade English teacher, would recoil in horror to hear of my apostasy on this point. But I’m prepared to decree, if my masters will accede, that Sun house style will no longer insist on everyone ... his or her and will henceforth shrug and move on when everyone ... their turns up.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (3)
        

January 9, 2008

Steve Young on the mend

Those of you who have been following Steve Young’s slow and painful recovery from the fire last month in which two of his children died were relieved to learn that he was released from the hospital this week. And now you get to hear from him in his own words:

I'm still quite tired, but I wanted to confirm that I am out of the hospital and now rehabbing at our temporary home in Towson. Thanks to my wife, two eldest girls and a string of family and friends, my life was spared. I'm only now beginning to deal with the full ramifications of this tragedy. It will take a lifetime.

I appreciate the notes and I'm looking forward to visitors — perhaps beginning in the next few days. Perhaps the best way to get in touch would be to check with John — he has my address and cell number.

I start outpatient physical therapy this week, and will be entering counseling by next week. I have tests scheduled for further exploration of back injuries, hand injuries (my left hand was damaged by fire and cuts) and various other burns. But physically, I'm on the mend.

I've loved the gestures of support and warm encouragement from all of you.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:12 PM | | Comments (0)
        

An excellent question

So you think that a colleague may have plagiarized or fabricated or libeled. What next?

You must marshal the facts. If you see an indication of plagiarism, print out the two texts and highlight the comparable passages for ease of comparison. If material appears to be fabricated or libelous, highlight the suspect text and itemize the reasons for concern. You must be as specific and thorough as possible, because you are holding another person’s career and reputation in your hands. It’s a good idea to consult with your immediate supervisor — for confirmation of the gravity of the case, and for backup.

You must go to the editor who supervises the writer. Do not confront the writer yourself. The assigning or supervising editor has direct responsibility for this writer and must be made aware of the situation.

Be careful how you phrase your remarks. I would never utter the words plagiarism, fabrication or libel or any equivalent. I would speak entirely about issues and concerns about the text. Talk in factual terms about the text without making accusations or personalizing the conversation. Your object is to permit the assigning editor to arrive at the same conclusion you did, or to provide persuasive reasoning otherwise.

But don’t be dissuaded easily. You are not just dealing with the reputation of the writer, but also with the reputation of the publication. If the outcome of this initial encounter does not satisfy you, you should not hesitate to go directly to the highest editor in authority who is available. This is one of the occasions on which you can and should call people at home.

Once you (or you and your supervisor) have done this, it is up to the higher authorities to talk to the writer, get an explanation of what happened and how, and adjudicate.

How they deal with such a potential scandal may influence your sense of whether you want to continue working for the publication.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (0)
        

January 8, 2008

Best news of 2008 to date

Steve Young's brother Hank has written to say that Steve is being discharged from the hospital today.

That's all the information I have, but I assume that we will be hearing from Steve himself or other members of the family about when and where we can see him, talk to him, visit him.

For now, this news is enough.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:29 PM | | Comments (1)
        

January 7, 2008

Lying, cheating and stealing

Those of us in the business regularly consult the Regret the Error Web site, which aggregates published corrections, to see what blunders our peers are fessing up to. Craig Silverman, the proprietor of the site, does an annual year-in-corrections roundup.

And, since 2004, he has also provided an annual roundup of reports of plagiarism and fabrication. These are, mind you, reported instances. As teachers and professors will likely concede, what gets caught appears to be a fraction of what is committed.

The range is impressive. Incidents occur at student papers, metropolitan dailies and national magazines. Columnists are well represented — perhaps they imagine that the rules don’t apply to them. People lift material from Wikipedia, from other periodicals, from Web sites, shoving it all under their own bylines.

No one is immune. In recent years, scandals of plagiarism and fabrication have blighted The New York Times, USA Today and The New Republic. Accusations of what was either plagiarism or extremely sloppy research practices have cast shadows on the work of historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Careers at The Sun have been destroyed by evidence of plagiarism and fabrication.

It falls to editors — assigning editors and copy editors — to protect the integrity of the publication. Indeed, in recent years the instances of premeditated or accidental plagiarism that have been identified in-house at The Sun have been caught by the copy desk.

This, by the way, is one good reason to make sure that the copy desk has the staff and the time to edit, rather than merely process, the copy.

For those of you who teach or edit or have some supervisory responsibility over written material, I offer some commonplace tips on what to watch for.

Changes in diction: If the vocabulary of an otherwise amateurish student writer or cliche-ridden hack journalist should abruptly grow sophisticated, lifting is likelier than an infusion from the muse.

Changes in syntax: Same thing. If a writer who struggles to cobble together a noun and a verb suddenly masters the compound-complex sentence, with attendant Ciceronian participial ornaments, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Demand an explanation of the source.

Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.

Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true. ...

Your job is to be skeptical, not gullible. Any writer’s work ought to stand up to questioning, particularly about sourcing. So ask the questions.

As it happens, the very ease of theft that the Internet provides also offers ease of detection. Use Lexis-Nexis or Google to find information on the subject that the suspect article covers. Do searches on distinctive and anomalous phrases. (Some colleges and universities employ specialized software and run term papers through it.) Check it out.

Follow up. The first question that must always be asked when a plagiarism is detected is this: Has he/she done this before? This has to be checked out, but it won’t be unless you, who have detected the misdeed, report it to someone in authority.

Don’t agonize over fear of appearing to be an informer. If the instance you identify is a first-time mistake made out of ignorance, you may save a colleague’s career. If it turns out to be one in a pattern of lies, then the career wasn’t worth saving.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:30 PM | | Comments (6)
        

January 4, 2008

The Young report: positive

Today’s news from Steve Young’s brother Hank:

Steve’s improvement is slow but steady. He has been breathing on his own for several days, and the lung infection is gone. Cognitive function is essentially restored. The focus of his current treatment is on physical therapy — he’s walking again — and grief counseling. It is expected that he will be transferred, perhaps even today, to an inpatient physical therapy unit at Hopkins or Good Samaritan.

Encouraging as all this is, Steve exhausts quickly and does not yet feel strong enough for visits. But Hank reports that “it means a lot to him, and to Nancy, Laura and Carrie, to know that there are a lot of folks out there thinking about the family and champing at the bit just to say ‘hey.’ "

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:21 PM | | Comments (0)
        

Haven't seen it, probably won't

Like other members of The Sun’s staff, I’ve been receiving inquiries about my reaction to the forthcoming season of The Wire, the HBO series created by David Simon, a former colleague, which will focus on the newspaper.

Not having seen the previous seasons of The Wire, I have no grounds for evaluating the series, and certainly not episodes yet to be broadcast.

I can, however, refer you to the review by The Sun’s television critic, David Zurawik, whose taste and judgment I trust, and who has delivered a thoughtful, balanced and persuasive evaluation of the new episodes.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:57 AM | | Comments (2)
        

January 3, 2008

A light goes out

Diminishing the world’s supply of zest, George MacDonald Fraser has died at 82.

Mr. Fraser was the creator of the Flashman series of comic historical novels. His great creation, Harry Paget Flashman, womanizer, reprobate and blowhard whose cowardice is invariably mistaken for heroism. Flashman shows up at many of the great events of the 19th century; at the Battle of Balaclava, for example, he rides with the Light Brigade. He is at the Indian Mutiny and the Afghan frontier, etc. etc. He is as admirable and appealing a character as only a thoroughgoing scoundrel can be.

Flashman is the narrator of all his adventures, purportedly written in retirement at an advanced age. In one of the stories in Flashman and the Tiger (1999), he resigns himself to the end of adventurism — both the military and sexual forms — and prepares to devote himself to “booze, baccy and books.”

Not a bad trio of consolations. Not a bad retirement plan. I hope that Mr. Fraser was able to enjoy them fully.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:54 PM | | Comments (1)
        

January 2, 2008

The elements

Journalists learns the Five W’s: who, what, when, where, why, to which how is frequently annexed. A competent news article should identify all those elements to be complete. The Romans had a similar mnemonic device, this hexameter line listing the elements of analysis:

QUIS, QUID, UBI, QUIBUS AUXILIIS, CUR, QUOMODO, QUANDO

That is: Who, what, where, by what means, why, how, when?

And to those, for investigative purposes, one might add the traditional question Cui bono? Who benefits?

This comes from a delightful book by Nicholas Ostler, Ad Infinitum: A Biography of Latin, which many of you will want to run out and lay hands on. It reminds us that we (literate people, heirs of Western civilization) were not born yesterday and that a great deal of what we know, or think we know, or ought to know, was known long before us.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:25 PM | | Comments (3)
        

January 1, 2008

Become a better person

Even if it is not your custom to make resolutions to improve your behavior and your life as a new year begins, you would certainly like [adverb between the auxiliary and main verb] the fresh year to avoid the shortcomings and disappointments of the old one.

The prospects of your losing a substantial amount of weight, making a large sum of money, curbing your temper or becoming a nicer person are highly iffy. But there is one area in which you might enjoy a measure of success: you could, as Samuel Johnson advised, “clear your mind of cant.” You could purge your speech and writing of cliches, irritating vogue phrases and prefabricated concepts.

Help is available. Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., publishes an annual list of banished words and phrases. Look it up. Reflect in shame on how often you have resorted to these shopworn devices; resolve to lead a better life.

Or look up the compendium of the hackneyed at Tom Mangan’s Banned for Life Web site.

Make your own list. Put a large jar on your desk, and every time you find yourself saying, “It is what it is,” or writing that “x is the new y,” put a dollar in the jar. You might wind up wealthy by year’s end after all.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:34 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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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