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December 30, 2008

Abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms

We’ve been a little self-indulgent and playful during the holiday season, but readers are calling us back to business. Here’s one:

For many years I have had anxiety about the plurals of acronyms and initialisms. I have no idea what the correct form is. I find myself typing PC's sometimes to mean more than one PC. I see others do it too. The apostrophe seems wrong because PC's is not a contraction nor does it imply possession. PCs looks a little weird and if it needs to be capitalized PCS would simply be incorrect at times.

Let me try to put those anxieties at rest. The problem is not one of choosing between correct and incorrect forms, but of choosing from a set of options and following the choices consistently.

An abbreviation like PC can be made plural as either PCs or PC’s. The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style recommend the former, The New York Times the latter.

Now let’s make it more complicated. If, however, an abbreviation contains internal periods, Chicago joins New York Times in wanting you to include an apostrophe: M.A.’s and Ph.D.’s. And The Times uses periods in abbreviations — C.I.A., F.B.I. — when AP and others do not.

Everyone encourages you to use an apostrophe when making single letters plural: all A’s, p’s and q’s.

Abbreviating names leads to two categories, initialisms and acronyms. An initialism uses the first letters of the words being abbreviated and is pronounced letter by letter rather than as a word: FBI, mph. An acronym combines first letters or compounds of the constituent words into an abbreviation that is pronounced as a word: NASA, scuba. If it’s not pronounced as a word, it’s not an acronym.

Initialisms may or may not include periods; acronyms do not. Initialisms may be written as capital letters or lowercase letters. Acronyms tend to be written all caps — UNESCO — though some prefer to write acronyms of five or more letters with an initial capital followed by lowercase letters. But the latter practice tends not to be followed uniformly.

The definite article is used before abbreviations of agencies — the FBI, the CIA — and nations — the U.S., the U.K. — but not before the abbreviations of universities’ names. Devoutly as some might wish, Ohio State University is not called the OSU. Some bureaucrats indulge in omitting the article before the names of their agencies, because they are very important people, pressed for time on the nation’s business and too urgently focused on the public weal to trifle with the definite article. For them, it’s OMB says and EPA reports. But if you were interested in mimicking pomposity, you wouldn’t be reading this.

What it comes down to, as is so often the case, is that you have a range of acceptable choices. Pick the one that is consistent with your personal preference and the practices of the publication you write for, and stick with it.

It might not amuse you to consult AP or Chicago or some other manual to see just how complicated they can make things, but otherwise, be not afraid.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:01 PM | | Comments (16)

December 29, 2008

Surely you jest: A remarkable pig

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:46 PM | | Comments (7)

December 27, 2008

Mistering the dead

Arnold Zwicky, who now has his own blog, has returned to a topic previously addressed: the complications and inconsistencies apparent in the use of courtesy titles ( Miss, Mr., Mrs., Ms.) in journalism. Most newspapers have abandoned the practice except in obituaries, but even there troublesome issues arise when historical figures are mentioned.

In the New York Times article on the dissecting table, the late Jack Spicer is referred to as Mr. Spicer. So far, so good. But Archibald MacLeish (d. 1982) and Allen Ginsberg (d. 1997) get no courtesy titles, which raises the delicate point of how long after the death rattle the courtesy title remains in effect.

There appears to be a sliding scale of posthumous respect. Allen Ginsberg, 11 years up the golden staircase, is merely Ginsberg, but Martin Luther King Jr., now martyred 40 years, often turns up as Dr. King. This is an area in which the copy editor’s impulse toward straightforward rules and uniform practice is cruelly thwarted.

This week, when Harold Pinter and Eartha Kitt died, The Sun’s obituary articles ran without courtesy titles, despite our clear house style that news obituaries should carry them. (The things that happen when I take the day off.) Perhaps the editors on the copy desk think that courtesy titles might well be dispensed with, or perhaps they forgot what our house style is, or perhaps they gave up the struggle of trying to decide whether the playwright should be Mr. Pinter or Sir Harold.

Professor Zwicky also speculates in his post that the use of courtesy titles may also be used sardonically, in an exaggerated gesture of respect intended to undermine the subject: “The result is that, especially in writing, I sometimes don't know whether I'm being venerated or reviled by the use of courtesy titles.”

All due respect, Professor.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:37 PM | | Comments (22)

December 26, 2008

A concrete explanation

A gentleman named Hugh Andrew has written about a common error that irritates him, and since it irritates me as well, I quote him in full. If you aspire to be known as a careful and precise writer, pay attention.

One current word usage continues to bother me. It is the use of the word “Cement” when the writer or speaker means “Concrete.” I learned the difference between the two terms more than fifty years ago in the School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins. I know that the language evolves, but this particular evolution tends to be confusing.

Cement or Portland cement, to use the technical name, is a greenish-gray finely ground powder that is one of the ingredients in concrete. The Portland Cement Association, a trade group representing manufacturers of this material, maintains an informative web site at When this manufactured chemical is mixed with gradated aggregates—usually coarse sand and either gravel or crushed stone—and water is added the resulting mixture is concrete. A chemical reaction will then take place that will cause the mixture to harden within a few hours. If the ingredients have been properly proportioned, and if the product has not been subjected to climate extremes, in approximately 28 days, this man-made conglomerate will become strong enough to withstand a compressive force of 3,000 pounds per square inch or more. Concrete is an ideal construction material. Because it is put in place in a semi-liquid state, it can be molded into shapes that are structural or decorative or both.

However, it is concrete, and cement is just one ingredient. Therefore, to speak of a cement sidewalk or a cement mixer does not make sense.

Technically, Portland cement concrete is not the only kind of concrete. When a stone aggregate is mixed with a bitumen—usually petroleum-based asphalt—the resulting material can be called bituminous concrete. It is much simpler and more descriptive to call this product by its common name. We properly call it blacktop, unless it is a paving material used in an airport, when it mysteriously becomes tarmac. Much of the paved surface at airports these days is concrete and not blacktop. I suspect that news people use the word tarmac to describe all of these air terminal surfaces. At least, they do not call them cement runways!



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:00 PM | | Comments (14)

Surely you jest: Disraeli's dinner

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (4)

December 23, 2008

More on 'disenfranchised'

My preference for disfranchised over disenfranchised, expressed in a post last Saturday, has drawn a response from Michael Covarrubias at Purdue — he maintains the blog Wishydig. He challenged my position on etymological and morphological grounds, and I am compelled to admit, as they say in British criminal circles, it’s a fair cop.

What impressed me more, however, was a couple of sentences in the note by which he informed me of his post: “I read your blog regularly and appreciate it very much. I'm a linguist and an obnoxious descriptivist. It's voices like yours that give me hope that prescriptivism is not the enemy.”

In this season of goodwill, or attempts at goodwill, it’s encouraging to see the prescriptivist and descriptivist sit down together in mutual respect.

I’m also indebted to Mr. Covarrubias for a new word, hathos, a term for attraction to something one finds repellant. It is a delight to be able to name a phenomenon of which one was dimly aware without having previously brought it into focus. Hathos is just the word to describe one’s attitude to fried bologna sandwiches, the oeuvre of Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paula Deen’s cookery, the films of Adam Sandler, the New York Post — perhaps this word is worth a separate post, with a call for nominations.

Compliments of the season, Mr. Covarrubias.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (8)

December 22, 2008

Surely you jest: Man with a parrot

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:38 AM | | Comments (6)

December 20, 2008

Didn't you get the memo?

On Dec, 20, 2005, the first post on this blog pointed to a homonym error, reign for rein. Since then, the error free reign has been published in The Sun at least three times (once on the editorial page and twice in the sports section, not to single out malefactors). So many slips, so few catches.

 I suppose that I’m telling tales out of school to say that journalists don’t necessarily read all that much. It might even stun you to learn that some of my colleagues do not read or heed this blog. (“No!” you protest. “Oh yes,” I sigh.) But journalists are mortals like others, as this example shows.

Some weeks ago, a new program was installed on all the computers in our network, a “visual networking client” to enable technical support to get remote access to our machines when some problem has to be fixed. We’ve had such programs on the machines for the whole time that we have worked on networked computers. An announcement about this went out by e-mail to the entire staff, an announcement that explained what the software does and what the new icon, an eye, at the bottom of the screen would look like.

Shortly thereafter, a mild panic, presumably the product of paranoia combined with ignorance, arose among a few employees who noticed an eye staring at them from their computer screens, and they sought an explanation of whether the company had installed something to spy on them.

Nobody reads the memos. Nobody pays attention.

Except you — particularly those of you who have been coming back to this site for three years now. Keep coming. There will be more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:03 PM | | Comments (10)

Clearing the desk

Things pile up.

Go and sin no more: A reader questions a word in a sentence in The Sun, “Today the sins of Ophuls' Lola Montes seem venal, its accomplishments extraordinary,” wondering whether venal should be venial. Venal sins, for those of you maintaining your spiritual bookkeeping, are those of corruption, susceptibility to bribery, mercenary behavior, greed. Venial sins are the trivial ones that are readily pardonable.

Gets my vote: I came across a sentence in James McPherson’s Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief that referred to disfranchised African-Americans. To enfranchise is to give someone the franchise, the vote. To deny someone the vote is to disfranchise. The more common term in use is disenfranchise — which would suggest taking the vote away after it had been given. I’m not going to grow red in the face and pound my fist on the desk over this one — it’s not worth it. But it gladdens the heart to see a writer use a word in a precise sense.

A little learning: Brian Cubbison in Syracuse wondered about the origin of the old AP style rule that student should be used only for those in secondary school or college, pupil for children in the elementary grades. It rose from a traditional understanding that pupils were receiving instruction and students were capable of independent learning. Worn down by years of complaint from education reporters, I finally abolished the distinction in Sun style — not without a cynical suspicion that the less learning the schools impart, the more they like to elevate their pretensions.

For the kids: For those young students: Merriam-Webster has sent me a note announcing the publication of Merriam-Webster’s Elementary Dictionary, “an all-new edition of the essential first-step dictionary especially created to meet the needs of students in elementary school, grades 3-5 and ages 8-11.” I haven’t examined it, and I don’t want to be a shill; but if you are looking for a gift for that favorite pupil, you could do worse than to open up the realm of words to the child.

Down with the czar: Down in Carolina, Andy Bechtel has written a persuasive essay to explain why we should abandon the practice of referring to bureaucrats as czars — it’s anti-democratic and, well, silly.

News of the trade: Since the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection, people have been asking me, with concern, about what is happening to The Sun. (I seem to associate mainly with older people, the ones who still read newspapers and care about them.) If you’re interested in what is happening to newspapers, you would do well to read some of David Sullivan’s thoughtful reflections on the business at That’s the Press, Baby. For a particular look at the Tribune situation: his comments on Sam Zell.

As for me, I remain at my post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:43 AM | | Comments (5)

December 19, 2008

Surely you jest: Man on a desert island

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:19 AM | | Comments (5)

December 17, 2008

Best line heard in the workplace

I’m looking for single statements, not paragraphs or screeds.* It should be a single statement that in some way encapsulates an essential element of the work, the workplace, the people, the atmosphere. And it should be something that you heard someone actually say or write in a note or message.

Here’s my offering, a remark by Ursula Liu a former Sun copy editor and designer, now with the International Herald Tribune:

“Do I have an invisible tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”

Your turn.


* screed (n), originally (14th century), according to the OED, some fragment torn or cut or broken from a main piece, with the same etymology as shred, later (18th century) taking on the sense of a long list or harangue. (I'd say an harangue, but let’s not get started on that again.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:08 PM | | Comments (33)

December 16, 2008

Not a team player

In one of those freewheeling discussions that have come to mark Elizabeth Large’s Dining@Large blog, a Sandbox member remarked yesterday, “I was gigged on my annual review as ‘not a team player,’ " to which I replied, “Every time I hear of an evaluation complaining that someone is ‘not a team player,’ I have deep suspicions that there is not much of a coach.”

In articles in the sports section and in readers’ comments on those articles, a team that performs badly exposes the coach and the owners to extensive criticism. But when business managers substitute sports metaphors for judgment, that sense of responsibility higher up evaporates.

There are two levels of this phenomenon, one innocuous and one sinister.

The innocuous one is the substitution of cant and bromides — “giving 110 percent,” “there is no I in TEAM” — for meaningful direction. This is a kind of noise that managers indulge in, as the worker bees meditate on other subjects while the droning continues. It is tedious but largely harmless, since no one pays any attention to it.

At the sinister level, team talk is a means by which an inept or vindictive manager strikes out at subordinates who exercise independent thought. *

You’ve known him: the kind of manager who is a sycophant to his masters and a tyrant to his subordinates. I had been a copy editor at The Cincinnati Enquirer for half a dozen years when my boss announced that henceforth all copy editors would be evaluated half on performance and half on “attitude.” This was immediately and widely understood to mean that anyone expressing skepticism** about corporate management of Gannett or its local satraps (several of whom were clearly — there is no way to gloss over this — stupid) would be subject to retaliation. That was the day I realized that it was past time to get a resume in the mail. ***

In 17 years as a manager on The Sun’s copy desk, I have never had occasion to use the word team to my colleagues (well, maybe sardonically). A couple of weekends ago, when I had to check into the hospital suddenly for what proved to be a transient illness, people showed up, reapportioned the work, got the paper out on time and in good shape. These are the people I work alongside, who see and correct my mistakes, who collaborate, who take and share responsibility even as a brutal business climate diminishes our numbers. People who know their jobs and perform them diligently have no need for team talk.


* Of course we’ve all known co-workers Who Do Not Play Well With Others. But you don’t imagine that any amount of Team Talk will bring them around, do you?

** It is the job of editors to be skeptical. That is not a kind of temperament or mind set that can be switched on and off.

*** When I told this boss that I had been offered a position on the copy desk at The Sun, he was so delighted for me that he announced my departure to the staff three days before I gave him notice that I had accepted the offer.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:15 PM | | Comments (7)

December 15, 2008

Surely you jest: The anatomy professor

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:47 AM | | Comments (17)

December 13, 2008

The worst line you ever read

The terrible stress of the holidays — all that expense, all that synthetic cheer, all that strain of pretending to like your relations and co-workers — takes its toll. Let’s relieve a little of the pressure of that relentless jollity with a little contest.

What’s the worst writing you ever read?

Now wait — before you spring at me with extracts from the work of William McGonagall* or Julia A. Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, or from your counsin’s child’s fifth-grade book report or the latest memo on health care benefits from your human resources department, or the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, we’re going to set a couple of rules.

(1) It must be published writing.

(2) It must be of some literary standing, not the work of a misguided amateur but rather that of a misguided professional.

(3) It must be limited to a single sentence or, for poetry, verse.

I’ll lead off with two of my own favorites.

From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

“I become a transparent eyeball. …”

From Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore

He paused, a wide and melancholy waste

Of putrid marshes.

 Have at it.


* Many years ago, I read “The Tay Bridge Disaster” to an unsuspecting radio audience in Upstate New York and since then can only return to the area heavily disguised.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:42 PM | | Comments (22)

You think you've got cobbles?

And the rock just rolls back down the hill again.

My suspicions are aroused every time a writer in search of local color refers to “cobblestoned streets,” because the writer seldom if ever understands what cobblestones are and how they differ from other paving stones. I took one such reference out tonight, with a certainty that it will not be the last.

Cobblestones are made from cobbles, stones naturally rounded by the action of water. If the paving stones in that quaint little street are flat, or merely irregular rather than rounded, they aren’t cobblestones. Over time, most cobblestones were replaced with other paving stones, because traveling over cobblestones is a little like driving on cannonballs.

At the risk of repeating myself — and that’s a risk you share in every time you visit this site — I refer you to the "Stones unturned" post from July 2007.

Put your shoulder to it, and we'll try to roll this one back up the hill again.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:51 PM | | Comments (6)

December 12, 2008

Just say who

Another one turns up, as it always does, on a page proof, after passing through the hands of a writer, an assigning editor and a couple of copy editors:

The FTC asked for the orders shutting the businesses and freezing assets without notifying the defendant, whom they believed would go into hiding.

The clause folded into that sentence is who would go into hiding.

Here’s the thing. Whom has an increasingly insecure perch in the language, and who is not only supplanting it in spoken English, but also increasingly in written English. So if you are a professional journalist — reporter, assigning editor, copy editor or whatever —and your grasp on the distinction between subject and object is a tenuous, the safe bet is to use who in all cases, since whom is the thing you’re apt to get wrong. At the worst, you’ll be thought casual rather than ignorant.

Purists will fret, but they enjoy that. It gives their lives meaning.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 PM | | Comments (3)

December 11, 2008

Take that, Chicago Manual of Style

In this corner, wearing an orange dust jacket, the champion, The Chicago Manual of Style, victor of 15 editions.

And in this corner, The Abbeville Manual of Style, the scrappy challenger from The Abbeville Press.

As the bell rings for the latest round, watch how they have been slugging it out.

Many thanks to Austin Allen, a new reader of You Don’t Say, for the tip.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:03 PM | | Comments (0)

My object all sublime

As an experiment, You Don’t Say will post an occasional short video presenting a joke or an anecdote literary or historical. Today’s “Surely you jest: The three brothers” is the first. The times have become so difficult, particularly for those of us who work at newspapers, that a source of innocent merriment did not seem out of place.

I do, however, have perpetually in my daughter’s oft-repeated admonishment, “You’re not as funny as you think you are.”

If you agree with Alice, by all means say so. But also feel free to recommend jokes or anecdotes that you would like to have told.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (5)

Surely you jest: The three brothers

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 AM | | Comments (10)

He read the OED

Perform a strange enough stunt, and you get in the Guinness Book. Perform an odd enough feat, and you can get a book out of it. Thus a New Yorker named Ammon Shea, fueled with innumerable cups of coffee, spent a year reading through the entire Oxford English Dictionary — headwords, pronunciations, etymologies, definitions, illustrative quotations and all. The book, with the kind of straightforward, fact-based tone one would expect from a reader of dictionaries, is Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages.*

It is not a book that is particularly strong on plot. As Dr. Johnson said of Richardson’s novels, you would hang yourself if you read for plot. One would read this book for personality.

It turns out that Mr. Shea is a collector and reader of dictionaries. All right. He had a friend, his inspiration, a bookseller who specialized in dictionaries and who had accumulated 20,000 volumes in a New York apartment. All right. Reading close print for several hours a day led to headaches. No surprises there. He did not just read, but also recorded the words he found interesting in a ledger, and a selection of such words runs in each chapter. (I am particularly in his debt for deteriorism, “the attitude that things will usually get worse,” which should probably be emblazoned on any copy editor’s coat of arms.)

His favorite entry: disghibelline, “To distinguish, as a Guelph from a Ghibelline.” Readers of Dante will understand. ** When he speaks of “the enormity of the English language” (in Chapter “N”), I doubt that he has recalled the strictest sense of the word. When he attends a conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, he discovers that among the members, “an alarmingly large number of them wear bow ties.” Heh. And, having finally achieved the feat of reading through the 60,000-word definition of set, he comments, “[D]id I feel a surge of triumph or accomplishment? No, I felt like I was going to vomit. ...”

Having abandoned his apartment for the project (“the people across the hall cook salt cod four days a week”) in favor of a secluded section of the Hunter College library, he wonders whether he is becoming one of the denizens he calls Library People: “”I caught a glimpse of myself as I shuffled out of the library in search of more coffee. I saw a man with hair askew in all directions, an ink-stained shirt partially untucked, and unlaced shoes, who was talking to himself.”

He got to z, at some personal cost (he woke one morning, “and, with mounting horror, realized that I actually knew the differences between Jacobean, Jacobian, Jacobin, and Jacobine”). It was a feat.


* Penguin, 223 pages, $21.95.

** The Guelphs and Ghibellines were rival factions in Florence.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (1)

December 8, 2008

The Second Amendment and the militia

Jason J. Keyes happened upon my blog post "Grammar, guns and the Constitution" * and sent me this response (reprinted with permission}:

Like much else in the Second Amendment debates, it seems to me that the primary question of the Second Amendment is ignored.

The Second Amendment was written with a specific problem in mind: the objection of Anti-Federalists to Congress's powers over the militia. They were not in contention over the ability or lack thereof of the new national government to regulate firearms ownership. But the states having to cede power over their militias was a serious problem. Madison was the chief author of the Bill of Rights, including the Second Amendment. He was also one of the primary proponents of the Constitution. He didn't want to change it, but he had promised in his campaign to be in the First Congress to include a Bill of Rights to allay the fears of his constituents (and others) over some of the provisions of the new Constitution.

So he had a problem. He didn't want to detract from Congress's militia powers, but he wanted to ensure the states could not be deprived of their militias. The solution he struck upon was protecting the rights of individuals to own arms, thus leaving Congress free to activate the militia to Federal service while the states could call upon their armed citizenry to fill the ranks of the militiamen who had been activated. The militia weren't required to keep expensive, crew-served weapons. The weapons protected by the Second Amendment are, as U.S. v. Miller noted, such weapons as were in common use at the time.

It seems to me that we cannot understand what the purpose of the Second Amendment was without understanding the argument that the Second Amendment was intended to resolve. Very little of the argument ever seems to address that.

It should not come as news to anyone who has read about the history of the adoption of the Constitution and the politics of the early Republic that one of the principal concerns of the Founders was to establish a durable balance between the powers of the states and the powers of the federal government — what the authors of the Federalist referred to as “the general government.” Yes, the Bill of Rights is insistent about individual rights, but it does not exclude the state/federal concerns.

Historical interpretations such as Mr. Keyes’ also serve to point out some troublesome aspects of the “original intent” argument — that our understanding of the Constitution should be limited to what the Founders originally intended. It sounds simple and plausible, until one looks more closely.

How to see the Constitution, the product of a series of compromises, as representing a unified intention is troublesome. The Founders wanted to establish a more stable government than the freed colonies had experienced under the Articles of Confederation, and they were suspicion of too much concentration of power in any one sector of government, but those are general principles that could be implemented and interpreted in various ways.

For that matter, what are we to think of the intentions of individual Founders? Was Mr. Madison’s “original intent” clearer when he combined with Mr. Hamilton to urge a stronger general government in the Federalist, or when he later combined with Mr. Jefferson to undermine Mr. Hamilton’s policies in that government?

The obvious thing to do is to understand what the language of the text says (the only point I was trying to make in the original post), how that language was understood in the historical context of its writing, and how whatever fundamental principle that can be extracted from the text can be most appropriately applied to today’s circumstances.

But if it’s original intent you want, I can offer a gloss on the language of the Second Amendment, as written: You have the right as an individual to possess firearms, and you are consequently willing to turn out once a month or so for target practice and military drill under the supervision of an officer of the state who knows who you are, what arms you possess, and what skill you demonstrated in using them. But then, I’m a grammarian, not a lawyer or a constitutional scholar.

If you have something informed or reasonable to say, please feel welcome to comment. If, however, you merely share the semi-literate and abusive sentiments reflected in the comments to the previous posts, please consider that your views have already been fully expressed.


* The original post was followed by two more on the same subject, “Second that amendment” and “Last Volley.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:48 AM | | Comments (9)

December 6, 2008

Snarkiness validated

A post on Elizabeth Large’s Dining @ Large blog, “What to do about the snarkers,” has led to a little pellet dropped at my site by the elusive commenter Owl Meat:

What do you think about a post whose topic is an ill-defined slang word? I got all pinot noir angsty and kirked out on my blomeys¹ last night about the word "snarkers". Any thoughts?

1 blog homeys

Much as I dislike having to contradict His Raptorness, I am unable to condemn snarker out of hand. Snarky — irritable or short-tempered — has a pedigree extending back a century. The Oxford English Dictionary records this sentence from E. Nesbit’s Railway Children of 1906: “Don’t be snarky, Peter. It isn’t our fault.”

And, as anyone familiar with patterns of movement in English knows full well, once a word lodges itself in the language in one form, it will not take long for it to spread into the adjacent classifications. Thus, once there is snarky, there must be snark (n.) ill-tempered remarks, snark (v.i.) to utter such remarks, snarker (n.) one who utters snarky remarks, and snarkiness (n.) the quality inherent in snark. Snarkily (adv.) is probably not far behind.

You may not care for it, but you cannot stop it.

As far as individual snarkers go, I can offer you a brief update on Mr. Animus, mentioned previously as a prime specimen of the breed in “Painful cases,” with an addendum in “The carnage.”

Mr. Animus has made himself so obnoxious at Gannett Blog that the proprietor, Jim Hopkins, made it the most recent site to ban him from further commenting: “You are no longer welcome on this blog because you have abused your privileges. Please do not come back.”

Mr. Hopkins added this advice to his readers: “Abusive posters can destroy blogs, message boards and other online forums. I choose to allow anonymous commenting because of this blog's sensitive topics. The best way to deal with abusive posters is to deny them the attention they crave. Please, IGNORE them!”

Excellent advice, since any attention given to these types dilates their already exalted sense of their own significance. Thus this is likely the last mention of Mr. Animus you can expect to see here.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:06 PM | | Comments (4)

December 3, 2008

It knows my type

Jay Hancock’s business blog carried a mention the other day of the Typealyzer, a software program that purports to analyze the personality type associated with a blog: Myers Briggs* for Web sites. Anyhow, I plugged in the URL for You Don’t Say and got this:

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy [sic] attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Typealyzer does carry this disclaimer: “Note: writing style on a blog may have little or nothing to do with a person´s self-percieved [sic] personality.” Yeah. Sure.

Anyhow, if any of you are made to feel slow-witted by reading this blog, now you know why.


* The Myers-Briggs test assigns people to variations on four basic personality types. Think of it as astrology for college graduates.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:23 PM | | Comments (10)

Dr. Johnson and the critic's role

If you have not read Adam Gopnik’s excellent and thoughtful essay on Samuel Johnson in the latest number of The New Yorker, here is a perceptive passage on Johnsonian criticism:

No critic has ever been wiser about the limits of criticism, and about how few rules can ever be made for writing; Johnson is the model of a reactive critic, seeing when a piece of writing was made, and how it works, then and now. His premise was always that something that had long pleased readers must have pleased them for a reason; sometimes it was because of a quality or a problem in their time that had made the work seem briefly pleasing, sometimes it was because of some permanent quality of imagination or truth. The critic’s job was to distinguish between what belonged to the history of taste and what belonged to the canon of art, and to try to explain what made the permanently pleasing permanently please. For Johnson’s great question is not how to write, or what to write, but why write. His criticism provides a simple answer: to help us enjoy life more, or to endure it better.


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

The carnage

Word spread fast yesterday as newspaper employees at Gannett properties across the country were told that they no longer had jobs. It’s an ugly time to be out of a job, and those of us who are still holding on are deeply distressed to see our colleagues turned out. *

As revenues collapse, newspapers are desperately cutting jobs, cutting space, cutting anything they can find to stay afloat.

The odd thing is that newspapers still have readers. Certainly, the decline of readership has been steady over decades, and daily newspapers have been largely unsuccessful in attracting younger readers, but it is not the loss of readers that has brought on the crisis. It is the loss of the advertising that supports the enterprise.

Newsroom employees — reporters, photographers, artists, editors — believe that people buy newspapers to see their work. This is only a partial truth. The lack of an effective metric to determine just what readers look at in the paper disguises from reporters and editors how many people are interested solely in the comics and puzzles, or the recipes and the advice column, or the sports scores — buying the paper but ignoring the news stories and editorials.

But the other partial truth, the one that newsroom employees have studiously ignored for years, is that the paper does not exist to deliver their work; it exists to deliver advertising. News people see the paper as a collection of news stories with advertising; the business side sees the paper as advertising to which some news stories have been added in the remaining space. There is some truth in each view, but the money is all on the business side, and now that money is going away.

There was hope at one point, a few years back, that the Internet would help to balance the reader/revenue equation. But the advertising from the Web has not been enough to support the enterprise, and, as David Sullivan points out, the hope of revenue from paid content on the Web is gone.

That people will not pay enough for electronic content to support the operation should come as no surprise. People have never been willing to pay enough for the print edition to support the enterprise. The money raised through circulation — subscriptions and street or newsstand sales — is significant but totally inadequate to sustain news gathering.

The prospect before my colleagues in journalism is the same one that the steel industry faced and which the automobile industry is now facing: brutal and relentless reductions in operations and staff until some equipoise can be reached at which the size of the operation matches the revenue coming in.

It’s not over yet.


* Not all of us. The master of schadenfreude, Mr. Animus, has been commenting repeatedly at Gannett Blog linked above, telling the people who have lost jobs that the collapse of the business is their own fault because of their incompetence. Had Mr. Animus been present at the fall of Constantinople in 1453, he would no doubt have informed the last few soldiers on the walls that the rise of Islam and the centuries-long decay of the Byzantine Empire was all their doing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:03 AM | | Comments (6)

December 2, 2008

Repeat: We do not have to run dumb surveys

Here’s a thought for the new year: Let’s give up publishing articles about stupid and unsound surveys.

Go over to HeadsUp and watch as fev methodically anatomizes a fatuous article about how dishonest teenagers have become. (Those damn kids!) It turns out, you’ll be surprised, that the survey on which the article is based is of questionable reliability and that the article credulously repeats and amplifies the conclusions. (Mr. Barnum’s maxim lives! This way to the egress!)

If your publication gave any credence to this thing, for shame. And if you had an opportunity to question it and object to its publication, doubly shamed. Those of you who function as editors ought not to bow reverently at “experts say” or “studies” from the Munchausen Institute for Simulated Validity or “verification” by the holder of the Ferdinand Waldo Demara Chair of Advanced Mendacity at the Piltdown Academy. Part of the reason you collect wages is to be skeptical, not credulous.

Also, while there may still be time, do whatever is necessary — interpose your person if you must — to prevent your publication from running that asinine annual feature on how much it would cost today to duplicate the gifts enumerated in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

If print journalism is indeed shipping water and starting to heel over, let’s at least go down while publishing something worth reading.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (11)

December 1, 2008

Next let's outsource the readers

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times has discovered, somewhat belatedly, the outsourcing of journalism to offshore (read: cheaper) operations.

In particular, she describes in a column one James McPherson’s coverage of events in Pasadena, Calif., from Mysore City, India. Mr. McPherson’s epiphany was that he could produce Pasadena Now and not only eliminate those tiresome and slow-moving editors with their quibbles about factual accuracy and clarity, but also the reporters and their princely wages of $600-$800 a week.

He’s as proud as if he had invented the sweatshop himself: “I pay per piece, just the way it was in the garment business. A thousand words pays $7.50.”

Ms. Dowd thought to call one of his employees in Mysore, where the “reporting” is done by video and e-mail. She wrote to “40-year-old G. Sreejayanthi, who puts together Pasadena events listings. She said she had a full-time job in India and didn’t think of herself as a journalist. ‘I try to do my best, which need not necessarily be correct always,’ she wrote back. ‘Regarding Rose Bowl, my first thought was it was related to some food event but then found that is related to Sports field.’ ”

It is a singular achievement for American newspaper journalism: to have transcended satire. Nothing in Evelyn Waugh’s classic Scoop can rival what American publishers and publishing executives are doing seriously.

It was once thought that some publishers displayed their contempt for the public by publishing trash — celebrity gossip, scandal, grotesquely slanted news stories to benefit a political party or cause — the kind of twaddle in the London tabloids that Waugh so adroitly mocked. Now, contempt manifests itself in an apparent lack of any concern for providing anything that anyone would want to read.

Given the current hectic pace at which newspapers are diminishing themselves, they will soon shed those annoying readers as thoroughly as Pasadena Now dropped those redundant reporters.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 PM | | Comments (11)
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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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