« The portentous tone | Main | J'accuse »

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)


It's rather sad to see you brown-nosing those boors at Language Log. I thought, based upon your previous posts, that you had a backbone. Ah, well....

I couldn't disagree with you more regarding linguistics, by the way. Not that it matters....

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected