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March 31, 2008

The Huffington Post discovers the secret

The key to success in journalism, it appears, is a haircut.

Eric Alterman, in an article in The New Yorker on America’s faltering newspapers, quotes Jonah Peretti of the Huffington Post on the “mullet strategy” that has achieved the Web site’s success: “(‘Business up front, party in the back’ is how his trend-spotting site BuzzFeed glosses it.) ‘User-generated content is all the rage, but most of it totally sucks,’ Peretti says. The mullet strategy invites users to ‘argue and vent on the secondary pages, but professional editors keep the front page looking sharp. The mullet strategy is here to stay, because the best way for Web companies to increase traffic is to let users have control, but the best way to sell advertising is a slick, pretty front page where corporate sponsors can admire their brands.’”

Amazing that it could be so simple. Amazing, too, that this strategy could be presented as something novel.

After all, there is an analogous mullet strategy in a magazine like Vanity Fair, which spotlights a few sober-minded articles in each issue to balance the relentless celebrity gossip and high-gloss consumer advertising (a kind of wealth pornography) to be found inside. For that matter, The New Yorker achieves the same balance between the worthy and the frivolous. Don’t you, like me, flip through the magazine to look at the cartoons before settling down to the articles?

The other component, getting content for nothing, is also less than blindingly original. Forty years ago, a tyro at The Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., I edited the country correspondence each week during the summers: social notes sent in from the outlying hamlets by sweet older ladies who received in return nothing more than copy paper, envelopes and stamps. That, and their names, along with the names of relatives and neighbors, printed in the paper. Readers seeing their names in print has always been one of the underpinnings of the small-town newspaper.

It is probably superfluous to repeat Dr. Johnson’s remark, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” since so few appear to heed it.

What the Internet brings to these venerable devices is increased inclusiveness and immediacy.

Any twit with an Internet connection can now become a published writer, and I believe that we are not far from the day when bloggers will discover the same problem with which poets have struggled for decades: more people writing the stuff than reading it.

And we can read it at any time of day or night. None of this laborious editing, formatting, typesetting, printing, packaging, loading onto trucks and distributing that eats up hours and hours before a print product, growing stale faster than a Krispy Kreme doughnut in the open air, can be put in your hands. And yet, what do you get when you log on? Last week I printed out the list of top stories from CNN and read the list off to my copy editing class at Loyola. The stories themselves were as routine and dull as the wire service stories in the newspaper, and the headlines were even less inviting. Of more than a dozen stories, only a couple stirred even a flicker of interest among the class.

So I appear to have ruled out dull “official” news and the turgid and ill-thought-out carryings-on of the blogosphere as sufficient to overthrow the long dominance of newspapers. But I think I know what has really worked.


The newspaper industry has spent untold sums for the past 30 years and more to develop the technology of printing high-quality color photography on newsprint. As an ambition, it ranks with an attempt to do calligraphy on toilet paper. And, to a considerable degree, the project has been a success. But it is not enough. It takes four plates on a printing press to produce color on a page, a black plate with text and three color plates, cyan, magenta and yellow. A press will hold a fixed number of plates, which limits the capacity for color in photography and ads. But the Internet has no such limitation on the number of color images it can produce. And video, too. Especially now that we have a couple of generations narcotized on television and video games, adults who find reading text laborious and uninviting, it is not surprising that so many have turned away from the newspaper, just as so many have turned away from books, in favor of images.

If you have read thus far, count yourself, along with me, in a dwindling minority.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (7)

March 30, 2008

Who knew anybody liked 'Male/Female'?

The Jonathan Borofsky statue in front of Penn Station in Baltimore has been widely ridiculed and denounced. Its defenders, a beleaguered band, have been mainly champions of contemporary art. The public, to judge from the printed and electronic responses, has expressed universal distaste.

And yet, Friday’s post on this blog has coaxed out of hiding a handful of people who admit to a fugitive affection for the work, a reminder that loud voices are not necessarily the only voices.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:24 PM | | Comments (0)

March 28, 2008

Anger mismanagement

The dog walkers were among the first to express outrage.

Lee Freeman, a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art and an undergraduate Christo, had got permission from various agencies to temporarily block the park in Mount Vernon Square with gold-painted chain-link fence. It was a conceptual piece intended to stimulate thought about public spaces.

Brother, did it.

An article on the artist by The Sun’s Abigail Tucker has one of the longest tails of comments from readers, and it is the comments, not the work of art, that provoke some thoughts about public discourse. The public is in a snit.

Some of the complaints were reasonable enough. Residents of Mount Vernon were irritated at being deprived, even temporarily of the use of the open space. But then the storm hit. Some of the elements:

We weren’t informed

The fencing project went through channels for approval, and while there were no public hearings, there is some dispute about how widely residents were informed. (My own experience in the newsroom is that people don’t pay much attention to the memos.)

That damn kid

Mr. Freeman comes in for considerable abuse in the reader comments: The little twerp, this out-of-town elitist, this snotty college kid, who does he think he is? People scream obscenities at him when he’s in the square. My generation, subjected to hostility toward the young 40 years ago, has matured into ... expressing hostility toward the young. That, of course, oversimplifies; there’s also class resentment about supposedly privileged college students to factor in.

That other stuff

Insofar as the discussion is about aesthetics, and not much of it is, it regularly broadens into ranting about unrelated works, most particularly the Male/Female statue in front of Penn Station.*

The retaliation

There have been denunciations of the Maryland Institute for harboring and encouraging the artist, and I’ve seen at least one vow to withhold contributions from the Walters Art Museum for its encouragement of the project.

There’s a lot of rage out there, and it’s not particularly discriminating in its choice of objects, and not particularly proportionate. I don’t much care for conceptual art, including Christo’s, and, with all respect to Mr. Freeman’s intentions, I find his project puerile. But I’m neither qualified to be nor interested in being a censor of public art. I, too, like to walk in Mount Vernon Square (though I generally have to keep my head down to watch out for all the dog excrement on the sidewalk). But I can tolerate a temporary inconvenience without risking an apoplexy.

It’s as if the nastiness that has marked political discussion for the past generation has spilled over into other areas. And the Internet, including newspapers like The Sun that permit unmoderated or lightly supervised comments by the public, fosters and facilitates expression of such nastiness. I leave it to the psychologists to determine whether giving voice to rage and resentment vents them or stimulates them, but I suspect the latter.

But if you, dear reader, find yourself consumed by anger, I give a practical suggestion for you: Get a ticket to a ball game. The great thing about sports competitions is that they don’t matter. The fate of the Republic is not at stake. One’s standard of living and place in the social order are not at risk. Somebody wins, somebody loses, nobody gets shot, and it all happens again the next day. Moreover — this is the important part — a ball game establishes an environment in which it is both socially acceptable and harmless for people to scream their lungs out, express contempt, utter threats and generally act abusively.

Take in a game. Then go home and see whether you can be civil.


*Actually, though I am not particularly fond of aluminum as an artistic medium, I’ve grown rather to like Male/Female (pictured below), and so has my wife. The glow from it is cheerful when I drive up Charles Street after dark. This appears to be a minority view, given the persistent clamor against the statue since its erection. So, in an exception of my practice of authorizing nearly every comment on this blog, I will carve out a small area of protected expression. If you like Male/Female, you can say so in a comment to this post, and I will suppress any comment attacking you.




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (13)

March 27, 2008

The doctors' plot

Now it’s the medical profession that’s down on guns. An article in The New England Journal of Medicine, forwarded to me by a medical student, says that gun injuries cost billions in medical expenses annually, that epidemiological studies demonstrate that possession of a gun substantially increases the risk of violent death and that the belief that gun ownership decreases crime is a discredited myth.

Don’t look at me. I’m not a doctor. I already got into enough trouble for imagining that I know something about grammar.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:28 PM | | Comments (5)

Possession is not nine-tenths of it

Our own, our very own Rob Hiaasen has written about residents of Fells Point, the neighborhood that Sun style spells without an apostrophe, who are committed to restoring the punctuation to the name. Usage, historically and currently, has varied, and the newspaper’s stylebook makes the kind of arbitrary choice that stylebooks must make when there are options.

Well, not entirely arbitrary. There is a tendency in English for words to run together and to lose punctuation. Everybody, for example, was written as every body in Jane Austen’s time, and the hyphens in to-day and to-morrow lingered into the 20th century. Apostrophes in place names are particularly likely to drop out — thus the Baltimore County neighborhoods of Turners Station and Bowleys Quarters.

The U.S. Board on Geographic Names is historically hostile to the apostrophe, permitting it in a handful of place names officially recognized, such as Martha’s Vineyard. Perhaps the board members summer there.

We do keep the apostrophe for Prince George’s County and Queen Anne’s County, which we think are the dominant forms. We omit the apostrophe from Presidents Day but keep it for Defenders’ Day.* We follow British practice with the Court of St. James’s and Earls Court in London. Businesses — Harrods, Starbucks, Marshalls — often shed the apostrophe, though some — Macy’s — retain it.

What this should tell you is that there is no settled naming convention with the apostrophe. Like so much else in English, names are determinedly idiosyncratic, resistant to rules and logic alike.

In case you were wondering, Fells Point stands in The Sun’s stylebook.


*Defenders’ Day in Baltimore commemorates the failure of the British army and navy to take the city in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814. General Ross, the British commander, vowed to dine in Baltimore or in hell. He did not dine in Baltimore, and the Royal Navy never got past Fort McHenry.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:00 AM | | Comments (7)

March 26, 2008

Check your guns at the door

I told you that I’m not going back to the Second Amendment. Instead, I’ll take time to respond to readers.

Patricia Witkin wonders about presently: “I had it drilled into my head that presently=soon, not "at present," which is how I see/hear it (mis)used all the time. People seem to think it sounds fancier than "currently" or, better yet, "now." The only time I encounter the correct usage is when I'm watching old movies, leading me to wonder if this is one of those things that has become forgotten/abused/discarded over time, to the point where the two words are accepted as interchangeable.”

Merriam-Webster’s finds that presently has a long history in both senses, right now and sometime soon, and suggests indulgently that the meaning can usually be inferred from context. Garner’s suggests avoiding the word because of potential confusion. My sense is that you are right in suspecting that the sometime soon sense is increasingly dated and is being supplanted by the now sense. (And yes, it is a windy and pompous substitution, of the sort one finds in office memos.)

For my own part, as a son of Appalachia, I prefer directly, pronounced as my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early said it, something between d’rectly and dreckly. It is roughly equivalent of manana: “Yes, Kathleen, I’ll put the book down and rake those remaining leaves from last fall directly.”

Steve Merelman writes in annoyance about a headline in a paper published 40 miles south of here ”Bearest Thy Musket.” He’s right; the est suffix in archaic English is properly limited to the second-person singular, as the eth suffix is limited to the third-person singular. And it is not the imperative form. Tsk.

A reader submitted a complaint to my boss, Paul Moore, about a passage in one of our articles, “Chief Legal Council Karen Hornig and Deputy Legal Counsel Ronald M. Levitan,” saying, rightly, that the word is counsel and wondering how we got it right in one place and wrong in one place in the same sentence. Inattention to detail.

Moreover, chief legal counsel and deputy legal counsel are job descriptions, not formal titles, and have no business being capitalized. It doesn’t matter that every Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief likes a massed formation of capital letters before his name; we don’t have to do it.

And, by the way, it was a reader of this blog, one Bryan, saying, “I enjoy your blog tremendously and count myself among the (usually) silent majority that appreciate the good fight your regular job entails,” who made the suggestion that I explore the sense of the word militia in the context of the Second Amendment. Ah, life in the crosshairs.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:28 AM | | Comments (6)

March 25, 2008

Here's the thing

The reason not to worry overmuch about the way people talk or write in e-mails or other casual contexts is summed up aptly in a short passage from Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which I have been reading in short takes at lunch for several weeks.

The aspect of language that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose. Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when preserved on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conversational partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, feedback, and—probably most important—exposure to good examples.

Editors, copy editors, mavens and scolds, focus on what’s most important.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:58 AM | | Comments (2)

March 24, 2008

Last volley

This gun business is getting tiresome. (Posts and comments here and here.) Today a comment has the cheek to question my honesty as a citizen.

First, a response to a couple of the posted comments.

Whatever you think about guns and public order, you do not want me on the street. I do not own a gun and have fired one only once in my life — and that something like 40 years ago, missing the target widely. A weapon in my hands would make me a hazard to myself and others. Do you who talk about the militia including all adult citizens seriously want a horde of untrained civilians going about armed during some general crisis? Do you think that the police and National Guard would see that as assistance rather than an additional danger to public safety?

The suggestion that we should substitute some other noun for arms to dissipate the emotional charge of the discussion will not take us far. Arms are weapons, weapons are serious things, and the necessary concern of governments about who has weapons and for what purposes is one of the reasons that this amendment was written in the first place.

The commas in the amendment that fascinate one commentator are of no particular significance to the meaning. The first two set off a phrase, and the third separates the subject from the predicate — all commonplace in 18th-century English.

Second, a return to the original point, and I will put it in boldface in hopes of avoiding further misreading:

It was a mistake in the first post to use the word govern to describe the relationship of that initial absolute phrase to the main clause. That was too strong. But it does — it must — modify the main clause. The First Amendment states bluntly that “Congress shall make no law” about free exercise of religion, speech, the press, etc. It has no explanatory qualifier. So there is something about the right to bear arms that demands that introductory phrase, or so Mr. Madison thought.

That qualifier puts the right to bear arms in the context of the need for a “well regulated Militia.” That makes it necessary to understand how the concept of a militia was understood in the 18th century, and how it has evolved in the present. And, mind you, it specifies a “well regulated” militia, not a crowd of American bashi-bazouks.* It doesn’t seem outrageous to suggest that this amendment connects the bearing of arms with some form of supervised military training.

(I’m not even going to venture to suggest that to bear arms carries the connotation of some kind of military service, rather than simple private ownership.)

It is up to the justices to interpret that language and how to apply it to contemporary circumstances. I haven’t suggested how they should. I’ve only identified two points that are relevant to the argument.

And finally, I have no plans to write on this subject again. I’ll continue to authorize such comments as fall within the furthest bounds of civility. Back to business tomorrow.


*The bashi-bazouks were the notoriously brutal and ill-disciplined irregular troops of the Ottoman Turkish army in the 19th century.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 AM | | Comments (10)

March 21, 2008

Second that amendment

The reader who commented that I brought it on myself yesterday by writing about the Second Amendment was right. Oh, it could have been worse; the Red Dawn loonies and those who think that 24 should be the basis for public policy could have zeroed in. I escaped with no more than a couple of misinterpretations and adolescent-level insults. But at the risk of drawing further fire, I’m going back in.

Yesterday’s post was limited to two points, that that absolute phrase at the beginning of the amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” has something to do with the meaning of the amendment, and that some understanding of what militia means is required.

A couple of respondents apparently think that their understanding of the sense of the amendment requires that opening phrase to be ignored. This was one:

“It can be made abundantly clear that the first clause of the Second Amendment does *not* "govern" the rest in any way. Simply change the wording, but keep the same grammatical construction. An example:

"’Cold Beer, being essential to a balanced diet, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.’

“That first phrase is actually completely irrelevant and the Second Amendment would mean exactly the same thing even if it were deleted entirely.”

Well, no. Not exactly. Not at all. Syntax implies relationships. When you put things together in a sentence, you are saying that there is some logical relationship between them. Otherwise, as in the “cold beer” example above, you are constructing a non sequitur. I don’t think that Mr. Madison was making a non sequitur. That opening absolute phrase in some way modifies, limits, puts into a context the clause that follows. The question is not whether it does so — otherwise language is just noise — but how it is to be understood.

Then, for one respondent, interpreting militia appears to require that everyone is in the militia and therefore should have guns. I hope that he is not counting on my competence to “suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.” Do you really want every citizen to be packing heat? Everybody?

One reason that political discourse in this country is so tedious and sterile is that just about everyone, left and right, bends principle to fit preferences in specific cases. (Some such people appear to sit on the Supreme Court.)

Those people who would like to see every handgun in the United States melted down into slag and dumped in the Mariana Trench insist on the narrowest possible reading of the Second Amendment, that the right of bearing arms is limited to the militia, which is now the National Guard. Many of them are the same people who want to give the First Amendment its broadest reading to protect the widest range of free expression. For them, the understanding of the First Amendment has broadened and expanded over the past two centuries, but that of the Second has not.

And those people who want to eliminate restrictions on gun ownership must, as we saw above, strain to eliminate some fairly plain language.

Not every person who advocates widespread gun ownership is crouching with his semiautomatic weapons amid the canned goods, listening for the black helicopters. Not every person who advocates limits on personal possession of firearms is a witless dupe of a totalitarian oppressor. There is a constitutional right to bear arms, but the dispute over how to understand that right has not been edifying.


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

March 20, 2008

Grammar, guns and the Constitution

Let’s hope that as the justices of the Supreme Court consider the language of the Second Amendment in District of Columbia v Heller, they will keep in mind the understanding of English grammar prevalent among the Latinate-minded Founders.

The opening phrase of the amendment, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” is, as Dennis Baron points out, an absolute, a phrase governing the rest of the sentence. Or so Mr. Madison would have understood it. The right to bear arms therefore has a direct connection to the establishment of a militia.

The revolutionary generation distrusted standing armies, which their reading of Roman history warned them could subvert the civilian government, and which their experience with George III taught them that the soldiery could be an instrument of royal tyranny. (Besides, the early national government taxed so lightly, mainly from customs duties, that it lacked the money to fund an army.)

Maintenance of public order depended largely on the militia, and in the colonial and Federal eras, the militia was made up, not of any yahoo who could touch off a flintlock, but of a group of adult male citizens who met more or less regularly for some level of military training.

The militia was an arm of the government, not an independent collection of citizens, as Article 1 of the Constitution indicates by giving Congress the power

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress. ...

(The effectiveness of such forces was highly variable. You may recall that the citizen soldiers of the militia crumbled before the British regulars at Bladensburg in 1814, leaving the way open for the occupation of the District of Columbia and the burning of the White House and Capitol.)

Not being learned in the law, I am unable to say whether this constitutional context grants residents of the District of Columbia a right to keep an arsenal of firearms under the bed. It will be interesting to see what the exponents on the court of Original Intent will make of all this.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (29)

Just between us

Some people were rattled on National Grammar Day by my remark on the Dan Rodricks show on WYPR-FM that between is not limited to use with two parties. (“Heresy! Heresy! He’s gone over to the Other Side! He’s in the pay of Geoffrey Pullum! Stop him! He’s destroying the language!”)

But just the other day I came across a passage in Robert Dallek’s Nixon and Kissinger that illustrates the exception to the between/among distinction: “Between February 25 and March 4, Kissinger resumed his shuttle diplomacy, traveling between Damascus, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Amman, Riyadh, and Bonn, before his return to the United States.”

He did not travel among those six cities; he traveled between one and another seriatim. Bryan Garner quotes Ernest Gowers quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Between “is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually; among expresses a relation to them collectively and vaguely: we should not say the space lying among the three points or a treaty among three Powers.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:02 AM | | Comments (2)

March 19, 2008

Know your copy editors

I was once directly subordinate to an editor who, for the two years that the editor was theoretically in charge of the copy desk, did not trouble to learn who all the copy editors were by name or by sight.

For a supervising editor, this may not be seen as a drawback — though a supervising editor who did not know all the reporters would be considered eccentric, if not incompetent — but for the copy desk itself, ticking along in obscurity has been customary, the mind of man remembereth not to the contrary.

But for a colleague such as an assigning editor or reporter, knowing who has hands on the copy is useful, perhaps even vital.

It would make unlikely the sort of scene, noted just this week, when a reporter* carried on volubly about the nasty, suspicious-minded copy editor who had the temerity to point out that he had gotten a person’s name wrong in his story — without realizing that he was standing next to that very copy editor.


*Don’t ask; I’m not telling.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (2)

March 18, 2008

Great Caesar's ghost, it IS a word

One of my fellow Testy Copy Editors begs to be told that wikify — presumably to construct as a wiki or incorporate into or adapt for a wiki — is not a word. I fear that there’s no help.

Whether something “is or is not a word” exercises many commentators on language and the people who pose questions to them. But that’s not the right question. The blunt fact is, and the linguists are right about this, that if it is comprehensible to another speaker of the language, it is a word. You may not care for impact as a verb, or worse, impactful, and you may hold up bootylicious between two fingers as you would pick up a slug from the sidewalk, but they are all words, and it is idle to contest that status.

Over at the blog Headsup, FEV points out that “the general philosophy around here is that it's best not to lose too much sleep banning new words and usages. Don't get us wrong; there are lots of them we cordially dislike, and if you want help in ridding yourself of verbs like ‘impact’ and ‘reference,’ we're here for you. (I'm starting to get exercised about ‘do-over,’ myself.) But we won't exile you for using the damn things. Just try not to do it in front of the kitties.”

The principles of evolution apply to language as well as to biology. Language is constantly throwing up variations and novelties, most of which perish after a brief span, but some of which endure. Look at the ever-entertaining Slang and Euphemism by Richard A. Spears. Take a word — we’ll try oaf, one of the more innocuous entries — and examine the richness of defunct vocabulary: 

Addle-brain, bake-head, balatron, beanhead, beetle-brain, blockhead, blubberbrain, Boeotian, booberkin, Boobus americanus, butterball, cabbagehead, calf-lolly, chawbacon, chuff, clabber-head, cockscomb, cod, Country Jake, diddle-head, dillypot, dimbo, dink., doddypate, dodunk, donk, dooble, doof, dorbel, dorf, dorkmunder, Dorkus maximus, dromedary, drongo, droud, drube, and a full two and a half columns of close print to go.

It’s not up to the copy desk to legislate for the language, which is going to go where it wants to, throwing up and altering and discarding words with merry abandon. But we do get to have opinions about what is clear, what is precise, what is appropriate in context, and even, sometimes, what is elegant. Say otherwise, and risk being termed a looby.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (9)

March 17, 2008

I am not a doctor

Much as I hesitate to disagree with Bill Walsh, valued colleague, pioneer of blogging on the copy editor’s role, and panjandrum of the copy desk at a newspaper 40 miles to the south, I can’t endorse his latest stricture on usage: “If you can't fix a broken leg, I'm not calling you ‘doctor.’"

Brother Walsh takes the hard-line view that only people with medical degrees get to be called “doctor.” That is largely in keeping with the emphasis in the Associated Press Stylebook, which says that Dr. in first reference should be limited to people with degrees in dental surgery, medicine, optometry, osteopathy or podiatric medicine. Its reasoning is that the public tends to identify the title only with physicians.

But then the AP gets weasely, saying that if it is “appropriate within the context,” the title may be used with the names of people who hold other doctoral degrees — but not honorary doctorates.

The New York Times has essayed further on that slippery slope, saying in its stylebook: “Others with earned doctorates, like Ph.D. degrees, may choose to use the title or not; follow their preference.” Perhaps The Times writes about, and is read by, more people with earned doctorates.

The major point, and it is a difficult one for some copy editors, is that house style follows usage. Newspapers, for example, put in a long resistance to the use of gay as a synonym for homosexual. That resistance is over, because the usage has become established.

And the multiplication of people with advanced degrees since the university boom days of the 1950s and 1960s means that there are a lot more non-physicians out there who like the sound of doctor before their names. A friend who worked at the Harvard Coop years ago while completing his own dissertation was quietly amused at the pathetic vanity of the customers who had insisted on having “Ph.D.” appended to their names on their charge cards.

I did know a member of the Syracuse faculty, Paul Theiner, a Chaucerian, who disdained being called doctor. Doctors, he said, were people who probed into other people’s orifices for a living. He was Professor Theiner.

We may have thrown over British rule and rejected hereditary aristocracy, but as Americans we have never shed a love of titles and minor distinctions. The lurid and flamboyant titles that members of lodges and fraternal orders bestow upon one another come to mind. The tendency of retired military officers and public officials to hold on to General, Colonel, Senator, Governor and Ambassador is another mark of our non-egalitarian tendencies. Keep in mind as well the procession of notables who harvest honorary degrees by the bushel in exchange for numbingly platitudinous commencement speeches.

H.L. Mencken wrote in 1946: “I simply can't imagine any man of dignity accepting Pulitzer Prizes, honorary degrees or other such fripperies. Nine-tenths of them go to obvious quacks. Getting one is like being elected to the Elks.”

But since people do earn doctorates, and like to use doctor with their names, and circulate among people who also like the sound of titles, the reasonable course is to follow the practice that The Times recommends: Use the title when the person has an earned degree and the holding of that degree is relevant to the context of the article.


For the record: I was a graduate student at Syracuse, 1973-1979, leaving without completing a Ph.D. in English. I am also one of the few living Kentuckians who is not a Kentucky Colonel.




Posted by John McIntyre at 12:00 PM | | Comments (8)

Meet Professor Blorenge

Over at The Editor’s Desk, Andy Bechtel has pointed out an entry in Paper Cuts, a blog on books at The New York Times, inviting readers to contribute a specimen passage from a beloved book. Naturally, the response has been enthusiastic, and it is getting a little crowded over there. So I offer you a short selection from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin.

The novel recounts the adventures and misadventures of Timofey Pnin, a Russian expatriate with a precarious position at Waindell College, a provincial institution that offers Nabokov many opportunities to mock American academic life. The novel is funny and satirical and deeply humane, a nearly perfect comic novel. I reread it with pleasure every few years; and if you do not know it, I grieve for your loss.

Professor Michael Koppisch read this passage to me with great relish 35 years ago at Michigan State, and acquaintance with this book is but one of many debts of gratitude I owe him.

From Pnin:

Two interesting characteristics distinguished Leonard Blorenge, Chairman of French Literature and Language; he disliked Literature and he had no French. This did not prevent him from traveling tremendous distances to attend Modern Language conventions, at which he would flaunt his ineptitude as if it were some majestic whim, and parry with great thrusts of healthy lodge humor any attempt to inveigle him into the subtleties of the parley-voo. A highly esteemed money-getter, he had recently induced a rich old man, whom three great universities had courted in vain, to promote with a fantastic endowment a riot of research conducted by graduates under the direction of Dr. Slavski, a Canadian, toward the erection on a hill near Waindell, of a “French Village,” two streets and a square, to be copied from those of the ancient little burg of Vandel in the Dordogne. Despite the grandiose element always present in his administrative illuminations, Blorenge was personally a man of ascetic tastes. He had happened to go to school with Sam Poore, Waindell’s President, and for many years, regularly, even after the latter had lost his sight, the two would go fishing together on a bleak, wind-raked lake, at the end of a gravel lane lined with fireweed, seventy miles north of Waindell, in the kind of dreary brush country—scrub oak and nursery pine—that, in terms of nature, is the counterpart of a slum. His wife, a sweet woman of simple antecedents, referred to him at her club as “Professor Blorenge.” He gave a course entitled “Great Frenchmen,” which he had had his secretary copy out from a set of The Hastings Historical and Philosophical Magazine for 1882-94, discovered by him in an attic and not represented in the College Library.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (0)

March 16, 2008

If you're pals with Patrick

Tomorrow being the Feast of St. Patrick, you will want to refer to it — if you go in for that sort of jocular informality — with the Irish diminutive for Patrick, St. Paddy’s Day. If you should, as some invariably do, refer to St. Patty’s Day, you would be suggesting something about the saint not supported by the skimpy historical record.


* Pronounced SLAWN-cha.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:40 AM | | Comments (1)

March 14, 2008

Talk sense about marriage

In their typically fumbling fashion, the people’s representatives in the Maryland General Assembly have been trying to figure out what to do about proposals to legalize gay marriage, set up civil unions, enact some limited version of the latter, reaffirm one-man-one-woman marriage, or just repair to the bar and forget about the whole thing.

Before the abusive automatic responses kick in, let me try to be clear about the essentials. I’m not interested in church so much as state.

Religious denominations determine whether marriages can be performed by their adherents. The Roman Catholic Church continues to decide whether a man and a woman can marry within the church and, divorce being ruled out, whether that marriage can subsequently be annulled. The Episcopal Church and the Southern Baptists can do the same. Synagogues, Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, will or will not countenance individual unions solemnized by rabbis, as they see fit. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Unitarian-Universalists, Wiccans and the Universal Life Church’s mail-order clergy are equally free to go about their business. This is America, and the state doesn’t meddle.

(In Britain, having an established church has made things a little more complicated. In the 19th century, the Deceased Wife’s Sister Marriage act forbade a husband to marry the sister of his deceased wife, on the prohibitions of marriage within consanguinity of canon law and the Church of England’s ecclesiastical law. The Deceased Wife’s Sister act was not repealed until the early 20th century.)

I would, however, like to look at the frequently repeated statement that marriage has always involved just one man and one woman and therefore always should. If memory serves, the patriarchs and monarchs of the Hebrew Scriptures often maintained domestic arrangements that, if attempted today, might involve criminal prosecution and would certainly tie things up in probate longer than Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. *

The anthropological literature includes descriptions of numerous societies in which polygamy or polygyny has been practiced.

And contemporary sociologists coined the term serial monogamy, also sometimes called serial polygamy, to describe the exuberant careers of successive marriages and divorces that people increasingly undertake. (Repeat quietly to yourself: Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Warner Fortensky.) And let’s not even get started on the Henrickson family of HBO’s Big Love.

Even more, I’d like put up for examination another uninformed view that crops up occasionally: that the state has no business regulating marriage.

The state regulates marriage, for one, because marriage is and always has been about the orderly conveyance of property, and anyone who thinks otherwise has plainly never read Jane Austen. The law, as a relic of the practice of providing a dowry for a wife, used to hold that the woman’s property passed entirely into the man’s control at marriage. The state made that law; and when social circumstances changed, the state unmade that law.

The state also has an interest in protecting the welfare of its citizens, including those citizens who are minor children. So as part of the law of marriage and divorce, the state determines custody questions. Religious marriage involves principles of theology. Secular marriage involves the state’s maintenance of public order by the regulation of property and supervision of the welfare of children.

Maintaining civil public discourse doesn’t require people to hold one view or another about the terms of marriage and civil unions, but it does require them to be clear about the terms of the debate.


* Look it up yourself. Bleak House is in the bookstores. If you’re insane, you can read all 600-plus pages on Google.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:13 AM | | Comments (10)

March 13, 2008

Fleeting fame

One of my college roommates from Michigan State saw me on television last night in Austin, Texas. Didn’t recognize me at first, but “the feigned pedantry was the same.” (It’s not feigned.)

He was watching The Writing Code, a three-part series that has apparently been running since the fall on PBS stations around the country. Gene Searchinger of Equinox Films, the director, was in Baltimore in February 2004 to get footage in The Sun’s newsroom.

Should you have an opportunity to watch — and Mr. Searchinger rounded up many people much more interesting and better informed than I am — I think that my brief appearance comes in the second part of the series, “The Art and the Craft.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 3:41 PM | | Comments (0)

Sorry, but no

Much as we love and treasure our readers and yearn to respond to their concerns, we sometimes have to disappoint their expectations.

A daily reader of The Sun who teaches at an area university sent in a complaint about “basic grammatical errors in stories and headlines in the paper,” singling out the lead sentence of an article that began, "A relatively high NUMBER of Maryland high school students ARE....” He adds that he wonders whether he should continue advising his students to read the newspaper and emulate the writing in it.

He would do well to advise his charges to emulate the sentence he disparages, because collective nouns in English can be either singular or plural, depending on context. American usage generally prefers words such as team, committee, panel and the like as a singular. (British usage tends to prefer the reverse.) But there are words such as couple, majority and, yes, number that can be used in either singular or plural sense.

This is as good a place as any to repeat the regularly unheeded point that none is another word that swings both ways.

Another reader bemoans one of our headlines, Whom would a Democratic president talk to? “It HURTS to see a headline end with a preposition,” she says.

I wish that I could relieve the pain, but there is no objection in idiomatic English, and never has been, to ending a sentence with a preposition. That superstition, along with the bogus prohibition on splitting infinitives, has had a long span, with generations of English teachers and editors to blame. And even the complaining reader acknowledges that With whom would a Democratic president talk? “sounds a little stilted.”

It takes considerable time and energy to keep real mistakes out of the paper, and we don’t catch all of them. We don’t have time — or interest — in addressing things that aren’t mistakes in the first place.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:16 PM | | Comments (10)

March 12, 2008

Ancient advice

That little dust-up last week over sesquipedalian, a word coined by Horace in the first century B.C., sent me back for a look at my daughter’s* favorite Latin writer, who has useful advice for writers of the present.

In medias res (in the middle of things). One of the few correspondences between classical epic and contemporary journalism is that both start here. The Iliad doesn’t open ab ovo (at the egg, the one from Leda, whose brief liaison with Zeus in the form of a swan produced Helen, whose abduction caused the Trojan War). It opens with Achilles sulking in his tent and things going straight to hell for the Greeks, who have already been stuck for 10 years before the walls of Troy. Just so, a properly constructed news story doesn’t open with a couple of hundred words of throat-clearing and background, but takes you into the thick of things, the now.

He who has begun is half done. Dare to be wise; begin! (dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet: sapere aude, incipe). You’ve spent the whole day reporting, and you’ve waited until five o’clock to start your first draft?

Once a word has been allowed to escape, it can never be recalled (semel emissum volat irrevocabile verbum). Think twice before you hurry to post that story on the Internet.

Even Homer nods (quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus) Everybody lapses; everybody makes mistakes; everybody needs an editor.

The touchy tribe of poets (genus irritabile vatum). Oh, all writers. Dealing with them is like having a smoke in a munitions plant. Lord knows how many of them I have ticked off with these posts. Perhaps Quintus Horatius Flaccus will be a little more persuasive.


*Alice Elizabeth Marian McIntyre, Swarthmore ’06, teacher of Latin at the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (3)

March 11, 2008

Many happy returns, Henry Fowler

Over at The Web of Language yesterday, Dennis Baron commemorated the 150th birthday of H.W. Fowler, whose Modern English Usage, elevated to the level of sacred scripture at Harold Ross’ New Yorker and other places, is a manual of English usage that is still fun to read for amusement. Well, yes, by nerds. Who else is reading this blog?

Professor Baron reminds us of the unfortunate tendency of editors and writers to elevate guidelines and expand suggestions into Rules, a tendency against which we in the You Don’t Say circle continue to struggle. (We are not a cult.)

Granted that Fowler’s advice is limited to a dialect of English from the south of England 80 years ago, and that the language and our understanding of it have developed extensively over eight decades, Modern English Usage remains a book of vigor — and occasional crankiness — and a good deal of advice that remains useful. Even Arnold Zwicky at Language Log gave a left-handed salute to Fowler’s birthday and offered a toast in sherry.

Even belatedly, we can do no less. Salut!



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:31 PM | | Comments (0)

Respect my authoritay*

Last week, Jim Thomsen, a colleague in the American Copy Editors Society, made an unequivocal comment on this blog about the nature of authority in language and usage: “There are no ‘authorities’ in language. Just people who are more bullying about their ideas and opinions than others.”

As I had mentioned in a previous post on grammarians, we have no Academie anglaise to make official determinations about the English language, and English speakers have a longstanding and inbred distaste for the idea. Our lexicographers disclaim any intention of establishing “correct” usage, focusing entirely on recording descriptively how the language is used by its writers and editors. We have a mixed collection of teachers and linguists and grammarians and commentators, all clamoring to be heard.

So the first part of Mr. Thomsen’s statement is beyond challenge. There is no sole, universally acknowledged Authority on English and how to use it. It is the rhetorical excess of the second statement that could lead to some productive thinking.

If we learned anything from the 1960s — and I concede readily that that is a highly suspect proposition — it is that authority is earned, not conferred automatically. Everyone who writes on language, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, John Simon, Bryan Garner, Steven Pinker, Edwin Newman, your humble & ob’t. servant and the colleagues on the accompanying blogroll, derives as much authority as the persuasiveness of their arguments can generate. **

I admire Mr. Simon’s formidable scorn (without necessarily accepting his argument), Professor Pullum’s thoroughness, Professor Pinker’s vast learning, Mr. Garner’s sweet reasonableness, and my colleagues’ earnest grappling with complicated issues of taste and practice. (The omission of Edwin Newman was not accidental.)

Pullum, Pinker and Garner — writing for different audiences and different purposes — all draw on stores of information about the history of the language and observation of current practice. And that is where we can begin to locate authority. Authority presents arguments grounded in research and information about etymology and historical usage, grounded in ample citation of current usages, grounded in questioning of assumptions and previous practices. Authority is informed.

And authority gains assent not through dogmatic pronunciamento but through reasoned argument, argument that an intelligent reader can follow and weigh. Since we have authorities rather than Authority, we have to sift through the arguments and conclude what best fits our own sense of the language, how it is used, and how we prefer to use it. If we are open to question and to persuasion, then we, too, can benefit from examination of the authorities.


* Do I have to explain an allusion to Cartman on South Park?

** Yes, it’s an everyone ... their construction. Go fish.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (6)

March 10, 2008

On that we might agree

Rather than prolong the heaving and sweating over which and that following a response to this blog by Professor Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log, I’d like to make a couple of simple points.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes where things stand on the controversy at the moment: “You can use either which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic—and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.”

Like the brothers Fowler, I think that it would be beneficial for writers to follow a general practice of using that to introduce restrictive clauses and which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. Though some writers on grammar and usage would like to call that a rule, it is a suggestion. I recommend it as a stylistic preference.

One reason for my preference is the increasing tendency for writers to revive the archaic use of that to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. I see dozens of examples a week in reporters’ copy. While it’s usually possible for the reader to puzzle out the intended meaning, it is neither precise nor elegant.

A digression

Professor Pullum’s urbanity and good humor are not always imitated.

Someone named Stephen Jones commented on the “I’m just a simple country boy” passage in my post: “'Ah'm just a poor country boy.' Then go back and look after the cows! Copy editors are supposed to know English grammar and usage, not some petty prejudices they were mistaught at Grade School.”

Someone else named Peter Seibel commented similarly at his blog: “Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: ‘I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.’”

Messrs. Jones and Seibel offer a valuable reminder to writers and editors that there will always be some readers for whom an explanation of irony will be necessary.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (2)

March 6, 2008

Divine judgment

Now, in addition to everything else that befalls a copy editor, I appear to have been excommunicated.

Gabriel Michael, a graduate student at the Yale Divinity School, has published a column in the Yale Daily News as snarky as anything produced by those of us in the secular arm.

Those of us who participated, however jokingly, in National Grammar Day, we are informed, are “random misanthropes on the Internet” guilty of “judgmental, hypercritical elitism.” Our lives are therefore warped and blighted, because “leading the life of a nit-picker isn’t very fun. It’s sort of like being a spy: At every moment, you have to carefully watch what you say lest a slip of the tongue reveal you as the fraud you are.”

He particularly singles out the members of the Facebook group “I judge you when you use poor grammar.”

If we only had the sense to read the linguists at Language Log, there might be some faint hope of our deathbed repentance and, after several eons in Purgatory, redemption.

I do occasionally leave off whimpering in the chimney corner long enough to look at Language Log and read what various authorities on language have to say, and in this I am not particularly exceptional.

If Mr. Michael had troubled to research the subject a little further than Facebook, he might have stumbled across a fair number of us elitists — wait a minute, somebody attending Yale is accusing me, a humble graduate of Michigan State, of elitism? — actually rise above superstitions and shibboleths to give reasonable advice about language and usage. The blogroll at this site would be a place to start.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:15 PM | | Comments (14)

Just stupid, I guess

The lady was angry. She had been reading The Sun for years, and she was irritated — no, annoyed — by the rash of errors in the paper. The members of her bridge club had all given up on the paper and had stopped reading it, but she wanted an explanation. Were we all just stupid on Calvert Street?

Of course she was referred to me.

What about the real estate sale listings? Lutherville, where she lives, was listed in Baltimore City in the paper. Who could have been so stupid as to have done that? I told her that I would have to check and talk to the copy editor responsible for checking that page. (It turns out that someone had transposed the “Baltimore City” and “Baltimore County” labels in the listing, and that had not been caught on proof.)

What about the duplicate death listings? I asked, was that in the news obituaries or the paid death notices? She was irked to learn that I have no control over the death notices, which are prepared by the advertising department. (If you went to Sears with a complaint about an appliance, would you be irate at learning that the cosmetics counter couldn’t help?) I did give her a number to call.

And those reporters who don’t seem to know the area or where anything is? That, I glumly told her, is not a new phenomenon. The in-house editing newsletters of the past 35 years show the same sorts of mistakes being repeated annually. We once published an article locating a Maryland town 30 miles east of Ocean City, presumably in Atlantis. (I didn’t tell her about the reporter who filed an article about then-U.S. Attorney Thomas M. DiBiagio in which he misspelled DiBiagio 14 times. Or that when we saw that he had at least misspelled the name consistently throughout, we registered that as an improvement in his work. At least the copy desk caught that one.)

She wasn’t impressed by my explaining that our copy editors catch scores of errors every day, or that the need to publish tens of thousands of words, under deadline pressure, every 24 hours means that no newspaper has ever been error-free, or ever will be. Or that I wince at every error the copy desk misses. Not mollified, she ended the conversation curtly.

Encounters with readers are bracing. They remind us that nobody cares how hard we work, what obstacles we face, how good our intentions are. They don’t see that, and they don’t want to. They see the product. When the product is defective in some way, they conclude that we are dim-witted, lazy, incompetent or all three.

Perhaps that attitude is limited to readers of the print edition. Perhaps the executives who conclude that it’s OK to publish raw copy on the Internet because no one there gets fussy about, you know, factual accuracy. So it’s OK to dispense with all that expensive and time-consuming editing. Who will care?

My guess: Some readers will, and over time they will migrate to the sites that they can trust. And respect.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:19 AM | | Comments (7)

March 5, 2008

The day after

One day past, the exhilaration of National Grammar Day has yet to fade. The cheers of the crowds lining the streets at the parade still echo in one’s ears. It was a swirl of events, the hourly cannon fire salute from the Citadel, the Te Deum sung at the Cathedral, the torchlight procession and laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph of the Unknown Copy Editor*, the fireworks display, the Semicolon Ball at the Ducal Palace, the governor’s generous clemency in releasing the detainees from the stockade at midnight. A glorious day.

Oh, all right, it was a stunt. Though the letter from President Bush was not. **

But in some ways a fruitful stunt. It smoked out some of the mossback prescriptivists so that their excesses could be exposed to light and air. It gave the moderate prescriptivists an opportunity to illustrate what reasonable guidelines for usage are — while exploring the areas in which reasonable people differ on grammar and usage. It gave me a chance to chat with Martha Brockenbrough of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar on Dan Rodricks’ radio show. It even yielded an olive branch from Language Log.

I was delighted to receive a message of fraternal greetings from Geoffrey K. Pullum, who, even though he can in no way countenance the that/which distinction I advocate, explains that he really, truly appreciates copy editors and does not hate their guts. And I, in equally fraternal regard, shrug off his regrettable past “copy-editing moron” reference; perhaps, if I’m ever able to book passage to Edinburgh, Professor Pullum and I could repair to a pub for a few glasses of single malt and a lively exchange on language. That would be a grammar day to remember.


*Hell, pretty much all copy editors are unknown.

**Click on the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar link at the National Grammar Day Web site.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (7)

March 4, 2008

Who will guard the grammarians?

Today is National Grammar Day. Watch your step.

You had better, because you have been given bad advice for years.

In “The Language Mavens,” a chapter in The Language Instinct, Steven Pinker expresses frustration at the self-appointed guardians of English usage, the purveyors of rules that are not rules and idiosyncratic preferences masquerading as settled law. That would be, for example, John Simon, William Safire on his off days, many (if not most) copy editors, authors of blogs like this one. To be fair, his scorn for ill-informed prescriptivists is matched by his regret that academic linguists have been ineffective at informing the public.

There is a reason for the proliferation of bogus advice on language. Here’s where it all started:

In the 18th century, Britain became a world power, and the gradual fading of Latin as an international language made English more important as an expression of imperial power. At the same time, a steadily rising middle class required instruction in proper manners, dress, speech and conduct. There was therefore a market for manuals on correct English. (There is still a market for books advising the uncertain middle class how to dress, talk, write, etc. And diet. The middle class has always been an easy mark.)

The authors of these manuals operated on the principle that to elevate English to the level of prestige languages such as Latin and Greek, English must be made to resemble Latin and Greek. Therefore, for example, English sentences should not end with prepositions, since Latin sentences did not. Here also was the origin of the prohibition on splitting infinitives.

The whole question of what was “proper” English was unsettled. The French Academy had been struggling since the mid-17th century to regulate the French language, and English writers such as Jonathan Swift toyed with the idea on a comparable English Academy. (The “Immortals” of l’Academie francaise continue in their struggle, losing ground annually as the language develops in disregard of their precepts.)

Samuel Johnnson, embarking on the task of constructing the first comprehensive English dictionary, found “speech copious without order, and energetick without rules: wherever I turned my view, there was perplexity to be disentangled, and confusion to be regulated; choice was to be made out of boundless variety, without any established principle of selection; adulterations were to be detected, without a settled test of purity; and modes of expression to be rejected or received, without the suffrages of any writers of classical reputation or acknowledged authority.”

Elsewhere in his great “Preface,” Johnson acknowledges the inevitable mutability of language: “Copiousness of speech will give opportunities to capricious choice, by which some words will be preferred, and others degraded; vicissitudes of fashion will enforce the use of new, or extend the signification of known terms. The tropes of poetry will make hourly encroachments, and the metaphorical will become the current sense: pronunciation will be varied by levity or ignorance, and the pen must at length comply with the tongue; illiterate writers will at one time or other, by publick infatuation, rise into renown, who, not knowing the original import of words, will use them with colloquial licentiousness, confound distinction, and forget propriety. As politeness increases, some expressions will be considered as too gross and vulgar for the delicate, others as too formal and ceremonious for the gay and airy; new phrases are therefore adopted, which must, for the same reasons, be in time dismissed. Swift, in his petty treatise on the English language, allows that new words must sometimes be introduced, but proposes that none should be suffered to become obsolete. But what makes a word obsolete, more than general agreement to forbear it? and how shall it be continued, when it conveys an offensive idea, or recalled again into the mouths of mankind, when it has once by disuse become unfamiliar, and by unfamiliarity unpleasing.”

Even though he restricted his examples of usage in the Dictionary of 1755 to what he considered the best writers in English, he recognized that prescriptivism has its limits.

So, without an Academy to determine an authoritative English, and without the ability of dictionary makers to “fix” the language, the task of establishing principles of grammar and usage has fallen to a mixed group authorities of varying reliability.

There are the textbooks of English used in elementary schools. The easiest way to write a textbook is to imitate another textbook, and by that means the superstitions and shibboleths have persisted over the generations. Mr. Pinker points out that “once introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier?”

For American newspapers, The Associated Press Stylebook, periodically revised, has been a guide to usage, though the writers of the Associated Press and the newspapers that use the stylebook regularly flout its dictates. (And its processes are irritatingly circular. AP bases the stylebook on the practices of its member newspapers, but its member newspapers look to it for guidance.) There are manuals of usage, some for college use such as the Harbrace College Handbook, and there are manuals for the general public, such as this battery of books that I regularly consult:

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Written by a specialist in law, a moderate and reasonable prescriptivist.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Detailed and also reasonable, though more heavily academic than Garner. (Merriam-Webster and Garner, along with Pinker, are the principal sources for the information above on the development of books of grammar and usage.)

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage by the late R.W. Burchfield, former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein. A little dated (from 1979) but generally sound.

Words on Words by the late John B. Bremner, a delightfully cranky manual.

And I have at hand, largely for sentimental purposes, the second edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and my 1959 edition of The Elements of Style.

The problem for the writer and editor is that the authorities do not agree on every particular, and it becomes necessary to make judgments based on one’s own tastes and experience of the language. In effect, each of us must become his or her own usage authority, because there is no universally accepted central authority on English grammar and usage.

Arnold Zwicky enlarges on this point in a post at Language Log full of scorn for National Grammar Day: “Paul Kiparsky has noted on several occasions that while in some European countries the prescribing of language forms for certain public purposes is the job of official bodies, which normally include language scholars (as well as literary figures), this sort of regulation has been PRIVATIZED in English-speaking countries: it's managed by commercial publishers, newspaper and magazine editors, and a whole industry of free-lance advisers, only a few of whom know much about either the nature of language or the structure and history of English. Such an arrangement resonates with American free-enterprise ideals and also with the widespread American disdain for ‘experts’ and ‘intellectuals’.

“In any case, one result of this arrangement is that there's essentially no one to speak with any authority for rational reform, no one to accord some sort of official status to variants. Instead, all sorts of proscriptions live on in the marketplace of ideas -- proscriptions against stranded prepositions, split infinitives, sentences beginning with coordinating conjunctions, ‘singular they’, and many more we've discussed here, endlessly — even when the ‘high-end’ advice literature generally admits them. What we get is people on the Microsoft Encarta website shrieking for the public shaming of linguistic miscreants, and a lot of peevish ranting all over the place.”

I hope that Mr. Zwicky doesn’t mean to imply that an English Academy of professional linguists is just the remedy, given that linguists appear to be as enthusiastically devoted to squabbling among themselves and inventing arcane terminology as any other group of academics.

We are almost certainly stuck with the language as it is, as it is spoken and written and commented on by its speakers and writers, messiness being an apparent corollary of liberty. It would be pleasant to establish some common understanding between the reasonable prescriptivists and the linguists, for the sake of increasing the store of sound advice for students and the puzzled writer. Perhaps, instead of talking among themselves on Language Log and other sites, linguists might be persuaded to give some practical help to those of us who, rather than indulging in peevish ranting, are trying to achieve clarity of prose and reasonable practices of grammar and usage in newspapers, magazines, books and electronic publications.

Until that glorious day, you, dear reader, are on your own. Find the people whose advice seems sensible to you, and follow it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (7)

March 3, 2008

The gall to use big words

When The New York Times published William F. Buckley’s obituary on Thursday under the headline “William F. Buckley Jr., 82, Dies; Sesquipedalian Spark of Right,” there was a quick and largely unanimous reaction from the Testy Copy Editors, on the thread “Could there possibly be a worse headline word?”

I dissented. The word is from the Latin for “foot and a half.” Horace's Ars Poetica gave us sesquipedalia verba, or long words, as a term in criticism. English has used sesquipedalian to describe polysyllabic words and the people who enjoy wielding them since 1615, and the term was used frequently in Buckley’s lifetime to describe him. It was an apt word. If you can’t be a little literary in The New York Times, where else can you?

But my views were a minority of one in that thread.

It turns out that The Times has company in its obscurantism. I’ve selected some examples from the past couple of years, omitting citations from articles about spelling bees and from articles published in Britain and the Commonwealth countries (on the shaky ground that their school systems may yet be turning out more literate readers than the U.S. system).

The Boston Globe, 12/10/06 Headline: The sesquipedalian septuagenarian — That is, Judge Bruce M. Selya of the First Circuit Court of Appeals, who at 72 continues to write perhaps the wittiest and wordiest opinions in the federal judiciary.

Newsday, 2/9/07 Essay by 11th-grader Justin Lashley “While every four-letter word disheartens me, every sesquipedalian rekindles my faith in humanity.”

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 7/23/06 Headline: Fort Worth officials' sesquipedalian vocabulary

Albuquerque Journal, 5/29/07 Valedictorian Zephra Doerr is listed as being a member of, among other things, the Sesquipedalian Society (book club at Rio Rancho High School)

The Lebanon Daily News (Pennsylvania), 12/30/06 Editorial: “The Keystone state's own walking, talking cornucopia of circumlocution is likely to bring to Harrisburg a certain elevated style of language not seen publicly since the sesquipedalian William F. Buckley held forth on public television.”

The Kentucky Post, 12/31/07 Column by Cindy Starr: “I interviewed ‘the Sesquipedalian,’ a middle school Latin teacher who loved words. ...”

Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, N.J.), 2/19/08 Essay by David Spaulding: “God forbid we require students to open a dictionary to look a new word up and expand their vocabulary. No sesquipedalian words permitted.”

Richmond Times-Dispatch, 3/20/06, and The New York Sun, 3/21/06 Paul Greenberg essay: “Even worse, this isn't the first time folks who have my best interests at heart have tried to break me of my sesquipedalian tendencies.”

It troubles me a little to see my colleagues at other newspapers suggesting that we shouldn’t risk rising to the level of sophistication of The Lebanon Daily News or the East Brunswick Home News Tribune.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:57 PM | | Comments (4)

We saw what you wrote; we know who you are

The streets will be deserted tonight. Windows will be dark, doors locked and double-locked. Hurried meals will be eaten in darkness. Telephones will ring unanswered. Children will be told to keep away from windows. And the fretful will lie awake on their beds, trembling at the thought of what the morning will bring.

Tomorrow dawns National Grammar Day.

Some will have nothing to fear. People who use ain’t in casual conversation will walk the streets unmolested. People who write all their e-mail to friends in lowercase letters, with punctuation in commas when there is punctuation at all, will not see their message traffic interrupted. Hip-hop musicians, both professional and amateur, and teenagers who use texting slang in conversation will — OMG! OMG! — not feel the hand of authority clamp on their shoulders.

But others, and their whereabouts are known, will be weighed in judgment and found wanting. Bureaucrats who pile noun modifier upon noun modifier upon noun to confuse the public. College students who think that standard spelling is merely an option for their papers. Perpetrators of misplaced modifiers. Reporters who have never mastered its/it’s or who/whom. English teachers who have perpetuated nonsensical and non-idiodmatic “rules” of grammar and usage. Composition teachers who encourage their students in expression while ignoring the traditions of grammar and rhetoric. For them, the sands are running out.

Trained grammarians, copy editors of the green eyeshade, wielders of the sharp pencil, precisionists of usage, excisers of verbiage, have waited for years in their redoubts for the arrival of this day. They are prepared.

There will be opposition, and the unlearned will have unexpected support from the learned. From rooftops, insurgents from Language Log and other centers of the Linguistics Party will fire upon the copy editors on patrol. Success in the mission is by no means certain.

But it is a start. The hosts are on the move.

A note from the author

I am scheduled to be a guest tomorrow on Dan Rodricks’ Midday program on WYPR, 88.1 FM, Baltimore, during the 1 p.m.-2 p.m. segment. Don’t miss this opportunity to call in and abuse me.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:14 AM | | Comments (6)

March 2, 2008

Man who can't sing reviews soprano

Even in Mozart, earnest young love tends to pall, and we wait for the appearance of evil to heighten our interest. The Cleveland Institute of Music’s production of The Magic Flute delivered Friday night.

The staging in a constricted space was imaginative, and the orchestra played with verve. The Papageno subplot was appropriately comic, and Richard Ollarsaba, a junior, was majestic as Sarastro.

But what one wants to see most in The Magic Flute is the Queen of the Night, with her anger and embodiment of malice in two show-stopping arias. Tamara Ryan, wearing gowns that would have done Elizabeth I proud, brought all the passion of the role to the stage. She has a wonderfully pure, clear voice, and she shot forth those damnably high notes in apparent effortlessness. She was a delight.

I should disclose that I was a member of a small but enthusiastic claque. Ms. Ryan and my daughter, Alice, were roommates in their freshman year at Swarthmore College. Ms. Ryan is now in the master’s program at the Institute, and I think we may hope to hear more of her in the years to come.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:57 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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