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February 28, 2008

Keep a civil tongue in your head

Salon.com, which has a policy prohibiting “ad hominem attacks and abusive language, whether by anonymous posters, those with screen names or people signing their real names.” As of now, no more anonymous postings will be allowed on Salon’s site. You can read the explanation here.

The Sun’s blogs are set up so that comments by readers must be approved by the individual bloggers. Of the thousand or so comments sent to You Don’t Say, I have withheld fewer than half a dozen. Two were personal reflections on other people — not on me; I don’t weep over criticism. One included a link for a dating service; really, if you want to advertise on this blog, you should get in touch with baltimoresun.com and buy an ad. That’s what journalism is about.

And the remainder I’ve decided to share with you, for a reason to be disclosed subsequently.

For the post “Oh, stop whining,” from “Captain Obvious”:

this did nothing to me. you're complaining about the complainers. you've stabbed yourself with your own sword.

find solutions and stop sounding like you already know them.

newspapers will survive once the remove the print classifieds portion of the building and invest that money in REAL online classifieds solutions...not mediocre garbage that doesn't come close to CraigsList.

and while you're at, why dont you tell THE WIRE that your newsroom is just as angry and full of boobs as what you're referring to.

A subsequent comment the same day:

and stop filtering comments. just let them flow my friend, it's called the first amendment and you need to be a pioneer, not a greedy little child who found will take his ball and go home if he doesnt like the game.

You’ll notice that the first installment, while emphatic, is inchoate. And the second installment is just fatuous. The First Amendment liberty of expression for the press does not mean, and has never meant, that every submission to a publication must be published.

Compare those with this one, from some weeks back, from an alias, “Angelo Johnson”:

John smells irrelevancy when he smells himself these days. Then he has to get out the mothballs and write fluffy poofball stuff like this. Afterward, he stares up at the wispy clouds and thinks about how wonderful he is.

It’s difficult to avoid the suspicion that “Angelo Johnson” and “Captain Obvious” are the same person. Who else would know that a comment had been submitted that I declined to approve?

Now, to the point: Civil discourse does not mean that everyone agrees, or that disagreement cannot be expressed emphatically. It does mean showing common respect. My practice in reviewing comments has been to exclude those that were personally abusive to other people. I have allowed anonymous comments when the content was innocuous.

At this point, I too am disposed to shun anonymous posts. Comments to You Don’t Say should include a legitimate e-mail address, even if the writer uses a pseudonym — I’m not inclined to reveal anyone’s identity, especially since many journalists have bosses less indulgent than mine — but I’m disinclined to deal with ghosts.

If you feel that I have deprived you of something you value by withholding the three comments above, and if you prefer to see such stuff on this blog, please express yourself by comment or e-mail. What my readers think does count, and I prefer to offer you what you want.

But I won’t be able to act on your responses, if any, until next week. I’m off for the next few days because one of my daughter’s former roommates has the role of the Queen of the Night in a production of The Magic Flute at the Institute of Music in Cleveland. It’s my favorite opera, and I’m looking forward to the production. I’ll be back with you on Monday.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (3)
        

February 27, 2008

Wintry mix

Listening to the radio in the car yesterday, I heard an announcer warn of the possibility of “rain activity” later in the day. How, I wondered, does rain activity differ from rain? And wouldn’t rain inactivity be, well, clearing?

Rain activity is analogous to the dreaded snow event, which is somehow grander than mere snow. The extra note of drama is probably unnecessary in Baltimore, since residents here fly into panic at the prospect of more than a flurry, hastening to the supermarket to buy up all the bread, milk and toilet paper, and stopping at the video store on the way home to check out everything that isn’t a documentary. Schools close, government offices shut down, and cars race through rapidly emptying streets toward homes where the TV set is permanently tuned to the Weather Channel.

The incitement to such panic is one of the principal occupations of local television news programs, where announcements of a possible snowfall are as portentous as warnings of an asteroid hurtling toward Earth.

A day later, of course, when the killer storm has veered to the north, or to the south, or retired to a cabin in the mountains, it’s necessary to shift focus rapidly to the next potential threat from the sky.

A thread on the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board reminded me yesterday of Geoffrey K. Pullum’s fine book, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, in which the title essay explodes the hoary myth that the Inuit have an uncommonly large number of related terms for snow. That honor should more properly go to TV meteorologists, who have, in addition to snow, snow event, snowfall, snowstorm, snowflakes, sleet, slush, wintry mix, blizzard, precipitation, icy pellets, powder (for skiing), blanket and the apparently irresistible vulgarism white stuff.

The sun is out, but the forecast says it might snow. Got my milk. Got my bread. Got my toilet paper. Got Season 2 of The West Wing on DVD. I’m staying home till it looks safe.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:16 AM | | Comments (8)
        

February 26, 2008

Mr. Young's progress

For those of you eager for further news of Steve Young’s recovery from his injuries in that dreadful fire last December, I can report briefly on the latest news.

A stubborn infection resulting from a burn injury appears to have been cleared up, or virtually cleared up. That means that plans can go forward for surgery to repair nerve damage to Steve’s left hand. The spine specialist has cleared him for driving again, and he has already been out on the road.

Once he and his family relocate to new temporary quarters next week, he hopes to make occasional brief visits to The Sun’s newsroom to reacclimate himself to the place. He continues to be hopeful that he can return to work full-time by the end of March or thereabouts.

He remains grateful for visits, letters, telephone calls and other expressions of concern — and he is eager to get back in harness. With a little luck, my next dispatch about him will find him back at the copy desk, surrounded by the colleagues who have watched his recovery with such concern for the past two and a half months.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:40 PM | | Comments (0)
        

February 25, 2008

Chin-chin

Finally, a sensible suggestion for National Grammar Day. Jan Freeman, who writes a savvy and sensible column on language for The Boston Globe, suggests that the advocates of sound grammar should indulge in “the official Grammar Day drink, the Grammartini: a classic martini, straight up, renamed for the day's festivities. A couple of these are guaranteed to soften your attitude toward other people's usage sins.”

Now, veering off into the technic of the martini risks drawing the attention of martini obsessives, next to whom grammar quibblers look almost Unitarian in their inclusiveness. So, as we strive to establish a reasonable prescriptivism on grammar, we can explore a reasonable prescriptivism on this classic cocktail. 

I myself usually take a martini on the rocks with a twist (Sorry, Jan), but I’m not a bigot. Straight up is fine. Olives are fine. Five to one is fine. Six to one is OK but perhaps a little extreme. The drink should have some vermouth in it — the original drink, after all, was something like 2-1 gin-to-vermouth.

It is — never mind those Bond films — stirred, not shaken.

And as a tolerant and open-minded liberal, I don’t object to people who make martinis with vodka, even though the gin purists will shudder at the thought.

But it is necessary and advisable to draw the line somewhere. Not every drink that can be poured into a martini glass can be called a martini. A drink with apple juice in it is not a martini. A drink with pineapple in it is not a martini. A drink with chocolate in it is not a martini. You are welcome to swill any kind of muck that you can slide down your gullet, but unless it has been made with gin (OK, or vodka) and dry vermouth, you have no business calling it a martini.

That settled, fellow grammarians, I suggest we assemble a week from tomorrow at a comfortable saloon with a staff that understands the subtleties of the cocktail, order a proper martini — oh, why not, make it two — and celebrate a language in which drink is both a noun and a verb.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:59 PM | | Comments (2)
        

Oh, stop whining

Down in South Carolina, Doug Fisher has come across a Web site, AngryJournalist.com, that offers a platform for venting, and the last time I checked there were more than a thousand small explosions on the site.

I couldn’t read more than a dozen or so before starting to mutter, what did you expect?

The money: Newspaper publishers were stingy with the help when they were making annual profits from 20 percent to 30 percent. Now, with readers following the World War II veterans up the golden staircase and advertisers vanishing even more rapidly, they’re not going to be more generous. They will cut the staff until the day the paper doesn’t come out, and then maybe they’ll hire one.

The industry: Professor Philip Meyer at Chapel Hill once tried to figure out how much money American newspaper publishing companies spend on research and development. It wasn’t easy, because newspapers hug the data they don’t analyze themselves close to their bosoms, but he was able to piece together enough information from scattered sources to constitute an informed surmise. It was that the amount of money American newspaper publishing companies spent from their budgets annually was equivalent to rounding error.

Expenditures on training of personnel have been equally laughable.

They were, however, willing to engage consultants to conduct readership surveys, subsequently ignoring any results they didn’t care for.

So of course the Internet came along and stole our lunch. We were fat, lazy and slow to innovate. Now we’re just panicky. Over the past few years, three major newspaper publishing corporations, Times Mirror, Knight Ridder and Tribune, were sold out from under their unwitting corporate managers. Some of us have had the joy of being sold twice.

The managers: Of course your boss is a moron. Don’t you read Dilbert? Look around your workplace and enumerate the number of people who got titles and offices with windows by never telling their bosses anything untoward, while sloughing off all meaningful work on subordinates. (You hear that, undergraduates?) The Sun has more than three dozen editors who report to me, God help them.

I could tell you about a newspaper (not The Sun) that had five managing editors in half a dozen years. Every time a new one was appointed, word went around the staff, “This one is different. This one reads Western literature and listens to jazz.” It took about six weeks to discover that this one was an even drearier apparatchik than his predecessor.

Since this is the way the world works in office after office, bureaucracy after bureaucracy, there is not the slightest reason to assume that newspapers would operate otherwise.

(I’ve been speaking about newspaper journalism, and I notice that a number of the wretched, shrieking souls on Angry Journalist are in broadcast. Can’t help you much there — I can’t watch local TV news without taking anti-nausea medication, and network and cable broadcast news don’t tend to be much better — but there’s probably little cause to think that broadcast differs in kind from anything else. Perhaps in degree.)

The complainants: So, as Comrade Lenin famously asked, What Is to Be Done?

Well, first, don’t count on a “vanguard revolutionary party run according to the principles of democratic centralism.” (I cribbed that from Marxists.org, not ever having been so desperately bored that I read Lenin myself.)

The current thinking in the business is that we will struggle to hold on to our declining corps of print readers and advertisers until we can develop enough new products, presumably electronic, to stay above water. That is about as bold as we’ve been lately.

I wish our masters all success, particularly in the years between today and the point at which I take to my rocking chair on the front porch of the Old Editors’ Home.

In the meantime, I have work to do, and so do the gripers. You want to know what you can do?  

Do your damn job. You can see to it that the articles you write or edit are more accurate. You can make them more grammatical, You can make them clearer, and it wouldn’t harm anyone to make them shorter. You can focus your attention on what the reader is interested in and needs to know. Take responsibility.

And if your boss is a dolt, given the odds, you’ll have to develop strategies to compensate for his or her shortcomings.

Learn new things. The business got into this mess by being reluctant to learn new things and try new things. Learn statistical analysis. Learn how to manipulate databases. Learn video editing. Learn Web design. Learn some skill that someone is willing to pay you to exercise.

Maybe look elsewhere. It’s a struggling business. It could be some years, and painful ones, before we figure out and establish workable new business models. Life is too short to spend it sitting around complaining about a job you don’t seem to like much in the first place. Stop whining — and, by the way, #1009, whinging, or whingeing, from the verb to whinge, or complain peevishly, is perfectly good English — and get on with things.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:54 AM | | Comments (4)
        

February 23, 2008

Just six words, and no more

There’s no avoiding the vogue for attempting to express a complete narrative, or life story, or epitome of one’s identity, into six words.

There is a book by Larry Smith, Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure, and the Internet is made for such crazes. BoingBoing, for example, has a page on which contributors are welcome.

Not surprisingly, this has captured the attention of members of the American Copy Editors Society. After all, when your 3,500-word masterwork comes lumbering to the desk, it is the copy editor who will have to reduce it to an essence of six words or so for the headline (with a fair likelihood that those are the only six words associated with the story that most customers will ever read).

So they have taken to it, and I can only stand, hat in hand, in mute admiration of Allan Wishart, or VanderViking, of the Vanderhoof Omineca Express, Vanderhoof, B.C., whose sublime entry encapsulates the life of the copy editor:

Edited it down to five.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:24 PM | | Comments (4)
        

February 22, 2008

Meanwhile, back at the ranch

There’s a lot of catching up to do in the realm of blogging on language and journalism.

David Sullivan, my eminent colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, continues his fascinating exploration of the connections between urban newspapers and urban department stores, in their prosperity and their decline. He’s sharp, he’s thoughtful, and he’s not in it for mere nostalgia.

I think that if he could work in the decline of the mainline churches (that being another of my allegiances to faltering institutions), he would have a comprehensive sociological analysis.

Craig Lancaster, another valued colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, has begun a blog, Watch Yer Language, much of it devoted to fine points of editing. For a sample, look at his sensible post on why none can be used in either singular or plural senses.

In the 300-plus posts on this blog, I’ve somehow omitted Patricia O’Connor’s excellent Grammarphobia Blog, which answers readers’ questions about language and usage with solid research and sound advice.

Stepping aside from linguistic subjects for a moment: I always find Jay Hancock’s comments on business refreshing. He writes with clarity and penetration, and with a mind remarkably clear of cant. This week his column explored an interesting proposition, that tolerant and diverse societies tend to be more prosperous than intolerant and narrowly homogeneous ones, and that therefore approval of gay marriage would have advantages for the state.

Now there’s a subject that would be interesting to explore and test.

Instead, we see the comments from readers that he has subsequently posted on his blog (here and here). Some of them are merely abusive in a tiresomely ad hominem manner, and others merely parrot the slogans and cliches that substitute for public discourse. (Those fall-of-the-Roman-Empire people might take a moment to consider how Rome fatally attempted to extend its military power beyond its capacity, not that I suggest drawing any contemporary parallels.) The opposing comments appended to the column itself are of similar flavor.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:22 PM | | Comments (0)
        

February 20, 2008

Editing is not a frill

I commend to your attention Doug Fisher’s comments on the place and future of editing in journalism. He is responding, with acuity and willingness to face up to difficult issues, to Alan Mutter’s provocative post on the issue, to which there is a follow-up, both with an assortment of comments. Brother Fisher also recommends the analysis of Josh Korr’s Korr Values blog. (I commented on Mutter’s initial post myself, for what it’s worth.)

(Ah, the wonders of the Web, which requires you to jump back and forth among a series of links, so much less irritating than those newspaper articles that jump from one page to another.)

Unable to identify a solution to the problem, I have a few random responses to offer.

One. Quality is indeed notoriously difficult to quantify, which is why accountancy-minded managers tend to disregard it. Philip Meyer attempted in The Vanishing Newspaper to determine whether the quality of the publication was related to its profitability. He was hampered by fragmentary data, but his research suggested the possibility of a correlation. Customers, however, seem to have that ability. That is one reason, for example, that U.S. automakers have lost so much of the market, as customers decided that imports were more reliable.

Statistical analysis aside, I can’t shake the intuition that publications that are factually accurate and readable have some advantage over others.

Two. I haven’t meant to suggest that the traditional newspaper editing pattern — reporter to assigning editor to copy editor to slot editor to proofreader — should be translated to the Web. That structure has proved to be effective for reducing errors and improving clarity in print journalism. But I assigned a single copy editor to work with the assigning desks on daytime copy for baltimoresun.com. This editor catches errors and clarifies cloudy passages quite adequately, and the Web offers the opportunity for continual updating and further correction. We need the additional strength for the print edition, because once those papers are on the trucks, they are beyond remedy.

Three. What is needed is editing. And by that I don’t mean the contemptuous view of uninformed executives that copy editing is the mere manipulation of commas. It is true that some copy editors allow themselves to bog down in trivial points of style to the exclusion of larger issues, but many do address serious concerns.

Editing involves establishing accuracy in the factual details. It involves determining that the information is properly sourced. It involves telling the writer that six paragraphs of throat-clearing before getting to the point will not do. It involves straightening out chronology. It involves identifying passages that are offensive or potentially libelous. It involves dealing with prose effects that just do not come off as the writer intended. It involves being alert to the possibility of plagiarism and fabrication.

You can omit that, but you do so at your own risk: at the risk of lawsuit, at the risk of eroding your own credibility, at the risk of effectively encouraging readers to look elsewhere.

Four. Copy editors have not been very effective advocates of their craft, despite the noble work that the American Copy Editors Society has been doing for the past decade. In common with our newspaper colleagues, we have been slow to adapt to the new environment. Newspapers are struggling, and the conventions of electronic publication are in flux. Decisions are being made by people who do not grasp how the work is done and how it ought to be done. Time is running short, and a good deal of damage has already been done.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (2)
        

February 18, 2008

Corporate has another great idea

Here’s how to save a pile of money: Sack all those expensive air traffic controllers and just let the pilots fly the planes on their own.

If the executives charting a direction for America’s newspapers were put in charge of air travel, this is the sort of bright idea you might expect them to come up with. They are the people, after all, who are calling into question the very idea of editing, as Alan Mutter describes at his Reflections of a Newsosaur blog.

The idea gathering momentum that reporters should just file directly to the Web, without all that time-consuming and salary/benefit-expending editing, is not a good thing for the reader or the writer.

Dear reader, as a copy editor for the past 28 years, I’ve seen what writers, both amateur and professional, file, and you don’t want to. Unless you have a depraved appetite for factual errors, blurred focus, wordiness, slovenly grammar, peculiar prose effects and other excesses, it is in your interest for someone other than the writer to go over that text to clean it up, identify its point, and make sure that it gets to the point before you lose all interest.

Dear writer, Lord knows I’m aware that you think that I’m a supercilious twit, but you could probably be pressed to concede that I am on your side. I may be insufferable, but I am there to protect you from errors and misjudgments, to make sure that your intention in writing is carried out effectively, and to draw the reader’s attention to your work.

We’ve been over this ground before, and also here and here at the Poynter Institute’s Web site.

I suppose that this could look like an increasingly desperate attempt to save my job, but I probably still have it in me to learn how to earn an honest living. (“Welcome to Wal-Mart.”) I’m more concerned about the corps of smart and conscientious editors that I’ve been able to assemble in the dozen years that I have overseen The Sun’s copy desk, and the comparable copy desks at the country’s other great newspapers.

If decisions are made at the highest levels of American journalism to dismantle these operations, the drop in quality will quickly become apparent, and it will not be easy or cheap to repair the damage.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (5)
        

February 17, 2008

Here's the question

Alan Mutter, the newsosaur blogger, puts out in the open the question agitating newspapsers and other publications: How many people have to look at, edit and approve a text before it is published? See what he says.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:50 PM | | Comments (3)
        

February 16, 2008

Me, myself and I

If you ever caught the estimable Patricia Routledge in an episode of Keeping Up Appearances, you saw a vivid demonstration of the terrible, terrible struggle of the middle class to appear genteel.

We see evidence of the strain in clothing (articles blazoned with a designer’s logo), architecture (scaled-down chateaux and neo-Victorians dotting treeless lots where once the corn grew high) and automobiles (the Land Rover for the trek across the veldt to the supermarket).

We also see it in language. We hear it when the t is pronounced in often, though speakers of English have been saying offen since Philip Sidney was a schoolboy. We hear it in the finicky hyperpronunciation of foreign names favored by announcers on classical music stations — Bach uttered as if the speaker had suffered a sudden onset of catarrh.

We see it particularly in anxiety over the first-person, singular pronouns.

Me is apparently to be avoided at all costs, presumably because of some association with the coveralled classes, or perhaps Tarzan. Thus between you and I from people who fail to grasp the finer points of the preposition and its objects.

But I, too, is risky, because there is some vestigial sense that it is not quite the thing to call too much attention to oneself. Thus the popularity of myself, which, being a disyllable, is a little grander and somehow circumspect: Then the wife and myself enjoyed a platter of cheese puffs at the cotillion.

The tension between continually putting oneself forward while wondering whether it would be better to hold back must be excruciating, what with the constant dread of being exposed as Not Quite Fitting In.

Best to keep things simple: I for subject, me for object, myself as a reflexive rather than a substitute for I or me. I myself wouldn’t presume to tell you how to talk; it’s not up to me. But then, I’m not a member of the club.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 PM | | Comments (4)
        

February 15, 2008

A goodly number

A reader takes The Sun to task for the multiplicity of errors in grammar in our pages. He is a teacher, and he wonders whether he should advise his students to avoid the paper, lest they be contaminated by its bad example.

The example he offers — "A relatively high NUMBER of Maryland high school students ARE..." — shows that he is well-intentioned but mistaken.

Number is one of those English words that can be either singular or plural, depending on context.

Attend: Several lawsuits were filed after the fire, and a number are pending. The number of successful lawsuits, however, is small. Nothing is objectionable about either sentence, and both should sound natural to a native speaker uncorrupted by faulty instruction in English class.

If my word on this isn’t good enough for you, say so in a comment, and I’ll post the relevant citations from Garner on Usage, Merriam-Webster, Fowler, Bernstein and the King James Version. But for the moment, I’m inclined to rest my aging wrists.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:02 AM | | Comments (6)
        

February 14, 2008

Pot luck

One of my students was puzzled today by a reference in an article to fundraising by “box suppers.” I explained that it was my understanding that it is a method, popular in the Midwest, by which people donate packaged meals to a church or civic event and then buy them. It’s like the rummage sale in which you contribute crappy items for which you have no further use and then attend to buy other people’s crappy discards.

My wife’s parish in Columbus, Ohio, featured pie sales. Members would make pies, donate them, then buy them back.

The box supper is one form of the communal pot-luck meal, and it occurs to me that there must be a number of regional variants. Some places call them covered-dish suppers. And I believe I’ve heard Garrison Keillor refer to hotdish events among Minnesotans. I’d be interested in hearing from readers of this blog what variations they are aware of, and what regions those variations are associated with.

And I’m sure that there are also significant regional menu variations. The church potlucks in the little Presbyterian congregation I attended in my youth in Kentucky often featured, as a height of sophistication, the cheese ring, a kind of cheese loaf with a heap of peas in the center. Fortunately, there was always proper fried chicken, along with a selection of illustrious pies. (It was, however, necessary for my mother to take note of who contributed what and advise my sister and me, the level of hygienic preparation not being uniform across the table.)

I might add, in some exasperation, that people cooked those foods for the church dinners. It would not have occurred to them to go to a supermarket and buy some prefabricated dish to contribute. That people today do so without a thought and without a loss of caste in the community merely speaks to the degeneracy of our times.

Anyhow, what did you eat, and where did you eat it, and what was the meal called?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:55 PM | | Comments (12)
        

February 12, 2008

A repentant sinner

When I was about 7 or 8 years old, I bore a family nickname. My mother and grandmother called me “Mr. Precise.” I was, even then, a stickler for correct grammar, as I understood it to be correct, and was generous in offering correction to others.

By high school and college, from humble beginnings as a teacher’s pet, I had swollen into a first-class language snob, with boundless scorn for all who failed to meet my exacting standards. As Steven Pinker remarks in The Language Instinct, “Humans are ingenious at sniffing out minor differences to figure out whom they should despise.”

And after that came graduate school in English, and it should be unnecessary to describe what a figure I cut there. If you think me an obnoxious twit today, be grateful that you didn’t encounter me when I was 24.

But the weight of years, parenthood and newspaper journalism have broken my spirit. Oh, I can still deride the bureaucratic obfuscation and self-congratulation that marks communication in business and government, and I have to leave the room when the local TV news comes on to avoid the threat of apoplexy, but I am way more relaxed about the way people talk or write in casual communication. I understand that some of the rules I was taught are not rules at all, and some of them are not even reliable guidelines. I’ve given way on host as a verb and any number of other shibboleths. I try to focus in my own writing and my editing on clarity and precision. Sloppiness in writing irritates, but not as a moral failing.

This is why I remain a little apprehensive about the impending National Grammar Day. I foresee the emergence from their burrows of the people Professor Pinker calls “the language mavens,” the strident, self-appointed guardians of language and judges of everyone else’s speech and prose. This priggishness will do no good.

We’re well into Lent, the season of self-examination and rueful recognition. I’d suggest that the best thing to do on National Grammar Day is to reflect on our own use of the language, to try to use words more carefully ourselves and to cut everyone else a little slack.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:31 PM | | Comments (11)
        

February 8, 2008

Hey, look over there!

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, one of the sponsors of National Grammar Day, has a grammar blog at its Web site. You might find it worth a look. But be cautious, SPOGG likes You Don’t Say, so the judgment over there may be questionable. (Also SPOGG and National Grammar Day are two Web pages with the same Web address. Weird.)

We have a distinguished entrant into the Blogosphere in David Sullivan, an assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer whose newly launched site, That’s the Press, Baby, takes on the daunting task of justifying the print newspaper.

That is, he wants to justify its existence for reasons other than nostalgia. No one is going to keep buying newspapers because our grandparents read them; we who produce newspapers have to give readers a reason for buying them, and we work in an industry that has ignored its major problems, or dealt with them ineptly. Today, people in the business sound as gloomy as Abraham Lincoln did in the winter of 1862, when he commented glumly, “The bottom is out of the tub.”

If anyone can move beyond the winter of discontent, Mr. Sullivan can. He is smart and thoughtful, as befits a member of that smart and thoughtful class of journalists, professional copy editors. I’m interested in finding out what he has to say.

And finally, over at The Web of Language, Dennis Baron has written thoughtfully about the scary stories that tell us that literacy is on the decline. He wonders whether that is so, and what kind of literacy we should be talking about.

 

 

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

February 6, 2008

Are you ready for the Day of Judgment?

Are you in a good place? Have you examined your conscience? Have you gotten yourself right with grammar? Because National Grammar Day is coming, and those of you who are shaky, those of you who are backsliding, those of you who are lapsed, what do you think is going to happen to you on that terrible day, when gerunds blanket the earth, double genitives blot out the sun, and participles fall from the sky?

Get ready, get ready, while there’s still time.

By way of rescuing the wayward, You Don’t Say offers a small primer today on some of the more common lapses. Look carefully to see whether you have been a miserable sinner, and repent while you still have time.

ITS/IT’S

It’s means it is. If you are in doubt which to use, substitute it is for its and see whether the sentence still makes sense. One enduring surprise for the professional editor is the number of adult and presumably educated writers who either can’t figure this out or who can’t be bothered with trifling distinctions of meaning.

WHO/WHOM

Recast the sentence, substituting a subject pronoun, he, she or they, for who as appropriate, or an object pronoun, him, her or them, for whom.

Who was that masked man? (Who is the subject of the sentence.)

Whom did he give that silver bullet? (He is the subject, whom an indirect object: He gave that silver bullet to whom.)

But if the pronoun is the subject of a clause, it remains who, even when the whole clause is the object of a verb or preposition:

The sheriff can arrest whomever he likes. Whomever he likes is a subordinate clause, the object of arrest. Within that subordinate clause, he is the subject: he likes [to arrest] whomever.

The sheriff can arrest whoever appears to be guilty. Whoever appears to be guilty is a subordinate clause, a noun clause, in which whoever is the subject; the whole clause functions like a noun, the object of arrest.

SUBJECT/VERB AGREEMENT

Singular subject, singular verb; plural subject, plural verb:

The West was won. The Indians were moved to reservations.

Compound subjects joined by and take plural verbs: Custer and the Sioux meet at the Little Bighorn.

But with compound subjects joined by or in either/or and nor in neither/nor constructions, the component of the subject nearer the verb determines whether the verb is singular or plural.

Either the settler or the cattlemen get to control the range.

Either the cattlemen or the settler gets to control the range.

In one who and one of those who constructions, the antecedent to the pronoun who determines whether the verb is singular or plural.

The settler’s wife is one who washes clothes in the creek.

The settler’s wife is one of the women who wash clothes in the creek.

MISPLACED MODIFIER

An introductory phrase or clause that modifies the subject of the sentence must match up with the subject:

Watching the moon, the rustler slipped by the cowboy.

That makes no sense. It’s evident that the cowboy was watching the moon, but rustler is the subject of the sentence. Recast it: While the cowboy was watching the moon, the rustler slipped by or Watching the moon, the cowboy let the rustler slip by.

In English, word order and position determine meaning. Prepositional phrases, which can modify either nouns of verbs or adjectives or adverbs, should be placed near the word they are intended to modify. Otherwise one winds up with sentences like Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Boston University, said, only half jokingly, “It seems that Jiang is stronger today than he was yesterday.” Lordy! The Red Chinese have taken over BU! Call Paul Wolfowitz!

PLURALS AND POSSESSIVES

Writers often come to grief on plurals and possessives of proper names. (Remember: All those quaint little hand-painted or wood-burned signs announcing the residence of The Smith’s are wrong.)

Follow these patterns:

SINGULAR

Man, mule, Compson, Snopes

 PLURAL

men, mules, Compsons, Snopeses

SINGULAR POSSESSIVE

man’s, mule’s, Compson’s, Snopes’s or Snopes’ [Either is correct, so follow one style consistently.]

PLURAL POSSESSIVE

men’s, mules’, the Compsons’, the Snopeses’

And make sure that you never allow some monstrosity such as childrens’ to reach print.

PUNCTUATION OF CLAUSES

Independent clauses — clauses that could stand on their own as sentences — are joined by a conjunction and a comma or by a semicolon.

She shot the wolf, and she skinned the deer. She shot the wolf; she skinned the deer.

Two independent clauses joined only by a comma, or by a conjunction without a comma, constitute a run-on: She shot the wolf, she skinned the deer. Don’t do that, unless you are British.

Compound subjects and predicates do not require commas with conjunctions.

She shot the wolf and skinned the deer. NOT She shot the wolf, and skinned the deer.

Complex sentences, with a dependent clause and an independent clause, are punctuated with commas:

After she washed the breakfast dishes, she shot the wolf and skinned the deer.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:33 PM | | Comments (1)
        

February 5, 2008

'All ways are my ways'

Over across the way at the American Copy Editors Society they’re having a friendly little discussion about words they don’t like. If it were left to that, one could pass over it quickly, as if they were talking about a dislike of the color green or a distaste for endive. Idiosyncratic and harmless.

But when the personal preference gives rise to the statement that “I always rewrite that” or “I always take that out,” I start to hear the voice of the Red Queen: “All ways are my ways.”

If copy editors allow themselves to be seen as petty fussbudgets preoccupied with rules that no one else knows or cares about, indulging in their crotchets with other people’s words, then we might as well give up the shop and allow every writer to publish without editing, because we will have injured our own credibility.

It’s entirely defensible to omit words such as currently and located, as a couple of comments suggest, because they are almost always superfluous in context. And it is entirely defensible to make any other change that can be backed up by reasoning. I wish The Sun’s copy desk had changed a reference the other day to a “stately colonial home,” on the grounds that the William Paca House in Annapolis is, in fact, a stately Colonial home and that it is inflated diction to use the same term for a modern house in suburban Baltimore County.

The whole integrity of editing rests on the editor’s ability, when challenged, to give a reasonable and persuasive explanation for every change in the text — and that disagreements over judgments can be worked out collegially, in discussion.

But to hear an editor say that he changes gubernatorial and imprimatur in copy whenever they crop up, simply because he dislikes them, he reinforces the stereotype that everything the desk does rises similarly from some obscure whim. (Besides, even imprimatur is a word a writer can have fun with, as Milton does early in “Areopagitica,” visualizing the imprimaturs in a Roman Catholic book greeting one another: “Sometimes five Imprimaturs are seen together dialogue-wise in the piazza of one title-page, complimenting and ducking each to other with their shaven reverences, whether the author, who stands by in perplexity at the foot of his epistle, shall to the press or to the sponge.”)

The public at large has no idea what copy editors do. Within the trade, old antagonisms linger, of the kind expressed by a Mr. Kirk in a comment on yesterday’s post here. I’d rather that my colleagues didn’t offer further support to that view.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (4)
        

February 4, 2008

Hubba-hubba

Not at the height of my powers in the early morning, I was brought up short by the word curvaceous describing a woman mentioned in an article. I checked the top of the page, but the folio said 2008, not 1958.

 One of the minor vexatious issues in editing is how much and what kind of physical description to include in articles.

One of the minor vexatious issues in editing is how much and what kind of physical description to include in articles.

The more serious end of the spectrum involves reporting about crime and race, previously addressed here. (Don’t omit to check out the nuggets of abuse in the comments.)

The less serious end of the spectrum includes such rote pieces as the interview of the author/playwright/actor/singer, which apparently has to begin with a description of the subject’s clothing and meal. If Celebrity Author came down to the hotel restaurant in a plaid caftan to demand a breakfast of gin, neat, and curried goat, that might be worth including. That he instead wore a blue shirt and sat down to a plate of scrambled eggs seems unlikely to leave the reader panting for more. (Such an account does, however, indicate that the reporter does not come from a paper with enough prestige to warrant a lunch interview.)

Right in the middle comes the physical description of women, which is treacherous. Before silicone gel became plentiful, busty women were typically described as pneumatic, as our older readers may recall. Today, I’m painfully conscious that it’s risky for a gray-haired, paunchy, middle-aged white guy even to write busty. (Female writers would be well advised to be just as careful.) The Associated Press Stylebook permits blonde as a noun, but we aren’t going to go there, either. No one wants to look as if he writes descriptive material for Playboy on the side.

Some copy editors address the problem by stripping out all physical description from stories, but that goes to the other extreme. The trick is to determine whether description adds something useful to the story and whether the tone is appropriate to the subject and the publication. In short, judgment.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (5)
        

February 1, 2008

The finest in citizen journalism

It’s an inspiration. Get local coverage, extensive local coverage, for your publication by enlisting local citizens to write for you! Without pay!

I actually have some experience with citizen journalism. Forty years ago, during the summers in high school that I worked for the Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., as reporter, columnist, copy editor, proofreader, circulation clerk, Addressograph operator, receptionist and dogsbody*, it fell to me to edit the country correspondence.

The country correspondence was a compilation of social notes and innocuous gossip compiled by a corps of ladies from the various communities in the county. The social notes, often devoted largely to the comings and goings of the correspondents themselves and their relations, arrived in the mail, handwritten on copy paper. And I edited them. Editing is a euphemism. I Englished them.

One of the country correspondents, whom we kept in our pages only briefly before she was drawn into the gravitational pull of the daily paper in the next county, was Mrs. Alma Price. She was a peach. Mrs. Price had a style at once so distinctive and so entertaining that any decent regard for the reader required that her texts be allowed to run verbatim, without interference by an editor.

To give you a taste of the joys that citizen journalism can present, I offer a sampling of Mrs. Price’s work, as published. I have the clippings.

It remains to explain that the community from which Mrs. Price wrote was, in one of those little coincidences that the cosmos loves, called Slipup. Herewith, some of the Slipup News. Enjoy.

Mrs. Hazel Dillon always thinking of others, has given a new clock to the Bethel Church. Our “thanks” goes out to her as we have really been missing the old clock, as a electrical storm had gotten rid of our old one last fall.

Donald Lee Lennix, Jr., a former resident of Maysville and visiting Maysville again. He first came back on May 18 and had a reunion for him.

Mrs. Nancy Gifford has had a busy week making the ladies beautiful for Easter. Mrs. Dale Cracraft is her assistant. Has started giving manicures and pedicures. Those are your toenails. Her shop located on Johnson Lane has a booming business.

Miss Lena Cooper of Clark Street and her husband Emmitt Asdon and wife visited her daughter, Mrs. Gladys Hill and husband of Covington last weekend and Mrs. Emma Mae Cooper visited her daughter Ruth Ann Bradford.

On March 2 Mr. and Mrs. Jim Pfeffer had their birthdays, our mailman and his wife.

Mr. John M. Stanton of Sardis went to Florida in February for 10 days. He was accomplised by Mr. and Mrs. Clarence Turner who lives on his place. On his return he visits Mr. and Mrs. W.T. Hill with his goodies such as tomatoes, oranges, strawberries and grape fruit. He gave them these things. The Hill’s were just getting over the flu. They visited many places of interest. Also visit Mr. Harry Myers who is ill and his wife.

*Dogsbody, British slang for menial worker or drudge.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:40 PM | | Comments (5)
        
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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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