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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)


And that's why no one respects copy editors. Some ivory tower linguist shoots you a friendly glance (just before decimating your thesis), and you blush, giggle and fawn as though the high school running back carried your lunch tray for you (just before decimating your taco salad).

A little less peacemaking with the descriptivists, a little more ass-kicking, and no one will remember what the hell Sapir-Wharf even was. Society will remember Noam Chomsky as a political commentator and William Safire as our preeminent language expert.

(All joking aside, that last sentence gave me chills.)

I'm not THAT easy.

So, olive branch aside, what do you say to Pullum's arguments?

Any time you get an olive branch from Language Log, check it for thorns.

"The Cenotaph of the Unknown Copy Editor" and asterisk--I laughed and cried.

Wait! Someone in the world "appreciates copy editors and does not hate their guts"? Time to renew my passport.

As an editor with a background in linguistics I have a foot in both camps and, I think, a fairly balanced view -- a chip on both shoulders. The linguist in me is interested in all the ways in which the language is used quite naturally by native speakers, warts and all; the editor in me prescribes which of those many variants are permissible in the publications of the organisation that employs me to do just that. A wise editor will explore the former in order to inform, though not necessarily to dictate, the latter.

I would tend to agree with Steve. I, too, have a bit of a background in linguistics, and it takes some considerable effort at times to try and find a balance between "acceptable" language and "accepted" language when it comes to print media. Too many people are hung up on old forms and rules, and the slightest alteration of those makes them think something is drastically wrong with the text.

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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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