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August 31, 2010

The things they ask me

A professorial colleague wrote earlier today about a construction that he thinks has become increasingly frequent: Firstname Lastname, professor at State rather than Firstname Lastname, a professor at State. He wonders what I think of this.

My first reaction was that the staccato prose that Time indulged in so freely has bled into writing more generally, abetted by the elliptical style of Twitter and text messages. And there may be something to that.

I lack data to form a better-established conclusion, but I suspect that a diligent search through texts of the past century or so might well show that such a construction is merely a stylistic variant. After all, I don’t think that anyone would misunderstand the omission of the indefinite article as implying that Professor Lastname is the professor at State. Anyone care to chime in? With examples?

Then, after I arrived at the paragraph factory, a colleague asked which of these constructions is preferable: Republican former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. or former Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. I chose the first, because it indicates that Mr. Ehrlich is a former governor, not a former Republican—not that any of our readers are apt to be misled by the second version.

I recommended, however, to use Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., the Republican former governor, to avoid an awkward pileup of nouns before the name.

That suggestion also gets around the touchy point of whether governor should be capitalized and abbreviated, The Chicago Manual of Style says that a title used in apposition before a name, as in the Ehrlich examples, should be considered a descriptive phrase rather than a title and therefore spelled out and lowercased.

The Associated Press Stylebook, of course, says the reverse. AP apparently likes piling up capitalizations. It would love something like former President and Chief Justice of the United States William Howard Taft. And I am already embattled enough over nonsensical AP practices deeply embedded in journalistic convention that, recalling Napoleon’s ill-advised Russian campaign, I’m reluctant to open a second front.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:28 PM | | Comments (9)

August 30, 2010

I'm going to tell you one more time

I only hope that you, dear reader, are not among the people that worry about what the language is coming to. Since there are many misapprehensions about usage, often drilled into students’ heads till they stick for life, many people think that they are righting wrongs when they tell others that they write wrong. And it’s not a healthy practice to elevate your blood pressure every time someone’s usage evidences a presumed failure of education.

For further help in gaining perspective on usage, please see Jan Freeman’s latest “The Word” column in The Boston Globe, in which she reminds you of ten “un-rules”—usage myths, bogus rules. I’ve illustrated nine of the ten imaginary violations in the previous paragraph. I would have done all ten, but even though I am sadly prone to typos, I could not bring myself to include a deliberate misspelling in this post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (13)

August 29, 2010

Ragweed Sunday

Nature is making another run at me, so you’re just getting some disconnected fragments this afternoon.

Disconnect the damn grammar-checking function: Microsoft’s grammar-check is driving me nuts at work, flagging things as errors that are perfectly OK, and because I sign on to CCI’s version of Word from a network rather than from my desktop computer, I have to remember every day to shut it off.

Now, I find out from Patricia T. O’Conner that it also fails to flag whole categories of constructions that are flat-out wrong.

Shut it down. You’re still going to have to learn grammar and usage on your own.


Which dictionary to use: Mindy McAdams asked me on Facebook what dictionary I prefer to consult. Here’s a version of my answer.

At work and in my editing class at Loyola, I use Webster’s New World College Dictionary, because it is the basis for the Associated Press Stylebook. It is a serviceable enough dictionary, but it is by no means the best one available.

The American Heritage Dictionary, in both the main and college editions, is an excellent dictionary. Merriam-Webster, in both the unabridged and desk versions, is also reliable. I frequently use Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary for quick reference. The online version also has a useful thesaurus ready to hand. Why the AP persists in preferring the mediocre Webster’s New World when these two plainly superior sources are readily available I can only attribute to their continuing cluelessness.

But the dictionary I most like to use, even though it is a little unwieldy, is the New Oxford American Dictionary, a handsome, well-edited, and comprehensive dictionary. The etymological information is particularly helpful. And it is now out in the third edition, offering a lot for your money.


Name-calling: Alexander Ackley, an old friend and former student with whom I have been in touch periodically over the past thirty years—he’s editor of The Reactionary, which expresses political views not found on these premises—sent me an article from The Wall Street Journal on the prevalence of name-calling in what passes for political discourse these days.

James Taranto quotes Charles Krauthammer deploring that opponents of President Obama’s policies are routinely branded as racists, that supporters of Arizona’s immigration law are dismissed as nativists, that supporters of Proposition 8 in California are labeled homophobes, and opponents of the Islamic community center in Manhattan are merely Islamophobes and bigots. “Who can possibly govern a nation of racist, nativist, homophobic Islamophobes?” he asks.

Then it turns out, after such a promising beginning, to be no more than a screed about how the “literal elite” hates Americans. You see the sleight of hand there? That there are expressions of bigotry abroad cannot be denied—c’mon, you’ve seen the signs brandished at rallies, and you can read explicitly vicious comments online. If you speak out against these expressions of bigotry, you must hate Americans.

Thus Mr. Taranto comes implicitly to the same conclusion he levels against the liberal elite, that bigotry is the norm in America. There is nothing novel here. The insistent references in Palinology and Beckistry to “real Americans” is surely meant to be understood that anyone who disagrees cannot be genuinely American. And it is not hard to hear echoes of the remembered (not fondly) expression of forty and fifty years ago, “If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go back to Russia.”

Conservatism ought to be able to do better than this stale stuff.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:38 PM | | Comments (22)

August 28, 2010

Keep your crotchets under control

I would sooner wear my hat in church or drink my tea from the saucer than use the word normalcy in ordinary conversation or writing.* But that is merely a personal crotchet.

I understand perfectly well that the word was in use in English long before the egregious Warren Gamaliel Harding made it the catchword of his inept presidency. I wouldn’t presume to reprove anyone else for using it in conversation, no matter how Babbitty it sounded to me. That would be ungentlemanly. Neither would I excise it from quoted matter in an article, or even deny an author the freedom to use it. That would be to misuse the power of an editor.

That’s just one crotchet. I have many more, and I expect that you harbor a collection of your own. That’s to be expected. People have individual tastes and pronounced preferences.

The trick in editing is to recognize your own idiosyncratic preferences and not allow them to take control. Some people, especially those to whom a sip of authority has the same effect as two martinis on an empty stomach, find that more difficult than others.

As an editor, you are expected to know the rules of grammar and usage in standard written English, and to recognize when application of those rules is important—don’t imitate the editor E.B. White cites who changed a shocked husband’s “My God, it’s her!” to “My God, it’s she!” You are expected to know what level of diction is appropriate to the subject and the occasion.

Most difficult of all, you have to develop your own taste while recognizing its limits. The author you are editing has to do the same thing, and there the balance grows even more delicate. You will have to ask yourself, repeatedly, whether you are merely imposing some personal preference in the place of something that is perfectly all right, which is an abuse of your authority, or saving a writer from his or her own ineptitude, which is the reason you were given that authority.

If that leaves you questioning your own judgment, then you have achieved a state of what an experienced editor will recognize as normality.

And please, no peeving on the premises.  


*Except, as always, for sarcasm.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:35 PM | | Comments (2)

August 27, 2010

Reading is optional

A couple of days ago this exchange was reported in Overheard in the Newsroom:

Reporter 1, complaining about a story she was assigned to write: “I wouldn’t read this story.”

Reporter 2: “Sometimes you need to accept that not all stories are there to be read.”

Reporter 2 has identified a curious circumstance about newspaper publishing. Though the laity may imagine that editors choose to publish articles out of a belief that the audience will find them interesting enough to read, that is not necessarily the case. Other considerations may take precedence.

There is the Broccoli story, published not because it is readable or relevant to the reader, but because it is an Important Story that the reader Ought To Know About.

There is the Story of Record, largely devoid of interest but published because “we have to show that we noticed it.”

There is the Bespoke story, ordered up on a whim by some potentate, such as when an Important Person gets held up in traffic or gets approached by a panhandler and decides, in a staggering illumination, that the paper ought to write something about that. And the impotentates on the staff are charged with delivering it.

There is the Shelf Life story, which has lingered on the budget for days, perhaps weeks, without anyone showing a flicker of interest, until the weekend approaches and someone says, “We’ll burn that one off on Monday.” (Monday is a day when readership is typically low.)

There is the Nine Months Wonder, the major project on which a reporter, or team of reporters, has labored for a protracted time. No matter that the prose of the result is denser than uranium and the point, if it exists, is more difficult to determine than the current location of Judge Joseph Force Crater, if the paper has paid reporters’ wages for x weeks or months on this story, it is, by God, going to see print.

And finally there is the Page Eight story: “We have a hole on Page 8, and we don’t have anything else to put there.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:53 PM | | Comments (6)

August 26, 2010

Making meanings from scrap

One of the passages Roy Peter Clark quotes in The Glamour of Grammar (previously mentioned here) has been on my mind a good deal this week. It’s from Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands:

But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

This helps explain to me why so many have lately been expressing attitudes about Muslims that seem to have been preserved unchanged in the culture since the Habsburgs and their allies fought off the Turks outside Vienna in 1683. Or why some teacher’s superstition about infinitives or passive voice sticks in the mind and declines to be dislodged. Or how I might have been less rebarbative an adult had children and teenagers in eastern Kentucky in the 1960s been more tolerant and accepting of bookworms.

When Eliot says in The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” he is describing how we all arrive at meaning. We collect the things that Mr. Rushdie catalogues and them patch together in jerry-built structures that, once we inhabit them, we maintain to ensure our integrity and survival.

It would be pleasant to think, against all evidence, that people would be open to reason and new experience. And no doubt there are times when we find ourselves able to make a brief sortie out of the keep.

In the nearly five years since I began writing this blog, the exchanges with my readers, with other editors and writers, and with linguists have loosened me up considerably. I’ve come to recognize how often I have clung to some rule of usage merely because it was in a stylebook or a passing dictum by some author whose name I don’t even remember—a usage that I had never bothered to investigate to determine its validity and usefulness. There is also a recognition of how many times, when challenged on such a point of usage, I’ve felt that my integrity and authority were under attack and reacted accordingly.

So I try to keep in mind Cromwell’s plea to the synod of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:22 PM | | Comments (21)

Feel the power

Roy Peter Clark wants you to be empowered.

Empowerment comes through expression, particularly in writing, because power resides within words. He comes to this insight through the etymological connection between grammar and glamour. Grammar, which originally indicated the whole range of knowledge, became glamour in Scottish English for power in magic, spell-casting, the manipulation of language. (The transformation of the latter word into a label for women who wear too much makeup is a subject for another time.)

So if you want to be autonomous, to have some control over the external world and to influence the people in it, you must master the use of words, never more than when you write. We should all “be on the lookout for language that builds a bridge between the world of things and the world of ideas.”

Don’t cower. Dr. Clark, a fixture at the Poynter Institute for thirty years, doesn’t want you to be afraid. He wants you to relish language, explore it, exploit it, revel in it. In The Glamour of Grammar (Little, Brown, 294 pages, $19.99), he shows you the possibilities.

In fifty short essays on various aspects of writing—vocabulary, mechanics of writing, usage—he covers the territory. He wants you to make use of the full resources of English, quoting approvingly Camille Paglia’s appreciation of its “blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction.”

He wants you to wallow in the dictionary, use the serial comma (good man!), use the active and passive voices when either is appropriate, ignore language crotchets, recognize when nonstandard English will work, use different sentence lengths and forms for pacing, and illuminate the abstract with the particular.

For example, he says, “Language can be general or particular, and the reader or writer must be versatile enough to travel back and forth between the two. Writers and readers look for the small thing the represents the big thing, whether in the form of a microcosm) a closed auto plant used to exemplify the depressed economy), a telling detail (a man who wears his grandmother’s wedding ring in her honor), the objective correlative of the poet (the object that correlates to an emotion—the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain), or a specific example used to make a point or teach a lesson.”

If you have not twigged to it yet, he is not of the hectoring, bullying school of language advice. He is an encourager, and the splendid texts with which he illustrates his points indicate the catholicity of his tastes and his relish for good writing in all its forms. (He knows that if you want to be serious as a writer you must read widely.) He revels in language and thinks you can, too, and should.

As I mentioned, this is a book of short chapters. He points to rules and conventions that the effective writer must master, and he indicates the areas in which the writer must develop judgment, but this book is an introduction to the whole range of writing, not a comprehensive manual. It is a good book for an aspiring writer, humane and sensible about the great craft, relishing its possibilities and its power.

And even I, long sunk in drudgery, found it heartening.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 AM | | Comments (5)

August 24, 2010

A forthright political stand

No matter who objects, I deplore the sack of Rome by the Visigoths, on this date 1,600 years ago.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:18 PM | | Comments (14)

A spokesperson for sanity

The Baltimore Sun’s in-house stylebook used to have more than 3,000 entries: the bulk of it AP style entries, with local variations on AP, local place names, local crotchets, and the like. It existed only in electronic form, and about a year and a half ago a lapse of attention in IT allowed the server that carried it fail. It is irretrievably gone.

Since then, the paper has basically followed AP style, as recorded in old editions of the stylebook scattered around the premises, combined with spotty recollections of how we were accustomed to do things.

One thing we used to do was to change spokesperson to spokesman or spokeswoman whenever it popped up in copy. That prohibition survives in the current edition of the Associated Press Stylebook, which hesitates to leap on board with novelties. Of course, spokesperson hasn’t been all that much a novelty for forty years. But never mind. One senses that perhaps at AP they still bitterly regret having given up on the long s and the dieresis on coordinate.

I therefore take a rude pleasure every time I allow spokesperson to go into print. You should too.

Motivated Grammar has weighed in on the emotional and irrational resistance to gender-neutral terms, examining why some of them sound all right and some sound awkward. Spokesperson, he thinks, is here to stay, the wattle-shaking of various cranky old white guys notwithstanding.

Meanwhile, at After Deadline, the in-house newsletter on grammar and style at The New York Times, Philip Corbett takes aim at the false range. You know it, the journalistic crutch that lists “everything from x to y.” Mr. Corbett mentions a You Don’t Say post on the subject with measured approval and goes on to denounce it as a damnable cliche. And so it is.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:39 PM | | Comments (15)

August 23, 2010

Monday, bloody Monday again

So you’re at work today, goofing off at the Internet, while I, with the day off from the paragraph factory, am at the computer, about to work on an editing project. Poor devils all.

Assuming that you have already checked out the joke of the week at baltimoresun,com, here are some other things you can amuse yourself with instead of the things you are supposed to be doing.

If you are fluent in Ebonics, the dialect of English sometimes called black English, the Department of Justice might offer you a job. A reader forwarded this link to The Smoking Gun.

A couple of people have called my attention to, an effort to keep older words in circulation as they are pushed out of dictionaries by newer words. Feel free to adopt and use obscure words, and damn the eyes of anybody who tells you that you shouldn’t use any words that would be unfamiliar to a graduate of an American public high school.

A proud tweet from @PeterSokolowski points to a redesign at It is indeed a handsome new version of a site that all of you should be using regularly.

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out at Language Log the most impressive crash blossom yet. It is, of course, British, since British sub-editors have advanced the art well beyond anything American copy editors have accomplished: Council hires ban bid taxi firm. Watching the linguists try to wrestle this one to the ground is a major part of the fun.

Now, aren’t there other things you should be getting around to?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (4)

A room, a table, and a dozen chairs

The Baltimore Sun is running an article on Page One this morning about the arrival of the iPad on college campuses and how it is expected that that will change higher education.

No doubt it will, though one of my colleagues at Loyola has learned to shut off access to the Internet in the computer lab where he teaches so that his students don’t spend the entire class period on Facebook.

And I do not mean to stand in Luddite scorn at the Big Things that electronics are bringing to campus. Electronic access opens up a multitude of additional resources and can improve communication. In an increasingly electronic and interconnected world, it’s important not to fall behind, and vital to explore new possibilities.

But still, I remember wistfully my first look at a classroom at St. John’s College in Annapolis when my son enrolled there: a plain room with a table in the middle, a dozen chairs around the table, and a blackboard on one wall. Internet and iPad aside, that room was fully equipped for education.

Put in it a knowledgeable teacher, a group of students eager to learn, and some books. Let them read those books analytically and dissect one another’s arguments and master the rigors and precision of mathematics. Let them learn how to think and how to express their thoughts effectively. To do that, they already have with them the equipment for thinking.

If you don’t have that knowledgeable teacher or those students wanting to learn how to think, no amount of gadgetry will simulate an education.

School is starting again, and I’ll leave you today with the most valuable piece of advice I got as an undergraduate. In my freshman year at Michigan State, I was talking with Jean Nicholas in the Romance languages department about courses.

She said: Don’t take subjects; take teachers. If you want to learn a subject, go to the library. For your classes, find out who the interesting teachers are. You’re here to explore a variety of personalities and worldviews and senses of humor, and for that you have to choose teachers, not subjects.

Whenever I took that advice, I did well. Whenever I went against it, I wasted my time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 AM | | Comments (7)

August 22, 2010

Neither a bore nor a pander be

Christopher K. Sopher, writing at NiemanJournalismLab, thinks that news organizations have the potential to reach a vast audience of younger consumers interested in local, national, and international issues.


If news organizations can stop condescending to this potential audience by stereotyping its members. And if—this is where Mr. Sopher really caught my attention—they can get away from the “boring or fluffy” mind set, which he describes thus:

Most sectors of journalism thought have rejected the bimodal theory of news: either it’s inherently boring but deeply important (town council minutes) or entertaining but inane (Lindsey Lohan updates). Yet for some reason the assumption of bifurcation continues to pervade news outlets’ discussion of young people: Journalist types implore young people to eat more broccoli, while most news organizations’ efforts to reach young people assume they’re only interested in candy.

Actually, it is not just for young people that this attitude prevails in news organizations. It’s also the thinking, if that is the word, in the approach to older readers. We still get appallingly tedious dump-the-whole-notebook-without-getting-to-the-point articles because they are about important subjects (meetings and reports that were easy to cover).

As for inanity, well, look at the offerings on the main page of CNN, which tells us that it is the serious news site. “Cougars on the prowl? Maybe not” (Older-woman cougars, not big cats.) “’True Blood’ stars tie the knot” (“Tie the knot,” what a clever and original way to say “marry.”) “Aniston, Jon Stewart recall date” “Blagojevich won’t rule out comeback” “Animal-shaped cities planned”

I think that Mr. Sopher is on to something, that there may be an audience for journalism that is serious, clear, and focused.* For frivolity, too, so long as it is not obvious and cheap. (Maybe leave Ms. Aniston’s slender talent to the movie reviews and her tangled private life to herself?) Maybe if someone would try it, we could see whether it would work.


*Articles generally get clear and focused by an antiquated process known as editing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:58 PM | | Comments (4)

Stand up for the last Plantagenet

On this day in 1485, betrayed when the treacherous Stanleys switched sides in mid-battle, Richard III fell on Bosworth Field, shouting “Treason!” at the last.

Then the ascendant Tudor dynasty proceeded to blacken his reputation, with a biography by Thomas More and the supreme villainy of Shakespeare’s representation—what the BritLit professoriate refers to as the “Tudor propaganda machine.”

Perhaps you know better. You may have read Josephine Tey’s pleasant The Daughter of Time, in which a detective laid up in hospital gets fascinated by Richard II and gradually ferrets out the historical truth. You might have read in Paul Murray Kendall’s solid biography of 1956 that Richard was, by and large, a moderate and reforming monarch. You may have spotted a passing reference in one of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries that Wolfe removed More’s Utopia from his shelves because More “framed Richard III.”

Still, not much to be done. A restoration of the Plantagenets looks even less likely than a restoration of the Stuarts, so we’re stuck with these dreary descendants of the Hanoverians.

But if you are reaching for a gesture of solidarity with fact-based history, you might wear in your lapel today the white rose of the House of York.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (11)

August 21, 2010

Copy editors look things up

Those of you still enmeshed in antiquated reality-based, accuracy-inclined enterprises that limit your freedom to make things up to suit your (or your employer’s) views might want to have a look at Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s KOK Edit site.

The Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base page at that site—yes, she makes copy editor one word, but press on—has several useful categories, of which the handiest may be the Editing Tools section, which in turn displays a wealth of links to sites on which you can look things up. She takes some pains at maintaining and updating the links. You might just want to put Editing Tools on your desktop, or perhaps to go through it and bookmark the links most useful to your work.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:25 PM | | Comments (2)

August 20, 2010

Get out the tinfoil hats

The Brits have a term for this time of year; they call it the silly season, when the news media devote themselves even more than usually to frivolous stories and people indulge in outlandish behavior. I don’t know why—sunspots, global warming, continental drift?—but this summer has been even sillier than usual in the United States.** Consider:

*A poll shows that about a fifth of the populace imagines that the president of the United States is a Muslim.

*Something called Demand Media has filed for an initial public offering. Demand publishes eHow, which pays freelancers a penny a word for some remarkably stupid articles, such as “How to Calculate Age from Birthdate.”

*Some Republicans have called for repeal of the Fourteenth Amendment—you know, the one the Republicans pushed through in 1868 to guarantee civil rights.

*An English professor pitched a fit in a Starbucks in Manhattan over a barista’s asking her if she wanted butter or cheese on a bagel. This was happening about the time that JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater became some kind of folk hero for a public outburst of bad behavior.

*The governor of Arizona, without troubling to offer anything that might look like, you know, evidence, asserts that most illegal immigrants in her state are “drug mules.”

*The Orange County Register intends to publish photographs of its reporters with their stories. There are a number of reasons that print reporters did not go into television, and I’ll let you guess what one of them is.

*Andy Schlafly of Conservapedia and the Eagle Forum recently described Einstein’s theory as “heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.” Even I, without benefit of a class in physics, knew forty years ago that conflating relativity with moral relativism was a vulgar error.

*On Sunday, Keeping Up With the Kardashians will begin its fifth season.


**No, this is not a lead-in to another post about the proposed Islamic center in Manhattan, though getting a rise out of people who would like to see bigotry legitimized has its pleasures.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (19)

You'd need a dictionary for that

One Steve Huff complains at The New York Observer about some contemporary words that have been added to the Oxford English Dictionary:

The Internet has been infecting the Oxford Dictionary of English with already-dated web-based slang for years now. The newest list of words Oxford's lexicographers have deemed worthy of enshrining in their storied dictionary's pages reflects the emergence of social media and hacker terminology ... as well as abiding influence of slackerdom.

There are so many things wrong with these two sentences that one has to wonder whether Mr. Huff has ever looked into the OED's storied pages or, for that matter, troubled to educate himself on what dictionaries are for. Let’s take them in order.

1. The OED is a huge word hoard. It attempts to be comprehensive about the words that lodge themselves in English.

2. It is a dictionary on historical principles, showing the origin and development of words. It contains many that thrived for a time but are now obsolete, so “already-dated web-based slang” doesn’t disqualify anything.

3. It is not a shrine. It is a record of the language, high and low.

4. What appears to be lurking underneath this passage is the belief that the dictionary legitimizes words—remember all the English teachers who had the vapors when Webster’s Third International included ain’t?—and therefore in this case endorses slackerdom. Stated explicitly, it looks as fatuous as it is.

5. Someday someone is going to come across chillax, buzzkill, or bromance in a text and wonder what they mean and how they were used. That, Mr. Huff, is what dictionaries are for.



I carelessly overlooked that Mr. Huff was writing about The Oxford Dictionary of English, which emphasizes contemporary usages, not the OED. That said, there’s all the more reason for such a dictionary to include current and recent slang, and there is a fair likelihood that much or all of it will eventually pass through the sacred portals.

I am grateful for the comments pointing out my error. 




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:19 AM | | Comments (5)

August 19, 2010

First amendments first

Those of you who bridle when this blog touches on political topics, avert your gaze—though this may be the last time for a while that I address First Amendment issues, because ignorance on the subject, some of it willful, is too vast for my frail power to educate.

I understand that a Dr. Laura Schlessinger, who operates a radio program that I don’t listen to, is leaving the air because people objected to her use of racial slurs and she wants to be free to exercise her First Amendment rights. I thought that that was what she was doing in the first place. She is free to say as many objectionable things as she likes, as often as she chooses. And people who find her offensive are free to criticize her, exercising their First Amendment rights.

Odd that this concept should prove to be so difficult to grasp. Odd that it should be so equally difficult for people to grasp the point about that proposed Islamic center in Manhattan.

It’s clear, or should be, that the First Amendment makes other people’s religious beliefs Not Your Business. In comments on this blog and elsewhere, people have catalogued the things they don’t like about Islam, but all of that is just irrelevant. If the people proposing the Islamic center in Manhattan conform to municipal zoning regulations and do not violate the criminal code, then they are beyond the reach of any governmental action, or, for that matter, public opinion. Your assent is not required.

Take an example: No doubt there are fellow Christians who reject Darwinian evolution and Copernican cosmology and, for all I know, Arabic numerals (invented by Muslims, you know). I deplore these beliefs and fear that these people are not fitting their children for participation in the world, but it is their right to think thus, and set up their churches and madrassas, and it would be tyranny to compel them otherwise. It is not my business, or yours, to police other people’s religious beliefs.

In yesterday’s post “Not stupid, just afraid,” I added a comment quoting Theodore Olson, a Republican, the former solicitor general in George W. Bush’s administration, and the husband of a victim of the September 11 attacks. I repeat it here:

"Well, it may not make me popular with some people, but I think probably the president was right about this. I do believe that people of all religions have a right to build edifices, or structures, or places of religious worship or study, where the community allows them to do it under zoning laws and that sort of thing, and that we don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance for people of religious faith. And I don't think it should be a political issue. It shouldn't be a Republican or Democratic issue, either. I believe Governor Christie from New Jersey said it well — that this should not be in that political, partisan marketplace."

It’s amusing to see how people switch sides. On questions about the Second Amendment, liberals veer into the strict-construction, original-intent camp, because in 1787 the right to bear arms was clearly linked to participation in a civilian militia. The Framers, having read their Roman history, were leery of standing armies and in fact virtually dissolved the army after the Revolution.

On the question of the Islamic center in Manhattan, opponents are suddenly unable to understand what the plain intent of the First Amendment, to make the United States a secular polity in which government keeps its hands off religious belief and practice. As always, we see people reaching for the arguments that support their previously determined conclusions, without much regard for consistency of principle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (21)

Senseless waste of trees

I haven’t read The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time, and neither should you, but Jan Freeman has bravely taken on the task.

Two years ago, a couple of twerps, Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson, went across the country on a mission, to correct errors in signage—misspellings, badly placed apostrophes, the like. They got into the news, no doubt a help with the book contract, when the National Park Service accused them of vandalizing a sign at the Grand Canyon.

Ms. Freeman, bless her heart, is charitable enough to call the book “a creditable buddy adventure,” though she does point out “the meager variety of typos.”

I commented on their shenanigans when they first hit the news, and Brian White, the proprietor of Talk wordy to me, who is also unimpressed with their low-grade vigilantism, has seen fit to quote me. What I said then seems equally apt today:

What is annoying about the whole enterprise is that it trivializes grammar, and reinforces the public image that people concerned about grammar and usage are (a) preoccupied with trifles and (b) busybodies whose joy in life is to correct other people publicly.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (5)

August 18, 2010

Ask the experts?

In Rio de Janeiro they have set up a grammar hotline, according to the BBC. (thank you, Mr. Gitomer, for the link). Residents unsure about spellings and the use of accents in Portuguese may call up for advice. Apparently, there is anxiety in Brazil about correctness in using the language, because errors in grammar are stigmatized as indicating a lack of education. (Here, they appear to be a qualification for public office.)

Mr. Gitomer invited me to consider, “So, what happens when one calls with the same question eight times (the number of experts) and one gets eight different answers.”

Yes, imagine a grammar hotline for speakers of English. A lucky caller might get Bryan Garner or Jan Freeman or Bill Walsh, all of whom I generally agree with, which indicates that they are persons of rare discernment. An unlucky caller might get Martin Estinel, the British proponent of an Academy of English, or one of those glassy-eyed devotees of The Elements of Style, or the ignoramuses who inveigh against passive constructions without knowing what the passive voice is.

Things may be different in Portuguese, though I doubt it, but in English, beyond the rules of grammar that both prescriptivists and descriptivists recognize, there is a broad muddy ground of mixed choices. Mr. Garner, for example, has in the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage established a five-point scale of usage, from “Rejected” to “Fully accepted,” and there is a lot going on in the continuum between those poles.

Reasonable people can disagree over points of usage, but in these discussions, as in politics, it is the unreasonable people who appear to be loudest. You need to tune in to the reasonable people.

Fortunately, you’re reading here.



Sir Frank Kermode, one of the great literary critics of the age, died yesterday at the age of 90. I quoted him once in a post on the reasons for avoiding cliches. It merits remembering.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (4)

Not stupid, just afraid

A couple of days ago, a copy editor who tends to agree with me on usage but not on politics challenged me with a question: If I am so keen on tolerance of the people wanting to set up an Islamic community center a few blocks from the World Trade Center site, what do I think of calling people who oppose it stupid?

I don’t be believe that I have accused the opponents of the project of stupidity, and I’m reluctant to do so with anyone, though, if pressed, I might allow that the mental processes of people who show up at rallies with keep-the-government’s-hands-off-my-Medicare signs appear to be a little sluggish.

No, I think that the opposition to the project rises more from fear than intellectual shortcomings. And people have reason to be fearful. The country has been attacked, and there have been repeated attempts to attack us again. It’s a fearful time. People have lost their savings in the most recent financial panic. I lost my job and spent an anxious twelve months wondering what work I might find, whether I could get medical insurance, whether I would be able to keep my house.

And what we know about people who are fearful is that they, and their governments, often do things that they later come to regret, striking out against perceived enemies. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus, and many people were thrown into jail for no more than expressing lack of enthusiasm for the government. During the First World War, German-Americans were subject to suspicion and scorn. After Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt had Japanese-Americans, few, if any, of whom were a threat to the country, put in internment camps. During the Cold War, people lost their jobs and were shunned for entertaining no-longer-fashionable political views. Apart from the fearful, there are other people, by no means stupid, who exploit fear with demagogy. After the First World War, it was the Democratic attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer, exploiting the Red Scare; after the Second World War, it was the Republican Joseph McCarthy exploiting the fear of the Soviet Union.

The thing about the demagogues is that they have their hour and pass away, because the essential character of Americans is optimism, not fearfulness. That is why Franklin Roosevelt was able to rally the country during the Depression. That optimism about the country was equally characteristic of Ronald Reagan, and, I think, it goes a long way toward explaining his remarkable success in politics.

It distresses me to see people who like to call themselves Jeffersonians and Constitutionalists exploiting fear of Muslims for short-term political gain. It distresses me to see so many Democrats so pusillanimous in standing up for the First Amendment—for its spirit as well as its letter. Permit me to add timorous and craven to the inventory.

The time will come when we will be optimists again, and embarrassed at ourselves once more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:30 AM | | Comments (15)

August 17, 2010

Any poetesses out there?

Robert Fisk, whom Language Log describes as “the well-known linguistic paleoconservative,” wrote recently in The Independent about a “trap” he had set for the sub-editors in an article:

I referred to Vita Sackville-West as a "poetess". And sure enough, the sub (or "subess") changed it – as I knew he or she would – to "poet". Aha! Soon as I saw it, I knew I could write this week about the mysterious – not to say mystical – grammar of feminism and political correctness.

He continues in a familiar and tedious rant about the way that feminism and political correctitude are emasculating the English language. Given how often you must have heard that sort of thing, it seems unnecessary to quote further.

But what one might expect even a linguistic paleoconservative to know is that poetess was objectionable long before the reign of terror that political correctitude has imposed on Mr. Fisk. The word suggests a nineteenth-century, oh-look-women-can-rhyme condescension. It’s a word for such writers as Julia A. Moore, “the Sweet Singer of Michigan,” who so amused Mark Twain that he imitated her naive and awkward verses in Huckleberry Finn. I’ll leave open a challenge to find any published female poet of repute in the past half-century who has described herself as a poetess. The corresponding term is not poet but poetaster. Any sub worth his salt would have changed it.

People who write about language ought to demonstrate some understanding of it.


Personal postscript: My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was the postmaster in Elizaville, Kentucky, for twenty-four years. That’s postmaster, not postmistress. (The Postal Service did not acknowledge sex unless you tried to get it through the mail.) Postmaster was the title the government of the United States gave her, and it was the one she used. Mr. Fisk can be grateful that he did not tangle with her.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:30 AM | | Comments (16)

August 16, 2010

Not quite a laff riot

Today is my day off, but you are welcome to check out my “Joke of the week” at


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (0)

August 14, 2010

Heresy compounded

I grew a little warm the other day about journalists’ propensity to put the adverb of time in the most awkward place in a sentence, between the subject and the verb.

Now a reader has asked a perfectly reasonable question: “[I]s it so important that "Wednesday" appear in the first sentence?” My answer is that no, it doesn’t have to.

One can imagine a perfectly acceptable opening sentence along these lines: A federal judge has ruled that California’s Proposition 8, prohibiting gay marriage, is unconstitutional. It could be followed by another perfectly acceptable sentence beginning thus: In a ruling yesterday, Judge Vaughn Walker. …Or Judge Vaughn Walker wrote in a ruling yesterday . …

I have rewritten scores of leads to accomplish the very result described above, and no reader has ever complained. (Neither have any of the writers.)

But putting the day of the event in the first sentence, preferably between the subject and verb, is a point on which generations of journalism instructors and assigning editors have malformed malleable young minds.

This is apparently a strong point of doctrine, and defying it openly could lead to one of those disputes like the fourth-century controversy over whether Jesus could be described as homoousios or homoiousios. All the same, if you can get away with it, write for the reader, and write in English, not journalese.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 PM | | Comments (3)

Some assembly required

Checking out these links may be worth your while.

From Britain, Nick Cohen’s “Love me, love my sub,” on the importance of copy editors, known in Britain as sub-editors or subs.

Tom Scott’s “Journalism Warning Labels”: If you’re in the paragraph game, or a reasonably astute reader, you can already tell when a story has been transcribed from a press release, or cribbed from Wikipedia, or any of the other dodges that lazy journalists practice. If newspapers, magazines, and the Internet had truth-in-packaging requirements ...

Doug Fisher, who finds, like most journalism professors, that he has to teach writers how to edit their own work, since precious few of them will ever have the experience of working with an honest-to-God editor, writes in “Missing in plain sight” about some of the obvious omissions that writers overlook in their own work.

Professor Pullum carries on—you know how he gets—at Language Log about yet another eejit who thinks that the passive voice includes active-voice auxiliary verbs with participles. Teach your children to stay away from drugs and people who go on about avoiding the passive voice.

On Twitter @dsorbara asked, “Has anyone written against the use of "sleepy" in article to define a location? I'm thinking about going on a crusade at work.”

I advised him that it’s a good idea to excise sleepy, gritty, and hardscrabble, among the more notable condescending adjectives that writers use for exotic places like small towns and poor neighborhoods. And I’ve carried on some about stately homes and leafy suburbs in stories about places where reporters would live if they had been smart enough to go into a trade that pays better than journalism. Shall we catalogue both the snotty and the servile adjectives for the benefit of the writer who would prefer not to look like a prat?



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:55 PM | | Comments (6)

August 13, 2010

What's that in the bay?

It was my headline on the front page of this morning’s Sun: Harmful / bacteria / thrives / in bay. A colleague asked whether that should be thrive, and I, bold in heresy, said no.

Differing once from Bryan Garner, who says emphatically that bacteria is the plural of bacterium and that using bacteria as a singular, as journalists are given to do, falls into his “widely shunned” category.

But my understanding of the language is that bacteria has reached the point where data previously arrived. Though their singular forms remain in limited, usually specialized use, they have been transformed by usage into collective nouns that can be either singular or plural in context.

Bacteria can be a plural when referring to swarms of the little buggers, singular in identifying a species: Bacteria are multiplying rapidly in the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the Chesapeake Bay. The vibrio bacteria has the potential to be a serious health risk. This, at least, is how I understand scientists to be using the word when they are quoted.

Please feel free to differ in the comments below. Or agree.

(Sticklers, once their blood pressure has returned to normal levels, can be reassured that I am grimly holding the line on media as a plural, however, because I am not convinced, and unlikely to be persuaded, that newspapers, magazines, radio, broadcast television, cable television, the Internet, and movies constitute a monolith.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:46 PM | | Comments (11)

Sign here

A friend called yesterday to draw attention to objectionable comments attached to a story on The Sun’s website. This is a perennial problem.

The openness so prized on the Internet does give a voice to everyone with access to a computer, but the comfort of anonymity means that we are regularly affronted with the sorts of remarks that used to be restricted to the stalls of public toilets.

Policing the comments is a task that few organizations can staff adequately, though editors at The Sun do scan the comments periodically. If you would like to assist in maintaining a semblance of civility on the site, a method is available to you.

When you next go to, notice that there is an option to register for the site. Once you are a registered member, you can flag offensive comments, and that will draw an editor’s attention immediately.

And while you are there, there is a recent feature of the website I’d like to draw to your attention. You can also sign up for news alerts to your mobile phone. There are several options: breaking news, sports, Ravens, Orioles, weather, business, entertainment, deals—and horoscopes.

Because I signed up for the weather alert, among others, I got word of the approaching thunderstorm yesterday afternoon and was able to warn my wife so that she didn’t get caught in it. I commend this feature to your attention.

This concludes a brief commercial announcement, and You Don’t say will be returning to your regular programming.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:13 PM | | Comments (2)

August 12, 2010

Chairman Wednesday

Must stay calm. Must not let little things get under one’s skin. Must keep a sense of proportion.

And yet, day after day, journalists everywhere keep turning out sentences in which, in defiance of English syntax, they insist on inserting the day of the week between the subject and the verb. Who tells them to write like this? Yesterday, from Reuters:

SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro Wednesday listed some technical areas that
 might yet need rule changes, including the use of market orders, “stub quotes,” price
 collars, and self-help rules used by the dozen U.S. exchanges where today’s high-speed trading is done.

In idiomatic English, the adverb of time comes at the beginning of the sentence—On Wednesday, SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed—or after the verb—SEC Chairman Mary Schapiro listed some technical areas Wednesday.

That’s how it’s done. What’s so complicated?

Of course, Reuters could have made it even more journalistic by linking up a trainload of capitalizations to the name. You know. You’ve seen it: Chief Assistant to the Assistant Chief Gordon “Beefeater” Tanqueray Wednesday announced.

And we can’t figure out why no one under the age of forty—hell, fifty—reads our stuff any longer. A couple of weeks ago The Sun published a headline with nixes as the verb. Nixes! Who writes these things, guys in their shirtsleeves with their fedoras pushed back and a cigarette dangling from their lips as they type with two fingers on an Underwood?

It’s not that I’m asking a lot, Lord knows. Could you just PUT THE DAMN ADVERB WHERE IT BELONGS IN THE SENTENCE? Or do I have to call in @GRAMMARHULK from Twitter to SMASH you? DAMMIT, IS ANYBODY OUT THERE LISTENING?

Oh. Sorry.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (17)

August 11, 2010

How will you join the ancestors?

Journalists, I regret to say, are drawn to excesses in prose as slugs are drawn to dishes of warm beer. (See?)

The irrepressible Diego Sorbara, an editor at The New York Times and fellow member of the American Copy Editors Society*, was so taken with the opening sentence of Ted Stevens’s obituary in the Anchorage Daily News that he posted it on Facebook, adding, “I am not making this up”:

Ted Stevens died Monday the way Alaskans die, in a plane crash in the wilds of the state he devoted his life to.

The thing to keep in mind is that attempts at Fancy Writing usually invite ridicule. Viz.:

Shortly thereafter, one Andrew Bartkus commented on Mr. Sorbara’s post: “That's ridiculous. I would've run ‘Ted Stevens died the way Alaskans die: convinced of their rugged individualism while living in a parasitic socialist petro-enclave.’ "

Judy Walgren DeHaas chimed in: “This would be a great New Yorker exercise! If I die a Coloradan does that mean I either get chomped on by a Mountain Lion while drinking beer at the Mountain Sun OR that I smoked my self to death with the most killer of killer medical marijuana there is to offer in one of the 432 dispensaries in my city?"

In that spirit, Kanye Rogers supplied the lead to her own obituary: “Kayne Rogers died the way Tennesseans die, arteries clogged with fried catfish and hush puppies, hands reaching out for her 36-ounce iced tea...”

During the semesters that I taught news writing, I had my students write their own obituaries. (Education in journalism, like most writing classes, is a monkey-see-monkey-do business about imitating stock forms and patterns.) I invite you to see whether you can match the Anchorage Daily News. Feel free to use your state of residence or, if different, your native state.

John Early McIntyre died Wednesday the way Kentuckians die, in a recliner in front of the television, with a half-full glass of bourbon spilling to the floor as a rerun of Law and Order continued unheeded.

Now you.


*Also a member of the Fellowship of the Bow Tie. 



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (49)

August 10, 2010

Followers of Mr. Waugh

The returns continue to come in on the two-spaces-after-a-period issue. The minority: Yeah, I knew that. What’s the problem? The majority splits pretty evenly between I-can’t-break-the-habit and you-can’t-make-me-stop.

In this attachment to the unjustifiable, I see similarities to the holdouts on the split-infinitive/split-verb and stranded-preposition superstitions, and similar matters addressed in these posts. A submerged memory surfaced this afternoon, a little anecdote that identified the attitude reflected in these issues.

Evelyn Waugh was far from a model officer during the Second World War, and late one night he was wandering, drunk and disheveled, across the parade ground when he encountered his superior officer, to whom he gave a casual salute. The officer braced him about his drinking and unmilitary bearing and suggested that he should shape up.

Waugh’s response: “Surely you do not expect me to abandon the habits of a lifetime merely to gratify your whim.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:55 PM | | Comments (4)

All right, all right, keep the extra space

Lordy, you’d think I was trying to take away their guns.

Yesterday, in what I imagined to be an innocuous post, I pointed out that, unless you insist on using a typewriter, it is no longer necessary, or advisable, to type two spaces after a period or colon. In fact, editors have to delete the unnecessary spaces for publication.

Almost immediately a commenter accused me of having a “hissy fit,” and here and on Facebook the responses have come in along the lines of “my grandfather typed two spaces after a period, my father typed two spaces after a period, I’ve typed two spaces after a period since I was a little boy, and, by gosh, by gee, by gum ...”—well, you can see for yourselves.

I used a manual typewriter at The Flemingsburg Gazette forty years ago, and manual and electric typewriters in graduate school, and I always dutifully typed two spaces after a period. Then, in 1980, I went to work at The Cincinnati Enquirer and discovered that one doesn’t do that in a proportional font. So I stopped. Haven’t done it in years. Frankly, don’t see what the big deal is.

But now, I suppose, I should start looking over my shoulder to see whether Sarah Palin is coming after me for abridgin’ our constitutional liberties.

Rather than that, let me urge you to keep putting in those superfluous spaces as long as you like. This is America. I’ll still have to take them out, but, after all, brain-dead mechanical work is what drudges are for.



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

The sinister vault

Calm yourselves. The Oxford English Dictionary is not run by the Priory of Sion.

Last week the diligent Michael Quinion reported in World Wide Words, a weekly newsletter, on an article in Britain’s Daily Telegraph, “Secret vault of words rejected by the Oxford English Dictionary uncovered.” The “vault,” Mr. Quinion explains, is “a rather boring office filled with filing cabinets housing citation slips.”

Now the estimable Ben Zimmer goes further in a post at Language Log linked to his article in Visual Thesaurus, finding that “the Telegraph's collection of words supposedly rejected by the OED includes ephemeral ad-hoc coinages that would never be seriously considered by any major dictionary, alongside words that could very well enter the OED in the near future.”

Despite the technological advances—huge electronic databases, for example—a good deal of the lexicographer’s work is much the same as when Samuel Johnson balanced himself on a chair missing one leg in a garret in Gough Street or James A.H. Murray sat amid millions of paper slips in a shed in his garden. They comb sources, looking for developments in the language: old words in new senses, words dropping into obsolescence, new words arriving. And when they identify coinages, they have to determine whether the neologism is ephemeral or has lodged in the language. When they are preparing a printed edition, they must winnow ruthlessly to keep the text within the limits that the publisher can stand.

The “secret vault” nonsense in the Daily Telegraph points to the public’s disinclination to take dictionaries for simple indications of how words are commonly used and understood. They want lexicographers to be legislators—hence the silly campaigns that are occasionally mounted to lobby for inclusion of words in the OED. They want to be able to say that something is “not a word,” based on whether a dictionary has supposedly ratified it. They want to be able to use dictionaries to settle bets in bars. They want dictionaries to ratify their preferences and proscribe their dislikes. Even the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook, who are people who ought to know better, for Fowler’s sake, tweeted last week about “preferred” spellings in Webster’s New World.

If you’re looking for a rule book, buy Hoyle’s, not a dictionary.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 AM | | Comments (2)

August 9, 2010

Just one space, please

I thought most people knew this already.

In the “Maxims for editors” post, I reminded readers, “Don’t type two spaces after a period.” Now I’m hearing from people who wonder why. It’s simple. When people used typewriters (Little Ones, ask Gramps to tell you about typewriters), they were taught to type two spaces after a period to make clear where sentences ended and began. That is because typewriters used monotype fonts, in which each character took up as much space as any other.

Word-processing programs, like those used by newspapers, magazines, and book publishers, use proportional fonts—an m takes up more space than an i. With proportional fonts, the additional space after a period is unnecessary. This has been endorsed by The Chicago Manual of Style. In fact, editors preparing texts for publication have to take the trouble of excising the additional spaces after periods if you persist in inserting them.

Unless you are still using an Underwood or a Remington, it’s time you broke yourself of the habit.




Posted by John McIntyre at 5:28 PM | | Comments (31)

I'll have a double

A slow day, even for a Monday, so let’s liven it up with double possession.* You can even call it the double genitive if you like to imagine that English is like Latin.

In the double possessive, you indicate possession with both the possessive form of a noun or pronoun and the preposition of. You talk about a friend of mine; if you said a friend of me, it would (or should) strike you as odd.

Don’t worry about the logic of this; it is an idiomatic construction, and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that it goes back “before Chaucer’s time.”

It also serves in some cases to eliminate an ambiguity, as Merriam-Webster’s explains: If you were to write Jane’s picture, you could be understood to mean a picture of Jane or a picture belonging to Jane. The double possessive makes clear that you mean the latter.

This construction is not a problem for native speakers, who grasp the idiom. If someone misguidedly made you sensitive to it, you can safely cross it off the list of things to worry about.


*Or, if you missed it over the weekend, you could have a look at the “Maxims for editors” post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:12 PM | | Comments (6)

August 8, 2010

Not the Dayton Cox, the Cincinnati Cox

It seems churlish, now that the Library of America has brought out the complete Mencken Prejudices in two handsome volumes, to raise a complaint about the apparatus, especially since the notes are so helpful in identifying figures who have dropped into obscurity. But I believe I have found a mistake.

The passage “They chortled and read on when Aldrich, Boss Cox, Gas Addicks, John D. Rockefeller and the other bugaboos of the time were belabored every month ...” in “The American Magazine” is linked to a note that identifies “Boss Cox” as James Middleton Cox, the newspaper publisher from Dayton, Ohio, and 1920 Democratic presidential candidate.

Surely this gloss, which numbers figures such as Nelson Aldrich and John Edward Addicks in a context of political corruption, should instead identify a different Ohioan, George Cox of Cincinnati, familiarly known as “Boss Cox.” He was a conventional big-city political boss, flourishing in an atmosphere of graft and patronage from the mid-1880s until his fall from power in 1911. He was attacked by Lincoln Steffens and other muckrakers of the age.

James Middleton Cox, by contrast, was a reformer.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:50 AM | | Comments (4)

Maxims for editors

Things editors would do well to remember:

Accuracy first, then clarity, then precision, and last, if there’s time, elegance.

The Associated Press Stylebook and The Elements of Style have not been incorporated into the Torah, the canonical Gospels, or the United States Code.

Don’t drop The Chicago Manual of Style on your foot.

The writer might be right.

Don’t type two spaces after a period.

Dictionaries tell you how people talk and write, not how you ought to talk and write.

Any project will occupy three times the anticipated time and energy to achieve one-third the intended result.

“i” before “e,” except after “c”

The most embarrassing errors will appear in the big type.

Stand up for the Oxford comma whenever you can.

Satisfaction over identifying other people’s mistakes is best celebrated inwardly – or after work at the bar with other editors.

Someone else will get the glory. Let it go.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:04 AM | | Comments (6)

August 7, 2010

Fetch me a switch, AP Stylebook

After I administered a little love tap to @APStylebook yesterday for their tweet saying that gray is the spelling of the word for the color, they sent out this contrite follow-up:

Further on gray: AP's primary reference is the Webster's New World College Dictionary, which prefers that spelling.

Not so fast, @APStylebook.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “the official dictionary of the Associated Press,” is a real dictionary produced by real lexicographers. Real lexicographers do not “prefer” spellings. Webster’s New World lists main spellings, “alternative spellings,” and “variant spellings,” not “preferred spellings.”

This is not mere playing with terms. Alternative spellings are understood to be roughly as widespread as the main spelling (the first spelling listed). It is an entirely arbitrary choice, for example to pick ax over axe, or the reverse. Moreover, variant spellings may be appropriate for certain regions, occasions, or contexts.

Referring to “preferred” spellings risks falling into the common misunderstanding that the first spelling listed is the one the dictionary has legislated as the spelling of the word. Actually, it is merely the most common version of the word the lexicographers have encountered.

Once again, a spelling the AP Stylebook prefers is not necessarily the “right” spelling; when there are alternatives or variants, it is merely the form arbitrarily selected to permit uniform practice. That is all.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (4)

August 6, 2010

Another whack at the AP Stylebook

From @APStylebook on Twitter: The spelling of the color is gray, not grey. But the dog is a greyhound.

And this is why the Associated Press Stylebook and its slavish devotees are so irritating to anyone who takes language seriously. Both spellings are legitimate. Gray is more common in American English, grey in British English, and probably Commonwealth English. Grey is not a misspelling.

But the tweet doesn’t say that the one is a preferable choice between legitimate options; it says there is one spelling. It’s that tone that carries over among the people, mainly copy editors, sad to say, who imagine that AP publishes a rule book rather than a stylebook and talk as if its arbitrary choices were comparable to the Periodic Table of Elements or the Westminster Confession.

Someone at AP should start following Carol Fisher Saller and learn a little judgment and humility, for Fowler’s sake.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:51 PM | | Comments (10)

Noises we've heard before

Those of you who suspect me of attempts to smuggle in lefty propaganda disguised as commentary on language will want to give this one a miss.

Still here? Why?

The rest of you might be interested in some perspective on overheated political rhetoric.

These are excerpts from Jeff Shesol’s fascinating new book, Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court:

“The critique, at its most extreme—and this is where it naturally slid, toward the extreme—portrayed the New Deal as totalitarian. ...

“Indeed, the vitriol flowed from deep reservoirs of fear, resentment, and fury. The Depression had dealt business leaders a triple blow: first, the market and the economy had crashed; second, the captains of industry and finance had been held accountable; and third, Roosevelt had come to their rescue. ... New securities laws ... sent a very plain message that bankers could no longer be taken at their word or trusted to govern their own affairs. ...

“Roosevelt was taking heat from liberals for the big-business orientation of the New Deal, for siding frequently with industry against the claims of labor and consumers. He found it galling, therefore, that those same companies would attach sinister labels—fascism, communism, regimentation—to programs that were helping them. ...”

From Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. the Supreme Court (W.W. Norton, 644 pages, $27.95), pp. 78-79.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:24 PM | | Comments (0)

The big O

No, not that big O.

O and oh were once no more than variant spellings, but a differentiation in meaning has developed.

O—you can call it the vocative O if you like Latin terms of grammar—is the form used in direct address to a person, a deity, an audience. “O say, can you see. ...” Reserve it for such direct address.

Oh can be a mere interjection, as in “Oh, I forgot to mention. ...” But it is more often an exclamation, indicating surprise, dismay, disgust, excitement, joy, or some other emotion. That is the oh abbreviated in the adolescent text abbreviation OMG. There is speculation that it is often a person’s next to last word.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (3)

August 4, 2010

What Mr. Jefferson said

Yesterday’s post contained a brief item wondering how people opposing construction of an Islamic community center and mosque near the former World Trade Center site in New York could square that opposition with the First Amendment to the Constitution.

One commenter accused me of “politically correct posturing” and said that the opposition of a large number of people is sufficient reason to oppose it. Another commenter dislikes what she has heard about the imam organizing the project and its funding, adding that the First Amendment has limits that do not include protection of “propaganda” for a religious faith she does not share of like. Both made irrelevant allusions to Pearl Harbor.

Neither comment, you notice, directly addressed the question.

I did not publish that question yesterday out of a spirit of puckish provocation. I would genuinely like to know how, since opposition to this project appears to come mainly from Republicans, how a conservative upholder of the Constitution reconciles attempts to shut down the project with the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

(Particularly after Mayor Bloomberg said, “We would betray our values—and play into our enemies' hands—if we were to treat Muslims differently than anyone else. In fact, to cave to popular sentiment would be to hand a victory to the terrorists. ...”)

To assist in that consideration, I’m offering below an historical document, the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1779 and enacted in 1786. It is one of the three things, along with writing the Declaration of Independence and establishing the University of Virginia, that he chose to have listed on his tombstone.

The complete document, though instructive, is written in eighteenth-century syntax, and eighteenth-century legal syntax at that. So, though I encourage you to consider the entire text, I first excerpt a key passage:

... that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own. ...

The Virginia Act for Religious Freedom

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to the offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles, on the supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:44 AM | | Comments (6)

August 3, 2010

Home today

Woke up mildly feverish twice during the night and decided this morning, aching all over, to stay home from the paragraph factory today. But that does not mean that you are to be spared miscellaneous remarks.

Aw, shucks: Baltimore magazine lists You Don’t Say as one of its three favorite Sun blogs, along with David Zurawik’s Z on TV and Jill Rosen’s Unleashed.

Mencken: As I work through H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices series in the new Library of America edition, I have to keep reminding myself that what is wrote is nearly a century old: “For what the public wants—at least the American public—is rough work. It delights in vituperation. It revels in scandal. It is always on the side of the man or journal making the charges, no matter how slight the probability that the accused is guilty.”

Not edifying: Now that the New York City landmarks commission has removed an obstacle to the construction of a community center and mosque near the former site of the World Trade Center, we can expect to hear even louder braying against it from people portraying themselves as conservatives. What I wonder, without expecting to receive any explanation, is how these defenders of the Constitution in all its majesty square their opposition to this project with the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion.

Add to your vocabulary: Fritinancy draws attention to the word glurge, coined in 1998 to describe cloyingly sentimental stories typically circulated on the Internet. Patricia Chapin of, that invaluable exposer of bogus material, to describe the physical reaction—retching to such stories. Snopes, in fact, devotes an entire section to glurgery. and merit your attention as correctives to the flood of bogus and distorted information that inundates you every day.

More outsourcing: Apparently American lawyers now write so badly that it has become necessary to send their work to India to get the grammar cleaned up. Russell Smith, who helped set up SDD Global Solutions, the cleanup crew, remarks that “high-quality, effective English writing has been out of fashion in the U.S. for decades.” Tell me about it. If only we had people in this country who were knowledgeable about grammar and usage and who could edit texts for greater clarity and precision ...




Posted by John McIntyre at 2:20 PM | | Comments (24)

August 2, 2010

Is it Monday already?

First things first: Here’s my joke of the week at “The Cannibal Reporters.”

If you were otherwise occupied over the weekend — out on the bay in your yacht, or cutting brush at your ranch outside Crawford, or standing in the hot sun outside the Clinton-Mezvinsky wedding — you may have missed one or more of my posts:

On Sally Quinn’s unwittingly hilarious essay on Chelsea Clinton’s wedding, and the follow-up advice to writers of features.

Why you should be careful about calling H.L. Mencken an anti-Semite.

And the recipe for my mother’s summer salad.

Go ahead and catch up. Work can wait.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:41 AM | | Comments (1)

August 1, 2010

Summer meal

In an uncharacteristic burst of energy today — Alice is coming by for dinner with Kathleen, J.P., and me — I went beyond making the spaghetti sauce and the salad and the salad dressing. I bought a cantaloupe and some prosciutto for the traditional appetizer. But, thinking of tomorrow, I also made my mother’s variation on potato salad, salade a la Murn.

You can read here why I call my late mother “Murn,” but please do not tell Kathleen that I am divulging the recipe here, because she thinks I could win some sort of contest with it. But no contest prize is greater than the approbation of you, my dear readers. Herewith the recipe.

Salade a la Murn

Take four baking potatoes (red potatoes of equivalent weight if you prefer), cut them into smallish cubes and boil them, salting the water as you would for pasta.

While they are cooking, take half a medium-size onion (Vidalia would be good) and mince. Then cut into small pieces four carrots, six ribs of celery and four or five radishes. Chop half a head of cabbage, green or red, and put into a large bowl with the other chopped vegetables.

When the potatoes are cooked, drain them and let them cool. Douse them plentifully with malt vinegar. When the potatoes are cool, combine them with the raw vegetables and stir in mayonnaise. Do not overdo. You want to be able to taste the constituent vegetables, so coat them lightly with mayonnaise instead of drowning them as in the commercial productions.

Cover and chill. Eat by itself or with the crackers of your choice. The salad will be better on the second day, if there is any left.

As you experiment with the recipe, you will be able to adjust the proportions of the vegetables to your tastes. But I warn you that adding green or red peppers or cucumbers is a bad idea, because they quickly get slimy.

This salad has been my stay and comfort for fifty years. Try it and discover its benefits.





Posted by John McIntyre at 5:07 PM | | Comments (11)
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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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