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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)


Another quote from Horace everyone knows: "carpe diem."

And: "dulce est desipere in loco." "Sweet it is to get wasted at the right time and place."


parturiunt montes; nascitur ridiculus mus.

"The mountains go into labor and out springs a ridiculous mouse."

This post reminded me of my Greece 101 class in school and my amazement that they complained about the same things we do today.

Which leads to that favorite from Ecclesiastes 1:9: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

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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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