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February 28, 2009

The secrets of management

Among the many striking quotations in The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, Henry Hitchings includes this remark by a psychologist, Adrian Furnham:

It has been said that journalists first used the word “guru”tho describe management theorists because they could not spell the word “charlatan.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:50 PM | | Comments (4)

February 27, 2009

Grammar on the air

I should have mentioned in today’s earlier post that though I will not be in Baltimore on National Grammar Day, March 4, I am scheduled as a guest on Midday with Dan Rodricks at WYPR-FM during the 1 p.m.-2 p.m. segment of the show.
Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (1)


I’m taking the day off to go down to Annapolis, where my son, John Paul McIntyre, is defending his senior essay at St. John’s College. Then I will be spending next week conducting workshops for my colleagues at the Daily Press in Newport News, Va. So postings on this blog are apt to be irregular until I am back in harness at The Sun.

For now, a couple of updates:

There is no video joke today because of technical difficulties. You may have noticed small, irritating bursts of static in the previous two posted jokes, and my producer, Mike Catalini, has been too occupied with his real work to address the issue.

Despite the hiatus, the thrilling conclusion to the Grammarnoir serial will be posted on Monday. There has been some minor agitation for a recording of the complete serial, and I will be investigating the possibilities of a production.

The Grammarnoir serial looks ahead to National Grammar Day on March 4, for which all of you will no doubt find appropriate means of celebration. (I do not, however, recommend the grammartini recipe linked to the Grammar Day site; it is shaken. For more reliable advice, look here.) Please keep in mind that the point of National Grammar Day is not to act the prig or common scold, but to write and speak with greater care, precision and clarity.*

On the days that I do not post, feel free to rummage about in the back issues for whatever you may find informative or amusing.


* Those of you who are observing Lent may find this a useful discipline.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:11 AM | | Comments (3)

February 26, 2009

The desk makes the difference

My esteemed colleague Daniel Hunt has posted a refreshing statement at the discussion board of the American Copy Editors Society. He quotes journalists in San Francisco as they explore what kind of newspaper could and should be established in the city should Hearst’s Chronicle collapse. This is the key statement:

The copy desk is basically what differentiates professional journalism. Let's beef it up instead of cutting it back and then set excessively high bars for making no mistakes.

Perhaps a little overstated, but sweet to the ear.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:08 AM | | Comments (2)

Call my lawyer

A piece of more or less impenetrable business prose forwarded by a colleague:

Dow Jones Insight is an automated media analysis solution with the best combination of text mining and visualization technology, an extensive content collection including traditional and social media and superior research methodologies that provide actionable intelligence for proactive communications strategies.

Shouldn’t require heroic restraint to refrain from calling a sales representative, but the bit that caught my eye was actionable intelligence. The writer may understand that phrase as meaning information that can readily be acted on, but to these old eyes it means information sufficient to justify bringing an action — that is, a lawsuit.

They have editors anymore at Dow Jones?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:39 AM | | Comments (11)

February 25, 2009

You don't need proof; you have the Internet

I’m reluctant to give additional currency to what appears to be a scurrilous fraud, but Wishydig has an interesting post on bogus quotations, “Quotation marks don’t make it so,” featuring a remark attributed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

“You don’t need [G-d] anymore, you have us democrats.”

He has expended some time trying to run it to its source, but, as with so many things on the Internet, sources are elusive. But his research is extensive enough to persuade him that the remark is counterfeit, a canard, a partisan fabrication.

It is bad enough trying to run down the source of authentic quotations on the Internet, where every other remark seems to be given as having come from Mark Twain or Winston Churchill. That is just sloppiness. But the willingness to circulate material that looks dubious, or is manifestly false, is one of the least attractive attributes of our brave world of free-flowing information. A lie has half a million hits while truth is still putting on its britches.

Be careful out there.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:06 PM | | Comments (7)

A temple of books

A post at The Abbeville Manual of Style about an image gallery of libraries features a gorgeous photo of the George Peabody Library at the Peabody Institute here in Baltimore.

Any library bears an aspect of the sacred, as a storehouse of our collective experience and learning, but some, like the Peabody, embody that sense of awe in their architecture. Look at some others at Curious Expeditions.

Take off your hat and lower your voice. You stand in no ordinary place.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:44 PM | | Comments (2)

February 24, 2009

Mr. Hitler's prepositions

Language Log has linked to another Grammar Nazi video on Youtube, making use of that same clip that I mentioned in “A Grammar Nazi’s fate.” (The clip appears to be from the German film Downfall.)

View both clips. Compare and contrast.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:48 AM | | Comments (0)

Purism and futility

In The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, Henry Hitchings describes the steadily expanding vocabulary of the language. What makes his book different from a simple catalogue of etymologies is his willingness to look into the social and political aspects of “English’s opulently international character.”

For example: “Languages become ‘great’ not because of any inherent qualities they may be deemed to have, but because of the political, military and intellectual force behind them. When colonists arrive in a country, they exchange their language with the native inhabitants, and sometimes force it down their throats. Yet at the same time they adopt indigenous terms. An invader’s vocabulary will expand to reflect the concerns of those he has invaded.”

Borrowings from other languages are not simply utilitarian — new nouns for new things — but also reflect social values: “Throughout the history of English, the decision of a speaker or writer to borrow a word — be it from Latin, Greek, Hindi or Japanese — has been divisive, possibly an act of snobbery or self-importance, and at least a covert statement about his or her education.”

I wrote in a previous post that English is a magpie language, forever picking up shiny things from other languages. This tendency, along with the language’s mongrel Anglo-Saxon/Norman French/Latin pedigree, makes the periodic concern with the “purity “ of the language that surfaces every few generations a little silly.

And thus we come to continual conflict over words and usage, usually misguided: “[P]urism itself carries a whiff of the absurd. Much of what is condemned as wrong was standard in its past, and the very language hat is now held up as ‘pure’ is itself likely to have been imported in its time. What passes for vigilance is often just intolerance in disguise.”

He continues: “There are compelling reasons for punctuating and spelling according to particular conventions, as there are for wanting a large degree of stability in our language. But fighting battles about individual words and tiny increments of semantic change is bootless.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (2)

February 23, 2009

The Fat Man chuckles

Continued from “What are we going to do now?” she asked

I stood in front of the Fat Man’s house and waited. Our reporters would have called it a manse, but it was grander than anything the Presbyterian clergy ever set foot inside. One light was on — the ground floor, the library.

I knew he would be there.

Only seconds after I rang the bell, the door opened a crack as narrow as a consultant’s brainpan. The Fat Man’s houseboy took my name, let me in and offered to take my battered fedora. “Just tell your boss I’m here,” I said.

“Very well, Mr. McIntyre,” he said. He was back almost immediately. “This way,” he said, and led me down the hall to the library.

“Ah, McIntyre, delighted to see you again,” the Fat Man wheezed as he heaved himself out of his armchair to greet me. “Come take a pew, while I try to do something about this vile chill,” he said, throwing another copy of Strunk and White onto the fire.

I’d known him for years. We’d been honor students together — teacher’s pets — and then he started his slide. It began innocently enough, with a little amateur lexicography. But then he fell in with that hard set at Language Log. He was pals with both the Geoffs — Pullum and Nunberg — Arnold Zwicky, the lot. Before you could say lexeme, he was too deep into descriptivism to ever come back. But, maybe because of our old school ties, we had always managed a gingerly balance.

“So, dear boy,” he said, “what brings you out in the rain and the dark?”

 “I just came from the Brockenbrough house.”

“Nothing amiss with the charming Martha, I hope.”

“She’s OK. A little white around the gills. Somebody did in the Mister.”

“Oh. How?”

“Col-erase straight through the ticker.”

“Ah. Oddly appropriate, nil nisi bonum and all. That puts paid to his grand scheme, I suppose.”


“You really ought to get out of the newsroom more often, dear boy. Yes, a scheme, a cabal, a conspiracy, a plot as loony as Booth’s plan to decapitate the Union government in ’65. And the Mister was in the thick of it.”

I settled back in my chair. “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

“You must have known that the Mister, despite dear little Martha’s charm, was as hard-edged a proponent of prescriptivist poppycock as any pedant who has ever bemoaned the decline of his language. I once saw him throw a hard roll at a waitress who had merely told him that hopefully his entree would be ready in a few minutes.”

“Go on.”

“Like Cassius, he insinuated himself into a company of like-minded mavens — John Simon, William Safire, James J. Kilpatrick, that lot — and inveigled them into a planning a crack-brained putsch. They were going to kidnap Jesse Sheidlower and storm the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary to ‘purify’ the language by force majeure. And they were going to pull this off —"

“On National Grammar Day. March 4,” I said. “So who would have wanted to snuff him?”

“You could assemble a cast of thousands for that task.” He paused. “But I wonder…”


“It’s just, dear boy,” he said with an evil little chuckle, “that I wouldn’t imagine that he alone could be stirred to wrath over the little niceties and false commandments of usage, or that he alone may have had plans for National Grammar Day.”

I saw then what I had to do.

To be continued …



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:57 AM | | Comments (4)

February 22, 2009

The cattle

David Sullivan’s excellent blog, That’s the Press, Baby — you really ought to devote some serious time to exploring it if you aren’t already well acquainted with it — has a recent post on that Internet novelty, material published without editing.

He quotes Roy Greenslade of the Guardian and other British papers: "I write my blog every day, I don't need a sub to get in the way. “ And “I produce copy that goes straight on screen — why can't anyone else do that? You can eliminate a whole structure.”

Thinking about it, I realized that the Internet is not so novel, because we have seen the type many times before: the sacred monster. The reporter who thinks that editors get in the way. The columnist who demands an accounting of every keystroke in the editing. The star whose work comes to the desk with the understanding that it may not be questioned.

Some years ago I was the copy editor for a major article for the Sunday editions, written by an expensively acquired reporter of note. About a quarter of the way into the text there was a paragraph of such stunning opacity that I knew it would be one of those stumbling blocks to bring a reader to a dead stop. I suggested a minor restructuring and rewording.

The assigning editor tended to agree, but the writer was a star, and a summit meeting had to be convened in the conference room with the reporter, the assigning editor, a couple of other miscellaneous editors, and me. I went in and made my suggestion in a mild and low-key a manner; the reporter glared across the table at me in mute hostility. The outcome: The story was to run as written, with a tacit understanding that no more questions were to be raised or suggestions offered.

After the story ran, I asked a few readers — civilians — what they thought of it. They had come to that precise paragraph and read no further.

You can be sure when you hear that a publication is “a writer’s paper” that you will find there more sacred cattle than roam the streets of Benares. That herd has been around forever. And now the Internet has become their natural habitat. The sloppily reported story, the overlong and badly organized story, the self-indulgent prose excesses are all there, and increasingly in the print versions, too, as those meddling copy editors are turned out to pasture.

There is, of course, first-rate reporting and writing to be found. And you, dear reader, can squat at the waterside and pan the dross yourself for the occasional nugget.


Coming tomorrow: Part 3 of the Grammarnoir serial



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:48 AM | | Comments (6)

February 21, 2009

A Grammar Nazi's fate

Over at Grammar Blog in the United Kingdom — a site you might want to explore — the proprietors have linked to a video on Youtube, “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr. Hitler?”

Watch it.

You might want to be prepared for a little coarse language from the Fuehrer.

And yes, someone has already written to point out that it should be whom in the title of the video.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:15 PM | | Comments (5)

February 20, 2009

Surely you jest: The motorist

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:17 AM | | Comments (1)

February 18, 2009

"What are we going to do now?" she asked

Continued from “Down those mean sentences I walk alone”

Martha zipped off in some little Italian two-seater that she’d bought with the proceeds of Things That Make Us [Sic], and I lumbered along in my wheezing General Motors product. Maybe I should write a book.

Her house — yeah, she was the “friend” with the problem, to your astonishment and mine, I’m sure — was a modest bungalow. Guess the royalties hadn’t spread wide enough to upgrade the house, too. Even the rain couldn’t disguise that it could have used coat of paint.

She shivered a little at the front door, and her hand was unsteady as she tried to get the key into the lock.

I grabbed her by the elbow. “You going to tell me what your problem is?” I asked.

“Soon enough.” And she went in.

There wasn’t a light on in the place. It was as cold as a publisher’s heart, and nearly as black. She switched on a lamp. It had one of those little fluorescent bulbs, so the light just limped out a couple of feet and died.

“Well?” I said.

“Mr. McIntyre, I’m afraid that I didn’t tell you everything back at your office.”

“Sugar, I’m a copy editor. Nobody ever tells me the whole story.”

“All right, would you please just follow me.”

She walked across the room to a closed door and paused with her hand on the knob.

“It’s in here.”

I stepped through the door as she switched on an overhead light.

There he was. A man of middle years, slumped over a desk. There was a flier for National Grammar Day on March 4 clutched in his fist.

I walked over and touched the cold dead flesh of his neck. No pulse, of course. There was a small bruise at his right temple.

I reached for his collar and pulled him upright in his chair. An Eberhard Faber Col-erase number 1277 pencil, carmine red, protruded from his chest, just over the heart.

“Did that kill him?” she asked. Her voice quavered.

“Sweetheart, that’s for the M.E. to say, but I’d bet a first-edition Fowler’s that that pencil has been recently sharpened.”

“What are we going to do now?”

“You, my lovely, are going to call the police and sit here waiting for them.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’m going to see the Fat Man.”

To be continued ...



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (9)

Tone it down a little, would you?

A colleague at Testy Copy Editors asked for advice on how to deal with a writer who persists in using extended metaphors, sometimes for the entire length of a story.

When John Updike died, the commentaries invariably mentioned his fondness for lush language, not always approvingly. Metaphor and other ornamental language can make an article more vivid, pointed and arresting. But if even a writer as accomplished as Updike can fall victim to his own excesses, the rest of us would do well to observe a little judicious restraint.

In journalism, metaphor usually has the greatest effect when the writer hits it once, giving the reader a fresh image, and then moves on. An example from The Sun’s Frank Roylance:

Capturing data on the most powerful and mysterious explosion in the universe is a bit like swatting flies. The blasts, called gamma ray bursts, are usually too quick.

You’ll notice how this works: the arcane scientific task linked to a familiar domestic activity and the parallelism of gamma bursts/flies and catching/swatting. This is not the kind of metaphor that Dr. Johnson objected to in the Metaphysical poets, “The most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together. ...” Instead, one thing clarifies the other to introduce the subject, and the writer drops the metaphor to proceed.

Extending metaphors runs serious risks. Extended metaphor begins to look like allegory, with every element pressed to fit into an overall pattern. If you remember the opening of Start the Revolution Without Me, a 1970 parody of historical films, there is a text on the screen that runs something like this: France! 1789! The fire of oppression was heating the kettle of poverty until the soup of resentment boiled over in revolution and stained the kitchen floor of history.

Trying to do this straight can produce unintended comedy: On misty days the sky and water marry on Prince William Sound, a ceremony overseen by the bridesmaids of jeweled mountains. I think I see the sun, the father of the bride, over the horizon arguing with the caterer.

Even if bathos is not the result, reliance on extended metaphor in article after article will become, like overuse of any other gimmick, predictable and tiresome.

And finally, as my former colleague Wayne Countryman observed for the Testyfiers, the kind of writing that calls more attention to the writer than to the subject — look at me; I can write up a storm — is more apt to weary the reader than to please.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (3)

February 16, 2009

A plethora of pleonasms

If you lack the stomach for the previous post on the flaws of Wikipedia, you can go on a pleonasm hunt instead.

A previous post on pleonasms — from the Greek pleion, “more,” meaning redundant, using more words than necessary — may have sensitized you to safe haven, mass exodus and the like, but there is always more.

Last week a story drifted across the copy desk referring to the discovery in a prison of homemade shanks. A shank is a crude dagger improvised from a spoon, a piece of scrap metal or some other object. It is by definition homemade; Williams Sonoma doesn’t sell shanks. (Shank is also a verb, meaning to stab someone with such a weapon.) If a prisoner used a knife on another prisoner or a guard, we’d call it a knife.

So the hunt is on. What do you find that can be added to our swelling list of obnoxious pleonasms?* You Don’t Say is open to receive them.


* Please, skip the jocular submissions — jumbo shrimp, military justice. We’ve heard them all.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:03 AM | | Comments (37)

Wikipedia's limits, by one who knows

As some of you have commented, the sport of Wikipedia-bashing has begun to pall, and the back-and-forth with the True Believers is nearly as sterile a pastime as trying to discuss evolutionary biology with intelligent-design monomaniacs.

But for those of you still susceptible to the attraction of reasonable argument, an essay, “The Fate of Expertise After Wikipedia,” by Lawrence M. Sanger will be instructive. (The citation was sent to me by a reader of the blog.)

Mr. Sanger can speak with authority. He is a co-founder of Wikipedia and the founder of Citizendium, a rival wiki which practices editing.

I’ll summarize a few key points, but you should examine his argument in detail.

Mr. Sanger gives full marks to the openness and democratic nature of Wikipedia, describing how those qualities contribute to its strength, particularly in its articles ont he hard sciences.* He doubts that the popularity of Wikipedia will undermine actual expertise.

He is skeptical of the claims of the more extreme Wikipediasts that some kind of universal truth will emerge from the collective contributions of participants.

And finally, he finds that the weaknesses of Wikipedia, the lack of formal editing and the absence of a mechanism adequate to resolve disputes, lead to an overall mediocrity. The problem is that the most stubborn and aggressive contributors tend to outlast everyone else, discouraging the better-informed contributors.

I’ll post comments as usual, but at this point your argument is no longer with me.


* He takes a swipe in passing at the Nature article determining that Wikipedia and Britannica were roughly equal in error rates for scientific articles. That study, which Mr. Sanger insists is flawed, has been inflated by partisans and careless writers into a statement that Wikipedia and Britannica are equally reliable overall.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (11)

February 14, 2009

Down those mean sentences I walk alone

I was sitting at my desk in the old Intelligencer-Argus building the day she walked in. It was late afternoon on a rainy day, and my hand had strayed more than once toward the dictionary in the bottom desk drawer. I heard footsteps approaching, and when I looked up, there she was. She was — lissome.

“Mr. McIntyre?” she said.

“Take a load off, lady,” I said pushing a chair, the one with the loose armrest, toward her. Cheapskate publishers. “What can I do for you?”

“Mr. McIntyre, my name is Martha Brockenbrough, and I need your help.”

“What’s the problem, sis?”

“Well, a dear friend of mine is married to a man — he’s a hard worker and a good provider, I don’t mean to say anything against him — but he’s so rigid.”

“What’s his game?” I asked, with a suspicion dawning like the morning sun over the penitentiary down the street.

“He’s a writer.”

“I know the type.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, lifting her stubborn little chin.

“He’s a good writer. Well, most of the time, anyway. It’s just that he’s fallen into some bad ways.”

“Tell me about them, doll,” I said.

“He positively insists that none can only be used as a singular."


“And once he threatened to strike a grocery clerk in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle.”


“He got so angry once over my ... my friend’s placement of only in a sentence that she was afraid she would have to call the police.”

“Baby, I’ve met a million of ’em. This place used to crawl with ’em before the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. But why are you coming to me about this bozo?”

“Well, I heard, Mr. McIntyre, that you’re a highly professional copy editor.”

“I’ve nailed the errant adverb in my time.”

“I thought you could talk to him, work with him, help him somehow.”

“Toots, I’ve got it soft here. Twenty an hour, and I don’t have to furnish my own pencil. I don’t need the aggravation.”

“But Mr. McIntyre, National Grammar Day is almost here. It’s March 4, and I’m so afraid for him, and for my friend, that if he isn’t turned around by then, something terrible might happen.” She sobbed softly into a dainty little lace thing she’d plucked from her purse.

It was the tears that got to me, against my better judgment. I should’ve known better. I did know better. Always a sucker for any sweet dame.

“All right, Ms. Brockenbrough, you’ve got yourself a green eyeshade. Let’s have his name and address.”

“Oh,” she said.

“There’s a problem.”

 To be continued …

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 PM | | Comments (10)

February 13, 2009

The birthday boys: Darwin and Lincoln

It would be churlish to neglect some of the other Aquarians marking birthdays this month, and I’m pleased to me able to recommend a couple of essays on Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln.

It’s a commonplace to refer to the evolution of language as a parallel to biological evolution — the extinction of old words, the adaptation of existing words to new contexts, the generation of new words that may or may not lodge themselves in the language. Language Log has posted an essay by W. Tecumseh Fitch on Darwin’s understanding of the evolution of language. It is well worth a look.

One would have imagined that nothing remains to be said about Abraham Lincoln, but John Fabian Witt’s essay, “Lincoln’s Laws of War” at, describes Lincoln’s role in shifting the formal military code of combat from the idealized rules favored by Gen. George McClellan to a more aggressive prosecution of the war, while preventing “modern warfare from sliding into total destruction."

The code developed in Lincoln’s administration “reduced the international laws of war into a simple pamphlet for wide distribution to the amateur soldiers of the Union army. It prohibited torture, poisons, wanton destruction, and cruelty. It protected prisoners and forbade assassinations. It announced a sharp distinction between soldiers and noncombatants. And it forbade attacks motivated by revenge and the infliction of suffering for its own sake. Most significantly, the code sought to protect channels of communication between warring armies. And it elevated the truce flag to a level of sacred honor.” It codified, in short, the basic principles that have become international norms.

Not bad work for a commander in chief whose entire military experience in the Black Hawk War, he joked, amounted to “a good many bloody struggles” with mosquitoes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:18 PM | | Comments (2)

Tell me where it hurts

Q. what’s the difference between God and a doctor?

A. God doesn’t think he’s a doctor.

This ancient wheeze came to mind this afternoon when a reader’s letter was turned over to me. Not a letter, actually, but a clipping with 12 “errors” marked in red ink, accompanied by an index card with a commentary.

The clipping was an obituary. The “errors” were the attachment of the title “Dr.” to the subject’s name. The commentary on the index card contrasted the years of study, state boards and other requirements for the M.D. with the “OLD BOYS CLUB,” “DIPLOMA MILLS” and “PHD BY RETURN MAIL” associated with the Ph.D. “NOT A MEDICAL DEGREE THEREFORE NOT A DOCTOR,” was the summary comment.

It was, you may have guessed, an anonymous mailing, with one nice touch: a return-address label from which the name had been snipped off.

For the record, The Sun’s house style grants the title of “Dr.” to anyone who has an earned doctoral degree. This reflects common practice. (I did have one professor in graduate school who insisted on “Professor” rather than “Doctor,” because doctors are people who make a living by probing in people’s orifices.)

It also reflects our reluctance to make invidious distinctions. We recognize that anyone who has managed to claw into the upper middle class by earning a medical degree or academic doctorate is keen to keep from slipping back among the rabble, and we don’t begrudge a little indulgence in titles.

If you’re unhappy with this policy, perhaps you should take a pill.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:52 PM | | Comments (12)

Surely you jest: The dead lawyer

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:45 AM | | Comments (2)

February 12, 2009

Wikipedia word salad

One of my spies has forwarded this citation from the Wikipedia entry on Algiers. Two days later, the passage remains in tact on the site, despite the presumably assiduous attention of volunteer editors:

El Harrach, according to the name of the river which crosses this district. The mouth of this river played a very important part in the catch of Algiers and the Dogvane, this rock opposite Algiers occupied by the Spaniards. Indeed, at the beginning of the 16th century, with the call of the one of the dignitaries of Algiers autochthones who saw the progressive loss of the authority of the city in front of the occupation of the Dogvane by the Spaniards, one of the Barberousse brothers hid his fleet there before taking Algiers by surprised by the south-eastern side. This district of Algiers will be named Square-House by the French, who will make of it the industrial park of the city. Thus, during colonization, as well El-Harrach as Hussein-Dey will be satellite towns of Algiers where Algerian autochthones more or less will cohabit with French, but in clearly separate zones. This city will be a residential district for an easy layer of French, but a true ghetto for the Algerians, especially those pushed by the rural migration. El-Harrach was also a city which wrote a large page of sporting history with boxes and it football. After independence, El-Harrach will become gradually a district of Algiers, and later on chief town of Daira with a new cutting in districts, like Mohammadia, Belfort, Bellevue, the Park, Wadi-Smar, Five-Houses, the dunes, the Maritime ones, Beaulieu, etc.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:11 AM | | Comments (12)

February 11, 2009

Why newspapers get things wrong

It should have been a pleasant morning. The sun was out. I had brewed the coffee. Kathleen and I were sitting in the living room reading The Sun peaceably. Then Kathleen looked up from a page and asked a question.

“Doesn’t mnemonic begin with an m?”

Sighing, I reached for the page, and there it was, a mention of an acronym that people use as a pneumonic device. Grrrrrr.

When I was carrying on about the unreliability of Wikipedia some time back, a reader asked in a comment where I got off criticizing Wikipedia when newspapers are full of errors. It’s a question that deserves an answer.

The enterprise

Composition of an encyclopedia presumably offers more time for research, writing, revision and editing than a daily newspaper. A former colleague used to tell aspiring journalists that being a reporter is like reporting to work at 9 a.m. and being assigned a term paper that has to be researched and written by 5 p.m.

Multiply that effort by the number of reporters filing on a given day, and move their articles to the copy desk to be produced in a section over a span of about three or four hours. The copy editor who calls up one of those stories does a limited amount of fact-checking, lacking the time to duplicate all the research that went into the article; raises any necessary questions about focus, structure, organization, tone, and any legal or ethical issues that may present themselves; corrects errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage and house style; formats for typesetting and writes headlines and captions.

The copy editor understands that he or she can catch and correct 19 errors, and that if a 20th makes it into print, readers will conclude that the paper is operated by idiots. *

The personnel

Copy editors are expected to possess a fund of general knowledge, and many of them have a degree of expertise in one area or another, but they are not experts. They are not, for example, like the scientists who do peer review of articles in their field for publication in professional journals.

For that matter, reporters are also generalists. There is always a possibility of some error sliding through a gap in knowledge.

The resources

Editing is time-consuming and expensive, and the commitment to it varies widely among newspapers. An entry in the stylebook of The New York Times that I have always found charming advises that if a question arises about transliteration from the Russian, one of the Russian-speaking members of the staff should be consulted. As newspapers, compelled by rapidly falling revenue, reduce their staffs drastically, the number of errors rises in proportion to the number of editors discarded.

The facts of the matter

Newspaper journalism is done in a hurry, but the presence of a copy desk is an indication of a commitment to do all that is possible, with limited time and limited resources, to verify the accuracy of the published material. And when we get something wrong, we correct it, promptly and publicly.

If you think that copy editors are botching an easy job, let me invite you to come by the desk some evening and see how well you can do under the circumstances.


* Not long ago, one of our copy editors received a cover story for a section. It moved to the copy desk more than an hour past deadline. It was longer than the budgeted length, so the page had to be redesigned on the fly. It had a large number of components, and in one of them the copy editor pressed for time, mistakenly identified a Sun columnist as a Sun reporter.

No doubt you gasped. Identifying a columnist as a reporter is a reduction in caste, and you can expect to hear about it. Columnists are jealous of their status. Some years ago, the editor of the paper deprived a columnist of his column, and the columnist initiated a grievance through the union, on the apparent understanding that a column brings with it, like an appointment to the federal bench, lifetime tenure.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:47 AM | | Comments (12)

February 10, 2009

The two kinds of people

Robert Benchley once wrote that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who believe that there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who do not.

Jim Svejda, a colleague in graduate school divided people into bunchers and folders. Jonathan Swift suggested that we could be either fools or knaves. There are creationists and evolutionists, early risers and night owls, Whigs and Tories, Guelphs and Ghibelenes, the quick and the dead.

Today is my birthday, and, feeling, frivolous, I’m inviting you to comment by adding to the categories of the two classes of people. I’ve given you a start; now you’re on your own.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (34)

February 9, 2009

Hide! National Grammar Day looms

You needn't lift a rodent out of the ground in February to figure out that National Grammar Day is not far off. March 4 is less than a month away, and that leaves you with little time to mend your slovenly ways.

But National Grammar Day is not time for fretting or hysterics. It’s a day to take a cold, hard look at what you imagine to be the case with grammar and usage, comparing it to what is actually the case. By way of assisting you, You Don’t Say offers a few principles to keep in mind. *

English has rules, but not as many as you think.

There are rules for making subjects agree with verbs. There are rules for making nouns plural — you don’t get to use z instead of s. Some of the rules can get complicated, particularly because of exceptions, but they belong to a fairly discrete core group.

English has idioms.

You can’t call them rules, but if you fail to observe idiomatic expressions and constructions, people will think you odd. Certain prepositions accompany certain verbs, just because they do. You can comment on a subject, but you cannot comment of it. And some expressions are idioms; that is, they have a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meanings of the individual words, either singly or in combination. When you discover something, you come across it; when you fall asleep, you drop off.

English has conventions.

Spelling and capitalization are agreed-on practices, though they can vary widely by region, nation, genre or community of writers. The Chicago Manual of Style is a dauntingly thorough guide to the conventions of book publishing. The Associated Press Stylebook serves the same function for newspapers. But such conventions hold in limited circumstances and contexts; they are not universal and are not meant to be.

Moreover, conventions shift over time, and what you were taught in the sixth grade may no longer be the case.

Guidelines are not rules.

Winston Churchill is frequently quoted as saying that short words are best and old words best of all. “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” carries an impact not to be denied. But if you look at his published work, you’ll find that he get can get as Augustan as the best. What you write will vary, depending on subject, context and audience.

Individual stylistic preferences are that and no more.

You may agree with H.W. Fowler that it is sensible to use that, generally, to introduce a restrictive clause and which, generally, to introduce a nonrestrictive clause, but it is not a rule, or even an unquestioned convention. It is an individual stylistic preference, like a taste for inserting commas to replicate the pauses of spoken language. You may want to restrict who to refer to people, that to animals and inanimate objects; but that is merely your preference, not a practice that you can oblige someone else to follow.

Some “rules” are mere superstitions.

Split infinitives. Not ending a sentence with a preposition. Do I have to go on again about the nonsensical and non-English prohibition on “split verbs”? If you thought I was tiresome about Wikipedia … **

So put away that cell phone. Sit up straight. Look at me while I’m talking to you. You have three weeks to clean up your act. Get busy.


* I’ll forward you subsequently to Language Log or other sites at which the experts explain patiently how I have made a hash of things.

** Oh yes, here’s a blog by someone who carries on about Wikipedia in a way that leaves me looking like a model of restraint.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:52 AM | | Comments (19)

February 7, 2009

Delving into the shallows

A generation ago, the place to see where America’s bent for self-affirmation had declined from Whitmanesque vigor to self-absorption and inane chatter was California. Cyra McFadden’s comic novel The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County, epitomized the flaky triviality one associated with the time and place. *

What was then locally ludicrous is now universal.

Perhaps you read this week in The New York Times (The new York Times! God save the mark) an article by one Judith Warner about her dreams of Barack Obama and the dreams about Barack Obama that other women have shared with her.

This [Rising Gorge Warning] is the opening paragraph:

The other night I dreamt of Barack Obama. He was taking a shower right when I needed to get into the bathroom to shave my legs, and then he was being yelled at by my husband, Max, for smoking in the house. It was not clear whether Max was feeling protective of the president’s health or jealous because of the cigarette.

It’s odd that so few people seem to have realized that their dreams are of no particular interest except to therapists being paid to hear about them. To publish accounts of one’s dreams, particularly such a vapid one, and then to attempt to extrapolate from it an explanation of national trends about self-examination and domesticity and anything else that comes to mind, carries us to a place beyond satire.


* Actually, H.L. Mencken saw what was coming in 1924, when he wrote of California, calling it “an Alsatia of retired Ford agents and crazy fat women — a paradise of Rotary and the New Thought. Its laws are the most extravagant and idiotic ever heard of in Christendom. Its public officers, and especially its judges, are famous all over the world for their imbecilities. When one hears of it at all, one hears that some citizen has been jailed for reading the Constitution of the United States, or one hears that some swami in a yellow bedtick has got all the realtors' wives of Los Angeles by the ears.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:27 PM | | Comments (4)

February 6, 2009

Surely you jest: With Shaw's compliments

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:49 AM | | Comments (5)

Why commas matter

Writing on fact-checking in the current number of The New Yorker, John McPhee describes a small but important point in a long article about the American shad, which he later reworked into The Founding Fish. This is the passage that poses the question:

Penn's daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to "buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod and Real with strong good Lines …"

Anything occur to you in reading it?

This is what occurred to McPhee:

The problem was not with the rod or the real but with William Penn's offspring. Should there be commas around Margaret or no commas around Margaret? The presence of absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas—there or missing there—were not just commas; they were facts. ...

Some commas are discretionary, and writers use them to suggest the pauses that occur in spoken language. Some are required to set off discrete syntactical units, such as appositives and nonrestrictive subordinate clauses, so that the reader can sail through the sentence without having to tack and return to the beginning.

Without the commas, McPhee’s reader could infer that Penn had two or more daughters, with Margaret singled out in this case. With commas, the reader could infer that Penn had one daughter, with her name supplied as additional information. (The passage appears in McPhee’s book without commas.)

McPhee leans on the fact-checkers at The New Yorker. He confesses that he writes sentences with arbitrary information, secure in the knowledge that the scrupulous fact-checking will put him right. (I’ve known newspaper reporters of this stripe.) But after The New Yorker turned down the original article and McPhee was reworking it into the book, he was on his own:

So I checked the virginal parts of the book myself, risking analogy with the attorney who defends himself and has a fool for a client. The task took me three months—trying to retrace the facts in the manuscript by as many alternate routes as I could think of, as fact-checkers routinely do.

Newspapers, sadly, lack the time and resources to do the level of fact-checking practiced at The New Yorker. The copy desk does what it can.

But what I would like the writers among you to take away from this post is a little oft-repeated homily: You are not necessarily the best judge of your own work. You need an editor to catch the things you do not notice yourself and raise the questions that you have not asked. If you are publishing solo, you are working without a net.



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

February 5, 2009

You that have ears to hear

Let me once again invoke the shade of Will Rogers to remind you that it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you — it’s what you know that ain’t so.

A headline at, Prelate that denied Holocaust must recant, prompted this inquiry, “Shouldn't this be a prelate who?”

I explained, invoking the majesty of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, that no, that as a pronoun referring to persons has been in English since God was a schoolboy. Some grammarians of the 18th century mistakenly decided that this was improper (they also cooked up the no-split-infinitives rule), and this superstition has persisted in pockets of usage ever since.

The inquirer wrote back to say, “To my ear, it just sounds wrong.”

An ear taken to a holiday performance of Messiah, though, would have heard a tenor sing from the Authorized Version of the Bible that the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light, and another ear at a production of Annie Get Your Gun, would have heard the male lead detail what is required in the girl that I marry.

Bishop Andrewes (one of the foremost divines commissioned by James I to translate the Bible) and Irving Berlin found nothing amiss with that referring to human beings, and neither need we object.

A sad fact of journalism is that some journalists’ ears have been so corrupted by bad examples and bad advice (viz., the preposterous no-split-verbs “rule”) that idiomatic syntax sounds off to them.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:33 PM | | Comments (13)

February 4, 2009

Before you pun, fill out this form

You Don’t Say salutes Steve Merelman, the front-page editor at the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., who came up with this inspired form to evaluate puns and wordplay — attached as a .pdf:

Download file

If you do not have a cranky old slotman like me to protect you from yourself, consider using the form on your own on the honor system.

Andy Bechtel at The Editor’s Desk was also impressed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:34 PM | | Comments (4)

[Sic] transit and other matters

The Abbeville Manual of Style blog at Abbeville Press continues its mock guerrilla war with The Chicago Manual of Style, this time over the use of [sic] to indicate that an error in the text was there originally, not inserted by the writer or editor quoting the text.

While its use may be indispensable in formal academic writing, where concern about texts is obsessive, You Don’t Say sides with Abbeville in suggesting that you should avoid it elsewhere, because it always looks snotty. What “[sic]” says to the reader is something like “I will condescend to quote this grotty little wretch, but I will also take the trouble to point the finger at all the shabby marks of his inadequate education so that you can share in my contempt for him and sense of superiority about myself.”

That is why at The Baltimore Sun we do not insert [sic] into direct quotation of speakers or texts. If they are wrong and you notice it, you can enjoy your sense of superiority quietly and privately, as one ought.

On to other things.

The apostrophe brouhaha

The Greeks gave us the apostrophe, and we have been having trouble with it ever since. Most recently, the city of Birmingham in England decided to drop the apostrophe from officially listed place names. The horror, the horror. This Associated Press story will summarize the chorus of harrumphing that ensured.

Barbara Wallraff points out that that has been the policy for years of the U.S. board that establishes official place names. Such boards can establish what appears on road and street signs, but they have little or no effect on what people actually do. The tendency in English follows a familiar pattern: Over time, place names tend to lose apostrophes, except when they do not. Local practice can and does vary widely, which is why I am not stepping into the sterile Fells Point/Fells’ Point controversy ever again. Learn to tolerate a little ambiguity, people.

If you wish to become more fully informed, here’s an academic paper on the ragged history of this punctuation mark.


No doubt some of you are sick of the back-and-forth over Wikipedia. I am increasingly wiki-weary myself — yesterday I had to give the formal Wikipedia caution to my copy-editing students, who didn’t look half as frightened as I would have liked. But if there are a few of you who would like some actual information beyond the theological reflections of Wikipedia’s adherents — that is, a little more light and a little less heat — look here:.

Britain’s Independent has published a thoughtful article on the matter of who is writing for Wikipedia and who is editing it.

Mike Pope has kindly written about, where programmers share information. Jeff Atwood, who is involved in the wiki on that site at which programmers post their questions and sort out answers, has written a perceptive essay at on the question of authorship in a wiki environment.

No Wikipedia entries were consulted in the writing of this post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (9)

February 3, 2009

OMG! They're texting!

One of my readers wonders about my take on texting, and I don’t have one because I don’t care.

Never mind all that carrying on from the English-is-going-straight-to-hell crowd. They have to keep finding things to deplore.

Here’s why I don’t worry. The concern seems to be that The Young People are being corrupted, with English following close behind. The Young People like texting because it’s a useful shorthand, of course, but also because it’s a kind of code, like their slang. Once the code is more generally understood, and even used by, the Cootery, its charm will fade rapidly. *

I still remember the 1980s, when the spread of a different form of technology appeared to threaten to overwhelm us all with CB slang. Remember those days, good buddy? It was a vogue, it had its little day, some people made a little money off the publication of lexicons of CB lingo, and it all faded away like the dew in the morn.


* See Mike Pope’s astute comment on yesterday’s post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:00 PM | | Comments (15)

February 2, 2009

English goes where it will

The first thing to remember is that English was created by illiterates. Peasants who ripped apart respectable Anglo-Saxon and turned it into some ungodly goulash mixed with Norman French and Latin. English has been lifting promiscuously from other languages ever since, and its mongrel nature makes its spelling a dog’s breakfast.

I suppose we all knew that about English orthography, but David Wolman has looked into the matter more extensively in an entertaining and chatty book, Righting the Mother Tongue.*

Moving chronologically from the Norman invasion to the present, he traces struggles over English’s irregular spelling. You can read for yourself about his “orthography-themed road trip through England” with the distinguished linguist David Crystal; his visit to Merriam-Webster’s word hoard in Springfield, Mass.; his chat with Les Earnest, who has a sound claim to be the inventor of spell-check; and his trip to the Scripps National Spelling Bee,** along with a side trip into the scientific investigation of dyslexia.

I don’t think I’ll be giving the game away by summarizing some of the crucial points.

First, speakers of English have been steadfastly resistant to attempts by authority to regulate the language. There is no English Academy determining an official English, and there probably never will be. Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster had a limited effect on regularizing some aspects of the language with their dictionaries, but even Johnson acknowledged at the end of his great effort that the language goes where it will.

The multitude of efforts to simplify English spelling, some by solitary cranks, others by societies of notables, have gone nowhere, and probably never will. Imposition of reform from above simply does not work.

The Internet, he speculates, with its millions of writers, professional and amateur, wielding and transforming the language, may be as hugely transformative as those generations of Anglo-Saxon peasants who laid the foundation of modern English.

Not everyone will be pleased, which is to be expected. People have been complaining about English falling into corruption since the Tudors were on the throne, and we will have people harping on that string as long as we have viewers-with-alarm and things-were-better-when-I-was-a-boy grouches.

For the rest of us interested in language, English is a mighty river, and we are lucky to be able to navigate it to see the channels into which it flows.


* David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling, Smithsonian Books, 211 pages, $24.95.

 ** Any suspicions you may have entertained about spelling bees will be confirmed when you read the remark by one of the Scripps champions that math and science are interesting but spelling is "just a bunch of memorization."


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (18)

February 1, 2009


When you get entangled with True Believers, the options are limited: You can observe them with detached amusement, or you can start writing in all-caps. Now, after extended exchanges with the Wikipediaphiliacs,* I’ve chosen to view the lighter side of their circular justifications.

Believer: Wikipedia is a universal encyclopedia, dwarfing all other references, including that stodgy old Britannica, with its immediacy and scope and ability to tap into the expertise of knowledgeable people all over the world.

Skeptic: But it’s full of errors. And people go in and change things that are right to make them wrong.

Believer: Well, maybe you can’t necessarily trust all the entries, but you can follow the citations to the sources.

Skeptic: If you have the time to duplicate all the work.

Believer: It’s the openness, man, that makes it special. It isn’t held up and limited by a bunch of fussy old gatekeepers.

Skeptic: So it’s also open to changes made by the ignorant and the malicious.

Believer: Well, if you’ve read the cautions, you know you can’t trust the entries. It’s only people who are lazy or stupid who treat it like an encyclopedia.

Skeptic: I thought it was supposed to be an encyclopedia.

Believer: It is an encyclopedia, but it’s not like those slow-moving gatekeepered things. It’s up-to-the-minute and open, so it doesn’t matter that it may have a lot of little errors in it.

Skeptic: But I need a reference I can trust without having to check every detail myself.

Believer: It’s more accurate than Britannica. Some study somewhere said so.

Skeptic: I thought you didn’t care whether it was accurate or not.

Believer: You’re a bitter old man.


 * In chronological order:

I said, get Mitty


McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:59 AM | | Comments (24)
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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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