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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)


Not to be critical, but the first punctuation error in Lynne Truss's book is in the title: the adjective phrase "Zero Tolerance" should be hyphenated.

I'll pick a non-English passage, beautifully translated into English by William Weaver. It's the closing paragraph of Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities":

"The inferno of the living is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."

The latter seems to me to be the natural role of the writer, publisher, copyeditor, etc.

I figured that censure would come more readily to most of us, so I can't say that the lack of responses to this post disappoints.

Here are a couple of sentences from Saturday by Ian McEwan, whose, lierate, formal, orderly prose exists in marvelous tension with the chaotic events it recounts:

"Sleepless in the early hours, you make a nest out of your own fears--there must have been survival advantage in dreaming up bad outcomes and scheming to avoid them. This trick of dark imagining is one legacy of natural selection in a dangerous world."

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