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June 27, 2008

A morsel for lexicographers

Driving away from my house, I encountered my neighbor from across the street as he returned home, and he spoke. That is, he raised his hand from the steering wheel in a slight wave.

In eastern Kentucky as I was growing up, to speak (vi) meant to acknowledge an acquaintance in passing, without uttering words: “I saw John Early on the street yesterday, and he didn’t speak.” Not acknowledging someone in this way was a minor affront.

Speaking, in this sense, is performed in motor vehicles by raising the fingers of one hand casually from the steering wheel. In a rural area like Fleming County, Kentucky, where everyone in theory knew everyone else, some drivers would “speak” to every driver they encountered so as not to risk giving offense.

 I offer this word, without charge, to the Oxford English Dictionary, which does not yet record this sense — though perhaps the dialect specialists may have gotten hold of it.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 PM | | Comments (6)

A lost craft

While the eulogies pronounced over copy editing are premature — like print newspapers, we’re not dead yet — some of us can recall a related and expired craft because we used to work as editors in the composing room.

Three or four decades ago, The Sun had hundreds of printers in its composing room — Linotype operators, proofreaders, compositors. Members of the International Typographical Union had lifetime jobs with solid benefits, and they ruled their domain. God help the editor who happened to touch a piece of type.

By my time at the paper, technology had eliminated most of those jobs, the computer rendering the Linotype obsolete. The compositors remained, using X-Acto knives or razor blades to cut type printed on photographic paper and paste it on the pages.

The composing room was still their domain. An editor assigned to work makeup had to undergo ritual hazing. If you kept your temper, endured some taunting, remained courteous and respectful, you would get along with them. They would even help you. If you were snotty and condescending, you would pay for it. Repeatedly.

The printers were richly scornful of the college-educated types in the newsroom upstairs, and they delighted to spot errors in headlines and text. They found many of them. The number of errors caught by Bill Gay, Marck Mulligan, John Shanklin and others, and the number of fixes they got me out of, are too numerous to count. That some needling took place along the way doesn’t signify.

The compositors were precise. The page had to look right, with every element in place and in alignment. Though it would have been gauche for them to say so, they took evident pride in their work and in the paper — the more so that they knew that their time was running out.

It was inevitable that technology would advance to the point — as it did some years ago — that entire pages could be composed on computer screens in the newsroom, making the compositor’s job redundant. They knew that the company had long since stopped hiring apprentices and that as printers retired, they were not replaced. Eventually, the last few were offered buyout packages, and a craft with a history stretching back to the invention of movable type was gone.

The technology that eliminated those jobs enabled newspapers to remain highly profitable by cutting labor costs. A similar calculus drives the recent and current reductions of news staffs around the country.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 PM | | Comments (7)

June 26, 2008

Cassandra was right

The beautiful daughter of Priam and Hecuba, king and queen of Troy, caught the eye of Apollo, who, smitten, gave Cassandra the gift of prophecy. Then she threw him over. He could not, in his chagrin, take away the gift, so he rendered it useless by cursing her so that no one would ever credit what she said.

She foresaw the burning towers of Ilium and Agamemnon hacked to death in his bath, and no one paid any attention to her.

"I told you so" has never been a source of much comfort.

Today, overtaken by a collapsing business model, skidding revenues, a shaky economy and a history of corporate strategies that didn't work out, American newspapers are abruptly cutting pages and shedding staff. The Hartford Courant is cutting its newsroom staff by 57 positions, the Palm Beach Post by 130. The Washington Post has just conducted a round of extensive buyouts. The whole industry is desperately seeking to find a new equilibrium.

And now it has come home, and in a few weeks we will be saying a wrenching farewell to several dozen colleagues in the Sun newsroom.

There is no denying the ugly realities of the metropolitan newspaper. Circulation has been on a steady decline for years. Every time I read in an obituary that the deceased served in the Second World War, I think, “We’ve lost another reader.” The Greatest Generation was a devoted reader of newspapers, the children, not so much; the grandchildren, nearly not at all. But the greatest threat has been the sharp and accelerating decline of classified advertising in recent years as that revenue has migrated to the Internet. Classified advertising essentially constituted the profit margin for the metropolitan newspaper.

It will now fall to those of us who remain to find a way to preserve the core integrity of The Sun’s journalism with diminished resources.

What I fear is that some papers will make bad decisions out of a misunderstanding of the value of editing, particularly copy editing.

I have said so before, at “Upholding Editing” and “Editors: The Future of News” at I’ve said so here at “Just sack all the editors” and “I’m not dead yet.” There’s something funny about that big wooden horse outside the walls.

Now the Orange Country Register has just announced that it is outsourcing the editing of some of its local copy to a company in New Delhi. I suspect that this will save money while compromising content. If local news is the franchise for daily newspapers, the information it provides that is not duplicated on the Internet or in broadcasting, how is a copy editor on the Indian subcontinent going to recognize what ought to be fixed in a story about Anaheim?

Lawrence Downes in a New York Times op-ed piece has expressed his dismay at the decline of copy editing in an elegy for the copy desk, and Gene Weingarten has expressed his affectionate regard for our obscure and endangered craft at The Washington Post. Able responses have come from two of my most valued colleagues and friends, Kathy Schenck at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and David Sullivan at The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But before you put the coin in my mouth to pay Charon’s fare, let me say it one more time.

Copy editing is not a frill.

Yes, we do still have some obsessives in the ranks who busy themselves distinguishing between since and because and other time-wasters. And we have more who, under pressure, have abandoned editing and resorted to processing. But where we still actually edit, we make a difference. We add value, if you as a reader consider accuracy and clarity to be of value.

When reporters get people’s names wrong (something that occurs with alarming frequency), if it gets caught at all, it will be caught on the copy desk.

When a writer makes a schoolboy error in grammar and usage, it falls to the copy editor to make the correction.

When the assigning editor moves a story that is five column inches longer than the available space, the copy editor is the person who cuts what can be sacrificed while preserving the essential information.

When a writer comes up with a metaphor that would leave readers rolling on the floor, clutching their sides in mirth, the copy editor will step in.

When the reporter writes a dozen introductory paragraphs before getting to the point of the story, which turns out to be something other than what those dozen paragraphs appeared to be leading up to, an editor has to address the issue.

Copy editing is not merely some trivial manipulation of commas and the spell-checker. It involves substantive editing. It makes a difference for the reader, who, if irritating errors of fact or lapses in clarity turn up regularly, is free to seek information elsewhere. And will.

Remember, I told you so.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:34 PM | | Comments (5)

June 25, 2008

Don't call it Styrofoam

Here’s a scattering of references from articles in The Baltimore Sun in recent months:

Styrofoam packing peanuts

tie a Styrofoam cup to a long string

ornaments made of Styrofoam and peas

nary a Styrofoam clamshell or piece of plastic wrap in sight

200 tons of debris in the harbor each year …much of it Styrofoam and light plastic.

eliminating Styrofoam containers

replacing Styrofoam coffee cups with "ecotainers"

The problem: It is unlikely that any of those references are actually to Styrofoam.

The Dow Chemical Co. manufactures a product called Styrofoam, an expanded polystyrene foam used for thermal insulation. It is a blue material that you can see being applied to the sides of houses under construction.

Disposable drinking cups and food containers, packing peanuts, coolers and similar products are not made of Styrofoam, but of an extruded polystyrene foam, typically white, made up of tiny beads.

Colloquial usage may have made styrofoam the common term for plastic foam cups, but anyone who aspires to be an exact writer will avoid it.

This is not an exact parallel with cases of other trade names that turned into generics. A xerox or a kleenex may not be a Xerox or a Kleenex, but in both cases the name brand and the generic product are the same kind of thing. Styrofoam and the plastic foam used in drinking cups are different substances, and we generally find it convenient to have different names for different things.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (6)

June 24, 2008

No Oxfording, please

Erin McKean, the irrepressible Dictionary Evangelist, referred to this neologism in a post earlier this year: Oxfording is the invention of a word with the intent of getting it entered into the Oxford English Dictionary.

To Oxford is to micturate* into the wind, because lexicographers are immune to lobbying. They add words to the dictionary based on frequency, locations and staying power. And the words they add are usually those that have sprung up spontaneously, like mushrooms after a rain.

I understand exactly what he means when Stuart Froman suggests a new word, conjobulation, at That’s Write: “the state of having so many projects to do and so many errands to run and so many familial pressures to manage and so many interruptions to recover from that sober individuals can be sitting at a stoplight and suddenly have no idea where they are supposed to be going, that they can be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly have no idea what they are talking about, that they can wake in the middle of the night in a panic but have no idea which problem woke them up.”

He has appealed to me and a select group of other bloggers to popularize the word. Despite his touching faith in my influence, it’s doubtful that I could be much help. For one thing, Technorati indicates that there are 69,081 blogs on its rolls more popular than this one. For another thing, such campaigns tend to fizzle. In the early days of his late-night show, David Letterman occasionally tried to popularize catch phrases invented by his staff — “They’re pelting us with rocks and garbage” was one I thought particularly evocative. But despite his vast audience, nothing ever caught on.

Language, like Old Man River, just keeps rolling along, going where it will, thwarting attempts to harness it.


* Come on, surely you can guess. From the Latin micturire, if that’s helpful.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:30 PM | | Comments (4)

June 22, 2008

Thought for the day

America’s metropolitan daily newspapers are shedding pages and staff members faster than a black cat shedding on a white sofa. In these troubled times, here are words to live by, from Jonathan Kellerman’s novel Obsession:

Why settle for pessimism when you can have fatalism?


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:38 PM | | Comments (1)

June 20, 2008

Are you being served?

Some people work; others serve. This puzzles one of my readers:

Here's a Q i've always wanted to ask a journalist. . . why, even when a priest is convicted of child sex abuse, do reporters routinely write "Fr. Smith served at parishes in New York, New Jersey. . ."

Why not 'worked at?' Why 'served?' The only other occupation that gets this deferential treatment: the military.

The answer is that the language of service is conventional for certain occupations. The clergy serve their congregations, the military serves the country, government employees serve the populace. That is why we speak of military service, public service, public servants and the like. The language is so ingrained that we continue to use it when priests are convicted of abuse, officers are cashiered, elected officials charged with corruption. The cant of service has something to do with our discomfort with ambition overtly displayed.

People do not become priests because they want to dress in fancy vestments and be the center of attention; they enter the priesthood because they are called to service. In much the same way, they receive a divine call to move from one parish to another, more prosperous or prestigious parish.

People do not go into the military because they want to wear gold braid, order people around and fire off guns; they want to defend their country.

People do not run for public office because they lust for power (and perhaps graft). They have to be cajoled, called to serve the people, even though they would much rather be back on the farm with their children and livestock. In American politics, it’s best to go back to the farm when you leave office, even if you didn’t come from one.

We want to avert our eyes from ambition too nakedly displayed. It makes us uncomfortable, just as people too openly desperate for our affection make us shy away.

No doubt there is genuine interest in serving in the church, the military and government. If talk of service were entirely hypocritical, it’s doubtful than any of these institutions would function at all. But human nature being the mixed creature it invariably is, we have to think that the cant of service also coves up the parts best not displayed in public.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (2)

Elitism in perspective

An exchange between two professors in the late Kingsley Amis novel The Russian Girl:

“You’re out of date because you know a lot. They really think you do, Richard.”

“You mean they respect me for it?”

“Of course not, but they don’t mind. Every department is likely to include someone who knows a lot, even now. You get that, as they say.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:45 AM | | Comments (0)

June 19, 2008

War and fruit

CNN has been caught out.

From Vivian Laxton:

I am a regular reader of your blog, as well as a recovering copy editor. I thought of you when I saw this paragraph on a CNN article online today:

NEW YORK (CNN) — Politicians. They're just like us, or at least, that's what they're desperate to have us believe, particularly during a campaign season in which the word "elitist" has been lobbed about like a lit hand grenade.

Now, I never served in the military, but I’m pretty sure that grenades haven’t had to be lighted for several centuries. …

Correct. The original grenades were explosive shells lit by fuses. The mechanically exploded grenade made its appearance during the First World War. Live hand grenade was probably meant.

The word grenade derives from the French pomme grenate or the Spanish granada, or pomegranate, the early grenades bearing a resemblance to the fruit. It came into common use in English during the late 17th century, when the soldiers who specialized in the use of grenades were called grenadiers. The modern hand grenade is familiarly called a pineapple.

An etymologically allied word is grenadine, the syrup made from pomegranates. Its effects, however, are not explosive.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (3)

June 17, 2008

The 'h' you say

The a vs. an issue doesn’t want to go away. Here’s a recent inquiry from a reader:

An Hispanic? A hispanic? An historic moment or a historic moment? It seems older folks go with an while younger ones use a.

There’s no problem with a used before certain words: a hat, a history, a hood. The h is sounded, or aspirated.

There is no problem with an used before certain words: an heir, an honor, an hour. The h is not aspirated.

The problem comes with words beginning with an h* in which the consonant is aspirated weakly, particularly if the stress is on the second syllable rather than the first. Thus the reason that many people have preferred an hotel, because they do not pronounce the word as HO-tel.

Here’s advice from the late R.L. Trask in Say what you mean!:

Should we write a historical event or an historical event? The second derives from the days when many people pronounced these words with no h; that is, they really said an ’istorical event, and so that’s what they wrote. Today, though, almost everyone pronounces an h in such words, and you are firmly advised to prefer a historical event. The other now looks strange or worse to most readers. The same goes for a hotel, which is better than an hotel.

So going with a Hispanic is consistent with what most readers and writers would expect. An hotel, despite a respectable pedigree, now smells of affectation.


* Of course it’s an h because an is used before words beginning with vowel sounds even if the spelling presents a consonant; the letter h is pronounced aitch.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (11)

June 16, 2008

I'm not dead yet

It comes as no surprise that when Lawrence Downes went to the Newseum in Washington, he found no trace of copy editor in the exhibits. Copy editing has always been an obscure and anonymous craft. Beyond that, the people who run American newspapers are almost invariably former reporters, whose conception of the copy desk is formed either by dim incomprehension or outright hostility. There are copy editors at major metropolitan newspapers who have never spoken with their editor or managing editor.

All the same, the work gets done. Errors of fact are caught, lapses in grammar and usage corrected, tortuous syntax untangled, amazingly inept metaphors suppressed. There are fewer and fewer copy editors on the desk, and the pressure from deadlines is unrelenting, but we have not yet marched with General Lee to Appomattox Court House.

Mr. Downes, however, thinks otherwise. His New York Times op-ed piece suspects that the continuing cutbacks in copy editing will make doom the traditional craft, that “old-time, persnickety editing may be a luxury in which only a few large news operations will indulge. It will be an artisanal product, like monastery honey and wooden yachts.” (And snickering reporters will note that artisanal contains the word anal.)

But it’s not a question of my applying gold foil to the initial capital of “Police seek man in stabbing.” Newspapers are in a fix, and they are desperate to cut costs, so it may seem like a good idea to eliminate levels of editing and proofreading. (How to say this delicately? American newspaper publishing concerns have not been celebrated in recent years for their shrewd business decisions.) I’ve seen how people write. I don’t think that reporters are suddenly going to become more scrupulous about the factual details once they know that fewer copy editors will be looking at their texts. I doubt that they will suddenly become more rigorous in English usage, or more sensitive to excesses in prose effects.

What I suspect is that a decline in copy editing will contribute to less reliable, less readable publications. What I further suspect is that newspaper publishing concerns will encounter the common human experience of discovering, too late, that they have miscalculated.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (2)

June 14, 2008

Grow up

Mike Waller, the redoubtable former publisher of The Sun, growled menacingly every time he received a memo on some means to grow the business. He appointed an assistant whose task, one among many, was to keep that obnoxious construction from reaching him. A good man, Mike Waller, and — you might have guessed — a former copy editor.

This week an urgent message arrived from Editrix about grow the business: “I've found myself locked in mortal combat with some of my readers regarding this topic, and I'm curious about what your position is.”

As it happens, the worthy Kathy Schenck in Milwaukee has addressed the same point at Words to the Wise.

Here’s the deal. Grow exists in both intransitive and transitive senses. If you can grow cotton and you want to grow a business, the language can accommodate you. The latter usage may annoy you, as it does Mike Waller; but if it should stick in the language, then hard cheddar. At the moment, the people who find it a vapid vogue usage will shun it, and the people who like it will not let it go. Language permits you to choose the option you prefer.

So there’s no serious objection to it on linguistic grounds, and the objection on aesthetic grounds comes down to individual preference.

My objection to grow the business is over its meaninglessness. Does grow the business mean to increase profits? Achieve greater productivity through increased efficiency? Introduce new products or services? Expand the customer base? Introduce subsidiary operations? Some of these? All of these? Who knows?

Meaninglessness is overstated. Grow the business, like all cant phrases, does have a meaning, but it’s not the ostensible one. It is a signal for people who sit in meetings and write memos. It is like the secret handshake or the foot-tapping on the floor of the men’s room stall; it signals I am one of you, and, having accomplished that, it need carry no further freight.

I work at a daily metropolitan newspaper. I have listened to people talk about growing the business for a decade, a period during which the newspaper business, The Sun included, has steadily reduced the scope of its operations and the number of employed journalists. You will perhaps excuse me if my response to talk of growing the business is a short, sardonic bark.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:02 AM | | Comments (6)

June 13, 2008

The rest is history

This post is an indulgence in nostalgia. Those allergic to nostalgia can rummage in the archives or wait for me to return to contemporary journalism.

It was 40 years ago on this date that the Fleming Gazette* came out with my byline on a front-page article and on a column inside. The owners, Lowell Denton, the publisher, and his wife, Jean Denton, the editor, had engaged me for what was to be the first of six summers as writer, columnist, copy editor, copy boy, circulation clerk, mail handler and general dogsbody. Jean preferred to take the summer off, and I in 1968, having just finished my junior year of high school, was her substitute.

The Gazette, with a paid circulation of about 3,000, plus what people stole from the racks, was published in Flemingsburg, the county seat. It was one of two weeklies. The rivalry with the Times-Democrat was a friendly one, and the two papers shared a small printing plant with an elderly Goss press. It was still a hot-type paper at that point, and I carried all the copy from the office to the plant for one of the Linotype operators to set it in type and make galley proofs for me to correct.

I worked as a reporter, attending Fiscal Court meetings, agricultural field days, fairs, and other events. (I unaccountably left out of my account of the Ewing Fair one year that the man operating the public-address system, either by accident or design, played a record of “Born to Lose” as mothers with infants processed to the infield for the beautiful-baby contest.) I wrote profiles and features.

Seated at a desk in front of a manual typewriter, a sheaf of yellow copy paper in the drawer and a copy spike at my side, I wrote the stories I had reported, wrote my own column, chronicled the activities of local notables in Jean Denton’s “Jottin’” column, edited and Englished the country correspondence (social notes form all over), read proof, took classified ads over the phone, typed up mailing stencils for the Addressograph, fetched Coca-Colas from the gas station across the street, helped address and bundle the papers for mailing, and swept the office floor. There were some miscellaneous duties as well.

It was a complete introduction to journalism at the ground level.

It also became an education in technological change. It was not long until the paper went offset, abandoning the Linotypes. Lowell acquired Justowriter machines. The Justowriter was an electric typewriter that made a punched tape. The operator typed in the copy, canceled the line whenever there was a typo, and fed the punched tape into a second machine. The second machine produced a galley of justified type, omitting the canceled lines, which could then be cut out with an X-Acto knife and pasted on a mockup page. It was, for the time, sheer magic.

The Gazette contracted with a larger newspaper in Nicholas County for the printing, so once a week I drove the finished pages to Cynthiana, where plates were made and the papers run off the presses; then I drove a carload of Gazettes back to Flemingsburg for the afternoon session with the Adressograph and the post office.

It was a small staff. Marie Arrasmith (nee McIntyre, a distant cousin), was the bookkeeper, Justowriter virtuoso, and gatherer of miscellaneous information, some of it printable. Jerry and Bonnie Fleming, before they branched off on their own, worked with ads and paste-up. But it was Lowell and Jean who were the dominant personalities.

Jean had the literary bent. She had studied journalism at the University of Kentucky — Lowell had majored in agriculture — and she was a relentless reader. Though we had few political opinions in common, Jean being one of the most devoted followers of Richard Nixon in the United States, we respected each other’s views. More important, we shared a relish for Joan Didion’s essays, for murder mysteries and for books in general.

Though Lowell was not literary, he was indefatigably curious. His reading was unsystematic but wide-ranging, and nearly every day he mentioned some new fact or phenomenon that had caught his attention. But reading was not his principal source of information. Jean read books; Lowell read people. He could, and would, talk to anyone as he went around town soliciting ads and conducting other business. Most story ideas in the paper were his, rising from encounters with people or tips he had picked up.

Both Lowell and Jean were uncommonly kind and generous. They encouraged me. They excused my adolescent posturings and excesses, in prose and in person. They paid me a wage that paid a significant chunk of my college expenses.

And, though none of us realized it at the time, they gave me a vocation and a career. Journalism is a craft that one learns through its practice, and through Lowell and Jean I had a substantial apprenticeship. When, in 1980, after six years of graduate school, I turned to the realities of making a living and applied for a position on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, I already had a grounding in journalistic values and the elements of editing.

When Jean died a few years ago, it was as if I had lost a beloved relative, an aunt who had been unfailingly supportive. Lowell, though deafness has cruelly hampered his exchanges with other people, is still out and about.

I owe them both a debt of gratitude I can never adequately express.


* Since renamed The Flemingsburg Gazette. Now ably operated by Garry and Danetta Barker.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:17 AM | | Comments (4)

June 12, 2008

How to use a pocket handkerchief

Posted by Mike Catalini at 5:56 PM | | Comments (5)

June 10, 2008

Native son

Mr. Joseph Michael Cierniak of Frostburg is exercised over a post on our Web site:

Sun coverage of broadcast icon* and Baltimore native Jim McKay, who died Saturday at age 86.

He points out that Jim McKay, who was born in Philadelphia and who came to Baltimore at the age of 15, was by no stretch of the English language a native of Baltimore.

And he is right. You are a native of the place where you were born, and you remain so until the end of your days. Ezra Pound made much of being a native of Hailey, Idaho, though he lived there only briefly in infancy and grew up in Philadelphia. I’ve only lived in Baltimore for 22 years myself and am therefore, though a Baltimorean, still classified as an auslander.

We should be grateful that at least we did not refer to the late Mr. McKay as a former native of Philadelphia, an ignorant construction that we have published all too often over the years.

Mr. Cierniak is, however, in error in taking one of our sportswriters to task, at some length, for the “Baltimore native” mistake. Reporters do not write headlines or photo captions or what we call teasers — brief lines directing readers to information elsewhere. All this material is written by a cadre of anonymous editors laboring through the day and night.

Don’t blame the shoemaker for a mistake by the elves.


* I have flailed away for years, to no purpose, at the use of icon to refer to a person rather than an image, and I have given up the struggle. Though I still don’t care for it, I endure journalists’ addiction to it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (12)

June 7, 2008

Sun errs

For about 16 years, from 1970 to 1986, a gentleman named Rudolph Handel appeared regularly at the corner of Calvert and Centre streets in front of the Sun building displaying a sign: “SUN LIES,” it read on one side, “SUN ERRS” on the other.

Mr. Handel complained that the paper had written inaccurately about him in an article, and he was unsatisfied with the paper’s follow-up. “SUN LIES; SUN ERRS” became a catchphrase in the newsroom for many years.

The other day James Bready, a retired Sun editor who drops by now and then, usually with a sheaf of tear sheets marked with errors, quizzed me on what the most frequent errors in the paper are.

He had one in hand, a reference to the “central branch” of the Pratt Library. The Pratt’s central library on cathedral street is not a branch, but the main library from which the subordinate branches radiate. All the same, “central branch” keeps slipping into print despite years of admonitions.

I’ve been moved to think about our most incorrigible lapses.

You might be surprised, though my own reaction is more of chagrin, to discover how frequently we have referred to a local university and medical school as “John Hopkins.”

If you gamble, you will not be startled to learn that the lottery numbers are frequently incorrect, despite the presence of a thoroughgoing, laminated sheet of instructions posted by the city desk.

If you live on the Eastern Shore, you probably sneer at The Sun for, among other things, a amentable tendency to locate Shore towns in the wrong counties.

Perhaps — broad hint pending — you could identify some favorites yourself. It’s hot outside. Do you have anything better to do?



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:37 PM | | Comments (9)

Hot enough for you?

It’s above 90 degrees in Baltimore today, with humidity approaching a like level, and we have been warned to expect two more days of the same.

Naturally, The Sun will be informing its readers that it is hot outside, a service we provide every summer. The reporter who gets this coveted assignment labors under the obligation to say something fresh on the topic, which usually amounts to a description of how hot it is.

My own favorite hot-weather metaphor comes not from the paper but from a fellow parishioner at the un-air-conditioned Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill.

Josephine DeButts, daughter and granddaughter of rectors of the parish, is in her 90s and has been accustomed for many years to voice vigorous opinions.

Her description of the interior of Memorial Church on a midsummer morning is that it is “hotter than the hinges of Hell.”

I doubt that your newspaper will be as picturesque, but feel free to post comments below on what your journalists say about hot weather.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:08 PM | | Comments (4)

June 6, 2008


I let loose a good, round oath this morning as I read the newspaper, which contained an article with a reference to “one of the accused thieves.”

We’ve been here before. Let me quote myself from two summers ago:

The Associated Press has said in its stylebook since before the Dutch bought Manhattan that accused killer, accused murderer and similar constructions are forbidden.

The reason is simple. When you write "accused killer," you are identifying the person as a killer who happens to have been accused of the crime. In articles about sexual abuse of children by clergy, "accused priest" did not mean someone who had been accused of being a priest, but someone who was a priest who had been charged with a crime.

The rationale behind the reason is also simple. Newspapers should take seriously the presumption of innocence in criminal proceedings. It is not our business to convict people of crimes before judges and juries have acted.

The article today explained that the proceeding had ended in a mistrial, so there is not even the excuse of a conviction of guilt to justify the usage. And there should have been at least three points on the copy desk for someone to notice this and rectify it.

Let me quote myself again from two summers ago:



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:48 AM | | Comments (1)

June 5, 2008

Listen to the doctor

It’s always bracing to visit the linguists at Language Log, in part because their views so sharply diverge from what copy editors and other journalists take for granted.

They despise Strunk and White, the totemic text from many composition classes, and they think that that secular saint George Orwell said fatuous things in “Politics and the English Language.” I have a nostalgic fondness for Strunk and White, which was a help in high school, though I no longer use it. And I think that Orwell should be cut some slack — considering that he wrote as England had nearly failed to stop Hitler and that the Soviet Union had half of Europe under lock and key, his fear that totalitarian control of language might shape human thought may have been wrong but did not look entirely fantastic.

All the same, the slaughter and roasting of so many sacred cattle is a glorious sight.

Not everyone agrees, of course. Over at the American Copy Editors Society’s discussion board, there is some thought — vigorously contested — that linguists just flaunt some bogus authority. I disagree. Linguistics is a genuine academic discipline, not a made-up one like journalism, and its practitioners speak with an authority that they have earned. You may prefer to play the piano by ear, but that doesn’t mean that a musicologist’s views are worthless. (Besides, it’s likelier that you’re playing air guitar.)

This does not mean that you have to give unquestioning assent to every statement by a linguist, but it is crucial to put aside newsroom philistinism and examine one’s own presuppositions and practices. There is always more to be learned, and sometimes one learns that it is possible for linguists and reasonable prescriptivists to clasp hands in agreement.

Arnold Zwicky, for example, has begun a series of posts on ambiguity, here and here, that call into question some usage manual advice to which copy editors may be mistakenly devoted.

The more we can stop wasting time on meaningless distinctions and superstitions of usage, the more time we will have for necessary editing of the gray stodge that constitutes so much of American journalism.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (1)

June 2, 2008

The portentous tone

One of the great hazards of journalism is the temptation to inflate the importance of some mundane event or circumstance, either to impress the reader or to bolster the writer’s sense of self-importance. The form of air pumped up in these operations is typically an adjective or stock phrase.

Dramatic, for example, is a wasted adjective against which I have inveighed for years. If the circumstances are genuinely dramatic, they require no commentary; if they are not, no accumulation of adjectival clutter will make them so. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by a gunman as he rode in an open car through downtown Dallas would not benefit from being written as In a dramatic midday shooting, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in n open car through downtown Dallas.

I was reminded of this unfortunate tendency by seeing in The Sun last week a reference to pre-dawn darkness. Are our readers such simpletons that they have to be told that it is dark before dawn? Or is it that pre-dawn darkness is darker than other darkness? There is always something sinister or disturbing about the pre-dawn darkness; that’s when police raids take place, or people lie asleep, unaware that a tornado is bearing down on them.

Portentous derives from portent, a sign of some impending calamity or momentous event. The adjective originally meant ominous, presaging some disaster. By association with pretentious, it has taken on the sense of pompous, self-important.

Dramatic and pre-dawn darkness are merely a couple of examples. I would be obliged if you, the hardy band of readers of this blog, would submit your own nominations of irritating journalistic inflation and excess.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:56 PM | | Comments (11)
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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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