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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)


Ah, Consistency! A virtue to be admired. Or was it deliberate that you stated, regarding the distinction between pupil and student, that "I finally abolished the distinction in Sun style" only to state in the following section "[I]f you are looking for a gift for that favorite pupil..."?

To quote my old mentor, Bob Johnson, "Did I say that? It sounds like something I would have said."

It might be prudent to check the dictionary before recommending it. There has been some controversy on this side of the Pond about the latest edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. See, for example:

It night be prudent as well to note that the article appeared in the Telegraph. The comments indicate something about the audience for which it was written.

Indeed. But besides the words that are guaranteed to stir up the stereotypical Torygraph reader, the omission of much flora and fauna vocabulary is to be lamented.

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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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