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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)


Is it really the belief of a number of amateur or younger journalists that their readers aren't intelligent anymore? It seems mildly offensive that a reporter would have to nudge their readers to make the allusion to (in this case) James Joyce. Wouldn't one make the assumption that those reading the paper are a little more literary than others in the world?

To JB: Sadly, readers AREN'T as intelligent or as well-read anymore. Sad but true.

To JM: Thank you for making me spit coffee out on my new shiny Dell monitor with that last line. You're hysterical. :-)

Perhaps I'm cynical, but I imagine the device is less an offensive effort to connect the dots than it is a writer's attempt to "subtly" display his or her own brilliance. In defense of the younger writer, however, I would argue that pretentiousness is a crime not limited to our generation, though we may indeed be less skilled at hiding it.

Would you mind terribly if we add the use of "lame" as an adjective to the list?

I'm tempted to say that lame is in fact an adjective, but I see your point.

This is America, and it's your language. Be my guest.

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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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