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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)


On the other hand, we could all accept Microsoft's grammar-checker as the official style manual and we would save ourselves time and aggravation. Who's in?

Sorry, Bucky--much as we love you, I can't go with you on that one!

Clearly you did not read my article carefully. The quote you attribute to me is actually from Charles Krauthammer.

"sleight" of hand -- ?

Grammar checker: arg. I really hate these criticisms of proofing tools, the premise of which is always "These tools don't catch _every single error_ that I, a professional editor, would catch, therefore they are _useless_."

I've said this about the spell checker, and feel I need to make at least a mild case for the defense of the grammar checker as well: it catches _enough_ errors for the _average writer_ that it's worth using. Sure, tell writers to turn off the tools. Will their manuscripts be mechanically better? Somehow I doubt it.

These things are just tools. The gramamr checker can and does catch all sorts of errors, especialy ones introduced during revision, that are easy for people to miss. Of course you still need to edit the doc to catch more subtle errors. But you should do that for spelling, too (viz cupertinos []). The lesson is not that the grammar checker is useless, but that you learn how to use it as a tool:

Mr. Taranto, clearly I was careless, though I had registered Mr. Krauthammer's name on first looking at the article. I've corrected the text and thank you for pointing out the error.

"Useful thesaurus."

Was that a typo for "sleight of hand," or a joke that I'm just not getting?

Well, John, you haven't quite finished correcting the text. You wrote: "James Taranto quotes Charles Krauthammer deplores that opponents of President Obama’s policies are routinely branded as racists…" You might want to write: "JT quotes CK as deploring the fact that opponents, etc." or something similar.

I recall reading years ago that AP made Webster's New World its dictionary of reference for some reason having to do with business, rather than style -- something about the fact that WNW was published by an entity owned by or otherwise affiliated with AP.

Of course, I can't find any such information in a quick web search this afternoon. Can anyone else back me up?

I respectfully but forcefully disagree with your characterization of Mr. Taranto's article as a 'screed about how the "literal (sic) elite" hates American'. A screed is a long, monotonous harangue. Mr. Taranto's article is a pithy and fascinating argument against "the elitist notion that most (Americans) are economically insecure bitter clinging intolerant bigots who need to be governed by an educated elite", and that anyone who disagrees with the dominant Liberal socio-political meta-narrative is either a homophobe, a nativist, an Islamophobe, or a rube - something that seems to have touched a raw nerve with Mr. McIntyre (and something that directly violates the American principles in relation to being governed by a self-regarding elite). The raw contempt the present administration and their coterie of Liberal Elite functionaries planted in positions of power have for the will of the people (see Immigration, Ground Zero Mosque, Gay Marriage, Bailouts, etc.) is stunning, and this disdain has become palpable to a large portion of the public at large. I suspect there will be a high price to pay for this come November. No amount of delusional rhetoric from the administrations' media cheerleaders will change that dynamic.

Mr. Taranto also mentions the concept of "oikophobia", a condition only the most febrile Lefties would admit to but that is on display on a daily basis in most of Academia, Mainstream Journalism, and the entertainment industry.

Finally, no 'sleight of hand' is involved on the part of Mr. Taranto, though Mr. McIntyre seems to attempt said tactic in mentioning that "If you speak out against these expressions of bigotry, you must hate Americans.", as if what the opponents of the Left's agenda are doing is spreading bigotry and the Right's fringes are the sole repository of bigotry in the heated debates taking place. An absurdist claim. Neither the Left nor the Right has a monopoly on bigotry, nor for that matter the righteous fight against this virulent strain, but for Mr. McIntiyre to paint what the liberal elites are doing and proposing in their stance on immigration and the mosque (among other issues)- in direct opposition to what the majority of Americans have expresses as their wishes (and in some areas in direct opposition to standing law) - as 'speaking out against expressions of bigotry' is disingenuous, and I know for a fact from years of admiring Mr. McIntyre's intellect and fairness that he can do better than this stale stuff.

There seem to be an awful lot of straw men involved in the bitter disputes in America over the "ground zero" mosque/cultural center, immigration, marriage rights, etc., which Mr. Ackley and others frame as disputes between a "liberal elite" and "the people". The recent coinage "oikophobia" is new to me, but I take it to mean something like an irrational bias against one's own heritage. Why does it always come down to questioning our opponents' love for America, her traditions and values? If anything is clear in these debates, it's that both sides are defending an America they love and wish to preserve. (For liberals, at least for this "liberal", that is an America where civil freedoms are cherished and minorities are protected from having these civil freedoms trampled by the majority.)
People need to use their indoor voices and plain language. They need to be honest with each other and with themselves. They need to stop labeling their opponents as "racists", "elitists", and "-phobes", and start talking to each other to find common ground, and each side must examine their own biases and phobias (remember the log in your own eye – a little introspection, please!).
And in the meantime, let them build the Islamic center in peace (which nearly everyone agrees they have the right to do).

Leaving aside this fascinating sideshow, and returning to the important point ;-) I find Patricia O'Conner's article very poor. The first example she gives is not a dangler- that's something quite different- and how is the checker supposed to know who pissed on the carpet? I couldn't, at first, see anything wrong with the sentence, but that might have something to do with the kind of parties I go to.

None of them is here. (It’s “are here.”) No, it isn't. That's just reverse pedantry.

They don’t admit that, they’re wrong. (No comma, please.) In the right context the sentence is perfectly sound.

Everybody has their own seat. (No, “their” isn’t ready for prime time yet.) Sez 'oo? Nothing wrong with it at all.

Most of the rest are easily explained in terms of the analyses used by the grammar checker, and are rather obvious.

Indeed, the checker is not very helpful, and usually more a nuisance than anything else (though I find it useful for catching extra spaces, which mess up the formatting on my work) but I don't think Patricia Conner has told us much.

Thank you for your attention, and now it's back to the politics...

Incidentally, 'oikophobia' is also new to me, but for the sense it appears to be intended to convey, wouldn't 'chthonophobia' be a better word?

A hit, Mr Ackley, a very palpable hit. And whilst we are on the topic, when will we stop treating minorities as poor, suffering oppressed creatures. There is nothing sacred about them: there are just fewer of them. The country was built on individual rights, not the rights of groups, but minority worship has led to affirmative action, set-asides, specious lawsuits, quotas and all the detritus of the ever-watchful beauracracy charged with telling us how to think and act. Enough,please.

And a Bill of Rights to protect them from oppressive majorities.

The Bill of Rights protects me from the oppressive but shrill minorities as well. And since when is"p..... on the carpet" civil discourse?


It was the example used in the article. No incivility intended.

"The Bill of Rights protects me from the oppressive but shrill minorities as well"?

Though I am not a lawyer, I suspect that freedom from speech would be a constitutional novelty.

Re: "I suspect that freedom from speech would be a constitutional novelty."

The Bill of Rights - and particularly the First Amendment in this discussion - is a restriction on government action, not personal interaction within the population. If we are looking at the Bill of Rights, then, it prohibits the government from interfering with my speech. It also prohibits the government from forcing my speech to contain any particular items (the "freedom from speech" aspect), since forced speech would not be free now would it?

As for Mr. McIntyre's "oppressive majorities" and Ms. Terse's "oppressive but shrill minorities", unless they are somehow acting through the agency of government the Bill of Rights has no application.

Here is a practical application of the concept. Mr. McIntyre writes this blog and invites comments from readers. If he wants, he can edit, delete or otherwise censor the contents of those comments without one look over his shoulder at the First Amendment. If, on the other hand, the government told Mr. McIntyre to engage in such censorship (whether to promote the interests of the majority, minority, or out of mere whim or caprice), he could wear the First Amendment like a mantle and render the government powerless to enforce its will.

First Amendment free speech esentially boils down to this: it restricts the government from telling you what to say or not to say. It is best not to confuse this Constitutional provision with conventions of public and private discourse.

Tim is quite correct that the Bill of Rights limits the actions of the state. But as a commenter on a previous post said, it also expresses a set of values. The prohibition of state limits on freedom of speech and of the press expresses the same belief argued in Milton's Aereopagitica, that free discourse, even when erroneous or misguided, permits the discovery of truth and is beneficial to the polity. The prohibition on state action in religion expresses the principle that different religious beliefs (of lack of belief) should be tolerated, as Mr. Jefferson said. A strict, legalistic reading of the Bill of Rights ignores the degree to which these principles, these values, ought to influence our public and private discourse.

" ... the principle that different religious beliefs (of lack of belief) should be tolerated ... ." Of course, the word "tolerated" was a word of art back then and concerned a government's posture toward religion, not one person's private feelings about another person's beliefs.

Still, your point is well taken that the Bill of Rights embodies community values that go beyond mere limits on government action. I'm not sure, though, that colonial era values included a belief that just because someone else had something to say meant that the rest of the neighborhood needed to provide a listening ear.

Milton notwithstanding, this space is not known for the discovery of truth.And I don't know if it benefits the polity, although it certainly gives Mr McIntyre his own soapbox. I would like to put Milton up against, say, the Permanent Mayor of New York City. Mr Bloomberg, who I suspect has never read Milton, or thinks he has a hot-dog stand in Brooklyn, would be left in the dust. For entertainment value alone, it would be a good show.

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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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