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July 31, 2008

Short takes

The pain is coming from a higher location than normal for someone working with professional journalists: My spine has gone on one of its periodic protest demonstrations against upright posture, sedentary habits and advancing age. So today You Don’t Say deals in fragments.

Get Mitty!

Arnold Zwicky has posted at Language Log about the exchange he and I had on who and whom at Visual Thesaurus. The most depressing outcome was our realization that readers of my post may not have understood the reference to a James Thurber piece as humorous because they didn’t know who Thurber was.

I’m manfully resisting the growing temptation to develop into some cranky old party inveighing against the monstrous decline of everything of value, but James Thurber! Those cartoons! “All Right, Have It Your Way—You Heard a Seal Bark” Those family memoirs! “The Night the Bed Fell.” Those stories! “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” tells you something essential about American masculinity. Are we letting a treasure of American humor slip away?

And for what? A colleague mentioned the other day that he intended to see the new Adam Sandler film. I told him that I’m waiting to see Sandler’s movies until I have Alzheimer’s and it won’t make any difference.


One commenter at Visual Thesaurus chided me for my “defeatist attitude” about who and whom. But the linguists have a point: If the distinction is one that native speakers have such difficulty mastering, why should anyone insist on it?

Each semester during the grammar review component of my copy editing class at Loyola College, I go over who and whom. My students have no difficulty distinguishing between subject and object with other pronouns — he, him, she, her, they, them — but this one usually flummoxes them. My colleagues at The Sun get the pronoun right about half the time (somewhat more frequently on the copy desk). But generally, in speech or writing, they have to think about which form to use.

Yes, there are distinctions to be learned about usage. I can tell my students that there is a useful distinction in meaning between imply and infer; once it is explained to them, they have no further trouble. But the who/whom issue involves fundamental grammar, the grammar that we all use in speech and writing without having to feel our way through a sentence.

I’m still holding to the distinction in formal writing, while thinking that maybe there are more urgent issues to occupy an editor’s attention.

Distinguished pedigree

The fuming critic mentioned in yesterday’s post, Giles Coren, is, I discover, the son of the late Alan Coren, an editor of Punch and the author of several books of killingly funny articles, among them the sublimely titled Golfing for Cats.

The elder Coren on gardening: “This is the week, according to my much-thumbed copy of Milly-Molly-Mandy Slips A Disc, when Winter officially knocks off for a few days, the swallows return from Africa to foul the greenhouse roof, and you and I be a-diggin’ and a-stretchin’ and a-sweating’ as we work away with that most indispensable of gardening tools, the wallet.”

On the various European nationalities: “Germans are split into two broad categories: those with tall spikes on their hats, and those with briefcases.”

The scholar’s life, from “This Don for Hire”:

“I walked out of the bookshop. The fresh air felt good. For about two seconds. That’s how long it took for a black sedan to pull away from the kerb. I hurled myself sideways. There were twenty years of scholarship in that hurl.

“When I got up again, there was a cop standing beside me. The car was long gone.

“’Leavisites,” I said. I dusted my fedora. ‘They don’t give up easy.’” *

New to the blogroll

It’s worth your time to have a look at a couple of blogs on writing and editing that have recently come to my attention: Brian White’s Talk Wordy to Me and Editrix.

Enough for now

Back to the heating pad.


*F.R. Leavis, famed for his dogmatism and denunciations of anyone who presumed to hold contrary views, was more thoroughly mocked as “Simon Lacerous” in “Another Book to Cross Off Your List,” a chapter in The Pooh Perplex, the delightful send-up of 20th-century literary scholarship by Frederick Crews.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (5)

July 30, 2008

The joy of rant

If you haven’t seen it already — it has been in circulation since last week — here’s a link to a rant by Giles Coren, a British writer, complaining about a copy editor (“subeditor “ is the term there) who cut an indefinite article from one of his sentences. Be advised that it incorporates a number of words that you will not see on this blog.

A subsequent riposte by Laura Barton contains a passage that can be quoted here:

There is, it must be said, something of a long-standing tension between writers and subeditors. We writers are rather protective of our words, prone to filing late and flouncing about and are altogether a tad precious. In short, subeditors view us as the Little Lord Fauntleroys of the office, and we in turn view them as our evil nemeses, hellbent on our undoing.

One of my readers, Bob Kirk, has this comment:

Are they both prigs?

Obscured in the food critic's lather is a good point. The sub editor did not need to remove the offending "a". Unless I miss something in British usage ("He's in hospital." rather than "He's in the hospital."), the editing added nothing except an affront to an oversensitive writer. Has the green-eyeshade nothing better to do? You may as well outsurce copy editing to India for spell checking, only.

It’s hard to resist the temptation of a full-throated tirade, whether you are a writer or an editor. After all, you are an embattled, heroic figure, struggling against great odds to achieve a little clarity, a little order in a disorderly world, and with it, a l touch of elegance — this is your craft, and you have expended untold blood, toil, seat and tears in pursuit of it — and now some cretinous, pig-faced little git comes along, without any regard for what you intended and what you accomplished, and this troll does a little tap dance of vanity and smug self-importance on your skull, until you could just REACH INTO HIS GUTS WITH YOUR BARE HANDS AND PULL OUT HIS SPLEEN AND FEED IT TO THE CAT.

There. Much better.

(A regard for strict truth requires me to say that, while copy editors are certainly given to outbursts of exasperation, I have more commonly heard such explosions from reporters. Copy editors are, after all, orderly, decorous, modest and much misunderstood.)

Mr. Kirk has it right. There’s ample blame on both sides, first for a subeditor/copy editor who made the kind of minor, unnecessary change that drives writers nuts, second for a writer who indulged in a hugely disproportionate public display of petulance. Not an edifying spectacle.

Journalism requires people of varying abilities to produce articles quickly while making a multitude of small and great judgments, not all of which turn out to have been well decided. Such an environment offers many opportunities for ranting and very little disincentive.

But I can say this with assurance after more than 28 years in the business: Almost without exception, the best writers have also been on the best terms with the copy desk — collegial, respectful, appreciative, and forgiving about slips and misjudgments. And the writers who have been most defensive about the editing of their work have tended to have the most to be defensive about.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (8)

July 29, 2008

What's in the dictionary

Books are not always put to the use for which they were intended. The Bible, for example, has been frequently consulted in bibliomancy, the practice of seeking guidance or divining the future by opening the book at random.* Another such book is the dictionary.

The lexicographer’s intention is quite clear: to record the spelling, pronunciation, derivation and common meanings of words. By common meaning, the lexicographer means the senses in which the words are actually used in speech and writing. It’s not part of the job description to tell you how you ought to talk and write.

But many of the people who use a dictionary expect it to have prescriptive, even legislative, properties. If a word or usage is recorded in the dictionary, they think, it has been legitimized. Thus in Gambit, Nero Wolfe burns Webster’s Third International, page by page, in the fireplace because it records that people use imply and infer interchangeably. By the same reasoning, if a word does not appear in the dictionary, it is not legitimate, “not a word.”

What is or is not a word has come up, here and here, in recent posts on Language Log, the first about inartful, the second about disappreciation. The former was objected to as “not a word” because it is not in the dictionary, the latter objected to as not in the dictionary though, in fact, it is. But the point is not whether a dictionary has conferred legitimacy on either word; the point is whether the word is comprehensible and appropriate in context.

You and I can make up words. It’s easy. For example, you can attach the prefix anti- to just about any noun in English to create a word that will be immediately understood — even though it’s not in the dictionary. It will be a word. The combination of letters aemn’rp, which I just produced by dropping both hands onto the keyboard, is not a word, but gibberish. “It’s not a word” is the wrong argument.

I learned this lesson in a news meeting in which Tim Franklin, the editor of The Sun, said that something was impactful. Seeing several editors giving him the fisheye, he asked me, “Is that a word?” I blurted out, “No.” He subsequently found a number of citations to it online, and at the next day’s news meeting I consumed a serving of crow, a dish with a familiar taste. I blogged about the incident and was taken to task, justly, by Mike Pope for calling such coinages gibberish — thus gaining a second serving.

I prefer not to use impactful myself, but it would be idle to pretend that many other people do not. Or that they are not understood when they use it.

A lexicographer looks to see whether new words, or new senses of old words, lodge themselves in the language. An editor looks at a new word or new sense and tries to determine whether the reader will understand it, whether it is clear and appropriate in context, and whether it conforms to the publication’s conventions. I don’t think that either party has any business issuing decrees about what is legitimately in the language. Not their jobs.


* I did this myself, allowing a Bible to fall open and then stabbing my finger blindly at what turned out to be a passage from the 38th chapter of Ezekiel: ”Thus I will prove myself great and holy and make myself known to many nations.”

I rather think not.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 AM | | Comments (8)

July 25, 2008

Recipe alert

My wife, Kathleen Capcara, with a cynicism ripened by a quarter-century of marriage to a copy editor, will not essay a recipe printed in a newspaper until a minimum of five days post-publication. That is an excellent idea.*

An alert reader of the Cincinnati chili post noticed that the instructions mentioned tomatoes, though tomatoes were not listed in the ingredients. It was my mistake to have omitted the two one-pound cans of tomatoes. And the two tablespoons of oil and bacon fat. The post has been corrected.

You Don’t Say regrets the error.


* There was once a Sun recipe for hearty cheese soup — how hearty we did not realize until we published the correction apologizing for having omitted the instruction to add a quart (or gallon or something like that ) of warm water. There’s no calculating how many high colonics may have resulted from that single recipe.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:05 PM | | Comments (2)

July 24, 2008

The world's greatest fast food

Of Cincinnati chili, my first managing editor, Jim Schottelkotte of The Cincinnati Enquirer, used to say that he thought of it as General Lee thought of war: “It is well that it is so terrible; otherwise we should grow too fond of it.”

Cincinnati chili, the incomparable fast food, was created in the 1920s by Greeks. It has no particular resemblance to chili in Texan or Mexican forms, so simply purge your mind of comparisons. It is a meat chili, and the mode of presentation in the Queen City’s chili parlors is novel. The chili is ladled onto a bed of spaghetti, and grated cheddar cheese is sprinkled generously on top. This is the three-way. Add kidney beans, and you have the four-way. Include chopped raw onion, and you have the supreme, the incomparable five-way. Mortal flesh can ask for no more.

My first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, once distributed a recipe for Cincinnati chili, which I present to further the spread of civilization.


1 ½ pounds lean ground beef

½ pound sausage [Note, it’s best if your butcher runs the beef and pork through the grinder together.]

2 cups chopped onion

1 large diced green pepper

¼ cup chopped cabbage

2 cloves garlic, mashed flat

2 tablespoons oil or bacon fat

2 cans tomatoes (one pound each)

1 cup tomato juice

1 cup water

3 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons salt (or more, to taste, at the end)

2 tablespoons chili powder (or more, to taste, at the end)

1 teaspoon lemon juice or vinegar

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (yes, cinnamon)

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

¼ teaspoon mustard seed

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper

¼ teaspoon celery seed

¼ teaspoon ground clove

¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg (yes, nutmeg)

1 bay leaf, crumbled

Procedure for the chili

Heat fat in a large pan or skillet. Combine and saute the onion, green pepper, cabbage and garlic, stirring gently and almost constantly until they begin to soften — about five minutes. Add the beef and pork, stirring with a kitchen fork to mix. (A old-fashioned potato masher can be used to break meat into smaller bits — the smaller the better.) Stir and cook until the red is out, about 10 minutes.

Add tomatoes, tomato juice, water and seasonings. Bring to a gentle boil; then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring frequently, for an hour. More salt or chili powder may be added, to taste, during the last 15 minutes of cooking.

This chili may be eaten in a bowl, but that misses the full potential for majesty.

The beans

Canned pinto or kidney beans can be used, but should be rinsed thoroughly, covered with water and brought to a boil before being added to the chili.

Otherwise: rinse a pound of dry pinto beans, put in a kettle with cold water to three times the depth of the beans, bring to a boil and boil uncovered for five minutes. Turn off the heat, cover and let stand for one hour. Then turn on the heat, bring to a gentle boil and cook, covered, until the beans are tender. Add more water if necessary. Should take about 40 minutes.

The spaghetti

Prepare and drain in the usual way.

The presentation

Place warm, drained spaghetti on a plate, cover with chili, and cover this with grated cheddar cheese: the three-way.

Or add a layer of beans before ladling on the chili: the four-way.

Best of all: To the spaghetti add beans, chopped raw onion, chili and grated cheese: the five-way.

Serve with oyster crackers on the side.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:25 PM | | Comments (16)

Who-whom smackdown

Pop over to Visual Thesaurus for a point/counterpoint on the survival of whom, but don’t expect much in the way of fireworks between Professor Arnold Zwicky and me, craven defeatist and fellow-traveler of linguists that I am.

The comments, particularly those from the readers who have difficulty in identifying humor, even when it is labeled as such, provide the fun.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:23 AM | | Comments (5)

July 23, 2008

Readers -- who needs 'em?

There has been considerable commentary, much of it mocking, about a widely circulated memo from Lee Abrams, the Tribune Company’s chief innovation officer, that said, in part, that it wasn’t clear that a Baghdad dateline on an article meant that a reporter was actually writing from Baghdad.

I think that many of the comments missed the point. The point worth addressing is not whether Mr. Abrams is a naïve reader, but whether we write in newspapers for ourselves or for our readers.

The dateline convention — that a location given at the beginning of an article signals that the reporting was done from that place — is a convention that all journalists know and assume that all readers also know. Do they? Are we sure? Have we asked? Follow the Leno pattern and go Jay-walking with some civilians. You may be in for a surprise.

Copy editors were in for surprises for several years past as Alex Cruden, late of the Detroit Free Press, conducted panel sessions with readers — civilians, sometimes lifelong readers of newspapers and sometimes non-readers of newspapers — at journalism conferences and seminars. A number of our familiar headline-writing conventions, including the substitution of a comma for the word and, turned out to be things that some readers did not pick up. (Oh, by the way, obvious puns and tiresome wordplay don’t impress readers much. Just saying.)

Consideration, or lack of it, for the audience extends into the text, which is often written in a stilted, formulaic sub-dialect of standard written English that sounds like nothing a non-journalist human being would ever speak or write. Paula LaRocque went on the road to journalism conferences with a dialogue mocking this lingo. Here’s a snippet:

Frack: We had wide-ranging weather all season. One storm dumped more than seven inches of rain on our densely wooded lot, spawning hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail. Plus an unprecedented number of visitors arrived amid the facility restoration.

Hack: My, that must have sparked burgeoning confusion and decimated your plans for restoring your vacation site to a state-of-the-art facility. Was it sort of a defining moment?

Frack: It spurred a major shift in sleeping arrangements, triggered sweeping changes in the menu, and fueled a personal economic crunch.

Hack: What a chilling effect! How long were you beleaguered by this worst-case scenario?

Real-life examples, though less amusing, abound. At Common Sense Journalism, Doug Fisher, visiting his son in Arkansas, picks up with tongs this opening paragraph from the Arkansas Democrat Gazette:

LITTLE ROCK — Secretary of State Charlie Daniels on Monday certified for the Nov. 4 ballot Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal to amend the state constitution to allow state lotteries.

As Professor Fisher points out, the first 18 words of this 27-word narcotic tell the reader absolutely nothing about the point of the story, the possibility of a state lottery. The writer and editor (and copy editor, assuming that he or she hadn’t been gagged) presumed that the reader would see a purely technical, procedural matter to be the part of the story had had to be told most immediately.

We do that a lot in the business. We don’t get to the point quickly enough. And we obscure the point with bureaucratic language or, when we essay a little fancy writing, with self-indulgent, cliched anecdotes.

As one of our editors at The Sun pointed out recently, readers inside the paper don’t read it the same way that the customers do. We are so inured to these conventions that we seldom even perceive them, much less challenge them — all the while marveling that fewer and fewer people show any interest in reading newspapers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:19 PM | | Comments (9)

July 22, 2008

Sensible shamanism

All of you have been quite patient — at least those who keep returning — as I’ve tried to articulate a reasonable understanding of responsible editing. The extremes are easy to work out: A responsible editor doesn’t attempt to supplant the writer; neither does a responsible editor become enmeshed in fetishes.

One help at clarifying the basic principles comes from the first chapter of the late Dwight Bolinger’s Language — The Loaded Weapon: The Use and Abuse of Language Today:

We are attempting, he suggests, “to save the English-speaking world from mistakes in grammar and individual word choice, speech or writing that fails through ineptness to communicate its intent, or the kinds of language (or non-language) designed, like the Barnum and Bailey sign This Way to the Egress, to lead the circus-goers out of the tent when they would rather look around some more.”

He adds: “Only the last two questions have an ethical side, and the shaman* speaks almost exclusively of the first two (sometimes of the third, but usually in terms of the second), yet regards his judgments as ethical ones.”

Hardly anyone could quarrel, I think with the main goals, to correct errors, reduce confusion and avoid dishonesty —though many editors enforce “rules” that are merely idiosyncratic preferences, misguided principles or fossil usages. The larger problem may lie in confusing social distinctions with ethical distinctions, snobbery with morality. Splitting an infinitive or using hopefully to mean it is hoped that may not be to your taste, but neither is wrong, and neither is an indication that barbarian hordes are at the point of breaching the walls. You may wince, as I do, at talk of growing the business, but it is not an error so much as it is a slogan ritually chanted.

Professor Bolinger’s book, nearly 30 years old but which I am just reading for the first time, sets out to establish a common ground for students of the language, both shamans and linguists, an enterprise of which I see occasional evidence at Language Log. Sadly [please note adverb of emotion, like hopefully, used as a sentence adverb], considerable distrust and hostility survive, as evidenced in this comment to a previous post mentioning the linguists: “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.” (I have my own suspicions about the origins of the hostility between journalists and linguists. **) Spine or no spine, I suspect that we might have more sensible editing if more copy editors spent some time with the Bolinger book.

English is evolving, as it always has, not decaying. To be an effective editor means to be able to make thoughtful discriminations between different levels and dialects of the language, as appropriate to the subject and the occasion. Linguistics contributes to the ability to make those distinctions, as was suggested many years ago by that self-taught journalist and scholar, H.L. Mencken, in The American Language:

“The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.”


* Shaman is Professor Bolinger’s term for self-appointed language experts, like your humble You Don’t Sayer, who have some useful advice mingled with shibboleth and superstition — the people Steven Pinker calls “language mavens” in The Language Instinct.

 ** Not that I want to fall into some giddy excess of indulgence in footnotes in the David Foster Wallace manner, but I have to disclose a painful truth without shouting it. Many journalists, like most college graduates of the past 40 years (the period of my direct experience) are not particularly well educated. Before you leap screaming from your chair, keep in mind that I have 13 years’ worth of copy desk applicant tests to draw from in support of this contention, not to mention the things I see in the daily flow of copy. It’s a serious mistake to dismiss tout court the work of people who have given serious study to the workings of the language.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:32 PM | | Comments (3)

Punctuate this, fella

Over on Read Street, The Sun’s book blog, a reader has suggested a new punctuation mark, the tentative hyphen. It’s the tilde, to be used when the writer isn’t sure whether to write two words, a single word or a hyphenated compound word. It’s hedge-your-bets punctuation.

I have an alternative solution to the problem of not knowing whether a compound should be hyphenated: Buy a dictionary. They’re in the stores.

Here’s another: Hire a copy editor to go over your writing. There’s probably more amiss with it than the hyphenation.

Proposals for new punctuation should be greeted with skepticism. Remember the interrobang from the 1960s? The question mark superimposed over an exclamation point was supposed to be handy for statements that were exclamatory but in the form or nature of a question — what the hell, for example. It seems to have passed on, along with the typewriter that was necessary to produce it.* A period usually suffices.

There is also the irony mark, or snark, a reverse quotation mark that a French writer decided would be useful to indicate a statement with an extra layer of meaning, such as sarcasm. Uh-huh. Let’s repunctuate Swift’s “Modest Proposal” with snarks to see how much that improves the work. If your mastery of irony is so feeble that you need punctuation to indicate it, you’re playing out of your league.

As I suggested in a comment at Read Street, perhaps it would be better to master the punctuation we have before reaching for novelties. What the hell.


* If Microsoft has included it in Word, just don’t tell me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (12)

July 17, 2008

What he said

If you are looking for an eloquent, sensible and persuasive explanation of the importance of copy editing, and the damage that the newspaper business is doing to itself, click over to David Sullivan's post at That's the Press, Baby, "Copy Editing: The WSJ Cuts Back."



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:05 PM | | Comments (0)

July 16, 2008

A nice derangement of epitaphs

One of the great riches of language is its potential for error. Error in spoken language is common enough, but error in the slippery terrain between spoken language and written language has fabulous potential. Beyond the common mistakes in grammar and usage, one can find, particularly if one looks in on the fellows at Language Log, some gorgeous specialized categories.

The malapropism: This venerable category of errors derives from the delicious and eponymous Mrs. Malaprop from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Rivals of 1775. Mrs. Malaprop (from the French mal a propos) pretentiously and unknowingly substitutes the wrong word for a similar-sounding correct one in her pronouncements, such as an allegory on the banks of the Nile. Or, more comprehensively: If I reprehend any thing in this world, it is the use of my oracular tongue, and a nice derangement of epitaphs! (apprehend, vernacular, arrangement, epithets).

The Spoonerism: The Rev. Archibald Spooner, warden of New College, Oxford, has given his name to a tongue-twisted error in which portions of words are transposed in phrases to give new and incongruous meanings. May I sew you to a sheet? for show you to a seat and the toast To our queer old dean for dear old queen are representative examples. Though the Rev. Mr. Spooner was said to be given to this sort of thing, it appears that many Spoonerisms attributed to him are entirely apocryphal.

The mondegreen: In an 1954 essay Sylvia Wright gave this word its impetus by desribing how as a child she had understood a line in the ballad “The Bonnie Earl O’Murray,” laid him on the green, as Lady Mondegreen. A mondegreen is a misunderstood rendering of the text of a songf or poem. The child’s hearing the hymn “Gladly the Cross I’d Bear” as “Gladly, the Cross-Eyed Bear” is a famous mondegreen. Rock music, given the roaring instrumentation and slack articulation of the singers, is fertile soil for mondegreens.

The eggcorn: The linguist Geoffrey Pullum has given us this term for an erroneous transformation of a stock expression into a new one that only appears to make sense. Free reign, hone in and baited breath* are typical examples. They appear to rise typically from misunderstandings of spoken English as it is translated into the written version.

The Cupertino: Technology has given us a new class of error identified at Language Log as the Cupertino: an error induced by careless use of electronic spell-checking — a form of cooperation transmuted into Cupertino. The Sun once presented a notable example in an article referring to Kunta Kinte, the protagonist of Alex Haley’s Roots, as Chunter Knit. It should be superfluous to point out that only a fool sets a spell-check program to run automatically.


* If you do not know what these three expressions are supposed to be, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to John E. McIntyre, A.M.E./Copy Desk, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, MD 12178 for the answers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:47 AM | | Comments (16)

July 14, 2008

Shameless self-promotion and nepotism

Item: The results of incautiously allowing oneself to be the subject of an article on copy editing in The Christian Science Monitor.

Item: The launch of a blog on food and cooking by J.P. McIntyre, son, heir, senior at St. John’s College, Annapolis. Coming soon: caponata.

Say what you will.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:59 PM | | Comments (7)

July 12, 2008

Good, fair, serious, critical

No matter how many time you remind reporters, they keep filing stories saying that some injured person’s condition is “stable.” As Craig Lancaster points out at Watch Yer Language, stable tells the reader nothing. It means that the patient’s condition is the same, and the reader doesn’t know same as what.

The baffling thing about this whole enterprise is how difficult it is to get simple things right. I don’t mean points about which reasonable, literate people disagree, such as whether it’s time to let careen replace career. I mean things that are just wrong.

This week we published an article with a reference to All Saint’s Day. November 1 is the Festival of All Saints. All of them. Plural. So one writes All Saints’ Day. Why didn’t all coupled with a singular possessive look wrong to the writer, the editor, the copy editor?

Why should possessives in general be such a thorny problem? The major point on which there is room for variance is what to do with a singular noun ending in s. You can write James’s or James’, as your aesthetic preference leads you, so long as you are consistent. Everything else is straightforward, ’s for singulars, s’ for plurals.

Ah, but the plurals add to the confusion. You’ve decided whether to write Jones’s or Jones’, but what do you do with a family names Jones. The plural is Joneses, and the possessive plural is Joneses’ (which you can pronounce JONE-zez or JONE-zez-zez, as your tongue leads you).

If you find some passage in Jane Austen or elsewhere that refers to a Smith family as the Smith’s, please don’t trouble to write in. Arguing from the historical record of the language is instructive but not necessarily conclusive. After all, in the 17th century, it was mistakenly held that ’s was a contraction of his, so you find people like Sir Thomas Browne writing constructions like Moses his man.

We have a set of conventions in standard written English. If writers observed them, editors would be able to address matters of structure and clarity instead of correcting silly mistakes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:46 AM | | Comments (7)

July 10, 2008

All fuch ftuff

One of our far-flung readers, Rik Kabel, questions my treatment of an 18th-century text in the “English doesn’t need your help” post:

First, thank you very much for your blog. I look forward to each new entry.

I do have copy-editing questions engendered by your quotation of Jonathan Swift in the entry “English doesn't need your help,” where you wrote:

Hysteria about The Danger to English is no novelty. Jonathan Swift, writing in an essay in The Tatler in 1710, bemoaned “the deplorable ignorance that hath for some years reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” He went on to say, “These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third: I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue. …” He favored the establishment of an English Academy to govern the language, an idea that, fortunately, gained no traction.

First, a pedantic question: the ellipsis at the end of the quotation seems misplaced. Should it not precede the period? Swift’s sentence did not end at that point, and an ellipsis following a stop tells us little.

Second, a much more serious question about the nature of quotation. The original appearance of this in the Tatler was capitalized and punctuated differently (and used long s [ſ], but I’ll except that as an issue). Swift capitalized almost every noun. He used a semicolon where you have a colon, and included commas where we do not today, at least in American English. My question is, what is quotation? Does it require fidelity to the original form of the statement, and if not, how much rewriting does it allow? Do the standards vary by medium? What remediation, if any, should be taken when a medium does not support accurate reproduction of a quotation?

I am probably willing to forgo some of the ligatures found in earlier texts, and certainly the opening quotation marks for every printed line of a quotation. I am also willing to forgo artefacts of the printing process such as hyphenation and catchwords. But, should we change Bacon’s spelling, or substitute modern synonyms of the original word when the original word has changed meaning? I note that you preserve the archaic “hath” while eschewing the capitalization; is it perhaps this is because your source presented it in this way, and you did not have the original at hand?

I am studying, and writing a book on, quotation and misquotation. Restatement, elision of content, removal of context, changes in language over time, and misattribution are major issues; the added challenges of translation when the original statement was not in English are as well.

Well, yes, that period and ellipsis should probably have been reversed.

The second question is the one with meat on the bones.

I took the Swift text from an edition of Gulliver’s Travels and other works by Louis Landa, published by Houghton Mifflin under the Riverside Editions imprint. It has been in common use as a textbook; it was the text I used in Professor Arthur Hoffman’s Augustan Age class at Syracuse in 1979. Professor Landa modernizes the spelling, capitalization and punctuation; he eliminates much of the italicization to which 18th-century writers were addicted; and he forgoes the 18th-century typography — the ligatures, long s, &c. The intent, I assume, is to smooth the path for the modern reader by minimizing distractions.

My Norton Critical Edition of Swift’s work incudes the Tatler essay with the original capitalization, punctuation and italics — though also eliminating the period typography.

Modernizations of 17th- and 18th-century texts are fairly common. John Butt’s one-volume Pope from the Twickenham edition preserves the original capitalization, but not the typography. In the poems and major prose works of Milton edited for the Odyssey Press, Merritt Y. Hughes modernizes Milton’s orthography. (The Norton Critical Edition of Paradise Lost, I recall, does not.)

What to the modern eye are eccentricities of spelling, capitalization, punctuation and typography in works of that era are surely distracting, and few readers are likely to put in the time to accustom themselves to those texts. I can’t quarrel with an editorial effort that preserves the sense and tone of the original while making it more accessible to today’s reader.

Even so, I admit that something is lost in the process. Even the printer’s replacement of the long s with f in texts when the former letter was not available has a certain charm (though you might not immediately descry it in the headline for today’s post.) Once in Upstate New York, I was a guest in the home of a Presbyterian divine who had collected 18th-century editions at a time when they were relatively cheap. He had a set of the original serial volumes of Tristram Shandy, three of them bearing the author’s autograph, and he let me examine one of them. The binding, the paper and the printing were, with the text, part of a unified experience of the book, not quite duplicated by any modern edition.

But then, while I love the “authentic instrumentation” of period works, such as Nicholaus Harnoncourt’s recordings of Bach and others, I don’t object to modern performances. I once was in the audience at a Mostly Mozart concert at Lincoln Center when Lili Kraus came out to play as an encore the Rondo alla turca from Mozart’s A major piano sonata. She sat down at a Steinway grand and banged the bejeezus out of it. It was glorious.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 AM | | Comments (0)

July 9, 2008

Catching up

Lots going on, and a fair amount of private correspondence connected with this blog. So today is tidbits day.

Official languages

I’ve received a note from a reader objecting to yesterday’s post about the pointlessness of establishing English as our official language:

No, no, no. English is being attacked on several fronts: from within, by the morning traffic girl and her use of "gonna" and your own paper's confusion of "less" versus "fewer"... and from without (as it were), by the omnipresent Spanish-only population. As for Orwell, eight years of "undocumented" workers, "death" taxes, and "enemy combatants" at Gitmo mean that you've written Orwell's epitaph prematurely.

There are several separate issues clustering here. I don’t care much myself for casual pronunciations or slang, but I don’t feel the pillars of civilization collapsing under me when I hear them. Mistakes in usage are endemic to writing, and have been since humans invented the practice. (My art history professor at Michigan State used to point out that those lovely medieval illuminations decorate manuscripts that contain errors in the Latin.) The propensity of governments to indulge in euphemisms certainly merits criticism, and regularly gets it.

The point on which Orwell was mistaken was to think that governmental manipulation of language could limit human understanding. The point that keeps coming up in this debate, though not always openly, is “the omnipresent Spanish-only population.” There are certainly going to be cultural adjustments that many people will find uncomfortable as the United States inexorably becomes a country in which white people are not a majority in the population, but apprehensions have been exaggerated and amplified by political interests playing on people’s fears. And it is highly unlikely anyhow that making English “official” will alter the consequences of the demographic shift.

French has been the official language of France since the Revolution, and France maintains its venerable Academy of Immortals to preserve the purity of the language. And yet, as a post today at Language Log by the estimable Mark Liberman illustrates, the situation is and has been more complicated than one might have imagined.

Voices in the head

Another reader looked up some citations in the medical literature about research into the auditory experience of silent reading. (Silent reading, incidentally, is a comparatively modern development. From classical antiquity into the Middle Ages, people read by reading aloud.) The reader comments on them:

Despite a number of fascinating experiments and case reports, there really isn't a good review of the phenomenon of "inner speech" (which is a subcategory of what is called "auditory imagery", if I understand correctly from my brief perusing of articles) and reading. The first article, however, touches on the subject in its introduction. The second article is an excellent review article of the neurological pathways for reading, giving some indication for why we "hear" what we read, but the article is also very highly technical. And the third article is on the other phenomenon you discussed, being able to hear music while reading a score, also valuable mostly for its introduction.

“Reading voices and hearing text: talker-specific auditory imagery in reading.” Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2008 Apr;34(2):446-59.

“Development of neural systems for reading.” Annu Rev Neurosci. 2007;30:475-503.

“The mental representation of music notation: Notational audiation.” Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform. 2008 Apr;34(2):427-45.

The martini

An old classmate from Michigan State checked out the martini video and replied:

My wife, who tended bar in her college days, had a customer who regularly complained that the martinis she made for him weren't "dry" enough. She finally gave him a straight shot of gin (without telling him, of course), and still he lamented that young folks didn't know how to make a good dry martini.

File this one under “Suspicions, Confirmed.”

Soldiering on

Finally, I appreciate this touching comment from another reader:

I am sorry that the Sun and you are having to go through the downsizing stress that is affecting so many newspapers. Your blog is a near-daily source of inspiration, education, and humor (read: strength to carry on), so whatever management tells you, don't think you aren't appreciated out here in the hinterlands.

It’s a troubling time for print journalism, and we are struggling to find our feet in an environment that is suddenly inhospitable. There has been a good deal of fumbling toward a new, stable business model, and we have not gotten hold of it yet. But throughout the turmoil, with reductions in force and outsourcing and other hazards looming over us, the copy desk carries on,

I wish we hadn’t used Columbian for Colombian in a headline the other day, or illegals as a noun. I wish the desk had challenged a story in this morning’s paper that I couldn’t follow in a single reading. I wish that the decline in advertising were not limiting the space in the paper. I wish that I were not on the point of saying painful farewells to colleagues at the end of the month.

But these difficulties, large and small, must be dealt with. The work remains, and the work of making the texts clear, correct and precise is worth doing, however great the obstacles. Journalism itself is not passing away, and copy editors will continue through the present and future dislocations to make the case for the importance and value of editing. It is worth doing. It is worth doing well.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:45 AM | | Comments (2)

July 8, 2008

English doesn't need your help

Cross this one off your list of worries: You can keep high energy prices, rising ocean levels and the possible loss of your job, but the English language is doing just fine. Leave it alone.

A discussion over at Language Log about a legislator’s statement that measures should be taken to prevent the “devaluation of the language” has led the linguists to the conclusion that making English our official language would be, at most, a symbolic gesture.

One interesting piece of the linguists’ discussion is the way in which this perennial topic has shifted emphasis in recent years, to which I would like to add some additional perspective.

Hysteria about The Danger to English is no novelty. Jonathan Swift, writing in an essay in The Tatler in 1710, bemoaned “the deplorable ignorance that hath for some years reigned among our English writers, the great depravity of our taste, and the continual corruption of our style.” He went on to say, “These two evils, ignorance and want of taste, have produced a third: I mean the continual corruption of our English tongue. …” He favored the establishment of an English Academy to govern the language, an idea that, fortunately, gained no traction.

There was an almighty carrying-on in 1961 when Merriam-Webster had the audacity to produce a dictionary that recorded the English language as people were actually using it, rather than as the self-appointed authorities prescribed. Dwight Macdonald wrote a scolding essay about Webster’s Third International, “The String Untuned,” which can be found, along with “The Decline and Fall of English” and an attack on modern translations of the Bible, in Against the American Grain: Essays on the Effects of Mass Culture.

In more recent years, as the Language Loggers point out, George Orwell worried in the 1940s that control of language by totalitarian governments would control the way people could think. That is the nightmare of 1984 and the concern that occasioned the famed essay “Politics and the English Language.” Well, he was mistaken, as we saw in the mordant cynicism that was widespread in the Soviet Union (“We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us”) and in the ultimate collapse of the regime.

In the 1970s, Eric Bakovic describes, the threat to English was seen as coming from the inside, from ill-educated native speakers unthinkingly succumbing to fads. You may recall that The Threat to Civilization in the 1970s appeared to come mainly from people who used hopefully as a sentence adverb. A New Yorker cartoon, linking the shibboleths from two generations, showed a man saying to another at a bar, Hopefullywise? Did I understand you to say hopefullywise?”

Today, though there is a growing apprehension that teenagers sending text messages will damage the language, the major apprehension about English is linked to the hysteria about illegal immigration — all those people sneaking into the country to take away coveted jobs picking fruit, slaughtering cattle and mopping floors. Our main protection apparently lies in legislation to make English an official language. That’ll show ’em.

I had a little innocent fun a couple of years ago when Taneytown, Md., considered making English its official language: I suggested that the municipality’s own English usage could stand some improvement.

It would be a good thing if government could find a reasonable way to deal with the immigration issue (an effort recently attempted by President Bush and thwarted by his own party) and leave the English language alone.

Unless someone is proposing a return to the purity of Anglo-Saxon, we are left to deal with English as it is: a language developed mainly by illiterate and despised peasants over four centuries when the ruling classes, the Normans, used mainly bad French and Latin; a promiscuous language that has taken on bits of every other language it has ever rubbed against, including Latin and bad French; a world language through the historical circumstances of British and American imperialism; a language that has its own dynamic and goes where it will, despite the feeble efforts of legislators and usage commentators.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:21 AM | | Comments (3)

July 7, 2008

That voice you hear in your head

When I was a teaching assistant in Syracuse’s English department, a couple of students who handed in what amounted to duplicate essays in my composition course were amazed at being caught. And this, I found out from colleagues, was a common reaction.

It’s possible that the undergraduates assumed that we simply didn’t read their work, a suspicion that may have been justified in certain instances. But I think that there is a deeper reason: that people who are not inveterate readers do not perceive the written text as we bookworms do. That is, they do not hear echoes from one text to the next. They do not imagine that a passage in one text will strike the reader as being similar to a different text previously read.

It is not that they are dim. Well, not all of them. They recognize allusions and echoes in music and movies. But as readers they are deaf.

There is a passage bearing on this in Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings:

Ever since I was first read to, then started reading to myself, there has never been a line read that I didn’t hear. As my eyes followed the sentence, a voice was saying it silently to me. It isn’t my mother’s voice, or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly that I listen to it. It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself. The cadence, whatever it is that asks you to believe, that the feeling the resides in the printed word, reaches me through the reader-voice. I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers—to read as listeners—and with all writers, to write as listeners. …

My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books. When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes. I have always trusted this voice.

Neither do I know whether any research bears out this sense of the reader developing an inward voice located in the printed text, but I think that readers who enjoy reading — not those who find it laborious and unrewarding — replicate mentally and silently the rhythms of speech embodied in prose. This is analogous to the ability of a musician to look at a printed score and hear the music, mentally and silently.

Thirty years ago in Syracuse — this is a concluding digression — I was the host of a weekly spoken-word show on WONO-FM. It aired on Sunday nights at 11:30 or so and had an audience conservatively estimated in the dozens. On that program I once read Eudora Welty’s hilarious short story, “Why I live at the P.O.,” a textbook illustration of the unreliable narrator. I was startled and pleased, some years later, to hear a recording of Ms. Welty’s reading of that story. She read it with the same cadences and emphases that I had. We had heard the same voice in the text.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:18 PM | | Comments (4)

July 3, 2008

The way we write now

Adam Gopnik’s article on G.K. Chesterton in the current number of The New Yorker, “The Back of the World,” has this succinct account of main currents in English prose:

There are two great tectonic shifts in English writing. One occurs in the early eighteenth century, when Addison and Steele begin The Spectator and the stop-and-start of Elizabethan-Stuart prose becomes the smooth, Latinate, elegantly wrought ironic style that dominated English writing for two centuries. Gibbon made it sly and ornate; Johnson gave it sinew and muscle; Dickens mocked it at elaborate comic length. But the style—formal address, long windups, balance sought for and achieved—was still a sort of default. …

The second big shift occurred just after the First World War, when, under American and Irish pressure (Flaubert doing his work through early Joyce and Hemingway), a new form of aerodynamic prose came into being. The new style could be as limpid as Waugh or as blunt as Orwell or as funny as White and Benchley, but it dethroned the old orotundity as surely as Addison had killed off the old asymmetry. … Writers like Shaw and Chesterton depended on a kind of comic and complicit hyperbole: every statement is an overstatement, and understood as such by readers. The new style prized understatement, to be filled in by the reader.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:09 PM | | Comments (1)

We're outsourcing the cat

As the economy slumps and rising energy costs are reflected in higher prices for many domestic items, the You Don’t Say home office finds it necessary to weigh some difficult choices if it is to remain competitive in this challenging business environment.

One area with promising prospects of cost containment and/or reduction is feline staffing. Scout has been a valued member of the team for 10 years, but the costs of kibble and litter add to overhead in our operations, not to speak of the labor involved in dealing with all the shedding on the red chair.

The same costs in India are a fraction of the U.S. costs, and so You Don’t Say, having offered Scout a generous separation package, is contracting for feline support with a firm in Chennai. Billi, the new cat, will be available 24-7 on closed-circuit television, providing many of the feline support services we previously enjoyed. Watching a cat sleep for 75 percent of the day on television is much the same as watching one across the room, and the cost savings are substantial.

And you, the reader, will enjoy uninterrupted service from You Don’t Say, at the same level of quality that it has been our pleasure to offer you since December 2005. We value your patronage and hope that you will return to this site often.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (5)

July 2, 2008

How to make a martini

Posted by Mike Catalini at 10:00 AM | | Comments (15)
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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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