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April 29, 2009

A good run

When in 2006 I celebrated my 20th anniversary at The Baltimore Sun, my wife, Kathleen Capcara, made a magnificent cake for the copy desk and wrote on it, "20 to life."

I did not anticipate then an early parole.

Yesterday, the grim economics of the newspaper business made April 28 my last day at the paper. It was, as they say in theatrical circles, a good run. I had more than two decades of the company of some of the smartest and funniest people I have ever known, working for supportive editors of the paper, and in all that time we struggled day after day to make The Sun a formidable newspaper. We succeeded more often than we failed, and no man has been more fortunate in his colleagues than I have.

But when the curtain falls, you are supposed to get off the stage, and this is my final post at baltimoresun.com. I expect to continue blogging elsewhere, but you will no longer find me at my post here. In addition to colleagues who have been great fun, I have had the good fortune to collect a remarkable corps of loyal readers, and I salute you all with gratitude and affection. You have enriched my life.

Posted by Mary Hartney at 5:38 AM | | Comments (107)
        

April 28, 2009

Regrettable errors

I’ve always thought that one of the charming things about newspapers is the way they fess up to errors. The practice probably has its roots in law — making that correction to avoid getting sued — but it is consonant with publications’ efforts to maintain credibility with accurate reporting.

If you enjoy that sort of thing, at the Web site Regret the Error, Craig Silverman republishes the daily corrections of the news media, along with an annual summary of plagiarisms and other misdeeds.

We don’t typically run corrections of typographical errors or slips in grammar and usage (Complaints about the latter categories tend to be funneled to me); instead we correct errors of fact or omissions. I recall a correction from many years ago about a recipe for hearty cheese soup that had omitted the instruction to add half a gallon of warm water. Anyone who attempted the recipe as originally published is probably receiving high colonics to this day.

Superstitions accrue to newspapers like barnacles to the hull of a ship.* The superstition about corrections is that one must not repeat the original error. This, too, probably has a legal root, out of apprehension that republishing the error could widen exposure to a lawsuit. But observing this superstition leads to opaque corrections like this one from The Sun, one of my favorites:

In early editions of The Sun yesterday, the wrong sea turtle was pictured being released in Virginia.

It was corrections like this that led a former editor to issue a firm instruction that the error may be repeated in a correction whenever it is necessary for clarity.

I wish newspapers had more editors firmly insisting on clarity.

 

*Probably the most widespread superstition is the prohibition on whistling in the newsroom. I was told when just a tyro that it originated because someone was whistling in the newsroom of a San Francisco newspaper at the moment of the great earthquake of 1906.

 

 

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:39 AM | | Comments (15)
        

April 27, 2009

So it has come to this

A colleague who is taking a graduate-level course has asked a number of us to respond to questions about the nature and future — if any — of copy editing.

The means of production

Copy editors have always been the hinge between writing/editing and the physical production of newspapers and books. The great change that occurred on copy desks during the last quarter of the 20th century was the elimination of printers in composing rooms and the transfer of formatting and typesetting production to copy desks. Mention CCI., SSI,. DTI, Harris or Unisys to a group of copy editors, and you can watch the blood drain from their faces.

The process has accelerated in this century, with production of electronic copy added to the production of print copy. The new inspiration is the editing of "platform-neutral" copy: text that can then be manipulated for print and electronic publication.

The effect has been that as staffing on copy desks has declined, more and more time has been taken up by formatting and coding for production purposes, with less and less time allowed for the editing. The struggle to maintain the standards of factual accuracy, grammatical precision, and clarity remains.

One side effect: Because writers, most editors and many managers remain determinedly ignorant of the details of production, lest they lose caste, the copy desk’s immersion in these details has not generated an improved reputation for copy editors.

The schooling of editors

It’s impressive that some journalism programs are investing in state-of-the-art equipment for the training of their majors, but they will probably find that keeping the equipment state-of-the-art is an expensive and losing battle. But it’s likely that the young will embrace new technology — Facebook, Twitter and whatever will succeed them — faster than their elders.

What continues to be lacking in journalism education is a thorough grounding in the use of the language. Many Journalism majors have the sketchiest grasp of English grammar and usage, and much of what they do think they know consists of superstitions and bad advice. (Imagine a medical student who had either no training in anatomy or, worse, Galen’s.)

They have also had very little training in the structural analysis of texts. I don’t mean what used to be called structuralism, but the ability to identify the focus in a text, to anatomize its structure, to examine how effectively the elements are organized in that structure, to comment with authority on metaphor and the use of other rhetorical devices.

The future of editing

So long as people have difficulty writing with precision and clarity, copy editing will be useful. Whether that usefulness will be recognized, however, is questionable. The “dead-tree media” — newspapers, magazines, books — are dismissing their copy editors at an alarming rate to cut costs. Electronic media have never invested all that heavily in editors to begin with. These developments have been accompanied by a great deal of asinine rationalization to the effect that writers don’t really require all that much editing.

So, you smart young people who want to get into the paragraph game, who show some ability and enthusiasm for the act of editing, there is an enormous need for your services. The potential inner satisfactions of taking low-grade prose and turning it into something clearer, more forceful, and more precise have never been greater. Unfortunately, you may not be able to land a job, and any job you land is unlikely to lead to prosperity. For you, going into editing will be like following a monastic vocation. God bless you, and don’t forget to write.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:06 PM | | Comments (5)
        

April 25, 2009

Strict, stricken, Strunk

In this, the last post I intend to write about The Elements of Style, I draw your attention to Geoffrey Pullum’s Language Log post with links to New York Times commentary on “the little book” by Language Hat, Grammar Girl and other eminences. Particularly telling is Language Hat’s evaluation of the beloved book as “the mangiest of stuffed owls.”

Of my own comments on the matter, I have only this to add. I have a sentimental recollection of encountering The Elements of Style at 18. But like many of the other delights one may recollect from youth — first loves, kir royales, amateur guitar playing — it does not hold up well on repeated encounter.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:24 PM | | Comments (10)
        

Second-best is good enough

A little digression into presidential politics.

Robert V. Remini’s biography of Henry Clay includes this little nugget from the presidential election of 1844:

[W]hat many of Clay’s critics held against him, it seemed, was his outstanding ability. They did not want a statesman in the White House. They preferred men of lesser talents. Clay “may be a more brilliant orator” than Polk, conceded the Richmond Enquirer on October 28, “but we do not want splendid eloquence to conduct the executive department." He may be a “more dashing politician” than his opponent, “but we do not want any high flying and daring politician, who soars beyond the constitution” in pursuit of some “extravagant object. ... We want no aspiring ‘moon-reaching’ president.

The Republic will sometimes, luckily, place a Lincoln or a Franklin Roosevelt or some other exceptional person in the White House, but a look at that dim group between Jackson and Lincoln, or most of the chief magistrates between Lincoln and the first Roosevelt, among others, points to a strong recurring preference for unthreatening, genial mediocrity.

 

 

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

April 24, 2009

Evil surrounds us

The latest threat to the English language, public discourse and the intellectual development of children is — wait for it — Twitter. Language Log rounds up some of the most egregious examples of threat-or-menace writing, but that post is two days old and almost certainly out of date.

Nancy Friedman has gotten some attention with a delightful send-up of Maureen Dowd on Twitter, “Ms. Dowd Interviews the Inventor of the Telephone.” In doing so, she reminds us of the multiplicity of these threats to Civilization as We Know It.

There was also radio (“Red Rubber Ball” as a specimen of the richness of metaphor in pop music). There was broadcast television insidiously weakening the minds of the American public (Gilligan’s Island). Now we have cable television accelerating the rot (reality shows, Donald Trump). And Facebook. (Of the “five most” quiz selections, the one that appeals the most is the Five People I Want to Punch in the Face, but, unfortunately, I do not know the identity of the inventor of Facebook’s “five most” quizzes.)

Twitter, like the telephone, radio, television and Internet, affords multiple opportunities for wasting valuable time with inane stuff, and, like the telephone, radio, television and the Internet, it is useful within limits. It’s up to people to arrive at sensible limits. People who waste their time and yours on Twitter would, lacking Twitter, waste their time and yours in some other manner.

I thought that the silly season fell in the summer, but perhaps global climate change has sent it out of whack. In addition to the nonsense about Twitter, we have the governor of Texas apparently advocating secession — an issue we thought was settled one April morning 144 years ago at a little town in Virginia. We have Rod Blagojevich talking about starring in a reality TV show, which would out-Trump Trump. We have George Will carrying on about the evil cultural influence of denim — and providing fodder for Stephen Colbert and half the bloggers in the known world.

Take a break, people. Close this page. Get out of the basement. Turn off the TV. Make yourself a cup of tea. Pick up a book. The Wordy Shipmates, Sarah Vowell’s breezy account of our half-loony Puritan forebears, can give you a little perspective. You need it.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:33 PM | | Comments (9)
        

Watch out

A point that I was laboring to make in the post “Crisis of authority” is expressed more compactly in Sarah Vowell’s latest book, The Wordy Shipmates:

... Protestantism’s shedding away of authority ... inspires self-reliance—along with a dangerous disregard for expertise. So the impulse that leads to democracy can also be the downside of democracy—namely, a suspicion of people who know what they are talking about.

Not that I am saying that Protestantism, self-reliance and democracy are Bad Things — I endorse all of them, and the Internet too. But we should keep our wits about us and be conscious of the limitations and dangers inherent in them.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (0)
        

Surely you jest: The parks department


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:21 AM | | Comments (5)
        

April 23, 2009

Stirring up the animals

The title of this post is H.L. Mencken’s description of his favorite occupation, provoking the dim and bigoted of his day. I will confess to a taste for it myself — and how could I deny it after tweaking those earnest Wikipediasts and the horde at The Web Site That Must Not Be Named? — which leads me today to direct your attention to a venerable group of cranks.

The Abbeville Manual of Style blog reports in "Supreme Court Shakespeare Screw-Up!" on the decision by a group of venerable jurists, inveigled into one of those inane mock trials of historical issues, that William Shakespeare was not the author of the plays of William Shakespeare.

Anti-Stratfordism has been a magnet for cranks since the 19th century, and their numbers appear to be annually replenished. It appears to draw people who are screwy about credentials, since Shakespeare lacked the two, noble blood and university education, that appear to matter to them.

That Shakespeare was widely acknowledged as the author in his own time, that the cranks have to resort to ingenious manipulations of known chronology (Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford having inconveniently died before all the Shakespeare plays were produced), or that they can only establish alternative authorship through bizarre and unproved (and unprovable) conspiracy theories does not give them pause.

And why should it? The Internet is a real big tent, and it can accommodate many freak shows. And that publishers continue to bring out the occasional anti-Stratfordian book indicates that the easily gulled remain, as ever, a lucrative market.

This way to the egress.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:13 PM | | Comments (3)
        

A burr under the saddle

This comment by Mr. Ross at the “All the noise” post has been a source of minor agitation for the past two days:

...a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts. Like the existence of weapons of mass destruction? A refusal to agree on that kind of fiction would certainly seem to be something to be thankful for. In any case, I am less than convinced about the "discourse" you say people used to seek in newspapers, as almost all news consumers seem to select the sources which most closely reflect their prejudices. Internet is not really different in that way, but it is at least less susceptible to the kind of deliberate distorsion we have come to expect from the Murdochs, Berlusconis and Hearsts of this world. A little grafitti-level discourse is a small price to pay, at worst a nuisance, like spam in your email (and sometimes even spam can be entertaining).

The initial rhetorical question is an allusion to The New York Times, which the comment subsequently equates with the Murdoch and Berlusconi publications. The first thing that irritates me is this leveling, this shrugging that all newspapers are equally biased and unreliable as well as obsolete.

Surely there are distinctions. When the Jayson Blair scandal blew up, the editor of The Times lost his job. The newspaper published its findings in an investigation that I cite each semester in my copy-editing class; the printout runs to 17 pages. When the Jack Kelley scandal hit USA Today, the paper published a front-page account that ran to two full pages inside the section. It would have been a good thing had editors raised more questions about those gentlemen, and if the questions that were raised had been heeded, but it was responsible for the two papers to confront the lapses squarely.

And there are distinctions to be made. There are good reasons that so many people read The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, even if they happen to disagree with the editorial positions of the papers. One of those reasons is that the two papers are rigorous in their editing, in their determination to verify the information they publish and to present it in clear and comprehensible English. That the results can fall short of the goal is a given in human experience, but it does not mean that the effort is pointless.

That effort, the struggle by editors, including copy editors, to make it right and make it clear is the second ground of my irritation. There are hundreds and thousands of copy editors still at newspapers and magazines and even some Web sites who are struggling every day to accomplish that feat of making the publication right and making it clear. I have worked alongside such people for nearly 30 years; I know how hard they work, and I know how much they accomplish. That our masters in these three decades have made boneheaded business decisions — for which we have had front-row seats — and that a changing business climate is decimating our ranks does not in any way detract from the effort and the accomplishment.

If you think otherwise, have a look at what you get without editors. I look at some of the offal available on the Web and marvel at the suggestion that the Internet is less given to distortion than the daily press. The writing is not necessarily any better, either.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:25 PM | | Comments (3)
        

April 22, 2009

Against the grain

I wouldn’t call it a challenge, precisely, but Kevin Cross has filed a thoughtful suggestion: “Much of your blog is about writing gone wrong. I thought it might be interesting to highlight those occasions when writers get it right.”

Those of us in the dwindling ranks of copy editors are not engaged to sit at the desk for eight hours admiring the work. Our specialty is pathology; we are looking for things that have gone wrong. So the suggestion that this blog should feature writing worth praise and admiration poses a difficulty. Panegyric doesn’t come easily to us.

Oh, there have been some occasional mentions, such as Robertson Davies on language in The Rebel Angels: “Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams.”

I once cited my favorite passage from Nabokov’s Pnin and on another occasion admired Bill Glauber’s elegant opening to an article on the funeral of one of the Kray brothers.

I’ve been quoting Mencken since high school, and in light of the past week’s brouhaha over The Web Site That shall Not Be Named, this seemed apposite: “Here [in the United States] the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.”

When I was in graduate school, Lytton Strachey on the scholar’s lot struck a chord: “In the early years of the eighteenth century the life of learning was agitated, violent, and full of extremes. ... One sat, bent nearly double, surrounded by four circles of folios, living to edit Hesychius and confound Dr. Hody, and dying at the last with a stomach half full of sand.”

Mr. Cross was kind enough to suggest a couple of examples by Louis Menand from The New Yorker:

An example from one of my favorites, Louis Menand:

"Jean-Paul Sartre preferred the company of women."

This guy knows how to write an intro.

Another Menand favorite, albeit a mite clunky:

"The first punctuation mistake in "Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation" (Gotham; $17.50), by Lynne Truss, a British writer, appears in the dedication, where a nonrestrictive clause is not preceded by a comma. It is a wild ride downhill from there."

Perhaps you would like to suggest some favorite passages.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 PM | | Comments (3)
        

April 21, 2009

Sometimes people are just wrong

I commend to your attention Arnold Zwicky’s post on Language Log, “Prejudices, egocentrism, impositions and intransigence.” It is as neat and compact a summary of the different categories of peevishness and misguided certainty about language as I have seen.

Many of the complaints that come in from readers of The Sun point out embarrassing lapses in our print and electronic editions, but many also fall into the categories that Professor Zwicky describes. And it is typically the people who are wrong who are most stubborn and intemperate, most resistant to explanation.

Particularly tedious are the people who imagine that English is in decline and that “correct” English needs some kind of official “protection” from the barbarians who are destroying it. This belief, which has cropped up regularly for at least the past five centuries, displays a profound misunderstanding of the nature of the language and its operation.

The only way we are going to get to an intelligent discussion of grammar and usage — particularly in the area of concern for this blog, the ways that standard American English can be written most effectively — is to become willing to examine our own preconceptions and prejudices, with an eye to adjusting them to the realities of the language.

If, in the process, we could avoid tirades and denunciations, that, too, would be progress.

Professor Zwicky has closed the comments on his post, but you can feel free to respond here.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:04 PM | | Comments (5)
        

All the noise

One of the many things the Internet has accomplished is to make generally available the kind of commentary previously restricted to the walls of men’s rooms.

It’s all there: the relaxation of inhibitions afforded by anonymity; the indulgence in prejudice, hostility, anger and contempt; the hyper-masculinity*; and even an occasional lone flash of imagination and wit.

My estimable colleague, David Sullivan of The Philadelphia Inquirer, recently contrasted that kind of discourse with the kind people used to seek in newspapers: “Newspapers — which exist in a world of ‘Let us tell you something we have determined to be right and you do not know and realistically you could never find out on your own’ — simply can't compete with ‘Let me show you what a dude I am.’ "**

This coarsening of public discussion appears to go hand in hand with a refusal to arrive at agreed-upon facts. It is not just that there are differences of opinion being aired; one expects vigorous disagreement over aesthetic judgments and political views. What is disturbing is that if you differ from my perception of reality, I will simply heap personal abuse on you.

The phenomenon itself is not novel — one recalls the vicious pamphleteering between Protestants and Roman Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries or the scurrilous accusations that have marked American politics from the earliest days of the Republic.

But the sheer volume of it — volume in both senses, quantity and decibel level — is disturbing. It crowds out much of what attempts to be reasonable.

 

*Observation suggests that men who are assured in their masculinity see no particular need to comment on the masculinity of others.

**These comments should in no way be construed as a reflection on a certain popular Web site whose members — many of whom, I am assured, hold the Ph.D. — engage in freewheeling discussion, genial banter and amusing personal remarks.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:54 AM | | Comments (7)
        

April 18, 2009

Avast, Matey, heave to

Given the rate at which print and electronic publications and publishing houses have been discarding their copy editors, it seemed only a matter of time until the last of us, stuffed and mounted, or perhaps mummified, would be put on display at the Smithsonian, along with Martha, the last passenger pigeon.

But walking around Fells Point’s Privateer Day with my daughter this afternoon, I caught a glimpse of a possible future for us.

In the 18th century (good times), nations that came up short on naval resources resorted to privateers, essentially pirates who were licensed to plunder and, at least officially, limited in their targets. For our beached copy editors, the role of privateer could open up fresh possibilities for employment.

Some official organization — a logical one being the American Copy Editors Society, perhaps at its forthcoming national conference in Minneapolis — would issue letters of marque authorizing copy-editing privateers to board offending publications, seize texts and deal with them appropriately.

Some technical details — the precise wording of the letter of marque, the design of the flag under which copy-editing privateers would operate — remain to be worked out. But a fleet could be operational in comparatively short order.

For those of you who imagine that your writing is pristine and that readers will long for unmediated contact with you: Heave to and prepare to be boarded.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:57 PM | | Comments (13)
        

April 17, 2009

The lifelong craft

In a sweet essay on studying Chaucer in his senior year at Penn State, R Thomas Berner quotes that fine opening line from The Parliament of Fowls: “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” Chaucer’s poem examines love, but the craft I have wrestled with for more than 40 years is writing and editing.

The dustup during the past week or so over The Elements of Style — Geoffrey Pullum’s polemic against the beloved “little book,” the outraged ripostes from its defenders, the distractions of Farkery — points to the hazards of dogmatism, which I think may have been Professor Pullum’s actual target.

The Elements of Style contains useful material for writers, though more by example than precept. It also contains dated information, arbitrary statements, and some advice that is misguided. But the problem is not so much in the book itself, despite its defects and inadequacies, as in its most extreme advocates, who have made it a rule book.

The craft is not well served by dogmatism. Copy editors are familiar with the idiotic pronouncements of tinpot authorities in newsrooms, though perhaps a little more reluctant to acknowledge the rigidity among their colleagues on the desk. If you were, God help you, to read through the nearly 700 posts on this blog, you could see my own views shift and loosen up over the past three and a half years as responses from other writers, editors and teachers compelled me to examine my own views. There is always a strong possibility that we may be wrong.

This craft has no sacred texts. There are a few rules and principles to be acknowledged, there are texts to be consulted for advice, there are false rules and bad advice to be avoided, there is a language shifting like tectonic plates under our feet, and there is a lifelong struggle to develop and refine taste and judgment.

But for now, spring has come, intermittently, to Baltimore, and I have Professor Berner to thank for awakening the memories of a classroom 38 years ago in which Professor John Yunck introduced me to Chaucer. Aprill and Chaucer are as good as it gets. And I still have my battered Riverside Edition of selections from The Canterbury Tales.

There’s a sacred book.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (0)
        

Surely you jest: The young scholar

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 16, 2009

The Wrath of Fark

Yesterday’s post about Geoffrey Pullum’s condemnation of Strunk and White, in which I commented in passing on his discovery of the level of commentary at fark.com, brought down the Wrath of Fark, and I decided to withhold approval of further comments.

One commenter, Christopher Chase, questioned that decision, accusing me of “inferior discourse management,” and I decided to allow his and any further comments that were not outright abusive.

But if you feel deprived of Farkist discourse in its purest form, here is a link to the forum at fark.com on which my blog post was discussed.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:09 PM | | Comments (27)
        

How we talk here

Different places have different levels of decorum: We don’t behave at church or synagogue or mosque as we would in the ballpark, and the way we talk to friends in a bar is not the way we would talk to our grandparents (well, probably not). My late brush with Farkers suggests that it would be good to point out what the decorum is here.*

Comments at You Don’t Say are subject to approval — my approval — and while a wide range of opinions and forms of expression is permitted, there are limits.

1. Corrections of point of fact, of errors in grammar and usage, and of typos and other slips are welcome and appreciated. They relieve me of the burden of omnipotence.

2. You can speak freely in criticism of my views, my syntax, my diction, my wardrobe or just about anything you like, but childish name-calling and ad hominem abuse are tiresome and pointless; the latter will not be published.

3. You may criticize the opinions of other commenters, but mere abuse directed at them will not be published.

4. Defamatory and potentially libelous statements will not be published.

5. While this blog is somewhat looser and more indulgent than the print edition, vulgar, tasteless and offensive language is unlikely to be published.

This blog is intended for a grown-up audience. While we may sometimes grow sharp, we generally manage to remain civil. If civility bores you, strikes you as stuffy and archaic, then you are welcome to avail yourself of the many other venues the Internet affords for uncivil outbursts.

 

*Elizabeth Large has also found it necessary to establish ground rules for commenters at her blog on dining.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:48 PM | | Comments (7)
        

April 15, 2009

Watch out for rug burn

Having absented myself from the political blogs and analyses over the past few days, I was puzzled today to see the word astroturf crop up in references to the tea party protests about federal spending and taxes.

A moment of reflection led to the obvious conclusion, that astroturf protest was being set up in opposition to grass-roots protest to suggest that today’s events are an artificially concocted stunt rather than a genuine popular uprising.

Determining whether that is the case or not is outside my writ, but I am impressed by the rapidity with which the term has taken off — a tea bag astroturf search on Google turns up more than 12,000 hits.

AstroTurf, let me remind you, is a capitalized trade name, though it was already well on its way to becoming a lowercased generic word before today’s brouhaha.

Though I saw John Waters’ film Pecker and understand what the term teabagging means in gay bars, I lack an impulse to explain it on these premises. But if you are involved in these protests, I advise you to make a careful distinction between tea bag (n.) and tea bag (v.).

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:28 PM | | Comments (4)
        

It ain't the Pentateuch

Readers of Language Log are unsurprised that Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum holds a low opinion of the Strunk and White Elements of Style. But the current article in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he smites “the little book” hip and thigh on the occasion of its 50th anniversary will stun some of its devotees.*

He is, in the main, right. I own a copy of “the little book” that I acquired as a senior in high school 40 years ago, to which I have a sentimental attachment, though I have not consulted it in decades.** It embodies the plain style which E.B. White and the other nonfiction writers of The New Yorker burnished. But I was aware even then that other styles were operational — it was during senior year at Fleming County High School that I also discovered H.L. Mencken’s glorious excesses.

At some point an expanded fourth edition fell into my hands, and it is less impressive. For one thing, it endorses the hopefully bugaboo, a point not in the first edition.

Actually, the book on its own terms, as Professor Pullum suggests, is relatively harmless. Much of the material from Professor Strunk’s original book is what one would expect from a basic stylebook — a preference for the Oxford comma, choices in the formation of the possessive, and similar decisions. And Mr. White’s own writing is as graceful as always in expressing principles of economy and clarity.

Professor Pullum’s quarrel is with the bibliolators who have made “the little book” a sacred text, a hazard I identified in a previous post. No book on usage ought to be swallowed whole.

It does seem a little hard for him to train his full artillery on Professor Strunk and Mr. White because we appear to be infested with scores of writing teachers who imagine that any sentence with a form of to be in it is a passive construction. I’m not sure that the author(s) of the Gospel of Mark should be held fully accountable for snake-handling.

Unfortunately, the teaching of writing does not seem to pay much attention to the principles of English grammar; and when it does, it often appears to rely on bad information, superstition and outright ignorance. Textbooks and manuals continue to present outdated information and erroneous advice.

So if you have held on to your old copy of Strunk and White, give it a pat on its birthday tomorrow. But it’s best if you keep your distance from it otherwise.

 

* Professor Pullum has already had a little fun with ill-informed and subliterate comments on fark.com, which is apparently where one goes for that sort of thing.

** See, Professor Pullum, I used which to introduce a restrictive clause. Is all forgiven?

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:09 PM | | Comments (43)
        

April 14, 2009

Do typos count?

Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist blog says that it’s time for people to stop mouthing off about typos in blogs and focus on the ideas. Contribute to intelligent discussion instead of fault-finding over minutiae. Loosen up a little. Give up your outdated preoccupations and your annoying perfectionism. Your really annoying perfectionism.*

Some readers find typos distracting and unprofessional, think that they detract from the credibility of the text. Ms. Trunk appears to think that the problem in such cases is with the reader rather than the writer. And her point that she does consult an editor, paying more attention to content than to spelling, has merit.

I agree that slack, rambling, dull writing is much more an offense against the reader than the occasional slip of the fingers on the keyboard. But, a copy editor to my bones, I can’t give up the idea that clean copy — copy correctly spelled and punctuated — has a virtue that slovenly copy, however original, does not. It is a highly visible aspect of the way writers present themselves.**

Perhaps you differ. Feel free to say so.

 

* Commenters who point out my typos are welcome to continue doing so. I’m always open to correction. Pointing out other people’s typos, however, might come across as obnoxious.

** Just as the way people dress constitutes how they present themselves. While we have gotten a lot more casual, and many people have neglected the opportunity to learn how to tie a bow tie, I don’t think that we can safely conclude that dress doesn’t matter.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:07 PM | | Comments (27)
        

We're mad as hell

A Facebook chum pointed out this NPR program, "Angry America," about how fierce and apocalyptic the talk has gotten on the airwaves.

We’ve been there before. John Adams was a closet monarchist who was going to destroy our freedoms. Thomas Jefferson was going to turn lose the Jacobins and slaughter owners of property.

In the 1820s and 1830s, the Masons were going to take over the country. Then there were the successive bouts of nativist hysteria. If you have in your ancestry anyone of German, Irish, Italian, Eastern European, Jewish, Chinese, Japanese or Hispanic extraction, you can be assured that your ancestors were denounced as the scum of the earth and the doom of the Republic.

In the early days of the past century, Socialists took over the country with minimum-wage proposals and eight-hour workdays and an end to using children in factories and other outlandish ideas.

Franklin Roosevelt was going to destroy all wealth in the country. Harry Truman was a patsy for the Soviets (and so, depending on which flavor of conspiracy you favored, was Dwight Eisenhower).

Later, Richard Nixon was undermining the Constitution (oh, wait, that one happened), and then Ronald Reagan was going to get us into a nuclear war with Soviet Union and the elder George Bush was a pawn of some secretive internationalist group called the Trilateral Commission that was going to absorb the whole country and, well, you know.

We like to picture ourselves as a friendly, easygoing, generous-spirited folk, and often we actually are. But we have never lacked for a core group of very angry and resentful people — on the right and on the left and on ground apparently receiving signals from outside this solar system — who are confident that Bad People are involved in a malign conspiracy that will destroy everything we hold dear.

Such people appear to need this — we can’t be for something unless we are strongly against something. We could give them a lot of attention, or maybe we could suggest that they put a cold cloth on their foreheads and lie down for a while in a quiet place.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:10 PM | | Comments (4)
        

April 12, 2009

A Wikipedia challenge

I should have realized the danger of stepping into the Wikipedia morass, and the comments on today’s earlier post further indicate my folly in doing so. You know, The New York Times gets things wrong, too. As an argument on a sophisticated level, it’s that all texts are constructs reflecting the attitude of the constructor rather than a verifiable external reality; on a less sophisticated level, it’s that all the other kids are smoking pot, too.

I’ve had enough. I’m bringing it down to this challenge.

In a previous post, Grant Barrett, a professional lexicographer and the kind of writer whose expertise should be welcome on Wikipedia, explained why he has given up on it:

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

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

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

In all the justifications and expostulations about Wikipedia sent to this blog to date, no one has ever responded directly to Mr. Barrett’s criticism. So here is the challenge: Give me a response to this criticism that makes a persuasive case that Wikipedia is valuable despite these disabilities, and I will publicly repent of my criticism.

Otherwise, I will consider that Wikipediasts’ have failed to meet the challenge, that the criticisms posted in this blog are valid, and that further discussion is sterile. We will more on to more rewarding subjects.

I will approve all comments that are not outright abusive but will not respond to further comments myself.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (39)
        

Touchy, those Wikipediasts

A passing remark in the post “Democracy and participation” about Wikipedia* — “Wikipedia advises its readers — I am not making this up — not to rely on the accuracy of its entries” — drew a couple of waspish responses from a Mr. David Gerard.**

He quotes boilerplate legal language about rights and liability from the Britannica and Baltimoresun.com Web sites as if that had something to do with the point I was making. Let me be more explicit. This is what Wikipedia says about itself:

In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed. ...

So. This is an encyclopedia that tells you up front that at any given moment, what you see in one of its entries may well be the product of ignorance, fraud or malice. I find that extraordinary, but to the Wikipediasts it’s apparently no big deal.

To save you the labor of reading all the posts cited below, I’ll boil down what I have to say about Wikipedia to this:

Item: I admire the generosity and public-spiritedness with which contributors to Wikipedia share their knowledge and expertise.

Item: I think that it is reprehensible that Wikipedia lacks an adequate mechanism to verify that information and to protect verified information from contamination or malice.

Item: Because the accuracy of the information in Wikipedia entries cannot be trusted, I instruct The Sun’s copy editors and my copy-editing students at Loyola that they must not rely on it. If they look up a subject in Wikipedia, they must confirm any information by consulting an independent and more reliable source.

 

*If you are not already familiar with my misgivings about Wikipedia, you are welcome to examine these previous posts:

Not bewitched by Wikipedia

I said, get Mitty

Wikipediaphilia

Crisis of authority

McIntyre is having a cow about Wikipedia

Wiki-wacky

Wikipedia’s limits, by one who knows

 

** I’m a little surprised that, given his apparent commitment to Wikipedia’s democracy of ideas, he didn’t welcome my contrary views as equally valid.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (7)
        

April 10, 2009

Surely you jest: The three pints


Posted by John McIntyre at 7:28 AM | | Comments (4)
        

April 9, 2009

Pile the dead-tree media on the pyre

A Canadian blogger, David Eaves, and I have been exchanging views on the newspaper industry. I doubt from his posts that he quite grasps the points I’ve tried to make, but that can wait for another day. What interests me at the moment is a comment by one of his readers:

“Couldn't agree more re the (non) importance of dead-tree media or corporate journalism.”

This comes at about the same time that Alan Mutter announced on Newsosaur that he would not longer approve media-bashing comments on his blog. But he offered one last specimen of the genre, a masterpiece that will repay your attention. You can almost see the spittle gathering in the corners of the author’s mouth.

The Internet is filling up with that sort of commentary, in which reliance on cliches about “dead-tree media” and “dinosaurs” masquerades as analysis.

There are a few things to be kept in mind during this crisis in the business.

Many newspapers are still making money. The biggest problem at the moment is that corporations — which relied too much on economies of scale in running multiple newspapers and counted injudiciously on continued profit margins of 20 to 30 percent — got caught with an enormous debt load as the recession accelerated the loss of revenue. There are many papers that are operationally profitable but unable to meet the payments on corporate debt. Whether they will survive the recession and in what form are questions of some urgency.

The other point that gets overlooked is that newspapers still have readers. True, they are readers subjected to the contempt of the electronically fashion-forward, but they are still customers and presumably have every right to receive information in their preferred medium. (I’m not a Luddite. I’m delighted to be able to look things up in the texts of books that are increasingly available on the Internet, but as I move steadily through Robert Remini’s 786-page biography of Henry Clay, I prefer reading it in a book printed from dead trees, and I’ll thank you not to sneer at the choice.)

Moreover, newspapers have a multitude of readers of their electronic texts. There’s this one, for example. Elizabeth Large has tens of thousands of readers of her restaurant blog every day, and the death this week of one of her readers has produced an outpouring of shared grief. Read about the passing of Robert (the Single One), and then tell me that newspapers can’t create interactive communities of readers.

Not that newspapers lack for faults. Let’s be clear: I have been looking at corporate journalism from the inside for nearly 30 years. I have witnessed asinine decisions and colossal ineptitude in management. I have worked for newspapers that not only produced low-grade writing — excessive reliance on handouts and press releases, sloppy fact-checking, shoddy grammar and usage, reliance on cliche and jargon, and egregious self-indulgence by would-be belle-lettrists who imagined themselves to be Flaubert — but expressed pride in the product and awarded themselves prizes for it.

(God be praised that the Internet has spared us all that.)

But over the past three decades I have worked alongside scores of copy editors who have fought a daily rear-guard action against error and opacity and excess. Our victories have never been total, but you have no idea how much we accomplish unless you see the “before” product as well as the “after,” and nobody wants that.

You dead-tree- and dinosaur-denouncing people, perhaps you could to take a moment to tell me what happens after you have tossed the last newspaper onto the bonfire. Where is the money to come from — wages and benefits — to support people to gather the information that newspaper reporters have done? Who is going to edit that information to give you some assurance of its reliability and clarity? How is it going to be presented to you in a compact and — let’s say it —user-friendly form?

When you figure all that out, I can steer you to some qualified copy editors who can help you turn out a better product than you would otherwise have achieved.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:20 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Unheard melodies are sweeter

A correspondent, responding to my post on excesses in prose, forwards a couple of prime examples. Names of the authors have been suppressed, because publication of their work constitutes a failure of their editors to perform their function.

First, we have someone who has read Keats, or perhaps just got hold of a copy of Bartlett’s:

If John Keats is to be believed, the Olathe South girls basketball team's 46-40 upset Monday night against previously unbeaten Shawnee Mission West will be a joy forever.

It was, after all, a thing of beauty to watch.

Regrettable as this mismatch is — Keats’ vision of the eternal beauty of art put into the service of an adolescent basketball game — it is at least relatively concise. Our second example carries us on an extended, labored trek through pop culture references to a profound anticlimax:

There have been five Superman movies made since the late 1970s, with the most recent in 2006 entitled "Superman Returns."

Since the action hero was introduced in the 1930s comic book series, we've always held out this hope that we'll find our own Superman to cheer for.

Wait no longer. We have discovered him.

Three years ago, he arrived in Gainesville, Fla., with his cape in hand and super powers about to be put on display. We just didn't know it at the time.

Introducing Superman, alias Daily Planet reporter Clark Kent, a.k.a. Tim Tebow — quarterback, University of Florida Gators.

Editors, please, you have a duty to protect these people from themselves.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:59 AM | | Comments (1)
        

April 8, 2009

Mama, that man talks funny

One of the things that may well have driven younger readers from newspapers is the stilted and artificial language that clutters so many news stories. Bruce DeSilva of the Associated Press parodies these conventions in a Facebook post, “If real people spoke the way the typical journalist writes,” about plans for a family vacation.

In a series of informational meetings convened to introduce the proposal, I met with varying responses. The matter sparked an optimistic reaction in Ted, 7, who offered me a vote of confidence and pledged his support. I met behind closed doors with Kristin, 9, who took the matter under advisement and promised to keep an open mind. Bruce, 17, who was recently remanded to a juvenile facility for his drug-related activities, could not be reached for comment.

Another well-known writing coach, Paula LaRocque, is the author of a similar parody of news jargon.

It is a hard habit to break, but newspaper reporters and editors have been struggling in recent years to achieve a more conversational style.

My estimable colleague Bill Walsh comments on Mr. DeSilva’s post, “Funny, yes, but imagine if journalists wrote as real people speak.”

One can: “Uh, like, these dudes, back in the day, like, you know, old guys, got together to get out from under this other dude that was hassling them. …”

Not quite Mr. Lincoln’s cadences there.

What we are looking for in that conversational language is a middle style, neither formal and excessively abstract, nor slangy and colloquial — not pompous, but not vulgar. It would be the language of an educated person speaking directly to you about a subject of common interest.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 5:42 PM | | Comments (2)
        

The errant hand

By now you may have seen in any number of places that 18,000 copies of the student newspaper at Brigham Young University were withdrawn and destroyed because of an embarrassing error: A photo caption referred to the Council of the Twelve Apostles of the Mormon Church identified them as the Council of the Twelve Apostates.

The explanation is that Apostles was misspelled in the caption; a copy editor ran spell-check, which identified an error and suggested Apostates as a correction, and the copy editor accepted the correction. You will find some interesting comments on this incident in a post on Language Log.

Readers react to blunders of that magnitude by asking how anyone could be so ignorant/careless/stupid. But every copy editor maintains a private roll of shame over just such lapses. We run down the list as we lie awake on still winter nights. The wrong synapse fires, or the hand slips, there’s a momentary distraction, or there is pressure to hurry on deadline — and if you think that it wouldn’t happen to you, then you have never worked on a copy desk, a locale that regularly reinforces humility.

Some practical advice: Spell-checking programs are of great utility. They will flag inconsistent spellings of proper names, or simple typographical errors such as transposed letters that the brain may automatically correct in reading.

But the utility is limited. The spell-checker won’t flag a homonym of the correct word, and it will flag any word correctly spelled that does not happen to be in its electronic word list. And when it finds a word it does not recognize, it will suggest the word with the closest spelling in its word list. This is how the Brigham Young student came to grief.

You should probably never use a correct-all function. That is how a newspaper that preferred African-American to black as an ethnic identification wound up writing about a company whose finances finished “in the African-American.” We think that it was a mistake in using the correct-all function that identified Kunta Kinte in a Sun article as “Chunter Knit.” (Chunter means to mumble or grumble.)

It is, obviously, an irony that a mechanism for correcting errors should turn into the means of creating greater errors. But all copy editors understand that that is merely one aspect of the larger irony of our work; we do indeed fix numerous errors, but sometimes our work is self-defeating. Stay humble.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (7)
        

April 7, 2009

The plight of the copy desk

If you should tune in to Sheila Kast’s Maryland Morning show on WYPR-FM (88.1) tomorrow, you can listen to an interview with Carl Sessions Stepp of the University of Maryland and me about the perilous state of the newspaper copy desk. Professor Stepp is well worth listening to.

The show begins at 9 a.m. EDT, and this segment is expected to run at about 9:15.

 

 

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

So that's where my head is

Apparently my jocular post earlier today about the reversed apostrophe in the Orioles’ logo unintentionally caused offense to Charles Apple, who initially raised the point with me. Mr. Apple’s reaction is appended to his original post on the subject.

So here’s a serious answer to his inquiry: Going after irregularities in the spelling, capitalization or punctuation of corporate logos is a quixotic task. We have more urgent ones.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:47 PM | | Comments (4)
        

How 'bout those O's

Yesterday was Opening Day in baseball, an occasion whose grim approach I sense as soon as the spring pollen begins to assault my mucosae.* Another kind of allergic reaction was registered yesterday when designer Charles Apple posted a commentary on the Orioles’ logo.

In brief, the logo displays, instead of an apostrophe, an open single quotation mark: O's. (That's a mark that's shaped like a 6 rather than a 9, something the typeface in this blog software prefers will not show you.) And it's trademarked.

This solecism was first identified, Mr. Apple tells us by Paul Lukas of ESPN, who denounced it a couple of months back, to no effect. (Mr. Apple also invited me to comment some time back, but what with the runny nose and teary eyes, I left his note in the queue of e-mail that I mean to answer someday, really.)

Here’s a suggestion to help you stay sane. It’s just a logo. Logos are made by graphic artists, who tend to be more concerned with visual impact than the niceties of all that word stuff. If you can tolerate that idiotic backward R in the Toys “R” Us** sign, then an incorrect version of the apostrophe shouldn’t keep you up nights.

Also,

***HERESY ALERT***    ***HERESY ALERT***    ***HERESY ALERT***

it’s just a baseball team. It’s just baseball. Who cares about the apostrophes on the players’ caps?

The humble apostrophe is one of our most-misused punctuation marks, cropping up in false plurals — the Smith’s — sometimes combined with those odd grocers’ quotation marks — “CUKE’S” — and forever being automatically supplanted by the open single quote in Microsoft Word. It’s a troubled punctuation mark.

I’ve got my hands full trying to clean up the prose — we published a reference this morning to mantle clocks, for Fowler’s sake. I don’t have the time, the inclination or the writ to attempt to clean up logos, even assuming that I could get someone to listen to me.

Mr. Apple and Mr. Lukas, good luck in your crusade. But my advice: Get a grip.

 

* Filthy tree sex.

** Now that my children are grown, I can avoid Toys “R” Us as assiduously as medieval pilgrims shunned a plague city.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:50 AM | | Comments (13)
        

April 6, 2009

Over-ripeness is all

William Blake advised, “You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.”

Excellent advice for writers: Try anything and everything that rises from your imagination and inventiveness. Then take a cold look at it — or get a competent editor to take a cold look at it — and decide whether it actually works.

Posting yesterday on Facebook, Bruce DeSilva, veteran writing coach at the Associated Press, held up for examination some passages from Robin Finn’s profile of Harlan Coben in The New York Times.

From the profile: Home base is a stunning Victorian mansion, circa 1865, where a replica Maltese Falcon (Raymond Chandler is Mr. Coben's hero) guards the library's built-in bookcases and that validator of mystery writers, a 1997 Edgar Award -- the bust's resemblance to Edgar Allen Poe is iffy -- glowers disconsolately on the mantel in the parlor.

Mr. DeSilva’s comment: That's a 52-word sentence punctuated by a set of parentheses, two dashes, and three commas. And you have to read it at least twice to figure out what the hell it means. By the way, if you are going to imply that Raymond Chandler wrote "The Maltese Falcon," you might want to look it up first. He didn't.

There’s more. Much more.

This sort of thing, free-associative piling up of details that are sort of related in long, slack sentences, is tempting to try — viz., Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, David Foster Wallace — and surrender to the temptation commonly leads to silliness of a very high concentration. One would like to think that somewhere along the line an editor at The Times or a copy editor said, “No. This won’t do,” before being overridden by someone of greater authority and lesser judgment.

You Don’t Say will be devoting some attention this week to writing of ill-advised excess. Should you harbor some favorite examples, do send them along.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 AM | | Comments (11)
        

April 4, 2009

Shut up, he explained*

Back in January, Elizabeth Large, our veteran restaurant critic and one of my most valued colleagues, wrote about an odd little experience on her blog: “I guess restaurant critics aren’t as important as they think they are”:

Wow. That was weird. I just called the new Firehouse Coffee Company in Canton to get some info for next week's Table Talk. Jay answered the phone, and when I said my name and who I work for, he said, "Ma'am, you'll have to talk to the manager. I'm alone here and kind of busy." Click. He hung up on me.

Her loyal commenters swung into action, some taking the part of the overworked employee trying to attend to customers while the telephone is ringing, but the majority describing the behavior as rude.

Three months later, the post came to the attention of the baristo, who added this comment:

This is the Jay of which you spoke so "highly" of in your review of the Firehouse Coffee Co. Although I am no longer at that location ( I work at Cafe Latte'Da for those of you who want real service!!), I would like to just say that you are wrong for thinking that I was being rude to you. I recall that day and I was truly busy. If you are so interested in reviewing a place maybe you should get off your ass and see it for yourself first hand instead of slacking off with your ear to a phone while you sip on Dunkin Donuts coffee and shovel a freakin bear claw down your throat!! If you want to see what kind of service I do provide feel free to visit me at my new job. Until then, I bid you good day. ...

For the benefit of readers who may have been raised by feral dogs, let me explain how things work among human beings in what we lightly describe as civilization. If you cause someone offense to someone, you apologize. “Ms. Large, someone told me about the post on your blog, and I am terribly sorry that you felt badly treated. I was indeed on my own and overtaxed when you called, but I realize that I could have been less abrupt. Please accept my apologies.”

For all it has done to ease communication, the Internet has not done a great deal for civility. The opportunity to say things to people electronically that one would never say to their faces, combined with the temptation of instant response without reflection, does not elevate the discourse. And the anonymous posters and trolls make things very nasty indeed.

It does not have to be so, even when you disagree strongly with someone. I’m not telling you that if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.

Ms. Large, as a native of the South, no doubt understands that formal courtesy can be as deadly as the stiletto. Calculate, if you like, the increase to Jay’s self-inflicted damage by her decision to approve his comment without commenting herself.

Chris Mooney, writing a devastating little essay on George Will’s writing about global warming, manages to establish through cool factual explanation, without ever making personal remarks, that Mr. Will is entitled to his opinions but not his own set of facts.

The trouble with mere abuse is that the impact wears off. Given the enormous outpouring of it on the Web, the only way to achieve notice is to heighten the intensity of the abuse, and it’s not long before that stuff burns itself out. Better to hold back from the instant response and think over the possibilities.

As Mike Waller, a former publisher of The Sun, used to say, the most valuable function an editor can perform is to ask, “Are you sure you want to do this? Are you really sure?” If you do not have an editor to perform that function, you’ll need to construct one in your head. Until that project is completed, it’s a good idea to shut up.

 

* The title of this post is taken from one of Ring Lardner’s greatest lines.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (2)
        

April 3, 2009

Surely you jest: Captured by cannibals


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:36 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 2, 2009

You know I'm right

Further support for today’s earlier post, “We can’t handle the truth.”

Item: Martha Brockenbrough sends me this morsel from Ted Pease’s quote of the day on journalism:

“What we are losing is editing. When I grew up, nothing could be communicated to the outside world without editing, getting your facts right, your spelling, etc. . . . That's the worst part of it--the discipline that should go with the ability to communicate is gone.”

— Daniel Schorr, senior correspondent, National Public Radio

Item: A Sun colleague forwards a review by Oliver Kamm of Andrew Lih’s adulatory book on Wikipedia, The Wikipedia Revolution. Mr. Kamm comments, in part, “His account of the way in which the self-designated Wikipedians meet bears the hallmarks of a cult. And that strictly is what Wikipedia represents. It is not part of a democratic culture so much as a populist one: a combination of the anti-intellectualism of the Left and the free-market dogmatism of the Right.”

The fundamental problem with Wikipedia as a tool for the advancement of knowledge, Mr. Kamm argues, is this: “Whereas science and learning pursue truth, Wikipedia prizes consensus. Wikipedia has no means of arbitrating between different claims, other than how many people side with one position rather than another.”

Item: In “The Quality-Control Quandary” in the current number of the American Journalism Review, Carl Sessions Stepp says that reductions in staff, particularly on copy desks, “raise unprecedented questions about the value – and the future – of editing itself. Already at many news organizations, journalists and readers alike have noticed flabbier writing, flatter headlines, more typos. How far can you cut editing without crippling credibility? How do you balance immediacy and accuracy? How much does fine-tuning matter to the work-in-progress online ethos?”

He continues: “At ground level, these concerns fuel another trend: developing ways to maintain reasonable quality control now that the end-of-the-line copy desk can no longer process everything. Interviews and visits by AJR* make clear that newsrooms are lurching toward new ways, from "buddy editing" (where you ask the nearest person to read behind you) to "back editing" (where copy is edited after posting) to "previewing" (where copy goes to a holding directory for an editor to check before live posting).

“For now, though, progress is slow, and the risks seem scary.”

 

* He quotes me, but there are also reputable figures included in the article.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:51 PM | | Comments (2)
        

We can't handle the truth

Tucked away in a Los Angeles Times article about celebrities and libel law is an observation about the rest of us that should get further attention: Truth in what is published is only one element, and perhaps not the most important one.

The article by James Rainey, “Free speech, libel and some ugly truths,” explains the attraction of the British legal system to maligned celebrities. British libel law is stricter than U.S. libel law, especially since the Supreme Court’s Sullivan ruling in 1964, which requires proof that a publisher presented a false statement knowingly, with malice, rather than out of negligence.

It is a ruling that matches the American character, which very much like to erect statues of heroes and then throw rocks at them (I think Mencken may have said this somewhere). It is also a key part of a legal system that allows the exposure of bad conduct by the great and the mighty. However, one consequence that Mr. Rainey points out is that “puerile tabloid and unsubstantiated blog reports use the same defense for less lofty reporting.” He goes on to observe — this is the key point:

It's not that the truth doesn't matter but that our system correctly values free-wheeling expression.

That freedom comes with imperfections that we don't accept but should understand.

We have always valued that exuberance of expression. Presidential elections since the early days of the Republic have been marked by the spread of scurrilous and unsubstantiated rumors about candidates. (Adams was a closet monarchist, Jefferson a raving Jacobin. Swift-boating is no novelty.)

I have speculated that as deconstructionist theory has seeped into the popular consciousness, there has been a growing sense that maybe there is no objective reality out there, and we are all welcome to construct the reality we find most congenial. And the Internet and the media have merely magnified the opportunity.*

Freedom of expression is a good thing, an essential thing, and toleration of contrary views, and even cranks, is necessary to preserve it. But I’m not sure that our old assumption that we would be moving toward truth through the free exchange of ideas still holds.

Look at the battles over the teaching of science; we can’t even agree on descriptions of how the physical world operates, but instead seek to impose our private views through governmental regulation.

You know about the “birthers,” the people who insist that Barack Obama is ineligible for the presidency because he is not a native-born citizen? They are pursuing a series of fruitless challenges through the court system. And, as you can see from a look at the comments on any article on the subject, nothing will persuade them otherwise.

Look at the Internet’s rumor-mongering and indulgence in calumny, which makes the old supermarket tabloids look restrained.

Look at how news organizations — you knew I would get to this — are abandoning editing. Too many “layers,” too many “touches.” If what gets published isn’t accurate — isn’t true — no big deal.* Statements of fact are fungible.

No sane person wants the government to determine what truth is. We have the record of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics to warn us against that. Neither is anyone clamoring to replace U.S. libel law with the British version; that inhibit us in identifying miscreants. (It might be a good thing for U.S. libel law to catch up with the Internet, though.) It would probably help for the schools to teach critical thinking — or, for that matter, thinking — but that is visionary talk.

Be careful out there. It’s not easy to keep your wits about you.

 

* My wife and children enjoy watching one of those “reality” shows about professional chefs, even though they have read the disclaimers stating that it is the producers, not necessarily the judges, who make final decisions about winners and losers. The whole world is starting to look like professional wrestling.

** I’m leaving Wikipedia out, but you know where I stand by now.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (3)
        

April 1, 2009

Coming and going

A reader called the city desk the other day to complain about a headline in The Sun, and the city desk gave her my number (much obliged, Maryann). She sounded older, educated, well-spoken, the kind of read whom The Sun has always attracted and valued. And she had a beef.

The headline on Page 1A that she disliked was Coming to Afghanistan, about the support the Obama administration plans for the Afghan effort against the Taliban and al-Qaida. The article was by David Wood, a Sun reporter stationed in Washington, and the headline was by the copy desk over which I have some supposed authority.

It should have been Going to Afghanistan, she said, because the aid is going from here to there. It is like the distinction between bring and take, she said, the directional verbs about which people are either appallingly ignorant or shamefully careless.

I could have made some kind of case for the headline, since the tone of the article was less about our sending aid than about the aid arriving in Afghanistan and what it would be used for there — as in coming to a theater near you. But the game didn’t seem worth the candle, and I manfully accepted her reproof.

She went on to widen the rebuke, to insist that errors are more numerous and that mastery of the language has declined shockingly. I murmured polite acknowledgements of hearing her views, and after a while she rang off.

I believe that she is mistaken. It is not just that we get complaints about the violation of rules that are not valid rules of grammar and usage; I dispute the premise that there used to be a golden age of proper writing.

Item: I was taught the grammar and usage the old-fashioned way in public schools in Fleming County, Kentucky, by rote, with sentence diagramming and spelling tests, with instruction by teachers who would brook no breach of the Rules. None of that slack, lah-de-dah progressivism. But I have reason to suspect that if you were to round up my former schoolmates and examine their mastery of the language, their skills would be no better than average, and very likely below average.

Item: When I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, a friend, Andy Scheiber, offered to help a fellow student in a Milton class review for the midterm. Arriving at his dormitory room, she opened up her Merritt Y. Hughes edition of Paradise Lost and asked, “Now who’s this Sa-TAN; he’s in there a lot.” By now, one hopes, she has put in her 35 years as a schoolteacher and retired. I also saw some of the work of fellow teaching assistants in graduate school at Syracuse, and some of them should have been kept from the classroom at bayonet point.

Item: I have in my office memos and in-house newsletters on writing and editing stretching back to the early 1970s, and what they show is that the staff of The Sun has been responsible for the same damn lapses in grammar and usage, year in and year out, over that entire span.

No, shoddy writing is not a new phenomenon; it is a constant.

What is changing is the neglect or outright abandonment of editing by newspapers, magazines, book publishers and Internet sites, accompanied by a load of codswallop about greater immediacy and direct interaction between writer and reader — all of it cant to disguise that the management is no longer willing to pay for accuracy and precision. People will write as sloppily as they always have; you’ll merely see them without their stage makeup.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:20 AM | | Comments (5)
        
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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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