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November 28, 2008

Painful cases

They have been a little preoccupied of late at Dining @ Large with the issue of hostile comments.* These fall into two classes. There are times when a joke has been carried too far or someone’s feelings have been hurt, prompting an angry response. These incidents can usually be cleared up with little more than an explanation and an apology. More troublesome are the remarks posted under cover of anonymity or pseudonymity to make wanton ad hominem attacks.

I treated the subject briefly in an earlier post, “Enemies as a gauge of one’s worth,” that made reference to a particular person who has made himself well known in newspaper circles. For convenience, let’s refer to him as Mr. Animus. We know some things about him and can reasonably surmise others.

Mr. Animus made himself known by a single-minded attack on the influence of page design and page designers on newspapers, holding them accountable for all the misfortunes the industry has encountered. (Lately he has branched out to attack his fellow copy editors, particularly the younger ones.)

Mr. Animus, though he appears to have worked exclusively at a series of smaller Midwestern papers, speaks with authority about the operation of metropolitan dailies, of which he seems to have little or no direct experience.

Mr. Animus also despises the American Copy Editors Society, of which he has not been a member, and condemns the worth of its national conferences, which he has not attended. (It is also a point worth noting that someone setting himself up as an authority on language and editing should peculiarly think that variations on “fiddling while Rome burns” are fresh and striking.)

Mr. Animus singles out people for attack by name, but he does not praise.

Mr. Animus — and here pathos begins to overtake irritation — maintains a blog in which he posts and comments on his own posts, talking almost exclusively to himself.

He is a representative, and an extreme one, of a type that most of us have encountered: the person defined by anger, who maintains that anger at high flame and defines himself by it. It is not only his mode of operation but his mode of being, and he cannot be reasoned with. The Internet has given such people a tremendous megaphone. Such people are not only annoying to encounter on blogs and other sites, but also destructive to discourse, because they can discourage participation by others.

The question is how to deal with such people, given that it is beyond us to compel them to receive the psychological treatment from which they (and we) might benefit.

The Sun’s blogs moderate comments, and so comments do not get published without the blogger’s authorization. This permits a number of strategies.

When David Zurawik was writing about political coverage of the presidential campaign at Z on TV, he seems to have authorized just about everything, apparently assuming that exposure to the light would disinfect the ill-spelled, ill-argued, bigoted personal attacks that rained down on him. Perhaps so, but not everyone enjoys stepping through such ordure.

Some bloggers may decline to publish comments, which is not a course of action that fosters discussion.

Ms. Large’s core audience, the people who comment regularly, have become self-policing. If a commenter gets out of hand, the other readers call him on it, with reproaches in a calm, even-handed manner. Finding that rude behavior is not appreciated, commenters either behave themselves or go away.

The problem is that in the larger culture so much discourse is little more than shouting, which the maladjusted and resentful find exactly to their taste. Perhaps the most that one person can accomplish is to strive to create an island of civility.


Rules for commenters

Comments on this blog are subject to review. You Don’t Say is a publication of The Baltimore Sun and conforms to The Sun’s editorial standards. Obscene and profane language will not be published, and racial, ethnic, sexist and homophobic slurs will not be tolerated.

Commenters are welcome to challenge me or other commenters on issues of language and editing, and to do so vigorously, but insults and ad hominem attacks will not be published.

While I may summarize the content of personal messages in these posts, I will not quote any such correspondence verbatim or identify the author without the writer’s consent.

While I do post anonymous comments of innocuous content, I prefer that you identify yourselves by including a valid e-mail address with your comment. Your e-mail address will not be published or circulated.


* See “Dealing with a nasty post” and “What to do about snarkers.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:10 PM | | Comments (9)

November 27, 2008

The calm before

The house is still, but the coffee is brewing.

The mashed potatoes were done yesterday, but there are still pies awaiting final assembly and baking. Everything is on track. Later today, when the crown roast of pork comes out of the oven and the prosecco is uncorked and poured, Kathleen and Alice and John Paul and I will sit at table and pause for a moment to reflect on how uncommonly fortunate we are.

I’m getting a head start.

The primary, principal, foremost cause for gratitude is the affection of my wife and children.

But there are others.

It was sheer luck that I drifted into the work that has given such satisfaction for 29 years, and it was by luck that I have been able to work for a distinguished newspaper for the past 22. At The Sun I have had the support of three editors, John Carroll, Bill Marimow and Tim Franklin, in efforts to build up and sustain the work of the copy desk, and the company of the colleagues who work on it.

And — this is the point of this post — I have come to know some of you, my readers. You comment, you correct me, you send me personal notes, and you keep coming back (no doubt desperate for amusement). There are scores of you, apparently thousands, if Google Analytics is accurate, whom I do not know at all but who have become regular readers. It’s amazing.

So, this afternoon, as I settle, nearly comatose with food and drink, with coffee and brandy by the fireside, It is unlikely that you will be much in my thoughts. But tomorrow I will have to come up with something for you to read.

Thank you for visiting.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:04 AM | | Comments (6)

November 26, 2008

Administrative head counting

Those on whom God has exercised his wrath by making you managers may find in this Oxford anecdote a useful model:

“[Alexander] Lindsay, when Master of Balliol, found himself in a minority of one in a college meeting and remarked, ‘I see, we are deadlocked.' " 

From The Dons by Noel Annan

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:40 PM | | Comments (3)

November 25, 2008

The slipperiness of the rules

The ever-thoughtful Arnold Zwicky has written at Language Log about the problems inherent in the “attempt to regulate publication practices rigidly.” That is, the structure at newspapers and other publications at which “writers are expected to adhere to the prescribed practices, and editors are expected to correct them when they don't."

The first problem he mentions is the sheer quantity of choices in such an effort:

[T]here are alternative styles used by different writers on different occasions, so that pretty much everyone is exposed to the alternatives, and many writers (and editors) will be expected to shift their practices from those the use, or used, on other occasions. In this situation, it can be very difficult for people to maintain perfect consistency, even on relatively “mechanical” choices ... neither writers nor those who are reading for the purposes of editing can attend to all the choices in a text, since there are a vast number of them and they are clustered densely in every text. (Composition teachers marking essays for things they believe to be errors miss a great many.) In fact, it's reasonable to ask what the point of trying to adhere rigidly to certain prescriptions is.

The second problem is with the rules themselves:

[T]he prescriptions are either quite complex or not entirely clear or not easy to apply in some situations (usually two or more of these). Very few prescriptions are as simple as they first appear ... most of them have great areas of unclarity ... and it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a prescription even applies (distinguishing restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses can sometimes be a tricky business, as almost any copyeditor can tell you).

Since these observations go to the heart of what copy editors try to accomplish, they are worth a little further consideration.

The Sun’s stylebook, which is based on and which incorporates much of Associated Press style, has about 3,000 entries, of which copy editors are expected to have a working knowledge. (Most newspapers long since abandoned any effort to instruct reporters in house style, and even the knowledge of assigning editors is spotty.) When you consider the number of things that can go wrong apart from conformity to house style — factual inaccuracies; errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage; ill-judged prose effects and other infelicities — it is no wonder that not all of those choices “clustered densely in every text” get an editor’s attention.

This, by the way, is one reason to look periodically at those stylebook entries to determine which ones make sense and which ones merely waste time.

The second point, that it is virtually impossible to apply the prescriptions uniformly throughout the publication, is also well taken. The diction or sentence structure appropriate in an editorial or a business story could look weirdly out of place in the sports section. Columnists are given more license to be informal or colloquial than the writers of straight news stories. Since every story by every writer has to be considered in its own context, editors can only get themselves into trouble by applying a set of rules identically in every circumstance. Editors must perforce work within a continuum of what is considered appropriate for a given publication, and the inherent subjectivity will inevitably produce inconsistencies.

And now, as economic pressures reduce the number of editors at newspapers, magazines and electronic publications, putting more work in fewer hands, it becomes even more urgent for us to focus on what is central to the effort of editing and reach a consensus on giving up on what is misguided or peripheral.

Now to digress:

The occasion of Mr. Zwicky’s post is the apparent reluctance of The New York Times to publish a relatively mild colloquial term for sexual congress * in an article, though it had published the term in previous articles.

When and where to permit profanities (gross or mild) or colloquial terms for body parts and bodily functions is one of the great nuisances on a copy desk, because you can’t win. The writer will call you a prig if you delete or paraphrase the language, and readers will complain if you let it through that you are corrupting the minds of children. ** Newspapers, it is true, continue to have readers who are relatively fastidious about vocabulary and who expect their printed edition to conform to their long-established expectations. But I think it should be open to discussion whether their tastes should dictate that the entire paper should be prissy.

It is hard enough to get the words spelled right, in intelligible sentences that conform to something approximating standard written English and not too outrageously at variance with external reality.


* To get laid.

** Who ARE these children who are reading newspapers? I didn’t think you could get anyone under 50, at bayonet point, to look at a newspaper. And don’t these children watch television? Look at the Internet? Listen to the lyrics blasting out of automobile sound systems on warm summer days?



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

November 21, 2008

How to pronounce it

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (38)

November 19, 2008

Unsafe at any speed

Cynthia Crossen’s “Book Lover” column in The Wall Street Journal reminds in an invaluable metaphor that “without strong editors, writers are like cars with accelerators but no brakes.”

Thank you, Editrix, for the citation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (5)

Why newspapering stumbles

Doug Fisher and David Sullivan, two of my prized colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, offer separate perspectives today on the troubles besetting newspaper journalism. While both write about the challenges of technology, each touches on some deeper attitudinal aspect. *

Professor Fisher’s frustration:

[A]s I have gone around making a presentation on how to use new digital tools to stay connected, the response in some newsrooms and at conferences has been tepid at best in many cases and downright hostile in others (along the lines of how am I supposed to do my job with all this, to which I often have wanted to respond, this is going to be your job, dammit).

There is a well-founded suspicion in the business that a big push has been on for some time to get more work done by fewer people. But at the same time, it has not been hard to find examples of mulish resistance to learning new things, a resistance at ground level that mirrors long-term short-sightedness at the top. When you dance with Juggernaut, you have to be nimble.

Mr. Sullivan’s frustration:

Too many journalists think the reader's pleasure is irrelevant, that the reader picks up the newspaper either to be instructed or to sit in awe of the literary talent being presented in it. In short, too many journalists are too full of themselves to succeed in the 21st century, when a newspaper needs to focus on what its readers want, since the readers' choices of what to do with their time seem limitless. That is the challenge for young journalists of the 21st century, who I hope will save us all.

Mr. Sullivan, talking to students at the University of Kansas, discovered that while they are more conversant with the new technology than many of their elders, they were not hostile to print. They were, as the term of art goes, platform agnostic. But they are not interested, I expect, in dull stuff on either platform.

It is not hard to find examples in newspapers of articles that have no identifiable audience. I have a thumb drive full of them for use in my editing class: the story that ambles through a dozen paragraphs of some less-than-riveting anecdote before condescending to explain what the point is (or that turns out not to have any particular point); the business story that is impenetrable to the lay reader, but too sketchy to be of any use to a business person; the governmental story crammed with bureaucratic procedure and jargon that never explains what consequence there is for anyone outside the loop; the feature story written to impress with the writer’s prowess in ransacking a thesaurus, drawing all the attention to the writer and none to the subject.

So the challenge is twofold. We have to master the new technologies, both to acquire useful information and to convey it in the form in which readers prefer to receive it, and we have to do some hard thinking about who those readers are and what they are interested in reading.

Oh, and while we’re doing that, could you fellows in the big offices try to figure out how to make money again?


* The full texts of Doug Fisher’s post and David Sullivan’s post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:42 AM | | Comments (1)

November 18, 2008

Come into the parlor

Since I solicited suggestions for a collective noun to identify the readership of this blog, the word parlor is the term that has gotten the most traction.

I had thought at one point that snuggery might be a good term. But now that the world has grown so damnably virtuous that one can no longer go to a pub for a pipe and a pint, the luster of the word is diminished. But we could repair to the parlor for Madeira and walnuts.

The word parlor (parlour for Commonwealth readers) derives ultimately from the French parler, to talk. As a noun, parloir was the name for the room in convents and monasteries where visitors could be received. It developed into the sense of a room for intimate conversations and the room in the house in which visitors could be received formally. (Also the room in the house where a body would be laid out for viewing before a funeral.)

The parlor in my grandparents’ farmhouse in Fleming County, Kentucky, was the room where I practiced on the old upright piano as a child, one of the rooms where I spent hours stretched out reading on a sofa, the room in which my first wife and I were married. It’s a term with a lot of personal associations.

So I am leaning in that direction myself, though I still think that this is something for the readership to determine. Over the weekend I checked an analytical program that collects metrics for this blog (Yes, we saw what you did; we know who you are) and discovered that in the past year there are more than 5,000 of you who have viewed pages here more than 200 times each. If you are going to be that loyal, you deserve a voice in what you are called.

Incidentally, I appear to have disconcerted at least one of you by saying that “what y’all decide is not up to me,” provoking the comment “John McIntyre said, ‘Y’all’?” Coincidentally, my eminent colleague Dan Puckett at the San Antonio Express-News posted a comment on Facebook: “Dan is an emphatic proponent of ‘y'all’: It disambiguates, y'all.” I asked how he stands on the plural, all y’all. He answered that all is merely intensive, since y’all is already plural.

We may have to call Language Log in on this one, or even, in an extremity, Southerners, because I have heard y’all used in direct address to a single person. So either y’all is an error when used in the singular, or it is, like you, singular or plural in context, which might make all y’all a kind of hyperplural.




Posted by John McIntyre at 1:31 PM | | Comments (18)

November 15, 2008


Dick Cavett has had some jolly fun in The New York Times with Sarah Palin’s improbable syntax, zinging her, in part, as “one who seems to have no first language.”

One may feel less sympathy for the governor than for, say, the interviewers desperately trying to grapple her unanchored prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses before the swift-moving current carries them out to sea. Or for the poor devil commenting on Cavett’s essay who as an American in Brittany was asked to translate Palin into French for the neighbors.

Palin is far from the first elected official to be mocked for getting ensnared in syntax. You may recall Dan Quayle’s mangling of the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” as “What a terrible thing to have lost one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.” You may also recall — balanced treatment here — Richard Daley pere saying, “The police are not here to create disorder. They are here to preserve disorder.”

But I think that indulging in extensive ridicule, including attempts to diagram her sentences, may go a little far. We may be seeing evidence of her getting this treatment because she is a woman.

Why, you wonder, do I think so?

Consider this sentence: “Any onset of increased investor caution elevates risk premiums and, as a consequence, lowers asset values and promotes the liquidation of the debt that supported higher asset prices. … This is the reason that history has not dealt kindly with the aftermath of protracted periods of low risk premiums.”

It was uttered by Alan Greenspan, who, during nearly 19 years as chairman of the Federal Reserve, regularly produced utterances that were treated as reverently by the news media as if they were Sibylline oracles. The very opacity of his remarks was received and noted with something like awe. Then, in his testimony before Congress last month, we discovered that he was, um, mistaken.

We lampoon Governor Palin as a latter-day Lucy Ricardo (not entirely fair, since Lucy’s illogic always made a zany sense, while Governor Palin’s non-logic merely baffles). Male figures in government whose jargon defies paraphrase command respect. This cannot be right.

You Don’t Say stands forthrightly in favor of equal ridicule for all.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:21 PM | | Comments (11)

Name yourselves

If the fiercely loyal readers of Elizabeth Large’s dining blog refer to themselves collectively as the Sandbox, what term is most appropriate for the faithful readers of this blog?

Your suggestions, as always, are welcome.

Be advised that Outpatients has already been considered and rejected.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:38 PM | | Comments (49)

November 14, 2008

Uncharitable remark

I received an e-mail announcement today from the local chapter of the United Way about a holiday benefit concert. The subject line of the e-mail was — you guessed it — “ ‘Tis the season.” By now you know my sentiments.

Perhaps I should rethink that pledge.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:24 PM | | Comments (2)

So many books, so little time

When Sarah Quinn of the Poynter Institute called to get some remarks for a question-and-answer feature, she wanted to know what models of prose I would recommend for people serious about their writing. That’s a fair question. As a copy editor, I am, like a pathologist, more occupied with diseased tissue. When I encounter healthy tissue, I leave it alone. But it is the best writing I encounter that shapes my sense of what prose ought to be, and can be.

So I have some idiosyncratic suggestions for you, books I have read, valued and sometimes re-read over the years.

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War

That should clear the room fast of the casual browsers.

No, really. My college roommate at Michigan State, was reading Thucydides during the Vietnam War. I finally got around to it during our involvement in Iraq. If you want an illustration of what happens when democracy, imperial ambitions, power politics and misguided foreign adventures entangle, no one has drawn a clearer picture. The Landmark Thucydides, edited by Robert B. Strassler, has extremely helpful notes, and the maps will benefit readers whose sense of Mediterranean geography in the fifth century B.C. may be a little shaky.

John McPhee, Pieces of the Frame and Giving Good Weight

These two anthologies of McPhee’s shorter work are excellent introductions to his lucid prose. But he has written a shelf of books, and his various volumes on geology are models of how a highly technical subject can be brought within the compass of a non-specialist reader’s understanding.

Of Laphraoig, a single-malt Scotch Whisky, he writes: “His whisky is so smoky, so heavy, so redolently peaty that a consumer feels he is somehow drinking a slab of bacon.”

Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live

Didion’s sensibility may be famously neurasthenic, but this omnibus incorporating seven books of her nonfiction repays repeated reading. Her eye for the telling detail, her ear for the revelatory scrap of dialogue and her nose for pretense and self-deceit do not fail her. Or you.

“California Dreaming,” about Robert M. Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, ends with this quotation from the wife of a contribution to the deep-thinking sessions: “ ‘These sessions are way over my head,’ she confided, ‘but I go out floating on air.’ “

H.L. Mencken, Happy Days, Newspaper Days and Heathen Days

The Johns Hopkins University Press has reprinted Mencken’s three volumes of memoirs, selections from which have been available for some time in a single volume, A Choice of Days. Mencken’s exuberance flashes on every page.

Paul Fussell, Class

A very funny analysis of the class distinctions that Americans observe without acknowledging that they do so.

“The deployment of the male bowtie is an illustration. If neatly tied, centered, and balanced, the effect is middle-class. When tied askew, as if carelessly or incompetently, the effect is upper-middle or even, if sufficiently inept, upper. The worst thing is being neat when, socially, you;re supposed to be sloppy, or clean when you’re supposed to be filthy.”

Or this: “Actually, only six things can be made of black leatrher without causing class damage to the owner: belts, shoes, handbags, gloves, camera cases, and dog leashes.”

Stock up your bookshelves:

Stephen Jay Gould: Any of his books, but particularly the collections of essays on biology first published in Natural History.

Garry Wills: His wide-ranging knowledge is impressive. He has written about Richard Nixon, St. Augustine, the Roman Catholic Church in American, Thomas Jefferson’s presidency and any number of other subjects, clearly and emphatically.

Frances Fitzgerald: Books on the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake; on American visionary communities, Cities on a Hill; on why American history is taught so badly in the schools, America Revised.

Karen Armstrong: A life of the Buddha, an introduction to Islam, an account of monotheism (A History of God), a sharp analysis of fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism and Islam (The Battle for God).

Claire Tomalin: Excellent biographies of Samuel Pepys and Jane Austen, along with several others that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Bill Bryson: Mother Tongue, for a highly accessible history and survey of the English language; Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, for reference; A Short History of Nearly Everything, for nearly everything; and The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, for fun.

When you’ve read these, come back for more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:42 AM | | Comments (9)

The word in Milwaukee

If you, like me, have been wondering why there have been no recent updates on Kathy Schenck’s informative and entertaining blog on language at the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee, the answer is that Words to the Wise has moved to a new address. And as always with technological advances, there were annoying and persistent problems. But the new site is up and running, and recent posts are available. I commend it to your attention.
Posted by John McIntyre at 8:35 AM | | Comments (1)

November 13, 2008

Go roll an hoop

What with the way the word historic has been flung around since the election Barack Obama to the presidency, it was bound to draw the language mavens.

Mighty Red Pen addressed one of the most common issues, the differentiation between historic, describing an event from the past that is significant, and historical, describing any past event. A useful distinction worth maintaining.

But the blood pressure starts to soar and the voices go up half an octave when someone asks whether it is better to say a historic event or an historic event. Editrix goes into some detail on the subject, and Bill Walsh is emphatic on it. The people who get thoroughly involved tend to suggest that an historic is suspect, pretentious, affected, un-American. If you say an historic, you probably have an illegal immigrant locked in the basement whom you pay a dollar a week to launder and press your spats.

And who am I to disagree with Bill Walsh and Bryan Garner?

Well, I am a person who says an historic, an hotel, an Hispanic, for a reason. Not all h’s are equal. Words in English beginning with h that are accented on the second syllable are more lightly aspirated than words beginning with h that are accented on the first. If I pronounced the word hotel, as HO-tel, like some rube, I would say a hotel. But I say an hotel — not an ’otel; the h is still audible, but faintly.

So bring me up before the House Committee on Un-American Pronunciation. I’ll obey the subpoena, but I’m not naming names.

That’s my personal preference. My opinion as an editor is that this is one more non-issue that wastes valuable time. If a text passes under my hands that reads a historic, stet; if it reads an historic, stet. Don’t we have more important things to do?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:27 AM | | Comments (17)

November 12, 2008

Chock full of metaphors

Recently to hand, i never metaphor i didn’t like by Dr. Mardy Grothe (Collins, $14.95). It is a book of quotations with occasional interpolated comments, and reading it is like eating popcorn.

But first, the caveats: The silly pun and pointless lowercase affectation in the title, along with the author’s brandishing of his degree in psychology on the cover, are minor irritants. A more substantial difficulty is that the quotations are presented without much in the way of citation of sources. This is a problem with many popular books of quotations and particularly with quotations on Internet sites; the reader cannot verify that the remarks are accurately quoted and properly attributed.

English-major anxieties aside, this book has some good stuff on nearly every page, particularly the snarky bits:

Denis Healy on Sir Geoffrey Howe: “His speech was rather like being savaged by a dead sheep.”

Sir Thomas Beecham on the harpsichord: “Like two skeletons copulating on a corrugated tin roof.”

Clive James on Judith Krantz’s Princess Daisy: “As a work of art, it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks.”

John Randolph on Edward Livingston: “He shines and stinks like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.”

The “life-altering metaphors” chapter, however, is as tedious as Polonius:

Nathaniel Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly which, when pursued, is always beyond our grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” And that’s one of the better ones.

The “sex” chapter is a little too risque for the sober and responsible Sun, but I’ll sneak one line in:

Brett Butler: “My mom always said, ‘Men are like linoleum floors. You lay them right, and you can walk on them for thirty years.’ “

There is advice and rueful awareness in the chapter “the literary life”:

F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Lawrence Kasdan: “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.”

H.L. Mencken: “I write to attain that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk.

Robert Traver: “A writer judging his own work is like a deceived husband—he is frequently the last person to appreciate the true state of affairs.”

There are also many clinkers throughout, which I don’t intend to risk my wrists to keyboard. This book is a buffet; move down the line, sample, and take what you like.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:13 AM | | Comments (2)

November 11, 2008

WARNING Do not read beyond this point

On Sunday, on the way back to Baltimore after returning my son to St. John’s College in Annapolis, I stopped at a Wendy’s for a quick meal. The music being piped into the restaurant was “Something Stupid” — and no popular song was ever more appropriately titled. For the past two days, that song has stuck in my head and WILL NOT GO AWAY.

The term for this phenomenon, the irritating scrap of music that plays relentlessly on a loop inside one’s head is earworm, which English borrowed directly from the German Ohrwurm.

The phrase from “Something Stupid” afflicting me is “And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like ‘I love you.’ “ Holding love for two beats is particularly saccharine.

I have concluded that my only escape from this torment is to pass it on to someone else. So, if you are too young to have heard this song, you’re safe. If you are of my generation, your doom is sealed.

I warned you not to read further.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:22 AM | | Comments (15)

November 10, 2008

Give me back my legions!

In A.D. 9, the Roman General Publius Quinctilius Varus marched the XVII, XVIII and XIX Legions, about 20,000 men, into an ambush in the Teutoburg Forest. The Germans annihilated them and captured their eagles, their sacred standards. The Roman Empire abandoned its ambitions to push the frontier across the Rhine to the Elbe, and, Suetonius tells us, thereafter the Emperor Augustus would pound his head against the wall and shout, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!” *

It has sunk in this year, as newspapers have shed newsroom staff members, including copy editors, by the score, that those troops are never coming back. The Sun, for one, has about half the copy editors that were on staff seven years ago. Newspapers may tick along for a while yet, but neither print journalism nor electronic journalism looks likely to mobilize anything like the squadrons we used to have. Banging our heads against the wall and moaning “Give us back our legions!” will get us nowhere.

It remains to consider what things copy editors and their colleagues might be able to do.

Show your work

So long as copy editors repair error silently, no one will heed them. If, as is often the case, even some of the reporters and assigning editors who work most closely with them have only a dim idea of what a copy editor does, it is hardly likely that the people in the offices will have a better grasp. Don’t keep to yourselves. Maintain a record of errors identified and corrected on the desk, and make the bosses aware of what is being caught. If a reporter makes errors persistently and the assigning editor lets them through, or if you identify structural weaknesses in articles, go across the aisle and have a tactful conversation. Don’t make yourself invisible. **

Many of the people who control the budget in both print and online journalism appear to have decided that editing is a frill. They should be confronted with evidence to the contrary.

Work on what matters

Copy editors have a reputation, not always undeserved, for obsessing over minutiae. There are points of grammar and usage that demand attention, but many copy editors waste time on shibboleths and superstitions and silly dicta. There’s no longer time for that. (If you want information on which points of grammar and usage are important and which are not, reading back numbers of You Don’t Say is an excellent starting point.)

Make yourself useful

It’s not a good time to be ignorant of the Web. If your publication is using more video, maybe you should step forward and learn to edit video. Maybe there is a subject on which you could blog for your publication. Can you take competent photographs? Can you get involved with the Web site? Are you at least reading the blogs and electronic articles, and pointing out errors for correction? Do you suggest story ideas? As new tasks and new skills come into the workplace, that is an opportunity for you to learn them and make yourself less dispensable. When the editor comes out of his office and surveys the room with that furrowed brow, you do not want his gaze to light on you.

Don’t let writers evade responsibility While textbooks will solemnly assure you that it is the writer’s responsibility to verify every point of fact in an article before letting go of it, you know that the culture of journalism permits people to turn in all manner of shoddy work, because it is understood that there will be someone else to clean it all up — in some cases, that it is beneath the dignity of The Writer to busy himself or herself with petty details better left to underlings.

We no longer have that full Edwardian household staff to tidy up after the quality, and it is time that the writers were given to understand that they have to take more responsibility for their own work. (This, of course, requires a cultural change that must be enforced from the top, not from the remnants of the copy desk. Don’t look for it to happen soon, but push.)

Write about what people want to read

Probably not as easy as you think. The impulse to go over to celebrity chatter and fluff is probably a mistake — plenty of that stuff is available elsewhere, and, frankly, the people who do it are likely to do it better than newspaper people can. Besides, as we see when some event of importance occurs, people want information, and they want it to be reliable and comprehensive.

I’m probably on firmer ground by suggesting what I think people don’t much want to read:

* Boilerplate wire service stories — you know, the ones that tell you that 15 people were blown up in South Stanistan without giving any clear idea of who or what is involved. Better to make it a brief and run a longer story on South Stanistan when you have the space to give the reader a fuller picture.

* Transcriptions of press releases.

* Stories on bureaucratic proceedings that read as if a bureaucrat had written them.

* Stories that go on for a dozen paragraphs of anecdotal introduction before telling you what they are about. Any story that doesn’t tell you what it’s about within the first two or three paragraphs.

* Thinly reported features in which the lack of substance is supposedly compensated for by the reporter’s fancy writing. Or any story that draws more attention to the writer’s writing than to its subject.

You may not be in a position to shape these stories, and you may not have time to challenge them when they roll down the chute at you, but you can still raise the issue. You can go back to the issue the next day. You can initiate conversations in your own shop beyond the copy desk. (Try not to make an ass of yourself.)

Don’t give up the ship

Yes, I know that Capt. James Lawrence was mortally wounded when he gave the order and that the USS Chesapeake was taken by the British anyhow. No matter. That is the spirit.

Copy editors in particular are fighting a rear-guard action as newspapers struggle to find the means to survive. Our numbers are diminished, our masters’ confidence in the maintenance of quality has been shaken, and it is increasingly difficult to establish and maintain standards of editing instead of reverting to merely formatting and processing copy.

But you didn’t become a copy editor for riches or fame. You came to the desk determined to see things made right, knowing that there are readers who, without ever knowing your name, will appreciate being able to read articles that are accurate, straightforward and clear. You owe it to them not to give up. You owe it to yourself not to give up.

* “Quinctili Vare, legiones redde!”

** Yes, this is advice I’ve given before. Did you follow it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:12 AM | | Comments (8)

November 9, 2008

Not a dry eye

If you looked at The Sun’s commemorative section in Sunday’s editions on the presidential election, you might have noticed a reproduction of the paper’s front page from the 1932 edition proclaiming, “ROOSEVELT IS ELECTED.” And had you looked more closely, you would have seen a secondary headline above the banner, “New Congress Wet.”


Elections through the 1920s often turned on whether candidates were “wet” or “dry” — that is, whether they favored repeal or retention of Prohibition. Franklin Roosevelt proceeded determinedly, and successfully, for Repeal, perhaps the first time, and certainly the last, that H.L. Mencken approved of his actions as president.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 PM | | Comments (3)

November 8, 2008

Wrong again

Confusion of homonyms is one of the most vexing and persistent errors to turn up in print. Sometimes the writer simply doesn’t know the distinction, and sometimes, perhaps, the brain automatically corrects the perception to read the word that ought to be there. And spell-checking functions are of little help when the wrong word is correctly spelled. (Microsoft Word will, however, convert Barack Obama into Barracks Boatman if you are injudicious about applying the function.)

One of our readers sent me an irritated message this morning after discovering in the paper a reference to hoards of bar patrons. (Wherever do they store them all?)

The same reader also spotted a reference to police monitors watching live footage. Since footage is on videotape or film, it seems likelier that the monitors were observing live video.

Do keep the cards and letters coming, folks.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (10)

Baltimore words summed up

It has been a busy week down at the plant for some reason, and that has delayed further postings. Since there have been a number of responses to the posts on Baltimorean vocabulary, I thought it would be useful to sum it all up. Though surely not exhaustive, here is the list to date.

arabber, a-rabber, Araber (n). An itinerant street vendor of produce, typically using a decorated wagon drawn by a pony. The term derives from the 19th-century term street arab and has no connection with Arabs.* The remaining arabbers in Baltimore are all African-American.

chicken box (n). A carryout order consisting of three or more fried chicken wings and a serving of french fries.

coddie (n.). A fishcake of cod, onions and mashed potato, fried.

crabcake (n.). The signature Maryland dish, a patty of crabmeat and breading, either fried or broiled.

down the ocean (idiomatic). To the seaside.

espantoon (n.). A police officer’s nightstick or baton, wooden, with a leather strap that permits twirling. According to the Federal Writers’ Project’s Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, the word “apparently originated during the Revolutionary period when officers of the British infantry carried spontoons (Fr. Sponton, esponson)—short pikes."

half and half (n.). A beverage of equal parts of iced tea and lemonade. Also called an Arnold Palmer.

lake trout (n). Neither trout nor the freshwater fish of that name.** In Baltimore, lake trout, typically Atlantic whiting, is breaded and fried and served in take-out sandwich shops.

snoball (n.). Shaved or crushed ice flavored with syrup and served in a paper cone. Known elsewhere as a snowcone or snowball.

yoking (v. part.). A form of mugging in which the assailant approaches the victim from behind and wraps his arm tightly around the victim’s neck. Also yoker (n.), the perpetrator of such an assault.

In Supplement Two to The American Language (1948), H. L. Mencken writes this:

I have long had it in mind to attempt a vocabulary of Baltimore speech in the 80s and 90s, for a number of terms that were in common use there and then do not seem to have been noted elsewhere, e.g., Araber, a street huckster; to arab, to go huckstering; front steps, the steps before a dwelling-house, usually in those days of marble; and Yankee jumper, a sled for girls, with the platform raised 9 or 10 inches above the runners, and the runners curved upward in front. Leapfrog was always called par, and the word garden was almost unknown: it was always either the backyard or frontyard, or simply the yard. The outdoor privies that still survived in most backyards were called postoffices, and the men who cleaned them at intervals operated an O.E.A. (i.e., odorless excavating apparatus). The grades in school were designated first reader, second reader, etc. The best public room of a house was always the parlor. The street before it, at least for purposes of play, was out front. (pp.162-63) ***

Baltimore, to my knowledge, no longer has postoffices out back, but it still has front steps of marble. Lifelong Baltimoreans always spot a journalist imported from out of town, because an auslander will write about people sitting on the stoop. They have stoops in front of houses in New York; houses in Baltimore have front steps.


* One responder disputed that arabber has no connection with Arab. I should have made the point clearer that the only connection is etymological and that, in Baltimore, arabber does not suggest Arab to anyone. The responder mentioned in this connection the word gypsy, which I think also illustrates my point. The etymological origin of gypsy is Egyptian, though I doubt that anyone now makes such an association. Further, anyone referring to a gypsy cab is unlikely to be expecting a Romani driver.

** See John Woestendiek’s article on lake trout.

 *** Another responder pointed out that backyard and parlor are common usages in other places, of which Mencken was surely aware. The distinction here is that particular usages can be distinctive in a place without being unique to it. Mencken was describing customary usages in Baltimore. Think of a parallel case. Soda and pop are distinctive usages in regions without being unique to those areas. As to stoop, a responder has pointed out that the word can be encountered in wide use among Baltimore’s African-American community, and no doubt it has come into use since Mencken’s time. And yet, there is a sturdy remnant of Baltimoreans who object to it, one of them being an older African-American lady who objects to me every time it turns up in the paper. Perhaps we see a generational division over the words.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (4)

November 5, 2008

Plenty of chaff, but where's the wheat?

Tom Lehrer theorized once that “the reason most folk songs are so terrible is that they were written by the people,” proceeding to demonstrate how “My Darling Clementine” could have been written by Mozart or Gilbert and Sullivan. Great stuff.

I think of that remark when enthusiasts gush about the Internet’s opening up the discussion of everything to everybody and the “unmediated” connection between writer and reader on the Web. I wonder who has time for all that.

Take blogging, for example. My estimable colleague Elizabeth Large has a sizable audience for her blog on dining, and the comments section is notable for freewheeling — and entertaining — responses. The Sandbox, as her core commenters refer to themselves, is a remarkably self-policing group. People who blunder in and make insulting remarks are quickly reproached and discouraged from repeating rude behavior. But that seems exceptional.

My esteemed colleague David Zurawik has generated considerable popularity in just a few weeks with his blog on television. He, too, has attracted commenters. His are not self-policing. You look at 150 or 300 comments on one of his analyses of coverage of the presidential election, more than half of which are variations on “Hey, you suck,” and you wonder who has time for this. Who has the inclination, and the patience, to winnow ignorant or ad hominem comments to get at a handful of thoughtful and informed ones?

Don’t jump to a conclusion that I am necessarily trying to squelch free expression or knocking “citizen journalism” or attempting to define journalists as a caste of gatekeepers. I’m fully aware that there are many non-journalists who are putting up literate and informed material on the Internet, and I am painfully aware of journalism’s deficiencies. (Just yesterday I turned my undergraduate students loose on a front-page story from The Sun a little while back, and they savaged it as ill-focused, ineptly organized and uninformative. They were right.)

I am just wondering how all of this is supposed to sort out. Writers, in addition to researching and writing articles, are expected to put in how much time responding to readers in “unmediated” exchanges? (I’m months behind in personal correspondence; are you better off?) And readers? They are supposed to spend how much time sifting through articles and blog posts and comments, filtering out the dreck? Is there to be little or no role for editors, for people who clarify and organize material for the convenience of the reader?

At the moment, it looks as if we’re pretty much hunter-gatherers, and I wonder how long it will take us to get agriculture.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:21 PM | | Comments (7)

November 4, 2008

Some Baltimore words

arabber, a-rabber, Araber (n). An itinerant street vendor of produce, typically using a decorated wagon drawn by a pony. The term derives from the 19th-century term street arab and has no connection with Arabs. The remaining arabbers in Baltimore are all African-American.

espantoon (n.). A police officer’s nightstick or baton, wooden, with a leather strap that permits twirling. According to the Federal Writers’ Project’s Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State, the word “apparently originated during the Revolutionary period when officers of the British infantry carried spontoons (Fr. Sponton, esponson)—short pikes.

lake trout (n). Neither trout nor the freshwater fish of that name. In Baltimore, lake trout, typically Atlantic whiting, is breaded and fried and served in take-out sandwich shops.

In Supplement Two to The American Language (1948), H. L. Mencken writes this:

I have long had it in mind to attempt a vocabulary of Baltimore speech in the 80s and 90s, for a number of terms that were in common use there and then do not seem to have been noted elsewhere, e.g., Araber, a street huckster; to arab, to go huckstering; front steps, the steps before a dwelling-house, usually in those days of marble; and Yankee jumper, a sled for girls, with the platform raised 9 or 10 inches above the runners, and the runners curved upward in front. Leapfrog was always called par, and the word garden was almost unknown: it was always either the backyard or frontyard, or simply the yard. The outdoor privies that still survived in most backyards were called postoffices, and the men who cleaned them at intervals operated an O.E.A. (i.e., odorless excavating apparatus). The grades in school were designated first reader, second reader, etc. The best public room of a house was always the parlor. The street before it, at least for purposes of play, was out front. (pp.162-63)

Baltimore, to my knowledge, no longer has postoffices out back, but it still has front steps of marble. Lifelong Baltimoreans always spot a journalist imported from out of town, because an auslander will write about people sitting on the stoop. They have stoops in front of houses in New York; houses in Baltimore have front steps.

Readers, do you have more?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (24)

November 1, 2008

I pray you, good people, forbear

When I saw at Target the other day that the Christmas decorations were beginning to crowd out the Halloween merchandise, I realized that the grim time has come upon us again. So today, All Saints’ Day, is none too soon to repeat the solemn warnings. *

This list of holiday cliches to shun, which I compiled with the assistance of fellow Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, has been published in an earlier form on this blog and at the Poynter Institute’s Web site,, under the title “Avoid holiday cliches.”

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. (And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”)

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must use Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And, typically, they do not scan.

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality is a comfort to them. It is for such people that television exists.


* Apprehension knows its fellows. Some of you may recall lines from Tom Lehrer’s Christmas carol: “Kill the turkeys, ducks, and chickens, / Mix the punch, drag out the Dickens; / Even though the prospect sickens, / Brother, here we go again.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:19 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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