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March 31, 2009

'Verbing weirds language'

This happens to be post number 666, so you might want to take whatever precautions you customarily resort to for warding off the Evil One.

A listener to Midday at WYPR-FM on National Grammar Day sent in this comment, which we lacked time to get to:

No discussion on the phenomenon pointed out by Calvin in Bill Watterson's comic strip "Calvin and Hobbes." Verbing, or the process of making nouns into verbs (such as "access" or, as you discussed, "graduate") is a phenomenon of English that doesn't really exist in other languages. In the words of Calvin, "Verbing weirds language."

I can’t speak for other languages, but the transformation of nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns is certainly commonplace in English. The Oxford Companion to the English Language describes this particular category of word formation as conversion or functional shift. In functional shift, a word extends its grammatical category. Oxford mentions the verb run becoming a noun — go for a run — and the noun position becoming a verb — positioning people.

An allied phenomenon is called back-formation, which Oxford describes as “creation of a simpler or shorter form from a pre-existing more complex form: edit from editor. …” And you’ll notice that edit can be a verb, for the action, or a noun, for the result.

The ambiguity resulting from this grammatical two-facedness enriches the possibility for wordplay. It also increases the headaches of headline writers, who are forever stumbling into some unintended double entendre:

Minneapolis bars putting leaves in streets (bars as a verb for prohibits and as a noun for saloons).

Governor offers rare opportunity to goose hunters (goose as a noun for the bird being hunted or as a verb for a familiarity that should not be encouraged in governors).

Textron Inc. makes offer to screw company stockholders (Textron was angling to buy a company that manufactures screws).

Proceed with caution.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:11 PM | | Comments (39)
        

March 30, 2009

Democracy and participation

I was having some fun yesterday ridiculing a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper. The first comment on David Eaves’ post, “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy,” suggests a further exploration of his assumptions. This is the comment:

Simply put: Democracy thrives with participation. The old media isn't participatory, but the new media is based on that very premise.

So how participatory are we prepared to be? Before the drop in advertising revenue reduced newspapers to wafer-thinness, a common complaint from readers was that they didn’t have time to get through it all. But now that we have participatory media, we apparently have endless time.

Look at the news stories on sites that permit comments — a story followed by, say, 157 comments. After the first dozen, the responses become duplicative. Cranks arrive. If the comments are not mediated, there’s an excellent chance that the “conversation” will sink into vulgar abuse and the racists and anti-Semites will crawl out into the sunlight. And that is for one story. Who is prepared to do that repeatedly through the day?*

Wikipedia advises its readers — I am not making this up — not to rely on the accuracy of its entries, but to consult the citations linked to the entries. Who is going to do that? Who is going to reproduce the research? Who has the time for that? (Of course, once the wicked, undemocratic, authoritarian, paternalistic, hegemonic newspapers go out of business and I am put out on the street, I’ll have that kind of leisure; but I’m concerned about people who will still have jobs.)

There is, of course, no dispute that the expression of multiple points of view is healthy. That is the central argument of Milton’s great defense of freedom of the press in the Areopagitica, that truth and falsehood exist intermixed in the world, that it is our task to sort them out, and that only broad freedom of expression permits us to perform that task.

The question to be determined remains how the wider participation of the Internet will permit this. Yes, bloggers have broken important news stories. And bloggers have also contributed to a cacophony of rumors, most of them unfounded. The sorting-out of truth and falsehood remains, and bald pronouncements about how participation is good for democracy don’t really address that issue.

The thing that is essential to the success of democracy is accurate information. Alexander Hamilton wrote in the opening number of The Federalist: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” Accurate information is what permits “reflection and choice” and protects us from “accident and force.”

It has been the task of the newspaper to perform the functions necessary to permit such reflection and choice: investigation and reporting, selection of significant information, verification of its accuracy, and publication in a clear and compact form. And despite the sneers at our outdated 19th-century industrial model, with reporters answering to assigning editors and copy editors independently examining the texts, we can still do the job tolerably well.

Whether the print newspaper will survive at all, or it what form it might survive, remains beyond me. But I remain clear on the point that the health of democracy will be better served by the continuation of forms of organized journalism — investigation, verification and selection — than by raw participation.

 

* I admit to a weakness for the comments at a few sites, such as Language Log, which appears to attract knowledgeable commenters, and Elizabeth Large’s Dining @ Large site, where the comments have considerable entertainment value. Look at “Vandals hit Iron Bridge Wine Company,” where the comments veer off from foie gras to the merits of different bourbons.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (14)
        

March 29, 2009

Our moribund newspapers

Newspapers in distress provide fodder for endless commentary, a good deal of it questionable.

Professor Jay Rosen drew my attention to a post by David Eaves, a Canadian blogger, “Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy not a symptom of its death.” Let’s have a look at a portion of it:

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted.

Hyperbole, indeed. But Mr. Eaves is not immune to challenge, either.

The Constitution does in fact protect newspapers. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Or of the press. Newspapers. Over the past couple of centuries, the legal understanding of the press has been expanded to include, for example, broadcast. But it is clear in the text that the authors of the Bill of Rights foresaw a need to protect the press — what we could now understand as organized journalism — in specific language beyond the protection of the individual right.

That gentleman on the street handing out those leaflets — single-spaced, no margins, copious citations from Scripture — is exercising a protected right of individual free speech. If he should set up a newspaper or magazine to further his views, he would enjoy a separate constitutional protection in that endeavor. And, Mr. Eaves, no one disputes that the Internet is also a medium of free speech.

But we’re not done. Mr. Eaves goes on:

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes.

Oooh. Hierarchy and authority. Bad Things.

Well, the Bible-crazed gentleman on the street may be promoting what he prescribes to the reader, but newspapers set up as commercial enterprises making a profit tend to produce what they think the customer wants. And apparently what many customers want, to judge not only from still-vigorous print circulation but also from huge Web readership, is the sort of information that the editors of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal set forth. If you change authoritarian to authoritative — that is, information that has reliability because it has been reported and verified — it rather alters the perspective.

As for hierarchy, I suspect that that can be found in Web operations as well, unless one imagines that, say, Politico.com functions as an anarcho-syndicalist commune in which the coffee can’t be brewed until a three-hour meeting has achieved consensus.

I’m not arguing that the Internet is a bad thing or bad for democracy. I’m on the Internet; I’m for democracy. But the Founders understood from classical and modern history that democracies are particularly vulnerable to demagogy — to lies. The thing that organized journalism has offered — not without ugly lapses — has been the kind of verified information that enables the public to make informed choices. Actually, despite their hierarchies and decision-making editors, newspapers performed that function reasonably well for the first two centuries of the Republic.

Lord knows I lived through the ’60s once already. Then, too, there were forms of authority that deserved to be challenged, and then, too, there was a great deal of gassy cant about the bold new world that would emerge when all the wicked old structures had been swept away. (Look at Mark Morford’s sweet little satire, “Die, newspaper, die?”) I didn’t learn the lessons of The Greening of America the first time, but am I condemned to repeat them?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:50 PM | | Comments (2)
        

March 28, 2009

Useless, but time-consuming

In case you had not noticed, this blog has a Facebook page. Like so many other aspects of Facebook, it is largely pointless. You can sign up to be a fan, and you will be listed as such, and that is about as far as it goes.

Unless there is some Facebook wizardry with which I am not yet acquainted.

Also today, with profoundest misgivings, I signed up for Twitter. I didn’t want to. Alice made me. She taunted me.

So if you, too, have abandoned yourself to the world of 140-character morsels, you’ll know where to find me.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:29 PM | | Comments (1)
        

Your Nunc Dimittis

I recollect reading somewhere, perhaps in Gay Talese’s The Kingdom and the Power, that it was once a convention at The New York Times that a reporter’s work day was not over until he and his editor had exchanged a formal “Good night.”

When I worked in the composing room at The Cincinnati Enquirer, the makeup editor, the late John Menzies, would announce the completion of the day’s final edition by getting on the intercom, imitating a bosun’s whistle, and saying, “Sweepers, man your brooms.”

Over the years at the copy desk of The Sun, I’ve toyed with various sentences to announce to the editors on the rim that the day’s work is done, with varying success.

My own favorite was “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country” — the code words by which Sam Adams set in motion the Boston Tea Party. But this was invariably met by blank looks. Doesn’t anybody know Johnny Tremain any more?

I experimented with Stonewall Jackson’s lyrical last words: “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees.” General Lee’s “Strike the tent!” was more concise and pointed. I toyed with Gen. John Sedgwick’s “They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dis—“ but rejected it.

Tallulah Bankhead’s “Codeine ... bourbon” didn’t seem to hit quite the right note.

Finally, and this has become ritual, I settled on the last words Abraham Lincoln heard in this life, the line in Our American Cousin that produced the laugh that gave John Wilkes Booth the cover to fire: “Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside-out, you sockdologizing old mantrap!” Reporters filling in on the city desk look up quizzically, but the copy editors understand what it means when they have been sockdologized.

How do they manage it in your shop?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 AM | | Comments (16)
        

March 27, 2009

They said it couldn't be cut

Newspaper lore depends heavily on remarks barked by crusty old editors to green reporters and copy editors.

My first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, was of that genus. “I don’t buy on spec,” he’d snarl at an editor trying to push an as-yet unwritten story for the front page.

      ***VULGARITY ALERT***      ***VULGARITY ALERT***      ***VULGARITY ALERT***

When he thought that you were engaged in some fruitless endeavor, he’d say, “You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass.” If looking up a hog’s ass is pointless, then looking up a dead hog’s ass must be doubly nugatory. He described one of our prose stylist’s efforts as “like a cow pissing on a flat rock.”

You get the idea. There were giants in those days.

Anyhow, The Abbeville Manual of Style quoted one of those hoary, and possibly apocryphal, crusty-old-editor statements the other day:

[A]lthough I have a few stories from the green visor gang, the best one came to me from a grizzled newspaper reporter who joined my staff at a state historical society publishing office. I don’t know if his story was apocryphal or not, but he told of writing a newspaper article as a cub reporter, then passing it to the city desk editor, a true veteran who DID wear a green visor.

“Trim it,” the old man said.

So my friend went back and cut the story.

“Trim it some more,” the editor told him on the second go-round.

He worked and worked at it this time. But he got the same response.

“I’ve trimmed this thing as much as humanly possible,” he protested.

“Son,” the editor said, looking up from his desk and pulling his specs down his nose, “I could trim the Lord’s Prayer.”

Abbeville took this as a challenge to readers to accomplish that very feat, and lo, they did. The winner, Susan Sheppard, got it down to 45 words, without sacrificing the original sense. Have a look.

Think of Susan Sheppard the next time the writer who turns in 30 columns inches for 15 inches of budgeted space whines that the text can’t possibly be cut. And imagine what Bob Johnson would have said.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Surely you jest: At the guillotine


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

March 25, 2009

It's only spelling

They are in some danger over at Read Street of getting their shorts in a bunch over spelling, provoked by the scores of subliterate comments on their posts about Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer. * “How much slippage can we tolerate” in spelling? “Will all writing someday slip soundlessly into a weird sort of Internet dialect: i mist u 4eva!!!!!!!! Or will we be subjected to a mash of misspellings: King is jelous becuz Meyer took his audiance; he shudnt b critizicing. Or — shudder — both.” **

Coincidentally, Language Log has recently addressed spelling in a post about a faux-Russian version of lolcats, the Web site with photos of cats to which have been appended jocular captions with substandard spellings, “I can haz cheezburger?” being perhaps the most famous. (The comments are worth a look, particularly the ones in which people with no apparent sense of humor comment on humor.)

The former Viewing With Alarm and the latter analysis of humor both depend on a standard orthography, which is really a comparatively recent development in writing. Think of Shakespeare, with those half-dozen authenticated signatures displaying variant spellings of his own name. Think of the luxuriant varieties of spelling in the 18th century. Standardized spelling is essentially a product of the 19th century, and it developed in the United States primarily out of two phenomena: establishment of widespread public education and the remarkable popularity of Noah Webster’s spelling books and dictionary.

This led in turn to the kind of humor most popular in 19th-century America, the semi-literate personae of Artemus Ward and Petroleum V. Nasby — satire in which rubes comment ignorantly on current events with funny spellings and broken-down grammar. But it’s only when the audience knows better that this kind of humor can seem funny. ***

So the jokes in lolcats only work if the readers can identify and laugh at the silly spellings.

And as for the kids, with their damnable texting and Twittering, I am confident that when they have to get jobs, they will quickly learn how to write as badly as anyone in business or government.

 

* I mean, what did they expect? Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer? Salon conversation? Dry donnish wit over port in the common room? Look at the people who read that stuff. They’re like fans who write to the alternative press complaining about the pop music reviews. Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer — you might as well try to referee an argument between adherents of New Kids on the Block and the Jonas Brothers. What’s most distressing about Internet commentary is not the defective grammar or uncertain spelling, but the lack of reasonable argument and civility.

** Those damn kids with their loud music and their crazy clothes and their sloppy spelling, etc., etc.

*** My parents, who lived their entire lives in Fleming County Kentucky, on the edge of Appalachian, and who both spoke with identifiable regional accent, loved watching Hee-Haw. They got to laugh at the hicks.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 AM | | Comments (12)
        

The manufacture of bogus rules

When I posted about a reader who was critical of The Sun’s headlines at “So our headlines stink,” I drew the attention of Arnold Zwicky at Language Log. While Professor Zwicky found the reader’s criticisms “nutty,” to use a technical term that I can endorse, he presents a deeper analysis of the source of such criticism. It’s worth your attention.*

What he sees as a root of unthinking or rigid prescriptivism can also be found in an approach to editing that hampers the work of some of my colleagues on copy desks: a narrow right-or-wrong, black-or-white, 1-or-0 approach to language and usage, combined with a tendency to elevate a guideline or a particular practice into a universal rule.

This is an attitude that looks for sacred texts — Strunk and White, the Associated Press Stylebook — and converts guidelines or a direction for a limited set of circumstances into rules to be applied regardless of context, occasion or audience. It leads to application of those rules instead of judgment. It leads to the kind of editing in which every comma and hyphen is in its supposedly correct place, every number-one has been changed to No. 1, but the article itself has no more organization than a haystack. It leads to a coat of battleship gray slapped onto every surface. It leads to a kind of tunnel vision that really cheeses writers off.

And, perhaps more to the point, it leads to a resistance to hearing — from this blog, from Merriam-Webster’s or Garner on Usage, from Language Log — that the rule is not a rule, or that it has been misapplied. As Samuel Johnson ruefully observed, “We are more pained by ignorance, than delighted by instruction.”

 

* Professor Zwicky has turned off the comments function on his post; feel free to comment here.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (4)
        

March 24, 2009

Where is Mount Vernon?

For starters, Google searchers, this is about the Mount Vernon neighborhood in Baltimore. We have George Washington, in a toga, on top of a column. This is not about the Mount Vernon in Virginia, which has his body.

Last week a reader from the Mount Vernon neighborhood sent an irate note to one of our reporters about an article that had identified a shooting as having occurred in Mount Vernon: “In your nightclub shooting story you put the 800 block of Linden Avenue, near West Madison Street, in Mount Vernon. It's not, by all accounts. …”

The reader helpfully appended a map from Livebaltimore.com showing Linden as being outside the neighborhood. Livebaltimore.com is a nonprofit organization with a goal of “selling” city living. How much authority to give its map is an open question.

The map from the city’s planning department (the one that does not identify Hamilton, the neighborhood I live in) agrees that Linden is outside Mount Vernon. It shows Linden as part of a two-block strip extending north from Downtown, between Mount Vernon and Seton Hill. Perhaps the strip should be identified as the Downtown Panhandle.

But wait. The Baltimore City iMap appears to show Linden as lying within Mount Vernon.

And by the way, according to the various maps, if you are standing on the south side of Read Street, you’re in Mount Vernon. Cross to the north side, and you’re not; it’s Midtown-Belvedere or some similar appellation.

I tried to address the difficulty of neighborhood identification in “Not my neighborhood’s keeper” and “Crime in the neighborhood.” These are the issues that reporters and editors have to deal with in establishing locations in articles:

1. Nobody wants crimes located in their neighborhood.

2. Neighborhood boundaries are not firmly and officially established; they are not like the boundaries of cities, counties and states. And local understanding and usage varies.

3. Confusions abound. The neighborhood directly south of Federal Hill is called South Baltimore. It has a neighborhood association of that name. South Baltimore is also the name for the southern section of the city — Federal Hill, South Baltimore, Riverside, Locust Point, Cherry Hill, Brooklyn. The copy desk struggled for years trying to differentiate between the two and finally gave up. We try to establish in context whether we’re writing about the larger or smaller South Baltimore.

4. The reporter’s job is to identify a location in a way that will be meaningful to the readership. Since neighborhood boundaries are often approximate or disputed, we often wind up giving approximate locations. We do the best we can.

5. Precision cannot be achieved with imprecise measurements.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:18 PM | | Comments (3)
        

March 23, 2009

Don't get tense over tenses

This specimen has been submitted to the Grammar Lab:

The following turns up frequently:

I think we would have loved to have done even more.

You could say

. . .we would love to have done even more. or

. . .would have loved doing even more.

or . . . would have loved to do even more.

but I'm certain that "would have loved to have done" is wrong. It's like doubling the past and throwing in the conditional for lagniappe, which suggests the kind of time-travel found only in science-fiction.

Do you know the name of this fault?

I could sure utilize, as they say, your help.

The specimen sentence smudges the sequence of tenses in English. The perfect tenses — with an auxiliary verb attached to the past participle — work to establish distinctions in the time of actions or states of being.

We would love to have done even more expresses a feeling in the present about a past action.

We would have loved to do more expresses a feeling in the past about a past action.

We would have loved to have done even more is a jumble. The present perfect — have plus a past participle — indicates a past action compared with a present time. This sentence has two conditional past perfects without establishing a clear relationship to the present. The alternatively worded sentences clearly establish a relationship in time.

There is a useful entry on verb tenses at Purdue University’s OWL (Online Writing Lab).

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (6)
        

March 21, 2009

200 words you can well do without

The ever-vigilant Jay Hancock spotted an item about a British move against bureaucratic jargon and forwarded a link to me. In brief, the Local Government Association has published a list of 200 terms that it advises writer to avoid if they wish to be understood. (Those of us intimately involved in the collapse of the newspaper industry would have been grateful to see synergies quietly euthanized long ago.)

It did not take long for the press and bloggers to see this suggestion — “words that public bodies should not use if they want to communicate effectively with local people” — as a ukase, an infringement on personal freedom. I’m assuming that that would be the freedom to sound like a pompous ass. There were no immediate reports of casks of tea being dumped in Boston Harbor, but it could have been a close-run thing.

Ken Smith’s excellent little book of 2001, Junk English, applied a well-developed sense of moral and aesthetic outrage to the various forms of jargon and cant. The obfuscatory gusto of lawyers and bankers and bureaucrats produces what Mr. Smith calls “machine language”: Sometimes machine language is deliberate, an effort to lull the reader into oversight. In most cases, however, it appears that those who produce this mechanical, numbing monotone simply know no better and believe that they are communicating their ideas and feelings to the rest of the English-speaking world.”

Two points of interest here: dishonesty and pretense.

Jargon and euphemism can simply serve the purpose of gulling the unwary. In such cases, the writer knows full well that he or she is being duplicitous. Imagine the vendor of a product who assures you of your good fortune at being able to buy a smaller quantity for a higher price.

But I think that pretense is the more common cause of the kind of bloating that the LGA’s little list represents. That is what makes it difficult to tell whether the language contains an obscure meaning or conceals a lack of meaning. Jargon, of course, signifies that one is a member of the club. For some years past, people who pretended to scholarly study of literature had to master the opacities of deconstructionism, which the uncharitable insisted was an assertion that texts have no meaning, demonstrated by example. To be accepted as a proper member of the bureaucracy, one must write like a bureaucrat, and anyone who marinates in that stuff long enough winds up unable to distinguish any other flavor.

I don’t have any faith that the LGA’s advice will have much effect; official bodies have never had much effect on the way people speak or write English (and neither have unofficial bodies), but it wouldn’t do you a great deal of harm to have a look at the LGA and seek whether you can root that odious claptrap from your working vocabulary.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:02 PM | | Comments (12)
        

March 20, 2009

Surely you jest: Three British wishes

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:13 AM | | Comments (8)
        

March 19, 2009

Fixing other people's errors of grammar

A reader of this blog reports on a story in progress on the issue of correcting other people’s grammar, and whether it is a good idea.

The most obvious point to make is that unless you have been invited to do so, correcting someone else’s grammar sets you up as an obnoxious prig. No matter how badly correction may be needed, you are less likely to produce reform than resentment. It’s like correcting their pronunciation, their table manners, their dress, their personal hygiene. It strains the boundaries of polite behavior unless performed with exquisite tact.

Frankly, most of the people notable for correcting other people’s grammar are not famed for tact.

There is, beyond that, the additional hazard — surely familiar by now to readers of the harangues elsewhere on this blog — of an excellent chance that your correction will be misguided or flat wrong.

If, for example, you observe a distinction in your own writing between nauseous and nauseated, or healthy and healthful, you are certainly within your rights. But you would be prudent to examine what Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe has to say on the subject before you decide that these distinctions are rules you can impose on others. The split infinitive, the preposition at the end of a sentence, and none as a plural all involve prohibitions that even strict prescriptivists abandoned decades ago, and which survive only through brain-dead pedagogy in the schools.

No, the advice of two millennia remains practical: Remove the beam from your own eye before tackling the mote in your neighbor’s.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:33 PM | | Comments (0)
        

'They' as a singular

Jim Richardson wrote to Dan Rodricks’ Midday program on National Grammr Day with a familiar quandary:

Here’s my dilemma. I’m always looking for another way to say “his or her” so that I don’t sound sexist: as in, “The patient should visit his or her physician.” While correct, it certainly sounds stilted. Sometimes I say “The patient should visit their physician,” but I’ve gotten varying opinions on the correctness of this form. What do your experts say?

Use their.

That baying sound you hear in the distance is the outraged howling from copy desks across the country. These are people who will tell you that you have three choices: (1) Use his in all instances, and polticial correctitude be damned. (2) Use his and her, no matter how awkward the resulting construction. (3) Convert everything to plurals, so that their can be used acceptably.

You can do any and all of these things, but you should have the option of they/their with a singular antecedent. This has been a common feature of English usage for centuries, and it has become so commonplace in British usage that no one there makes a fuss any longer. Now, I have at least one colleague who sputters, “I don’t care if Jane Austen used it; I’m not going to.” So if you choose to use the singular they, you must be bold, brave and resolute.

Should you require additional support — not that you’d dream of questioning my authority — Bryan Garner, prescriptivist, has called this usage “the most likely solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language,” and the descriptivists at Language Log hold the view that “in certain (not all) contexts, singular they is entirely standard and has been so for a very long time. Yet many people believe, passionately, that it is always wrong, because it offends ‘logic.’ ”

The only question is how long it will take people of my generation to give in or die before the usage becomes widely acceptable in American English. You can be one of the pioneers.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (10)
        

March 18, 2009

So our headlines stink

A reader castigates us for lazily violating the principles of headline writing:

Your headlines repeatedly use forms of the verb "to be".

For example, a headline on the homepage of the website right now reads, "Two men are slain in shooting at city carryout".

As I'm sure your copy editors understand, this is a newspaper no-no because:

1) It slows down the reader;

2) It takes up precious headline space;

3) It's just plain not classy; and most importantly

4) It undermines the credibility of the reporter and, ultimately, the newspaper.

If your editors are having difficulty writing long-enough headlines, they find a solution that avoids the lazy decision of using a "to be" filler.

As the reader evidently knows, the conventions of traditional headline writing include omitting forms of to be as auxiliary verbs to save space. Using a comma in place of and is another; so is the omission of the definite and indefinite articles. These practices, instituted to save space, contribute to the clipped, elliptical style of the traditional headline.

What the reader is apparently not aware of is the trend in recent years toward more conversational headline language, wherever space permits, because the traditional headline language looks increasingly dated. In fact, despite Article 1 of the reader’s bill of impeachment above, it is the elliptical language that can slow down readers, forcing them to read a headline more than once to gather the sense of it.

At the national conferences of the American Copy Editors Society, workshops by the estimable Alex Cruden, former head of the Detroit Free Press copy desk, have invited civilians — ordinary readers — to comment on representative headlines, revealing that the reader often does not quickly grasp what the headline writer has intended. These readers prize plain language and clarity.

Article 2 insists that using auxiliary verbs is not "classy." How use of the language as it is idiomatically spoken and written lacks "class" eludes me. And Article 4, that headline language the reader can understand undermines the credibility of the publication, I find completely baffling.

Colleagues, readers, what do you make of this bill of particulars?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (21)
        

March 17, 2009

This needs edited

Lisa from Aberdeen Proving Ground sent this National Grammar Day note to Midday with Dan Rodricks:

For the past few years I have noticed people make statements such as "that car needs washed". What happened to the transitional verb? Is that what is missing?, also, what about people saying they "graduated high school", shouldn't it be "from" high school?

My wife’s family comes from Pittsburgh, where “the car needs washed,” “the grass needs mowed” and similar constructions are common. Timothy C. Frazer of Western Illinois University has identified this construction, in which the infinitive is omitted between a verb of volition and a past participle, as a distinctive Midwestern speech pattern, is rising from Scotch-Irish speech patterns, particularly in the parts of the Midwest settled from Pennsylvania and Appalachia.*

It is, of course, colloquial English, regional colloquial English at that, rather than what one would expect in the dialect we call standard written English.

As to graduate, the history of the word over the past century and a half is a miniature picture of language in transition. Some older readers may remember having been taught that graduation is not something the student does but something the school does — a hobbyhorse of 19th-century grammatical purists. The preferred form taught in many handbooks and textbooks used to be that one was graduated from college or university.

Over the span of the 20th century, that transitive sense —schools graduate students — shifted to an intransitive sense — students graduate from school. At the same time, the colloquial expression shifted the sense back to transitive — she graduated college. The intransitive sense — students graduate from school — remains the form in standard written English. Whether the colloquial transitive will overtake it remains to be seen. I may not be around to see the outcome.

 

* His article in The American Midwest, edited by Richard Sisson, Christian K. Zacher and Andrew Cayton, can be found previewed on Google Books.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:40 PM | | Comments (7)
        

The luck of the Irish

My favorite Irish song is “The Ballad of William Bloat,” by Raymond Calvert, which I heard years ago in a Clancy Brothers recording. It’s about a man who decides to kill his wife, takes his razor and slits her throat as she sleeps, is stricken with remorse, takes a sheet and twists it into a noose, and hangs himself — typical Irish domestic cheer. These are the concluding lines:

He went to Hell, but his wife got well,

And she's still alive and sinnin’.

 For the razor blade was German-made,

But the rope was Belfast linen.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:10 AM | | Comments (0)
        

March 15, 2009

Thanks a heap, Merriam-Webster

A colleague has forwarded the sentence that Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day feature saw fit yesterday to illustrate the word feckless (weak, ineffective, worthless, irresponsible):

Although Trevor was admired by his colleagues at the newspaper, he turned out to be a feckless reporter, and so he was reassigned to the copy desk.

If Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day should ever consider presenting the word nebbish (a timid, meek, or ineffectual person), this illustration is available:

Though as a teenager Trevor had dreamed of wealth and power and the love of beautiful women, he was such a nebbish that the only career open to him was lexicography.

(Messrs. Sheidlower and Barrett and Ms. McKean, don’t your colleagues know better than to mess with the copy desk?)

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:10 AM | | Comments (4)
        

March 14, 2009

For children of all ages

Andrew Hudgins, whom I had the good fortune to meet in graduate school in Syracuse, has just brought out another in a distinguished line of collections of poetry: Shut Up, You’re Fine: Poems for Very, Very Bad Children (Overlook Press, 118 pages, $14.95).

Your initial reaction might run along the lines of oh good, something to put on the shelf next to Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies. Well, yes and no. Mr. Hudgins has a distinct taste for the macabre, but these poems explore more deeply the double nature of childhood.

“Bad” children are those who do not meet adults’ expectations. They wet the bed, break things they weren’t supposed to handle, shy away from Grandma’s hugs. These are the children whose parents yell at them and smack them in the supermarket, neglect them, demean them, complain about them and warp. Here’s the voice of one of them:

I’ve got my eye on wedding bands / so Dad can marry Mom / or at least not take another date / to Mom’s third junior prom.

But bad children are also those bad in the bone, harboring little hatreds and destructive impulses, only a step or two removed from Lord of the Flies, ready to grow up into monsters like their parents. Here’s one of them, in “Our Neighbor’s Little Yappy Dog”:

But in the end we all agree / my plan will leave it deader. / I want to feed it—tail-first, slowly / into the chipper-shredder.

I think these verses may not be to everyone’s taste; I’ve been discouraged from reading them aloud at home. They are at once so clear-sighted about how horrible childhood — and children — can be, and yet, undeniably, terribly, funny.

They might move you to recall the work of another poet, Philip Larkin, who wrote: Man hands on misery to man. / It deepens like a coastal shelf. / Get out as early as you can, / And don’t have any kids yourself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:50 PM | | Comments (7)
        

March 13, 2009

Cranky old guy hates Twitter

Some time back, Garrison Keillor described cell phone conversations as being essentially the same as what geese honk to one another in flight: “I am here. I am on my way there.” But in comparison with Twitter, a routine cell phone exchange constitutes a Shakespearean soliloquy.

I don’t use Twitter myself. It’s not just that I am a fossil; I lead an appallingly dull life. If you were to receive moment-by-moment bulletins of my daily activities at home and at work, you would want to curse God and die.

But I am on the receiving end of Twitter, because Facebook has added a feature that imports Twitter’s tweets and trills and honks into the posts from my so-called friends. It turns out that they are sunk nearly as deeply into banality as I am.

When I see, sequentially, that you have collected your boarding pass, your flight has been delayed, you are now in line for boarding, you are sitting on the tarmac, you are returning to the terminal, you are eating a Sbarro pizza, you are back in line for boarding, you are stuck in a middle seat, you are cleared at last for takeoff — I don’t care if you are Michael Anthony bringing me a tax-free check for one million dollars from John Beresford Tipton, I don’t want to hear any more.

For the contrary view, Jeff Jarvis — who else? — carried on a year ago about Twitter as one of the Great New Things of Journalism. I’ve been remiss in not following his more recent illuminations. No doubt I am entirely in the wrong, as well as hopelessly in the past, as seeing Twitter as a marriage of noise and short attention spans. But if I can figure out how to disable the damn feed on Facebook, I will be able to reduce one or two degrees of crankiness.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:14 PM | | Comments (12)
        

March 12, 2009

Surely you jest: The brewmasters

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 PM | | Comments (4)
        

My worst fear

Very scary episode of House this week. The patient: an editor. The problem: a disruption in the brain’s inhibitor function, leading the editor to speak whatever he was thinking.

If that should happen to me, police would be calling the medical examiner by sundown to cart off my body.

You think that’s an exaggeration? Ask my colleagues on the copy desk at The Sun about the sorts of things I say already, and invite them to extrapolate.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:29 PM | | Comments (4)
        

How to be an editor

Carol Fisher Saller is a nicer person than I am — not that that is any great feat. She maintains the question-and-answer feature at The Chicago Manual of Style’s online site, giving brisk, concise, helpful and sometimes amused answers to a barrage of questions from writers and editors. That same level-headed advice appears on every page of The Subversive Copy Editor, published today by the University of Chicago Press. *

If you are a copy editor, an aspirant to copy editing, or a writer dealing with copy editors, a $13 investment in the paperback edition will be money well spent on your career.

While I am often impatient, irritable and outright cranky (just ask my wife, children and colleagues, or anyone who has heard me snarl my former colleague Ursula Liu’s question, “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”), Ms. Saller is irenic. She sets out the precautions you must take to avoid getting into trouble with authors over the nature and extent of your editing. She has advice on the degrees of tact that must be brought to bear with difficult authors. She advises you how to avoid being stepped on as well. I wish I had had this book 30 years ago; it could have saved me from any number of rash actions and missteps.

On a more philosophical level, she begins to describe the copy editor’s divided loyalties. The copy editor’s first loyalty is to the reader, the person for whom this product is being prepared. The second loyalty is to the writer, whose work must be allowed its distinctive voice and integrity, and who must also be protected from his own lapses and misjudgments. She points out that “being the writer’s advocate is not the same as being his buddy. As long as you are handling his manuscript, your first loyalty is going to be to the reader, and there will be times when a little professional distance will make this easier.”

There is this advice to writers in dealing with their texts: “Just because there is a cleaning crew doesn’t mean you get to throw food on the floor.” And this to the copy editor: “True, the writer’s name is on the byline, but it’s not the author’s right to offend or confuse the reader, defy the rules of standard English, fail to identify sources, or lower the standards of your institution.”

She does not write in as much detail about the copy editor’s loyalty to the institution that employs him — newspaper, magazine, journal or book publisher — of whose integrity the copy editor is a guardian, but that sense is implicit throughout.

Finally, she warns us about ourselves, about the difficulties we copy editors manufacture for ourselves through unexamined attitudes or unproductive habits. Our tendency to get bogged down in trivial details gets this sharp reproof: “[W]hile you’re busy pouncing on every little dust bunny, you may be overlooking the monster under the bed. …”

You want to be an effective copy editor? She tells you How: Get up to date on grammar and usage, develop organized work habits, know your stylebook, master the technology, take responsibility for your work. You’re needed.

 

* There is also what appears to be a new Web site named for the book.

 

 

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

Crime in the neighborhood

You can be casual about locating Baltimore restaurants by neighborhood, but you had better be careful in locating crimes. Yesterday’s post, “Not my neighborhood’s keeper,” about the difficulty in establishing the boundaries and names of the city’s neighborhoods, generated some vigorous responses, including this one from Summer Gonter, which she has graciously permitted me to publish:

The most recent issue was with an article by Stephen Kiehl on a stabbing that occurred on Eastern Avenue at Conkling. It was mentioned as being "near Patterson Park". While we, as a neighborhood, recognize that the Park is a major landmark, the stabbing ACTUALLY happened on the dividing line of Highlandtown, Canton and Brewer's Hill. It was several blocks from the park and even farther from our neighborhood, which the map may identify as Baltimore -Linwood, but everyone knows as "Patterson Park". The Baltimore-Linwood Association was renamed The Patterson Park Neighborhood Association several years ago.

With the loss of the Patterson Park CDC, the neighborhood association, led by many, many volunteers from the neighborhood, is taking up the slack on promoting and marketing the neighborhood. There was actually a great article about it in this week's City Paper. We are fighting a tough battle here and to have the Sun report crime with references to the Park that anchors our neighborhood only hurts us. If the murder had been reported as occurring "near Canton" I'm sure you would have had quite an uproar on your hands. May I note this ALSO happened with the Zach Sowers case as he was reported to be a resident of Patterson Park but his home was in Highlandtown. We're still fighting the effects of that.

My neighbors did send in several responses to Mr. Kiehl because we were all upset about it and it made the rounds on our listserv, but we were essentially told that the suburban readers don't know neighborhoods and the park was a "good landmark". That's the gist of what you said in your blog post yesterday as well. Well, that doesn't really fly with me. If the suburban readers don't know neighborhoods, you can take the time to educate them on the subject. That's what a newspaper is supposed to do. Don't take the lazy way out.

And the same issue has been addressed by my valued colleague Peter Hermann, in “Neighborhoods and crime” at his Baltimore Crime Beat blog, in which he discusses the difficulties from the perspective of the police reporter. And from that of a resident — he has some options for identifying where he lives.

The naming of neighborhoods in crime stories is a matter of great moment for the people who live in those areas. A jocular response about identifying where a restaurant can be found is one thing, but these neighborhood names in crime story, however difficult they may be to pin down, deserve careful attention from our reporters and copy editors.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:54 PM | | Comments (0)
        

March 11, 2009

Here's where the city thinks you live

After reading the previous post on the difficulty of determining accurate neighborhood identifications in Baltimore, Steven Gondol, the BRAC relocation manager of Live Baltimore’s Home Center, wrote:

I just read your blog and found this statement interesting: “The problem is that there is no reliable method of determining accuracy.”

The City’s iMap tool: http://maps.baltimorecity.gov/imap/ associates every address with a neighborhood id. I agree it will use Harford-Echodale-Perring Parkway instead of Hamilton even though everyone knows it as Hamilton or Hamilton Hills. It’s a great resource we use to help our customers when figuring out which neighborhood association they belong to. Enjoy!

Yes, indeed, I found my house, in the Harford-Echodale/Perring Parkway neighborhood, my City Council district, my recycling pickup schedule, the works. You can, too. Let me know if the city thinks you live in the neighborhood you think you live in.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:34 PM | | Comments (4)
        

Not my neighborhood's keeper

Baltimore is a city of many neighborhoods, and some guard their identities more closely than others. Elizabeth Large tells me that readers of her Dining @ Large blog regularly castigate her for neighborhood references that they consider inaccurate. We get similar complaints on the copy desk, particularly when an article locates a crime in a neighborhood that doesn’t want to claim it.

The problem is that there is no reliable method of determining accuracy. For example, I live in a neighborhood called Hamilton. Everyone there calls it Hamilton. Everyone else in Baltimore calls it Hamilton. The city’s official map of neighborhoods has no Hamilton. According to the city map, I live in Harford-Echodale/Perring Parkway, a locution I have not heard anyone use in the 21 years I’ve lived there.

The city map represents the boundaries some committee of municipal bureaucrats draw to codify local nomenclature. But local practice varies. Ask where Federal Hill leaves off and South Baltimore begins, and you will get differing answers from people who live there. There is a Charles Village assessment district, which does have formal boundaries, but you can get disagreement on whether the assessment district and the neighborhood are conterminous.

So we make an effort to identify locations within the fluid boundaries established by common usage, so far as we can determine it. But exactitude is elusive, and possibly illusory.

My advice to Ms. Large: Tell people who complain that she has put a restaurant in the wrong neighborhood to get a life.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (11)
        

This is not a rule

I tried to articulate in the post “Hide! National Grammar Day looms” a division of categories within grammar and usage to indicate that not every prescription or principle or piece of advice involves a “rule.”

Bill Walderman commented thus on that post:

Actually, English has more rules than you may think. It's just that most of them are internalized to such a degree that you're unaware of them unless you think really hard. For example, the rule against using the present perfect tense in discussing dead people. Or the rule against using "to" to link an infinitive form with a modal auxiliary. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language consists of 1860 pages of nothing but rules of English. However, many of the rules most of us were taught in school are not rules of English.

Exactly, and I’d like to expand on that a little.

It might clarify to say that what Mr. Walderman describes as rules are structures or patterns in English, since rule implies to many readers an explicit instruction to be obeyed. There are rules for making plurals and possessives, for example. While people internalize those principles in speech, they have to be instructed how to manage them in written English.

But there are other structures or patterns that are not taught, except in ESL classes for people whose native language is not English. One example is the pattern or sequence of adjectives. When a string of adjectives precedes a noun, they follow this pattern:

article, opinion, size, age, shape, color, nationality or ethnicity, religion, material, purpose or qualifier.

You can talk or write about the old gray Presbyterian stone church without giving trouble to your audience, but a reference to the Presbyterian gray stone old church will be a problem. I suppose that you could call the sequence of adjectives a rule rather than a pattern or structure, but it is not anything that has to be taught to a native speaker.

I was trying to make much the same point yesterday in “Commas and the limits of discretion.” Students of writing have to be made to understand that, yes, there are rules of English, but there are also structures, conventions, stylistic points and other elements to be mastered to develop judgment and make writing fully effective.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (10)
        

March 10, 2009

Commas and the limits of discretion

There are rules in English, and there are rules that are not quite what they seem. Today we look at one of them.

Last week during Dan Rodricks’ Midday program for National Grammar Day, Margaret Benner, director of the writing support program at the English department at Towson University, objected to what she identified as an error in the first set of sample questions.

These are the sentences:

a. We should be careful in our writing, since people judge us on our grammar.

b. We should be careful in our writing, because people judge us on our grammar.

The point of the question was to get at an artificial distinction that some people make between since and because, saying that since is only permissible in temporal statements, not causal ones. Ms. Benner raised a separate point, insisting that a dependent clause that follows a main clause, as in the sentences above, must not be set off by a comma. That is an error, a violation of a rule, she said.

She commented further on this blog:

I sent an email to the WYPR broadcast yesterday about the errant comma used in the first sentence given in the grammar quiz. You answered that the comma was allowed: Some commas, you said, come under the heading of "rules" while others are "discretionary." It's true -- I'm an English teacher and probably too tied into my rule-ish-ness, but do you know how many students have argued over their right to place a comma wherever they want because "there's a pause there"? In other words, it's "discretionary." I don't want to belabor the point, but putting a comma in that first sentence in the quiz wasn't correct. It also wasn't discretionary -- or helpful to the meaning of the sentence. A discretionary comma might be used in a sentence such as the following: "Underneath, the papers were scorched." I'm not arguing against discretionary commas; I am only arguing for the valid boundaries of discretion.

I don’t want to belabor the point, either, and I certainly don’t want to accuse Ms. Benner of any kind of rule-bound rigidity. But I think that her point is about a convention, rather than a rule. Consider the advice from The Chicago Manual of Style:

Comma following a main clause. A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. If it is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. (Note that the distinction is occasionally tenuous; if in doubt, use a comma to indicate a pause.)

An example given: “He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.”

When Chicago suggests that the writer can and should, in close cases, insert a comma “to indicate a pause,” the manual is endorsing the writer’s discretion. It seems to me to be more productive to consider this a convention or a guideline than a rule.

In the 18th century it was conventional to put a comma between the subject and predicate; in our time it is conventional not to do so. You can call this a rule, but it’s not quite like the rule that an appositive is set off by commas.

I think that the teaching of grammar and usage has not been well served by the multiplication of rules, some of which are actually rules, some of which are conventions, some of which are guidelines, and some of which are plainly wrong. Treating everything as a yes-or-no, right-or-wrong rule can make writing look like a mere application of a rulebook and deprive students of the flexibility of the language and the opportunity to develop taste and judgment.

A writer in English enjoys a considerable degree of discretion, particularly in the use of commas to indicate the rhythms of spoken language. If some students go overboard with this, it is a problem of stylistics, not grammar. If I choose to insert a comma in those two sample sentences to make sure that the person putting the question on the air pauses to emphasize that that is where the choice lies, I do not think that I am exceeding my authority.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:17 PM | | Comments (7)
        

March 6, 2009

You are what you speak

Dan Rodricks has kindly forwarded to me the e-mails that people sent in to Midday at WYPR-FM on Wednesday, National Grammar Day, when Martha Brockenbrough and I were guests. I will be responding to them in forthcoming posts on this blog.

But first, I want to make clear, again, what my project is. Descriptivists, like linguists and lexicographers, exercise a writ that covers the whole span of language, spoken and written, formal and informal. They describe what they find, and they find many interesting things. Prescriptivists, particularly of the hard-shell variety, want to tell you how to speak and write. Some of them worry about the supposed decline of English, which has been a recurring source of alarm for at least five centuries.

I am a moderate prescriptivist. I seek to distinguish rules from conventions (Making a subject and a verb agree is a rule; omitting a comma between a subject and a verb is a convention, and one that indulged the opposite practice in the 18th century). Moreover, schoolchildren have been taught many “rules” — the prohibition on the split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence — that have no foundation in idiomatic English, and bad teaching must be countered. People were once told in advertising that smoking would help you keep your weight down — “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet” — and have since had to unlearn that.

I am also an editor, so I don’t much care how you talk, or how you write in e-mail or text messages. My bailiwick is a particular dialect of the language, most frequently identified as “formal written English.” Texts in the ranges of that dialect concern me, and I seek to make them accurate, clear to the reader, observant of reasonable conventions, and, when possible, elegant in expression.

Some readers who write to me privately, like some of the listeners who called in to Dan’s show, are hesitant about grammar, which they have been trained to see as forbiddingly difficult and arcane. That is not so. If you speak English and are comprehensible to other speakers of English, you have English grammar in your head. What you may not have is a firm grip on the terminology to describe its technical details.

That need not worry you too much. After all, you may not have at your command the terminology for the technical processes of nutrition, but you are able to choose food, consume it and survive. If you want to be healthy, it might be to your advantage to learn some of those technicalities. If you want to write more effectively, you may need to master some technicalities in that area.

But if you want to eat potato chips, I have no intention of stopping you. Or of forgoing them myself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:22 PM | | Comments (10)
        

March 4, 2009

Grammarnoir: The complete serial

By request, the four parts of the serial listed for the reader's convenience:

Down those mean sentences I walk alone

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

The Fat Man chuckles

The rule you don't break

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:22 PM | | Comments (8)
        

On the air today

Matha Brockenbrough, founder of the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG) and author of Things that Make Us [Sic], and I will be guests this afternoon on Midday with Dan Rodricks to observe National Grammar Day.

Our segment of the show will run 1 p.m.-2 p.m. Eastern time on WYPR, 88.1 FM. It can also be heard outside the Baltimore area on wypr.org, and I believe that podcasts of Midday are available at wypr.org for a short time after the broadcast.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:48 AM | | Comments (1)
        

March 2, 2009

The rule you don't break

Continued from ""The Fat Man chuckles"

The cold rain was coming down as hard and fast as layoff notices in a newsroom. As I hurried down the front walk of the Fat Man’s house, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye.

Ducking around a corner, I stood behind a tree and waited. A figure in a dark raincoat came around, and I grabbed an arm and twisted.

“Hey! Take it easy, buster. Do you know who I am?”

A woman’s voice. I pulled her over to a streetlight for a look. “Well, well, a little far from home, Ms. Freeman.”

Jan Freeman, copy-editor-turned-moll for Language Log’s Boston family. First non-linguist to be named a consigliere. I let go.

Rubbing her arm, she said, “You’re out of your depth here, McIntyre. Go home.”

“No chance, sister. I’m not going to walk away and let you do Steven Pinker’s dirty work. I know about the putsch, and what’s more, I figured out who killed the Mister.”

Her shoulders slumped. She shook her head and turned. She stopped and hissed at me: “You're just a two-bit grifter, and that's all you'll ever be.” Then she was gone.

I was pensive on the drive back to the Brockenbrough bungalow. Editing’s a mug’s game. The words strain and crack; sometimes they break under the burden, the tension. They slip and slide and perish — won’t stay still. You go out on a raid on the inarticulate, and not everybody comes back. The public doesn’t like to see it but wants it done. That leaves it to me.

Martha was sitting in the living room. The scientists had gone, taking the body. “What did he say?” she asked.

“What I needed to know.”

“And?”

“Let me ask you a question. Your book, Things That Make Us [Sic], doesn’t it have an entry on what Bryan Garner lists under ‘Superstitions’ and H.W. Fowler under ‘Fetishes,”?

“Yes. Sure. I called them “false commandments.’”

“Uh-huh. Got a copy handy?”

There’s one in the study.”

“Come on.”

She led the way through the door to the library and over to the desk. There was a little blood on the blotter, and next to it, on top of a clipping of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on the placement of only — it figures — was Martha’s book.

I picked it up and turned to page 223, “THE TEN FALSE COMMANDMENTS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.” “Was this what you and he were arguing about?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t play games with me. I made a phone call on my way back, and the boys will be back. Once they match this dent in the buckram cover to that bruise on the Mister’s temple, it’s all over.”

Her face crumpled.

“National Grammar Day was mine, mine, and he and his pack of cranks wanted to take it over. There were going to be uprisings of English teachers in all the major cities. He laughed at Chapter 10, ‘Rules That Never Were, Are No More, and Should Be Broken.’ He said that when the cabal made English the official language, all those rules would be written into the United States Code. He was mad and out of control, and I picked up my book and struck him.”

“And then?”

“He swore, said the cabal would have me locked up in Leavenworth. I reached for that red pencil and struck at him, and he groaned and slumped over the desk and was still.”

“It’s over. Oxford University Press has moved Jesse Sheidlower to a secure, undisclosed location. The flatfoots are rounding up the members of the cabal. The threat to National Grammar Day is over. I just want to know one thing.”

“What?”

“Why’d you call me in?”

“You’re a professional copy editor. You fix things.”

“All but this. Sweetheart, you’re taking the fall. National Grammar Day will go on, but you’ll be spending it in a cell.”

Outside, a siren was growing louder.

The end

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:26 AM | | Comments (11)
        
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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