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September 28, 2008

Mr. Jarrell's academic zoological park

Thanks to Professor Roger Meiners, I discovered the work of Randall Jarrell when I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, and I was instantly taken with his academic comedy, Pictures from an Institution.*

The novel is set at a private women's college called Benton, and it abounds with shrewd, sharp, epigrammatic descriptions of the local fauna, endlessly quotable.

The president: “President Robbins was so well adjusted to his environment that sometimes you could not tell which was the environment and which was President Robbins.”

The president’s “Field Theory of Conversation”: “He always found out what your field was (if you hadn’t had one I don’t know what he would have done; but this had never happened) and then talked to you about it. After a while he had told you what he thought about it, and he would have liked to hear what you thought about it, if there had been time.”

The president’s wife: ”People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry.”

The sociologist: “Dr. Whittaker spent his life either explaining things or having things explained to him.”

Dr. Whittaker’s conversation: “[E]ach sentence lived its appointed term, died mourned by its people, and was succeeded by a legitimate heir.”

Flo Whittaker: “She treated you, no matter who you were, exactly as she treated everyone else, so that after she had talked to you a while you almost doubted that you existed, except in some statistical sense.”

I have to stop before I violate copyright. But this is a book you ought to know.


* It appears, wonderfully, to be in print again as a Phoenix Fiction Series paperback.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:43 AM | | Comments (0)

September 26, 2008

Misplaced courtesy

For many years, The Sun’s practice was to use courtesy titles* everywhere but in the sports section. The New York Times continues this practice, which got it challenged for referring to Sarah Palin as Ms. Palin and Hillary Clinton as Mrs. Clinton. Clark Hoyt, the public editor, explained that it was simple: The Times uses the title that each woman prefers. Such was the principle at The Sun in the era of courtesy titles: Use the title that the person prefers.

Posting at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky points out that while this makes perfect sense in the Times newsroom, it is a mistake to think that readers also know the code. I think that Professor Zwicky is right to point out this insularity, which I expect extends well beyond the Ms./Mrs./Miss tangle.

The need on The Sun’s copy desk to address every contingency led to a virtually Talmudic intricacy in interpreting the policy.

We did not use courtesy titles for historical figures. No Mr. Caesar but also no Mr. Stalin. But when did a figure become historical? The last time I was called upon to rule on this — a copy desk chief is like a justice of the peace in a speed trap town — I said that they become historical by the time the flesh falls from the bones.

We also did not use courtesy titles for criminals. So, given the presumption of innocence in U.S. jurisprudence, Carlo “Five Fingers” Prosecco would be Mr. Prosecco from the time of his arrest through his trial; upon conviction, he would become simply Prosecco. But wait — suppose he serves out his sentence and is returned to the civilian population. Does he get his mister back? Yes, once he is off probation. (A touchy point in Maryland, where so many public figures return to public life after an interval of incarceration.)

Despite the knots into which we twisted ourselves, I always favored the use of courtesy titles, as a mark of dignity and respect. (I still use them in this blog, not that anyone appears to care one way or the other.) I thought that particularly for a newspaper in Baltimore, a city that is majority African-American, a newspaper that for many years did not extend courtesy titles to black people, that respect was important to show.

But time and the increasing informality overtook that convention, and it has been a dozen years since, after a minor revolt on the copy desk against the practice, The Sun abandoned courtesy titles, except in obituaries, and no one seems to feel insulted.

To reinforce Professor Zwicky’s point, the results of these contortions on the copy desk to apply the policy consistently were almost certainly invisible to our readers. As the newspaper business struggles to reinvent itself, It is not a bad idea to take a fresh look at our practices and conventions to determine how much sense they make and how they do or do not benefit our readers.


* A term of art in journalism for the personal titles Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss; military, academic and religious titles, Colonel, General, Professor, Sister, Bishop; and civil titles, Mayor, Governor, Senator, President.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:58 PM | | Comments (12)

September 25, 2008


Yesterday’s whimsy about National Punctuation Day prompted a disappointed comment from our loyal reader Bucky that I had neglected to include the virgule. The sentiment is apparently shared at Language Log, which sprang to the defense of this humble slash.

I meant no disrespect. The virgule has a noble pedigree, appearing, for example, in the title of Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. We use it to indicate line breaks when poetry is quoted in ordinary text. It has a number of specialized uses, including a function in Web addresses.

But, as yesterday’s post indicated, I was limiting myself to the standard punctuation marks. Had I included the more specialized ones, I would have labored to get in the ampersand (&), dollar sign ($), asterisk (*), octothorpe (#) and others, with predictable consequences for the intelligibility of the post. Editing — self-editing — is always a set of choices about what to include and what to exclude.

Still, I would be the last to deny the virgule its place in the sun.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (7)

September 24, 2008

Punctuate with care

Today is set aside as National Punctuation Day (though, like National Grammar Day [March 4, isn’t it?], an occasion I’m inclined to approach with some misgivings); it has been commemorated since 2004 by Jeff Rubin, the self-described Punctuation Man (!) and his wife, who, since “premiering Punctuation Playtime in September 2006 … have been as busy as commas in a Sears catalog,” and who carry the message that “careless punctuation mistakes cost time, money, and productivity”: a proposition that merits examination — and illustrated here by a sentence that will have included all 13 standard punctuation marks when it arrives at a full stop.
Posted by John McIntyre at 4:00 PM | | Comments (5)

September 23, 2008

Sheer incompetence

Many of the comments to this blog are thoughtful, and some are quite amusing. But you may not be seeing them, because people often comment on posts days or even weeks after the posting. I want to be sure that you notice these remarks from a reader named Nenya:

Apropos of absolutely nothing, I just needed to vent:

I'm nearly finished reading ... a book I won't name in case it gets me into trouble. In the acknowledgments section, the author thanks his editors. I can't think why...



alter boys... I have images of little boys running around changing things

mantel [of power]... I hope it was a wood one, and not marble

marine corp... I don't remember if they bothered to even capitalize it... but I want stock!

wretch... as a verb... after looking at a severed head


free reign

Kazan's cache [as a director]... is he HIDING his Academy awards?

plains... for transportation

drips and drabs... I might be wrong here, or it may be regional, but I've never heard anything but "dribs and drabs"

Some of these MAY have been typos, but some, like the "alter boys," were repeated throughout.

These instances are not points about which prescriptivists and descriptivists can argue. These are errors. They may be simple typographical errors — who among us has never hit a wrong key? Or they may be errors of ignorance — dribs and drabs misheard as drips and drabs, cache for cachet. But they are errors.

When errors like this multiply, they do not redound to the credit of the writer, the editor or the publication. They indicate that the writer and editor either do not know their jobs or simply don’t care enough to do them properly. Would you trust a carpenter who couldn’t hammer a nail straight? A doctor who couldn’t accurately take your pulse? A cook who mistook salt for sugar?

For a writer and editor, words and syntax are the tools of the trade, and readers have the right to expect that someone who makes a claim on their time and attention should display basic competence. If readers are distracted by multiplication of silly, amateurish errors of grammar, syntax and usage, it may not matter how compelling your information is or how imaginative your prose style, because you may be taken for a fool.

All you need to do is to pick up a newspaper, a magazine or a book, or to venture online, to see how much shoddy prose is being shoveled at you by publishers, print or electronic, who do not respect you enough to see to it that the texts they put forward have been adequately edited.

I suggest that when you discover that you have put down money for a book written incompetently, or that you have wasted your limited time on some subliterate article, a short, sharp note to the editor or publisher is indicated. If editors and publishers receive enough of them from the paying customers, the need for editing might begin to dawn on them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (13)

September 20, 2008

I am not Owl Meat

A colleague at The Baltimore Sun believes that she has outed me as Owl Meat.

She is mistaken.

Owl Meat — some civilians may require a little background — is one of the frequent commenters in the Sandbox on Elizabeth Large’s blog, Dining @ Large. The members of the Sandbox are largely harmless, though they occasionally stray onto this site. (I drew their attention, and they’ve been conducting conversational exchanges here.) Owl Meat is given to baroque extravagances, sometimes extending into the rococo, and it should be obvious even to the casual observer that he lets his id out on a longer leash than I allow mine.

In any case, I am prepared to place my hand on a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage and attest before any civil magistrate that I am not Owl Meat, neither have I ever made any use of that pseudonym, nor have I any knowledge or speculation as to Owl Meat’s identity.

My own identity is burden enough for any man to bear.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 AM | | Comments (24)

September 19, 2008

Beneath the brouhaha

Reader, it’s THAT WORD again. You have been notified.

Much of the commentary about the headline Tuesday’s editions of The Baltimore Sun’s sister paper b, and to this blog’s post about it, was predictable. Some readers found the use of the word douchebag in big type as the cover headline coarse and objectionable, adolescent and trivial. Several defenders of the headline resorted to name-calling as a substitute for argument, dismissing those who objected as a bunch of geezers headed for the boneyard. (Nice. You talk to your Zayde with that mouth?)

But there are more substantial issues to explore beyond the Those Damn Kids/Those Old Crocks predictabilities. They have to do with the identity and future of newspapers.

If current and former employees of the Tribune Company could leave off rapping the corporation’s knuckles for a few minutes, they might be able to look more clearly at what b represents. Nothing that any metropolitan daily has attempted in more than a generation has brought a substantial increase of younger readers to the main paper. Tribune deserves some credit for putting money into a venture to attract a different audience.

And to do something new means cutting the new operation a little slack. Attracting a different audience requires different means, particularly when it is an audience that has not been previously captured. This requires experimenting. I don’t envy Anne Tallent, the editor of b, the task of accomplishing this.* She has to try things to see what works, and the douchebag feature was such an effort. She says, and it is hard to brush this argument away, that many readers enjoyed the feature. If you don’t believe that, you can look at the comments on the paper’s Web site.

There are two things that newspapers have not been good at: innovation and evaluating what little innovation they have done. If b is to succeed, it much experiment, but it must also determine what works and what doesn’t. I’d like to think that the staff of b ignored the bogus generational argument and reviewed the douchebag feature to determine whether it is the kind of thing that works for them.

I wasn’t much impressed myself by the effort at humor, which was about at the undergraduate level, but you can’t find out what works without trying things that do not work.

One of the defenses of the feature, the argument that a little vulgarity is fine because it appeals to b’s audience and doesn’t affect anyone else, is specious. The paper doesn’t get handed to readers; it’s picked up from sidewalk boxes, on which the DOUCHEBAG! head was plainly displayed, to the irritation of certain parents whose children saw it on the way home from middle school. And b is identified with The Baltimore Sun, featured on our Web site, and on a sign on our parking garage. If you want to put it in stark commercial terms, staff members of The Baltimore Sun have a legitimate interest in protecting the paper’s brand.

At the main paper, we have a sense of our readers’ expectations, developed over years of experience with them. We know that they appreciate a serious-minded approach to news and a looser, more colloquial tone in features, sports and columns. At, particularly in our dozens of blogs, we have a growing understanding of who our readers are and what their expectations are, and many of our blogs are accordingly even a little more unbuttoned than the material in the print edition.

At b, those understandings and conventions are still in play, still being developed. We in the stodgy old main paper would be insane to wish them failure in the enterprise, so we ought to cut them a little slack. But both publications would do well to keep in mind that we are in this together.


* I, a 57-year-old bookworm who hasn’t listened to any popular music since spring term 1970, am plainly not the man for the task. Even in the supposed golden age of Saturday Night Live in the 1970s, I thought that the show was only fitfully funny, dragged down by labored humor (“Weekend Update”) and sketches that went on too long and didn’t know how to end. Still the case.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 PM | | Comments (9)

Heave to, ye scurvy swab

Aye, today be International Talk Like a Pirate Day, matey. And if it be not to yer liking, I’ll cut out yer liver and roast it on a green stick, I will, I will, arrrrrrrrrrr.

The day has received repeated attention from the professionals at Language Log, who ferreted out in 2005 that the rrrr-ness convention of contemporary imitations of pirate speech derives from Robert Newton’s performance in the 1950 movie version of Treasure Island, and may well have its roots in the heavily rhotic* pronunciations of Britain’s southwest coast. Now you know.

In a Language Log post on Sept. 14, Bill Poser commented on interpretations of a speech by Gov. Sarah Palin, pointing out that The Washington Post had misinterpreted the governor’s remarks but that a defense of the governor by Bill Kristol was equally unhelpful to the candidate. Professor Poser was immediately attacked for having “politicized” the academic site. One recent comment, from a non-linguist, goes so far as to say that “political speech is deliberately designed to obfuscate and bamboozle. Parsing it is fruitless.”

Naif and mere journalist that I am, I had imagined that political discourse might be as worthy a subject of linguistic analysis as, say, faux pirate dialect.


* Rhotic is the adjective derived from rhotacism, the term linguists use for excessive or distinctive pronunciation of the letter r. (The word derives from the Greek letter rho.) American English is more rhotic than standard British English, probably because the colonies were settled by Englishmen from regions with more strongly rhotic dialects.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:52 AM | | Comments (3)

September 18, 2008

They printed THAT?




A couple of days ago, the free paper b, also a product of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, came out with this headline on the cover:


The article inside listed the qualities that one would possess at various levels of proficiency in this category, along with a listing of models to emulate from history and contemporary society. It appears that I, despite a lifetime of effort, do not rank very high.

The publication of this headline occasioned considerable commentary among members of the Sun staff, some of whom complained to Anne Tallent, the editor of b, and to Tim Ryan, the publisher of the Baltimore Sun Media Group. Ms. Tallent responded that her readers are of a different sensibility than the readers of The Sun and are not inclined to find the word objectionable. She did not suggest that the members of The Sun’s staff are a bunch of dusty old fogies, but I fear that some of my colleagues may have drawn an inference.

She is right, I think, to identify a generational divide in sensitivity to opprobrious terms. As I have discovered in exchanges with my students, the popular verb sucks conveys contempt for low quality, without the connotation of a certain very personal service that tends to occur to older readers. Similarly, it often comes as news to them that the disparaging term scumbag originally referred to a condom, perhaps a used one — (What is the man teaching at Loyola?).

I asked my copy-editing class today about douchebag, with these results: They gasped and snickered; they know the origin of the term as well as its contemporary use; they would not have used the word in a headline. Not a significant sampling, I concede, and it’s possible that they were telling me what they imagined I wanted to hear. But still.

I don’t think that we have got quite so far beyond shock as Ms. Tallent thinks. The comedy of Lewis Black appears to require frequent repetition of one of the most popular Anglo-Saxon verbs, each occasion of which sends the audience into a mild frisson of delight. It doesn’t seem altogether unlikely that the display of such vulgarities appears to a lingering adolescent delight in bad words in public. That is one reason to refrain: not to appear childish.

But English is a language of extensive resources of abuse, and should b require further supplies, I suggest that the staff could turn to the ever-instructive Dictionary of Slang and Euphemism by Richard A. Spears. Here’s a sampling from the entry oaf:




Posted by John McIntyre at 3:36 PM | | Comments (33)

September 17, 2008

Articles of faith

Newspapers accumulate any number of unexamined practices. Some things they do because they have always done them. Some things they do because some consultant or other charlatan arrived with a Big Idea. (Sometimes it’s the Big Guy’s inspiration, and you’ve seen the fate of those who fail to leap to it with enthusiasm.) Some things they do because they actually credited what someone in a focus group said. The common element is that these practices are almost never subjected to skeptical inquiry or objective testing. They are merely supplanted by other unsound practices.

What brought this to mind was a passage in H.L. Mencken’s Newspaper Days, which has been reprinted by the Johns Hopkins University Press. He describes one such article of faith and his response to it after he was named Sunday editor of the Herald in 1901:

One of the worst relics of a more innocent day was a full page of fraternal order news — supplied free by the secretaries of the various lodges, but so badly written that copy-reading it was a heavy chore. The theory in the office was that this balderdash made circulation — that all the joiners of the town searched it every Sunday morning for their own names. This seemed to me to be bad reasoning, for any given joiner was bound to be disappointed nine Sundays out of ten. One Sunday I quietly dropped the page — and not a single protest came in.

No doubt many of you in what used to be called the newspaper game [sardonic chuckle] are aware of comparable wastes of time, energy and newsprint on equally dubious enterprises in your shops. I invite you to contribute your own examples of articles of faith — secure in the knowledge that I will protect your anonymity in the comments section.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:55 PM | | Comments (10)

I am not making this up

For many years I’ve watched Baltimore’s City Paper stick pins into the hide of The Baltimore Sun, which is its right and proper function. Imagine, therefore, my surprise at receiving a message from work this morning that this blog has been included in a minor citation in this year’s “Best of Baltimore” issue. *

In the category “Best Civilized Blog”:

BOTH THE SUN AND EXAMINER have flooded the internet with blogs--too many, really, to read them all. But one we always make time for is Sun copy desk chief John E. McIntyre's You Don't Say. McIntyre, who also teaches at Loyola College, writes with wit, erudition, and conciseness about subjects--grammar, editing, the newspaper business--that could easily put one to sleep. That he does so without hectoring or prescriptivism (look it up) is just one bonus. McIntyre, while a traditionalist, knows that language and its rules evolve, and sometimes quickly so. But the real reason for visiting this Kentucky-born gentleman's blog is to learn how to do important stuff, like tying a bow tie (a May 29 video entry), cooking Cincinnati chili (July 24), and, most importantly, making a martini (July 2, also a video). If only the rest of the web was so civilized.

It would be churlish to suggest that the final sentence would have been improved by the subjunctive; one swallows compliments whole. I doff my fedora.


* As I said, I am, like Anna Russell, not making this up. Here’s the citation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (14)

September 16, 2008

The Oxford comma and the prince's religion

Who knew that so many cared so much about so little — the marks of punctuation? A number of responses to the previous post merit a response.

The Oxford comma

Frank Moorman has strong views on the serial comma, “an issue about which I was ready to resolve with swords at dawn on a barren heath.” Sheathe your steel. The Oxford comma, or final comma in a series, is hale and hearty in academic writing. It is typically omitted in journalistic writing. So there are two ways of punctuating a series, each acceptable in its realm. The Chicago Manual of Style “strongly recommends” the serial comma, “since it prevents ambiguity.” But even the Associated Press Stylebook says that the final comma should be used when ambiguity is a risk.

The old principle of cuius regno, ejus religio — “whose region, his religion,” or follow your prince’s practice — can be applied here. Follow whichever style your employer dictates, and indulge your own taste in private.

The discretionary comma

As Bill Walderman points out, there are often situations in which the writer wants to use a comma to indicate a pause rather than a syntactical division. That is perfectly all right, though it does complicate matters for some writers. There are commas that have to be there, such as the commas setting off an appositive phrase; that’s a rule, not a question of personal preference. Then there are commas that function like rests in a musical score, indicating that the cadences of spoken language are being represented. The trick is not to confuse the two.

The apostrophe

As mapuser pointed out, there are certain specialized categories, like the model number he mentioned, in which the use of the apostrophe in the plural makes sense.

As to use of the apostrophe to make numbers or years plural, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage likes them, and the Associated Press likes them not. The Chicago Manual of Style is agnostic. So whether it is the 1980s or the 1980’s is entirely a question of what they do in your shop. Cuius regno, ejus religio.

The dash

Of course you can use the dash to set off merely parenthetical material. This is America. The point I was trying to make — without being doctrinaire about it — is that overuse of the mark — particularly among dash-happy journalists — tends to reduce its effectiveness — as with any other device grown stale with repetition — so that it lacks much punch when you want to indicate a break in continuity.

The exclamation point

Damn! I knew I was profligate in allowing a dozen.


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 PM | | Comments (3)

September 15, 2008

Punctuated equilibrium

With National Punctuation Day creeping up on us, I wanted you to be prepared. So I am supplying you with a set of resolutions to have ready by September 24.


Resolved: That I will use a comma to separate independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.

I know what is the right thing to do // , // and I will do it gladly.

Resolved: That I will use a semicolon* to join two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction.

I saw what you did // ; // I know who you are.

Resolved: That I will refrain from inserting a superfluous comma between compound verbs.

The careful writer understands what the rules are // and // knows when to safely veer from them.

Resolved: That I will refrain from inserting a superfluous comma between two relative clauses.

The careful editor understands that many writers punctuate from intuition rather than training // and // that correction is often required.

Resolved: That I will always use a period with an ellipsis at the end of a sentence.

“But Aldus gets the credit generally //. … //

Resolved: That I will not use the apostrophe to make anything other than a number or a letter a plural.

The // Smiths // learned their // p’s and q’s // in elementary school.

Resolved: That I will refrain from using dashes for merely parenthetical material, using parentheses or commas instead, reserving the dash to indicate a break in continuity.

Journalists // , // who have often been recipients of bad advice on language // , // can receive assistance from an unlikely source // — // the copy desk.

Resolved: That I will learn the difference between a dash and a hyphen and punctuate accordingly.

This, dear ones, is a hyphen: // - //. This is a dash: // — //.

Resolved: That I will use square brackets, not parentheses, to set off interpolated matter, no matter what the Associated Press does.

“But Aldus // [Manutius] // gets the credit generally. …”

Resolved: That I will use no more than one dozen exclamation points in the course of my professional career, and never to use more than one at a time.


* Thank you, Aldus Manutius.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:05 PM | | Comments (21)

September 13, 2008

Not to everyone's taste

If you laughed at Monty Python’s non-Euclidian humor, or reveled in the work of Edward Gorey, * Wondermark should be right up your street.


* “The Gashlycrumb Tinies” is a perennial favorite.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:42 PM | | Comments (5)

September 12, 2008

Defenders' Day

The War of 1812 is prominent among the United States’ less-than-glorious wars. (Think Mexican War, Spanish-American War, the various wars with Indian tribes.)

We picked a fight with Britain while it was in mortal combat with France. We made a grab for Canada that failed through military incompetence and also lost Detroit (which Britain made us take back in the peace treaty). We saw the militia break and flee before the British regulars at Bladensburg, which opened the way to Washington and the burning of the Capitol and the White House. And even that we brought on ourselves because our undisciplined troops had burned the provincial parliament buildings in York (now Toronto), giving the British a motive for revenge. The only substantial U.S. victory of the war, Andrew Jackson’s defeat of the British at New Orleans, occurred after a peace treaty had been agreed on.

But there was one splendid moment, commemorated in Baltimore on September 12, Defenders’ Day, when American militiamen confounded the British troops by killing their commander, General Ross, and Fort McHenry successfully blocked the Royal Navy’s entrance into Baltimore harbor. The occasion survives in our national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key after he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry from the deck of a British warship.

Many national anthems are triumphalist in tone. But ours, at least in the first verse, the only one generally sung, ends with a question: “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave / O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

It is a sentiment that echoes the remark Benjamin Franklin is supposed to have made on leaving the Constitutional Convention on its last day in 1787. Asked what kind of government the assembly had given the country, a republic or a monarchy, he answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

The Founders, well-versed in classical literature and history, knew that republics tend to degenerate into oligarchies or dictatorships, especially when the citizens allow themselves to be divided into factions scrabbling for power, willing to sacrifice the common good for gain.

So Defenders’ Day is an excellent occasion on which to ask ourselves those questions. Are we still the land of the free? They gave us a republic. Can we keep it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (3)

September 11, 2008

The war on error

As in the U.S. government’s war on terrorism, the war on error in English usage has been marked by vehement pronouncements, miscalculations and attacks on the wrong targets.

This has been going on for some time, as can be seen in a book that a reader, Bill Walderman, has kindly brought to my attention. English Usage: Studies in the History and Uses of English Words and Phrases was written by Professor J. Lesslie Hall of the College of William and Mary and published by Scott, Foresman in 1917. An examination of its chapters — it’s readily available, having been digitized by Google Books — shows that reason, scholarship and appeal to the idiom of the language have long been slugging it out with superstition and uninformed fiats.

Professor Hall took up the cudgels on the former side. He says in his preface: “I have long felt that not only purists but a far better class of men were putting us, teachers and pupils and general public, in strait-jackets. Distinguished grammarians and eminent rhetorical scholars condemn in their works many words and phrases that we see all through the literature. They seem at times to combine to expel from the language some locution that we have heard frequently from attractive speakers and have seen often in the works of eminent writers.”

There are, no surprise, entries on not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. But it is interesting to see, in addition to these hoary superstitions, entries on usages once scorned by self-appointed authorities whose objections today seem quaint or beside the point.

I look forward to reading about the debate over gotten, over graduate as an active verb, over pretty and such as adverbs. I long to discover why it was objectionable to use execute in the sense of put to death, why one cannot catch a train, why editorial should not be used as a noun. I’m keen to find out what is wrong with talented.

But see for yourself, and hope that language authorities may yet learn humility.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:24 AM | | Comments (4)

September 10, 2008

Thank you, Mr. Pratt

Reader, beware: An excursion into nostalgia follows.

Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of Enoch Pratt, the philanthropist who donated the money for Baltimore to establish a free library. They’re celebrating at the Pratt, of course, and over on Read Street, there’s an invitation to share memories of one’s experiences with libraries.

I grew up book-hungry and book-starved. Books were expensive and scarce in Eastern Kentucky in the late 1950s and early ’60s: no public library in Fleming County, meager holdings in the public schools, no bookstores for miles around.

My family owned some Bobbsey Twin books from my older sister’s childhood. There was a little gift shop in Maysville that, for some reason, stocked a few copies of the Hardy Boys series for a dollar apiece, and my grandmother would buy me one as a treat when she went shopping at Merz Bros. My sister would occasionally check out books for me from the Morehead State University library when she was a student there. (Once she smuggled me into the stacks. Glorious. All those books.) And there were comic books, which sustained me day to day; my gratitude for that leads me to be indulgent about my son’s taste for graphic novels today.

A bookmobile made its first appearance in the county about 1962, and I became one of its most eager patrons. One summer I rode along as a volunteer with the librarian, Ms. Betty Moss, helping check out and shelves books at the little towns around the county.

A public library was established in, I think, 1964, at first no more than a wall of books on one side of the Times-Democrat office, later occupying the whole of that space. I volunteered there for one summer with the librarian, Ms. Margaret Davis. The county constructed a brick building in 1967 to house the library, and I haunted it during high school, usually to the pleasure of the librarian, Ms. Lila Lee Humphries. The last time I was back, there were still books on the shelves with my signature on the cards. Some had even been read since.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I worked in the receiving room at the university library, opening and sorting periodicals and books. As a graduate student, I spent many hours in Bird Library. Graduate school on fellowship — being paid to loiter in libraries and read books.

And now, a Baltimorean and beneficiary of Mr. Pratt’s generosity I frequent the Hamilton branch near my house and the central library on Cathedral Street downtown.

The central library is a noble building, with a huge main room with skylights three stories up and portraits of the Lords Calvert, the Colonial proprietors, on the walls. It is, in its way, a holy place, like the Basilica of the Assumption across the street. The basilica, designed by Benjamin Latrobe, begun in Thomas Jefferson’s administration and recently restored, is a neoclassical beauty. The restoration reintroduced translucent glass in the windows of the nave and the 24 skylights in the dome. It is Enlightenment architecture, and both buildings, in their differing ways, are meant to let the light in.



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

September 9, 2008

More correct than you

Jill Rosen should have known when she set out to write about people who correct other people’s grammar that she would inevitably draw the attention of people who like to correct the grammar of the people who like to correct people’s grammar. (My reaction you’ve already seen.)

Some of the responses she got, with my commentary:

"I do judge a little bit," Corsetto admits. "That comment section was appalling. I was kind of embarrassed as a Barack Obama supporter ... some of the comments trying to back our side up were so poorly written I was thinking, 'God, writing this poor is weakening our point.'" It should either read:'God, this poor writing is weakening our point, " or be changed to "'God, writing this poorly weakens our point.'" Otherwise, its grammatically clumbsy...

The is nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with the sentence in question. Writing is a gerund appropriately modified by the adjective poor. This poor writing changes the meaning of the original, the sense of which is writing as poor as this. Writing this poorly also fails to catch quite the sense of comparative quality.

I am one of the school that hears a mistake but lacks (is that "lack," singular?) the courage or the confidence to correct it. But to be a grammar policeman is to ascend a slippery slope. You yourself slipped on that slippery slope: Page 1, third line from bottom, you write, "His standard for quickie Twitter is different than his blog." But on Page 22 of "Grammar Girls," Mignon Fogarty instructs: "Different from is preferred to different than ". (Ex: Squiggly knew he was different from the other snails..."

It’s a fair cop, as the British criminal classes say. Though different than is not always wrong — particularly useful in introducing a clause — different from followed by a noun is standard usage.

A small caution: as representatives of "the elite," we are pulverized when we make an occasional mistake, even a typo. Each of us is susceptible. You wrote, "...but a person's standing in the online universe is based, in part, on how they use words." The antecedent of they is person, so the pronoun needs to be singular, not plural. They don't match. Interestingly, Grant Barrett makes the same mistake in the article's next-to-last- paragraph.

Person … they is increasingly accepted as standard in British writng, and some commentators, among them the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, suggest that Americans would do well to follow suit: Examples of they following a singular antecedent “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism. The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language—and it is by no means the worst solution.”

The singular they is already well established in speech and seems likely to prevail in time over the clumsy he or she construction or the sometimes-unworkable plural construction. It is probably better to think of it as a matter of individual preference rather than an error.

And finally, one writer drags in an error from a separate article:

I found it ironic that your column today dealt with mistakes in grammar. I sent an e-mail to Fred Rasmussen yesterday about his piece, but it came back undelivered. I.e. in the obituary headlines yesterday highlighting the life of Pasquale Polillo. The headline was:

Pasquale 'Pat' Polillo Johns Hopkins graduate was a broadcasting executive who become a well-known personality in Philadelphia.

When that is "spell checked" with my Juno program it does not alert me that the incorrect tense of the verb "become" is used. I have noticed that published books - particularly novels - have many errors. I think a significant problem is the use of "spell check" programs that often do not deal with syntax errors.

Mr. Rasmussen did not write the headline; copy editors write headlines for articles in The Sun. And while become for became is indisputably an error, I suspect that it is not an error in grammar so much as a mere typographical error. Sometimes the wrong synapse fires, or the finger hits the wrong key. Then the proofreader’s eye registers the near-correct spelling as the correct one, and off it goes merrily into print.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:07 PM | | Comments (5)

Mind your own business

Jill Rosen writes in this morning’s Sun about the grammar vigilantes who make it their business to correct other people’s lapses in grammar, spelling and usage, particularly in such venues as “cell phone text messages, instant computer messages, Facebook greetings and Twitter.” They include the many thousand members of a Facebook group, I judge you when you use poor grammar.

People do. There is much more to sentences than whatever raw meaning they convey. Speech and writing partake of many social elements, which is why the word solecism, for a breach in etiquette, derives from a Greek word for an error in grammar. That is why we use the word barbarian, which the Greeks coined to describe someone uncivilized — that is, unable to speak Greek. That is why George Bernard Shaw could write in the preface to Pygmalion, “It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.”

Some people Ms. Rosen quotes complain that this nagging about grammar has intimidated them, has inhibited their readiness to write. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may recall Flannery O’Connor’s remark, “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.” The Internet contains a tsunami of half-baked ideas, ineptly expressed.

But just as I found myself unable to endorse the enterprise of the gentlemen who traveled across the country to correct errors in signage (“Grammar vigilantes’ comeuppance”), and just as I previously expressed misgivings about going on a binge of public correction (“Show me your badge”), I’m separating myself from the “I judge you” crowd.

If bad grammar is a breach of etiquette, then what is publicly scolding people about faulty grammar? It’s bumptious. It is like going around and correcting other people’s pronunciations — not an activity that will leave you beloved.

Fortunately, Ms. Rosen quotes some sane and sensible advice from a lexicographer, Grant Barrett: “The self-appointed mavens, these people should be ignored as a group," he says. "Unless you are hired or asked to watch the language of other people, mind your own business."



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (7)

September 8, 2008


Jonathan Yardley has indulged himself in a little sentimental essay on the Strunk and White Elements of Style, and that has, predictably touched off a little outburst at Language Log. Professor Geoffrey Pullum, who — let’s be frank among friends — is not always unwilling to go a little over the top, has posted a blast, “Sentimental mush from the Washington Post.”

Professor Pullum links to a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger post on Jan Freeman’s blog, The Word, “Return of the living dead.” * Her sentiments resemble Professor Pullum’s: that The Elements of Style is frequently wrong-headed and unreliable.

My copy, I think the 1959 edition, is on a shelf in my office. When I acquired it as a senior in high school in 1969, already an admirer of E.B. White’s clear, straightforward prose, it encouraged me as a writer and seemed quite useful. But yes, it is dated and limited, and I have not read or consulted it in years. I keep a copy of my high school diploma on a shelf at home, also more for sentiment than any practical service.

Beware of people who make fetishes of books. Mr. Yardley goes so far as to suggest that “if someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste, not to mention style.” This is more than a bit much, especially since the available records about the probably illiterate Galilean fisherman later promoted to Minos’ old job doesn’t appear to have been much of a stylist. (You may plant me with my copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.)

Harold Ross, the first editor of The New Yorker, treated Fowler’s Modern English Usage as sacred scripture. ** And while it was for its time useful, and remains entertaining to read, it is British and dated and headstrong and of limited utility.

It would be nice to think that I have learned something since 1969, or, for that matter, since 1985. I keep within reach at my desk Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, R.W. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s, and a dozen other manuals. They don’t always agree, and I have to arrive at judgments. I have learned over the course of writing this blog to pay attention to what they say in posts at Language Log, and always to take Ms. Freeman seriously. I’ve been at some pains to examine my own practices and to make some overdue adjustments.

If you’re serious about writing and editing, you will, too.


* For advice on language and writing from a newspaper, you can do no better than Ms. Freeman’s blog, or her column in The Boston Globe. She is well-informed and admirably reasonable, and she draws admirers from both the presciptivist and descriptivist camps.

** When I interviewed for a copy desk position at The New York Times in 1985, the redoubtable Allan Siegel asked me what manuals of English usage I consulted. I said, “I start with Fowler …” and he interrupted to say, “That’s enough.” (Despite the encouraging interview, The Times passed on me after the tryout. They did suggest that I take a job with a paper that took editing seriously and call back in a couple of years. I subsequently left The Cincinnati Enquirer for The Sun, and here I am.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:23 AM | | Comments (5)

September 6, 2008

A congressional innocent

U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a Republican of Georgia, was quoted this week as saying of Barack and Michelle Obama, “Just from what little I’ve seen of her and Mr. Obama, Sen. Obama, they’re a member of an elitist-class individual that thinks that they’re uppity.”

No one expects spoken language to hold to the standards of written language. People start sentences in one direction and switch to another, or they get tangled in pronoun referents, or assemble syntactical fragments. That’s the way we talk, and spoken language has vocal inflections, facial expressions, gestures and other accompaniments to help the listener comprehend. It would be idle to expect of conversation the reflection and organization that produces a text.

Even so, you’d think that a member of Congress might display a little more skill in managing singulars and plurals and pronouns. The sense is a little challenging: The Obamas are members of an individual that thinks that they are uppity?

But the pivot in that little discourse is the word uppity. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution devoted an article — thank you, Editrix, for the link — to the minor brouhaha over Representative Westmoreland’s use of that word, with its unpleasantly racial overtones.*

No, no, Representative Westmoreland meant no such offense. He used the word in the dictionary sense of snobbish. In fact, the congressman said in a statement, “I’ve never heard that term used in a racially derogatory sense.”

So to the other historic elements of this year’s presidential election — the first African-American nominee from a major party, the first female vice presidential nominee from the Republican Party, etc. — we can add this specimen: a grown white man from the Deep South who had never heard uppity used with any racial connotation.


* The Journal-Constitution provides a gloss: “For decades in the segregated South, ‘uppity’ was a word applied to African-Americans who attempted to rise above servile positions.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)

September 5, 2008

Avast there, you scurvy dogs

As you make your plans to commemorate International Talk Like a Pirate Day on Sept. 19, mateys, you will need to keep this distinction in mind:

The classic pirate utterance is spelled Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, with as many or few r’s as you prefer. The spelling sometimes seen, Arrrrrrrrrrrrrgh, represents the strangled cry of distress, frustration, anger or despair and is not properly piratical.

Also, it is my painful duty to inform you, is you think that Arrrrrrrrrrrr or any variation on it is fresh and original in a headline about pirates or pirate argot, you are badly mistaken.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (7)

Position, position, position

English having comparatively few inflections to help the reader sort out the syntactical elements, it depends heavily on word order and position within the sentence.

An example of how this can go awry comes from a reader of this blog who also reads a metropolitan daily in another state, in which she found this:

Mr. Banescu had lived for years at 10 Plaza Street East, across Flatbush Avenue from where he parked his car, on the 12th floor of a co-op building.

And, continuing the struggle against journalistically misplaced adverbs, here’s a citation from Headsup:

Convention keynoter Rudy Giuliani Tuesday upbraided a reporter who asked whether Palin's daughter's pregnancy was distracting from the convention.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:03 AM | | Comments (1)

September 4, 2008

For those anaerobic meetings

Samuel Johnson understood that “human life is everywhere a state in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed” — and he never even worked for a corporation.

It’s not just the daily routine meetings that wear at you the most, though you know perfectly well that they operate less for the conduct of business than for aimless pontificating by managers, eager sucking-up by subordinates, inane chatter about sports or television programs, and the announcement arbitrary decrees that serve mainly to get in the way of doing the work.

No, it’s the periodic grand occasions imposed on you — the annual address by the CEO, the seminar on sexual harassment in the Human Resources office — that really fray your patience.

A passage recollected from an issue of Punch from the 1980s may be helpful, a motto for difficult times, something to write down and keep handy in the desk drawer or pocket as a source of inspiration and comfort.

During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, Punch ran a feature purporting to be Denis Thatcher’s diary — fictitious, of course. In one episode, as he walks toward Westminster Abbey for some state ceremony, he is waylaid by Princess Margaret, who drags him off to a pub, saying:

“If they imagine that we’re going to sit through three mortal hours of this jiggery-pokery without a couple of Big Ones to settle us down, they’re out of their tiny minds.”

And an update:

Many thanks to Steve (comment below) for correcting my faulty memory. The quotation is from a "Dear Bill" feature in Private Eye from 1980.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 AM | | Comments (8)

September 3, 2008

Grammar isn't everything

Much as this blog is devoted to grammar — which in the public mind is a term that encompasses grammar proper, syntax and usage — many posts have attempted to clarify that editing involves more than those elements of language.

There is a sentence that I’ve used in workshops for several years [See Digression 1 below] that compactly illustrates the editing issues that go beyond grammar, syntax and usage:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

First, this sentence is factually accurate. Second, it is grammatical, despite the awkward and unidiomatic placement of the adverb [See Digression 2 below]. Third, this sentence was not carelessly or casually flung together; it was constructed. And fourth, as you will already have noticed, it is opaque.

This sort of thing happens when the reporter, preoccupied with the subject of the article and determined to jam every morsel of the sausage into the casing, completely forgets that the text is meant to be read by human beings. Nothing less could explain so complete a disregard for the reader. Even worse, these monstrous constructions often pass unchallenged by the assigning desk and copy desk [See Digression 3 below].

The point of having editors is to engage someone on the premises to remember that we have readers and represent their interests and concerns. The reader’s interest in being supplied with sentences that can be comprehended in a single reading is paramount. And representing the reader’s interests has the happy collateral effect of protecting the writer from the consequences of bad judgments.


Digression 1 If you’re going to disparage work that comes out of your own shop, it’s best to use examples from a fairly remote past, better still if the author has since left. You’ll still be thought an insufferable pedant, but you will be less likely to trigger direct animosity.

Digression 2 Like the unfounded but pervasive journalistic belief that adverbs must not fall between the auxiliary and the main verb, there is an equally pervasive practice of putting an adverb of time between the subject and the verb, even though idiomatic English would put that yesterday at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere after the verb. It is probably imagined that this tic conveys immediacy. Yeah.

Digression 3 This example was the lead paragraph of an article, and by long-standing newspaper convention, no lowly copy editor may touch a lead, the meticulously crafted artifact of the reporter’s craft and the very vehicle of the reporter’s voice — a Faberge egg made for the Tsar — without first undergoing certain ritual prostrations and purifications. Often to no avail. Maybe that explains why this paragraph passed untouched through the hands of at least four editors.

Reader, we published it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (4)

September 2, 2008

I'm still here

Otherwise meaningless dates become important to journalists when they can be written about as anniversaries of meaningful dates. If you doubt this, we’ll let you respond to the complaints if we omit to publish something about Pearl Harbor in a Dec. 7 edition.

It was on this date, Sept. 2, 1986, that I started work on the copy desk at The Sun, which shared newsroom quarters with The Evening Sun in an amiable truce. The paper was preparing to celebrate in 1987 its 150th anniversary. Circulation was at a peak — within the year we hit half a million on Sundays — before the long slide began.

I now serve under my fourth editor and seventh publisher. I’ve been through three major redesigns of the paper, as well as a series of minor revisions, all of which were met with a chorus of objection from readers. I’ve been through a strike and eight or more buyouts (they begin to blur).

My various masters have seen fit to leave me in charge of the copy desk for 13 years, during which time I have hired 44 copy editors. Some of them are even still here.

Two years ago, when my wife, Kathleen, baked a memorable cake to bring in to the office to mark my 20th anniversary, she wrote on it, “20 to life.” Whether that works out depends on both the newspaper’s span and mine; but despite the prevalent pessimism about the newspaper business, I do not expect to be the survivor. I would be an idiot to deny that the difficulties afflicting American newspapers are serious. We have only the staff and space to produce the news that the advertising will support, and the sharp decline in advertising has left us in grim circumstances indeed.

But that is not the whole picture.

The Web site is vigorous, getting tens and hundreds of thousands of page views a day, steadily increasing readership. This blog is one of more than 40. And they are not all about sports. Elizabeth Large has built up a devoted following. Read Street has found a way to expand coverage of books beyond what is possible in the print edition. And even this humble offering, on a subject that would never have been granted even the most miserly space in the print edition, has drawn your attention. (Keep coming back.)

The print edition continues to offer you articles that you will not find elsewhere — except later in the news cycle on broadcast or in other publications.

Whether you prefer the new design of the paper edition or not, we have accomplished it with a reduced diminished staff on a demanding timetable. The Baltimore Sun continues to employ a staff that can bring off serious projects.

And on the copy desk — despite the recent departure of some of our veterans, including Andy Faith, who hired me 22 years ago and proved to be a stalwart colleague and valued friend — we also serve who sit and edit. Every working day for the past 22 years, I’ve been able to sign off knowing that The Sun has been more accurate, clearer, better for the work my colleagues and I have done. We edit seriously, and the paper benefits from it. We’re still here.

When I moved to Baltimore at the end of the summer of 1986 and walked into the building on Calvert Street, I felt that I had arrived at the big time. It’s still the big time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:59 AM | | Comments (4)
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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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