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July 31, 2010

Defending Mr. Mencken

Unrestrained glee: Yesterday I got my hands on the Library of America’s handsome two-volume edition of H.L. Mencken’s complete Prejudices series. Barely able to contain myself until getting home from work, I sat down at home with a good light and a drink (Pilsener would have been the natural accompaniment, but bourbon sufficed), and was barely five pages into it when I heard the true Menckenian note:

“We are, in fact, a nation of evangelists; every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force. …” Henry Mencken’s implacable resistance to the Uplift is one of his most endearing qualities. It was his slaughter of the American sacred cattle — and his energy, his gusto, his brio as he wielded the sledgehammer — that charmed me when I was eighteen and pleases me still.

I know already what some of you are going to say; somebody already dismissed Mencken as an anti-Semite in a comment on a previous post. And I will not dispute that he wrote anti-Semitic things, among other statements offensive to blacks, women, Southerners, and nearly any other class of human beings you can identify.* I will, further, not dispute that many of those statements are ugly and that I cringe on reading them. But consider that there is more to him than that.

The hard thing for people to stomach in our egalitarian age is that Mencken was a Nietzschean libertarian. That is, he held deep convictions that there were superior human beings and inferior human beings, that each human being has a natural right to participate in the scramble of existence, and that nature sorts out the strong and the weak.

He was not, like some professed conservatives today, some mere apologist for corporate rapacity; he despised Harding and Coolidge and their Babbittry as heartily as he despised Franklin Roosevelt’s conviction that the job of government is to comfort and protect the populace from poverty and affliction.

The charge of anti-Semitism, which came out mainly after publications of his diaries, was answered then by someone who said that not only were some of his best friends Jewish, that nearly all of his best friends were. And as a commenter on the “Moronia” post wrote, he published articles urging the United States to rescue European Jews from the Nazi persecution.

He liked individuals but scorned classes of people, and this is reflected throughout his life. He may have had a low opinion of many blacks, but he published black writers. One of his last published articles condemned a lynching on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He may have entertained a retrograde view of women in general, but he championed female writers.

Despite his many and glaring imperfections, which were especially heighted in his bitterness after the death of his wife and the shift against him in the political climate of the New Deal, he did worthy things throughout his career. He sneered at cant. He campaigned against Prohibition. He championed American English with scholarship. He wrote with bravura, in a style that leaves his imitators looking merely dyspeptic and bombastic. He battled censorship. He stood up for human liberty.

You who dismiss him, have you done half as much?


*A short diatribe: The Uplift seems to have yielded a generation of uncommon moral purity. Henry Mencken can be dismissed as an anti-Semite. We can discard Thomas Jefferson because he was a slaveowner and, moreover, fathered children on one of his slaves who was his deceased wife’s half-sister. Senator Robert Byrd’s body was scarcely cool before he was swept aside as a mere windbag who had been in the Ku Klux Klan (as had Justice Hugo Black), his formal apologies and repudiations apparently counting for nothing. Sweep away all those hegemonostic and patriarchal dead white authors like Milton and Johnson.

I am unwilling to chime in with these condemnations, having myself uttered foolish and regrettable statements and having done things that harmed people I care about, the memory of which regularly bathes me in shame in the small hours of the morning; I am thus not qualified to occupy a seat among the smugly satisfied and the morally superior.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:05 PM | | Comments (11)

July 30, 2010

Two words for writers of feature stories

When a writer takes up a subject charged with emotion — the death of a child, an older person’s lingering demise, or, at the other extreme, the marriage of a former president’s daughter — it is easy to let control slip. It is salutary to keep in mind two words that you never want anyone to apply to your work.


The first is mawkish, or relentlessly sentimental in a manner so insipid as to be sickening. The word derives from the Middle English mawke — maggot — and originally meant “maggoty.”

The second, often given as a synonym of the first, is maudlin, or foolishly and tearfully sentimental (often from drink). It is a corruption of Magdalene. The conventional portrayal of Mary Magdalene in the Middle Ages was of a woman weeping copiously,* and the association of emotion with her name, combined with the famed British slurring of pronunciation, gave us the adjective.

The colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, Magdalen at the former and Magdalene at the latter, are named for her, and both are pronounced “maudlin.”

So if you would prefer not to be thought drunkenly weepy, or maggoty, keep the emotional language under control and be wary of your own propensity for excess.

And — yes, you should have seen this coming — you might want to have an editor go over that text, in case you still need to be saved from yourself.


*And in the seventeenth century inspired Richard Crashaw’s hilariously excessive poem, “The Weeper.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 PM | | Comments (5)

Not attending Chelsea Clinton's wedding

1. Wasn’t invited.

2. Saturday’s a work day for me anyhow.

If you are at loose ends and miffed at having been left out, let me suggest that you amuse yourselves with Sally Quinn’s celebration of the nuptials in The Washington Post’s On Faith blog.

In fact, don’t just read it. Print it out and preserve it. It is the sort of thing that I expect will be read aloud at parties for some time to come. You could play a drinking game with everyone required to down a shot every time “we cry” occurs. Or you could place bets on whether the reader can get all the way to “the magic we want to believe in exists in all cultures and all beliefs” with a straight face.

Or maybe you could go about your business and leave the newlyweds alone.

A final grammatical point. Ms. Quinn appears to labor under the misapprehension that the plural of Clinton is Clinton’s and the plural of Obama is Obama’s. There are still people at The Post who know better, but presumably they were not consulted.

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:48 PM | | Comments (8)

Ah, journalism

An article appeared in The Sun earlier this week with an Evocative Ah lead.* You know the sort: Ah, summertime! Or Ah, ripe peaches! Or Ah, homicides! The Evocative Ah opening is so versatile that it can be used in any season, for any subject, and is equally meaningless for all of them.

The Evocative Ah is not alone. Writers of limited imagination draw on a store of stock leads — of which the “not alone” lead/transition is one of the more annoying. It can be safely deleted whenever it pops up.**

Some years ago, the estimable Dick Thien made a list of these brain-dead formulas, and the American Copy Editors Society maintains the list on its website. He has the “Webster’s defines” lead, the one-word lead, the faux-King-James-English lead, the “good-news-bad-news” lead (though he unaccountably omits the “best-of-times-worst-of-times” lead), the “welcome to” lead, and more.

My suggestion to you is to follow the link to Mr. Thien’s compilation, consider it carefully, recollect how often you have resorted to such hack writing, and vow to sin no more.


*Sorry. I didn’t clip it, and the recycling truck has already run today. Visualize.

**It was after I deleted this hoary device from a Sun article that the author complained to me, “It’s not a cliche when I use it.” I am not making this up, you know.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:58 AM | | Comments (5)

July 29, 2010

Mommy dearest

Susan Reimer opens this morning’s column about the perils of motherhood thus: “Any mom worth her carpool car keys will recognize Elizabeth, the fraught and embattled mother in Anne Lamott's new book, ‘Imperfect Birds.’ "

Gradually, over the past couple of decades, mom has become an acceptable synonym for mother in journalism — no longer thought to be too casual, informal or personal.

I don’t much care for it, though I have schooled myself to endure it as an editor. But it’s a minor irritation, like my grumpiness that the Realtors have snookered journalists into writing home instead of house. I don’t think that the irritation is a residue of my having read Philip Wylie’s diatribe against “Momism” in Generation of Vipers. (One of the benefits of youthful unsupervised reading is the development of skill in spotting crackpots.)

No, it’s a preference for a little more formality that puts me out of step with the times.* You call her “Mom,” but I will refer to her as “your mother.” (“Your mother” is how I speak of Kathleen to Alice and J.P., and it is also how my father spoke of my mother to my sisters and me.) Just as you may call him “Pop-pop,” but I will refer to your grandfather. You have discarded courtesy titles, but I will continue mistering. You may like to mention political figures by their nicknames, but I am not intimate with the great.

Two things to be said for formality are that it offers respect and that it creates a distance within which genuine intimacy can be recognized and treasured.


*I hear your gasp at this revelation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 AM | | Comments (13)

July 28, 2010

Editors are worth something after all

When the boss says something like “We don’t need editors; we all have spell-check,” you face the uncomfortable realization that the boss is an ignoramus. You are working for someone who (a) doesn’t understand how spell-check functions and what its limitations are, and (b) has no more understanding of what is involved in editing than he does of Akkadian cuneiform.

So you might want to refer him to this article by James Mathewson, the editor in chief at, which summarizes a little experiment:

Because editors are often seen as unnecessary, we at IBM conducted a study to demonstrate their value for some of our marketing pages. We took a sample of unedited pages with high traffic from across our various business units and ran them through Dave Harlan, the editing lead for the group that creates a lot of our marketing content. We then ran an A/B test, where we served the unedited versions to a random sample of users and the edited versions to the rest of the users. We then measured engagement (defined as clicks to desired links on the page) on those pages over the course of a month.

The results were astonishing.

The mean difference in engagement was 30 percent across the set of pages. And the standard deviation was one percent–we got a 30 percent improvement on the desired call to action for the pages across the board.

I’m fairly sure that to achieve such results, Mr. Harlan and his team did more than run the spell-check and fix the commas. They must have done honest-to-God, get-to-the-point, don’t-waste-my-time editing. That means establishing a focus up front, pruning verbiage, clarifying the organization, looking for meaning beneath jargon, and thinking more about the reader’s needs than the writer’s preferences.

Mr. Mathewson is careful not to make extravagant claims. He says that additional studies ought to be conducted to see whether this experiment was a fluke or an indication that editing indeed produces substantial benefits.

I, however, am under no such constraints. Editing, proper editing, adds value. There.

If your boss is interested in having readers pay attention to what you turn out, he might want to think about engaging a couple of editors and getting out of their way.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (3)

July 27, 2010

Oh dear, and in The New Yorker, too

From last week’s New Yorker article on Rod Blagojevich:

“Jack them up!” Blagojevich tells one aide while discussing two well-to-do Chicago attorneys whom he feels haven’t donated enough money.

My advice to you, if you have trouble deciding when to use who and when to use whom, just use who for both subject and object. It will simplify your life, ease your mind, and put you ahead of the game when the dictionaries finally attach obs. to whom.

If, however, you persist in using both forms, keep in mind that when the pronoun is the subject of a clause — who haven’t donated enough money springs to mind — you are not allowed to use whom.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:53 PM | | Comments (6)

July 24, 2010

You deserve a break

Last night, when I left the paragraph factory at 1 a.m., it was ninety-one degrees outside. Today has been warmer. Tomorrow I won’t care, because I will be at the beach.

Kathleen and I are off in the morning to Ocean City, two days for me, four for her. So there will be no further posts on this blog until midweek. If you find yourself jonesing for a post, make free with the 781 previous ones on this site, or take a look at the 407 posts at written during my [cough] sabbatical [cough].


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:22 PM | | Comments (1)

A visionary idea

Talking with a colleague about graduate school — he had briefly imagined that the first seminar paper he heard presented was satirical but was dismayed to discover otherwise — reminded me of one of academia’s missed opportunities.

One of my professors in Syracuse’s English department, the late John Diehl, once suggested that it should be sufficient to earn a Ph.D. to select a previously approved dissertation in the field, duplicate the research, demonstrate conclusively the worthlessness of the dissertation, and destroy all extant copies.

Thus two people would hold the credential, which was the main thing both had been aiming for anyhow, and the shelves of university libraries would be gradually cleared of rubbish.

It may not be too late to put this noble inspiration into practice.


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:38 PM | | Comments (0)

July 23, 2010

Proud citizen of Moronia

In “On Being an American,” H.L. Mencken proclaimed his “conviction that the American People, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day.”

This state of things, it turns out, is to be relished because of Mencken’s “congenital weakness for comedy of the grosser varieties. The United States, to my mind, is incomparably the greatest show on earth.” Those “grosser varieties” include “the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven.”

What was true eighty years ago remains true today, in secula seculorum, world without end, amen, amen.

Take, for example, Scott Johnson’s defense of Andrew Breitbart: Breitbart was “journalistically shoddy” to defame Shirley Sherrod, but he is right to withhold any apology because he is a target of the “Democrat-Media complex.”*

I am not making this up.

Here’s another. Language Log has been on a romp with various plaster-of-Paris authorities publishing idiotic advice about avoiding what they think is the passive voice.

Today’s post features Doostang, a job-search site that advises not to put on your resume constructions such as “responsible for,” “duties included,” “served as,” and “actions encompassed” because they are “indicators of passive voice.” On Wednesday it was a blogger named Brad Delong offered five instances of passive voice in the translation of Wolfgang Mommsen, all five of which are not passive constructions. There is, apparently, no limit to bogus advice about language usage.

You want more? The dotty Institute for Creation Research proposed to offer in Texas master's degrees in science education from “a Biblical scientific creationist viewpoint.” This was too preposterous even for Texas (for Texas!), which rejected the proposal. The institute filed a lawsuit to overturn the ruling. U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks dismissed the suit, remarking among other things that the institute’s filings were “overly verbose, disjointed, incoherent, maundering and full of irrelevant information.” (Any copy editor who has ever worked on a daily newspaper will empathize with Judge Sparks.)

It is in my native Kentucky that you can find the crackpot Creation Museum, where “[c]hildren play and dinosaurs roam near Eden’s Rivers.” Pinch yourself and remember that the Scopes trial ended eighty-five years ago this week.

The show, ladies and gentlemen, runs 24/7. And it’s free.



*I, of course, stand accused as a cog in that machine. A commenter on yesterday’s post in which I suggested mildly that the labor of illegal immigrants is a fact of economic life in the Republic that ought to be taken into account tagged me as just another librul, using the blue crab “as a cover for liberal (oh,so sorry, progressive) politics.” I suppose so, but it was that old lefty George W. Bush who put forward a reasonable bill recognizing this very situation, only to be sandbagged by his own party, whose addiction to nativist demagogy has cost it valuable Latino votes. Delicious.




Posted by John McIntyre at 12:04 PM | | Comments (8)

July 22, 2010

I don't want to pick crab either

A colleague told me that he got a call the other day from a reader complaining about The Sun’s use of the term illegal immigrant, preferring instead undocumented worker, and we went over the discussion of choices once again.

Undocumented worker is objectionable, in part, because not all illegal immigrants are workers. Besides, it’s a euphemism. Illegal alien I think we would want to restrict to beings from Betelgeuse who can’t produce proper papers. Illegal immigrant is as neutral a term as we have available.

I don’t much care for it, because the people who carry on about illegal immigrants seem to be unaware that the illegality is not precisely criminal — people get deported in civil proceedings, not in the criminal courts. The current New Yorker, though, points out that despite the carrying-on about crime by the governor of Arizona and its senior senator and many in the general population, law enforcement statistics show that crime on the border has actually diminished. People who ignore facts are unlikely to heed nuances of meaning.

With the Republic in the midst of one of its recurring bouts of nativist hysteria,* we’re going to have tricky points of usage to negotiate for a while.

So let’s talk about crabmeat instead.

Marylanders love blue crabs. In restaurants and backyard parties they crack the shells with mallets (or beer bottles) and wipe the Old Bay seasoning from their lips. They argue about recipes for crab cakes and their proper preparation. They serve either tomato-based crab soup or the cream version. Except for the squeamish, they eat soft-shell crabs, appendages and all. Visitors to the Free State believe that they are required by statute to consume crab in some form.

The only thing Marylanders are reluctant to do with crab is to prepare it commercially. Every year a federal program permits a group of Mexican women to come, legally and temporarily, to the Eastern Shore to work in the packing houses picking crabmeat. What may be pleasant out in the back yard with friends and family on a summer afternoon is a tedious and unpleasant job that pays low wages, and Marylanders are unwilling to do it. The packing houses plead for renewal of the program because, they say, without the Mexican women coming up to pick crabmeat, they would have to shut down.

There you have an epitome of the larger situation and its issues. There is work that Americans will not do, even in a time of high unemployment, and there are many Mexicans willing to do these jobs for low wages — effectively subsidizing the standard of living that better-off middle-class American citizens enjoy.

It’s not quite clear to me why the proponents of free-market capitalism have not been explaining this patiently to us during the back-and-forth over immigration law and enforcement.

Anyhow, illegal immigrant stands.


*You remember, first we didn’t much like all those Germans, and then all that Irish trash came over the water, and after that the Italians and the Poles and all those Jews, and Chinese on the West Coast, and locking up the Japanese-Americans in camps after Pearl Harbor, and now all those Latinos creeping across the border to pick our fruit and cut our grass and make the beds in our hotel rooms.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:06 AM | | Comments (10)

July 21, 2010

Plug in; keep up

I know that it occupies a lot of your attention and energy to keep up with the Kardashians and other vital matters, but if you can spare a few moments, here are some things that you might find informative and useful:


New rules and old rules being retired in the forthcoming sixteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, thanks to The Subversive Copy Editor:


A succinct summary at Language Log about the brouhaha over Andrew Breitbart’s credulous dissemination of the maliciously edited video that has cost Shirley Sherrod her job at the Department of Agriculture. Beyond the circumstances of this particular case lies the troublesome issue of how much responsibility bloggers and online publications can be expected to take to verify material before publishing it.


Though focused on, Craig Silverman’s article on the need for a well-thought-out corrections policy for online publications has wider implications.


Andy Bechtel presents an interview with Julie Wildhaber, who explains the rationale behind Yahoo’s style guide.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:00 PM | | Comments (3)

Back in the day

In Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing, Ved Mehta describes the editing routine over which William Shawn presided:

The routine of submissions for long fact pieces was as tedious as it was formidable. Whereas manuscripts that were developed from ideas discussed with Mr. Shawn went directly to him, unsolicited manuscripts were culled for him by readers, and any that looked at all promising were sent to his apartment. ... The ones he accepted would be sent up to the typing pool, and it would prepare triple-spaced copies with big margins for editing. The typed manuscripts would be read aloud and checked against the author’s originals, then sent back to Mr. Shawn, and he would put them in his own pile for editing or eventually assign them separately to one of the four or five fact editors. He would generally tell the editor how long a manuscript should be and whether it should be edited to run in one issue or several issues, If it was to run in several issues, the editor was required not only to re-identify in the later parts every person and event mentioned in the earlier ones but also to do so in a way that would orient readers picking up the series in the middle but would not irritate those who had read it from the beginning. This basic editing was generally done without consultation with the author. Then the edited manuscript was sent to the copy desk, which was restricted to making routine corrections in spelling and punctuation. From there it traveled to the makeup department and on to the printing plant, to be set up in galleys. The galleys got at least three readings besides those of the author, the assigned editor, and Mr. Shawn. They were read by Greenstein, who went over the piece for legal problems; by a checker, who made sure that every fact was correct; and by Eleanor Gould, who read them for grammar, sense, clarity, and consistency, and whose queries and notes were sometimes almost as long as the text. The galleys, once the editor handling the piece had dealt with the queries, were sent to the collating department, and there all the changes were consolidated and transferred to what was known as the reader’s proof. During that process, conflicts among various changes were resolved by the editor of the piece. The reader’s proof then went to the makeup department and the printing plant to be put into page. The page proofs were read not only by the checker, who would make any late fixes needed to keep up with current events, and by Mr. Shawn, who tried to reread everything before it ran, but also by a proofreader and an, both of whom were seeing the piece for the first time. The new changes were consolidated on a new reader’s proof and were read through again by the to iron out any new conflicts. The checker and the editor got one last look. If there were revised pages, as there often were, the whole process was repeated.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 AM | | Comments (5)

The Rules of Disparagement

I suggested yesterday in the “Word snobbery” post that the term grammar Nazi merits an unfavorable look. I think it is objectionable both as an exaggeration and as a violation of the contemporary Rules of Disparagement.

Those rules are not legislated, but they have grown from a more powerful force than law: public opinion. The basic principle, briefly stated, is that you can use insulting language only about groups of which you are a member. There are, as usual, exceptions, which we will get around to. But first the basics.

Thus, African-Americans can freely use the coarsest and vilest language about black people among themselves, but white people are ill-advised to play with racial stereotypes, as Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams discovered in recent days.

Gay people may also use vulgar and offensive terms to one another that straight people had better not. Women too. I can, if I wish, be mordant about Appalachians on the strength of birth and upbringing, but you non-crackers can mind your manners. Obese people might chaff one another about fatness, but the lean look mean if they do so. Do you get the drift?

This is not law but good manners.

Nazis are a specialized case, and that language works this way. Grammar Nazi is an extension of the soup Nazi jokes popularized in an episode of Seinfeld. Jerry Seinfeld, like Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel, gets to make jokes about Nazis and Hitler. Gentiles, however, can steer clear.

Beyond specialized cases, there are the exceptions, the classes that everyone should feel free to disparage. The main such class is middle-aged white guys. They may have started to whine that they are victims, but look around and see who is still running business, industry, and government. If you want to enjoy money and power, then you can accustom yourself to the jeers of those who enjoy neither. Have at them.


*But I am not here to condemn so much as to help. If I deny you grammar Nazi, I can at least offer a constructive suggestion. How about grammar Prussian? Doesn’t the image of an imperious, monocled, dueling-scarred Von with a spike on his hat suit the purpose admirably? Just remember: you heard it here.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:06 AM | | Comments (24)

July 20, 2010

Don't shrink from the polysyllable

Carol Fisher Saller isn’t afraid of Big Words. Neither am I. Neither should you be.* Read what she has to say about them at The Subversive Copy Editor.

What she is trying to tell you in that post is a variation on a familiar theme: In writing and editing, there is no substitute for judgment. Many short words pack a punch, and many words of Anglo-Saxon origin can be more effective than Latinate counterparts. But that isn’t always the case.

You have to match up vocabulary with subject, audience, occasion, and publication, and that requires developing judgment. If you heed those one-sentence oversimplifications and dogmas about writing — always pick the short word rather than the long one; never use the passive voice, &c., &c. — you will deny yourself the full resources of the language.


*Of course, best beloved, if you weren’t comfortable with Big Words, you wouldn’t be reading this blog in the first place. Have I told you recently how much I enjoy having a literate audience?


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:59 PM | | Comments (8)

Word snobbery

In complaining about broadcasters — an easy sport, but an irresistible one — I deplored their tendency to pronounce the t in often. Jan Freeman took up the point in her excellent blog, Throw Grammar From the Train.

Two points are indisputable, and I bow to Ms. Freeman: Offen was the dominant traditional pronunciation for centuries, but sounding the t became common in the twentieth century. Both pronunciations are current among educated speakers.

My speculation, based on personal observation, is that the t was sounded by middle-class people concerned with appearing educated, and, middle-class people with status anxiety being numerous, they gradually made the previously scorned pronunciation commonplace.

Further illustration of Bernard Shaw’s point that everyone is judgmental about spoken language comes from comments on Ms. Freeman’s post:

From Larry Larson: “I say the ‘t’. And I am a grammar Nazi. Am I wrong? I don't think so. Older American dictionaries might I find the OFF-en pronunciation throws people into the same speaking category as those who say ‘libary’ and ‘seprit’. But that's just me.”

And from someone wisely choosing to remain anonymous: “OFF-ten has always been the traditional educated American pronunciation. Offen is a pronunciation for people who warsh their clothes in the crick and write with a pin.”

Perhaps we can discuss another time why grammar Nazi is not a term to display with pride. And as far as Anonymous is concerned, the commonly accepted Rules of Disparagement in American culture allow me to make remarks about people from Appalachia, but you cannot unless you also grew up there.

As the point of what has been the traditional educated pronunciation, I refer you to the first edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage: “The sounding of the t, which as the OED says is ‘not recognized by the dictionaries’, is practised by two oddly consorted classes—the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours ... & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell. ...” 




Posted by John McIntyre at 1:51 PM | | Comments (6)

July 19, 2010

How cornball can I get?

See at today's "Joke of the Week":



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:54 AM | | Comments (3)

July 18, 2010


It seemed to me when I posted the other day that Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage had pretty well demolished any gossamer distinction between like and such as, even though it lingers in journalistic superstition.

Besides, the AP Stylebook has no entry on it. Neither does Garner’s Modern American Usage. Burchfield’s New Fowler’s is silent on the subject. John Bremner does not bring up the point. Theodore Bernstein dismissed the objection to like in the sense of such as: “The argument is specious because like does not necessarily mean identical.”

But I see that my friend and colleague Bill Walsh finds merit in it, arguing in Lapsing Into a Comma: “The phrase players like Borg, Conners and McEnroe could be read as excluding the very players it mentions. If the meaning is “Borg, Conners, McEnroe and players like them,” you could phrase it just like that, or you could write players such as Borg, Conners and McEnroe.

One commenter on the post made very much the same point.

I propose a put-up-or-shut-up test, assuming that virtually all of you neglected to check out the Merriam-Webster’s entry I cited. Here are the eight examples from that entry. I have given you a choice of like or such as in each. Without sneaking out to see what the authors originally wrote, tell me what proper usage demands in each case.


“Attended” instead of “went to” is taboo with people [like/such as] Mrs. Worldly. (Emily Post)

... and you get more benefit reading someone [like/such as] Hemingway, where there is apparently a hunger for a Catholic completeness in life. (Flannery O’Connor)

Phrases [like/such as] three military personnel are irreproachable and convenient. (Roy Copperud)

It has been used in advertising copy [like/such as] the following. (Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage)

Avoid clipped forms [like/such as] bike, prof, doc. (Hans Guth)

... a mere box-office success [like/such as] Kiss and Tell (George Jean Nathan)

A writer [like/such as] Auden for instance, or [like/such as] Rex Warner, might do a fruitful parody. (G.S. Fraser)

... some very outre works, things [like/such as] Swift’s poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed” (Paul Fussell)



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:15 PM | | Comments (11)

July 17, 2010

English as she is legislated

Over at Johnson, the Economist’s language blog, they’re having a little fun with Homer, Illinois, which has tried to make a splash for itself in the news by making English the official language of the town.

I commend the post to your attention, mainly because it reprints the entire text of the resolution, which is predictably hilarious.

Stay for the comments, which include submissions by some Defenders of Our Borders and Way of Life. In fairness, the comments in favor of the ordinance are considerably more literate than the ordinance itself. Not that it takes much to accomplish that feat.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 PM | | Comments (3)

Cranky in the heat

My colleague Rob Kasper has an editorial in this morning’s Sun explaining why he gets cranky during Artscape.* His reason is that he lives in the neighborhood most inconvenienced by the crowds and the blocked streets. For my part, it’s just as well that I’m at work every Artscape weekend, because attending it makes it progressively more difficult for me to maintain the illusion that I like other people.

And now for some non-Artscape matters:


No worries about data

On Twitter @Precise Edit posts, “If we use "data" as singular, we hinder ability to discuss an individual data point, i.e., datum.” I hesitate to differ with anyone favoring precision — my nickname within the family when I was seven years old was “Mr. Precise,” not applied admiringly — but I don’t see the problem here.

Datum is less frequently used, but it is always clear that it refers to a single unit of information. Data is equally clear as a mass noun or a count noun in context. That data has become an English word understood to be either singular or plural may be a matter of regret to Latinists (sorry, Alice), but it’s not a cause for the rest of us to fret.

Also, I don’t care much whether you say “dayta” or “datta.” It’s too hot to argue.


Your tax dollars at work

One of my regular correspondents has made a discovery: “In the Government Printing Office Style Manual, the correct spelling for a particular term of abuse is ‘stupidhead,’ unless used as a unit modifier, in which case it is ‘stupid-head.’ ”

She comments: “What this term is doing in the GPO Manual in the first place is not explained.” Can anyone suggest where, apart from the Congress, this rule in intended to apply?


Thanks for the endorsement

Dave Wilton comments on my post “And you call yourself a prescriptivist?” at “McIntyre ‘gets it.’ Very few people who dispense writing advice realize or acknowledge that different registers and voices are appropriate for different audiences, and the “rules” of style need to be adjusted accordingly.”


The science of swearing

Someone forwarded to me a link to a fine piece of British science, the Periodic Table of Swearing, which I commend to you. No, I am not going to link to it, for a couple of reasons. It is NSFW.** And I’m a little hesitant to draw attention to one of the milder elements, prat, because as the term moves up the scale, it develops into prat in a hat. You see immediately why that would make me feel vulnerable. I have no wish to be turned into an illustration for one of the darker Dr. Seuss stories.



*Non-Baltimoreans: Artscape is an open-air festival during the hottest, muggiest weekend of the year during which something like 300,000-400,000 people clog the streets in the middle of the city to gorge themselves on street food and perhaps listen to a little music or look at a little art.

**Not Safe For Work





Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (3)

July 16, 2010

No difference

When the language develops useful distinctions of meaning, Henry Fowler thought, scrupulous writers strive to maintain those distinctions.

Thus it still makes sense to insist that imply and infer are not interchangeable and that cement and concrete are not quite the same thing.

But a good deal of advice about language attends to distinctions that are so minuscule as to be a waste of time to uphold (lawyer and attorney in all but the most technical legal contexts) or, worse, arbitrary and artificial (over and more than).

A reader recently commented on his difficulty in maintaining the distinction he had been told about — he’s not a native speaker of English — between like and such as.

He is joined in bemusement by the editors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, who say this about the supposed necessity of using like for resemblances and such as for examples*:

“[T]he issue of ambiguity, which evidently underlies the thinking of those who urge the distinction, is probably much overblown.”

The entry cites a number of examples, commenting about them that in some “you cannot be sure whether examples or resemblances are intended, but the meaning of the sentence works out to be the same under either interpretation. And in none of the examples that follow can you detect any ambiguity of meaning, either as they are written with like or as they would read if you substituted such as. …”

My advice: Don’t listen for whistles that only dogs can hear.


*You can, by this reasoning, look like McIntyre, but not be an editor like McIntyre. You could be, if fate were cruel, an editor such as McIntyre. Not even the Associated Press Stylebook goes for this one.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 PM | | Comments (10)

July 15, 2010

And you call yourself a prescriptivist?

During workshops yesterday at the Frederick News-Post, I was cruising through my catalogue, familiar to readers of this blog, of outdated and bogus rules of usage and indicating places in which the language is plainly shifting.

As usual, I got questions from participants trained in the everything-is-either-right-or-wrong-there-is-no-shade-of-gray school. And, though everyone was quite polite, I could sense some worrisome thoughts forming among the listeners: Are there no rules any longer? Has he turned his coat? Abjured the faith? Gone over to the Dark Side?

In my house there are many Englishes, and the mistake that some teachers and many mavens made is to talk as if there were only one legitimate variety. So the Tory-Tory-hallelujah faction in Britain scorns Americanisms, John Simon and that crowd carry on about the fancied corruption of the language, and everyone deplores the way the Young People speak and write.

Yet even in the sacred realm of Standard Written English, the dialect that all are enjoined to protect from the encroaching barbarism, there is a whole continuum of usage. Academic writing is at one impenetrable end of that continuum (mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be scholars), daily newspapers, with all their solecisms, at another. A publication like The New Yorker, reasonably formal but conversational (especially now that it’s OK for its writers to use Bad Words) stands somewhere in the middle range.

In my own writing, there are usages that I insist on for myself and also do for others, usages that I have given way on, and still others that I uphold for the satisfaction of my own taste,while realizing that they are probably lost causes. These are judgments, and writing and editing are inseparable from the constant making of judgments.

The starting point for judgment is your personal set of preferences, developed through what you were taught, what you have learned through weighing the arguments of the conflicting authorities, and what your sense of where the language is at this moment, as derived from your widest range of reading and listening.

Then, in your writing and editing for publication, you bend your personal tastes and preferences to judgments based on a three-part set of questions: Is this usage appropriate for this subject? Is it appropriate for this audience? Is it appropriate for this publication?

There are still rules, but fewer than you were probably taught. The judgments are endless.



To those who have inquired about the photograph from the post of July 7, I neither own nor wear white shoes.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:14 AM | | Comments (1)

July 13, 2010

Punctuational polygamy

In the copy I edit I am frequently coming across constructions like his wife Gertrude.*

Let’s think this through.

If Gertrude were a daughter and the construction were his daughter Gertrude, we could infer that the man has more than one daughter and we are singling out the one named Gertrude. If the construction were his daughter, Gertrude, we could infer that the man has one daughter, whose name we are supplying parenthetically.

Now, what can we infer from his wife Gertrude? (1) He has more than one wife, and we are focusing on the one named Gertrude, or (2) Our writer has a cloudy understanding of what commas are for.


*If you think that the sentence should have read such as rather than like, you are mistaken, but we’ll take that up another time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 AM | | Comments (19)

July 12, 2010

Bonus Monday

It’s my day off, so what better things to do that to sit at the iMac and offer you a second post for the day?

Never mind. I can think of them too. Anyhow:

How you talk

Jan Freeman responds at Throw Grammar From the Train to yesterday’s post on the annoying things broadcasters say with the salutary reminder that it’s tricky to gauge people’s class pretensions from their pronunciations. She’s quite right (though from my own experience I still think that pronouncing the t in often is a classic piece of middle-class inept efforts to climb another notch up the ladder).

It’s also the case that people who have not heard a word will pronounce it according to the spelling they have encountered, which is likely why pronouncing comptroller as it’s spelled rather than as controller has become so widespread.


Words you don’t like

Stan Carey, writing at Sentence first, reminds us that “It’s not a word” is a bogus argument. You know damn well what that word means; you just don’t like it. While you’re at it, drop “It’s not in the dictionary” from your arguments about words. Dictionaries (a) do not encompass the entire language and (b) do not have legislative powers over it.


Based in fact

You may have read columns by George Will and Charles Krauthammer claiming that President Obama is excessively devoted to the first-person, singular pronouns, or one by Kathleen Parker asserting that the president is unduly smitten with the passive voice. Then you should also read the posts at Language Log and HeadsUp conclusively demolishing those contentions.

No doubt it is naive of me to imagine that opinion columnists might trouble themselves to ground their views in fact. But really, you would think that they might be shrewder than to make assertions so immediately and easily vulnerable to refutation.

More than displaying their ignorance of the English language, they are also embracing a flawed mode of argument. You may not share the president’s principles. You may think that his policies are misguided or his decisions defective. Many on the right do. So do many on the left. Then argue the merits. If you start arguing from what you perceive to be his personality (he’s egocentric; he’s passive), then you are no better than the people across the aisle who argued that because President George W. Bush was prone to verbal gaffes, he was stupid.

Moreover, if your argument is that President Obama is egocentric, you will, whether you intend to or not, give ammunition to the people who think you are calling him “uppity” and will conclude that your arguments against him can be ignored because they are merely racist. You can do better than that. Your readers deserve better than that.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:13 PM | | Comments (5)

Under the hood

The Subversive Copy Editor, bless her heart, addresses the issue of whether editors are creative. We know that writers are, bless their hearts, when they aren’t off drinking cocktails with Scott and Zelda or running with the bulls at Pamplona with Hem. We editors just sit quietly at the chimney corner, mumbling to ourselves.

(Of course, I myself am among the writers with the largest audience in Baltimore, larger than the combined audiences of Taylor Branch, Anne Tyler, and the other local luminaries: For more than twenty years I have been writing front-page headlines for The Baltimore Sun, texts read every day by hundreds of thousands of readers. Top that.)

But even if you mistakenly disallow any creativity to editors, you will ultimately have to confess your need for us. You may be a racecar driver, but you will need mechanics. We, the editors, are the people you must turn to when there is something amiss in the works, and we are the ones to lift the hood for a look.

We can fix that annoying rattle, and when you worry why the “CHECK ENGINE” light comes on and won’t go off, we can find the trouble and fix it. We make sure that your brakes work. When you burn out the transmission, we rebuild it. When you smash into something, we do the body work.

And if you really want it to look nice, we’ll detail it for you.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:39 AM | | Comments (6)

July 11, 2010

Turn that thing off

My learned colleague Bill Walsh appears to be an even-tempered and amiable fellow, talking and writing reasonably about English usage. His workshops at the American Copy Editors Society’s conferences are genial and low-key. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard him raise his voice, certainly not in anger.

But when someone couples an with a lightly stressed han historic, for example — it gets up his nose, as the Brits say. You can see that from his comments on “Don’t get in an huff”:

Broadcasters tend to say "an" and then a very, very strongly aitchy "historic." I would say "an HHHHHHHHHistoric" qualifies as wrong, even if you look the other way at "an istoric" or "an (h)istoric."

I guess I also cry foul at those who say HHistoric this and HHistoric that but then say istoric when and only when an indefinite article is called for, FOR THE SOLE PURPOSE of saying "an." Putting the cart before the orse, you might say.

I suggested, mildly, as is my custom, that it’s “not even among the top hundred idiotic things broadcasters do or the top hundred irritating affectations,” to which Mr. Walsh replied, “Bring on that top-100 list!” So it’s a challenge.

The problem is that I stopped watching local broadcast news some time back — you know how I get — and therefore can only make a start on such a list. I have to depend on the rest of you to flesh it out. For starters:


Using whom when the pronoun is the subject of a clause: The car was driven by a young man whom police said fled the scene.



disinterested for uninterested or apathetic

enormity for “some big thing”

ironically for coincidentally



Sounding the t in often

Pronouncing comptroller as comp-troller rather than con-troller

There should be a special category for the finicky hyper-pronunciations on classical music stations — Bach uttered as if the announcer suffered from catarrh, or a Spanish name pronounced as if the studio were in the foothills of Andaluthia.



HIV virus

mass exodus

safe haven



In cop-speak, people are ejected from cars, not thrown.



You can be sure that if there’s rain at a parade, someone will say that it didn’t dampen the spirits of the participants.



rain event for rain

white stuff for snow



One Baltimore station broadcast a series on testicular cancer for which the title was “Guarding the Family Jewels,” apparently unaware that family jewels for testicles is (a) vulgar and (b) badly dated slang. Are we in 1955?




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (17)

July 9, 2010

Persuaded or convinced?

At the outset, an admission: The distinction between persuade and convince has been so thoroughly eroded that any effort to maintain it is futile. I observe it in my own writing, but it is probably a waste of time and attention to hold others to it.

Nevertheless, there is a nuance here that a careful writer might still want to recognize and uphold.

The traditional explanation of the distinction is that the one verb is related to action, the other to a state of being, with the appropriate prepositions: One is persuaded to do something or convinced of something.

I have no great faith in the power of the prepositions to help writers observe a distinction, but I can point out a slight but significant difference in meaning. Convince is stronger than persuade. I might be persuaded to attend a Lady Gaga concert (bribed with fantastic sums, incapacitated by drink, held at gunpoint), but I will never be convinced that it is a good idea.

Persuaded? Better yet, convinced?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:31 AM | | Comments (16)

July 8, 2010

Don't get in an huff

Twice within the past twenty-four hours the a/an-before-h question has been put to me.

Answering the first inquiry, I sent links to two previous posts addressing the issue* and received a polite thanks in return.

Then I received this message of Facebook:

[W]hat about newscasters and others saying "an historic (anything)" on-air? A local news executive has said to me that "an historic ..." is easier to say on-air than "a historic ..." Really, I guess I can han "an hat" on it with "an hand over an heart." Sheesh!

So let me try once again to clear this up.

If words begun in an h that is not aspirated, we all use an: an heir. If words begin with an aspirated h, we use a: a hat.

But when a word beginning with h is not stressed on the first syllable, the h is not strongly aspirated, and some speakers (I am one) are inclined to find an more congenial: an hotel, an historic, an Hispanic. Both choices have been acceptable over time, although an hotel sounds archaic or stagy to many modern ears.

This is the thing to remember: Neither choice is wrong. You get to speak as it suits you, and damn the eyes of anyone who denies you that freedom. If you are writing or editing for a publication that expresses a preference, follow that preference.

And the next time you are trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored, pick an object for your anger that amounts to something.





Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (16)

Counsel may approach

On being asked who was a gentleman who had just quitted a party, Samuel Johnson answered that, though he hesitated to speak ill of any man behind his back, he believed the gentleman was an attorney.

While I was sleeping, exchanges were multiplying on Twitter between @The_CopyEditor and others about the lawyer/attorney distinction. I can offer a simple solution: Don’t bother.

Garner’s Modern American Usage points out that though an attorney may not be a lawyer but simply someone acting on behalf of another, in practice the two terms “are not generally distinguished even by members of the legal profession.” Theodore Bernstein, Garner says, tried to make the distinction that a lawyer is an attorney only when working on behalf of a client — a distinction “rarely, if ever, observed in practice.”

Since Mr. Garner is also the editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary and author of several books on law and legal language, I’m content to take his views as representing settled usage. And even the Associated Press Stylebook has twigged* to the circumstance that “[i]n common usage the words are interchangeable.”

I have known copy editors who would mark up proofs to change lawyer to attorney, and others who would mark proofs to change attorney to lawyer. There may still be places where this kind of pointless, graph-hooking** triviality may count as editing, but I hope not.

Tomorrow, if I feel strong enough, I may return to convince and persuade.


*Twig (v.) is another of those handy British usages. It means “to suddenly realize,” with the implication that one has previously been a little thick.

**In olden times, little ones, a copy editor would take his pencil and mark the beginning of each paragraph with a symbol like a capital L so that the typesetter would know to indent that line. The symbol was called a graph hook or graf hook. A copy editor who turned in a text with nothing on it but the graph hooks was called a graph hooker — that is, a lazy employee who evidenced only the appearance of editing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (10)

July 7, 2010

Glimpsed ...

... on Plymouth Road

What to wear when the temperature plummets to a mere 100 degrees


Photo by J.P. McIntyre

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:00 PM | | Comments (17)

Cocking a snook

The 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style is coming out this fall, and Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor herself, has been tweeting peeks of what is to come.*

The latest, which I am prepared to adopt here, is that the titles of blogs are to be written in italics, the titles of blog posts in roman type surrounded by quotation marks. Chicago prefers headline casing, or what newspapers call “upstyle”: capitalization of the first word and everything else except the definite and indefinite articles and prepositions.

What Chicago advises is not necessarily the practice that newspapers, too slavishly devoted to AP, will follow, but when I brought this blog back to, I swore that I’m keeping the Oxford comma, and I will continue cock a snook at the AP in these posts whenever it suits me.


*You people who get giddy when you get your hands on a new edition of the AP Stylebook might keep in mind that Chicago is the manual for serious fetishists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:45 AM | | Comments (11)

July 6, 2010

The burden of omniscience

Last week one of my readers sent a note questioning the placement of a comma in one of these posts, which, she thought, permitted an ambiguous reading of a sentence. I had a look, concluded that the objection was apt, and corrected the passage. I thanked my correspondent, who replied that she hoped I didn’t mind her approaching me on the point directly, without a lot of “flowery preliminaries.”

No, I didn’t.

Some writers are so touchy that accomplishing anything with them requires a forelock-tugging, beggin’-your-pardon-guv’nor approach. They are the ones who want to look over your shoulder during the editing to demand that you justify every last keystroke. You can’t excise so much as a preposition phrase without hearing that they fall upon the thorns of life, they bleed. Spare me.

But I am an editor (and a sloppy typist as well), without pretensions to infallibility. If you spot something wrong or questionable, I’d prefer that you inform me directly and concisely — not that many of you appear to be at all reluctant to play a brisk round of Correct the Copy Editor. I’ve previously quoted a line from one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries in which Wolfe says that he welcomes corrections “because they relieve me of the burden of omniscience.”

What matters is the text. Is it clear? Is it accurate? Is it grammatical? That’s what you care about most, and that‘s what I care about most. Yes, I will wince when you drop notice of an error in front of me, but the ease of my ego is at best a secondary consideration.

No need to approach on tiptoe. We’re grown-ups here, and I work at being a professional as well.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:30 AM | | Comments (2)

July 5, 2010

Yes, it is hot enough for me, thank you

If you are in Baltimore today, I trust that you, too, are inside nursing a g&t, because stepping outside into the heat is like getting hit in the face with a shovel.

It’s a holiday and a light day, so all I’m offering, if you haven’t already been informed of it on Twitter or Facebook, is the Joke of the Week:

Back to the blog and the paragraph factory tomorrow.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:33 PM | | Comments (4)

July 3, 2010

Where's the love for Dudley Buck?

When I wrote yesterday, “For a more glorious Fourth,” about the deplorable prevalence of Tchaikovsky’s shoddy 1812 Overture at Independence Day concerts, I neglected to link to the post by Tim Smith at Clef Notes that inspired my ruminations.

You should have a look to see whether his argument persuades you. Apparently The New York Times found something in it.

There have also been energetic arguments in favor of John Philip Sousa, which I entirely endorse. If you do not have the Delos recording (DE3102) of The Original All-American Sousa by Keith Brion and his New Sousa Band, you might want to get your hands on it. It includes a brief recording of Sousa himself introducing a 1929 performance of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and a handful of other marches, alongside Brion’s vigorous performances.

But as yet there is no groundswell for Dudley Buck’s Festival Overture on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” more’s the pity. I first heard it played on WONO in Syracuse around the time of the Bicentennial. Someone, Henry Fogel or Kaaren Hushagen, had come across a recording and played it on the Fourth. It is not a great piece of music — neither is the 1812 — but in the proper hands it could be a fitting addition to the national repertoire. It is, after all, our own.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (7)

July 2, 2010

For a more glorious Fourth

My worthy colleague Tim Smith, The Sun’s music critic, questioned this week why we have to have the 1812 Overture as the centerpiece of every Independence Day concert with fireworks.

Indeed, why associate our national holiday with Tchaikovsky’s gimcrack celebration of General Kutuzov’s thwarting of Napoleon at the Battle of Borodino? Mr. Smith’s suggestion is to rework the Tchaikovsky overture (which the composer apparently despised anyhow) by inserting a version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in place of the czarist hymn at the climax.

But have we no national music worthy of the day? Indeed we do. We have the Festival Overture on “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by Dudley Buck, orchestrated from his set of variations for the organ. It is not frequently heard, and recordings are scarce, but it is available. And you can set off fireworks to it as well as to any other composition.

Too late for this year, but perhaps next Independence Day some conductor will have the grit to Bring Back Buck.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:35 PM | | Comments (12)

Friday on a holiday weekend

You’re off to the beach or the mountains or the neighborhood barbecue. I’m off to the news desk for today, tomorrow, and Sunday. Don’t cry me a river; just check out the items below before you check out for the weekend.

Hot damn: The Library of America is bringing out H.L. Mencken’s complete Prejudices series in two volumes, an excellent and thoughtful [cough] Christmas/birthday/anniversary present for that bookworm in your life.

A loss to literature: Sorry to report that Beryl Bainbridge has died. You may have read years ago her grimly comic Bottle Factory Outing, but she captured my heart with According to Queeney, a magnificent historical novel about Samuel Johnson in his last years with Mrs. Thrale and her family. Reading one of her books would be a tribute to her.

Who could tell?: Jan Freeman quotes a wicked anti-prescriptivist suggestion from Language Hat: Someone should arbitrarily denounce a perfectly good word, or compare two equally correct English sentences and announce that one is good and the other bad, and then watch the prescriptivist forces fall into line.

English majors will recall the terrifying experiment in I.A. Richards’s Practical Criticism, in which he removed authorial identification from thirteen poems, some celebrated and some low-grade, discovering that without the marks of prestige readers had difficulty separating the good from the bad.

Separating the true authorities from the bogus is equally tricky.

THAT’S what they meant: The language blog Johnson at The Economist goes from strength to strength. A couple of days ago it explained what was back of the Russian diplomatic language about the latest espionage brouhaha.

Only one more week: You think Twitter will stop overloading every ten minutes once the damn World Cup is over?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (5)

If I've told you once ...

I sometimes suspect that fellow journalists are former seminarians, because so many of them appear to have been instructed by a homiletics professor, “Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em, tell ’em, and tell ’em what you told ’em.”

 The suspicion grows particularly strong when I spot the all-too-frequent device of the lead-up to the quoted statement that duplicates the quoted statement:

The sheriff said that authorities know of no motive for the killing.

“We don’t know of any motive for the killing,” the sheriff said.


 An analyst thinks that the company will probably do well in the long run.

“There may have some problems in the start-up, but I think that it will work out in the long run,” said Bruce Flannelmouth of Bluff, Equivocate & Associates.

Or perhaps these writers simply suspect that our attention is flagging. You can see how it might.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:47 AM | | Comments (7)

July 1, 2010

Politics and language

No doubt you recall how often George W. Bush’s political enemies chortled over his misadventures with the English language. What was back of the laughter was the understanding “What a dope, what a dolt, what a dunce.” But he wasn’t, and isn’t. Mr. Bush’s entire career shows that he is a shrewd politician who allowed his opponents to underestimate him. Ronald Reagan was another.

Older readers will recall how the same pattern played out with Dwight Eisenhower, who often as president took on the English language and wrestled it to a draw. But Ike was a canny general and, overall, a more successful president than many of his successors. Fluency is not necessarily a mark of intelligence or ability.

I bring this up because I want to give some wider currency to a post today on Language Log by Mark Liberman about some recent supposed analyses of Barack Obama’s speech patterns.

Professor Liberman takes some trouble to demolish recent articles by Kathleen Parker contending that Mr. Obama’s use of the passive voice makes him “feminine,” and Paul Payack arguing that the length of Mr. Obama’s sentences makes him “professorial.”

You will want to read the whole post, and probably to explore the many links to previous posts about the passive voice and Mr. Payack’s dubious assertions about language. But I’ll summarize a couple of salient points.

Professor Liberman looked at speeches by Mr. Bush and counted a higher rate of passives and longer sentences than in Mr. Obama’s speeches. These points should be reinforced: that length of sentences is not necessarily an index of clarity or impenetrability, and that the passive voice — even when the writer identifies it correctly — is not inherently masculine or feminine.

What we see in all these instances is a tendency, reinforced by journalistic practice, to start with a well-formed opinion, usually unfavorable, and then pile up superficialities to support it. And language, particularly for writers who are not all that reliable about the technicalities, readily supplies such superficialities.

Your opinions about Messrs. Eisenhower, Bush, Obama, and others are your own, and you have every right to them. But if you plan to trumpet them, you might make the effort to ground them in something substantial.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (5)
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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