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January 31, 2009

How I got my job

It was on this date in 1980 that I reported to the newsroom of The Cincinnati Enquirer to interview for an opening on the copy desk.

I had moved to the Queen City of the West five months previously and had spent the time since reading William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and looking for work, with more success at the former than the latter. Having come out of six years of graduate school with an unfinished Ph.D. dissertation (unfinished to this day), I was no one’s prime candidate. I couldn’t even get an interview.

So in mounting my assault on The Enquirer, I threw in everything: my files from the placement office at Syracuse University; recommendations from Lowell and Jean Denton, who had hired me for summers in high school and college to write for and edit The Flemingsburg Gazette; a letter from Dr. Napoleon Bryant, whom I had just met in my new parish and who had been encouraged by the editor of The Enquirer to steer talent his way; every piece of paper I could think of to flood the newspaper office so that they would ask me in, if only to stop it.

The managing editor and assistant managing editor for news took me to lunch at the Cincinnati Club. I had never been there, but it seemed eerily familiar. (I found out later that Sinclair Lewis had traveled to Cincinnati while doing research for Babbitt and that the Cincinnati Club was one of the models for George F. Babbitt’s club in Zenith. Figures.) It was an amiable lunch.

Later, the managing editor told me that the paper had three openings on the copy desk and, because of my slender newspaper experience, they would give me a three-week tryout with pay. I accepted and started work on Feb. 8. The tryout went well — they saw I could do the work competently — and ended Feb. 28. On March 5, I got a call offering me a full-time position as a copy editor, which I accepted, starting work on March 7. I bought Dr. Bryant a bottle of quality bourbon.

Six months later, the news editor, the irrepressible Bob Johnson, took me aside to congratulate me that I had completed my six months’ probation successfully and was now a permanent member of the staff.

And he asked, “By the way, John, did you use to be black?”

Then it came out. The higher-ups, reviewing my file, spotted the letter from Dr. Bryant, who is African-American and whom the editor had met at some function. Evidently assuming that no white applicant would ask for a reference from a black man, they concluded that, unlikely as it seemed, I was a minority candidate. The A.M.E./news had told Bob before my interview that the editor had a first-rate black candidate for copy editor coming in and that they planned on a tryout.

The M.E. and A.M.E. had had the presence of mind to show no visible shock when I walked in.

Of course, given The Enquirer of those days, I contributed to the diversity of the staff by not being a white male Roman Catholic of German descent from west of Vine Street.

When I told Dr. Bryant that I had been an affirmative-action hire, he laughed uproariously, no doubt seeing my case as another twisted example of how The Man thinks. Not everyone who has heard this story since has been quite as amused.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:38 AM | | Comments (7)

January 30, 2009

Surely you jest: The probationary assassin

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:25 AM | | Comments (4)

January 29, 2009

McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia

The title is taken from a post by Androcass, who fundamentally agrees with me. You can watch the cow emerge in three successive posts, “I said, get Mitty,” Wikipediaphilia,” and “Crisis of authority.” Make sure you check the comments for the stout defense mounted by the Wikipediaphiliacs.

Here’s why McIntyre is having a cow.

I work as an editor. My whole professional effort for nearly three decades has been to make sure that the published texts at the newspapers for which I have worked are, as far as human fallibility and the pressures of time will allow, factually accurate, grammatical and clear.

To do this requires knowledgeable, trained editors. To become a copy editor at The Baltimore Sun, an applicant has to run the gantlet of the usual scrutiny of resume, interviews and reference checks — and a grueling test that covers a dozen categories of general knowledge and an extensive section of texts to be edited. Those who have taken it remember it.

The book and magazine and newspaper publishers who have been dismembering their editing staffs have been doing so in desperation, for economic motives. What leaves me spluttering is the Wikipediaphiliacs’ apparent belief that such editing doesn’t matter; everything will even itself out.

I don’t doubt that many knowledgeable writers have generously contributed to Wikipedia, and that many earnest editors monitor the wiki. But Wikipedia lacks the personnel and structure to check and edit effectively. Bad information is posted, sound entries are corrupted by ill-informed contributors or saboteurs, and the editors cannot keep up. The consequence is that you can trust Wikipedia only when you already know the information.

Why would anyone choose to trust a reference that has been repeatedly demonstrated to be unreliable?

After false reports of the deaths of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Robert Byrd were posted on Inauguration Day, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, proposed a procedure to flag new posts and verify them before making them public. The BBC article indicates that this apostasy has provoked a storm of protest from the wiki-warriors. It will delay. It will be expensive.

But the thing is, as David Sullivan pointed out today at That’s the Press, Baby, “The idea of editing -- the idea of newspapers -- in the end rests upon, yes, dear reader, we do in fact know some things in more depth and detail than you do, and are better trained to judge them, just as you may be better trained to design a house or repair an electrical system.” And further, that “standards cannot result from universal input on standards.”

Or to put it in the terms of a proverbial expression: If you put a teaspoon of sewage in a barrel of wine, you get sewage; if you put a teaspoon of wine in a barrel of sewage, you get sewage.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:11 PM | | Comments (22)

The staff meeting anatomized

Good afternoon. I realize that we are starting this scheduled meeting 15 minutes late, but I was doing something else, and being your boss entitles me to waste your time.

Let me go over what we will accomplish today.

We’ll lead off with 10 minutes or so of chitchat about some sporting event or television show, during which the two or three people who care about it will share their superficial opinions and attempts at humor.

Then Drudge will proceed to paraphrase, word for word, the memo that went out before the meeting, which nearly all of you did not read. The follow-up will be a reminder circulated after the meeting, which you will also ignore.

I will launch into an anecdote of no particular relevance.

After that, Roundabout will take about 15 minutes to convey five minutes’ worth of information to you, digressing, repeating sentences, losing his train of thought, regaining it and retracing his previous steps, losing the thread again, and finally trailing off as you grip the table to keep yourselves from screaming.

Iconoclast will speak up, showing his bold originality by making a point completely at variance with everything that has gone before. Once he has established his individuality afresh, he will subside.

Hack will update with details of the new project. They will be pretty much the same as the details described at the previous meeting, and it will be difficult to determine what, if any, progress has been made, but several minutes will be consumed.

I will offer a reminiscence from my youth, tying it in to the sporting event or television series mentioned previously.

Sycophant will offer the latest pronouncements from Corporate. Nod appreciatively.

Now that we are several minutes over and nothing has actually been decided, I will close the meeting. You will have to determine, in murmured conversations with your colleagues, whether actual decisions have been made without your knowledge, or whether pending decisions will be made without notifying you.

Have a good day.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:43 AM | | Comments (8)

January 28, 2009

Facebook and list mania

If you are on Facebook, you will almost certainly have friends who have completed the list of 25 random facts about themselves and invited you to do the same. It’s like a chain letter. *

Highly unlikely as it is that you have any interest in random personal facts about a paunchy drudge about to turn 58, I am offering you 25 facts about editing.

1. The project will require three times the planned time to achieve one-third of the desired result (McIntyre’s Ratio).

2. Writers will never straighten out it’s and its.

3. No matter how many times an article is edited or proofed, some reader will find a mistake in it.

4. To reporters, all deadlines are fungible.

5. Percentages will have been miscalculated 42 percent of the time.

6. Stories move to the copy desk early or on time only on the eve of a holiday, when the writers and assigning editors are eager to get out of the building.

7. The error no one spots will be in the big type.

8. The Associated Press Stylebook is a set of guidelines, not scripture.

9. The publisher is always right.

10. The statement of fact you don’t check will turn out to be wrong.

11. Whom is on the way out, but it’s not gone yet.

12. A thesaurus in a reporter’s hand is like a pistol in a toddler’s.

13. You can cut any text by 10 percent without anyone noticing.

14. You can cut any text by 25 percent and probably should.

15. A writer’s ego is like a Venetian blown-glass ball: huge, gorgeous and fragile.

16. No one outside a university philosophy department knows any longer what beg the question means.

17. Most of the errors in grammar and usage that readers complain of are not errors.

18. Over time, you will become acquainted with the limitations of all your fellow editors.

19. Over time, all your fellow editors will become acquainted with your limitations.

20. Most pairs of dashes could, and should, be replaced with commas.

21. There will never be enough time to do what ought to be done.

22. You are allowed three exclamation points in your entire career.

23. You will be hampered by idiosyncratic and idiotic decrees by long-gone managers.

24. Editing is just about the most fun you can have legally.

25. Don’t expect gratitude.


* As far as I can tell from the sampling among my own Facebook friends, it seems to attract, um, the mature. Perhaps they just have more to tell about themselves, having lived longer. But now that Facebook is being populated by codgers and coots like me, how long before the young people find somewhere else to go?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:56 AM | | Comments (27)

January 27, 2009

Crisis of authority

It is apparently not enough for proprietors of newspapers and magazines and publishing houses to jettison their editors to cut expenses. No, in addition, we are subjected to scorn: We have obsolete “gatekeeper” roles in the new realm of information that wants to be free; our editing procedures are quaint echoes of 19th-century industrial processes. Every time an editor is let go, Jeff Jarvis* sheds another crocodile tear.

The very idea of authority is being challenged, and what the Testy Copy Editors have been calling “the war on editing” is merely one battle.

Wikipedia’s defenders insist that it doesn’t really matter that the online collaborative encyclopedia contains an unknown quantity of suspect information, some of it merely mistaken or outdated, but some of it outright fraudulent. Doesn’t matter that it may not be right. Wikipedia is swell.

Those publishing proprietors mentioned above think it doesn’t matter all that much if the accuracy of their publications has suffered and the quality has been compromised. Readers will put up with anything.

Bloggers and Internet sites post rumors, unconfirmed or unattributed statements of fact, and outright lies — we saw during the campaign that any kind of vicious nonsense about Sarah Palin or Barack Obama, provably false statements and fantasies, multiplied like the hydra, growing new appendages as fast as the old ones could be lopped off. Doesn’t matter. You can say anything. It’s all OK.

We saw a crisis of authority in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, combined with widespread disenchantment over the conduct of the Vietnam War and the exposure of the governmental falsehoods connected with it, led to skeptical rejection of the authority of the white male Establishment in business, government, academia and the church. We’ve been down this road before.

But there was an earlier and more profound crisis of authority that should resonate today: the challenge to church and state and established order associated with the rise of printing technology in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Once the monopoly on information held by church and state was broken, anyone could say anything. And say it anonymously or pseudonymously. It was a free-for-all like the Internet: political subversion, religious controversy, all conducted with vicious personal attacks on one’s opponents. No copyright — anyone could steal anything. Anyone could invent anything.

It took a long time for print publication to become even partially domesticated. No doubt the Internet will also undergo some domestication over time, but it is difficult to be optimistic about that.

For now, to shift metaphor, we are living in the Wild West. There are gunslingers walking the streets at will, and the honest citizens can’t tell when they might find themselves in a crossfire. No doubt it’s exciting to be a gunslinger, an exuberant freedom, but the ordinary citizenry is eventually going to want a little more order.

This is where the metaphor starts to trouble me, because I don’t want the state to be laying a heavy hand on the Internet. I don’t have a badge and don’t want one. But I don’t see that self-policing is effective. And the I-don’t-care-whether-it’s-right-or-not attitude seems in particular to be a substantial obstacle to establishment of authority to which the public can give willing assent.



* Look him up yourself. I’m disinclined to send traffic his way.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:03 AM | | Comments (10)

January 25, 2009

You know you're in Baltimore when ...

You know you’re in Baltimore when ...

you walk past a rowhouse and notice that the welcome mat says:


When do you know you’re in Baltimore?



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:43 PM | | Comments (22)

January 23, 2009

Vexations of local nomenclature

Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. The neighborhoods and landmarks in them have names. The boundaries of those neighborhoods are not necessarily clearly delineated, and the names are not necessarily stable.

Pigtown, for example, got its name when swine were commonly run through the streets to their fate. Various municipal prettifiers have attempted to rename it Washington Village. It’s Pigtown.

When a neighborhood demographic shifts or becomes unstable, so does the nomenclature. Gentrifiers move into what was once a working-class neighborhood, and some of the old names they attempt to remove with the Formstone.*

All this rises from an inquiry from Sam Sessa our estimable Midnight Sun blogger, who writes about all the watering holes I avoid. ** An irate reader took him to task for a reference to “Canton Square” in the east-side neighborhood of the same name. It’s O’Donnell Square, the reader insisted.

The canny Mr. Sessa consulted out electronic archive and discovered that we have played both sides for years, alternating between “Canton Square” and “O’Donnell Square.” Then he came to my desk.

“Approach,” I said.

“M’lud, I crave a boon,” he said, and described his need for a ruling.

So I consulted Dee Addington, a 32-year resident of Canton, who explained that the square is properly O’Donnell Square, displaying a statue representing Capt. John O’Donnell, whose plantation was developed into the neighborhood.

Ms. Addington also said that a store calling itself Canton Square Video in the 1980s and that houses built where original rowhouses had been demolished were known as Canton Square.

Ms. Addington did the intake when I was first enrolled in The Sun’s books, and it is not wise to cross her. O’Donnell Square it is, and so The Sun’s electronic stylebook now states unequivocally. Fiat, fiat. Next.


* Formstone, you outlanders, is a synthetic stone covering commonly used on Baltimore rowhouses in the past century. The fastidious find it tacky; when they remove it, they discover that it has protected the original brick from decades of air pollution.

** It’s not that I sit at home with a gouty foot propped on a hassock while I bellow for more port. It’s just that it’s difficult to find saloons with decent draft beer and no televisions. Not fond of the music the young people listen to, either — “young people” understood to include just about anyone born since 1800.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:22 PM | | Comments (28)

More is written than read

I used to listen to graduate students in the writing program at Syracuse bewail the Poetry Crisis — that more people appeared to be writing and publishing poetry than were reading it. Thirty years later, that looks to be still the case.

The poets, of course, have only themselves to blame. Many of them embraced the tenets of high Modernism, that poetry was to be written for a sophisticated elite, and the broader audience wandered off. Poetry that has to be learned to be appreciated is like a properly constructed martini: a minority taste.

It’s not just the poets who are manufacturing more than is consumed. So are journalists — and let’s not even mention bloggers.

At newspapers with a unionized work force, reporters typically have the right to withhold their bylines from articles. That give rise to the occasional byline strike, by which reporters bring management to its knees by withholding their names from their stories. You see, they imagine, bless their hearts, that readers pay attention to bylines.

It’s increasingly apparent that in addition to bylines, readers don’t pay much attention to stories. Newspapers can analyze readers’ behavior with the online product, discovering which stories readers look at and how long they spend with them, an analysis that would be humbling to many writers. It’s probably not much different for readers of the print product. suspect that the headlines written by my colleagues on the copy desk are frequently the only part of the stories that the audience actually reads before passing on.

Not long ago, The Sun incorporated the Sunday comic strips into the TV book, announcing this prominently Inevitably, readers called the newsroom wondering what had happened to the comics. In some cases, the persons taking the calls couldn’t answer. It’s discouraging to learn that the subscribers don’t pay much attention to the paper; it’s embarrassing to discover that the staff doesn’t, either.

But if you are a regular reader of this blog, it is manifest that you are a person of high intelligence and discerning taste.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:51 PM | | Comments (5)

Surely you jest: The professor and the student

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 AM | | Comments (3)

January 21, 2009

References you can trust

No posts yesterday — I was preoccupied with some kind of news event — though I have taken part in the back-and-forth over Wikipedia. (Where, by the way, are all the wiki-wary among you? I could use some more backup.) Today I have some time to answer a question from a reader who wonders what electronic references I would recommend.

This is not a systematic or exhaustive list, but the items on it are all useful. Not infallible, but subject to some degree of verification.

The online Oxford English Dictionary, which is updated each quarter, is an indispensable reference on language, but it is available by subscription, and the subscription is not cheap. Best if you can piggyback on some institutional subscription, such as at a university.

Merriam-Webster has a decent online dictionary and thesaurus. For current slang and nonce expressions, Grant Barrett’s Double-Tongued Dictionary is reliable.

Assignment has an extensive set of links to electronic resources, such as the CIA World Factbook, U.S. government directories, and U.S. and foreign newspapers.

The Librarians’ Internet Index has links to Web sites that have been vetted. has access to a number of reference books, including books of quotations and an edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia.

The Library of Congress has a wealth of information freely available., of course, for all those urban legends and Internet rumors that turn out to have no foundation.

For music, the Allmusic blog. For films, the Internet Movie Database.

Enough to get you started and lure you away from Wikipedia for a while?



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:54 PM | | Comments (18)

January 19, 2009


Yesterday’s post about a faulty entry in Wikipedia, “I said, get Mitty,” provoked a stout defense of the online encyclopedia.

I’m repeating three comments from yesterday at the end of this article to provide a context for what I am about to say, but I want to get on with my argument.

Wikipediaphiliacs, the uncritical boosters of the wiki, hold an unjustifiably optimistic faith in the Internet — that traditional sources of authority, such as professional editors, are obsolete, to be replaced by the inherent collective authority of the whole range of participants in the Internet. Wikipedia, they say, works because it is self-correcting, and skeptics like me are mossbacks resisting the brave new world of free information. (For a thoroughgoing examination of Wikipedia, have a look at this article in The New Yorker from July 31, 2006.)

Nothing comes without a cost. The automobile gave ordinary Americans a mobility not dreamed of by previous generations: in a word, freedom. And that freedom has brought with it sprawl, air pollution, a dangerous dependence on importation of oil, and tens of thousands of accidental deaths. The Internet has given us an unprecedented access to information; from this desktop computer I can do research that would previously been possible only in a university library. And the Internet has also brought with it a daily cascade of spam, a medium for plagiarism, a megaphone for cranks and charlatans, and a tremendous increase in identity theft and fraud.

So let’s not be uncritical in our admiration for the wonders of Wikipedia.

The repeated assertion since its founding that Wikipedia is superior because it is self-correcting gets shaky on examination. The quantity of erroneous material has grown so much that Wikipedia has been forced to engage a corps of, well, editors to police the site, because contributors can be persistent in posting material that is incorrect, subliterate, biased or outright malicious. Given the size of Wikipedia, I doubt that the editors can effectively keep up. Wikipedia is just like the Internet: Every day there is more information, and every day it includes more junk.

Moreover, and this is the most troublesome part, the editing is not stable. An editor corrects an error, and an hour later or a day later, someone undoes the editing. You cannot tell, when looking at a Wikipedia entry, whether it is correct at this moment.

Faced with this unpalatable fact, some Wikipediaphiliacs now say that the citations are the valuable part, the links to information more reliable than what is in the Wikipedia entry itself. If that is so, why not just publish the citations? Give anyone interested in a topic the bibliographical information. Is it just me, or does it seem odd to the rest of you as well that proponents of Wikipedia appear to suggest that it is a valuable reference tool so long as you do not trust the entries?

I am a professional editor. My job is to be skeptical — to assume that I will find errors of fact, grammar, syntax or usage in any text given to me. It is through the labor of editors that error is reduced to the minimum in the publication. Editors at encyclopedias and lexicographers at dictionaries perform similar tasks; they vet the information. And what you find in their work is information that may, yes, contain some errors, but which is unlikely to be written in subliterate English, to result from a prank or to display malicious intent.

As I said yesterday, the democratization of information has also meant the democratization of error. Scorning or abandoning the traditional sources of verification, such as editing, will lead to an Information Age abounding in dubious information.

The comments

From Stuart Levine:

[B]ecause is it open and transparent, over time errors in Wikipedia will tend to be corrected.

I think that McIntyre's error here derives from a more fundamental error. Specifically, Mr. McIntyre you views knowledge and the repositories of knowledge (e.g., encylopedias, dictionaries, etc.) as somehow being fixed. In fact, knowledge is better viewed as a process that is constantly evolving.

Taken in that light, Wikipedia is far superior to say, EB, because of its ability to change. Let me make this prediction: In five years or so, debates such as this will seem quaint. By that time, if not sooner, Wikipedia, used in conjunction with other Web resources, will clearly be a broader and more complete knowledge resource than relatively static resources such as EB. The Wikipedia of January, 2009, is but a way station and should not be judged prematurely.

From Doug Ashee:

Wikipedia itself says that its entries should be used as a starting point for finding more specialized references.

The only people who have problems using Wikipedia is those who espect clear-cut answers that they can immediately copy - in short, lazy students.

More intellectually advanced, or less lazy, people do not trust blindly what they read in Wikipedia, but are prepared to use it as a springboard for new ideas, references, and concepts.

From Grant Barrett (Mr. Levine and Mr. Ashee I do not know; Mr. Barrett is a reputable lexicographer):

Within my experience, every—all, every one, in toto, all inclusive, the whole shebang—Wikipedia article I have checked has had errors in it.

Many of the corrections I have made to Wikipedia in areas in which I have expertise were later erased or effaced, usually by the insertion of provably false information or nuttiness by some self-serving nutjob who doesn't know a dictionary from a dingo. The entry on "slang" comes to mind.

Why should I waste my time in correcting something that I'll just have to correct again? Like John, I don't have the luxury of being able to camp out and defend against ignorance, unlike my colleagues who keep the entry for "jazz (word)" in good order.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 AM | | Comments (29)

January 18, 2009

I said, get Mitty

Though my blood pressure is well within the normal range, I should still know better than to look at Wikipedia.

The other day at work, I chanced upon the Wikipedia entry on James Thurber’s classic short story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” According to the entry, in the ending of the story, “Mitty imagines himself fearlessly escapes [sic] his captures [sic] in a large hot air balloon.” And also, “The closing scene comes with Mitty stood [sic] in the balloon, smoking.”

The subliterate grammar aside, the writer describes one of the most frequently anthologized American short stories of the 20th century and gets the ending wrong. Whether this is an inexplicable misreading of the plain text or some kind of prank is beyond my power to evaluate.

But a couple of days later, despite Wikipedia’s pride in its relentless self-editing, this piece of trash survives intact. And there lies my dislike of Wikipedia. The reader simply cannot tell when looking at an entry whether it is an accurate account, a blundering error, or a hoax. It might have been right a minute ago, and it might be right again in a minute, but you have no way of knowing whether it is right at the minute at which you come across it. A reference that is unreliable hardly qualifies as a reference.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:22 AM | | Comments (14)

January 17, 2009

Potemkin doesn't live in this village

Lawyers for the governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, have announced that they will not defend him in his impeachment trial in the state Senate because the proceedings there are fundamentally unfair to their client. Their statement included this sentence:

"We cannot and will not degrade our client, ourselves, our oaths and our profession, as well as the office of the governor, by participating in a Potemkin-like lynching proceeding, thus making it appear that the governor is represented by competent counsel when in fact he is not."

Potemkin-like lynching is, of course, the interesting construction.

When Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, toured Ukraine and the Crimea in the late 18th century, Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin, one of a number of her favorites, is said to have constructed mock villages — essentially theatrical sets — to impress the empress with the prosperity and good order of her realm. This has given rise to the term Potemkin village, meaning a façade or stage set — a fraud — constructed to conceal an embarrassing or unpleasant reality.

One is left a little puzzled at the lawyers’ intending meaning, since lynching is precisely the sort of ugly fact that a Potemkin construction would be erected to conceal. A “Potemkin-like lynching” would be not a real lynching but a cosmetically enhanced mock lynching?

Perhaps Messrs. Sam and Sam Adam Jr. would have been better advised to focus on jurisprudence and avoid literary-historical flourishes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:40 PM | | Comments (3)

January 16, 2009

Surely you jest: Ole and Lena's pastries

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (2)

January 14, 2009

Listen for the apostrophe

Thanks to Everything You Know About English Is Wrong blog (a site that will repay your attention), I have learned about anapostrophism from the Exploring Our Matrix Web site. Have a look.

Those of you who are humorless (yes, we get those, and so, to judge from the comments, does Exploring Our Matrix) should keep in mind that Professor McGrath’s post is satirical.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:15 PM | | Comments (7)


Kathy Schenck is writing at Words to the Wise about the clash over enormity.

Purists insist that the word should be understood in the narrow sense of “a great evil.” Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others were guilty of enormities, and to use the word in any other sense, they say, trivializes it.

But more casual users have been using enomity for a long time in the sense of “of great size” or “of large dimensions.” It is in this sense that Barack Obama used the word in a sentence Ms. Schenck quotes: "I do not underestimate the enormity of the task that lies ahead."

I use the word in its strict sense; it’s a useful word to have in stock. I teach my students that there is a distinction here that fastidious writers observe. But I can’t ignore that the other sense appears to have become prevalent and that no one misunderstands it. No one imagines that Mr. Obama meant that he intended to embark on a task of great wickedness. (Oh, all right, sure there are, but I don’t read those blogs or listen to those radio shows.) I can think it regrettable that the two usages coexist and that the one appears to be crowding out the other; but when the speaker’s or writer’s meaning is always clear in context, it seems pointless to carry on about it. It may not even be justifiable to call it an error, and it’s certainly not an enormity.

Buckeye Sam posted a comment on the Words to the Wise entry: “Anyway, regarding "enormity," it's my one-word usage test.”

There, in a single sentence, you can see encapsulated what people dislike about purists and the mavenry. Someone is listening to you, not paying attention to the substance of what you say, but waiting for you to make a mistake. And it might not even be a mistake; it could be some aribitrary and idiosyncratic “rule” of which you are unaware, and about which there is dispute among the professionals. The purist is impatiently waiting to give a thumbs-up-thumbs-down judgment, and he is a hanging judge in a court from which there is no appeal.

Precision in the use of language is important. So is a sense of proportion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (3)

January 13, 2009

Permission to address the chair

When the House of Representatives moved a week ago to adopt gender-neutral language in its proceedings, in part by replacing the terms chairman and chairwoman with chair, there was a predictable outburst of indignation.

Newfangled changes. Political correctitude. People aren’t furniture. Harumph, harumph, harumph. You can get a fair sampling of such responses here.

But as is so frequently the case when people are firmer in their opinions than in their information. It turns out that chair as a term for the presiding person has a long pedigree, parallel to the use of throne as an equivalent of the sovereign.

The Oxford English Dictionary records usages from the 17th century: “The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys..and takes a little too much on him” and “It was referred to Me by this Honourable Chair, to examine and produce the Experiment”; in the 19th century, “It can hardly be conceived that the Chair would fail to gain the support of the House”; and, more currently, from 1976, “Seventeen members of the university's Department of Linguistics, including the department's distinguished chair, Calvert Watkins, had written a letter to the Crimson on the subject of the students' action.”

The substitution of the gender-neutral chair for chairman or chairwoman has been common in American universities for more than 30 years, and has grown increasingly common elsewhere. I don’t see anything in particular to object to in it, and certainly not on the ground that it is some kind of reckless innovation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:51 PM | | Comments (7)

January 12, 2009

How to pronounce it -- 2

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:31 PM | | Comments (23)

January 9, 2009

Surely you jest: The Swedish lodger

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (11)

January 8, 2009

The worst opening imaginable

I’m at the sluice, preparing to open the floodgate.

The Associated Press moved this lead to an article on the number of People’s Choice awards going to the Batman movie The Dark Knight. The AP moved it as a bylined article, so that the originality of the writer could be honored. I omit the name as a point of common decency.

Here’s the lead:

LOS ANGELES — Holy People's Choice Awards, Batman!

It would have been 1965 or 1966, when I was a high school freshman, that the “Holy X, Batman!” construction was already getting stale from overuse. And the years have not been kind to it.

That anyone should write such a thing, imagining it to be fresh or original, is painful to consider. That someone purporting to be an editor should loose it on the world is shameful. That newspapers may have actually published it is profoundly depressing. But as editing is turned over to people who have no training or gift for the craft — or judgment is abandoned altogether — we can expect to see even more of this drool.

I invite you to submit specimens that have caught your eye. Top this one, if you can. Just the opening sentence or paragraph, please; we don’t want to the vex the readership even further with those well-wrought 250-word anecdotes that precede some feeble effort to get to the point.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:48 PM | | Comments (14)

Stationery, with an 'e'

If you like, you can go to and sign an electronic petition to change the spelling of stationery* to stationary. It would simplify the language, and the organizers apparently believe that dictionaries have the power to do this.

The petition, however, has garnered a mere 38 signatures, and a third of those are “Anonymous” — no doubt reflecting anxiety over losing their jobs if the signatories’ radical proclivities become public.

Moreover, Bill Brohaugh points out at Everything You Know About English Is Wrong that while stationary and stationery both derive ultimately from the Latin stationarius, or a fixed place where something is located, "the person operating from a stationary location known as a station was a stationer, and therefore the adjective ‘stationery wares,’ which know is known as stationery.’ ” There is a reason to maintain the distinction, and Mr. Brohaugh is sticking to it. So am I.

Petitions like this, if they are not simply jokes, betray a misunderstanding of how things work. Dictionaries, for one, follow the language; they do not legislate for it. The availability of dictionaries and the spread of public education over the past couple of centuries have probably had a strong influence in standardizing spelling and some usages, but that’s about as far as it goes.

Language is purely democratic: If enough people use particular words or grammatical constructions long enough, including usages that are “errors,” they become part of the language. That is why we no longer speak Anglo-Saxon, or, for that matter, Norman French.

You cannot lobby to change the language, and you cannot legislate changes. All the simplified spelling efforts — including those by George Bernard Shaw and the mighty Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick — have had little or no effect. The Academie francaise enunciates strictures to which very few Francophones pay much attention, and the English-speaking nations have always stoutly resisted the establishment of any such academy. George Orwell was mistaken in speculating that a totalitarian society could control people’s thought by controlling their vocabulary; the example of the late and unlamented Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is pertinent here.

Language, like Ol’ Man River, just keeps rolling along, and attempts to dam or divert its course rarely produce the consequences that the would-be engineers intend.


* That’s paper, for those of you who may be confused.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:27 AM | | Comments (15)

January 7, 2009

The envy of academics

My worthy colleague Dan Rodricks responded yesterday to my post on Paul J.J. Payack and the challenges by professional linguists to his claims about the English language.

Mr. Rodricks, who has invited Mr. Payack to appear on his radio program three times, sprang to a qualified defense of his guest: “Payack is having fun and you can consider what he says with a grain of salt. (Several of my Midday listeners challenged the guy on his word-counting premises when he was on the air.) Some of what he says makes sense, some of it sounds like hyperbole. ...”

To that he adds, “It also appears that some academics are — oh, what's the word? — jealous of the celebrity Payack has enjoyed for presuming to count words.”

Geoffrey Pullum, Geoffrey Nunberg, Grant Barrett, and other linguists who find Mr. Payack’s claims preposterous have established reputations of their own. I doubt that they are turning green because Mr. Rodricks has invited Mr. Payack and neglected them.

The argument of envy is, I think, not the first arrow that ought to be plucked from the quiver. Suppose a gentleman came to you to display the skull of an australopithecine that he had dug up in his back yard. Suppose further that three or four established paleontologists assured you that the skull was in fact that of a calf. Would your first thought be that the paleontologists were motivated by envy of the discoverer?

Please be clear. I’m not disputing that Mr. Rodricks can invite anyone he likes to appear on his show; he even once had the serious lapse in judgment to invite me. Neither do I question his coming to the defense of his guest. But I think that the remark about jealousy is open to challenge.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (5)

The orator's art

As you prepare yourself to be swayed by President-elect Barack Obama’s inaugural address next week and the inevitable encomiums to follow, do not neglect the commentary on the efforts of the Republic’s previous statesmen.

“Gamalielese,” written in 1921 on the inauguration of President Warren G. Harding, makes a present to the reader of some of H.L. Mencken’s most gorgeous remarks on political oratory. One choice morsel:

“[H]e writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean-soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely to the topmost pinnacle of posh.”


* The essay was reprinted in the 1956 collection, A Carnival of Buncombe, now to be found in the Google Books electronic version, pages 41-45.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (1)

January 6, 2009

The origins of error

People commit many errors in grammar and fall into many infelicities in usage — but not as often as the mavenry* would have you think. Many false prescriptions rise from misinformation, which has multiple sources, and many unreliable practices rise from misunderstanding. I’d like to begin an examination and classification of those sources of error.

You’ve got to be carefully taught

Well-meaning, long-serving and dedicated English teachers and composition teachers have unwittingly drilled generations of students to believe things that are not so, and to accept practices that are alien to idiomatic English.

One of the most notable examples is the longstanding prohibition against splitting infinitives, which has been repeatedly denounced as an arrant superstition by linguists and the better class of prescriptivists. It sometimes appears that the only thing that adults retain from English class, apart from a dislike of Silas Marner, is a vestigial sense that splitting an infinitive constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor against the language.

Even more unfortunately, since grammar and usage are taught almost as badly as mathematics in our serene Republic, these adults have only the most shadowy sense of what an infinitive is.** Thus befuddled, they embrace the further superstition that it is impermissible to insert an adverb between an auxiliary verb and the main verb.*** Journalists are particularly susceptible to this form of unidiomatic English.

Sleeping in class

Though English teachers, bless their hearts, must shoulder a heavy load of blame, we have to remember that many students don’t read the assignment, don’t retain the assignment when they read it, doodle or pass notes instead of paying attention in class, and carry away peculiarly distorted recollections of what was said in class.

This came home to me when I was a teaching assistant at Syracuse and a fellow graduate student recounted an incident from a freshman composition class: After he asked the class to explain what a paragraph is, one student’s hand shot up. A little dazed at the idea that a Syracuse undergraduate would be willing to speak in class, he called on the student to explain what a paragraph is and got the concise answer, “Six sentences.”

Managing editor syndrome

You don’t actually have to be a managing editor. You can be an executive editor or a copy desk chief or a department head. If you have an office with a name on the door, you probably have some measure of power to impose your whims on your subordinates. You don’t have to have studied anything or consulted any authorities; you merely have to conclude that you dislike some word or construction because your “ear” for the language is offended by it. Sanctified in a memo and embedded in an in-house stylebook, your uninformed strictures can outlive your mortal frame.

I can’t recall at the moment where I read recently about a manager who campaigned against the word got, arguing that it’s wrong to say that some one got sick, because to get can only be used in the sense of acquiring something intentionally. Anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper — and probably just about anyone who has ever worked in an office — can furnish examples of equally idiotic ukases.

Unjustifiable extrapolation

An affliction prevalent among copy editors is the tendency to turn guidelines into rules, and then to extend them beyond the original scope. Copy editors are particularly prone to this disorder. Bill Walsh and I have pointed out for years that the Associated Press stylebook entry specifying half-acre doesn’t mean that it is impermissible to write half an acre, but only that you must use a hyphen if you write half-acre. Yet I have known a number of copy editors who reflexively changed half an acre to half-acre in all instances “because AP says so.”

I don’t want to hear it

Perhaps the saddest phenomenon of all is the refusal to entertain new information. “This is what Sister Mary Catherine/my journalism professor/my first slotman told me.” “This is how I’ve written it for 20 years, and I’m not about to change on your say-so.” “I don’t care what Bryan Garner says; it doesn’t sound right.” “I don’t pay any attention to those people on Language Log because they use big words and act like they know more than you do.”

None so deaf as those who choose not to hear.

Sometimes an errant seed of sound practice will take root, grow and flower. But there are still a lot of weeds out there.


* Language mavens, self-appointed authorities and kibitzers whose ranks include schoolteachers, editors, columnists, bloggers and quacks of many varieties.

** An infinitive is the basic form of the verb with the preposition to: to speak, to write, to eat, to sleep, to defecate are all infinitives.

*** We have always placed adverbs between the auxiliary verb and main verb in English, since Chaucer was a schoolboy.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:19 PM | | Comments (7)

Over the transom

One of my vows this year, not yet abandoned, is to keep up better with the queries and comments that come to my desk. Here is a miscellany.

O western wind

One of The Sun’s loyal readers — a hardy tribe — was disappointed in the headline for the article on the cancellation of the New Year’s fireworks display because of dangerously high winds: Wind rustles planned festivities.

She thought that ruffles might have been intended, since rustles doesn’t appear to match any of the common senses of the word. I caught the sense of the headline but think that it was a misjudged effort at wordplay.

See for yourself

Paul J.J. Payack, the million-words-in-English man, has responded to my post suggesting that his enterprise is flawed and largely pointless, inviting me to examine the article in which he sets out his argument. You’re welcome to have a look, but I have to say that I am unpersuaded.

You’ve seen them before

Virtually all journalism is infested with cliches — do you live in a leafy suburb or on a gritty inner-city street? (I come from what some of my colleagues would probably call hardscrabble.) And there are the stock story forms and stock story structures; usually you can read the headline, maybe a sentence or two, and predict the entire contents of the story. The odd thing is that the writers who employ these shopworn devices almost always imagine that they are being original. “It’s not a cliche when I use it,” a reporter once told me — with a straight face.

Probably no writers have to resort more frequently to cliches than sports reporters. They typically have to turn out a large volume of copy under demanding time constraints, which makes it inevitable that prefabricated phrases comes to hand.

Andy Knobel, who capably oversees The Sun’s sports copy editors, offers this link to an annual column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette identifying some of the most notable sports cliches of the year just past.

The purple sweater

Some of you have commenter on the purple sweater and tie that I am wearing in the “Surely you jest” series of video jokes. Let me repeat what I said in a comment on the most recent one.

Mike Catalini has far weightier responsibilities as a multimedia editor than the production of the videos on this site. To spare him time and labor, I record a batch of these jokes at a sitting and then post them at intervals. The next one will display a change in wardrobe that will run for half a dozen posts until I put together the next batch.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:30 AM | | Comments (10)

January 5, 2009

Surely you jest: The pocket watch

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:13 AM | | Comments (5)

January 4, 2009

A million reasons not

You will not see at this blog any celebration of the coining of the millionth word in English, as calculated by Paul J.J. Payack, however much attention the supposed phenomenon gets elsewhere. The reason is that a number of respected linguists have concluded that Mr. Payack is a fraud.

The matter has been most recently discussed at Language Log, with links to previous entries. The comments are instructive, because Mr. Payack himself responds, in a manner that does not enhance his credibility.

English has a lot of words, and counting them involves arbitrary choices — Are different forms of a verb separate words? Are variant spellings separate words? Should obsolete or archaic words no longer in use be included? — and serious questions about methodology — Do errors by non-native speakers count? How many people have to use a neologism for it to count? What sources (print, broadcast, Internet) are used to collect the words? Are all Englishes (British, American, Canadian, Australian, Nigerian, etc.) to be included? Slang, too?

The whole operation looks bogus, but that has not prevented journalists from solemnly writing about the advent of the millionth word.

I suppose it has something to do with the journalistic fascination with impressive but essentially meaningless numbers. Think of anniversary stories, a newspaper staple. If it is one year or 10, 25 or 50 years since a particular event, you can count on reading about it. It is 10 years since a child died, and the parents are still sad. It is 25 years that the unsolved murder has remained unsolved. It is 50 years since “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” and the outcome has not changed.

The occurrence of these articles is entirely predictable, as is the lack of anything surprising in them. They are the journalistic equivalent of fishing with dynamite: You get the press release about the millionth word in English, and there’s your story; you interview two or three people about their memories of the great event, and the rest of the story you can mine from the files. Nothing could be easier. (Although The Sun’s feature in 2004 on the 100th anniversary of the Great Fire of Baltimore was pushed through the copy desk on edition deadline — a story the paper had had 99 years to write.)

It’s of no consequence to me whether English has a million words or 900,000. I’m more interested in what people do with them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 AM | | Comments (4)

January 2, 2009

Surely you jest: Out of the office

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:17 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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