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May 31, 2010

You were badly advised

The Internet brims with advice for writers, much of it useful and all of it well-intended. But when I see some of the maxims broadcast on Twitter, I suspect that reducing the principles to 140 characters can be counterproductive.

The other day Jon Winokur,* tweeting as @AdviceToWriters, quoted George Orwell: “Never use the passive where you can use the active.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. I understand quite well that in bureaucratic writing the passive voice is an instrument for the weasely evasion of responsibility. But there are times — when the actor performing the action is not known, or when the action is more important than the actor — that the passive voice is not only acceptable but preferable. (Note the headline for this post.)

The Strunk and White mantra “omit needless words” also turns up regularly. Yes, if I am trying to cook a brisket, I probably do not need an explanation of the regulations for kosher slaughter or the writer’s reminiscence of how her grandmother cooked one. Economy of words for the purpose is a good thing.

But first you have to judge what the purpose is. I suppose you could machine Sir Thomas Browne down to resemble Francis Bacon, but the woolly discursiveness of Hydriotaphia or Urne Buriall is where the charm lies. Who would wish to turn Tom Wolfe (or Thomas Wolfe, for that matter) into Ernest Hemingway? Well, maybe you would, but that just points to how wide variances of individual tastes can be.

Writing is just not easy — “the lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne” — and one-size-fits-all advice can inhibit the formation of sound judgment rather than foster it.

Last week, responding to my post on bullying teachers who enforce idiotic rules, Carol Fisher Saller posted a more nuanced response at her excellent blog, The Subversive Copy Editor: “Rules are the floats young learners cling to while learning to swim. Mind, I won’t excuse a high-school or college teacher-bully who demands that paragraphs consist of exactly five sentences or who ban the use of the word “thing.” The best teachers will figure out how to model flexibility as opposed to laying down the law. But if reducing English grammar and writing to a teachable science results in some overstated rules now and then, maybe we can consider it a valid—and temporary—stage of learning.”

That is true. Some simplification early on will keep the student from sinking in bewilderment. Otherwise, they have to deal with, for example, what I tell my editing students at Loyola about the Associated Press Stylebook: The numbers one through nine are always written as words rather than numerals, except when they’re not.”

But mind the gap, as they say on the London Underground. Between the simplified introductory rules or one-sentence maxims and some level of mastery of the craft yawns a wide divide. That is the space in which judgment has to develop, judgment about what the purpose is, who the reader is, how much discursivenes or economy will suit both the purpose and the reader. Be careful about whatever is stitched on that sampler above your desk (ooh, passive voice again); it may not be as helpful as you think.

*Not, please, to be taken as a swipe at Mr. Winokur, an estimable gentleman and reader of this blog. He merely supplied me with an opening.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (8)

May 30, 2010

Sometimes on Sunday

It’s Sunday and hot, and I’m tired from a week’s work (lazy, too), and besides, it’s a holiday weekend, what do you want from me? Here are some short takes.


Brian Throckmorton, an extremely capable journalist unceremoniously dropped as an assistant managing editor last year by the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky, announces on Facebook that he has been engaged as features slot editor by the Courier-Journal in Louisville.

This is an arrangement by which he and the Courier-Journal will both benefit.

Memorial Day

The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan has reached 1,000. Those are losses of a magnitude hard to grasp. Today’s Baltimore Sun has a front-page story on the ten Marylanders who have died in Afghanistan during the past year. You can look at their faces and ponder what they were willing to risk and give up for their country.

You can also read in the Los Angeles Times Tim Rutten’s eloquent essay on the significance of this particular Memorial Day.

Oh no, not the Beeb

Language Log invites you to speculate on the meaning of this classic crash blossom headline from the BBC:

Missing women police find remains

Hint: The meaning involves a nominal compound.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:24 PM | | Comments (2)

May 28, 2010

Judging but not judgmental

In the interview broadcast on WYPR this morning, Maryland Morning’s Sheilah Kast asked me a very good question about my dismissal of language peeving: Isn’t it important to take language seriously and make judgments? I fumbled for an answer* and have been thinking about the point ever since.

Of course we must make judgments in writing. We have to determine what is appropriate for the subject, the publication, and the audience. We decide what degree of formality or informality is appropriate, what level of diction is apt. We choose between long sentences and short, between Latinate periodic sentences and looser branching sentences. Syntax and vocabulary are our tools, and we make constant and subtle judgments about how to apply them to the job.

The judgments of peevers, however, are of a different class, because, rather than determine what is appropriate in context, of even distinguish between what is important and what is not, they universalize personal preferences.

As I said to Ms. Kast, we all make judgments about the way people write and talk, just as we make judgments about the way they dress. Those judgments reflect our personal likes and dislikes. He’s wearing brown shoes with a blue suit. I wouldn’t have done that. She says “like” as a place-filler in speech once every half a dozen words. Uh-uh, I’m not going to do that. Nobody is going to get me out in public wearing plaid pants or a baseball cap turned backwards (except maybe to win a bet). Nobody is going to hear me say nuculur.

We all make these internal observations and judgments, which are, in addition to being inevitable, largely harmless. What peevers do that looks illegitimate to me is to mistake personal tastes (some of them rising from unsound views about the language) for moral superiority: “I do not use the apostrophe to make common nouns plural, so I am well-educated and you are a moron. I do not say ekscape, and because you do, you are a barbarian.”

What is at the root of this is not moral superiority but status-conscious snobbery. “My mastery of these shibboleths of language usage marks me as a member of an embattled literate minority, a defender of civilization. You failure to meet my standards marks you as a member of the unlettered class, the mob, the rabble, the canaille. (Yes, I know French, too.)”

But I had my fill of pretense, both observing it and expressing it, during my years as a graduate student in English. Now, because I have real work to do as an editor, and a full plate of it, I don’t burden myself with regulating the way other people talk or write, unless they engage me professionally.

Peeving is a waste of time. And unless someone has issued you a badge or empowered you to make citizen’s arrests, you would do well to let it alone.

*God above, how can you people stand to listen to me?

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:42 AM | | Comments (8)

May 27, 2010

Turn your radio on

I was invited to WYPR this morning for another chat with Sheilah Kast, which you will be able to hear tomorrow on Maryland Morning (88.1 FM, beginning at 9:00 a.m. EDT). You should also be able to find the interview at the Maryland Morning blog by the end of the day.

I didn’t go into much detail with Ms. Kast my first couple of weeks back at The Sun, which have done much to foster humility.

In the early Middle Ages the Danes harassed the English and pillaged their towns. In the modern era they accomplish the same result by exporting newspaper production software. Attempting to master the CCI NewsGate programming recently installed at The Sun has left me feeling a perfect prat. I have bungled a number of elementary tasks, have had to have common procedures explained to me repeatedly, and have very nearly gotten disastrously wrong information into print.*

If you are interested in learning humility, I recommend editing. It is, first of all, largely anonymous. (Quick, name the five most famous editors in history. Uh-huh, I thought so.) Second, though you may feel some temporary glow of superiority over identifying other people’s mistakes (there’s no a in misled if you mean the past tense), your own errors will be thrown into high relief. Third, when you wind up with people half your age patiently explaining things to you ...

In other matters:

New media, old technique: Andy Bechtel at The Editor’s Desk displays a particularly ripe example of the Huffington Post’s tendency to resort to cliche and overstatement in headlines.

Perspective: Despite all the hoo-hah in the news media about the exciting conclusion to Lost, the final episode ranked fifty-fifth in ratings of series finales, trailing Mr. Belvedere.

Oh, oh, oh, the OED: There is now a website on which you can have free access to considerable content from the Oxford English Dictionary. Dictionaries would be the better word, since you can choose either American or British versions. There is a premium service with additional features to which you can subscribe. It’s worth a look.**

Decoration Day: Christopher Corbett in a characteristically elegant little essay reminds us what the holiday this coming weekend was originally intended to be and encourages us to think about how we talk about war.

*Because nearly everyone else in the newsroom is struggling in similar fashion to comprehend NewsGate’s non-intuitive functions, I’ve been readily forgiven.

**Ben Zimmer, writing to point out a broken link, also clarifies that this site gives access to the modern British and American editions of the OED, not the complete historical dictionary, which is available through a separate subscription.

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

May 26, 2010

You have the right to remain silent

Years and years ago, at a paper far, far away, a series labeled “The Killer’s Trail” presented the details of homicides committed by one of our early serial killers. The main difficulty the copy desk had with the stories was that the perpetrator had not actually been convicted of any of the homicides — in fact, had not even been charged with some of them at the time of publication.

Some of these rumblings reached the editor’s ear, and he responded to the concerns by posting a memo to the staff saying that the man named in the stories “is so deep in trouble he’ll never have time to sue us.” Would God that I had preserved a copy of that collector’s item, if only to watch a lawyer go pale and hyperventilate.

The ethics of the craft demand that you take the presumption of innocence seriously. Unless you have Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald on live television, you do not know for a fact that that person committed that criminal act. So you keep the name of the person accused of the crime separate from the account of the criminal act. That is, you write about the circumstances of the robbery or the homicide or whatever, but you introduce the name of the suspect only in the sentence that says that the suspect has been charged with the crime.

With a little practice, this can be accomplished without looking awkward, and the Constitution is respected. I realize that this can look a little fussy in an age in which you can apparently publish anything about anyone on the Internet, fact, rumor, or unfounded supposition, without fear of legal repercussions or, for that matter, shame. But the day will surely come when it will be helpful to have a few shreds of ethics to wrap around yourself.

More on the language of crime reporting:

Suspect sentences: You will often see news accounts of crimes that say something like “the suspect fled” before anyone has been identified. No, the robber fled, or the shooter fled, but you do not have a suspect until an identified person has come under suspicion.

I’m not fond of the popularity of person of interest as a euphemism for Person the Police Think Is a Suspect But Have Not Yet Identified As Such, because it paints the person as a suspect in the public mind, but I see the utility of it. At that, it’s a little more direct than the British euphemism for the same context, helping the police with their inquiries.

Murder will out: Though murder in common speech is an equivalent of killing or homicide, it also has a specific legal meaning, the intentional taking of a life. A homicide can be a murder or a manslaughter. So journalists who observe the niceties do not use the word murder until someone has been convicted of that charge.

Omit needless word: The Sun’s veteran crime reporter, Peter Hermann, wonders why people write about “convicted felons.” No one becomes a felon until being convicted of a felony.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (16)

May 24, 2010

Deeply, deeply shallow

Every time a president sends the name of a nominee to the Supreme Court up the Hill to the Senate, we can be confident that Our Nation’s Journalism will reduce the matter to some trivial cliche.

Robert Bork was the old-school Martini Drinker. David Souter was the Yankee Bachelor. I suppose it is inevitable that we wind up with this sort of trifling to “humanize” the nominees—particularly now that they all keep their mouths shut ever since Judge Bork was injudicious enough to express what he actually thinks about the Law.

Recently we have been treated to uninformed speculation that Solicitor General Elena Kagan might like girls better than boys. Frankly, I’d just as soon not have to visualize what anyone on the Supreme Court is like in the sack. Please stop.

But over the weekend The Washington Post sounded new depths of shallowness in an article by Style columnist Robin Givhan saying that Ms. Kagan doesn’t sit like a girl: “She sat with her legs ajar.” Expanding on this observation: “In the photographs of Kagan sitting and chatting in various Capitol Hill offices, she doesn't appear to ever cross her legs. Her posture stands out because for so many women, when they sit, they cross.”

I am not making this up.

Today the Columbia Journalism Review posts photographs of Ms. Kagan with her legs crossed in quite the conventional manner. Hard to imagine that CJR has better access to photo archives than The Post.

At this point I confess to a failure of imagination. I cannot come up with a sillier way to write about a Supreme Court nominee, and a shiver passes up and down my spine as I reflect that daily newspaper journalism has carried us to a point beyond the reach of satire.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:48 PM | | Comments (11)

May 23, 2010

The room where everyone goes

It is sometimes referred to as “the smallest room of the house,” though that description may no longer apply. One can see in the glossy magazines photographs of bathrooms done up on a scale and to a degree that Caracalla might have found a bit showy.

Despite a universal familiarity with the place, we somehow lack a fully satisfactory term for daily use.

We call it the bathroom, though we are not necessarily headed there to bathe. Moreover, many of those rooms lack tubs and showers. Restroom can’t be right. No one rests there, except perhaps the women for whom couches are provided as they endure Aunt Flo’s monthly visits. Besides, whenever I hear restroom, I have an unavoidable association with one of Bill Dana’s irritating Jose Jimenez routines in which he confuses restroom with rostrum. We are blessedly out of the 1950s, so perhaps powder room will fade away as well.

Toilet originally identified a cloth used as a wrapper for clothes (toilette), then the cloth covering a dressing table, then the articles used in dressing, then the actions of washing and dressing, and now the bowl for depositing waste or the room in which the plumbing fixture is located. The word’s elegance has vanished.

The john, for reasons I shan’t belabor, is beneath consideration. I usually mention going to the gents’, and the ladies’ is equally serviceable, but we have progressed into an age of unisex facilities. I like loo — monosyllable, neutral, free from unfortunate associations — but it’s British, as are water closet and W.C. Lavatory sounds prissy. Latrine is military. Head is nautical. Potty is childish.

Coy euphemisms — little boys’ room, little girls’ room, throne — will not do for adults. (I recall from childhood that on my mother’s side of the family the chamber pot or slop jar was sometimes jocularly referred to as the thunder mug.)

I suppose that falling back on loo would be the least objectionable choice. I wish that this post could offer you a more satisfactory resolution of the matter, but I have to go see a man about a dog.

Posted by John McIntyre at 2:03 PM | | Comments (28)

May 22, 2010

Give me liberty or -- oh, never mind

I have considerable respect for Ron Paul and Rand Paul, the latter now the Republican candidate for the United States Senate from my native state, as gentlemen of principle. But I think that Paul fils is beginning to discover that the public prefers its libertarianism, like its whiskey, with a little water.

Or, to switch metaphors, I suspect that many people will come through the door for the low taxes but decide not to stay for the dance. Libertarianism in its purest form — and it yearns for purity — is uncompromising about personal responsibility in a way that would make many citizens of the Republic nervous.

One of the purest expressions I know can be found in H.L. Mencken’s famous essay “Chiropractic.”* Though he considered it bogus science, his defense of the right to seek it is pure libertarianism: “I believe that every free-born man has a clear right, when he is ill, to seek any sort of treatment that he yearns for. ...To preach any contrary doctrine is to advocate despotism and slavery.”

Warming to the work, he remarks on the social utility of quackeries, which “suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal”:

If a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumigated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits willingly to a treatment that involves balancing him on McBurney’s spot and playing on his vertebrae as on a concertina, then I am willing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven. And if that same man, having achieved lawfully a lovely babe, hires a blacksmith to cure its diphtheria by pulling its neck, then I do not resist the divine will that there shall be one less radio fan in 1967. **

There, in Mencken’s characteristic hyperbole, is the core of you-pays-your-money-and-takes-your-chances, choices-have-consequences libertarianism. You want limited, constitutional government? Follow that line to its consequences.

Social Security? Medicare? People used to save money to provide for themselves when they were no longer able to work, or they were cared for by their families in their decrepitude.

Where does the Constitution give the federal government the power to send inspectors into meat-packing plants? It’s a free market. Let the buyer beware. The same with regulators swarming over investment banks. You want to invest in the stock market? Take the risk. Let the buyer beware.

Why do we have military garrisons in Western Europe and Asia? The Framers thought that a standing army was a potential instrument of tyranny, and they took pains during the early years of the Republic to make the military minimal.

Tax breaks and subsidies for corporations and other businesses? Let them stand or fall on their own in a free market. You get a tax deduction for the interest on your home mortgage? Why should you expect the federal government to subsidize you?

Not that I am suggesting that the Pauls, elder and younger, advocate any of these positions, and no doubt some fellow of the Cato Institute could explain to me why I’ve got it all wrong. I’m just sayin’ that though individual liberty and freedom from the trammels of governmental statute and regulation are attractive, my fellow citizens, eager as they are to receive governmental services though disinclined to pay for them, are apt to balk once they see where libertarianism is likely to lead.

*Please, before you start writing letters, I am not endorsing Mencken’s view that chiropractic is quackery — a local chiropractor and I were devoted patrons of the public library in Fleming County, Kentucky, years ago and had many engaging talks about books. I’m just using a portion of the essay to illustrate something about libertarianism.

**Cf. Jenny McCarthy on vaccination.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (2)

May 21, 2010

The importance of leafiness

She is just a couple months away from opening a safe house with beds and rooms, on a leafy green street in an undisclosed Northern Virginia suburb. … (The Washington Post)

The one-story stucco home where Gilberto Jordán lives west of this south Palm Beach County community does not stand out in the leafy neighborhood near Interstate 95. (Miami Herald)

A six-foot stuffed grizzly bear guards the entrance to the offices of Fleckenstein Capital Inc., located on a quiet, leafy street in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle. (

Trucks Stray, and a Leafy Neighborhood Turns Livid (New York Times headline)

Al-Rabat expects the Al-Nawfara, on a leafy street behind the mosque, to survive the indoor smoking ban because it has tables spilling into the street, where smoking is still legal. (USA Today)

But in the last few months, the 76-year-old has been too afraid to leave her home in this place people call Heidi’s Crossing, a leafy neighborhood with tidy mobile homes. (Houston Chronicle)

Cohen sought out Wright in 1953 as members of his North Philadelphia congregation increasingly joined the white exodus from the city and began settling around the leafy suburb of Elkins Park. (Seattle Times)

"We had to go through a lot, putting it in front of the board. And it's never going to be a big moneymaking thing," Stark says at his factory on a leafy street in Hollywood, where craftsmen make wax molds for jewelry. (Los Angeles Times)

Reminder to writers: The next time you are tempted to resort to leafy to characterize an area, do a quick Google search to remind yourself that the word is also a dominant cliche in real estate advertisements.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:18 PM | | Comments (8)

The Fridge of San Luis Rey*

I’ve suggested a competition to Laura Vozella, the locum tenens at Dining@Large. The challenge:

Come up with a food-related book title that includes a literary allusion and write a one-sentence jacket description of it. Here is a sample:

"With Roux My Heart Is Laden"

In a moving memoir, prize-winning Cajun chef Jean-Claude Beausoleil describes his quintuple cardiac bypass surgery and the rigorous vegan diet he adopted in recovery.

And I’ve offered to treat the winner, if local, to a martini.

Entries are coming in, so don’t miss out on your chance to compete. Please submit your entries there, not here.

And a note of thanks to my readers: This is the twelfth post on this blog since its return to last week. I am deeply grateful to those of you who took the trouble to follow me here from the previous site.

*Thornton Wilder’s novel of comic intrigue in the rectory of a Roman Catholic school for boys where Father MacGillicuddy lays one elaborate but unsuccessful trap after another to discover who is stealing the leftover pizza in the night.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (7)

May 20, 2010

You've got to be carefully taught

Some people go into teaching because they genuinely like children. And some, I think, become teachers because they like to push people around and children are easy.

Combine the bully with the peever, and you wind up with a pathological case like the one described by Stan Carey in his excellent blog Sentence First: the Irish teacher in the 1950s who scissored out errors from student papers and required the students to take a shovel and bury them out behind a shed.

Though this is an extreme example, I suspect that there are many pedagogical malpractices connected with writing and English usage. There is, for example, the model requiring that students write paragraphs of five sentences each. There is the anecdote in Eudora Welty’s memoirs about the teacher who stood at the door to the restroom and refused to let the girls out until the miscreant she had overheard say “might could” confessed.

Surely some of you good people could recount similar examples. I don’t mean the routine superstitions about not splitting infinitives and not putting prepositions at the end of sentences — there appears to be no end to that nonsense — or the misplaced reverence for Strunk and White “rules.” I mean outrageously bogus practices and disproportionate punishments. If you feel like sharing, please deposit your accounts of outrages below.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (15)

May 19, 2010

Where I live

If you ask, I will tell you that I live in Hamilton, and most Baltimoreans will understand that I mean an ill-defined area in the northeast quadrant of the city along Harford Road. North of Lauraville, which has more cachet.*

But the official map of neighborhoods produced by the city’s Department of Planning does not list any place called “Hamilton.” It says that I live in something called “Harford-Echodale-Perring Parkway.” (It lists names for a number of other neighborhoods that I suspect would come as a surprise to the people who live there.) And so The Sun, in its reverence for official documents, however meaningless, has referred to “Harford-Echodale-Perring Parkway” for years.

That should be over, because “Harford-Echodale-Perring Parkway” is now officially — you hear that, officially — “Hamilton Hills.” There is an actual sign proclaiming that identity at the intersection of Perring Parkway and Woodbourne, the dedication of which was graced some weeks back by the august presence of the Hon. Robert W. Curran of the City Council. So there.

Now if I can just get anyone at The Sun to read this.

Of course, Hamilton Hills is merely where my physical presence can be found. In the blogosphere, I have many neighbors who share an interest in language and editing and other obscure matters. I should mention a couple of new ones.

Jed Waverly of Providence, Rhode Island, is author of The Penultimate Word. He writes reflectively in retirement, for his own amusement, and I think you will find his blog worth a look.

Carol Fisher Saller, author of The Subversive Copy Editor, a book that you ought to own if you have any pretension to being a serious editor, has set up a blog by the same name. She also writes the monthly question-and-answer feature for The Chicago Manual of Style. Ms. Saller is the editor that everyone deserves to have: graceful, informed, sensible, practical, and wry.

Nice to have them in the neighborhood.

*Cachet, “ka-SHAY,” from the French, meaning prestige. Not cache, pronounced “cash,” meaning to store something safely or the goods and provisions so stored. If I see you using cache for cachet ONE MORE TIME, there are going to be some serious consequences. Do you hear me? Don’t make me come back there.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:17 AM | | Comments (10)

May 18, 2010

Topping up

Last month I confessed to an affection for evocative words from British English, mostly encountered in my reading of murder mysteries.

To my whingeing (whining, but more annoying), snogging (making out), topping up (refilling, as of a drink), gormless (stupid, clueless), and dodgy (unsound, unreliable, suspect), readers of the post added gobsmacked (astounded), chuffed (well pleased), and a series of frankly vulgar terms. Good show.

Since then I have recalled juddering (shaking and vibrating rapidly), mizzle (light rain or drizzle, also a verb), knackered (exhausted), tickety-boo (this one’s from P.G. Wodehouse, for going smoothly), and, a favorite, stroppy (easily annoyed, ill-tempered, belligerent). Several of these turn out to be included in the New Oxford American Dictionary, which is more ecumenical than one might have expected.

And, since English has much wider scope than the United Kingdom and the United States, I’ll put in a word for the Australian fair dinkum, of obscure origin, meaning authentic or genuine.

If you have an interest in the separated-by-a-common-language phenomenon, you should check out the blog of that name maintained by Lynne Murphy, who is also on Twitter as @lynneguist. You know, egg salad in the U.S., egg mayonnaise in the U.K.; call someone on the telephone in the U.S., ring someone in the U.K.; American carryout and British takeaway; that sort of thing.

In good conscience, I should warn you that, unless you are, say, an American Episcopal clergyman trying to lay on the posh for the Anglophile parishioners, or in the secure company of fellow Are You Being Served? rerun addicts, you will want to exercise careful judgment about incorporating such vocabulary into your daily speech. You wouldn’t want to be thought toffee-nosed.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 AM | | Comments (17)

May 17, 2010

Many happy returns, Baltimore Sun

In the spring of 1837, the elderly William IV was in failing health, about to be succeeded by the eighteen-year-old Victoria. The United States was undergoing one of its periodic financial crises, with the Panic of 1837, which began on May 10, touching off a five-year depression. And a week after the panic began, on May 17, a young printer named A.S. Abell and his partners established a newspaper in Baltimore, The Sun.*

Sumner Redstone, the eighty-six-year-old chairman of Viacom, predicted recently that there “won’t be any newspapers in two years,” to which someone tartly predicted that newspapers are still likely to be around longer than Sumner Redstone.

I’m no haruspex,** so you won’t get predictions about the future of newspapers and journalism from this quarter. That The Baltimore Sun has been a going concern for 173 years is no guarantee of its continuance. Nostalgia is not a business model. That the company now calling itself the Baltimore Sun Media Group actively pursues journalism and revenue electronically as well as in print does not guarantee continued success. No one appears to have figured out how to do that.

What I do know — and this has been amply confirmed in the two weeks since my return to Calvert Street — is that my colleagues are working as hard as they know how to gather and present accurate information to you in both print and electronic forms. After the painful contraction of the past couple of years, The Sun has cautiously expanded, adding sections on business, art, and entertainment. Presumably there will be additional efforts at expansion if revenues continue to improve. We want to do more, and do it better.

So we’re not dead yet. Far from it. Those of you who would pronounce mournful eulogies over The Sun (as well as those who would gladly dance a jig on its grave) can put away the black crape. Today is a birthday, not a funeral.

*The depression of the late 1830s was hardly the only rough patch the paper has negotiated. During the Civil War Mr. Abell had to be circumspect in what he published, lest the Federal authorities chuck him into the penitentiary along with other Marylanders thought to be overly sympathetic to secession.

**All right, all right. Haruspication is the practice of divination by inspecting the entrails of animals; the haruspex was the Roman soothsayer who presided at this ritual.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (12)

May 16, 2010

Back to those leafy suburbs

An exchange on Facebook started by Pamela Blackburn Nelson, who operates the Triangle Grammar Guide blog for the News & Observer in Raleigh:

Pamela Blackburn Nelson thinks that she may live in a leafy suburb.

Eileen Heyes Is it a close-knit community?

Pamela Blackburn Nelsson it's certainly not an affluent enclave.

Eileen Heyes Does it have small houses with neatly kept yards?

Pamela Blackburn Nelson Yes, but no manicured lawns.

Eileen Heyes Wow. I'm out of cliches! Must be all these months of not copy editing.

Right, if it were an affluent enclave, there would be stately homes along the tree-lined streets. Instead, there are soccer moms driving their children to largely all-white schools and team sports in SUVs. The families, fleeing the crime-ridden streets of the inner city, moved there for the open spaces. But even some of those modest homes may be underwater — not from flooding, but from plummeting real estate values in a distressed economy, especially when the breadwinner is vulnerable to a reduction in force from his downsizing corporation.

Why pay for a newspaper when you could so easily just write this stuff yourself?

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:04 PM | | Comments (7)

Nietzsche is pietzsche

Having overslept this morning and missed Divine Service — a ten-hour work day yesterday preceded by two twelve-hour days is a little more than I have been used to lately — I am on my own for theological reflection.

Fortunately, I stumbled upon the Nietzsche Family Circus site yesterday, on which panels of the sappy cartoon are paired with random quotations from the works of Nietzsche. Mind you, I don’t dispute anyone’s right to the treacly sentimentalized Christianity the comic celebrates. If Buddhism can accommodate the austerities of Theravada and the anything-goes practices of Mahayana, Christians shouldn’t feel limited.

But Family Circus is just odd. That vision of the grandparents as ghostly outlines staring down from the ramparts of Heaven evokes the strange vision of St. John the Divine less than that of Homer or Vergil, whose dead are pale bloodless shades gazing up wistfully at mortal life from Hades. Creepy.

The comics, Family Circus aside, are part of my daily routine (almost said “devotionals”) and have been since I was introduced to them in my grandparents’ subscription to the Lexington Herald-Leader.* Maggie and Jiggs, the Katzenjammer kids, and the others are long gone, and Little Orphan Annie has just succumbed at the age of eighty-five. But a day without Dilbert, Get Fuzzy, and Zits would seem barren. Dilbert in particular is a useful corrective whenever people start to yammer about how much more efficient private industry is than government. Uh-huh.

Coffee, news, comics. That’s the ritual to give strength to face the day.

And today is Sunday, one of the days the Lord made. I did the laundry yesterday, and the grass isn’t long enough yet to cut, so let’s have another cup of coffee.
Alice is coming over to join us for dinner this evening, so I will make spaghetti sauce this afternoon, and I’ll have an actual meal, with plates, on a table, instead of a sandwich at a desk. And wine.

The latest quotation on Nietzsche Family Circus is “Shared joys make a friend, not shared sufferings.” With all respects to Bill Keane, I’ll go with that.

*I heard that it set some Herald-Leader people’s teeth on edge when I recollected that at the ACES conference in Louisville — “Yeah, he read the Courier-Journal for the news and us for the comics.” But two things should be kept in mind. The first is that my intention was merely to indicate that I got the newspaper habit very early on, when I first began to read. The second is that I was talking about the Herald-Leader when it was really a dreadful little paper, before Knight-Ridder bought it and made it respectable.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:41 AM | | Comments (9)

May 14, 2010

The videos

All right, all right, stop clamoring for videos. For technical reasons, the videos previously produced for this site are not currently available. Six of them were preserved at the other You Don’t Say site, for which links can be found below. I hope that they will appease your hunger until I can get around to making more.

The bow tie video

The martini video

The pronunciation video

The second pronunciation video

The judging-a-book-by-its-cover video

The copy-editor’s temperament video

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:57 PM | | Comments (7)


You have been on formula long enough. It’s time to make the transition to solid food.

By formula I mean the stock phrases and predictable constructions that make journalism so easy to put together quickly, and so boring to readers.

 Take, for example, the not alone construction, which I saw in The Sun this very morning. Whenever you write about a particular person’s situation and attempt a transition to the body of the story by saying that that person is not alone, TAKE YOUR HANDS OFF THE KEYBOARD and think. Would it make any difference at all to the story, to the reader, or to you if you omitted that sentence? Of course not. Strike it out, and never resort to that construction again.*

If you are the editor of that story, remember that management gave you a computer with a delete key.

A colleague laments the prevalence of police report jargon in the paper and online, giving these examples:

Failed to negotiate a curve: 78 times in our library system (thankfully, last time was Oct. 2009)

Wooded area: 1,685 times in our library system

High rate of speed: 179 times in our library system

 He also disparages the construction intersection of instead of saying simply, for example, at Calvert and Centre streets.

Wooded area brings to mind the leafy streets where the well-off live, the gritty streets where the not-well-off live, the hardscrabble areas where the rural poor live, the stately homes where the really well-off do not live so much as reside. Most ominous is inner city, a term translated in the minds of middle-class white readers** as meaning inside the city limits where only poor black people given to drugs and crime live.

No single post can hope to deal exhaustively with this reliance on prefabricated language, so you can expect regular updates as further examples come up.

In the meantime, you — you, the writer — wonder what you are supposed to do if I am denying you all these resources. I suggest that you attempt something more ambitious than merely repeating what has been written before. You, after all, are the creative one, the one with Imagination. I’m just a humble drudge of an editor, sitting off in the corner and fiddling with the punctuation. Show me what you can do when you put your mind to it.


*A remark well worth repeating: A writer once objected to my having deleted a not alone sentence from her story, saying, “When I use it, it’s not a cliche.” L’eclat, c’est moi.

**The same people the local television stations like to throw a scare into by filling up the intervals between inane chatter with easily harvested police reports.




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 AM | | Comments (4)

May 13, 2010

Your happy place: Get in on it

A signature event of the “Find Your Happy Place in Baltimore” campaign is the attempt to “set a Guinness World Record by gathering more than 250 members in orange and black ponchos outside the Maryland Science Center in an attempt to create the world's largest human smiley face.”

[A brief pause to permit you to shudder.]

For my part, I would not have picked as a slogan the cant phrase “find your happy place,” already so worn that it is now heard largely in ironic or event sarcastic inflections. And so, it follows that I would not have pocketed half a million dollars for dreaming it up and staging this inane stunt. I wasn’t even aware that the excitement of “Baltimore: Get in on it!” had subsided. That one also, I think, fetched half a million. I went into the wrong trade.

It seems likelier that David Simon’s Homicide and Wire may have embedded in the public mind a more enduring image of the city than any series of advertising agencies’ campaigns can supplant. And it is troubling to imagine, because it raises all manner of unpleasant class issues, what people are going to be lured to the city by the “Happy Place” campaign. (Not that we will be shy about taking their money)

But I take to heart the advice of the ever-revered Warren Gamaliel Harding, “Don’t knock, boost!”

 I am a Baltimorean by choice, not by accident of birth. That choice came about in part because at age eighteen I read H.L. Mencken’s various writings about his beloved city and was intrigued by his claim that Baltimore was a place where a civilized man can live more comfortably than nearly anywhere else.

It still is. I live in a modest house in a neighborhood that has had only one homicide in the past twenty-two years. I’ve eaten Big Bad Wolf’s excellent barbecue and quaffed pints at the Hamilton Tavern. I’ve acted in a musical on a stage constructed in an Episcopal church. My son and I have bought produce at the Waverly farmers’ market. My wife and I have watched War of 1812 re-enactors fire their muskets as the breeze came off the harbor at Fort McHenry on Defenders’ Day. We were a founding family in the cooperative that has grown into the GreenMount School. I borrow books from the Pratt Library and have bought books from the Kelmscott and Ivy bookstores. I’ve dined at the Prime Rib and Dogwood and Woodberry Kitchen. Kathleen and I have attended symphony concerts and plays, gone to films at the Senator, drunk coffee at Donna’s, and strolled through Mount Vernon and Federal Hill and Fells Point. I work for a serious newspaper.*

Yes, it has been a happy place, despite the crime and poverty that nobody needs to gloss over and personal vicissitudes. I expect it to continue to be a happy place beyond the span of any sappy tourism campaign. You could do worse than to get in on it.


*Before you start to complain about The Sun’s currently diminished condition, let me offer some perspective. I learned from the history of the paper’s first hundred and fifty years by the late Harold Williams that Baltimoreans in the 1880s were describing The Sun as “a once-great newspaper.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:58 AM | | Comments (11)

May 12, 2010

Crime and pun-ishment

Dutiful editor and Sun employee that I am, I read the whole paper every day. Yesterday morning I opened up the sports section to discover this headline:

Goucher no longer a place to Gopher an easy win

Why Goucher College should have chosen a specimen of Rodentia for its mascot is beyond the scope of my imaginings, but punning in headlines — Gopher/go for, got it? HI-larious — draws my attention immediately.

I have been railing against cheap, obvious puns in headlines for years, trampling out the grapes of wrath for any copy editor using “purr-fect” in a headline about cats, or the feeble example of the godawful headline I’ve put on this post. Puns on names have always been particularly odious. (My middle name is Early, my mother’s maiden name, and perhaps years of playground wit have conditioned this reaction.)

But before I drop something heavy from a great height on the hapless wretch responsible for the Gopher headline, I pause to reconsider. I have been assured after indulging in these harangues in the past that no, these plays on people’s and teams’ names constitute the particular charm of sports sections, that readers relish them.

So I put it to you: Am I misguided? Tone deaf to the distinctive sensibility of the sports page? Wrong to bristle at the innocent playfulness of the Gopher headline and others like it? Should I lighten up? What say you?

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:20 AM | | Comments (19)

May 11, 2010

Did you miss me?

Fortune’s wheel takes another spin and after twelve months of — let’s call it a sabbatical — brings me back to, where I started this blog on December 20, 2005.*

The 404 posts written over the past year on Blogspot, at, will continue to be available to you, but from today forward, You Don’t Say will be appearing at this address.

I am grateful to Monty Cook, the former editor of The Sun, for inviting me to return; to Tim Ryan, the publisher, for granting his assent; and to Mary Corey and Trif Alatzas, for their encouragement in my continued blogging.

If you used to read this blog here, or at Blogspot, or are just discovering it, welcome. Take a seat — no, not that one, the one by the lamp is more comfortable, the cat will make room for you — and let me fetch you a cup of tea or a wee dram. It’s good to see you again. We’re going to be talking to each other here for a while to come.

*The first post was on the reign/rein confusion, which appears to be just as widespread as it was five years ago. Do try to keep up.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (25)
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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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