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May 29, 2008

How to tie a bow tie

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:21 PM | | Comments (20)

Who's afraid of the copy editor?

My esteemed Sun colleague David Hobby posted a comment here yesterday that included this remark: “But certainly, you must realize how intimidating it would be to leave a comment here ...”

He was joking, but many people seem to approach a site like this as tentatively as Oliver Twist advancing toward Mr. Bumble the beadle with that empty porridge bowl. First-time posters at the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board sometimes write in a please-don’t-hit-me-if-I-misspell-something tone. Some people even write apologetically to me in private e-mails.

Over at Elizabeth Large’s excellent blog on dining, Owl Meat, Piano Rob, Robert (the Single One), Mr. Old Fart and the rest of the jolly gang are chatting away all the time. None of them seem to worry that somebody will tell them they don’t know how to eat.

But our educational system appears to have produced a class of people who are timorous about their ability to write in their own language. Writing, for them, is like math: They have been trained to understand that it is difficult and that they are not up to it.

The schools and colleges balance that attitude by producing another class of people who, having been encouraged in expressiveness without any guidance in usage or rhetoric or technique, write the most appalling prose in serene confidence.

Pounding on the pedagogues is one of the oldest national sports, but clearly somebody has to be held accountable. The hard-case, scolding prescriptivists have a lot to answer for, too. Either they reinforce the anxiety over making mistakes, or they encourage rebelliousness among those who are not about to be dictated to by fuddy-duddies.

There’s very little that I can do about that, except to say that, gentle reader, you are safe here. You will not be chided for naivete or sneered at for any roughness of expression. You can even use emoticons. There, what more can I offer?

And since I determine what comments get posted, no braying jackass who tries to attack you will get through.

There. Easier in your mind? Don’t forget to write.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:50 AM | | Comments (12)

May 28, 2008

Troop, troops, trooper, troupe, trouper

An inquiry comes in from another newspaper about using troop for an individual soldier rather than for a military unit:

We had a headline that referred to the mother of "a troop killed in Iraq." Someone called to complain, saying an individual soldier would be referred to as a "trooper." Do you think "troop" in this instance would indicate an individual, or a group of soldiers?

Several points converge here.

No, you do not want to use troop for an individual soldier, sailor, airman or Marine. For an individual, you would want to specify the branch of the armed services. And you don’t want to use trooper, because it would suggest a member of the state police or some similar outfit.

There are people who object to troops in the sense of “eight troops killed in a bombing,” on the ground that a troop, strictly speaking, is a distinct unit of the military — as a troop of cavalry. But troops for soldiers is a usage of long standing. It is particularly useful when the group includes members of different branches; you do not want, you really do not want, to refer to a Marine as a soldier.

Finally, since the terms are frequently confused, recall that a troupe is a traveling body of performers, and that when you refer to someone as a real trouper, it is in the sense of “the show must go on,” not “be all you can be.”


Statistical note

This marks the 400th post on this blog. If you’re new to it, you might find it of interest to rummage about in the archives. There are individual posts that persons of quality have found amusing.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (11)

May 27, 2008

The more things change ...

As we observe the current crisis in American newspapering — some of us from the inside — it might be worth a moment to reflect on continuity as well as change. Here’s a passage that Fred Grimm wrote for the Miami Herald in 1989, which turned up in my notes over the weekend:

Pronouncing a big city newspaper in turmoil is about like declaring a bad day in Beirut. Newsrooms just naturally seethe.

Reporters are beleaguered, underpaid champions of truth and justice with the clamoring personalities of children. Editors are mean and generally ugly. Columnists have elephantine egos and are paid astounding salaries to reminisce about family pets and dead politicians.

Someone within this volatile formula can always be found who is critical, angry and threatening homicide, or, worse, to pack up his talent in three large Mayflower moving vans and defect to the opposition paper.

Most places don’t have that opposition paper any longer, though all newspapers have opposition from other media. Apart from that, things in the newsroom, as in Beirut, remain about what we have come to expect.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)

May 23, 2008

How big is life?

A loyal reader of this blog (and who would have imagined that such people existed, or would admit to it?) saw in an article about a chess match a reference to “life-size” chess pieces: “I believe the reporter intended to convey that the pieces are as large as humans, but I’m not sure. I’ve seen ‘life-size’ used to describe other inanimate objects, and it always strikes me as odd.”

The term life-size can refer to inanimate objects as well as living beings, even if that does seem a little odd. But in the context here, it’s wrong.

Life-size describes a representation of a being or an object that is the same size as what it represents. A life-size sculpture of Abraham Lincoln would be six and a half feet tall. A life-size sculpture of Alexander Pope would be four and a half feet tall.

A life-size chess piece would typically be about two or three inches tall. The writer was referring to oversize chess pieces or human-size chess pieces.



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

May 20, 2008

Blood and the land

Kathleen Parker’s syndicated column last week about the “full-blooded American” voter appears to have had an impact. “We love to boast that we are a nation of immigrants — and we are. But there's a different sense of America among those who trace their bloodlines back through generations of sacrifice,” she wrote. *

This has led to quite a stream of denunciation of the column as offensively nativist.

In the interest of framing the discussion within a broad perspective, I offer a sentence from Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express: “We’re English, say some citizens of Charlottesville, Virginia, referring to the fact that their ancestors abandoned soot-grimed mining towns in Yorkshire and made enough money raising pigs to set up as gentry and keep Jews out of the local hunt clubs.”

If blood and sacrifice and long tenure on the land are indeed the crucial factors that Ms. Parker identifies, then perhaps we should allow Native Americans to choose our political leadership.


* Disclosure: It is possible that I, a native-born white American whose family has owned land in Kentucky continuously since 1862, am just the sort of neglected citizen to which she refers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:03 AM | | Comments (5)

May 19, 2008

Don't sic Lou Dobbs on me

Mr. Rational , who commented on the previous post on illegal immigrants, has also sent a courteous and civil note for further discussion. Courtesy and civility demand a response. First, his note:

I posted in yesterdays feckless twit flame fest. (You're a good sport on that btw.)

The subject phrasing had me turn to some dictionary sources for objective definitions noting that HOW the issue is described is just as important in expressing raw information as it is intent (PC or otherwise).

I would love to see my anti-PC distaste for the phrase "illegal-immigrant" more strongly supported by the objective definitions but I also see equally valid term choices that have my lesser PC quotient.

The terms of interest being immigrant, alien, and illegal.

While on most social issues I am far to the left, there are a few where I find myself in support of other views and find it intellectually distasteful when the media accepts, and supports by repeating them, the phrasing preferred and promulgated by advocates actively in support of illegal acts.

The point I'm making is this transcends whether immigrant status should be reported on (I believe it should) but that the terms used to describe this illegal status should be even more emphatic and even contemptuous toward those who so blatantly flaunt the law.

A reverse corollary to this is the use of "dead-broke" vs "deadbeat" when referring to child support issues.

In the case of the issue at hand, I am suggesting that "illegal alien" is both more factually accurate but is also less inflammatory to those citizens who support a legal and orderly immigration process. Even "foreign national" is a better choice.

Back to your original blog subject, not reporting on something that is in almost all instances literally obvious is akin to muzzling reporters with a "don't ask don't tell" policy. Surely you appreciate the absurdity of such a restraint on reporters.

Keep fighting the good fight.

The Sun’s use of illegal immigrant follows Associated Press style, but I don’t propose to hide behind a rulebook. It is a reasoned choice, though Mr. Rational and others may not find the reasoning persuasive.

I’ve heard people object to alien because it is a term also used for entities from outer space. I don’t expect that many people, even Representative Tancredo, imagine that illegal aliens are streaming in through Roswell, N.M. But the word has overtones that can’t be ignored. Alien means not only foreign, but also strange, utterly unlike. But illegal immigrants aren’t utterly unlike us. They may be harvesting the produce we eat, cleaning our workplaces and motel rooms, mowing our lawns, encountering us daily.

Besides, it’s not their being aliens, in the purely legal sense, that distinguishes them. It is their having immigrated, moved in and set up residence, brought their families along when possible.

We don’t use undocumented worker, because it’s such an obvious euphemism. Despite what some of the all-caps commenters may think, we do understand that illegal immigration is a violation of the law, and we don’t treat it as being the equivalent of having left one’s driver’s license on the bureau at home.

Illegal immigrant is technically accurate and a middle term between the most inflammatory and the most euphemistic.

As to the reporting, there is no “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” policy. All reporting and editing involve choices of what to include and what to exclude, judgments of what is relevant. A person’s sexual orientation and conduct become relevant when a story is about a sex crime. A person’s race becomes relevant in the context of a race crime or as part of a description of a suspect detailed enough to help the public make an identification. A person’s immigration status becomes relevant when that impinges directly on some violation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:46 AM | | Comments (21)

May 16, 2008

Illegal immigrants and crime

A colleague at another newspaper sent out an inquiry this week about policies on crime suspects who are also illegal immigrants. When should that element be included in a story?

The message included citations of a number of Web sites at which the issue has been addressed:

From the Greensboro, N.C., paper (an editor's blog and reader reaction)

From the Poynter site (Houston Chronicle writer)

From the Poynter site (Reaction to the Houston Chronicle writer)

From the LA Times ombudsman (with reader reaction)

From a Houston Chronicle editor

This was my answer:

I think that immigration status should be treated like that other potentially inflammatory subject, race. Don't introduce it unless it is an essential element of the story. If an illegal immigrant is involved in an automobile accident, for example, and it turns out that he acquired a driver's license fraudulently, then his status is a legitimate element. When I look at something like the Poynter post and see people writing about "preserving our culture," I don't want anything to do with that. We shouldn't shy away from difficult topics, but we also shouldn't needlessly inflame the public.

Though The Sun has no formal policy on identifying crime suspects as illegal immigrants, we do have a policy of not introducing racial identifications into our stories unless there is a clear purpose. You can read about that, and the heat I took from readers, here and here.

Fresh comments about my being a feckless twit may be made below.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 PM | | Comments (23)

May 15, 2008

It's E.E. Cummings

Just catching up with the Chicago Tribune op-ed piece on the trend to write in all-lowercase letters. The article included a sentence, “caplessness worked for e.e. cummings, right?” Once and for all, Edward Estlin Cummings indulged in many typographical effects in his poetry, but he capitalized his name conventionally.

Here is an article by Norman Friedman that includes a reproduction of his signature and a comment from Cummings’ widow that insisting on lowercasing his name was “stupid & childish.”

I think that it’s an annoying affectation* with people like k.d. Lang and bell hooks (K.D. Lang! Bell Hooks” There! Sue me!), but ascribing the practice to Cummings is doubly annoying.


* I’m irresistibly reminded of Sarah Jessica Parker’s character, SanDeE* in L.A. Story.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:10 AM | | Comments (8)

May 13, 2008

Raving old white guys

It was inevitable that the author of the extraordinarily popular blog Stuff White People Like would eventually include, along with Priuses and teaching children to drink wine, grammar.

Among their remarks Monday on the subject:

Another important thing to know is that when white people read magazines and books they are always looking for grammar and spelling mistakes. In fact, one of the greatest joys a white person can experience is to catch a grammar mistake in a major publication. Finding one allows a white person to believe that they are better than the writer and the publication since they would have caught the mistake. The more respected the publication, the greater the thrill. If a white person were to catch a mistake in The New Yorker, it would be a sufficient reason for a large party.

They might well have pointed out that the tendency grows more pronounced with age. The greatest carriers-on often seem to be older white guys, their vermilion wattles trembling with rage as they inveigh against the shoddy education of the younger generation(s), the abysmal decline in literacy and the criminal disregard of English grammar as God intended it to be used.*

As often as not, despite their dogmatism, they are flat wrong about grammar and usage. These are the people whom the savants at Language Log were describing yesterday as “crazies,” who carry on and flourish their prodigious disdain over many inconsequential points of usage.

If you are among the hardy band of readers of this blog, you have an idea of what I think, but I’ll summarize.

Item: There are indeed rules of grammar and usage, but fewer of them than you are likely to have been taught. And many of you have been taught things that are just not so. (See this.)

Item: The English language is not decaying or degenerating. It does evolve, new words coming in, old words dropping out or developing new senses. There may well come a day when as a world language it evolves into successor languages, as Latin did into Italian, French, Spanish and Romanian, but that does not appear to be an immediate prospect.

Item (a corollary): It’s also doubtful that people on the whole are more ignorant or stupid than they used to be. Ignorance and stupidity were in ample supply among the populace when I was a young man, as far as direct observation goes, and the literature going back to Plato and further provides supplemental evidence beyond dispute.

Item: There are different kinds of language for different occasions and audiences, and it is neither necessary nor desirable for conversational language to coincide with formal written language.

Item: There is probably no stopping the human tendency to use language to make social and class distinctions, but you don’t have to make a fetish of it.


* I myself was once on a path to become one of these creatures, but, like Mr. Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs, “I am older, and therefore wiser; and besides, I have learnt humility.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 PM | | Comments (8)

Insert hyphen here

Like the positive and negative poles of magnets, the prefix non- and its root words want to be attached firmly and directly.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary lists an impressive array of non- words written without benefit of hyphen: nonaligned, noncombatant, nonconformist, nondairy, noninvasive, nonjudgmental, nonpartisan, nonperson, nonproductive, nonprofit, nonrestrictive, nonstarter, nonsupport, nonverbal, nonviolence and dozens more. The exceptions come when the prefix is attached to a proper noun: non-Anglican, non-Latin, non-Muslim, non-Shakespearean, etc.

The Associated Press Stylebook used to have an extensive entry on which non- compounds should be hyphenated and which should be not, but in recent years it has largely abandoned that distinction. This reflects a tendency in English for many, but not all, hyphenated compounds to lose the hyphen. To-day and to-morrow switched over long ago. Today to baby-sit seems well on the way to becoming to babysit.

Non- is such a friendly, not so say promiscuous, prefix, that it will willingly attach itself to just about anything, noun, adjective, even another hyphenated compound. That is why AP warns against omitting the hyphen in “awkward combinations,” giving nonnuclear as an example. It’s an especially good example, because if the word fell at the end of a line, it would be hyphenated thus:



The issue came to mind one evening last week when an article came under my hands bearing the word nonlife-threatening. I paused for a moment to consider what would threaten nonlife before inserting a hyphen: non-life-threatening.

In the main, you can safely omit the hyphen after non-, but the AP is right to warn against jarring consequences. Insert when needed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:42 AM | | Comments (1)

May 11, 2008

Since you asked

There is some unfinished business with brackets and other matters, but before we get into questions and answers, an amplification on the brackets post from Bill Cloud:

I would like to give credit also to Bill Montgomery of The Houston Chronicle, who took part in the presentation and supplied many of the examples, not to mention several people who have written on the subject.

Bill, another worthy colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, gets full marks.

Q. ... it sounds like the professor's proscription is only on interpolations, not on other bracket-y uses, such as citational ellipsis -- ? For example: "To be or not to be [...] ay, there's the rub."

A. In journalistic writing rather than formal academic citation, an ellipsis would be used, but without brackets.

Q. What about [sic]?

A. Once again, [sic] is useful in formal academic writing to indicate that an error has been recognized but preserved in a text. In journalism, which is more conversational than formal, it looks condescending. It is the equivalent of correcting someone’s pronunciation, and therefore we eschew it so as not to look snotty.

Q. ... the proper, consistent, and moderate use of square brackets should alleviate confusion, not cause it. I wonder if the fear of bracketry in any form is a case of underestimating the intelligence of readers.

A. We do try to use brackets when they are essential, and to use them in moderation. But a use such as [former President Bill] Clinton precisely underestimates the reader’s intelligence. That is why, instead of a flat ban, I suggest avoiding brackets whenever possible. And they do look jarring in big type.

Moving on:

Q. What’s the deal with Burma and Myanmar? Why do newspapers choose one or the other?

A. Slate posted a lucid explanation last week, which I recommend. The Sun has used Myanmar for years because that is what the government calls the country. So does the United Nations. We adopted Burkina Faso over Upper Volta for the same reason. Our policy on names, either of persons or of nations, is to go with the person’s or nation’s preference, the name by which each is generally known. The State Department does not like the junta that runs Myanmar and thus sticks with Burma. But it has gone along with other thug regimes (Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, etc.) without evident qualm. In any event, the State Department does not hold sway over our house style.

Want to pronounce Myanmar? The BBC offers four options. Merriam-Webster has an audio version.

Q. "Pain at the pump" may be trite at this point, but what it's trying to express is done easily, and avoiding it, while it could be better writing, could also lose a reader trying to wade through a phrase twice its length for the same result.

A. The thing about cliches is that while they are instantly recognizable, repetition paradoxically diminishes the effectiveness. I don’t think you need to look at all 638,000 instances of pain at the pump that a Google search turns up to conclude that the impact of the phrase has been dulled. Such a phrase is like the commercial you recognize without recalling what product it pushes.

In the same way, your eyes probably glide over ’tis the season hundreds of times between November and the end of December without registering anything much.

Well, maybe mild irritation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:47 PM | | Comments (2)

May 9, 2008

Free advice

A reader of this blog once asked, I hope innocently, “What’s wrong with cliches?”

One answer is provided by Frank Kermode, writing about Martin Amis in Pieces of My Mind: Essays and Criticism, 1958-2002:

“The first thing to see to if you want to write well is to avoid doing bad writing, used thinking. The more positive requirements can be left till later, if only a little later. Cliches are an infallible symptom of used thinking.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (4)

Bracket creep

Bill Cloud, professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has embarked on a campaign to stamp out brackets in journalistic writing, and You Don’t Say wishes him all success in this worthy endeavor.

First off, though, we have to be clear about terms. Brackets, or square brackets, are used to indicate interpolations in text: words or phrases substituted for words actually used, words added to clarify a context or identify a person more fully. These are brackets: [ ]. Many journalists use parentheses — ( ) — when brackets should be used. (Journalists use dashes where parentheses would be appropriate, but dash-happiness is a subject for another post.)

Professor Cloud objects to brackets for two principal reasons: (1) They are visually distracting in text, and particularly irritating in large-type display quotes. (2) They tend to suggest that the publication thinks that the reader is stupid. An example: I saw somewhere recently, perhaps in my own paper, a reference to “[former President Bill] Clinton.” Here’s a link to a PDF with Professor Cloud’s presentation at the recent national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

Brackets do serve a useful purpose in academic writing, particularly in textual editing. The later journals of [Samuel Johnson biographer James] Boswell,* written when he was ill or distracted or drunk, would be almost impossible to decipher without a battery of typographical marks to indicate a range of editorial interpolations. Not that they are much easier to read with the apparatus.

It is usually easier for the reader, and little trouble for the writer or editor, Professor Cloud rightly says, to establish a context before the quoted matter is introduced and thereby eliminate the need for bracketed matter. There will be cases, particularly when the quotation contains something that is profane, obscene or otherwise offensive, that brackets may be unavoidable, but an editor can surely reduce those instances to the bare minimum.

The bandwagon is rolling, and you are welcome to jump on. Here’s Professor Cloud’s slogan: Whip [brackets] now.


* See?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (5)

May 7, 2008

Those damn copy editors*

Oh, you slave over your article or your book, pouring a life’s knowledge into it, sweating blood to achieve shapeliness, like Michelangelo pulling the young David out of a block of marble. It is done. And then you find that some cretinous git, some literal-minded parser, some copy editor has taken your text in his thick fingers and mangled it.

That is pretty much the burden of a recent blog post by someone named Seth Godin:

Just got some work back from a new copyeditor hired by my publisher. She did a flawless job. She also wrecked my work. Totally wrecked it.

By sanding off every edge, removing every idiom, making each and every fact literally correct, she made it boring and dry and mechanical.

If they have licenses for copyeditors, she should have hers revoked.

Unfortunately, Mr. Godin does not supply a single instance of the copy editor’s destructiveness, so it is up for discussion whether he is an injured author or a fulminating boor. (The other texts at his blog do not suggest that revision of his prose would be a cultural catastrophe.)

Of considerably more substance is a comment on a Language Log post, “The food processor of copy editing,” that quotes a letter in which the novelist Joan Aiken complains about a copy editor. “... I have thought quite a number of times about it before I put down ‘“Hark at the wind,” shivered George’ and so have not the least wish to see it changed to ‘“Listen to the wind,” said George with a shiver.’”

A similar indictment was handed up in Jacques Barzun’s “Behind the Blue Pencil” essay, of which I’ve written previously. These are charges that have to be taken seriously.

Of course, this problem is slowly resolving itself as publishers and newspapers shed their copy editors. Who needs them, anyway? They generate no revenue; they just slow things down; they think they have some kind of right to hold an opinion about your work; they always tell you what’s wrong, never what’s right. Besides, they’re a little peculiar.

But it is well to consider that the Princeton University Press has recalled and is reprinting a book by a faculty member of the City University of New York because of an embarrassing quantity of errors in spelling and grammar that were not caught and corrected by the copy editor.

And it might be entered into the discussion that writers are occasionally given to ludicrous effects from which a copy editor can rescue them.

It’s up to the employer — editor, publisher, client — to establish the standards expected of copy editors, including how aggressively the task is to be pursued. It’s up to the copy editor to exercise judgment, not just about the text but also about his or her role.

What have you been commissioned to do? If you’re being told just to check the spelling and keep your opinions to yourself, do that. The kind of shop that tells you that isn’t interested in your opinions anyhow.

What are you working on? Genre counts. If, for example, it’s a novel, you’ll be expected to give the writer more latitude than you would for a newspaper article. Being a copy editor doesn’t mean that you get to sharpen a gross of Eberhard Faber col-erase carmine reds and begin setting Finnegans Wake to rights.

Who’s the author? It matters whether you’re dealing with a veteran or a tyro. God help you if you take the same approach with Jacques Barzun that you do with Seth Godin.

Why aren’t you talking to the writer? You have a telephone, don’t you? E-mail? A desk within a day’s walk of the writer’s? The more extensively you edit, the better it is to maintain some level of contact and consultation with the writer. It’s a working relationship, and relationships require work.

But if you have given these questions due consideration and you’re right, stand your ground. Just remember that no one is always right.


* House style at The Sun discourages even the milder profanities, but I thought that the sentiment expressed here is so universal that the language might be excused.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (8)

May 5, 2008


Surrounding individual words with quotation marks in headlines is tricky — and probably ill-advised. A reader sends in these three headlines, wondering whether quotation marks are apt:

‘Popular’ photojournalism student killed in wreck

Newspaper carrier tells his ‘wonderful’ hero story

Rendleman remembered for being ‘unique’

This is a technique that headline writers use to establish that some source within the article, not the reporter or newspaper itself, is making an evaluative statement. It’s not for the paper to determine who is popular and who is not, how wonderful a story is, or whether someone is properly remembered as unique. Presumably all three words within quotation marks are to be found embedded in quotations in the article.

The problem is that putting single words within quotation marks also has the effect of suggesting that they are open to question. That is, after all, what is meant by the two-handed, double-quotes-in-the-air gesture that people make to express skepticism or outright disbelief. So the first of the three headlines could easily be read as intending to say, “Some people say that the student killed in the wreck was popular, but we have our reservations about that.”

That is why at The Sun we discourage the practice. (We also wish that grocery stores would stop using quotation marks around the names of produce for sale, but that is neither here nor there.)

And by the way, no one asked for comments on the headlines apart from whether individual words should be in quotes, but these three are irredeemably banal. What does “popular” add to a story about a student killed in an accident? Would the paper have skipped the story if the student had been a loner? “Wonderful” story? Is there a flatter adjective? Someone was “unique”? Actually, isn’t everyone?



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (5)

May 3, 2008


It just will not die. It has been shot down, demolished, exploded and buried at a crossroads with a stake through its heart. It should be as dead as Marley, but it keeps coming back.

It is the baseless prohibition against the split infinitive. Theodore Bernstein said hopefully in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins (1971) that “within the near future the split-infinitive bugaboo will be finally laid to rest.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage describes the resistance to the construction as having “established itself in that subculture existing in the popular press and in folk belief.” Garner’s Modern American Usage includes the split infinitive in the entry Superstitions. John Bremner wrote in 1980, “This so-called rule has no foundation in grammar, logic, rhetoric or common sense.” *

Just so. The split infinitive is the thing that many people think about when they think about grammar, even if they are not entirely sure what an infinitive is. “Oh, you’re a copy editor — better watch out and not split any infinitives talking to you, ha-ha.”

In fact, the only reason to avoid splitting infinitives is to escape the uninformed censure of people who think that it is a violation of grammar and usage. Merriam-Webster’s: “The commentators recognize that there is nothing grammatically wrong with the split infinitive, but they are loath to abandon a subject that is so dear to the public at large. Therefore, they tell us to avoid split infinitives except when splitting one improves clarity. Since improved clarity is very often the purpose and result of using a split infinitive, the advice does not amount to much. The upshot is that you can split them when you need to.”

Let me emphasize this Merriam-Webster’s conclusion: “To repeat, the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.”

I bring this up because Professor Geoffrey Pullum has brought his artillery to bear on a blog, Punctuality Rules, that made some heavy going trying to sort out advice on the split infinitive from Strunk and White — a volume that Professor Pullum and the other Language Log savants particularly despise.**

An examination of E.B. White’s efforts with the split infinitive shows that he is trying to work himself out of the predicament that Merriam-Webster’s describes. He can see perfectly well that splitting infinitives is perfectly natural and appropriate in English, but he is aware of the finger-waggers ready to spring forward. His advice, therefore, is of little use.

I empathize with Professor Pullum’s irritation with people who carry on about Strunk and White, treating it as more a totem than a usage manual. And I have some sympathy for Deb Boyken, the blogger at Punctuality Rules, for having innocently engaged his attention. Her response to his post sounds hurt. At the same time, it’s irritating to see people rushing to her defense with comments calling Geoffrey Pullum a mean man.

Blogging is publication; it’s not circulating the annual Christmas letter among family and friends. It is a public performance, and people who perform in public leave themselves open to evaluation. Heat and kitchens and all that.

Just leave the split infinitive alone and wait for another couple of generations to die.


*In my own humble efforts, I’ve addressed the issue here and here.

 **I have a sentimental attachment to Strunk and White dating from my first encounter with it as a senior in high school, but I no longer consult it as a usage manual.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 PM | | Comments (9)

May 2, 2008

You're not from around here, are you?

Whether you drink soda or pop; whether you order a submarine, a hoagy, a grinder or a po’ boy; whether your pronunciation makes any kind of distinction with marry, merry and Mary — all this will mark you somewhere, sometime as an auslander, not One Of Us.

There is always something in language beyond the literal meaning of the words, something social, something understood (or half-understood) implicitly. One of those unspoken understandings is whether or not you belong in the group.

When I commented last month on the academic enterprise, saying that once you own a grinder you can turn anything into sausage, Mark Liberman undertook to explore the remark at Language Log.* What I was thinking about was the function of jargon or argot as an inescapable tool of scholarship.

When I went off to college in 1969 to be an English major, the grand old Eliotan historico-critical-literary approach was not yet desiccated. But there were other options as well. The twerp under whom I ill-advisedly spent a term studying Shakespeare remarked one day, “Now I don’t want to give you the straight Freud-Jones interpretation of Hamlet,” to which a classmate seated next to me muttered, “No, you just want to dance around it for an hour.” There were also Jungian and Horneyan options in the department. Feminism was on the upswing. There was still some juice in Marxist interpretations as well, and distantly, from France, strange new emanations were registering.

The fullness of semiology, structuralism and post-structuralism sweeping over the academy showed that anything, anything at all, could be run through the mill and deconstructed: comic books as well as the canonical writers, pop songs, television commercials, restaurant menus. Anything could be anatomized, its concealed significances exposed to light and air.

To be respectable, an academic discipline must display a terminology that the layperson has difficulty understanding. Mastering the lingo demonstrates that one is among the elect. The other disciplines must envy physics above all: Not only does it have concepts that are hard to understand, but also it requires a grasp of arcane mathematics. Mathematics is the perfect marker; it shuts out nearly everyone, and it is actually essential and of use. Other disciplines — I won’t say education, but you can probably supply some — require the invention of obscurantist terms to conceal what would otherwise appear straightforward or even obvious.

The complication, and the thing that led Mr. Liberman to pick up on the snide tone in the “grinder” remark, is that the jargon, the machinery may well express some valuable concept or insight, but it might equally well conceal that the writer is unoriginal, misguided or befuddled. It can eat away at an afternoon in a carrel to determine that the article in the learned journal before you is, well, stupid. It established that the writer is in the club and helped get the writer promotion or tenure, but it is an utter waste of your limited time on this side of the ground.

There’s the hazard. Whatever you say or write has multiple meanings. Sometimes, and not just in the academy, you have to detect that the secondary meaning has overwhelmed the primary.


*They’ve put You Don’t Say on the blogroll at Language Log, which suggests, I think, that I am In.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:56 AM | | Comments (5)

May 1, 2008

Block that metaphor

Writers are not necessarily the best judges of their own work.

Nowhere do lapses in judgment become more apparent than in the use of metaphor. Everyone prefers vivid writing, and everyone knows that literary tropes can be wielded effectively to sharpen a point or illuminate a concept. But it is very easy to go awry.

Dead metaphors, for example, can be particularly treacherous. The language is full of expressions that were originally metaphoric but have been worn so smooth by repetition that they go unrecognized as such. That is why free rein, a metaphor from horseback riding, often turns up as free reign.

Failure to associate a stock expression with its original sense can lead to jarring incongruities, such as this one:

They’ll be shaking and rattling, rocking and rolling, but it will all be for a good cause as the annual [Placename] radiothon for cerebral palsy kicks into high gear.

Excessive enthusiasm for metaphor, combined with inattention, yields mixed metaphors, as in this opening paragraph to a business story:

The world’s largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation’s food industry.

Let’s do a metaphor census. The world’s largest spice producer:

1. Wears armor.

2. Sits down.

3. At an athletic competition (sidelines).

4. Exposed to nuclear radiation (fallout).

5. During a street brawl (free-for-all).

If you are a typical reader, you are so distracted by this piling-up of inconsistent images that you have no idea what the meaning of the sentence is. If you as a writer want to use a metaphor, hit it once, briefly, and move on.

Finally, there is the metaphor that is grotesquely inappropriate:

If [Firstname Lastname] wanted to walk from the chocolate shop where she works to grab coffee at a McDonald’s in [Placename], she would have to cross a 10-foot-wide drainage ditch, four lanes of traffic, a median strip, then four more lanes of cars. So she drives instead.

But like well-fed thighs stuffed into too-tight pants, the road needs room to spread.

The author stubbornly insisted on retaining the simile when the copy editor questioned it. After all, it was a product of the writer’s imagination and originality; the copy desk was once again trying to drain the life from the story. And the assigning editor sided with the author. (Too often the assigning editor, rather than serving as an editor for the writer, acts as a lobbyist for the writer.)

In this case, I jumped a couple of layers of authority and went straight to the editor of the newspaper, who, after uttering a sentence even more offensive than the one in the article, ordered the passage excised.

Two pieces of advice:

1. Visualize what a depiction of your metaphor would look like. Is that what you want?

2. Get yourself an editor — or someone you trust to be both knowledgeable and honest — to tell you what works and what doesn’t. Follow the advice.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (8)
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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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