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April 30, 2008

My readers, bless their hearts

If you read these posts only when they first show up — and by all means keep doing so — you miss the comments that people add as they go rummaging through the archive. I wish that you could enjoy them as much as I do. T

his just in today for Roberta, to a post from last September on decimate:

My favorite sentence that uses decimate in its literal etymological sense is "Tithing to the church has decimated my income." Yes, I'm probably going straight to hell.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:36 PM | | Comments (3)
        

William James explains it all

Saints preserve us from an election year, enduring, in addition to the usual rodomontade, attacks from all sides on people’s patriotism and personal integrity, the whole spectacle coarsened further by intemperance and ignorance magnified on the Internet.

Take a deep, cleansing breath and remember what William James said a century ago. Louis Menand quotes James in The Metaphysical Club as saying that a nation is saved “by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans or empty quacks.”

Make an allowance for a degree of progress over sexism in the past hundred years and the advice for citizens holds true.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:35 AM | | Comments (0)
        

April 29, 2008

Can't we all just get along? Again

A post at Testy Copy Editors complaining about the pretentiousness of a newspaper’s using volte-face instead of the perfectly serviceable English about-face, provoked this outburst from Chief Testyfier Phil Blanchard:

You know, I'm way tired of sensitive newspaper reporters whose badly written copy we make publishable. I've been hearing their whining for decades and it's only getting worse.

Rarely does a copy editor screw around significantly with the work of a good writer. Often, attempts to fix unpublishable copy fail, but that's hardly the copy desk's fault.

It's always the crappy writers who complain, and their insecure editors who back them. We shouldn't be trying to justify our work. We should just be doing it, and counting on our desk chiefs to cover our backs. We don't want or need thanks and praise. We just need to be left alone to do our work.

Good Christ, this isn't literature we're committing here. Even most Pulitizer-winning stories, products of great reporting, aren't particularly well-written. Readers are not impressed with failed flourishes. They are killing us.

Lord knows I’ve been there among the ballooning egos.*

I’ve also heard the complaints from the other side of the aisle.

Just recently, an article about a public spat between the governor of Maryland and the state comptroller came over to the desk with a sentence describing the exchange as an “irascible debate.” Someone on the copy desk, my copy desk, unilaterally. took out irascible.

This is the sort of little thing that drives reporters and assigning editors nuts. The exchange between the two was irritable and ill-tempered; the quoted material demonstrated it. So the word was not inappropriate. And certainly it should be permissible to characterize such exchanges. A debate can be, after all, civilized, low-key, heated, uneventful or any number of other things. Why a copy editor would delete an unobjectionable word, leaving the text flatter than it was originally, is inexplicable.

The straining for literary effect in journalism represents a failure of the writer to follow George Bernard Shaw’s advice: “In literature the ambition of the novice is to acquire the literary language: the struggle of the adept is to get rid of it.”

It also tends to represent the assigning editor’s failure to recognize the overwrought, or, worse, the editor’s cowardly unwillingness to confront the writer over an ill-judged effect. When that occurs, it falls to the copy editor to do the dirty work.

Unfortunately, that responsibility also tends to tempt the copy editor to overreach, and make changes that accomplish no improvement — perhaps even change the text for the worse.

Perhaps we could all get along better if we practiced a little restraint on all sides.

 

* No, I haven’t forgotten my pledge to divert you with egregious excesses from my bulging files. Patience, patience. There are annual performance reviews to be written.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 PM | | Comments (14)
        

April 27, 2008

"Press" is also a verb

If you’re afraid of looking like a noodge, don’t go into editing.

Brian White, responding to Friday’s post about the need for editors to insist on raising questions, asked:

How many times is enough to ask "Are we really sure?" I've run into things in the past that made me really uncomfortable, but my concerns were pooh-poohed. When do you let it go?

That is a reasonable question, and the answer depends upon a number of circumstances, all of which must be carefully weighed.

The editing environment: It’s hardly a secret that there are many publications at which copy editors are expected to run the spell-checker and keep their opinions to themselves. Some of these outlets are known as ”writers’ papers,” and they are notable for the risible excesses they publish.* Others are such a low-grade, assembly-line operation that an editor scarcely has time to catch a breath, much less raise a question. These outlets are known for their overwhelming slovenliness.

Either situation obviously constrains the possibilities. In either, the editor or copy editor must decide whether a point is significant enough to warrant the time and energy of pursuit. This is triage; some things must simply be let go.

The ground of battle: I like Jonathan Kozol’s advice: ”Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” Talk first with a colleague you trust to get confirmation that the point at issue merits further action. Marshal your arguments. If a point of fact is involved, make sure that you can document what is correct. If a matter of usage or taste or judgment is at issue, make sure that you can articulate an argument — something more substantial than personal preference. If it is a legal or ethical issue, be precise about how those principles come into play.

The chain of command: Publications have levels of responsibility and authority. At The Sun, copy editors are free to correct matters of fact, spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and house style without begging leave. Issues of focus, structure, organization, tone, and legal or ethical issues must be taken up with other editors. Those other editors constitute a hierarchy of appeal. You start with your immediate supervisor and proceed up the chain as the gravity of the situation dictates.

On the occasions that I take an issue into the editor’s office, I am seldom overruled. But I don’t take a case to the Supreme Court unless I am confident of being upheld; otherwise, I settle in the lower courts.

The best solution is to resolve issues at the most immediate level, with the writer or assigning editor. For this interaction, I offer the example of the late Les Hall.

Les (formally Leslie) was a copy editor at The Sun when I was hired. Sitting next to him on the desk, you’d hear him sigh over a story, light a cigarette (this before we became so damnably virtuous in the newsroom), and call the reporter. I can still hear his North Carolina lilt in my head: “This is Les Hall on the copy desk. I’m editin’ your story for tomorrow’s paper, and there’s just one or two little points I’m not quite clear on. I wonder if you could help me out.” As the conversation went on, it became apparent that Les was systematically dismantling and reconstructing the article, paragraph by paragraph, with the cooperation of the reporter, who just wanted to help ol’ Les clear up a couple of little points.

If you are balked at the initial level, you have an option to take the matter higher up on appeal. The higher you take it, the more substantial the issue has to be. But if you know that you are right, don’t allow yourself to be buffaloed.

Finally, if the point you raise involves the potential for libel, plagiarism or fabrication, go as high as you need to. There may be no more than one or two occasions in your career on which you call the managing editor or editor at home in the evening to sound such an alarm. But if the occasion warrants it, don’t hold back. The integrity of the publication may be in your hands.

 

*It’s about time we considered some writers’ prose excesses in detail, and I plan to perform such a necropsy in a future post.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (2)
        

April 25, 2008

So you want to be an editor

Probably you don’t. Most aspiring reporters would sooner work as carnival geeks than as copy editors (and for many of them that would be the shrewder career choice). Many journalism schools, in fact, don’t even teach editing as such. They offer courses on the techniques of reporting narrative strategies. They have maybe a semester of copy editing, mainly grammar and headline writing, with page design sometimes thrown in, and that’s it.

This leaves many people, some of them editors, under the misapprehension that editing involves going obsessively over texts, changing a word here, tweaking a word there, without ever lifting their heads above the level of the sentence or the paragraph.

Real editing, macro-editing, is analytical. It is structural. It looks at the forest instead of individual trees. And because so few journalists have much training in this kind of thinking about articles, it is a strain for them.

Fortunately, I know the secret, and I am prepared to let you in on it.

The trick in editing lies in willingness to raise obvious, simple-minded questions.

Here are some of the main ones.

What’s it about?

That’s the question the copy editor has to ask when it comes time to write the headline, and that is sometimes the point at which the copy editor recognizes that there is no immediately apparent answer. “Say one thing,” one of Steve Young’s professors at Hopkins advised. Your article is about one main thing, however many subsidiary items may be pendant on it. Make clear what that one thing is. Focus, people, focus.

When do we find out what it’s about?

Skip the throat-clearing and get to the point. The reader is not likely to indulge you in that 10-paragraph introduction before you get around to identifying your point.

How do we know this?

Where does the information come from? A single source? Uh-oh, risky, very risky. An anonymous source? Uh-oh again. A report? Written by whom and sponsored by whom? Readers have an expectation of identification of sources of information. That’s one way by which they evaluate your credibility. Omitting or muffling sources, or including sources that look dubious, will not help the writer.

Insistence on sourcing will also tend to trip up the plagiarist and the fabricator; and if you imagine that your shop is not at risk from either, the day will come when you discover otherwise. And so will everyone else.

Is it right?

Accuracy is always the main thing. Without that, credibility evaporates. The old Chicago News Bureau slogan always and everywhere applies: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

What kind of story is it?

Identify the form of the article. You wouldn’t edit a column as heavily as you might edit a political analysis. Obituaries, crime reporting and other stock form have conventions to be observed. Narrative has its own conventions and demands.

How is it built?

Once you’ve identified the article’s generic type, look at how it is organized within the structure. If it is a narrative, is the reader oriented in place and time at every point? Are shifts among present, past and future marked by clear transitions? If it has a topical organization, are the topics or sub-topics clearly defined and marked by appropriate transitions? Is the background material adequate, and is it presented when needed without overwhelming the text?

Could it be shorter? Should it be shorter?

Virtually any text you ever edit could benefit from cutting the clutter. Wordy phrases and sentences can be compressed. Extraneous information can be deleted. Tighten the text.

Who’s reading this, anyhow?

Identifying and satisfying the audience involves a web of questions. Is the diction, the vocabulary, appropriate for the intended reader, not overly specialized or overly simplistic? Does the article give the reader the appropriate amount and kind of background information? But more important, what is in it for the reader? Why should the reader care about the subject? What is the impact on the reader? Where does the article connect with the reader?

Does this sound right?

The tone, the prose style, is a legitimate subject for the editor’s probing, never mind all the cant about preserving the author’s voice. (Some writers’ voices are like Fran Drescher’s, not universally appealing.) And writers are notoriously deaf to their hilariously misjudged prose effects.

Is it fair?

If someone has been accused of bad behavior, has that person been given a prominent opportunity to respond? Are the various reputable points of view represented? Are we being snarky, condescending, class-biased?

Are we sure we want to do this? Are we really sure?

These are the questions that Mike Waller, a former Sun publisher, identified as the most crucial for the editor. These are the questions that, raised and pressed, can spare the publication embarrassment, save the publication from publishing libel. And they are valid whenever and by whomever they are raised. Ignore them at your peril.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:10 AM | | Comments (8)
        

April 23, 2008

Guardian of propriety

Today’s post left matters unsettled for my esteemed colleague Elizabeth:

I'm not sure what your final thought is here. Should I

a) Let a commenter say "Starbucks' coffee sucks"

b) Post the comment, but insert asterisks, as in "Starbucks' coffee s***s"

or

 c) Deep-six the comment on moral grounds in spite of the fact that the commenter will always think I did so because I personally adore Starbucks' coffee.

Also, wouldn't the terrorists say they were claiming credit for the crime as opposed to responsibility? Doesn't to report that more accurately reflect what they said?

I’m in agreement with Kathy Schenck’s post on Words to the Wise at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: We who blog for newspaper sites and have the authority to screen comments also have a responsibility to uphold civility. Therefore we do not permit comments that are profane or obscene; that maker personal attacks or insults; or that indulge in racial, ethnic, sexist, homophobic or religious slurs.

It turns out that a substantial number of readers in Milwaukee appreciate being spared loudmouth, imbecilic outbursts.

But I’ve still left the sucks issue unsettled. So:

The copy desk upholds house style in staff copy. I don’t use x sucks, and I keep it out of staff copy. If it were used in a direct quote, the quote would have to add something substantial to the article to be included.

Blog usage is more freewheeling, but I’d advise against x sucks there, too, because it’s a childish vulgarism.

But it’s not profane or obscene. If it appeared in a comment that was otherwise unobjectionable, I would let it go — and not try to euphemize it with asterisks or dashes or other devices.

As to terrorists and credit/responsibility. I think that the argument is that yes, they claim credit; but if we say it that way, it implies that we think that the action is creditable. Responsibility is a neutral term and therefore preferable.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:43 AM | | Comments (6)
        

Commas, apostrophes and more

I’ve been indulging too much in frivolous stuff; it’s time to get back to the proper focus of this blog: the trivial.

These questions have come in during the past few days.

From Maurice Collins:

Recently I have noticed a new form of punctuation. Some journalists are using '--' instead of a comma.

Here's an example regarding our highly corrupt Irish Prime Minister. ... "Pressed on unexplained payments that were showing in his accounts -- and his long previous time without a bank account -- Mr Ahern said the latter had arisen because of his marital separation when estranged wife Miriam had sole access to their previous joint account."

The usefulness of the dash is to indicate a sharp break in thought or continuity. It’s like an aside. Though this is perhaps not the example I would have chosen, the dash has been overused in journalism where, as Mr. Collins suggests, commas would serve perfectly well. Or parentheses. Dash-happy journalists have robbed the punctuation device of much of its impact. Lamentable but hard to resist.

From Joy-Mari Cloete:

Please help. I am confused about the following: '1940's style of dress' and the European Union are'. 

Some copy editors (in South Africa, at least) write '1940's skirt', as they maintain it is to show a possessive. Is this correct, or should it be '1940s skirt'? [One writer says] that British grammar dictates one should write about certain companies as though they are plural. Is this so?

I don’t see the numeral as a possessive. If you wrote that Winston Churchill said something in “a 1940 speech,” you wouldn’t use a possessive. What is clear is that the style comes from the decade of the 1940s, and the apostrophe can be safely omitted. (Some manuals would make the decade plural by adding and apostrophe and an s, but I think that the plural form without the apostrophe is dominant.)

It is true that British practice is to understand words like government as a plural, a collective encompassing the many constituent individuals. U.S. usage is to consider such words as a singular. Since the practice is entirely arbitrary, you should treat European Union in the same way as your publication treats NATO or any similar grouping of states.

From Bob Erlandson:

Why is it that reporters insist on allowing criminals/terrorists to "claim credit" for their crimes?

And why is it that copy readers let them get away with it instead of changing it to "claim responsibility.…"?

The latest example is in this morning’s AP story about the very tenuous relationship between Barack Obama and William Ayers, a leader in the 1970s terrorist group Weather Underground.

The first sentence under the "Facts" part of the article says, "Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, a radical group that claimed credit for explosions at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and more."

Ah, Bob, I was in the slot that night and overlooked it. You’re right, of course.

And last, from a Sun colleague: If the New York Times lets its blog commenters say "suck," should we?

Three or four Sun managing editors ago (I lose count), suck was prohibited as “vulgar street language.” As commonplace as it is now, it has lost that kind of impact. Older readers might still associate it with fellatio, but younger readers are apparently mystified by their elders’ preoccupations in this area, as in so many others.

I don’t particularly care for it myself and wouldn’t encourage it. Perhaps I’m mistaken, and the way for newspaper journalists to attract those elusive younger readers is to write the way Bart Simpson talks, but skepticism endures.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:53 AM | | Comments (8)
        

April 22, 2008

"No, not that," he cried hopelessly

Someone at the Johns Hopkins University Press has written about the Taser post to enclose a link to a Wikipedia article explaining that TASER is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle, because the inventor had admired the Tom Swift stories as a boy.

(Wait a minute. Shouldn’t people at the Hopkins University Press be spending their time on something weightier than this blog?)

The correspondent adds: "I'll Taser You," Tom Swift Said, Shockingly.

Well, he started it.

There was a time in my tepid-blooded youth that I indulged in Tom Swifties. You see, the Laws of Fancy Writing, according to which the Tom Swift stories were composed, require that every noun be accompanied by an adjective, every verb to be escorted by an adverb. Tom Swift never merely said anything; said was always matched with a descriptive adverb. Thus the game Tom Swifties, in which sentences must be constructed in which there is a play on words between the main clause and the adverb.

These are from my archives.

“I don’t think that congressmen should be able to send so much mail at the taxpayers’ expense,” he said frankly.

“The operation must begin at once,” he announced incisively.

“Why, you haven’t prepared the corn for cooking,” he said huskily.

“I’m afraid I have poison ivy,” she commented rashly.

“That girl has the loosest morals in town,” she remarked tartly.

“Some opera singers have more temperament than talent,” he snapped callously.

“You shouldn’t have stopped by the woods on such a snowy evening,” she observed frostily.

“Why did Clare Boothe decide to marry that opinionated publisher?” she asked lucidly.

“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky,” he exclaimed in words worthy of a poet.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:41 AM | | Comments (5)
        

April 20, 2008

Don't Tase me, bro

Mrs. B. writes to inquire about the proper past tense for the verb to Taser:

I've emailed the Taser company but have not received a response.

I'm thinking you might get one or you might know the answer.

Is the verb "Tasered" or "Tased"?

I hear from anchors and reporters who want to be correct.

It’s not a surprise that you haven’t received a response. Here’s how to get one. Use either Tasered or Tased in published or broadcast material, and you will very likely get a lawyer letter informing you that TASER is a registered trademark of TASER International and is not to be used at all as a verb, or, for that matter, as a noun except in reference to the products of TASER International. The letter may also suggest that you use the little trademark symbol with TASER. Generic references to an electronic stunning device are acceptable. Go and sin no more.

The practical effect of such letters is typically small. Companies retain law firms to send out such letters to display that they are vigilant about protecting their proprietary rights to product names.

Of course the video from last September at the University of Florida — find it on YouTube if you haven’t already seen it — at which the kid being stunned uttered the famous line from which I take today’s title, shows that the verb has lodged in the language. At least temporarily. And I doubt that there is much that TASER International can do about it, except perhaps shrug it off as free advertising.

But since I’m asked for one of my curbside rulings: Use taser as a verb and restrict tase to quoted matter. Maybe you’ll get a lawyer letter telling you to capitalize the words.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:24 PM | | Comments (16)
        

April 19, 2008

Mr. Young returns

Steve Young turned up in the newsroom this afternoon for the first time in four and a half months.* He thought he might familiarize himself with the premises before his return to work next week.

The burns on his head are healing slowly — we’ll tolerate his wearing a cap at his desk, so long as he doesn’t turn it backward — and his left hand is healing slowly from the operation a few weeks ago to repair nerve damage. He hopes to see restoration of 80 percent of function in the hand, but that is still some months off.

Come Tuesday, he’ll be back at his post. His pleasure at that will be substantial, ours immense.

 

*I’m not going to restate the details of the terrible fire that struck his house in December and took the lives of two of his children. If you don’t know about it, you can rummage through the archives of this blog.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:55 PM | | Comments (2)
        

April 18, 2008

Anybody remember who's president?

I had to send a note around to the copy editors this week reminding them not to let references to former Pope John Paul II get past them. Once you’re pope, you stay pope. We might as well write about former Queen Victoria.

That point did put me in mind of an allied journalistic reflex, references public figures no longer in office, say, former President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon has been in his grave (so far as we know) for 14 years. He left office 34 years ago. Is there anyone, even in this benighted country, who would mistake a mention of Nixon as a reference to the incumbent?

That tic, in fact, is matched by the other standard reference to former office-holders: He was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1937 by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Even a dim reader can confidently be expected to figure out from the mention of the year that the sentence is identifying the man who was president at that time. Of course, we could say former President Franklin D. Roosevelt, indicating, perhaps, that Roosevelt was out of office at the time of the appointment. Or would that have to be then-former President Franklin D. Roosevelt?

Wielding a mighty cursor, I’m inclined now to strike any number of formers and thens. We’ll see whether anyone complains.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:44 PM | | Comments (9)
        

April 17, 2008

A drink with the author

It has finally gotten above 70 degrees in Baltimore. The air is balmy, and the trees are in bloom, so it’s a day to be giddy and frivolous.

I figured out years ago that William Faulkner’s prose went down more smoothly when consumed with a little bourbon, its natural solvent. So as you settle down in the evening with a book by a favorite author, what beverage should accompany it?

Faulkner: Bourbon and water, and not too much damn water. A good tipple with Eudora Welty as well.

Fitzgerald: Gin, of course.

Jane Austen: Madeira — a little sweeter and lighter than sherry, which would also be suitable.

Dr. Johnson: Tea. You’ll need to keep your wits about you. The doctor himself reportedly consumed 17 cups in succession during one evening of talk.

Mencken: Pilsner.

Nabokov: Champagne.

Joyce: Porter or stout, like the “dozen of stout” delivered in “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.”

Cheever: Martinis. Dry. Straight up. Also good with Edmund Wilson.

Philip Larkin: Gin again.

Barbara Pym: Claret.

Waugh: Brandy.

Wodehouse: Brandy and soda.

Twain: Lager.

Flannery O’Connor; Coffee, black.

If you want more, you’ll have to serve some yourselves. Suddenly, I’m very thirsty.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:19 PM | | Comments (18)
        

April 16, 2008

Here we go

Just a few hours since this morning’s post about time-wasting distinctions, and comments are beginning to arrive.

I’ll respond as I have time — I’m at home at the moment but will be taking the tiller at the copy desk this evening. (For budgetary reasons, we had to let go the man in the leather vest who beats cadence for the oarsmen, so I’m stepping in.) And once we have a fair store of submissions, I’ll repeat the original post, incorporating all the additions.

From Andy Bechtel:

Because vs. since? Interchangeable?

Absolutely.

From Loretta:

After reading your column for nearly two years and countless other explanations over at least that time, I still don't understand the difference between "none is" and "none are." In your example, "None of the candlesticks is broken; none of the candlesticks have been polished," it's clear that "not one is broken" and "not any have been polished." But how would it be different to say "not any are broken" or "not one has been polished"? Is it merely a difference in emphasis? Thanks for any additional light (candle or otherwise) you can shed.

You have, in fact, grasped the distinction perfectly. The choice between singular and plural senses depends entirely on the meaning the speaker/writer intends, and your paraphrase shows that you have no difficulty in interpreting it.

Try this example. It’s a crisp October morning. I have my coffee. I’ve finished reading The Sun (long may it wave) and have taken up my book, when Kathleen comes into the room and says, “The neighbors’ oaks are dropping leaves by the bushel into your yard, and none have been raked yet.” Not any leaves have been raked. I murmur something polite and open my book.

Repeat the setting, two days later. As I reach for my book, Kathleen comes into the living room and says, “I told you about those leaves two days ago, and none has been touched.” Not a single one has been touched. With a gentle sigh, I put down my book and get my jacket from the closet. Next fall I’m hiring somebody. The gutters are clogged, too.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:45 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Don't waste your time

A flood of comments has come in from readers, and all three asked me to produce a post on things not worth bothering about in editing. Without any pretension of being comprehensive, I offer a start.

Things not worth bothering about

About/some. Some editors heartily dislike some in the sense of approximately. Not worth staying up nights fretting over.

Attorney/lawyer. Functionally interchangeable.

Like/such as. The strictest view is that like must compare one thing or person to another and that such as must introduce an example or set of examples. If you want to maintain a gossamer distinction, as Bill Walsh prefers, be my guest; but I’m not going to wear out my wrists switching one for the other.

None with plural. Don't labor to switch none to a singular verb. None can mean not one or not any. Use singular verbs or plural verbs as context dictates: None of the candlesticks is broken; none of the candlesticks have been polished.

Over/more than. If you’re not a journalist, you’re probably surprised to learn that over is limited to spatial relationships and must not be used to indicate a greater quantity. And since you’re not a journalist, you can continue to use the word without regard to false distinctions.

Split infinitive. A hoary shibboleth. If your English teacher warned you off this, she was wrong. If your first editor forbade this, he was wrong. If you own a book that prohibits this, get rid of it.

Things worth bothering about

Auxiliary/adverb/verb. It’s mainly journalists who insist on marring the idiomatic pattern of the language. Write has always been so, not always has been so. If the writer insists on the latter, change it anyhow.

Comprise/compose. A set of encyclopedias comprises its volumes. An alphabet is composed of letters. Is comprised of is always wrong.

Imply/infer. They mean opposite things. Hold fast to the distinction.

Things I’m on the fence about

Beg the question. It’s a formal term in logic, for making a circular argument, not an equivalent of prompts the question. But it very seldom appears in its sense as a term of logic, and I fear that it is going to prevail in the latter sense.

Careen/career. I’m still insisting on career for moving recklessly at high speed and careen for tipping onto the side, but I can feel my resolve weakening.

Everyone/their. The Brits are probably right to shrug at using the plural pronoun in this epicene sense, but there is such hard-core resistance among American editors that I shrink from allowing it.

But wait — there’s more

I’ll add to this as new items bob to the surface, or as you, dear readers, suggest them.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:15 AM | | Comments (13)
        

April 15, 2008

Croquet, anyone?

The things you can find while rummaging around in the Oxford English Dictionary.

After I wrote yesterday about the disagreeable characteristics some prescriptivists display, the word crotchety came to mind in describing their attitude, and I wondered about the origin of crotchet.

It appears to come from the French, croc or croche, for a crook, a shepherd’s crook or a hockey stick. From there, the word took off.

A crotchet can also be pattern of ornamental buds in Gothic architecture or the buds on a stag’s horn, but the prevailing sense appears to be of a hooked instrument — the crochet needle, for example. More figuratively, a crotchet can also be a musical note with a tail.

The hockey stick/shepherd’s crook sense allies the word to crosier, a bishop’s staff in the form of a shepherd’s crook, and to croquet, because of the mallets with which the game is played.

But crotchet, as the root of crotchety is more complex. The figurative sense, the OED says, is “A whimsical fancy; a perverse conceit; a peculiar notion on some point (usually considered unimportant) held by an individual in opposition to common opinion,” adding: “The original of this sense is obscure: it is nearly synonymous with CRANK n2, Senses 3 and 4, and might, like it, have the radical notion of ‘mental twist or crook’; but Cotgrave appears to connect it with the musical note, sense 7: ‘Crochue, a Quauer in Musicke; whence Il a des crochues en teste, (we say) his head is full of crochets.’”

Whimsical fancy. Perverse conceit. Peculiar notion on some unimportant point in opposition to common opinion. Yes, we’ve seen that.

So crotchety equals twisted, a good enough etymology for our purposes.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 14, 2008

With friends like this

I live and work in the prescriptivist camp, but I’m not always comfortable with the company.

Editors are inherently prescriptivist, because we’re employed to make judgments about what is most appropriate for publication, audience and context — and to get out of the way of elegance. Descriptivists, like the doughty linguists at Language Log, range over all written and spoken language, formal and informal, standard and nonstandard, to turn their findings into scholarship. (That’s the grand thing about an academic discipline: Once you own a grinder, you can turn anything into sausage.) Each of us has legitimacy within our respective spheres, and, given a little reasonableness and tact, each of us has something to learn from the other.

Reasonableness and tact, however, are in short supply, as I was reminded by a look at Kathy Schenck’s estimable blog, Words to the Wise, at the Milwaukee paper. Writing about last week’s national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, she praised a workshop conducted by Bill Walsh on rules of usage that are not really rules.

Now Mr. Walsh requires no endorsement from this quarter. He works as a copy editor at the newspaper that commissioned one of John Philip Sousa’s greatest marches, he has been writing on language and editing on the Internet since 1995, and he has produced two useful books, Lapsing into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. Though I don’t agree with him on every particular, I always respect his judgment. His “rules” workshop attempts to demolish shibboleths of usage that have been repeatedly exploded by standard usage manuals — the split infinitive, the preposition at the end of the sentence, the conjunction at the beginning of the sentence, etc., etc., etc.

And yet someone by the name of Dick Feyrer fulminates in this comment:

“Walsh should be shot! Ok, maybe not, but I'd revoke his journalism license for murder of the language, dumbing down journalism, insulting intelligent readers and other things too numerous to list. Casual usage may suggest touchy-feely truthiness, but undermines credibility at the expense of the (wink, wink) ‘We are your buddy’ syndrome media advertising wonks favor.”

That Mr. Feyrer is ill-informed we should take as given. But that is merely one of the odious traits that prescriptivists often display. A short inventory of additional items:

Ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagrees.

Violence of language out of proportion to any issue at hand.

The erroneous belief that the language is degenerating or being harmed.

Implicit in that view is the belief that there used to be some higher standard of usage now being violated or abandoned. (Jonathan Swift, writing in 1710 (!), fumed that "ignorance and want of taste, have produced … the continual corruption of our English tongue, which, without some timely remedy, will suffer more by the false refinements of twenty years past, than it hath been improved in the foregoing hundred.”

Somehow English, despite having been dumbed down and subjected to homicidal violence for three centuries, has contrived to become a world language, in wider use than Latin at its height.*

Keep at it, Bill. Chip away at the misconceptions. We may yet prevail.

 

*Sorry, Alice.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 12, 2008

What would the MLA say?

A reader named Mae raises a nice* point about acknowledging sources:

Suppose that a writer reads a source with an interesting reference, and then looks up the reference and reads an entire article, call it A. Later citing the material, the writer makes direct and indirect quotes from A, properly cited. Should the writer also cite the original referral source?

I think this is more likely to happen with online articles/blogs, where A is only one click away. But proper citation among web sources is a growing issue: and I think that the traditional gatekeepers (you) are best equipped to tell us what to do.

It has been a long time since I was a cadet member of the Modern Language Association, and I long ago gave up any attempt to write scholarly articles (another nice point, whether scholarship or I should be more relieved), so I may not be the best source of information about what the most formal gatekeepers say. But I think that the formal requirement is met by citing the article being quoted or summarized. If I come across a citation of an article in the bibliography of a book and subsequently quote the article, I don’t think that I’m honor-bound to cite the book as well.

But, as you suggest, the online world is developing slightly differently.

On this blog, for example, I usually mention the site that leads me to another source. That is because bloggery is a conversation, and it seems right to identify the parties to the conversation. It also serves to drive traffic to those fellow writers. Naming the source of a source probably fosters humility as well, rather than giving the impression of some omniscient personal scanning of the Internet.

So, strictly speaking, you must indicate the primary source of information, the article you quote, the post from which you take the actual information, whatever. Given the skepticism among the public about the probity of journalists, and the scary, Wild West, anything-goes blogosphere, showing the sources is a necessity.

Naming the sources of sources is, I think, more of a courtesy that a requirement. But it can’t hurt, so long as you find ways to do it without making your own posts unreadable through the thicket of references.

As always, I await contradiction and correction in the comments submitted.

 

* I’m going to insist on being able to use nice in its older sense of subtle or indicating careful discrimination — the sense allied to the word nicety.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (4)
        

April 11, 2008

Some say

My worthy colleague Craig Lancaster has taken violent exception at his blog, Watch Yer Language, to the word some as a synonym for about as an adverb modifying a number. A construction like some three dozen copy editors work in the newsroom would make his flesh creep.

Flesh also creeps on The Sun’s copy desk, judging from the red slashes marking that construction on our page proofs.

Never having been troubled by the usage myself, I’m curious about the origin of this distaste. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage takes no exception to it, citing examples from James Thurber and the Times Literary Supplement.

It locates objection only to the word used with exact rather than approximate numbers. One of the most notable objectors is Theodore Bernstein, who in The Careful Writer mocks the sentence “Some 35,683 attended the races at Acqueduct.” But even he says, “When used before a figure, some means approximately or more or less,” without objection.

Perhaps the distaste for the word comes from dislike of a separate usage, the rural colloquial she feels some better, spilling over into a different context. Or perhaps some copy editors, always wanting to be particularly careful, extended Bernstein's stricture to all such usages.

I’m inclined to add some for about to my rapidly growing list of Things Not Worth Bothering About.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 PM | | Comments (11)
        

April 10, 2008

Copy desk blues

Some years back Alex Cruden of the Detroit Free Press wrote some copy editor blues songs, which were performed at the closing ceremonies of one of the ACES national conferences.

In that spirit, I offer the first stanza of a new one: “30 minutes late (and 20 lines long).” Based on a real-life experience. Feel free to add your own verses.

I’ve been sittin’ on the copy desk all the livelong day,

Sittin’ on the copy desk, editin’ to get my pay,

Lookin’ at that syntax, puzzlin’ where it got all wrong,

But it’s 30 minutes late, and the story’s runnin’ 20 lines long.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 9, 2008

You never saw such a bunch

They’re flying in to Denver today. Maybe driving. Perhaps trudging. Tomorrow marks the opening of the twelfth national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, and there is nothing else like it anywhere.

See for yourself. The twelve national conferences to date have offered the most comprehensive training sessions for editors available in such a compressed span; look at the schedule of workshops. Look at the presenters who show their commitment to editing by offering workshops for no fee. And many of the editors attending show their commitment by attending at their own expense. Look, as the conference blog presents the daily events, at the students awarded scholarships to pursue careers in editing.

It is not only the workshops that offer learning — though while the workshops are in session, the hallways are empty, in contrast to the customs of other professional organizations — but also at table for lunch or at the bar in the evening, where the battle-scarred veterans share their stories and their lore.

This has been so since 1997, when Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, the Founders, had the gumption to put together a long-talked-about professional organization for copy editors and the audacity to stage the first national conference that fall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

There were 300 of us present at the creation, and — one of my oft-told stories starts here, so you can skip to the next paragraph — someone said that it was certainly the largest gathering of copy editors in all of human history. On returning to Baltimore, I repeated that proud boast to my wife, Kathleen, who muttered, “Except in Hell.”

ACES enabled us from the start to discover our kinship with colleagues at other publications, forming friendships that have endured over the years. We found that we confronted similar problems, that the differences among us were largely differences of degree, not kind. We discovered our common hunger for learning, for improvement of our skills. We discovered, too, that we had a voice.

That voice was what Pam and Hank sought to give us. We are practitioners of an obscure craft too often casually disregarded or misunderstood at our own publications. ACES gave us a platform. At the time, when American newspapers and magazines were still flush, the possibilities seemed ripe. Today, with our industries in confusion, with some editors and publishers questioning the very value of editing, it is more than ever crucial for us to stand up for the craft, to raise our voice in defense of accuracy, clarity, precision — of editing.

From ACES, that voice may not always be heard, or heeded, but it is persistent.

It will be heard again this week in Denver. Those of us prevented by circumstances from attending offer our distant salute.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 8, 2008

Show me your badge

An article in the Des Moines Register by one Larry Ballard announced the other day that legislators were pondering a tax to be levied on lapses in grammar: "The tax would be levied on bad grammar in signs, advertisements, etc. It would target typos, misspellings, strange punctuation and dangling participles (they are nowhere near as painful as they sound) and would be enforced anywhere English is used."

The correspondent who wrote to me about the article speculates that it was an April Fools’ Day item that got into the paper by mistake. It appears to have been taken down from the main page at the paper’s Web site, but, of course, versions live on in cyberspace.

Killjoy as I am, I don’t necessary disparage April Fools’ gags in newspapers, though most of them are even more inane than other newspaper humor, and it does seem a little peculiar for a business that relies on credibility to take so much relish in lies. But let that pass.

No, what bothers me is that the article grows out of a widespread attitude that grammar is the equivalent of a law code, something to be enforced on the populace. Thus we have editors who refer to themselves as “grammar cops, “grammar police” and the like. That kind of talk reinforces the impression that copy editors are like librarians padding through the room and hissing “Shush!”

I used to be a chief, and I have deputies, but I am not a cop. I don’t think that copy editors should think about themselves as cops. We’re editors. Our job is not to write citations but to draw out of the texts we edit their central meanings, clearly expressed.

All languages have dialects, and the dialect with which I concern myself at work is the one called formal written English. I may cringe at the way bureaucrats talk, or swear at the writing in the instructions for U.S. Form 1040, or walk away from people who have incorporated text-messaging abbreviations into their speech; but those are all matters of personal taste and preference. Not my job. You want me to clean up your prose, hire me, and I’ll tell you what I think works and what I think doesn’t work.

But you won’t wind up in the slammer.

 

 

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

April 7, 2008

Asked and answered

I told you I wasn’t going back to guns, and I meant it. My first post on the grammar of the Second Amendment provoked such intemperate and uninformed commentary that I attempted to clarify and expand on the point in a second, third and fourth post, hoping to establish the limited ground of my argument.

But now my Kent County colleague, Craig O’Donnell, comes up with a citation from the UC Davis Law Review, an article by Carl T. Bogus,* “The Hidden History of the Second Amendment,” which raises a number of interesting points. Mr. Bogus argues, in brief, that the Second Amendment was developed, not as an instrument to enable the populace to resist governmental tyranny, but rather as a guarantee to the Southern states that the general government would not use federal authority to disarm the state militia, the white population’s principal defense against slave insurrections.

You can read the article itself, which describes the historical background in some detail (and bristles with citations).

But if you continue to hold adamantly to the belief that citizens must arm themselves for protection against governmental tyranny, perhaps you might consider the means by which firearms can be made generally available to African-Americans and Native Americans. They are, after all, the segments of the population who have historically been victims of governmental oppression and lawless violence.

And now, back to our regularly scheduled pedantry.

Aaron Brager, a distinguished graduate of St. John’s College in Annapolis, offer the sentence, Who'd you've lunch with? and asks, “Is it simply awkward-sounding, or is it grammatically incorrect?”

It’s awkward and non-idiomatic. Contracting the verb have usually occurs when the verb is an auxiliary, not the main verb: Who’d you’ve preferred to have lunch with? Not elegant, but not compelling the reader/hearer to backtrack to determine whether something has been left out.

A reader who heard my carrying on about National Grammar Day on Dan Rodricks’ Midday show on WYPR-FM, writes: “The grammatical mistake that drives me crazy is responding with ‘good’ when asked ‘how are you?’ I hear ‘good’ being used as a response, in schools, on NPR, on television — everywhere. Please make them stop!”

Leaving aside the reader’s touching faith in my powers to get anyone to do anything, I’m inclined to tell her to learn to live with it. I expect she wants the response to be “Well” or “I am well.” But that is to misunderstand the point of the question.

“How are you?” is not a question about one’s health, and it would be a mistake to respond to it with an inventory of aches, pains and complaints. While not actively insincere, it is a purely conventional formula. It is a shorthand for “I recognize you as a human being of my acquaintance and wish to initiate a conversation.” Since it is not really a question, the substance of the reply does not matter so long as it is not outright rude.

For my part, on a good day, I answer, “Tolerable,” sometimes rendering it as the Southern “tollable.” On a bad day, “Peachy.”

 

* Professor Bogus teaches at the School of Law at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (5)
        

April 2, 2008

Down with the czar

We’re a nation at war, and metaphor is our weapon.

Bob Erlandson, a former Sun colleague and a man so desperate for amusement that he reads this blog regularly, expresses a distaste for the widespread use of the word czar to describe public officials.*

We have had so many of them that it is sometimes hard to remember that the country was founded — somebody did talk to you in school about 1776 and all that, right? — in a revolt against monarchy and absolute power. So our fondness for calling various bureaucrats as czars seems puzzling.

Perhaps we balance it out by depriving these czars and czarinas of anything resembling real power or authority. The title czar is, in practical terms, an empty metaphor.

As such, it dovetails nicely with our taste for bogus metaphors in public life. Lyndon Johnson gave us a war on poverty, which we have, at best, fought to a draw. Perhaps he sought to distract us from the literal and highly unsatisfactory war in Indochina.

Since then, we have declared war on drugs. The victors in that combat seem to be mainly the people who get wages and benefits working as correctional officials for our ever-expanding prison population.

Our triumphs in wars on poverty and drugs are now succeeded by the war on terrorism. (Federal office-holders call it the “war on terror,” but terror is the effect; terrorism and terrorists are the causes.) It appears to be a little early for a declaration of victory there.

Not that I’m hostile to metaphor in principle, or to metaphors that inspire the populace. That is what rhetoric, at its best, accomplishes. But metaphor works best when grounded in reality.

 

* Feel free to indicate in a comment your preference for the form tsar.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:27 AM | | Comments (11)
        

April 1, 2008

Just the opposite

Many people trying to work their way through the thicket of English try to reason their way clear by analogy. That’s a treacherous path, because English encompasses many contradictions from its mongrel past.

If English were a logical language, it’s doubtful that it would have a collection of words that bear directly opposite meanings.

Cleave, for example: If peanut butter makes your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth, your tongue cleaves to your palate. But if you split firewood with an ax, you cleave it. To sanction something means either to approve of it or forbid it. Oversight is either supervision or negligence. If you trim the Christmas tree, you add things to it; if you trim the hedge, you cut things off.

I suppose it is possible — though I by no means endorse this — that certain blurred meanings that we prescriptivists denounce as misuses may be words in transition from one meaning to a double meaning. Imply, for example, has been taking on the opposite sense of infer for decades. Anxious, in casual speech, can mean either anxiety about something or eagerness for it. People often use literally to mean figuratively. Peruse might mean to skim, or it might mean to read carefully; so might scan. (And please, don’t get started on what I could care less means.)

Even though I recoil in distaste at these blurrings of meaning, and school my students and my copy desk colleagues to avoid them, I have to concede that they are usually clear in context. So if there can be no objection to them on the ground of clarity of meaning, then shunning them becomes a matter of idiosyncratic taste.

Oh Lord, something is happening to me. I must have been looking at Language Log too much. Unclean, unclean!

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:22 AM | | Comments (7)
        
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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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