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August 28, 2008

Men's fashion tips

Summer’s end is upon us, and by Tuesday morning you will have put away the seersucker, the white slacks, the straw hat. This seasonal transition is as good a time as any to review a few basics about men’s dress. The trick is all in knowing what not to do.

The cap

The purpose of the bill is to keep the sun out of your eyes; the purpose is therefore met when the cap is worn with the bill forward. If you think that wearing the cap with the bill to one side, or backward with the one-size-fits-all tab in the middle of your forehead, displays individuality, you have been badly advised.

Men’s caps and hats are removed * at table, in houses of worship, in courts of law, in schools and libraries, at the theater or opera, in elevators when ladies are present.

The jeans

Fashions vary — tight pipestems, bell-bottoms, wide and baggy — but if you have to use one hand to hold your pants up, you have compromised the benefits of bipedalism. Buy a belt and keep your hands free.


Once you’ve decided that the tie with the Looney Tunes characters is fine for the office, you’re on a slippery slope that leads to the novelty tie market. Beware.

The pus-yellow necktie worn with a white shirt and blue suit will irresistibly remind people of the 1980s and the tyranny of John T. Molloy.

Do not let your lack of knowledge about how to tie a bow tie inhibit you.


Urban trends notwithstanding, neither boxers nor briefs are appropriate for public display.


Never mind David Letterman’s example; do not wear white socks with a dark suit.

Plaid pants

On a golf course, only other golfers have to look at you.

Grown-up clothes

You’re free to go about in public in a T-shirt, shorts and bulky athletic shoes without socks. No doubt you will feel more comfortable. You will also look like an alarmingly tall toddler that has grown a paunch.

Fanny packs

It is not advantageous for most Americans to draw attention to their hips.

Manufacturers’ and designers’ logos

Merchants pay to have their wares advertised on billboards. Why are you making yourself a billboard for free?


* Unless one is Jewish and Orthodox.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:43 PM | | Comments (21)

Just good enough

Here’s a start for a profoundly depressing day.

The estimable David Sullivan, my colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a sobering post at That’s the Press, Baby on copy editing and quality. Reacting to a section of a long analysis of American newspapering by Vin Crosbie, he explores the idea that for most readers, good enough is the only standard that matters.

Much of the video quality on Youtube is poor, he points out, but it’s good enough to amuse people; cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but they are good enough to satisfy the customers; a great deal of the writing on the Internet is less than optimal, but it is good enough for all but the most demanding readers. And it’s all free. You could pay money for a newspaper that is better edited, but why would you, if you can get basically the same information, for free and good enough.

It’s not hard to see where this is going. Where this has already been going, as newspapers cut back on all that expensive and time-consuming editing and give the reader the “unmediated” work of reporters, God save the mark. For the past 28 years, I have closed the day in some confidence that the next morning’s paper was better in some respects for my having been on the desk. But the number of people willing to pay for a product with some assured level of quality* — and worse, the number of advertisers confident that such a quality product is the right vehicle for their sales pitches — dwindles.

Mr. Sullivan is probably right in speculating that the novelty will begin to fade from many of the currently popular Web sites. I suspect that the great and painful sorting-out under way among American newspapers will result in products — electronic certainly, and perhaps even in print — that have readers and the revenue to support the enterprise. And somewhere in these emerging enterprises there will be a desire for accuracy, precision and clarity. That will require editing. So maybe it’s not the best idea to cut loose all the copy editors just yet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the office and put out a newspaper. If I do my job properly, it will be some better than good enough.


* Before you write about all the ignorant errors you have spotted in The Baltimore Sun and whom do I think I am fooling, let me save time by giving you the answers in advance: (1) You have not seen the ignorant errors that the copy desk caught, and (2) you have not taken into account the quality of most other American newspapers.

** If I can digress — and who will stop me? — I suspect that the slow seepage of deconstructionist ideas from the academy into mainstream culture over the past 30 years has contributed to the difficulties in mainstream journalism. If it is the case that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships, and if there is no external reality to which a text corresponds, then all of us will think what we prefer to think (or what those power relationships have programmed us to think), and the mainstream media’s preoccupation with fictitious concepts such as “objectivity” is merely another sham. That this is the case may be seen plainly in political journalism, in which people read and tenaciously hold on to assertions that are demonstrably false.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:06 AM | | Comments (6)

August 26, 2008

Summer reading

All right, we schlepped J.P. and his belongings to St. John’s in Annapolis today as he begins his senior year, having finished War and Peace as his summer reading. Now, back in the empty nest, I’m casting about for something to read myself.

A few weeks ago, I made my latest attempt to appreciate Saul Bellow. As an undergraduate, with the vigor of youth, I pushed my way manfully through Herzog, Henderson the Rain King and Mr. Sammler’s Planet, remaining baffled for yours by the esteem in which authors I genuinely like held him. I began Humboldt’s Gift twice in graduate school, grinding to a halt in the first chapter both times.

Earlier this month I picked it up again. And found this passage, which amused me, and which rings true, in part:

For after all Humboldt did what poets in crass America are supposed to do. He chased ruin and death even harder than he had chased women. He blew his talent and his health and reached home, the grave, in a dusty slide. He plowed himself under. Okay, so did Edgar Allan Poe, picked out of the Baltimore gutter. And Hart Crane over the side of a ship. And Jarrell falling in front of a car. And poor John Berryman jumping from a bridge. For some reason this awfulness is peculiarly appreciated by business and technological America. The country is proud of its dead poets. It takes terrific satisfaction in the poets’ testimony that the USA is too tough, too big, too much, too rugged, that American reality is overpowering. And to be a poet is a school thing, a skirt thing, a church thing. The weakness of the spiritual powers is proved in the childishness, madness, drunkenness, and despair of these martyrs. … So poets are loved, but loved because they just can’t make it here.

Even so, I ground to a halt again, about halfway through, thinking: And people imagine that I’m a tedious old windbag.

Maybe I should go back to John Cheever for the fourth time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:08 PM | | Comments (2)

August 24, 2008

Grammar vigilantes' comeuppance

I haven’t said anything about the two gentlemen who set off across the United States with their Sharpies to correct grammar and punctuation in signage on a continental scale. The whole project looked fatuous. Now, it turns out, they have overreached: After defacing a marker at the Grand Canyon, they have been charged in federal court, pleaded guilty, banned from the national parks and ordered to pay restitution.*

Punctuation in signage varies widely, particularly with proper nouns. In Maryland there is a county named Queen Anne’s. In adjacent Talbot County, there is a town named St. Michaels. (Messrs. Deck and Herson would have had a busy day there.) That’s just how it is.

If the young gentlemen were to pass an Eastern Shore roadside stand proclaiming “LOPES” for sale, would they excise the quotation marks? Would they add an apostrophe? (I knew an Episcopal priest some years ago who insisted on writing the verb for making a telephone call as ’phone. Would his newsletter get marked up? Or would we have to go back to writing ’cello as well? **)

Or how worthwhile is it to get into an argument was a grocery store manager about his checkout sign limiting to 10 items or less? Or quibbling with the manager of a restaurant whose menu offers a cup of au jus? If that’s the kind of place where you dine, grammar is probably the least of your worries.

What is annoying about the whole enterprise is that it trivializes grammar, and reinforces the public image that people concerned about grammar and usage are (a) preoccupied with trifles and (b) busybodies whose joy in life is to correct other people publicly.

But let me salute the anonymous copy editor at the Republic who wrote an apt headline:

Typo vigilantes answer to letter of the law


* A link to the article in the Arizona Republic and associated commentary can be found at Language Log. And thanks to all the readers who sent links to the story.

** The original name of the instrument was violoncello.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (9)

August 23, 2008

Oh, keep your peeves to yourself

I don’t think I’ve ever contributed to anyone’s list of pet peeves. The whole concept is deeply suspect.

Think of the word peevish. Think of old Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, querulous (but not quite petulant) and preoccupied with trifles, someone who must be humored by everyone else.

Or look again at that phrase pet peeve — some personal preference that is caressed and indulged.

In writing and editing, there is nothing wrong with indulging in innocent individual preferences. I’m particularly irritated by the journalistic taboo against putting an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb — writing always has written instead of has always written. It is not, strictly speaking, an error of grammar, but it is awkward and non-idiomatic syntax. If I have time to change it while editing, I do so, and no one has ever complained. (And if you read over has ever complained just now without finding it amiss, you see how idiomatic English is written.)

It is when personal preferences are elevated to rules and arbitrarily imposed that both writers and editors lose perspective on the work. This is why it is salutary to look at people like Bryan Garner and Bill Walsh on the prescriptivist side, and Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky on the descriptivist side at Language Log,* to gauge whether those preferences are innocent or misguided.

For the record, a little zeal in opposing something that is manifestly wrong does not qualify as a peeve.


*All of whom, by the way, are in agreement in denouncing the “split verb” superstition.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (5)

August 22, 2008

I'm not a doctor, but ...

When the Associated Press moved an article on the death of Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, saying that she had “died of an aneurysm,” I knew that had to be wrong.

No one dies of an aneurysm — a bulge or sac in a blood vessel caused when the wall of the vessel has been weakened. No one “suffers an aneurysm,” as CNN said. People can walk around for days or weeks — for all I know, for years — harboring aneurysms, known or unknown, in their bodies.

A person dies when an aneurysm bursts or ruptures, causing a fatal hemorrhage.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:41 PM | | Comments (4)

August 20, 2008

Still couldn't care less

It didn’t take long for the comments to roll in about the title of yesterday’s post, “I’m disinterested, and I could care less.” The commenters had little to say about disinterested, but they were keen to reproach me for using the erroneous and illogical could care less.

Thus they fell into the trap, giving me matter for another post.

Insufferable prig as I was in my long-ago youth — and well into what passes for maturity — I was never bothered by people who said, “I could care less.” I always knew that they meant that they couldn’t care less and that the two expressions were functionally interchangeable.

The Language Loggers have expended some energy on this topic, with Mark Liberman posting three times in 2004, July 8, July 13 and July 16. These posts are worth a look, because they largely demolish the objections.

Steven Pinker, writing in The Language Instinct, suggests that could care less was originally, and remains, ironic or sarcastic, communicating disdain. I suspect that there is a good deal to that, though Professor Liberman differs with Professor Pinker on that point. Something similar appears to be going on in the citations in Professor Liberman’s post about a similar pattern with scatological or obscene content : “I could give a [insert the expletive or chain of expletives of your choice].

What is indisputable, I think, is that whatever the origin, could care less is a stock expression, an idiomatic one. No native speaker misunderstands it. It is one of many phrases in English that do not mean what they literally say.

People object that it is illogical. There’s a misunderstanding there. Language has patterns that linguists and grammarians can describe, but they are not necessarily logical ones. Languages that assign gender to all nouns, for example, do so arbitrarily; there is no logical reason that a table should be feminine in French. In English, spelling is notoriously irregular. Logic, especially reasoning by analogy, is one of the things that gives us folk etymology.

English is a messy language, amalgating elements from Anglo-Saxon, Norman French and Latin. And since its origins, it has been relentlessly promiscuous, picking up vocabulary from street corners the world over.

No, if you are looking for logic in a language, I suggest that you have a go at Esperanto. It’s a shame if could care less abrades your delicate sensibilities, since there appears to be nothing to be done to relieve the irritation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 PM | | Comments (10)

I'm disinterested, and I could care less

It comes as news to most of my students, semester after semester, that disinterested can mean impartial — not having an interest, or stake, in the issue, not having a dog in the fight. They read disinterested as not caring, not concerned, not interested in the sense of having curiosity or concern.

If I were Professor (adjunct) Harumph, I could sneer at their subliteracy and parade my own vast erudition. But my job is to fit them for working effectively as writers and editors, so I explain the realities:

Basics first. Both senses of the word are in use. They are active in the language. The question is not whether one is right and the other wrong, but which is appropriate.

Levels of usage must be considered. In the conversational or colloquial level, disinterested in the sense of uninterested appears to be common, perhaps dominant. As the language of journalism has become more conversational, disinterested in this sense also appears more frequently in writing. In more formal, and perhaps I can risk saying more sophisticated, levels of writing, the sense of impartiality can often be found: academic writing, for example, or serious books.

And there is the social dimension to consider. There are people, members of a small but vocal minority, who attach class or even ethical values to word usage. These are the people who will think less of you for ignorantly using disinterested for uninterested. They are uninformed but dogmatic, and they are out there. There’s no need to pull the coverlet over your head and hide from them, but you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear from them.

I say uninformed. To become better informed, have a look at Mark Liberman’s thoughtful post at Language Log. As it turns out, disinterested/uninterested is not a case of a pristine sense corrupted by ignorance, but a much more common phenomenon in language: an incomplete differentiation emerging from a tangle of historic usages. This will frustrate the prescriptivists and copy editors who want to insist that there is always a Right and a Wrong in usage, but I can’t help them.

I can try to help my students by advising to keep in mind the basics of rhetoric: What are you trying to say? Who is in your audience? What words, tropes and strategies will convey your meaning to the reader most precisely, without misunderstanding or distraction? There are choices to be made, and editing is making choices.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:26 AM | | Comments (18)

August 19, 2008

Tell me all about it

My daughter having finished moving into her new digs, my weeklong career as a part-time roustabout has come to an end, and I can give my attention to that staple of American newspapering: complaints from readers.

A former colleague is irate about a headline from last week that she finds insulting to Katie Hoff, one of our hometown Olympians:

Out of gas, Hoff sinks

Admittedly not one of our happier inspirations. Ms. Hoff, who had failed to qualify in the 800-meter freestyle, acknowledged that she had attempted too much in Beijing. And yet, as our angry reader pointed out, she won a silver medal and two bronze medals, which might be disappointing but can hardly be called a failure.

The reader, though, thought that it was our duty to support the hometown athlete, not to embarrass her before friends and neighbors and family. But that’s not quite so, even given the boosterish atmosphere that suffuses newspaper sports sections. Katie Hoff misjudged her capacities, and the story was right to say so; we’re still journalists, not press agents. All the same, the tone of the headline was excessively dismissive, not reflecting the balance of the story.

Another reader demands to know by what authority The Sun uses an apostrophe without an s to make Phelps possessive. He thinks that it should be Phelps’s, the form “universally accepted as grammatically correct.”

Well, it’s a big universe. And in it the Associated Press, whose stylebook establishes house style for the bulk of American newspapers, omits the s when making a singular word ending in s possessive. Even The Chicago Manual of Style, which favors the traditional method, points out that omitting the s is an alternative system. It may not be to your taste, but it is not, strictly speaking, wrong.

(I wonder at the writers who carp and cavil about the semicolon, finding it unpleasant, artificial or even ugly, when it is the apostrophe that is the source of most of the trouble in English punctuation — inept plurals, bungled possessives, nasty little hooks in the wrong place all over the landscape.)

And yet, occasionally someone notices what we do and actually approves of it:

I want to thank either the writer, editor, or both for NOT using the redundant term "arson fire" in today's story titled, "Three arsons investigated in Harford."

It is a pleasure to see that this paper maintained high grammatical English standards!

We do make, in our own modest and anonymous way on the copy desk, what might be called Phelpsian efforts to make things right.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:30 PM | | Comments (0)

August 14, 2008

That elongated yellow fruit

Readers of yesterday’s post will be delighted to learn of further evidence on the origin of the risible* periphrase** elongated yellow fruit for banana.

Nick from Boston sent me a copy of an 1996 article by James Gill in the Times-Picayune of New Orleans that contained this passage:

Charles W. Morton used to collect examples of the forced second reference, and, as luck would have it, a copy of one of his essays on the subject - hard to find these days - turned up last week. …

It was about 60 years ago that Morton was in the city room of the Boston Evening Transcript and came across a story about policemen using bananas as bait in an attempt to capture fugitive monkeys.

"The young rewrite man of the story was bowling along in high spirits, full of references to 'the gendarmes' and 'the blue-coated minions of the law,' and it was inevitable that in such a context the word banana would seem woefully dull," Morton relates. "So it was that bananas became, after first mention, 'the elongated yellow fruit.' "

A little further rummaging about the Internet suggests that Morton’s article may be included in A Slight Sense of Outrage. Anyone have access to a copy?


* You might prefer laughable, but I hear risible in my head in Anna Russell’s irresistible voice.

** Periphrase is a rhetorical device in which a descriptive phrase or epithet is substituted for a word or name. In moderation — the president as an alternative to writing Bush repeatedly — it is a reasonable remedy for monotony. Taken to excess, as ill-judging writers tend to do with figures of speech — the white-robed pontiff for the pope — it becomes affected, distracting or ridiculous.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:02 PM | | Comments (8)

August 13, 2008

Yes! We have no bananas

Bless you, Philip B. Corbett, deputy news editor of The New York Times, and all your heirs and assigns. You have answered a nagging question of long standing.

It is a commonplace of advice on writing to avoid what H.W. Fowler called the “elegant variation,” the tendency among “second-rate writers, those intent rather on expressing themselves prettily than on conveying their meaning clearly,” to lean on synonyms and circumlocutions and epithets to avoid repeating words. The example almost always quoted is from the writer who referred to the banana on a subsequent reference as “the elongated yellow fruit.”

I was never able to track down the origin of that particular excess, but now the estimable Mr. Corbett, at his Words to Watch blog at The Times, says that it supposedly — there’s that famed Times copy desk caution — came from The Boston Transcript. And lo, he links to a 1953 article in Time, and there it is.

I’m willing to take that supposition, even from Time in the '50s , on trust until someone demonstrates otherwise. One more brick in the wall between knowledge and ignorance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 PM | | Comments (7)

Is sex necessary?*

An editor at another publication has asked whether The Sun objects to the words freshman and upperclassman, having been advised by a reader that the terms are both obsolete and offensive, and should be replaced by first-year student and upper-level student.

The short answer is that no, even this bastion of Eastern liberal media elite political correctitude has not prohibited freshman and freshmen, nor is it likely to until the right-thinkers show up on Calvert Street with their pitchforks and torches. Neither do we plan to ban human or hominid, despite their etymological roots in the unabashedly sexist Latin homo, or man.

We do, like other mainstream publications, take care not to make a lot of automatic gender assignments and assumptions. We use unobtrusively gender-neutral language as a matter of course.

But we are not going to render woman and women as womon, womyn or womin. Accumulating a collection of peculiar neologisms would not serve the reader well; that can be left to academic writers who have the leisure, and audience, for that sort of thing. And while there is nothing wrong with writing first-year student, using it exclusively would make the text look clumsy and wordy.

They call us the mainstream media for a reason. We take a middle course. We shun derogatory and insulting terms; we resist new words and new usages until we see them begin to establish themselves in the language; we accept inoffensive words like freshman and midwife and others that have gender identification but are largely innocuous.


* The title of this post is taken from the 1929 book by James Thurber and E.B. White. For readers under 50 who do not recognize the names, I should explain that Thurber and White are deceased American humorists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (18)

August 11, 2008

My misunderstanding

The award for best copy editor mentioned in my previous post turns out to be an award for a self-entered contest. You can get the entry form here; click on CONTEST. I should have investigated more closely before posting.

Still, if you’d like to praise the work of a copy editor who has protected you from your own propensity for error (you know who you are), please feel free to do so here in the comments.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:27 PM | | Comments (1)

Why not the best?

Martha Brockenbrough, the presiding spirit behind National Grammar Day last March 4, has a book, Things That Make Us [Sic], coming out from St. Martin’s Press in October. Of that, more later.

As part of the campaign around publication of the book, she is setting up a contest to honor the best copy editor in the United States.* She explains: “The contest is in memory of my friend Steve Higgins, who worked as a copy editor at Dow Jones until his death last year of a brain tumor. Ten percent of my royalties will support The Brain Tumor Society in his memory. I also wanted to do something nice for copy editors, so the winner will receive an Amazon Kindle.”

Praiseworthy as it is, I would find it difficult to settle on a nominee. There are the people mentioned on my blogroll, for example. Among them is Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, veteran copy editor, seasoned blogger, author of two highly useful books on editing. Or Merrill Perlman, who recently took a buyout from The New York Times, where, as director of the copy desk, she upheld the paper’s high standards. Or Missy Prebula, whom I hired for The Sun and whom The Times lured away. Or the scores of other copy editors I have worked alongside in 22 years at The Sun. Pam Robinson, the first president of the American Copy Editors Society, has done as much for the craft as anyone living, and Hank Glamann, the co-founder, has fought the good fight for years. Andy Faith, my mentor, colleague and friend, who has just retired from The Sun, spent years building up the copy desk. Have you seen David Sullivan’s incisive comments on the business at That’s the Press, Baby? If you’ve had the good fortune to attend one of Kathy Schenck’s workshops on skeptical editing, you know how fortunate the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is to have her on the staff.

No, it is an embarrassment of riches. No, it is artificial and arbitrary to think of naming the best.

So here’s what I suggest. Start sending Martha Brockenbrough nominees. If you write or edit, you know copy editors. You know people who are smart, knowledgeable and sensible. You know people who are devoted to this obscure craft in the face of the world’s ignorance and indifference. You know people who labor every day to make the work clearer, cleaner, more accurate. Flood Martha Brockenbrough with their names. Make it impossible for her to decide on the best in this multitude.


* For information on the contest, go to and click the “contest” button.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:32 AM | | Comments (1)

August 8, 2008


The copy editor’s search for short words to make headlines fit the available space led over the years to a jargon called headlinese — words used in senses peculiar to newspapers. The example above is a pure specimen: solons for legislators, after Solon, the Athenian lawgiver; slate for schedule; parley, for meeting or negotiations, after the French parler, to speak (also the root of parliament).

Habitual readers of newspapers were familiar with these conventions, or so copy editors thought, but in recent years attempts have been made to get away from headlinese and write in more conversational English. But the old conventions still crop up, and today You Don’t Say presents a little quiz that will indicate how much of a hack you have in your head. Just fill in the blanks. Answers below.

1. Council ______ tax on cigars

2. Union ______ company’s offer

3. Team _____ star player

4. Star player ______ contract.

5. Negotiators OK peace ______

6. Health department shuts down _____

7. Police _____ fugitive

8. Date for premiere _____

9. Bush ______ indicted

10. Guard shot in bank _____







1. Council weighs tax on cigars. Mulls is also acceptable. For considers.

2. Union eyes contract offer. Mulls is also acceptable. For considers.

3. Team woos star player. For solicits.

4. Star player inks contract. For signs.

5. Negotiators OK peace pact. For agreement or treaty. And OK for approve is marginal.

6. Health department shuts down eatery. For restaurant.

7. Police nab fugitive. For apprehend.

8. Date for premiere set. For announced or approved or agreed on.

9. Bush aide indicted. For official or subordinate.

10. Guard shot in bank heist. For robbery.



If you answered no more than two or three correctly, be relieved. You are a normal speaker of English.

If you got four to six right, you are probably an inveterate reader of newspapers, and bless your heart.

If you got seven or more right, you are probably a copy editor, and your ear for the language may have been seriously compromised



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:44 AM | | Comments (14)

August 6, 2008

God's pronouns

A reader in Iowa wonders what is going on with capital letters:

I always assumed that capitalizing "he," "him," and "his" when referring to God was a strict rule — a rule of language, not of religion. "Him" wasn't capitalized in a story in today's Des Moines Register (my local newspaper). The story says, "The biggest change since his accident has been in his prayer life, he said. He prays every day. He thanks God for sparing his life. He thanks him for each new day."

Do we only capitalize "Him" when we're writing religious texts, or was this a mistake?

The short answer is that we do not generally, in newspapers, magazines and books, capitalize those pronouns any longer.

Here are two relevant entries from The Chicago Manual of Style:

The “down style. Chicago generally prefers a “down” style—the parsimonious use of capitals. Although proper names are capitalized, many words derived from or associated with proper names (brussels sprouts, board of trustees), as well as the names of significant offices (presidency, papacy) may be lowercased with no loss of clarity or respect.

Pronouns. Pronouns referring to God or Jesus are not capitalized. (Note that they are lowercased in most English translations of the Bible.) *

The same practice with pronouns is spelled out in the stylebooks of the Associated Press, The New York Times and the Catholic News Service.

Before the zealots come swarming through their sally ports, let me point out that this practice has little or nothing to do with multiculturalism, and certainly not any kind of campaign by the wicked secular media to derogate Christianity. It is simply one example of the tendency in written English over the past century to reduce the frequency of capitalization.** For example, few newspapers any longer capitalize president in references to the U.S. chief executive unless the title immediately precedes a name.

So the Register is simply following what has become a convention over the past several decades.


* It might also be noted that they are not always capitalized in the original texts, either, since Hebrew does not have capital letters.

** As always, there is a countervailing tendency, as The Oxford Companion to the English Language points out, with businesses indulging in a riot of internal capitalizations in the names of companies and products.


Posted by John McIntyre at 6:20 PM | | Comments (11)

Bogus degrees, mutilations and mics

It’s a blessed relief to get back to work and get some rest after a family beach vacation.

Now to see what we find in the papers.

There’s an article in The Sun about a company that has been issuing bogus college diplomas, with a reference in the headline to a phony diploma mill. A diploma mill is, by definition, phony, because its degrees are either outright frauds or worthless.

A wire service article a couple of days ago referred to female circumcision, which a colleague tells me is a term to be avoided:

That term fell out of favor in the '70s, and "female genital mutilation," "female genital cutting" or "cutting" in later references are the current preferred terms (by most). … What's being done to these women is nowhere near the equivalent of male circumcision, and though some prefer the circumcision term for cultural reasons, I think it sanitizes what's happening. I think the complicated language can be dealt with in stories, something like, "which is also referred to as female circumcision," while preferring the other terms.

Another note from a colleague urges me to make one of my arbitrary rulings:

I think we need a ruling on open-mic versus open-mike. I hate the way mic looks and always mentally pronounce it "mick." But I consistently get "open-mic" coming over to me in copy, so I think I must be wrong. The dictionary has both.

I, too, despise mic, but I sense that it has been widely adopted by the young and with-it, damn their eyes. What do you think? if you are reading this blog, you are obviously a person of high intellect, taste and discernment. Weigh in on the comments.

In other venues, you might want to check into the Grammar and Usage blog on the Web site of The New York Times. It’s reached from the Grammar and Usage topic page as well.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:02 AM | | Comments (28)
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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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