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October 31, 2008

A Baltimore lexicon

One of yesterday’s posts celebrated espantoon, the word for a police officer’s nightstick that the dictionary defines as of Baltimorean origin.

Today, bryanintimonium writes:

When I was in middle school I had a social studies teacher who was a true Baltimorean. He relished every opportunity to teach us about words that belonged just to Baltimore - even if it was just in the form of how to pronounce things properly. Most of all, I remember him producing a list of words that his grandmother used as well as his week-long lament of the passing of the Evening Sun. Maybe we could put together a list of Baltimore specific words?

I, as an auslander with a mere 22 years in Baltimore, am scarcely qualified to even broach the subject. Who among the gaudy readership of this blog can supply some words or phrases originating in or identified with Baltimore?

Two things I do not want. I do not want examples of Bawlmerese — those representations of local pronunciations. Down the ocean for to the ocean as an idiom is acceptable as a Baltimore locution, but downey ocean and all the others are well represented elsewhere.

Neither do I want nostalgic ruminations over Baltimore customs, such as the sauerkraut served with turkey at Thanksgiving.

Just words, phrases, idioms that are distinctively local, please.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 AM | | Comments (13)

October 30, 2008

You Don't Say regrets

Because of difficulties we have been having with the blogging software, you may have encountered obstacles in posting to this blog. And, as you may have seen, comments are showing up out of sequence, according neither to the time of their original posting nor of my approval of their publication. We have been told that these problems may be resolved during the next few weeks. I appreciate your patience and indulgence.
Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 PM | | Comments (1)

Bring back the espantoon

Peter Hermann adds to our cop speak vocabulary by contrasting Baltimore’s vocabulary with New York’s.
Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (1)

Enough of Palin's wardrobe

So you’re at home with the flu, nose and eyes streaming, and you’re a little too groggy to read (but not to blog), so you’re watching television. You entertain a faint hope that maybe you’ll just slip into a gentle coma until this election is over. But, remaining marginally conscious, you can only reflect on the many absurdities. Only in America.

You have people like David Letterman making fun of Sarah Palin’s wardrobe, as he did monotonously of Hillary Clinton’s. The man wears white socks with a dark suit. You’re going to listen to him comment on fashion?

You have a man who voted to use taxpayer dollars to buy government ownership in the nation’s banks accuse his opponent of being a socialist.

You have a former Saturday Night Live comedian with an apparent opportunity to be elected a United States senator from that frosty realm of sober Scandinavians, Minnesota.

You have multitudes of misty-eyed Democrats pinning their inchoate hopes on a freshman senator without much evidence that they realize that (a) he’s more of a moderate or centrist than some of them think and (b) if elected, he will be willing to make many compromises that will disappoint them.

You have a sitting United States senator running an ad that virtually accuses her opponent, a Presbyterian, of being an atheist. I am not making this up; see for yourself. If you previously imagined that honor, probity and decency were attached to service in the United States Senate, you may need to adjust your views. (Keep in mind the long-serving senator just convicted in federal court of corruption.)

And as you watch an apparently endless repetition of 30-second ads slamming one candidate or another with “spin” (read: distortion, half-truths, outright misrepresentation), you may hear the words of H.L. Mencken echoing in your head: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (31)

Finger the perp in the heist

After suggesting yesterday that I might explore the vocabulary of cop speak, the estimable Peter Hermann has offered his own post on the topic at Baltimore Crime Beat. And he invites readers to submit their own favorites. Be his guest. You might want to suggest BOLO (be on the lookout), used as a noun for an alert.

It’s not only the police who favor lingo outside the stream of current conversational English. Journalists have an odd and lingering affection for dated slang (touched on previously at You Don’t Say here). I’m as fond of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as the next man, but I don’t think that the slang of the 1930s and the 1940s is quite the way to appeal to an audience in this century.

For example:

Bust (n.): For an arrest or a raid.

Cop a plea: For make a plea bargain.

Finger (v.): To identify or inform on.

Heist (n.): For robbery.

Loot (n.): For money or the proceeds of a robbery.

Nab (v.): For apprehend or arrest.

Perp (n.): For perpetrator.

Slammer (n.): For jail or prison.

Of course, you may want to use all of these and more in your screenplay to establish what middle-class suburban television viewers will take for gritty authenticity.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:15 AM | | Comments (6)

October 29, 2008

Just the facts, Ma'am

My eminent colleague Peter Hermann invited me the other day to think about posting on crime story cliches — you know, the kind of cop speak argot that creeps into the text because reporters have echolalia. Mr. Hermann started Fout as a police reporter, and he now writes about crime, so he understands the hazards of the job.

Rummaging around on cable the other day, I came across an episode of Dragnet, the early television police procedural with Jack Webb only slightly more animated than a test pattern (Children, you can ask Grandfather what a “test pattern” was).* This was a late episode — I could tell, because it wasn’t in black and white (While you’re at it, children, ask Grandfather about “black and white”) — but the dialogue was every bit as wooden as in the original.

Cop speak prose in newspaper stories is also solid mahogany. Some examples:

Exited the premises: “Left the house.” Houses and apartments are always premises. And people, as if they were following stage directions, always exit.

Altercation: “Quarrel” or “fight.” Once someone gets shot or stabbed, the "altercation" has "escalated." Afterward, the “perpetrator” exits the premises.

Ejected from the vehicle: Think “thrown from the car.” It’s always a “vehicle,” not a “car,” even if the officer knows full well that it is a Ford Crown Victoria the size of your parents’ first house.

Discharged his weapon: “Fired his gun.”

The unit block of X Street: Never just “the first block.”

Failed to negotiate a curve: “Ran off the road.”

Wooded area: Where vehicles wind up when they fail to negotiate a curve. Bailed out: No one just “jumps out” of a car — it’s more like a parachutist leaping from a plane.

Fled on foot: Mere laypeople would probably say “ran away.” But for police, a suspect flees on foot after bailing out of the vehicle that failed to negotiate a curve and crashed in a wooden area.

Police believe: Let’s leave belief to the theologians. When the police offer a theory or supposition, let’s say that they “think.”

Person of interest: A weaselly term that has come into vogue when police have someone in for questioning who may well be a suspect but whom they shy away from identifying as such. This is treacherous for journalists, who are reluctant to make a characterization beyond what the police are willing to say publicly, but “person of interest” is probably already understood by the public to mean “suspect.” Just as readers of British newspapers understand “helping the police with their inquiries” as meaning “shut up in a small room for prolonged interrogation.”

10-4: Not sure that anyone still uses this, but those old enough to recall Broderick Crawford growling into the police radio on Highway Patrol (Children, you might have to ask Great-grandfather about this one) understands that this is a sign-off.


* “Just the facts, Ma’am” was Webb’s signature phrase as Sgt. Joe Friday.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:35 PM | | Comments (12)

I am not an alumni

A spirited response to yesterday’s post about the vagaries of naturalizing foreign words into English challenges the point I was trying to make:

There ain't but a handful o' folks what can (or do) say "entrepreneur" or "bratwurst" in the manner of, respectively, our French and German brethren. Or pluralize them ditto.

If one is going to be insistent on treating loan words as if they are still garbed in their immigrant weeds, one is going to have to get the plural of "Weltschmerz" and "Anschauung" right, smooth out the English diphthongs in "Mozart" and "Beethoven," and fling about terms like "graffito" and "datum."

Is there much of a point in so doing? Can't think of one.

But I wasn’t quite saying that we ought to retain all loan words in their original forms; I was saying that practice in English is strongly idiosyncratic and unpredictable. Look at some of the commenter’s own examples. We may not be authentically Teutonic, but we still don’t pronounce the composers’ names as Mozzart or BEE-thoven, though we might. After all, the town in Tennessee named after the liberator of South America is pronounced Bolliver, and the residents of the capital of South Dakota render Pierre as something like pier.

As to the plurals, after all these years the plural of alumnus is still alumni or alumnae, not alumnuses; the plural of crisis is crises, not crisises; the plural of hypothesis is hypotheses.

I concede that a panini is probably how it’s going to be in English, my dislike notwithstanding, and I’m not inclined to mobilize the troops in defense of panino. But I am not yet persuaded that an Anglicized pronunciation of bruschetta is settled usage.

And there are some matters on which I think there is a reasonable and justifiable point in preserving an original distinction. At The Sun, for example, we insist on treating media, as in news media, as a plural. The basic reason, one of clarity, is that news is conveyed by more than one medium. The additional justification is that using the word as a singular suggests to the reader that the various media, diverse as they are, are somehow monolithic.

Retaining media as a plural is probably a losing battle. But then, I’m a copy editor, a newspaperman, a teacher of grammar, a reader of books, a listener to Baroque and classical music, a Democrat, a bourbon drinker, a high-church Episcopalian, a fedora wearer and a bow-tie fancier. Show me a losing cause and I’ll sign up.



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

October 28, 2008

Naturalized immigrants

My esteemed colleague Elizabeth Large has written about a reader of her dining blog who ordered bruschetta, pronounced with a k sound, at a restaurant, only to be corrected by an officious server who said it should be pronounced brushetta.

Ms. Large has been so thoroughly conditioned by a Sun copy editor of Italian heritage that, not wanting to startle our monoglot readers with the word cannolo, she has trained herself to write of cannoli only in the plural.

When, she wonders, do foreign words adopted into and naturalized in English take on Anglicized pronunciations as well?

It appears to be largely arbitrary. We retain something approximating the Italian pronunciations of lasagna, pizza and spaghetti, despite their long tenure on these shores; but we tend to render espresso as expresso, and it is not uncommon to hear people refer to a paparazzi or a graffiti and to cannolis or paninis. The Latin plurals bacteria, data and media have been turning into singulars (spite stout resistance in some quarters), but not alumni.

I don’t think that bruschetta has been in common circulation in this country long enough to advise anyone to abandon the original Italian pronunciation, but insisting on it carries some hazards. Just as George Orwell commented that “an Englishman considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word properly,” so in the United States an insistence on the foreign pronunciation of foreign words can mark the speaker as pretentious, fussy and — here comes the dread word — elitist.

So, if you’re willing to take on the risk, use the foreign singulars/plurals and pronunciations — taking care, of course, to avoid the finicky hyperpronunciations so beloved of announcers on classical music stations. And if your preference is to speak pure Amurrican, well, this is, after all, Amurrica. Ciao.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:27 PM | | Comments (4)

Ten things you learn in an election

Hearing from readers is always bracing, particularly in an election year. Here are some of the things to be learned from their comments about the news media, particularly newspapers.

You focus on trivial and sensational things instead of giving us information about the issues.

You keep running those deadly dull issue stories and editorials that nobody cares about.

You give us no respite from this relentless election coverage.

You give us all these silly local features when you ought to be covering the election more thoroughly.

You blow things out of proportion by putting them on the front page with those huge headlines.

You always bury the really important news deep inside the paper to make sure nobody finds it.

You’re just a mouthpiece for the radical left.

You’re a spineless corporate apologist.

You use your power and influence to sway the election to carry out your liberal agenda.

Your pathetic attempts to carry out your liberal agenda will fail because no one reads you anymore.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (3)

October 25, 2008

Clever and modest and misunderstood

Anyone who remembers fondly the Flanders and Swann songs of the 1950s and 1960s will recall that “clever and modest and misunderstood” are the terms Michael Flanders applies to the English in his mock national song.* From here, they look like just the words to sum up what copy editors are like.

The term David Sullivan adopted at his blog is “shy egomaniacs,” which has a similar feel to it. It was to give a voice within the newspaper and publishing businesses to these shy egomaniacs that the American Copy Editors Society was founded in 1997. Attached to Mr. Sullivan’s post are some strongly negative comments about ACES and copy editors — the most charitable explanation for which is ignorance rather than mere spleen — that I would like to rebut.

From the start, ACES has recognized and addressed educational needs. The society has for several years granted scholarships to students pursuing careers in editing, currently through an educational foundation. But the society has also addressed the need for further training within the ranks of the professionals. The national conferences offer in their three days of workshops concentrated training for editors. Those workshops are led by professionals who donate their time and expertise, out of recognition of the importance of the society’s work. The same is true for the regional conferences conducted under the society’s auspices.

Of course, the other goal, giving a voice to copy editors and their concerns, does not guarantee that that voice will be heeded. (Unless you want to blame Cassandra for the fall of Troy.) It should come as no shock that the princes, powers, thrones and dominions of American newspapering — the publishers and corporate executives — have largely ignored ACES and scanted the importance of editing. They are, after all, the same people who ignored the challenges of the Internet or addressed them maladroitly, who paid too little heed to demographics, who couldn’t figure out new advertising strategies as their business model began to cave in beneath them.

The sneers directed at particular members of the society are particularly uninformed and unworthy. It was my great good fortune to work with Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, the founders of ACES, and with Chris Wienandt, the current president. I know how smart they are, how dedicated to the craft, how many hundreds of unpaid hours they have devoted to the organization — as have many other members. I know how serious the members who attend the conferences are about improving their skills, the evidence of which has been plain in their enthusiastic and grateful comments.

Whatever happens in the newspaper/magazine/book/Internet publishing business, it is plain that the American Copy Editors Society has made a substantial contribution, and statements to the contrary are without foundation in fact.

On a larger issue, some of the unfavorable comments appear to blame copy editors for mistakes in print and the scandals that have buffeted the business.

On the first count, discovering errors in newspapers is a blind-pig-finds-acorn phenomenon. No daily newspaper, the production of which involves a large volume of prose created and edited by dozens of people on deadline, can be error-free. (It seems odd that the commenter appears not to understand this.) The measure of performance on a copy desk is how well the incidence of error is minimized — how many catches the desk makes. During a period of some months at The Sun during which I asked the copy editors to submit weekly samples of their catches, I was able to demonstrate to my masters that the copy desk was identifying and correcting scores of errors — scores — for every one that eluded them.

The same point counters the commenter’s apparent assertion that scandals have occurred because copy editors were too stupid or negligent to stop them. I know of cases of plagiarism, for example, that were identified and scotched on the copy desk at The Sun and never made it into print. The assumption that copy editors are not challenging suspect work is made without any evidentiary support. Now it is possible that copy desk challenges are overruled — as the concerns of a number of editors at The New York Times were disregarded as the Jayson Blair scandal unfolded. But newspapers are not, and should not be, run from the copy desk. It is the copy desk’s responsibility to raise questions and the responsibility of supervising editors to adjudicate.

It is a grim time in the business. Revenues are down and costs are up. Newspapers have had to make drastic cuts that no one liked. Copy desks are at particular risk because editing is expensive, and no one has been able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of the money men that better quality — accuracy and clarity — increases profitability.

Even so, my colleagues at The Sun and other newspapers, their challenges rising and their ranks thinning, come in to work every day and sit down at the desk determined to root out error and increase clarity as comprehensively as circumstances will permit. ACES has spoken for them. ACES continues to speak for them.


* “Song of Patriotic Prejudice” I think that the YouTube clip must be from an American broadcast of their revue in 1967 or so. I subsequently bought and wore out all three of their LPs (Ask Grandfather what an LP was, children), which have be re-released on CD.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (5)

October 23, 2008

Enemies as a gauge of one's worth

The Baltimore Sun’s David Zurawik (a neighbor as well as a colleague) prompts a flurry of abuse whenever his blog on television addresses political coverage. Some of the responses are reasoned and cogent, many more are merely reflexive denunciations of the Wicked Liberal News Media devoid of any further content, and some are extremely personal attacks.

I could launch into a jeremiad about the decline of civility in public discourse (not that American public discourse has ever been all that civil, viz., the abuse heaped on Hamilton and Jefferson in the earliest days of the Republic), accompanied by obligatory moaning over the foulness of the Internet in fostering nastiness.

But that’s been done, and to no effect. I think rather that there is merit to be found in the attacks, the meaner-spirited the better. If you take on the burden of reading through the scores of comments on Mr. Zurawik’s posts, pay particular attention to the ill-spelled, ungrammatical, incoherent ad hominem attacks. To be attacked by people that stupid and vicious must indicate merit in what you say.

Though You Don’t Say is a humbler operation, with a more [cough] select audience than the TV, dining or sports blogs at, here too can be found enemies who validate the enterprise.

Just this week, my post on the fatuous proposal to send newspaper copy editing offshore yielded a comment numbering me among the “[n]utless pricks who wear bow ties and who haven't figured out how to fix the problems in their own newsrooms.”

The author is well known in newspaper editing and design circles for his frequently expressed view that emphasis on newspaper design has destroyed the business. (You may be excused for recalling Samuel Johnson’s remark, “That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.”) His intemperate attacks have gotten him banned from a number of discussion boards, and he has vilified in the most personal terms a number of colleagues who have had the temerity to (a) disagree with him and (b) display greater professional ability and success.

We must conclude, then, that a venomous attack from that quarter can be taken as, though perhaps not a badge of honor, at least a certification of one’s professional standing.

Comments on this blog require the blogger’s approval to be published, so further attacks by the gentleman will not be appearing here. Do not fear, however, that his freedom of speech is thus abridged. He maintains a blog himself, at which he makes posts, comments on them himself, and then solemnly agrees with himself. Anyone interested in observing perfect circularity may apply to me for the Web address.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 AM | | Comments (17)

Less is not more

Today I sit in judgment.

A petition has arrived from a reader who says that “we've been engaged, here in the office, in a discussion regarding the phrase ‘five times less than’ which appeared in a memo from our CEO the other day.

“It seems like the math of the sentence doesn't work. You can have ‘five times more’ or ‘one-fifth of’ but ‘five times less than’ doesn't compute. Multiplication has to result in more, not less, I say. Division results in less.

“We have agreed that if I can get you to do a post on the subject, we will abide by your decision. We will also forward the link to the post to our corporate communications department (which writes these memos for our CEO.)”

I find for the petitioner. “One time” amounts to the total, and once “one time less” has occurred, the total is zero. If, in fact, five times less, is meant to indicate that the total has dropped to a fifth of the previous total, then one-fifth is preferable.

Balance and impartiality demand, however, that I give notice of a dissenting opinion by the estimable Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe, who writes, citing the authority of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, that times less has ample precedent in the language and is unlikely to be misunderstood. Idiom, in this opinion, trumps logic.

My learned colleague Bill Walsh at The Washington Post, however, has issued two opinions on the subject, here and here, which I take as a concurrence.

Petitioner will note that this is an opinion rendered — a preference rather than statutory law.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:05 AM | | Comments (10)

October 22, 2008

Then too

One of my newsroom snitches alerts to a problem in published Sun copy: that “we keep using ‘then’ when we mean ‘than’ lately.”

On average, a Baltimore resident dies six years earlier then other state residents, Mayor Sheila Dixon said yesterday in an address to the Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Sharfstein hopes the new numbers will help attract grant money to the city and spur outrage in the lower-income neighborhoods where life expectancy is lower then average.

By comparison, in 2006, Gilchrest and Democratic challenger Jim Corwin raised less then $400,000 between them.

This is a trivial error, and it’s difficult to point to such instances without feeling like a common scold. I know the arguments that English is a complicated and illogical language with maddening inconsistencies, that errors like then for than don’t usually impede meaning, and that many readers in fact speed along past such errors without even registering them.

That’s all true. But still, journalists, who make a living by words, have some obligation as professional writers and editors to master the elements of language, just as they are expected to verify the factual accuracy of the details in the articles they write and edit. Carelessness about any of the details is unprofessional.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:39 PM | | Comments (4)

Examining the entrails

Haruspicy is the practice of divination through the entrails of animals. The Roman priest who conducted the rite was an haruspex.

This is, of course, by no means the sole method by which omens of the future are to be descried. A look at references on the –mancy words will show a multitude: ailuromancy, the observation of how cats jump; bibliomancy, opening certain texts, such as the Bible, at random for guidance; nephelomancy, the observation of cloud formations; scapulamancy, interpretation of the cracks in the charred shoulder bone of a sheep — you get the drift.

As our interminable presidential election lumbers to its conclusion, I have come to suspect that that the network and cable news programs and newspapers might as well have employed haruspices from the start.

Item: The repeated assertion that one candidate is ahead of another by one or two percentage points, on the basis of a poll in which the margin of error is three and a half percentage points. And often, in a poll in which we are not told what questions we asked to which people.

Item: I hear cryptic references to a “poll of polls” on CNN and, turning to, find that the “poll of polls” is an average of various polls. That anyone can take a set of polls conducted at different times, among different population samples and with differently worded questions to arrive at an “average” more reliable than the observation of a flight of birds astonishes me.

Of course, as a journalist woefully uneducated in mathematics, it may be my ignorance of the manipulation of these magic numbers that leads to skepticism. Anyone better informed about statistics and statistical analysis is welcome to chime in with comments.

Item: The perception-distorting electronic maps in use. All the gee-whiz special-effect maps still represent the states with their geographical boundaries. Redrawing those maps by their population sizes, or even Electoral College votes, would give the viewer a much more realistic sense of the voting dynamic. As I pointed out previously, New York City, with 8 million people, has a population greater than the states of Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming combined. And while New York state gets two electoral votes for its senators, and the other six states get 12.

I am an American by birth, I’ve been following presidential campaigns since 1964 and voting in them since 1972. I understand how relentlessly they depend on slogans and catchphrases — the 1840 log-cabin-and-hard-cider campaign that elected William Henry Harrison being the dumbest of the lot and the pattern for many later ones.* I am aware that candidates of all parties and persuasions will stand in public and mechanically repeat misrepresentations of fact — and outright falsehoods.

But I am also a journalist, and I would like to see my colleagues across the media bring a little more knowledge and sophistication to coverage of these carnival events than is required to observe how cats jump.


* Before anyone starts questioning this allusion, I did not settle on the Harrison campaign because it involved an elderly retired military officer running as an “outsider” against an administration that had presided over an economic collapse. That is purely coincidental.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:04 AM | | Comments (6)

October 21, 2008

Dumb ideas never die

The war on editing continues.

William Dean Singleton of MediaNews has suggested that outsourcing copy editing from local newspaper to central, possibly offshore, locations makes a lot of sense. In riposte, the American Copy Editors Society suggests that your experience with overseas customer service call centers illustrates the likely consequences.

Imagine as a comparable instance that General Motors and Ford, fighting desperately to reverse their plummeting sales and stock values, concluded that it would be smart to save money by eliminating the quality control function. Think they’d wind up selling more cars?

Linus Pauling said that the way to have good ideas is to have lots of ideas. The newspaper business has been for years conspicuously short on ideas; now that circumstances compel it to come up with some, it has shown an enthusiasm for the bad ones. Outsourcing the copy editing, just like eliminating the copy editing, is one of the bad ones. I said so at in 2006, here in 2007, and here again earlier this year; and the penny-wise, pound-foolish idea does not look any better today.

Newspapers need to figure out who their audience is, what their readers want and need, how to deliver that information effectively, and how to make it reliable. Editing is one of the means by which reliability can be accomplished. Editing, to put it in marketing-speak, adds value to the brand.

Got that?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:57 AM | | Comments (7)

October 20, 2008

The monkey house

I should have added in this morning’s post that primate also derives from the Latin primus (first) and primas (of first rank). The term in biology speaks to our species-centric belief (or vanity) that we and the species most closely related to us are of the first rank.

A primate is also, in theological terms, a first among equals, such as bishops. So a reference to an Anglican primate does not necessarily identify a great ape.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:43 PM | | Comments (4)

First things

First thing this morning, I opened up The Baltimore Sun to find on the obituary page a headline identifying Michael Mariano Sabino as a “premiere distance runner.” So it’s going to be that kind of week.

A premiere (n.) is an initial public performance. The word as a verb means to present such a performance. The word comes from the Latin primus, or first. So does premier (adj.), which means most important, principal or foremost. As a noun, it is an equivalent term (for which headline writers are grateful) for prime minister.

Words from the same root branch into different paths, and the precise writer or editor learns to distinguish.

Principal (adj.) as a synonym for premier comes from the Latin principalis, which itself derives from princeps, or leader, prince, emperor. As a noun, a principal is a leader is the first among equals; the principal of a school was originally one of the teachers chosen to perform the administrative duties.

Principle (n.), or basic truth, rule, standard, etc., also comes froom the Latin princeps but arrives in English through a slightly different route, the Latin principium mutating into the Old French principe.

Primary (adj.), another word for principal or foremost, also comes from primus, as you probably suspected. So does prima donna, first lady, the leading female soloist in an opera company. (The secondary meaning fo a temperamental person rose inevitably from the first.)

And this initial post of the week also owes something to Latin, initium, or beginning. From that root we get initials, the first letters of words, and initiative, a beginning. This is why the beloved political term new initiative is redundant, unless it occurs in a context that contrasts the current initiative with a previous one.

Alpha, for foremost or highest ranked, we get from the name of the first letter of the Greek alphabet, the word alphabet itself coming from alpha and beta, the first two letters, to stand for the whole set of letters in the language.

And here is today’s omega.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:40 AM | | Comments (4)

October 18, 2008

Lowell O. Denton

In an era of turmoil in the newspaper business, it would be easy to overlook the passing of the former publisher of a small rural weekly. Stop for a moment.

Lowell Denton died on October 15. In 1951, he and his wife, Jean, bought the Flemingsburg Gazette in Flemingsburg, Ky., of which he was publisher until his retirement in 1999. I wrote about Lowell and Jean last summer, on the anniversary of their hiring me, a callow teenager, to work for the summers as a reporter, copy editor and dogsbody. But there is more to be said.

For nearly 50 years, Lowell Denton was out and about every day, cajoling advertisers, schoomzing, gathering information, taking and developing photographs, putting in the 50, 60, 70 hours a week that it takes to make a go of rural weekly. And he relished it, because he was genuinely interested in people. And people liked him, because he was genial and approachable.

What he provided his readers was a chronicle of their time and place, their births, marriages and funerals; their social activities and their business decisions; the fires and floods and accidents that beset them; the champion vegetables that they grew in the summer and the deer they shot in the fall. Each week he published a physical representation of who the people of Fleming County, Kentucky, were, and what they were about.

It is easy for would-be sophisticates to scorn this, and I, a typical snotty undergraduate at the time I worked there, often felt myself above it all. But now, still a subscriber to the Gazette, I read it every week, and I pay attention to the retrospective notes from the files from 50 years ago, 40 years ago and 20 years ago — the notes that strike the chords of memory and remind me who I am and where I came from. 

Newspapering is not a business for you unless you love it, and it was plain to me at the time, and has become plainer still in retrospect, that Lowell loved what he did. It brought him in daily contact with people and their concerns and aspirations. He wasn’t gullible about their pretensions and failings, but he was indulgent of them. He loved the physical production of the paper, from the days of Linotype operation to the days of computerized typesetting. He loved overseeing the page makeup, and he was proud every week to see his paper go into the mail. Every week he took a bundle of complimentary copies to the county hospital and went room to room, handing them out to the patients.

Lowell Denton was kind, unpretentious, generous and good-hearted. He and Jean gave me a start on what turned out to be a career, and I owe them both a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. But now, as he passes from the realm of the living, I stand to honor his memory.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:04 PM | | Comments (3)

October 16, 2008

Don't be so sensitive

From Samuel Johnson’s Rambler essay No. 31, “The defence of a known mistake highly culpable”:

The certain and obstinate opposition, which we may observe made to confutation, however clear, and to reproof, however tender, is an undoubted argument, that some dormant privilege is thought to be attacked; for as no man can lose what he neither possesses, nor imagines himself to possess, or be defrauded of that to which he has no right, it is reasonable to suppose that those who break out into fury at the softest contradiction, or the slightest censure, since they apparently consider themselves injured, must fancy some antient immunity violated, or some natural prerogative invaded. To be mistaken, if they thought themselves liable to mistake, could not be considered either shameful or wonderful, and they would not receive with so much emotion intelligence which only informed them of what they knew before, nor struggle with such earnestness against an attack that deprived them of nothing to which they held themselves entitled.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (7)

October 15, 2008

A deadline is near

If you are a student considering a career in editing, or you know someone who is, be advised that the deadline is November 15 for submitting applications for a scholarship from the American Copy Editors Society Education Fund. Students who will be juniors, seniors and graduate students in the fall are eligible, as are recent graduates who are taking copy-editing jobs or internships. Here is a link.

One of the things of which ACES can be proudest in its 11-year history is the establishment of a series of scholarships to assist students attempting to master our obscure craft. There is a future for editing, and the bright, able and energetic students who will make that future deserve encouragement and recognition.

If you do not happen to be a student but want to foster the careers of those who are, your contribution — it is tax-deductible — to the Education Fund is always welcome. Here is a link to the donation form.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:18 PM | | Comments (0)

Head cases

The future is electronic, and you’ve been told. Newspapers, with their feckless extravagance at paying “editors” to verify factual accuracy and make texts intelligible, are just obsolete. They might as well walk away into the snow and die, leaving the world to its bright online future.

I thought, before I’m freeze-dried and placed in a glass case in the Newseum, to devote this, my 500th post, to one aspect of this brave new world in which copy editors have some expertise: headline writing. Imagine my surprise at the discovery from an examination of today’s stories at CNN, MSNBC and Fox News that the new-era headline writers resemble nothing so much as the hacks of yesteryear. Examples:

Christian families fleeing Iraqi city tops 1,000

Apparently the online model does not protect one from errors in subject-verb agreement.

Mother’s papers tear MLK children apart

Heavy reliance on abbreviations as headline shorthand might be excused here; MLK for Martin Luther King is probably intelligible to many readers. But unless you know that mother’s papers is a kind of synecdoche for dispute over the disposition of their mother’s papers — that is, unless you already know what the story is about — this headline does not give you clear information.

Caylee’s mom indicted, arrested after car swap

Mom for mother is another aged headline convention, especially in tabloids. You already knew who Caylee was, right? You’ve been following the twists of this story about a missing child for weeks, right? Wonder what the car swap was and why it led to an indictment? Guess you’ll have to read the story.

Madonna, Guy Ritchie reportedly to split

“Reportedly.” Who reports? Reportedly to do something and said to do something are among the oldest crutches in the hack’s tool chest.

Mr. and Mrs. Madonna ‘ready to divorce’

Even better, an unattributed quote — again, who says so? — linked to a coy reference to Guy Ritchie as a mere annex to Madonna.

Remote-control Hubble fix to begin

Animate the inanimate. Just as Coretta King’s papers are tearing her children apart, so does the Hubble repair get under way without human agency.

Scoop: McCain wants Palin on ‘SNL’? When I was a lad, a scoop meant you had actual information, not a question.

Gray voters not reliably red

Some credit should be given for the wordplay, but red state/blue state references have been a cliche for much of the past eight years.

Obama, McCain prepare for final debate

You don’t have to pick up a print version to find a dull headline that tells you nothing. It might be news if they weren’t preparing for the debate. Of course, there is some utility in telegraphing to the reader that since the story is about an event that has not yet occurred, there is probably little or no actual information to be had.

CIA tactics endorsed in secret memos

Passive voice leaves out the who. We knew mistakes were made. Tell us who made them.

‘Sex for Secrets’ Poison Needle Spy Gets 5 Years

Two references to this spy case about which I have not a clue.

Tough Times Test Character, Relationships

D’ya think?

VIDEO: Fix for Constipation

Let’s just give this one a miss.

What I’ve found is that these news Web sites have chained themselves to a format that dooms them to an elliptical headlinese as constrained as any print design. One-line headlines of half a dozen words will inevitably depend on abbreviations, opaque allusions and all the irritating shortcuts to which print newspapers have resorted for decades. Of the three, only Fox News offers opportunities to write a deck — a secondary headline that expands on the sense of the main head.

I have seen the future, and a lot of it resembles the past.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:24 AM | | Comments (5)

October 14, 2008

Great moments in the English language -- 2

As long as we are noticing anniversaries, it is 80 years since the first edition of the great Oxford English Dictionary was published — that is, since the last fascicle of that edition was released. (The first fascicle, under James Murray’s editorship, appeared in 1884.)

The publisher is celebrating this anniversary with a series of events this month and next. Even if you can’t attend, you can lift a glass to one of the monuments of the language.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (0)

Great moments in the English language

On this date in A.D. 1066, the invading forces of Duke William of Normandy did battle with the army of King Harold II of England at Hastings. Harold died in the battle, leaving his claim to the throne moot, and William, subsequently styled William the Conqueror, and his Norman nobles assumed power.

One unintended and unforeseen consequence of this battle was that Anglo-Saxon, the vernacular language, was abandoned to an illiterate peasantry. By the 14th century, this rabble had radically changed the heavily inflected Germanic language, and wholesale borrowings from Norman French and Latin had enriched the vocabulary, producing Middle English, the language of Chaucer and the recognizable predecessor of our own supple tongue.

No doubt there were a few Saxon monks and nobles who deplored all the Continental neologisms creeping into the language and who were shocked at the ignorant populace’s abandonment of gender for all nouns. They would have mourned the decay of the language and decried the creeping barbarism overtaking it. They would have harked back to a day when, by God, you were taught proper grammar and given a good thrashing for any lapses. Not the degenerate times we live in now, grumble, grumble, grumble.

All the same, it looks today as if William did us a good turn.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:43 AM | | Comments (4)

October 13, 2008

Read somebody else

I’m still technically on vacation — apart from the laundry and the yard work and the long-neglected draft of the book on editing — so what am I doing sitting in the basement on a fine fall day? And why aren’t you outside inhaling all the ragweed pollen?

But if you insist on staying at the computer, look here:

Item: At Slate, Christine Kennealley is reviewing Henry Hitchings’ The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English and other books on the language.

Item: David Michael Ettlin, for four decades a reporter and rewrite man at The Baltimore Sun, has taken to blogging at The Real Muck. Ettlin, who was stringing for Reuters as well as writing for The Sun the day that Spiro Agnew pleaded no contest to felony charges in federal court in Baltimore, sprinted out of the courtroom to a telephone he knew about that was closer than the one the Associated Press reporter knew about. That’s how Reuters got the beat on AP on the Agnew plea.

Mr. Ettlin trained a couple of generations of tyros on the technic* of police reporting and obituary writing, insisting relentlessly on accuracy and clarity. He wrote Saturday with affection about the passing of Albert Sehlstedt Jr., one of The Sun’s great versatile reporters.

Item: At Language Log, the indefatigable Arnold Zwicky examines in detail the syntactic tangles speakers of English get themselves into with coordinate possessives.

Item: At Heads Up, fev has a cautionary post on the need to pay attention to statistics. You’ll want to keep the rabbitburger example in mind.

As for me, I have to pick up the dry cleaning.


* No, not technique. From techne, the Greek word for applied rather than theoretical knowledge, we do get technique, the skill in applying that knowledge, but also technic, the theory or principles of an art or process.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:08 AM | | Comments (1)

October 11, 2008

The cost of virtue

Perhaps those who are congratulating themselves on their worthiness for participating in today’s Under Armour Baltimore Running Festival might consider for a moment how much additional gasoline was consumed and how much additional exhaust was expelled into the air by motorists trapped in the standstill traffic on York Road, Cold Spring Lane and other streets to accommodate the runners.
Posted by John McIntyre at 3:47 PM | | Comments (6)

October 10, 2008

Two views

In Britain, the Guardian has reported plans by the Daily Express and Sunday Express to streamline the work flow by eliminating as many as 80 subeditors (that is, copy editors). The plan is that “reporters would fit stories into an editorial template containing the necessary styles. Rewriters and lawyers would then check the pages.” Uh-huh. *

In the United States, Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, tells Advertising Age that the Internet has become “a ‘cesspool’ where false information thrives.” His remedy is “branding,” the establishment of products — electronic publications — whose reliability can be trusted.

I doubt that anyone is prepared to gainsay Mr. Schmidt. We’ve seen the development of a wildly credulous audience willing to accept the truth of any fanciful statement that coicincides with its preconceptions and prejudices: the scurrilous rumors spread about the maternity of Sarah Palin’s latest child, for one, or the ludicrous assertions that Barack Obama is a fellow traveler of terrorists.

There’s probably not much to be done about that kind of audience, there having been people willing to believe anything they see in writing since ink was first put to paper, or chisel to stone. But what the wide-open Internet frustrates is the readship that would like to have some assurance that what is being read is also accurate.

Accuracy is established, at least in part, by editing. Any individual writer can misintepret the information he or she has gathered. Any individual writer can be led astray by personal preconceptions or prejudices. Any individual writer can make careless mistakes. The point of editing, of which copy editing is one component, is the establishment of a structure of checks and balances that compensates for individual propensity to error.

Editing is, in short, an essential element of that “branding” that Mr. Schmidt thinks is indispensible. **

The Express papers are free to abandon this costly superstructure and present to their readers that free-range, writing-to-template-checked-by-lawyers product. One suspects what the “brand” will look like. (I don’t know; perhaps British lawyers are better writers than the members of the American bar. You think?)

I can only say to publishers who pursue such measures, and their customers: Verily, you have your reward.


* Anyone interested in determining how much an ornament to the trade the Express papers are can take a look here.

 ** Unfortunately, Mr. Schmidt was unable to suggest what newspapers might do to generate the revenue to support the reporting and editing structure that gives rise to the brand. We’re all still waiting for that discovery. Sooner would be better than later.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:11 PM | | Comments (2)

October 9, 2008

The Copy Editor's Temperament

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (4)

No class

Earlier this week, in an editorial in The Baltimore Sun, I saw the word cache for cachet.

Yesterday, a snarky letter at about a critic included this sentence: “I hope he's not too attached to the cache that writing for a newspaper used to have.”

Writers and publications might have more cachet — prestige, distinction, pronounced ka-SHAY — if they could bring themselves to learn how to distinguish between different words. Otherwise, they merely assist me in building up a cache — a store of examples or an area in which such material is kept securely, pronounced KASH — of material to hold up for condemnation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (2)

October 8, 2008

There were giants in those days -- 2

Journalism affords many examples of the perennial phenomenon that the number of horse’s asses in the world far exceeds the number of horses.

This is not to say that journalism lacks smart people; I’ve had the good fortune to work with scores of literate, knowledgeable, sensible people, a great many of them on copy desks, over nearly three decades. But — well, let’s take as examples five notable figures from a paper far removed in place and time. *

Item: There was an editor who had been elevated to high rank apparently because he was too dim to be a threat to anyone. In presiding over the daily news meeting, he developed a series of comments on proposed stories that committed him to no decision: “I’m not opposed to that.” “I’m not bothered by that.” “Let’s not rule that out.” (Once his synapses misfired, and he said, “I’m not opposed to being bothered by that.”) Then he would vanish into his office, emerging only when the local and national television news programs had shown him what the top stories of the day were.

Item: After this nameless paper published an article describing how a man — a “killer” — had committed a series of “murders” — none of which had gone to trial and in some of which no charges had even been filed — this editor responded to the staff’s concerns about the propriety by posting a memo that said: “This guy is in so much trouble that he’s never going to have time to sue us” **

Item: This editor objected to the word Britons in a front-page headline, saying that it must be a typo, because he had never seen it before. This was during the Falklands War, when the paper had been referring to Britons in stories for several days. ***

Item: This editor issued an order forbidding members of his staff to exchange electronic messages in foreign languages. The background: It appeared that this editor had one or more sycophants on the staff who looked over the shoulders of colleagues suspected of views subversive to the management and reported on their exchanges. To test this premise, a few of the subversives took to sending one another old Latin tags, scraps of opera libretti in Italian and other purely innocuous texts. The edict followed in short order.

Item: When a particularly vexatious copy editor left the paper for another, this editor scheduled a good-riddance party on the copy editor’s last day. As it happened, the copy editor’s friends had scheduled the farewell party for the same saloon. The honoree got to watch his colleagues come through the door and halt momentarily as they discovered that a choice was to be made. I enjoyed it hugely.


* Yes, I am on vacation, supposedly working on the manuscript of my book on editing. Think of this as a warm-up exercise.

** Quoted from memory. I was a fool not to have made a personal copy, which I could later have donated to the Newseum.

*** You, the reader, might find it disconcerting to learn that some reporters, copy editors and editors do not read their own newspapers, though they expect you to do so.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (8)

October 6, 2008

It's the same old story

I was particularly struck by a passage in David Halberstam’s 1993 book The Fifties, in which he describes a major corporate shift at General Motors. Perhaps it will have some resonance for those of you who have worked at newspapers during the past 15 years.

For many GM people the critical moment came in 1958, when Frederic Donner became president. Donner’s roots were in accounting but, unlike Harlow Curtice, who had also been an accountant, Donner was a man who gave off a sense of being interested only in numbers. …

His ascent was a reflection of the changes in the company. At the daily meeting with heads of the divisions, Fred Donner kept talking about the stock, about what the stock analysts in New York said about it. For Bunkie Knudsen, then head of the Pontiac division, talk like this was downright sacrilegious. There had never been talk of the stock price at these meetings in the past. It was perfectly proper for the head of a company to talk about the need for profits, even the need to maximize profits, but to talk about driving the stock up and to talk about what Wall Street analysts thought about the company, he believed, was unthinkable. In the old days there had been a simple concept: The people in Detroit had to make good cars, and if they did, the people in New York would take care of the stock.

Donner’s talk signaled something ominous to Knudsen: a profound change in the purpose of the corporation. It meant that profit, rather than the quality of the product, was now the objective of the corporation, and it meant, though few realized it at the time, that there would be an inevitable decline in the power of the engineering and manufacturing departments. It also signaled an even greater decline in the willingness of the corporation to experiment with new technology (each new development added costs to a car), and finally, it would lead to an unswerving drive to make the divisions as homogeneous as possible, so that the same pins and screws and nuts and bolts and body shells could be used in each division. For a profound metamorphosis was taking place in America’s largest and biggest industrial companies: the rise of financial experts over product men. It was a sure sign that these companies, unconsciously at least, believed that they were de facto monopolies and faced no real competitive challenges anymore. Rather, their only real concern was to maximize the profits that now seemed to be permanently theirs and to drive the stock up.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (1)

Hit parade

I’m taking a couple of weeks of vacation and will be posting fitfully, if at all. Lest you suffer from withdrawal, here are some links to previous posts that have proved popular or useful. Don’t neglect to look at the comments.

And, of course, if there is a post that you particularly enjoyed, you can name in it a comment; if there is one you found particularly stupid and misguided, feel free to take a swipe at it.

The videos

How to tie a bow tie

How to use a pocket handkerchief

How to make a martini

How to judge a book by its cover

The purportedly humorous

Linnaeus on the copy desk

Those amazing wordsmiths

A drink with the author


The main things

Just throw the ball already

Punctuated equilibrium

Lying, cheating and stealing

Just write what they said

Grammar isn’t everything

What I don’t care about

Johnsonian maxims



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:29 AM | | Comments (0)

October 2, 2008

How to judge a book by its cover

Posted by Mike Catalini at 5:09 PM | | Comments (8)

A ringing endorsement

Michael Catalini, whom I hired as a two-year intern on the copy desk, has since been promoted to multimedia editor, responsible for editing videos produced by the newsroom staff. (He is culpable in the production of my videos on this blog.)

A former Dow Jones Newspaper fund intern, he has written about his career experience, including his days under the iron heel of McIntyranny. Students of and beginners in journalism, please note his advice:

“There’s nothing like having a grizzled, inveterate curmudgeon teach you the ropes. ... Learn to deal with criticism.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:11 AM | | Comments (1)

October 1, 2008

We look so natural

Newspaper Death Watch having discovered this blog, the least I can do is to return the favor.
Posted by John McIntyre at 6:30 PM | | Comments (0)

Her Majesty regrets

When Martha Brockenbrough wrote to Elizabeth II to solicit the monarch’s opinion on the differences between British and American spelling, punctuation and grammar, she received a starchy reply from Buckingham Palace that “as a constitutional sovereign, Her Majesty’s position precludes her commenting on or giving her opinions on such matters.” *

It’s obviously fun to be the founder and chief panjandrum of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and further evidence can be found in the pages of Things That Make Us [sic], being published this month. She takes on the chairman of the board of Canada’s Maple Leafs team for their irresponsible plural, as well as assorted office-holders, celebrities, and others careless with the language.

The letters from SPOGG are the sugar that helps the medicine go down, because what Ms. Brockenbrough, the founder also of National Grammar Day,** has produced is, in plain fact, a compact manual of grammar and usage.

As such, it has a good deal of useful information in the prescriptive vein. Ill-informed presctiptivists should particularly consult Chapter 10, “Rules That Never Were, Are No More, and Should Be Broken,” which hammers at the split infinitive nonsense, the none-only-as-singular fallacy, and other shibboleths of usage.

You might enjoy the discovery of the list of Colonel McCormick’s idiosyncratic simplified spellings, which the Chicago Tribune held onto well into the mid-1970s. As to the mechanics, the usual lists of homonyms commonly confused, parts of speech, irregular verbs and other basics are well represented. Her advice is sensible.

This is a breezy book, and its approach is plainly aimed at reaching the non-specialist reader who would like to write more clearly and precisely. It also represents an effort to develop an informed prescriptivism, one that gives informed advice rather than arbitrary and unfounded decrees — she dismisses the nonsense about hopefully that mavendom carried on about in the 1980s.

If the breeziness — the SPOGGery — is not to your taste, you can skip over it to the substance. If you find it agreeable, then go ahead and take you medicine.


* What a pity, to have to pass up an opportunity for the monarchy to provide a useful service.

** A minor disclosure. Ms. Brockenbrough and I appeared on the Dan Rodricks show, Midday, on WYPR-FM last March 4 as part of the Grammar Day observances.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (3)
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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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