« May 2010 | Main | July 2010 »

June 30, 2010

You love us, you hate us, we're fine with that

A little while back, when The Sun introduced three new sections, my young colleague Julie Scharper was taken aback by a blast of snarky comments on the Internet. So I am going to undertake explaining why hating the paper amounts to a cottage industry in Baltimore.

 Before her time at the paper — before mine, as well — a gentleman named Rudolph Handel complained that The Sun had published inaccurate information about him. He had picketed a store that he said had sold him a defective television. His gripe with the paper was that the article said that the store had given him a new set as a replacement, when he had received a used one.

Being accustomed to picketing, he took up his station at the corner of Calvert and Centre streets, with a sign that read “SUN LIES” on one side and ‘SUN ERRS” on the other. He remained there, off and on, for sixteen years, and only death ended his campaign. If, however, he is now walking those streets of gold between those walls of jasper, he may be proclaiming ‘SUN LIES” “SUN ERRS” to the heavenly host.

 Another example was a local gentleman of some standing who despised The Sun with such a hard, gemlike flame for its liberal editorial stands that at his death his family refused to allow the paper to publish an obituary. No doubt he and Mr. Handel have found much to chat about.

The tradition of hating The Sun is a robust one.

I wasn’t privy to the snark about the new Tuesday business section, so I can only guess at the grounds of objection. No doubt there are still those who find the paper too lefty for their tastes, and I will not shock their systems by describing what a genuinely leftist publication would look like. Some, perhaps, look to the brave new post-print epoch and are irritated that The Sun has not turned its face to the wall and expired.

But my private belief is that sneering at the local fishwrap is an inverted form of municipal pride. No doubt people feel a mild contempt for the local television news operations, but they do not grow apoplectic about them. No, it’s the newspaper that still defines something essential about the local identity. There are those — bless you all — who still read and value the paper. And the haters strike me as being very much like lapsed Catholics, who may vent hostility toward the church but whose identities remain defined by it.

 Love us, if you like; hate us, if you must. We forge on.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:23 PM | | Comments (4)

June 28, 2010

Is homophobia wrong?

A post yesterday on Anglican subjects, “A woman under those robes,” prompted a tart response from Patricia the Terse that, in passing, complained that I had misused the word homophobic.

This puzzled some readers, who wondered what the nature of her objection was. Another commenter suggested that people who dislike the term object to the phobia component because they do not want to be accused of being fearful of gay people.

I hesitate to put words in the Terse One’s mouth, because there is already an adequate stock there, but I suspect that her objection is linguistic. Anyone who thinks that words adopted from another language must remain true to their etymological roots — like those who insist that decimate must always mean reduction by a tenth — might well complain that homophobia from its root words means fear of human beings, of Homo sapiens.

This form of purism is misguided, because words over time develop meanings far removed from their etymology. (See “A nice mess.”) This happens, and resistance is futile. Martin Estinel of the Queen’s English Society, who still objects to gay for homosexual, can fulminate all he wants, but he would do better to recollect the story of Canute and the tide. Homophobia is a well-established word meaning an irrational dislike of gay people.

Whether you think homosexuality is a good thing, a bad thing, or a neutral thing, a natural phenomenon or an unnatural one — there is no uniformity on the subject in science, religion, or law — is a question of personal belief beyond the scope of this blog. But as far as language is concerned, people use homophobia, and what they mean by it is widely understood. Anyone who dislikes the word is not obliged to use it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:49 AM | | Comments (16)

What a father dreams of

My son, J.P., and a former classmate, Micah Gates, embarked some weeks ago on a project of brewing their own beer.

As a father, and householder, I of course had misgivings. We experienced ominous yeasty smells in the basement and paraphernalia took up a good deal of space, but my fears that the bottles* would explode prove unfounded.

Today, after keeping the brew about three weeks in bottle, they uncapped their first India pale ale, and it was good. It was better than good; it was creditable. And I am informed that another few weeks in bottle might make it even better.

Next project: lager.

This summer is turning out better than expected.


*To get bottles, we first had to empty bottles of commercial product, a task in which I performed my part.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:07 AM | | Comments (2)

Sounds like blah, blah, blah

Let’s see if we can guess why so many readers find conventional journalistic writing bloated and dull. Here is a typical lead to a recent news story:

In the wake of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, congressional negotiators completed work Friday on landmark legislation that dramatically expands the government’s oversight of the financial industry.

The first thing that hits the reader squarely in the eyes is in the wake of. What that says is that something other than what I am talking to you about already happened, and I am going to delay telling you what the new thing is. Also, unless you are following a large boat, in the wake of is no more than a hackneyed metaphor.*

Add to that that at least a few of the readers, perhaps those picking up discarded newspapers in public places because they have been out of work for several months, had already heard that we are in the middle of hard times.

But the new thing is landmark legislation, and not only is it a landmark, but it will — surprise, surprise — dramatically do something or other.**

So what we have is a thirty-word opening paragraph padded with superfluous adjectives and throat-clearing that tells us things we already know before it gets around to telling us what the news is. It could have had you in about half the words: Congressional negotiators completed work Friday on legislation that expands government’s oversight of the financial industry.

The original is not inaccurate or ungrammatical or unclear. It is just dull and, well, kind of dumb, and reader-repellant. And it is what about ninety percent of journalism, both print and electronic, amounts to these days. It needs, and doesn’t often get, editing.


*Note to staff: Cross in the wake of off your list of stock expressions.

**Note to staff: Add landmark and dramatically to that list.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:49 AM | | Comments (5)

June 27, 2010

A woman under those robes

Overslept this morning and missed church — the old frame is having a time of it adjusting to the new 3:00-p.m.-1:00-a.m., Tuesday-Saturday work schedule. So today’s post is going to be a rambling ecclesiastical indulgence. If you’re not churchy, please feel free to amuse yourself elsewhere. I recommend Carol Fisher Saller’s sound advice for copy editors or Nancy Friedman’s splendid little rant against the Hanes “lay flat collar tee.”

A week ago I was the thurifer* at the service in which a fellow parishioner, Cristina Paglinauan, was ordained a deacon in the Episcopal Church. I smoked up the joint properly, and it was quite gratifying.

The Rev. Ms. Paglinauan was one of three women so ordained that day, and it is notable that women have joined the ranks of Episcopal clergy in great numbers over the past thirty-five years. I was present at Grace Church, Syracuse, when the Rev. Betty Bone Schiess, one of the eleven women “irregularly” ordained priests in 1974, presided at her first public Eucharist. She was among the first of many to come.

The path has not been easy. The bishop of the Diocese of Central New York briefly inhibited the Rev. Walter Welsh, rector of Grace Church, from functioning as a priest because he had countenanced this “irregular” liturgy. More recently, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefforts Schori, the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (an archbishop in all but name) was instructed by the Archbishop of Canterbury not to wear a miter during a service in London. The subsequent kerfuffle has been called “mitergate.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Dr. Rowan Williams, has a difficult time of it. Not only is Presiding Bishop Schori a woman (more of this later), but her branch of the Anglican Communion has had the temerity not only to ordain and consecrate women as bishops, but openly gay clergy as well. This does not sit well with many in the Church of England, and particularly with the more patriarchal and homophobic members of the Anglican Communion.

Jane Kramer’s New Yorker article “A Canterbury Tale” describes the tensions as the Church of England inches toward women bishops itself. A Tory peer who favors women bishops is quoted as saying, “I thought I’d heard everything until one of the Forward in Faith people ... stood up one day and said, ‘Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes!’ Those people have treated the women in their church terribly.”  

So, you see, the archbishop has to cope with a significant number of priests whose views are deeply held, sincere, and fatuous.

It is painful to see the Anglican Church, which ought to devote at least some of its attention to the poor, the sick, and the powerless — that is, to follow the Founder’s instructions — tying itself in knots over whether women and gay people are fully human beings. But I also think I have seen, over the past thirty-five years, the direction of the arc.


*The thurifer is the person who wields the thurible, or censer. Both words derive from the Latin thuribulum, which in turn comes from the Greek thuos or “sacrifice” and fer, “bearing.” The ceremonial use of incense in the liturgy is one of Christianity’s many borrowings from pagan custom; in Rome incense was carried before civic officials on state occasions. Its function, Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, is “honorific, fumigatory, and festive.” It also smells nice.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (14)

June 23, 2010

Please curb your writers

Some years ago, at a reception for one of The Sun’s grandees on the occasion of his retirement, the honoree reminisced about the good old days at the paper, when the job of a foreign correspondent or Washington correspondent was to file a story, and the job of the layout editors and copy editors was to see that every blessed word made it into print. (He fixed me with a steely glare as he said this.)

Those were the glory days of cheap newsprint, open-handed advertisers, and towering egos. Today, only the egos remain.

But before I hear the dirt thudding on the coffin lid of newspaper journalism, I would like to say something about the benefits of the limitations of print. They could require concision.

There are reporters who will dump everything in their notebooks into a story. There was a reporter long ago whom the copy desk knew as Our Lady of the Clips, because every story she filed ran a minimum of twenty-five column inches, amply padded with previously printed background information. Second day of jury selection in the murder trial? Twenty-five inches.

But it falls to the copy desk to fit the story within the available space. Skillful copy editors can trim a redundant phrase here, supply a shorter word there, pick up a widow, and cut a story by ten percent or more in a way that only a reporter with an eidetic memory would perceive. I have occasionally regretted having to take out material, but, day to day, I have more commonly performed a service to the reader by sparing him wasted time.

Today we have the brave new world of the Internet, celebrated because it permits an expansiveness not curtailed by the availability of space on the printed page. But before you fling your hat into the air and join the tickertape parade, I invite you to examine a specimen one of my readers has forwarded.

It is an article from the Lumina News in Wrightsville Beach, N.C., about an automobile accident in which a young woman, a week before her scheduled appearance in a Miss Hooters beauty pageant, and a friend were struck down and seriously injured by a driver who appears to have been drunk.

It runs to nearly 1,700 words.

Structurally, it is rather like a story told by an old man in a barbershop who keeps losing his thread.

Stylistically, the mode is the High Overwrought:

Their heads hit the windshield, leaving remnants of hair pasted to the glass.

The Honda’s hood was dented, and the windshield was so severely smashed it was nearly impossible to see through. Tidbits of glass lay scattered on the dashboard, underneath a pair of sunglasses dangling from the rearview mirror.

Do savor it while it is still available.

In print journalism, when an editor was unable or unwilling to rein in a writer’s misguided enthusiasms, the limitations of space sometimes supplied a need discipline. Today, without the constraints of space or, increasingly, editing, you may wonder, dear reader, whether anyone is thinking of you.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (12)

June 22, 2010

Language before rules

I have retweeted a comment by Joseph M. Williams that Stan Carey sent out earlier today:

We must reject as folklore any rule … regularly ignored by otherwise careful, educated, and intelligent writers of first-rate prose.

The principle underlying this statement is one that the peevers and purists fail to grasp: Language precedes the rules; the rules follow the language.

The reason that we have English is that generations of illiterate peasants ignored the rules of Anglo-Saxon and promiscuously picked up vocabulary and patterns from Norman French and Latin, mangling all three.

Attempts to legislate or dictate usage may have some spotty successes — there are still people who mistakenly adhere to John Dryden’s dictum, adopted from Latin, forbidding prepositions at the ends of sentences, though many more ignore it; Noah Webster succeeded in changing some spellings in American English, notably removing the u from color, honor, and others, though many of his recommendations did not stick.

But the language goes where the users take it, and the authorities on usage can only follow.

Also on Twitter, @PreciseEdit has advised “Avoid nominalization: Keep verbs as verbs, not as nouns.” This advice should please the people who despise impact as a verb, but it is an oversimplification. The language blog at The Economist has a much more nuanced approach to the verbing of nouns. In fact, the practice of shifting a word from one part of speech to another is so commonplace that it has a name in classical rhetoric, anthimeria. Shakespeare uses it (“I’ll unhair thy head” in Antony and Cleopatra); drink is either a noun or a verb in context.

The language regularly throws up neologisms and vogue usages, most of which flare and go out. They attract the bandwagon people, who chase after novelty, and they repel the cautious. There is nothing inherently wrong about receptivity to novelties, and there is nothing inherently wrong about resistance to novelties until it is clear that they have established themselves.

What is wrong, or at least futile, is to decide in advance what is and is not acceptable, based on some presumed rule or a personal taste. This is why an Academy of English will not work, and you are not even an academy.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:48 PM | | Comments (3)

June 21, 2010

Language sneaks up on you

I refer you to Stan Carey’s excellent post at Sentence first on the word snuck, considered historically and linguistically.

And after you have read what Mr. Carey has to say, here are a couple of my own reflections.

I don’t like snuck myself and do not use it. To my ears it sounds not only casual but also uneducated. But that is simply a question of personal taste. As an editor, I wouldn’t dream of altering to sneaked in a direct quotation.* If it appeared in ordinary prose, I would have to gauge how formal the occasion was and who would be the audience before deciding whether to let it stand.

But this much is indisputable. The form has been steadily gaining ground in spoken English for more than a century. There are now many people for whom snuck sounds natural and sneaked artificial. Whether snucked will eventually become the dominant form of the past tense in written English as well, I can’t tell you. Probably no one else can with assurance. But it is not going away, and decisions about its use are purely judgments of taste and style rather than determinations of what is right or wrong grammatically. This is how language works.

*Actually, as an editor, I wouldn’t dream of rewording any direct quotation.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:00 PM | | Comments (7)

Sit-down comedy is presenting a joke of the week on video every Monday, and I have the honor of presenting the first joke, and four more have been recorded for subsequent weeks.

Have a look. If you find the jokes cornball or unsatisfactory in any way, feel free to suggest better ones.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:53 AM | | Comments (6)

June 18, 2010

Totemic tomes

Earlier today I came across a tweet from @APStylebook: Several of you have tweeted photos proudly showing off your new 2010 books. I retweeted, “God how sad.”

There are books on language that inspire devotion. W.H. Auden was so fond of the Oxford English Dictionary that he not only browsed in it but occasionally took a volume to bed at night. Many people have a sentimental, if seriously misguided, attachment to Strunk and White, despite the heroic efforts of Geoffrey K. Pullum to have all extant copies burned by the public hangman. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage, dated and arbitrary and cranky as it can be, still contains a fund of sound advice and is entertaining to read.

But the AP Stylebook? I was an English major for a long time, and I never knew of any colleague experiencing tachycardia at the prospect of an update of the Modern Language Association’s handbook. The Chicago Manual of Style is bringing out a sixteenth edition, I hear, but I don’t foresee gray-haired editors cavorting in the streets and embracing all and sundry in their rapture.

The AP Stylebook is a very useful book in a limited sphere, the area of settling on a particular way of writing something for the sake of consistency when there are two or more acceptable options. It offers advice on when and how to abbreviate words, what words should be capitalized, whether to write a number as a word or a numeral, and other information of use to journalists. It gives the spellings of various companies and governmental agencies. And it gives advice on English usage, some of it sound, some of it dated, some of it inconsistent, some of it plain wrong.

Yes, wrong. It retains an entry supporting the superstition that an adverb must not fall between the auxiliary verb and the main verb, a bogus rule that was exploded, for one, by Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer. In 1965. Plainly, the editor cannot be hurried about changes.

I suspect that it is nearly all copy editors, because no one else in the business appears to pay much attention to the AP Stylebook, who account for the enthusiasm for a new edition. This worries me. It’s just a stylebook. It’s not the Pentateuch. It’s not the only way to write. And I can only say with great reluctance that a burst of enthusiasm for it is unlikely to proceed from much sophistication about the language. Don’t give your heart to it, dear ones. It’s fickle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:24 PM | | Comments (9)

June 17, 2010

The sadness of the teacher's pet

Someone has suggested that I stop picking on those nice people at the Queen’s English Society because they mean well and do no harm. On the contrary, to the extent that anyone, particularly teachers, should pay attention to their crackpot advice about usage, they are capable of doing a good deal of harm.

But, not wanting to grow monotonous, I’m prepared to move on. Before I go, though, I’d like to point out an interesting point about peevish psychology made by J.W. Brewer at Language Log. He suggests that peevology arises with the ugly discovery that the world does not reward in the same way that the classroom does:

In terms of the "disdain for the vulgar" side of the class angle (and I think it's right to say that there are multiple class angles, not all entirely congruent with each other), I don't know how many of the peevers are really members of the old landed gentry or the trust-fund set. I think it more has to do with the uncertain position in at least Anglo-American class structure of the intelligentsy and what you might call sub-intelligentsy. Regardless of whether its overt political claims totally follow, I think the late Robert Nozick's classic rant/essay "Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism?" (you can find at least an abridged version online by googling the title) may have a suggestive insight to offer here. Some subset of grownups who were always A students in school feel resentment (perhaps even ressentiment, as the Nietzscheans say) toward the real world for not actually rewarding the same skill set as school did and wish to have something (e.g. pedantic command of fake rules of prescriptivist grammar) with which to lord it over the erstwhile B and C students who were more socially adept than they were back in high school and are now more economically/socially successful in the real world. So this group does look on "being in trade" as vulgar, but is getting there from a rather notably different starting point than the old aristocracy did. This thus gets into another of my recurrent LL commenting hobbyhorses — peevology is often viewed as a right-wing sort of phenomenon (because it's crotchety and often talks about an idealized past from which we have lapsed) yet seems concentrated in practice, at least in the U.S., in occupational groups (journalism, publishing, schoolteaching, lawyering) whose denizens (at present, in the context of the U.S.) generally trend left-of-center.

I think there may been a similarity between the peevers’ status anxiety, combined with nostalgia for an bygone age of purity of usage that did not really exist, and the anxiety of a segment of the American public, mainly white and older, about loss of status in a multicultural society, combined with a nostalgia for an earlier America that was theirs that they want to “take back.” But that would be socio-politico speculation, and this is a language blog.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 AM | | Comments (4)

June 16, 2010

Summer tipples

One of my former students, Andrew Zaleski, was preparing an article for on summer drinks. For some reason, he approached me with a request for advice.


Any of you interested in instructing the young on the development of mature tastes in drink should feel welcome to comment.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:05 PM | | Comments (8)

Now there's a badge

Slapping the Queen’s English Society around is tiring work, so I took the day off yesterday. But Professor Mark Liberman at Penn took up the cudgels in a Language Log post that drew quite a selection of comments. It’s worth checking out for the grammar cop badge alone.

Also yesterday, Professor Liberman posted an entry on a prescriptivist crotchet that I hadn’t heard. Were any of you instructed that hard is only acceptable in the sense of “tough” or “durable,” and not acceptable in the sense of “difficult”? Hard to believe.

In other developments, Professor Jay Rosen of New York University has posted a catalog of the various biases represented in American journalism. (You may find this interesting if you read my post last week, “The way we tilt now.”) He disdains the commonplace simplifications — that the press represents corporate interests, that the press tilts to the left, and that the press tilts to the right, though evidence of all three is plentiful — to describe the range of values and attitudes actually in play.

A reader who was going around and around with an editor about fragmentary quotes asked whether they are considered bad style. I explained that the Associated Press Stylebook advises against fragmentary quotes, but they remain common — more frequently called partial quotes — in journalism. Full quotation may be unsuitable (wordy, fumbling, containing extraneous material, profane) or simply too difficult to work smoothly into the overall syntax. They may be distracting in more formal writing, but they are too useful in journalism to be shunned. What should be avoided is putting a single word within quotation marks, because instead of indicating emphasis or singularity, it can suggest skepticism or irony.

And finally, The Economist publishes a blog on language called Johnson — after Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer. Check out the post last week on the British author’s discovery that Johnson in American slang suggests something quite different from lexicography.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (0)

June 14, 2010

Speak proper, or else

The admirable Stan Carey smote the Queen’s English Society and its laughable proposal for an Academy of English last week. It was a mighty blow, but it merely glanced off their carapace, as you can see by examining the comments on his post at Sentence First.

Because the peevish combination of shibboleth and superstition about language, combined with a sad, sad little snobbery about their presumed mastery of the language, renders these people impervious to reason, there is not much point to arguing with them. But you, Best Beloved, have not come here to peeve, so I can say things about language peeving that may immunize you against its poisons.

Martin Estinel of the Queen’s English Society, for example, wants to protect English from being “diluted by foreign influences.” (By “foreign” he means “American.”) Unless he plans to set up an academy to return to Anglo-Saxon, there is no getting around the plain fact that English, British English included, is a wanton little baggage that bears upon its body traces of every other language it has ever brushed against. There are children who know this.

One commenter at Sentence First had this to say: “I love it when people so loudly deride people who are trying to do something good. Many people feel that our language is being spoiled by those who do not know the basic rules of English. The QES is merely trying to provide a place where those rules can be easily found and then used. We all know that English is a living language and people will always disagree about what is right and wrong, but for heavens sake, allow people to try to help.”

No one denies that Mr. Estinel and his colleagues mean well. It is just that their uninformed views are apt to do more harm than good. The person who offers to treat your cancer with laetrile may sincerely mean to help, but it isn’t going to do you much good.

Predictably, another commenter takes a swipe at David Crystal and other linguists who supposedly “argue that all dialects and languages are equal in the eyes or minds of their users. The QES argues, on the contrary, that language variants are not all equal, and that Standard English deserves particular recognition and support. Yes, Standard English resists a concise definition – it is fuzzy at the edges – but is nontheless a real entity.”

I’m mystified by the recurring claim that linguists don’t care about language. They spend their professional lives examining how language works and know a good deal more about it, in its various forms, than the gormless proponents of official English. J.B.S. Haldane, asked to explain what the Creation tells us about the Creator, observed that the Deity appears to have “an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Entomologists are interested in beetles, their variety and diversity, as linguists are interested in the variety and diversity of languages. If Mr. Estinel and his followers presumed to demonstrate an expertise in entomology as well as language, they would be assuring us that one species of beetle is demonstrably superior to all the others. Not much of an advance in Science.

Perhaps Michael Gorman, the author of the comment about David Crystal, could point out for us a linguist who does not think that standard English is a “real entity.” Professor Crystal and the linguists at Language Log all write remarkably clear and forceful standard English — more precisely, standard written English — in both the British and American variants. Their understanding differs from Mr. Gorman’s in recognizing that it is a form of English appropriate for certain purposes and occasions rather than the only form ever to be used.

Some points bear repeating, because the word is apparently Not Getting Through:

English is not degenerating. Jonathan Swift thought that is was in 1712, when he proposed an academy to correct and preserve it, and there is no greater evidence for its decay today than there was three centuries ago, or that such an academy would, or could, accomplish anything useful. Take a deep, cleansing breath.

Standard written English, the form about which the peevers get their knickers in a twist/shorts in a bunch, is a form of the language appropriate for certain contexts and occasions. Other forms of English are appropriate and acceptable for other contexts and occasions. Anyone who has any sense knows this.

Language, like clothing, carries markers of social, educational, and geographical background and class. These forms of information cannot be separated from the information that speech and writing ostensibly intend to communicate. But they should not be given undue weight, either. You can talk posh and imagine that you are a superior human being, but there are those who will see you as merely a toffee-nosed twit.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (21)

June 12, 2010

It suffices

This came over the transom:

Have you ever weighed in on "suffice" or "suffice it" to say? The "it" drives me nuts, and there seems to be a generational divide over this.

Suffice it to say is a legacy of our old but attenuated friend, the subjunctive mood. It is the subjunctive form of it suffices to say. A fuller version of the expression would be let it suffice to say, but longstanding usage has clipped and inverted it.

Interestingly, contemporary usage has curtailed it further, into suffice to say, so that to some ears, the it sounds wrong. Bryan Garner rates suffice to say in the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage as “widely shunned,” but I think he may be mistaken in gauging how widespread the expression has become.

The subjunctive in English survives in such stock expressions. It can also be found in statements contrary to fact (If I were czar of language ...), demands or commands (The czar orders that he buy Garner on Language ), suggestions and proposals (The czar recommends that she be directed to consult Garner before inquiring), and statements of necessity (The czar thinks it essential that they be apprised of shifts in usage).

The subjunctive used to be more widely used, but, Best Beloved, it is not coming back. Would God that you resigned yourself to that.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 AM | | Comments (14)

June 11, 2010

The old mailbag

Friday is a day on which I sometimes try, vainly, to catch up with accumulated messages and tweets.

Correct grammar can kill you: We all learned that with joint possession we make the last noun possessive, and with separate possession we make all the nouns possessive, right? “John and Mary’s house” is the one John and Mary own jointly, “John’s and Mary’s houses” the ones where they live after the divorce. But ponder this sentence forwarded by one of my spies in Wichita: Dozens of people line-up to give money at Norwich High after a tornado destroyed Don Hall, his wife, and two daughters' house.

Not apposite: One reader invites me to write about the false appositive. A true appositive is one in which a noun is in apposition, positioned next to, another noun to amplify or extend its meaning: “He appealed vainly to McIntyre, a sluggard, for a quick response.” A false appositive does not refer to the immediately preceding noun, but to a previous phrase or clause: “He framed his questions precisely and provided supporting detail to McIntyre, a futile attempt to get a prompt response.”

I have no samples in stock at the moment. You coming across this sort of thing much?

“Git” is more compact: Some time back there was a mild sensation in Baltimore — it doesn’t take much — when b, a publication of the Baltimore Sun Media Group aimed at the young, published an issue blaring the headline DOUCHEBAG for an article on how to identify someone as a douchebag (No need to write in; I already knew.) Now Jan Freeman has written a short article at Throw Grammar from the Train, her worthy blog, on how the word came to be an all-purpose pejorative.

It’s not the Internet; it’s you: Steven Pinker has a refreshing essay in The New York Times debunking the glib alarmism that using the electronic media is making us shallower and dumber than we were before. (Hard to imagine the possibility.) Not so, he says, and he finds no scientific support for the idea.

Here’s the part, though, that you really need to keep in mind:

And to encourage intellectual depth, don’t rail at PowerPoint or Google. It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people. They must be acquired in special institutions, which we call universities, and maintained with constant upkeep, which we call analysis, criticism and debate. They are not granted by propping a heavy encyclopedia on your lap, nor are they taken away by efficient access to information on the Internet.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:39 AM | | Comments (14)

June 10, 2010

The way we tilt now

What set me off yesterday about the obnoxiously self-righteous was Stephen Hunter’s killing Jane Fonda.

Well, not really. In I, Sniper, the Bob Lee Swagger novel I’m just getting around to, an assassin murders a character named Joan Flanders, a movie star and the daughter and sister of movie stars whose visit to Hanoi as an antiwar activist, successful exercise program, and marriage to an eccentric mogul led me, unaccountably, to identify her with Jane Fonda.*

One of the things in the novel that struck me was this passage about “the narrative”:

The narrative is the set of assumptions the press believes in, possibly without even knowing that it believes in them. It’s not like they get together every morning and decide ‘These are the lies we tell today.’ ... Rather, it’s a set of casual, nonrigorous assumptions about a reality they’ve never really experienced that’s arranged in such a way as to reinforce their best and most ideal presumptions about themselves and their importance to the system and the way they’ve chosen to live their lives. It’s a way of arranging things a certain way that they all believe in without ever really addressing carefully.

This concept of the narrative is bound up with what people mean when they talk about bias in journalism — though accusations of bias from both the left and right often turn out to be objections to reported facts that people would prefer not to hear. But the bias in the narrative is subtler than mere political slant, which is easy to spot anyhow.

One of the unexamined assumptions in journalism is that we are all middle-class or upper-middle-class college graduates. An undistinguished journalism degree from a mediocre university is all it takes to enter the media elite. What supports this point of view is that advertisers generally want to reach middle-class and upper-middle-class college graduates, so writer, reader, and advertiser are a close fit. But this makes anyone outside the middle class an exotic.

The concept of the narrative also explains how stories get written. Scientists don’t just randomly gather data until a concept falls into place; they form a hypothesis and go out to see if it works. Similarly, journalists usually don’t have all day to wander about soaking up impressions and details to see what shape emerges; they go out with an idea of what the story is likely to be and select details to match the concept. Once the writer (or worse, the assigning editor) has formed a concept of what the story is to be, it can be difficult to shift direction. That’s how you get reporters asking “would-you-say-that” leading questions of sources. And how reporters keep returning to the same set of predictable sources.

Then there are the ways that the narrative becomes the Narrative. Take the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. In the early days of the spill, one could see different strains of narrative developing. One was how BP was dealing with the spill, along with whether it had been negligent and culpable. Another was how the Obama administration was dealing with the spill.

It can take a few days for a particular narrative strain to achieve dominance. But because the Washington press corps is perpetually obsessed with the president, any president — Is he up in the polls or down today? Is he victorious or defeated? — it was likely that the Narrative of the oil spill would focus on President Obama. And so it came to pass. That is a legitimate story, but the tendency of the Narrative is to make it the only story.

There is nothing odd about that. Journalists run in packs and imitate other journalists. There is no reason to imagine that journalists as a class are less prone to groupthink than, say, investment bankers. But I, as an editor, am supposed to be skeptical. And you, as a reader, ought to be, for your own protection.

You can follow the Narrative. There is no avoiding it. But you can resist getting caught up in it.



*During my freshman year at Michigan State, Ms. Fonda spoke to several hundred of us dining in Akers Hall one evening. The student who introduced her called her a “chick” and got a quick public lecture on how no one should talk about women that way. Callow youth that I was, I sensed some inner resistance to receiving instruction on how to think, along with curiosity about how appearing in motion pictures makes someone a universal authority.

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

June 9, 2010

The self-righteous inherit the earth

It is instructive to take a close look at the people who set themselves up as morally superior to you.

There are, for example, the people who lecture us on the importance of Traditional Marriage while going through their Traditional Divorces, or the militant patriots who contrive to avoid military service. A particularly ripe example was the recent discovery that Dr. George Rekers, a co-founder of the Family Research Council and anti-homosexual activist, took a ten-day vacation in Europe with a paid male companion whom he had engaged through

Martin Estinel, the proponent of an Academy of English, has responded to comments in the Times of London article on his proposal that “you should see the admiring mail I have been receiving. It appears that British society splits into 2 camps: those who want to remain ignorant and those who wish to better themselves. For the former, we can do nothing; for the latter, we are here to serve.”

I detect the true and authentic note of the morally self-righteous. It is one thing to be a snob about clothes or tastes in music. People are either fashionable or unfashionable, and, really, that doesn’t amount to much. The fashionable can flatter themselves on their exquisite taste, and the rest of us don’t care. But the language snob cannot accept that other people simply have different tastes in vocabulary or syntax or spelling or pronunciation. They must be denounced as ignorant, as barbarians, as a mob threatening the foundations of Western civilization.

As it happens, I understand this psychology from the inside, for I was an English major at a state university and a graduate student in English at a mediocre private university. I not only had better taste in language and literature, but I was morally superior to the rabble who had not read Milton.* Feel free to substitute Aristotle or Gibbon or Augustine or whatever Dead White Shibboleth is appropriate to your field.

It has taken a good while for the abrasions of life to erode that brittle veneer so that I can now understand that I am not a paragon but simply a practitioner of a craft. I labor to repair defective writing without the burden of infallibility in matters of faith and morals. I am not set up or qualified to judge that bad writers are defective as human beings. Annoying, yes, but not morally inferior.

Since the human impulse to make social distinctions over trivial and superficial matters is apparently inescapable, my advice to the peevers is to give up on language and find something that doesn’t matter to gratify their need for a sense of superiority. It’s not hard to feel superior to people who drink chocolate martinis, or watch The Real Housewives of New Jersey or read novels about emotionally sensitive vampires. If the peevers shift to those areas, then they can leave English alone. It does not require their assistance.


*Colleagues on Calvert Street will be amazed to learn that I was even more insufferable in my twenties than I am now.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 AM | | Comments (12)

June 8, 2010

A nice mess

The people who complain about the supposed decay of English can be counted on to insist on some kind of etymological rigidity (decimate can mean only to reduce by one-tenth) or fixed meaning (as in the stubborn but futile resistance to gay meaning homosexual). The peevers and purists would do well to consider the career of the word nice.

The Oxford English Dictionary shows that back in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, as English was coming into its own, nice meant “stupid” or “foolish.” Or it could mean “loose,” “wanton,” “lascivious,” as in Chaucer’s Romaunt of the Rose: “Nyce she was, but she ne mente Noone harme ne slight in hir entente, But onely lust & jolyte.” Or “extravagant in dress” or “flaunting. Or “trim” and “elegant.”

By the sixteenth century nice could mean “tender” and “delicate”: “He ... was of so nice and tender a composition, that a little wind or rain would disorder him,” Clarendon wrote. That sense extended to include “fastidious,” “dainty,” “difficult to please,” or “refined.”

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries nice moved from fastidious to “precise,” “strict,” “careful.” A “nice distinction” was one made with minute attention to intricacy of detail and degree of difference, one made with some difficulty. Dryden said of Virgil that he “was of too nice a Judgment to introduce a God denying the Power and Providence of the Deity.”

By the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries nice had taken on the more familiar sense of “pleasant,” “agreeable,” or “delightful.” Jane Austen wrote to a correspondent, “You scold me so much in the nice long letter which I have ... received from you.” Or attractive, in the sense of “looking nice.” Or dainty, “a nice little china teacup.”

In our age, crackling with so much non-Victorian cynicism, nice is by no means a positive term, and often serves as a one-word ironic putdown:

“It was a good dinner, but he drank so much that he got violently sick in the car on the way home."


So niceness can incorporate nastiness, and sometimes has, so we come around again to the point that gives the peevers and purists so much trouble. The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it. Say that again: The language goes where it will and is what its users make of it.

Yesterday, when I was snickering at the fatuous proposal for an Academy of English (Who would be on it, the self-appointed guardians?* By what standards would they operate? How could they imagine to enforce their dicta?), one commenter asked “Is there such a thing as bad English? If so, how is it identified? By whom?” Of course there is bad English. This blog has been devoted to the examination of defective writing. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum excoriates some spectacularly bad grammar in this post on Language Log.

But many judgments about what is good and what is bad are inevitably subjective, and responsible writers and editors will avoid enlarging individual preferences into universals, and will always try to gauge where the language, that moving, shifting entity, happens to be at the moment of writing.

*For “guardians,” read “cranks.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:20 PM | | Comments (10)

June 7, 2010

Minutes of the Academy

The Times of London has published an article on an effort by the Queen’s English Society to establish an Academy of English to combat the “dreadful devaluation and deterioration of education in our hectic, modern, digitalised world — we do desperately need some form of moderating body to set an accepted standard of good English.”

Martin Estinel, the prime advocate of the academy, hopes that it will achieve the eminence (largely illusory, I’m afraid) of its French counterpart. He said, “I would love the academy to have a Royal Charter.”

One can only image how a plenary session of such an academy would proceed. [Music fades out, then fades in, accompanied by sounds of murmuring and many voices.]

CHAIRMAN. Order, order. The Chair recognizes Mr. Wattles.

MR. WATTLES. Mr. Chairman, learned members, we have suffered the assaults on our noble language for far too long. Texting. [Calls of “Hear, hear”] Americanisms. [Applause] Shoddy grammar and shameless syntax. [Loud applause] The barbarians are at the gates. We may have surrendered the Empire, but we shall not, shall never, never, never surrender the empire of the English language. [Ovation]

But, Mr. Chairman, our best efforts will be so much well-meaning cant if we do not achieve enforcement of proper standards of English. We need laws with teeth in them. [Shouts of “Hear, hear”] A preposition at the end of a sentence or a split infinitive should bring the perpetrator no less than an hour in the pillory. [Applause] And an adolescent who uses “like” more than once in a sentence would learn from receiving a dozen of the best at the public whipping-post not to repeat that solecism! [Sustained applause]

MISS PRISCIAN: Mr. Chairman, Mr. Chairman, unless my ears have betrayed their function, I have just heard Mr. Wattles begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction. [Sensation, confused murmuring] Mr. Chairman, none of us want to to speak ill of a colleague, but it is with regret that I am obliged to call for a vote of censure. [Groans]

MR. CASAUBON: Mr. Chairman, there are no defects in my ears, which have just descried Miss Priscian using “none” as a plural, so I must, more in sorrow than in anger, propose that the motion of censure be amended to include her within its sanctions. [Shouts of “Rubbish! Resign!”]

LADY MONTRACHET: Mr. Chairman, if Mr. Casaubon imagines that he can “descry” with his ears rather than his eyes, he appears to be as deplorably ignorant of anatomy and physiology as he is of language. [Shouts: “Harpy!” “Termagant!”] Moreover, had he even the elementary understanding of the necessity to use a possessive with a gerund, he would have referred to “Miss Priscian’s using.” I move to include him in an omnibus motion censure. [Sits as Mr. Wattles, Miss Priscian, and Mr. Casaubon all attempt to speak at once]

CHAIRMAN: Order! Order! [Bangs gavel] The academy will come to order! [Members standing and shouting, gesturing violently]

CHAIRMAN: Oh, bugger it. Adjourned.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (10)

June 5, 2010

The books we turn back to

The other night, looking for a little bookish companionship between work and bed — everyone else in the house, including the cats, was asleep — I picked up a volume of Georges Simenon’s Maigret stories, and soon it was as if I was sitting outside the Brasserie Dauphine with a glass of beer and a pipe.

Opening a new book carries the same sense of risk and discovery as being introduced to a person. Fascinating or a relentless bore? A companion or a tease? But there are times when it is better just to sit down with an old friend to renew the acquaintance.

Every few years I go back to Trollope’s Barchester Towers, to that compact little world of Anglican country cathedral politics with its lovingly delineated personalities. Archdeacon Grantley jealously guarding clerical prerogatives and perquisites, Mrs. Proudie aggressively pushing Low-Churchiness. Best book of the Barchester sequence.

I still like Pnin better than Nabokov’s more ambitious novels: perfect in its scope and structure, funny and humane. A couple of years ago, at this blog, I quoted one of my favorite passages.

Every time I pick up Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets I find something new. It is a mature work, the product of a lifetime’s reading and reflecting on literature and human character. And while his sympathy for the human struggle against adversity and disappointment is moving, it is also gratifying to see how deftly he slips the knife in when the subject is someone he does not much like.

Gatsby! Is there anyone who has not re-read Gatsby with delight? If it weren’t for Huckleberry Finn, Gatsby would be the American novel. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop can still make me laugh out loud. Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop evokes the landscape of the Southwest. Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution is the academic novel, packed with epigrammatic observations on the characters that are another pleasure to quote. Joan Didion’s essays are still as sharp as when I first encountered them.

Murder mysteries are a particular subcategory, because (you’ve heard this one before) after a long day of working with professional journalists, nothing is more gratifying than sitting in a comfortable chair, with a good light and a strong drink at your elbow, to read about disagreeable people meeting violent death.

I have the advantage of forgetting the plots almost immediately, so that every few years I can turn over Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries again. At the Book Thing, I picked up a couple of anthologies of Ross Macdonald’s Lew Archer novels, which I hadn’t read for thirty years, and rediscovered how good he is at writing about crime in California. P.D. James’s Adam Dalgliesh. Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo’s Martin Beck. Robert B. Parker’s Spenser. All good, reliable friends over the years.

By all means keep making new friends, but don’t forget your old ones.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:56 AM | | Comments (9)

June 4, 2010

Speaking initially

Soon after my return to The Sun, I noticed another editor’s corrections on the proof page of a story I had edited, supplying the middle initial C to Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s name.

The fastidious concern (some would call it a fetish) that newspapers show for middle initials is easily explained. There are so many people with the same surname and given name that middle initials are useful for accurate identification. You don’t want to run a photo of James A. Smith with the obituary of James B. Smith.* Also, now that newspaper archives are electronic, the middle initial is helpful in defining searches.

That said, I can’t think that there are many other Stephanie Rawlings-Blakes in the Baltimore area who might be confused with the mayor, so the punctilious insertion of the middle initial in the first reference in every article looks supererogatory.**

The New York Times is famously careful with middle initials, and some years ago Slate inquired about the appearance in its pages of Monica S. Lewinsky. Allan M. Siegal, now retired as the paper’s standards editor, explained, Slate reported, that “the rule is to include the middle initial unless 1) the person doesn't have one; 2) doesn't commonly use one; 3) he or she complains to the NYT, or 4) including one would be ‘too stuffy.’ "

 Stuffy requires case-by-case judgment, but so does commonly use. There is, for example, Harry Truman’s middle initial. The S did not stand for anything, because his parents could not agree on which grandfather to name the boy after. You can still hear people discuss whether a period should be used. His own practice varied, though the period appears on his letterhead and in signatures. The Associated Press Stylebook says that he was once asked about the period and said he didn’t care, so for consistency the AP uses the period.

In my case, my driver’s license identifies me as John Early McIntyre. My byline is John E. McIntyre, which is also how I sign letters and checks (though omitting the period). I have credit cards that identify me simply as John McIntyre. And sometimes, for fun, I have identified myself as Jno. McIntyre, because my grandmother used that old-fashioned abbreviation.

Fred and Jacques, if the Reaper should harvest me today, “John Early McIntyre” would be fine, though “John E. McIntyre” would probably fit better in the obituary headline, and I could live with, so to speak, plain “John McIntyre.” Your choice. Probably someone on the copy desk will stick in the middle initial anyhow.


*I picked James Smith as an example because there are so damn many Jim Smiths out there that they have formed a society.

**From the Latin root erogare, “to spend,” supererogation meaning originally spending over and above, in English performing more than is required.


The blogware is declining to code my links today, so here they are:  

For the Jim Smith Society:

For the Slate article:

For Harry Truman's initial:



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (8)

June 3, 2010

I have a bad feeling about this

To allude to another sci-fi cliche, we all know the “Danger, Will Robinson, danger!” signs. The “check engine” light on the dashboard goes on, the robo-call from the credit card company, the spouse who says, “We need to have a talk.” (The last meaning “you need to have a listen.”) The newsroom also abounds in warnings, for those who know how to interpret them.

The Synod of Editors

You look up from your desk, and there, across the room, three or four editors are standing over some poor sweating schlimazel at a keyboard, all talking at the same time and pointing. You know at once that (a) this thing is going to be late, and (b) it’s going to carry more fossil traces of earlier versions than there are trilobites in the Burgess Shale.

The Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object

The writer submits an article, prefacing it with an announcement that it is so tightly knit that it simply cannot be cut. You examine the text and quickly determine that (a) it is laden with background, padding, and paragraphs copied and pasted from previously published articles, (b) it will take perhaps fifteen minutes to cut it to the budgeted length, which is all there is room for in the print edition, and (c) you will not be able to get to it without thirty minutes of wrangling with the writer.

The Speed of News

The wire service editor promises you that absolutely, certainly, without a doubt, you will get the updated story no later than 8:30.

You will still be waiting for it at 9:15, as you follow developing events on television, Facebook, and Twitter.

The Digital Age

Many improvements are promised in the upgrade of the computer software. You will (a) get twenty minutes of curbside training on the baffling new formats, (b) your machine will freeze on edition deadline, or start copying text from unrelated stories, or refuse to output, and (c) no one in IT answers the phone.

The Tap

Your supervisor stops by your work station and says, “Could you come to my office, please.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:11 PM | | Comments (12)

June 2, 2010

Summertiiiiime ...

The lady at the museum gift shop was most helpful. She was friendly and chatty as well.

“My grandfather,” she said, looking me up and down, “wore a seersucker suit and a boater in the summertime too.” [Pause.] “Of course, he was born in 1898.”

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (16)

June 1, 2010

Telling all

The other day on Twitter @GrammarMonkeys advised: “The phrase is ‘All told,’ unless you're talking about bells - then it's OK to say ‘All tolled.’"

Such a confusion arises, as with the frequent rein/reign mistake, because of a long-past shift in a traditional meaning.

When I quote to my students H.L. Mencken’s view that no one should be accountable for mistakes in his own work, that someone should be told off to identify and correct slips, they hear told off in the sense of “scolding.”

But told off in that context means merely to count off or assign someone — you know, as when the emissary from corporate comes to your workplace and orders everyone to line up in the company parking lot and count off by fours.

The verb tell, from the Old English tellan, means “count.” That is why the employee behind the bank window is a teller, someone who counts the money. So all told, an expression you’re unlikely to hear from anyone younger than fifty, means “all counted” or “in total.”

Mistaking all told for all tolled is a tell — an action betraying ignorance about a particular aspect of the language.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:01 AM | | Comments (5)
Keep reading
Recent entries
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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected