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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)


Loyal reader here... occasional commenter.

I would also argue that the old-fashioned style of teaching grammar and spelling (so often pined for by those who think our world is going to hell) had a great cost - it put great limits and constraints on style and narrative, both so important in the development of young minds.

My father and I recently discussed this. While my mother hated the change to "whole language" teaching when I was a child, my father loved it. Sure, I couldn't spell worth a damn until I was older. But I could think and write and put my ideas together in a variety of ways, because I was never slowing down to think about "i before e? maybe just double e?"

I learned how to spell when I was older. It was easier then anyway. But learning to think and imagine? I don't know that it can be done beyond age 10.

Look at microfilms of a typical newspaper from the 1960s and you will be amazed at the number of errors. That was back when type was set hot, and there were more hands who could leave something out or put it in; but the supposed era of newspapers that were grammar texts never occurred.

I hear from, in large part, retired English teachers who have been bemoaning the decline in the language ever since they stopped teaching it. I have come to believe that it is not that things have gotten worse, although they have gotten more informal; it is that they lack the role in which they could believe that they were putting their fingers in the dike, and now see the flood sweeping o'er all as they stand helpless.

What David says is absolutely true. I worked as a copy person at the Baltimore Evening Sun in the summer of 1974, when the hot-type era was still going full swing. As such, I delivered copy to and from the copy desk and sent it to the composing room in pneumatic tubes. I also worked a stint in the composing room, catching the edited copy to go to the printers and sending galley proofs back up. I routinely noticed major errors, and assumed at first, that they would be caught. They usually weren't. I saw the same hed busts, incomplete captions, jumbled weather boxes, and other gaffes in the papers after they were printed. I tried to take the initiative and point out some of the bigger errors to copy editors who looked sympathetic, but mostly they just thanked me and shrugged off my "help." It's not that they were incompetent; there were too few copy editors and it was probably too late in the production process to make changes.
I've been a newspaper desk editor for 29 years. Believe me, I've seen many heart-stopping "oh-my-Gods" in that time, but nothing like the rampant sloppiness of the hot-type days.


Obviously, some people realize Web writing is writing, and good writing is good writing.

"6. Simplified Text
You can usually double website or intranet usability simply by rewriting the text to follow the guidelines for online content. Better writing is probably the single most important improvement you can make to your site, but it appears fairly far down the top-10 list because it's not a one-time fix. You must hire good writers for all your projects, train them in writing for the Web, and have all of their content edited by even better editors who are even more knowledgeable about content usability.

Expensive though they may be, editors are always worth the cost. "

Geroge says:

"It's not that they were incompetent; there were too few copy editors and it was probably too late in the production process to make changes."

You can't wrap fish in a blog.

Newspapers were disposable. Blogs hang around.

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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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