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September 30, 2010

Our fair city

A new colleague, Erik Maza, has recently taken over the nightlife beat from Sam Sessa and the Midnight Sun blog. Mind you, he goes to places where I would be as awkward as a bishop in a brothel and listens to music that would make Wozzeck sound sentimentally tuneful,* but withal, he has demonstrated that he can turn a phrase.

He comes to Baltimore from Miami, and in an introductory article in today’s print edition he compares the two cities:

If Miami is the lady with the plunging neckline and the boring patter, Baltimore is the blowsy broad with a million stories.

I put it to you, that you could do the same thing. Compare your previous city to Baltimore in the comments below, or, if you’re an auslander, your current city to Baltimore. You are permitted to exploit gender stereotypes, male or female, as freely as Mr. Maza did.


*I’ll be working Wednesday evening and thus, fortunately, not able to hear Slayer, Megadeth,and Anthrax at 1st Mariner Arena.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 PM | | Comments (24)

September 29, 2010

How ya gonna keep 'em

Kathleen Parker has had to spend time in New York City, and it isn’t pretty to contemplate.

New York, it turns out, exemplifies “the appeal and horror of centralized government.” New Yorkers are regimented and hemmed about with regulations, and apparently they like it. And this, to no one’s surprise, is where Democrats and Republicans differ. The people who live in “more-open spaces” are people who “see little need or benefit for government management of their lives.” She’s not sure that the two parties can be reconciled: “City dwellers will never understand the folks who prefer the company of tress, and country folk will always resent the imperious presumptions of urbanites who think they know best.”

You know this one, right? It’s the one about the corrupt city and the virtuous countryside, a device that was wheezing with age when Quintus Horatius Flaccus trotted it out. Thomas Jefferson took it around the track a few times, too. And for Ms. Parker, they fit snugly within party labels.

As it happens, I am well qualified to take the measure of Ms. Parker’s argument. I spent eighteen years in my youth in Elizaville, Kentucky, which qualifies in almost anyone’s categories as rural: a crossroads of about a hundred people, two general stores, two churches, a gas station, and a funeral home. (The last time I was there, a year ago, only the funeral home and one of the churches continued to enjoy custom.) For the past twenty-four years, I’ve lived in Baltimore, a city whose reputation David Simon has done so much to burnish.

We are indeed a freedom-loving people, and one of the things we love is the freedom to select from a range of choices. That is why, over the past century, we have voted with our feet and moved from the farm to the cities or their environs.

I myself enjoy the company of trees occasionally, though I generally prefer people. I remember the things I enjoyed about life with my parents and grandparents in eastern Kentucky, before the hardy yeomen discovered that they could supplement agricultural income with meth labs. But I have chosen to live in the city, even with its many inconveniences and restrictions, for the sake of what it also has to offer my family and me.

I think it does a disservice to our people to publish articles suggesting that we are virtually different species, antlike city dwellers and freedom-loving country folk. It does a disservice to suggest that it is no longer possible for people to make themselves understood to one another across party lines.

We should certainly talk about the limitations of government regulation and try to determine where the search for the common good has unintended and negative consequences, but perhaps we could do so with a little less oversimplification and stereotyping.


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:51 PM | | Comments (8)

Leave it lay

When I first began teaching editing a Loyola College in Baltimore (now Loyola University), I was straightforward about grammar and usage, after the manner of nearly all the textbooks on copy editing: These are the standard errors, the common misuses, the common confusions; mark them and sin no more. You have the Law and the Prophets; what more do you need?

Over time I have developed a more nuanced approach, and now my handouts and godly admonitions identify common errors, misuses, and confusions, but also superstitions to abandon, and points of grammar and usage that are in transition. There are distinctions, I tell my undergraduates, that you should maintain only in the most formal contexts or for the fussiest audiences, and that you might as well ignore elsewhere.

Anatoly Liberman, writing at the Oxford University Press OUPblog, gets at the issue:

Discussing lie and lay for the umpteenth time would be even less productive than beating ~ flogging a dead horse. In some areas, the distinction has been lost, and so be it. English has lost so many words in the course of its history that the disappearance of one more will change nothing. So lay back and relax. The same holds for dived/dove, sneaked/snuck, and the rest. I only resent the idea that some tyrants wielding power make freedom loving people distinguish between lie and lay. Editors and teachers should be conservative in their language tastes. In works of fiction, characters are supposed to speak the way they do in real life, but in other situations it may be prudent to lag behind the latest trend as long as several variants coexist.

I feel obliged every semester to go over lie and lay, but the blunt fact is that nearly all my students are just baffled. They do not hear a distinction; they do not encounter it in speech or in much of the writing they encounter. I might as well be standing at the blackboard telling them that they will be graded on how well they grasp the middle voice in Greek.

I would much prefer to tell them that the lie/lay distinction with which their grandparents were tormented in school is over, and that, moreover, everyone/they has finally carried the day and we can all go on to discuss more interesting points of usage. But out there, still, I sense lurking the readers bringing down a metal-edged ruler on the knuckles or reaching for a rattan cane to administer six of the best.

I have only so much time with them in a semester, and I have to counteract the bad teaching about language that most of them have had, to indicate the points that matter most to literate readers, and to show them how to gauge how the levels vary by audience, publication, and occasion. So, you viewers-with-alarm and we-need-an-English-Academy peevers and when-I-was-a-boy harumphers out there, how about giving it a rest?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (13)

September 27, 2010

A word a week

Readers’ reactions to the use of limn in a headline showed that a fair number of people welcome the opportunity to enlarge their working vocabularies. The reactions of people who found limn irritating suggested that headlines on the front page might not be the ideal place to attempt that.

So, with my editors’ blessing, I am introducing a weekly feature, “In a Word,” on, that will present a word that my not be familiar to you, supplying definition, pronunciation, and etymology. This week’s is gnomic. You will also have an opportunity to use the word in a sentence in the comments section on the feature, and I will applaud the best one in the following week’s post. Have at it.



Add something; take something away. Here’s a free offer of a cliche you are welcome to purge from your writing: in the wake of. If you mean since something happened, or because something happened, just say so without resorting to this long-dead nautical metaphor. Now go about your business.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (10)

September 24, 2010

A call to arms for punctuation

I marked National Punctuation Day last year and the year before, and again in anticipation of this year’s event. Domestic duties today have kept me away from the marching bands and the floats this time, but I want to point out something of grave importance beneath all the hoopla.

The Chicago Manual of Style, tweeting as @ChicagoManual, reminds us, “On today, National Punctuation Day, CMOS would like to remind everyone to celebrate the glory of the serial comma.”

The serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series, is both seemly and symmetrical. It marks a logical division and forestalls confusion. And for too long it has been neglected.

It has been scorned by newspapers from ancient times, for reasons no one recalls. Omitting it may have made Linotype operator’s job a fraction easier, or it may have saved some cheese-paring publisher a pennyworth of lead every quarter. But though there is no sound reason to omit it, and every reason to use it, the gnomes of the Associated Press Stylebook continue to shun it.

I have stood up for the semicolon, and I will not be silent as the serial comma languishes in disrepute.

Citizens! Are we not writers and editors? Do we not have independent judgment? Are we to remain in slavish subservience to the AP Stylebook? No! And I say again, no!. It is time we shook off our chains! To the Bastille! Down with tyranny! Up with the Oxford comma! To the barricades!



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:20 PM | | Comments (20)

September 23, 2010

Crow on the menu at Johns Hopkins

To its credit, the Johns Hopkins News-Letter has published a series of letters taking the editors to task for (a) publishing Greg Sgammato’s cretinous article deploring the presence of fat girls at fraternity parties and (b) publishing an apology so cravenly self-regarding and equivocal as to be nearly as offensive as the original article.

To its further credit, the editors have since tucked in to a trencher of crow, publishing an actual apology:

In last week's edition of The News-Letter, we published two offensive and insensitive articles. We cannot undo the damage that these articles caused, nor can we excuse our decision to publish them. In light of these egregious errors, The News-Letter retracts the sex column entitled, "Banging under the influence: The ups and downs" and the opinion article entitled, "Local bison bear all at Phi Kappa Psi's annual Lingerave." Publishing these articles was wrong. On this occasion, we failed to meet the standards that our readership and community have come to expect of us. We would like to assure our readers that The News-Letter is currently undergoing an extensive internal review with the intention of identifying and rectifying weak areas of our editorial and production processes.

Without condition, The News-Letter issues its humblest apology.

One of the letters suggested that Mr. Sgammato should resign as a managing editor of the paper. A gentleman would have done so.

Mr. Sgammato’s name is still on the masthead.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 PM | | Comments (12)

Language Gestapo

You may have thought that the Queen’s English Society, with its fussy fetishes about usage and its advocacy of a completely unworkable Academy of English, was laughable. And it is, a group of well-meaning but potty peevers whose influence is unlikely ever to spread beyond their own little circle.

You may not have realized that the United States has an equivalent assemblage of loonies who have no meaningful understanding of how language works. But ours are different. Our species, as the linguist Dennis Baron points out at the blog The Web of Language, includes actual elected representatives, and the hobbyhorse that they ride is the compulsion to make English the official language of the United States, putting the entire executive, regulatory, prosecutorial, judicial, and military might of the federal government behind its enforcement.

They are also people who say that government ought to be less intrusive in our lives. Go figure.

It is their feverish anxiety that the English language—which has spread around the world and has become a more universal tongue than Latin ever was, which allows Americans living abroad to make a living teaching it, and which has generated an industry of English as a Second Language instruction in this country for people eager to learn it—that it is endangered. So they conclude that English, like the California condor, must be protected legislatively.

Professor Baron explains, that H.R. 997, introduced by Representative Steve King of Iowa, “requires English for all official government actions, everything from our laws, which are already in English, to anything that the government does that is ‘subject to scrutiny by either the press or the public,’ which seems to cover everything from committee reports, hearings, and press briefings subject to the Freedom of Information Act, to the sexual peccadilloes and personal indiscretions that some members of Congress keep inadvertently exposing to the scrutiny of the press and the public. In fact it covers pretty much everything the government does except spying and the actions of the IRS, though that’s not a problem because no government agency has the capability to spy or audit in any language but English anyway.”

Further, he says, “The English Language Unity Act doesn’t actually ban foreign languages. It would allow Americans to study them, though that’s probably not going to happen in significant numbers any time soon. It would allow government employees to use them—unofficially—to further diplomacy, trade, and tourism, assuming that government employees can speak other languages well enough to do so. It would allow foreign language use when necessary to protect public health and safety and to preserve the rights of victims of crimes or of those accused of crimes (government employees don’t typically use other languages to do any of this—instead they hire private translators to do it for them). And it would allow government employees to use terms of art—technical phrases which may be in other languages—as when Congress adjourns for vacation sine die or representatives like Steve King remind new immigrants to join the one formed out of the many: e pluribus unum.”

It is, of course, no novelty that the House of Representatives busies itself with the introduction of multitudes of fatuous proposals during each session of Congress. One can only hope that Representative King’s eminent colleagues understand two crucial things: English isn’t broken, and it doesn’t need fixing by Congress.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:51 PM | | Comments (5)

September 21, 2010

Boys will be louts

I don’t usually look at the Johns Hopkins News-Letter (which is probably a good thing), but someone at does and has given its editors a well-deserved public caning.

One Greg Sgammato, the managing editor of the News-Letter, was moved to write an article, “Local Bison Bear All At Psi Kappa Psi’s Annual Lingerave.” It deplores the presence of fat chicks at fraternity lingerie parties. I don’t intend to go beyond this synopsis, but quotes amply from the article.

The same issue contained an article by one of Mr. Sgammato’s colleagues, Javier Avitia, on the happy influence that liquor has in making young women sexually receptive.

Mr. Sgammato’s article, as most people with less intellectual horsepower than is required for admission to Hopkins would have expected, provoked an uproar on campus, and the News-Letter has been moved to publish an apology, also anatomized at

The follow-up will have to be filed with the rapidly expanding literature of the non-apology apology. You see, Mr. Sgammato was writing satirically, with the high intent of exposing the “depthless, flawed and real culture of thought that persists in the minds of many students.”

I don’t know whether Mr. Sgammato has ever passed any time hanging around the English department at Hopkins, but I am reasonably sure that there are people there who could explain that satirical writing, when performed competently, gives the reader little clues that the writer’s views are the opposite of those stated.

It’s possible that Mr. Sgammato has learned something from this experience, though I haven’t often seen the tone deaf become musical. The lesson to be learned is for Mr. Sgammato’s editors: he bears watching.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:21 AM | | Comments (20)

September 20, 2010

Belated joke

Preoccupied today—I was haranguing the staff of the Greyhound, the Loyola student paper, about the importance of editing—I neglected to advise you that the “Joke of the Week,” and it’s a groaner, was up at Mobile users can see the video by clicking here:


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:08 PM | | Comments (0)

September 18, 2010

Quick, the Flit!

It must be fall, because the ants started moving into the house this week, small ones heading for the bread drawer or some other vulnerable target. I slew them by the score with my strong right hand, and they kept coming until I applied the ant-roach spray around the kitchen door.

They remind me, eerily, of the members of the Queen’s English Society: largely brainless but moving relentlessly forward, replenishing their numbers when any are swatted down.

We’ve been here before, and before, and so have Stan Carey and Mark Liberman, exposing the laughable inadequacies of Martin Estinel’s eagerness to establish a Royal Academy of English to regulate the language.

But they keep coming, and now Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar has taken on Bernard Lamb, a geneticist and the president of the Queen’s English Society, who thinks that the English language has gone straight to hell because (a) some of his students don’t spell well and (b) they mix up some homonyms too.

Professor Lamb’s conclusion is irrelevant, Mr. Doyle argues:

First, it contains no reference point, so the fact that his students’ English is currently bad is not evidence that the standards have dropped; it might have been just as bad a century ago. Secondly, it’s anecdotal evidence based on a sample of students in a science class. Perhaps the admission standards of his university are slipping, generating a drop in the competence of his students that is completely independent of any trend in society as a whole. Thirdly, if the worst problem you can think of to prove that English is falling apart is a couple of typos, I’m unimpressed.

Yet this is the level of argument, and evidence, put forward regularly by this crowd. If they were merely sitting by the fire in their clubs, sipping whisky and grumbling, “Not much pink on the map anymore,”* they would be relatively harmless. But when newspapers give them a platform to parade their dim-witted ideas about language, there is a risk that the naive and easily practiced upon might take them seriously.

There are no more ants in my kitchen, but the ill-informed peevers keep marching on.


*For our American readers: British maps conventionally colored Britain and its colonial possessions and dominions in pink. “Not much pink on the map anymore” is a complaint about Britain’s reduced importance in the world, for which attempts to make British English the standard for the rest of the English-speaking world is a pathetic remedy.

For our younger readers, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” is an ad slogan from the 1920s for a brand of insecticide.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 PM | | Comments (27)

September 17, 2010

Using big words

The limnery goes on and on. I’m going to spare you links to the previous posts over the minor uproar that the appearance of limn in a Sun headline provoked, but I do want to point you to an article in The Boston Globe by the always-perceptive Erin McKean.

Her point, and it is well taken, that there is such a pervasive cultural phenomenon of equating extensive vocabularies with intelligence that some readers who encounter unfamiliar words immediately get defensive, as if the unfamiliar word is an accusation that they are not very smart.

Since I am not trained in psychology or psychiatry, their problems are not my problem.

But Ms. McKean touches a little uncomfortably close to home by pointing out that class of people who like to parade their learning: “[t]here’s no denying an element of showoffishness is present in many uses of rare words. It would be peculiar if the all-too-human desire for status — the motivation behind name-dropping, wearing luxury brands, listening to obscure bands, or checking in to velvet-rope places on Foursquare — didn’t manifest itself in word choice, as well.”

Fair point. But still …

Of wealth I am bereft. Of physical beauty I had no particular surplus even when young. Of fame I enjoy a certain dim glow among copy editors—a status not unlike that of a scapegrace younger son of a noble family who has been granted a minor military commission and dispatched to one of the fever islands of the Caribbean. What I have to display to the world is a word hoard built up over half a century of omnivorous reading. That’s all I’ve got, and I am of one mind with Max Bialystock: “If ya got it, baby, flaunt it!”


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 PM | | Comments (21)

Another comma nailed down

Opening up’s latest dispatch on the state’s attorney hoo-hah, I came to a stop at the first sentence:

After 15 years in office, a source says Patricia C. Jessamy is expected to concede Friday that Baltimore voters did not give her another term as their top prosecutor.

No doubt you, eagle-eyes, spotted the same thing I did. Without a comma after says to make clear that a source says is a parenthetical phrase, the sentence tells you that it is the source, not Patricia Jessamy, that has been in office for fifteen years.

This little blip with interpolated attribution occurs quite frequently in journalism. I had a quick word with a colleague, and now the website has a source says at the end of the opening sentence, where it is probably happier.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (3)

September 16, 2010

A student reads this blog?

A student at a Midwestern university wrote to me yesterday to say that she has been reading my blog for the past year and finds it valuable. And she asks for my advice about a career in copy editing. You know how often anyone asks me for advice about anything? I’m not going to pass this up.

Read widely. Read books. Read magazines. Read newspapers. Read website posts. Read quality stuff. Read some trash too. Read for instruction. Read for amusement. You won’t know much about how writing is being performed unless you read a lot, both the good and the bad.

Become more knowledgeable. An editor can never know too much. Increase your store of general information, and go deeper into areas that interest you. There should be at least a couple of areas in which people consult you regularly because of your known expertise.

Master the craft. Grammar and syntax are your tools. You need to understand the terminology, so that you can explain why you made a change when you are challenged. You have to know what the rules are, and what the bogus rules are. You need to be able to distinguish style guidelines and personal preferences from actual rules. You need to know who the reliable authorities are, and you have to be able to make sensible judgments when those reliable authorities disagree. (They will.)

Go deep. There is more to editing than punctuation and grammar. Train yourself to think analytically about focus, structure, and organization in the texts you edit. A lot of writers write intuitively; editors have to anatomize the parts and make sure that they work togther coherently.

Practice tact. Be courteous and professional to all the writers, no matter how inept and willful they may be. This will build character. Soon you will find that you have as much character as you can support without assistance.

Shun the Luddites. God knows who designed the software, but it probably wasn’t anyone who actually has to use it. Never mind how balky or infuriating it is. When you are confronted with the technology you need to do your job, get a grip on it, and stop whining.

Always admit when you’re wrong.

Don’t back down when you’re right.

Never, never, never heat fish in the office microwave.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (15)

September 15, 2010

On probation

When a new word pops into the language, or an old one acquires a new sense, there is a probationary period during which it either lodges itself in the language or fades away. As with electronic gadgets, the early adopters latch onto these words eagerly, the Luddites fiercely resist them, and the rest of us stand uncertainly in the middle.

I’m reminded of the process by a comment a friend posted on Facebook:

When did "parent" and "vision" become verbs? Ugh
I also hated "to grow a company" but I lost that one, I think.

Another friend pointed out that parent as a verb dates back to the mid-seventeenth century.

This sort of back-and-forth can seesaw forever. Remember back in the Seventies and Eighties when Edwin Newman and that crowd carried on about hopefully as a sentence adverb (meaning “it is hoped that” rather than the traditional “in a hopeful manner”). They thought it a vulgar new usage, though Cotton Mather used the word in just that sense in 1702. (Thank you, Oxford.) Some claimed that an adverb of emotion could not be used as a sentence adverb. Sadly, they were mistaken.

What is going on here has little or nothing to do with etymology, grammar, or historical usage, but everything to do with what we think of the people using the words.

When he was editor of The Sun, John Carroll, whose tastes in language are conservative, disparaged parenting but reluctantly gave into it for lack of a simple equivalent. Child rearing didn’t seem adequate to the purpose. The purpose was to indicate an attitude toward bringing up children that involved father and mother equally, emphasized nurturing over smacking the little creatures, and generally reflected Yuppie culture. Probably still does.

As publisher of The Sun, Mike Waller roared every time someone submitted a memo to him about growing the business, a cant phrase of the Nineties. I have to say that my own distaste for the phrase, after sitting in meetings listening to people tell how they were going to grow the business over ten years of a steady decline in the newspaper industry, remains intense.

Hopefully, after a long period of inoffensive uses, got to be a vogue term in the Sixties and Seventies, probably in advertising and business circles, and the starchy types reacted more to the people using the word than the word itself. Previously, scorn was directed at the same classes over their indulgence in contact as a verb. The latter scorn has faded away as the usage has become commonplace. We have lots of ways now to get in contact with one another, and a single broad-sense word is useful.

We know the people who embrace linguistic novelty, just as we are quietly amused at the people who experience tachycardia or Cheyne-Stokes breathing every time Apple introduces a new product. But if we are serious about words, we will hesitate about rendering judgments until we’ve had a look at how new ones fit historically and how much our own social and class prejudices may be coloring our reactions.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (14)

September 14, 2010

All power to the pedagogues?

Boomers, relax. The Sixties have not gone away.

Yesterday, commenting on the post “Brace yourself for National Punctuation Day,” a gentleman named Scott Fisher commented:

“Ah, the punctuation Nazis have their own holiday. Please remember that language belongs to the people. It doesn't belong to an elite group of academics that are following arcane rules that were invented around the time of the printing press.

“If I can communicate and get my point across then punctuation is secondary to my message, not primary.”

I tell you, it took me back to my hot-blooded youth as a graduate teaching assistant in Syracuse’s English department, where “What does it matter so long as I get my point across?” was an almost ritual defense of inept freshman composition essays.

But seriously, folks, there is some substance to Mr. Fisher’s comment. For most purposes, casual conversation or text messages or personal e-mail, comprehensible is an adequate standard. I should probably post a note at the top of the blog to remind readers that I’m here to talk about using standard written English for publication, and that your conversation and casual communications lie beyond my writ.

I should also probably post a suggestion that commenters remark on what I said, not on what I didn’t say, because I don’t think that yesterday’s post said, or implied, that punctuation was primary to communication, and I don’t think I know anyone who would assert that. So if you want to argue with me, I’d appreciate your taking issue with a point I actually made.

Before I go, I’d like to make one more effort to sink a dagger into the heart of “It doesn’t matter so long as I get my meaning across.” I think that even Mr. Fisher would agree that there are times when absolute clarity and precision are paramount, for example, if he were composing a ransom note.

Beyond that, suggesting that nothing matters beyond raw meaning is like saying that so long as your person is covered, it doesn’t matter what clothing you wear. Try wearing a loincloth to your job interview. Communication, like etiquette, involves complex social conventions, and flouting them can come at a cost. The conventions of punctuation in formal written English have developed over generations of use, and of use by the people, the collective body of writers and editors and teachers. To say that those conventions were invented and are enforced by “an elite group of academics” gives us broken-down instructors more credit than circumstances bear out.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:03 AM | | Comments (13)

September 13, 2010

So you're looking to become a crackpot

I don’t blame you. In the current cultural environment, “experts”—that is, people who have put some study into a subject and know what they are talking about—get shouted down, and media attention goes to loonies.

So if you want attention, you’ll need to construct some particularly bold-faced lie of the Obama’s-a-Muslim magnitude, or else develop some elaborate conspiracy theory—say, Einsteinean physics leads to teen pregnancy—to infect the credulous. Neither is an enterprise in which restraint will be of any help.

Let me show you how it’s done.

In Saturday’s Baltimore Sun, Frank Roylance, who writes about weather, climate, and astronomy, advised readers: “If skies stay clear, look west after sunset for a beautiful pairing of a slim crescent moon and a very bright planet Venus. At 10 a.m. today — out of our view — the moon and Venus are in the closest moon-planet conjunction, of ‘appulse,’ of the year, separated by just half the width of your finger held at arm’s length.”

You may have thought that this is merely innocent astronomy, but look more closely.

A crescent moon? For whom is the image of a crescent moon significant? With a planet close to it, so that it looks like A CRESCENT MOON ACCOMPANIED BY A STAR?

It’s Muslim! Has to be! And why is this Muslim propaganda in the newspaper?

Roylance, obviously in the pay of Osama bin Laden, is smuggling Islamic indoctrination into the paper to warp the minds of the thousands of children who read it, making them more receptive to Muslim images and designs.

And The Sun with its notorious liberalism, is an easy dupe for this infiltration. Or perhaps an active participant. Soon it will be advocating sharia astronomy in the public schools, taught by sleeper anchor babies deposited in this country at the same time that Barack Obama’s parents arranged for him to grow up in Hawaii so that he could—well, you can take it from there.

Start with one preposterous conspiracy theory, gather a small following, whip them up with further whoppers, and keep going until you, too, have a website, speaking engagements, and a cable TV program. It’s all within your grasp.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:42 PM | | Comments (10)

What editors look for

Over at Headsup: The Blog, fev proposes to survey readers and editors alike to identify the markers of good editing. If you are interested in participating, please go there and contribute. Here, following the three main questions, are my responses:

1. What are three features of grammar that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

2. What are three features of style that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

3. What are three features of content that help you tell whether a story was well edited?

1. Grammar

We’ll take it for granted that the punctuation will have to be cleaned up for almost anyone, so that can wait for the final pass-through. And we’ll consider grammar broadly, to include usage.

Subject-verb agreement. Or pronoun agreement with antecedent. Or any other grammatical pitfall. I like subject-verb, because people are forever forgetting the either-or, neither-nor rule, or following there is with a series of nouns, or allowing undue influence to some prepositional phrase that falls between the subject and verb. All of these indicate an inattentive editor.

Confusion of homonyms. Since the common lead for led won’t be caught by the spell-check function, a competent editor must have in his or her head dozens of the commonly confused homonyms. No time to look every last possibility up.

Evidence of superstition. If every none is singular regardless of context, if sentences have been cast awkwardly to avoid split infinitives or concluding prepositions, and if no adverbs have been allowed between the auxiliary and the main verb, then we should conclude that a rigid enforcer of what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules” has been at the text, to the neglect of legitimate issues.

2. Style

Jargon. All kinds. There’s bureaucratic jargon, such as indulgence in noun-noun-noun constructions, often meaningless—oversight supervision program. Or the odd inflation of importance by dropping the definite article from the name of an agency—speaking not of the CIA but of CIA, as mere mortals speak of God. There is cop-speak jargon—The motorist was ejected from the vehicle. There’s medical euphemism—sufficient to cause discomfort for painful. All of these are indications that the editor has allowed the writer to address the article to its sources rather than its intended readers.

Metaphor. Similes, metaphors, and images are there to clarify points, to sharpen perspective. But mixed metaphors, distracting metaphors, and inept metaphors indicate that the editor has allowed the writer’s ambitions to outrun technique.

Mismatch of tone and subject. An article that is flippant about a serious subject, or serious about a frivolous one, merely irritates the reader. So also does language that inflates the subject. I once had to edit an article by a reporter who was too grand to cover a routine court story. Instead, he went on at length about the defendant, “a little old lady in a purple polyester pantsuit,” demonstrating his social superiority to an extent that obscured the actual point and outcome of the trial. Reducing the adjectival load alone nearly brought the article within the space allotted on the page.

3. Content

The one thing. A properly written article has a focus that is identified early on. So the main thing the article is about should be clearly stated. If there is some tedious, rambling introduction before the writer gets to the point, or if you have to wander back and forth amid a thicket of paragraphs to determine what the main point is, then the article has not been competently edited.

The transitions. Though an article should have one main point, it will develop through a series of subordinate points. If you have difficulty telling what the particular subordinate points are because they are not clearly identified by transitions, then no editor has clarified the organization of the article.

The math. Never trust the numbers. Some writers appear to imagine that the only difference between million and billion is an initial consonant. Always check the percentages; you will find that they have often been miscalculated. And make sure that percentages are accompanied by base numbers, without which they are meaningless.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (7)

Brace yourself for Punctuation Day

National Punctuation Day is approaching, and if you want to be in shape for it—as should my Loyola students, or at least the ten of the fifteen who stayed signed up after reading the syllabus—you’ll want to brush up on some basics.

If you want to stay clear about the comma, you should use it after an introductory subordinate clause, and you should not omit to use it when two independent clauses are joined by a coordinating conjunction. The comma, your friend, helps to mark off appositives, indicate pauses to replicate the rhythms of speech, and separate items in a series. If you always use the final comma in the series, the serial comma or Oxford comma, the Lord will smile on you and your house.

Do not fear the semicolon; it is handy as a quick link between two independent clauses without a conjunction. It is neglected by inexpert writers, who make comma splices instead; scorned by some writers, who think on idiosyncratic aesthetic grounds that it is ugly; and applied by skilled writers in a complex series, which is the other main function.

The colon can announce that a list or a quotation of some length is to follow, or it can announce a conclusion to which you are meant pay particular attention: do so.

Would-be professional writers are advised to learn that the hyphen joins compounds while the longer dash separates things, usually to indicate a break in continuity—a point not all journalists grasp.

You can use the apostrophe to indicate possession—girl’s, girls’, child’s, children’s, Jones’s, Joneses’—and it’s also OK to use it in contractions. But you mustn’t use it to make nouns plural, as in the grocer’s apostrophe (cantaloupe’s), so don’t.

In American English, use double quotation marks for the basic quotation, single quotation marks for a quotation inside a quotation, and periods and commas inside the quotation marks. Avoid using quotation marks to highlight individual “words,” because that can look like skepticism.

Use parentheses to indicate aside remarks off the main line of the sentence (though journalists are addicted to dashes instead), and use square brackets when you interpolate explanatory material in quoted matter.

Would anyone use a question mark to indicate anything but a question?

The ellipsis, three periods in a clump, indicates something omitted from quoted matter or a mere trailing off ... But if an ellipsis ends a quotation, use a period as well.

When I was first editing Laura Vozzella’s columns at The Sun, I used more exclamation points in the first couple of months than in the previous quarter-century. But you should limit yourselves to a handful in your career. If you overindulge, you risk sounding like a breathless adolescent girl!!!!

All things come to an end, and when they do, mark them with a period.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:03 AM | | Comments (17)

September 11, 2010

Looking back, and forward

I have nothing exciting to add to the where-were-you-on-9/11 recollections today. I was in my office at Loyola when the first plane hit. I called Kathleen, because it seemed to be a remarkable thing, and then the second plane hit. A class was meeting across the hall, and the instructor had turned the television on. One of the students sat quietly sobbing in the corner. Her father worked in the World Trade Center. I taught my class and headed immediately to The Sun, knowing that it would be a night to demand all our resources.

In that humble sequence of events, I duplicated what millions of my fellow citizens did: I registered horror, and I got down to work. There were things to do to try to make the world right again.

The attacks of September 11 were not the only events remembered in Baltimore today. This is the weekend on which Maryland marks Defenders’ Day, commemorating the time in 1814 when Baltimoreans, knowing that the militia had crumbled before the British regulars, that the Capitol and White House had been burned, and that they were next, stood up to the attack and, unknowingly, supplied the United States with a national anthem. Rockets’ red glare is being seen above Fort McHenry again, this time a symbol of our resilience.

Today was also the day that the Enoch Pratt Free Library sponsored its annual Mencken Day lecture, this year delivered by Jonathan Yardley. (Can’t tell you what he said; I’ve been at the paragraph factory.) Whatever Mencken’s faults and limitations—and they were considerable—he tirelessly worked as a journalist to inform the public, he celebrated the American language, he fostered talent in writers, and he championed liberty.

Here on Calvert Street, we are marking a more personal event, the retirement of Dick Irwin, for decades an indefatigable police reporter. You can—and should— read Peter Hermann’s tribute to him here. Mr. Irwin’s determination to worm out facts, to get them down right, and to provide them to the public never flagged. He is also a gentleman through and through. In The Sun’s newsroom, which is like all others in the frictions that develop when people are working closely, under pressure, and on deadline, I’ve never heard a single person speak ill of Dick Irwin.

I’ve collected these apparently random associations because they collectively suggest a key thing to me about this troubled day. Like the Baltimoreans of 1814, we see a threat and prepare ourselves to repel it. And we do that by buckling down to our proper work. In my case, as in Henry Mencken’s and Dick Irwin’s in our respective fields, it is to do what I can to provide accurate, intelligible information to the public so that we, still a free people, can make decisions about our lives from reasoned judgments and resolve, rather than from fear and panic. Stay steady. There’s more work to be done.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 PM | | Comments (5)

September 10, 2010

The breakfast test

“The breakfast test” is a term of art in newspaper journalism. It identifies our habitual skittishness about publishing language or images that would make readers spew into their cornflakes as they read the morning paper. Photograph of a dead body? Racy language? Graphic description? An editor will want to know whether they pass the breakfast test.

My former colleague Ann LoLordo was brought up short by an op-ed essay last week about the Maryland State Fair. Written by Lauren Eisenberg Davis, it described—vividly—the births of livestock in the animal barn. She asked me whether it should have been considered acceptable under Sun standards for publication.

Here’s where you may wish to guard your gorge:

In Ms. Davis’s article, when a sow after giving birth to piglets expelled “something that looked like a string of sausages,” the animal sciences student on hand helpfully explained, to the parents’ dismay, that it was the placentas. Elsewhere, a cow, having given birth to a calf, calmly ate the placenta as the “amniotic sac, still filled with fluid, emerged below the cow's tail and hung there, pendulous, fluids gushing out around it.”

Ewww, the children said, and so may you.

But Ms. Davis’s goal was not to gross you out. She has an argument to support with these details, and the argument is that there is something the matter with us if we watch without remark raunchy movies and endure barrages of wink-wink-nudge-nudge salacious jokes* while being squeamish about the natural functions. And to do that, she had to remind us what some of those natural functions are.

I have been a breakfast-tester and enforcer of modesty at newspapers my whole career as a journalist, and I often grow tired of it. Of the coy circumlocutions—you know, “made her perform a sex act on him” in a crime story, or the dashes and asterisks with which we disguise words that everyone knows.** Of the assumption that every reader is a Mrs. Grundy.

So I am pleased that for Ms. Davis, our editorial page staff was willing to forgo our habitual prissiness to allow her some graphic language to make an important point.


*Can someone explain to me how it is that Two and a Half Men is still on the air?

**When we let something through, readers typically call or write to complain that our coarseness will corrupt the children. Can someone explain to me who and where all these children who read newspapers are to be found?



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:31 PM | | Comments (7)

Wind and limn

You’d have thought that some rogue copy editor had gone all Anglo-Saxon on the front page of The Baltimore Sun. But it wasn’t f—, s—, or c— that appeared in the headline (and if you know what dirty words are represented by those initials, shame on you); it was limn.

An irate reader, Carol Shaw, took the appearance of a word she did not know as a personal affront and dispatched a letter to the editor. Many other readers expressed puzzlement, but many also took issue, often in personal terms, with Ms. Shaw, and the matter snowballed.

The Sun published a short article on the brouhaha, which got thousands of views on the website, and I commented on it here. Many other websites and publications picked up the story, and it even got twenty-some seconds of mention on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

I should make clear that in the outpouring of comments at and You Don’t Say, most were highly positive, praising the paper for refusing to “dumb down” the contents. (Actually, Steve Young, the editor who wrote the headline, just needed a shorter word for show in a one-column space.)

Criticism of headlines is always part of the quality control operation down at the paragraph factory on Calvert Street. Is it accurate? Does it fit? Can it be recast to make it sharper? And, always, are the words appropriate for our readership—apt or too obscure, clear or opaque? Baffling the readers does us no good, and commentary on our effectiveness, both in-house and from outside, is always appropriate.

But Ben Zimmer, the estimable linguist who presides over the Visual Thesaurus and writes on language for The New York Times, identifies the emotional component in this odd little rumpus. Limn appears to provoke a strong reaction in some readers, who take less delight in encountering a word with which they were not previously acquainted than offense at what they perceive to be snootiness and pretension.

It cuts both ways. The unfortunate Ms. Shaw, my fellow honors graduate and Phi Beta Kappa member, was thumped soundly for what readers identified as her pretension in parading her credentials in that letter to the editor.

People are quite ready to take up sides, which indicates how language is always more than the flat denotation of the words put to use. Headline writing, which is by its nature elliptical, is treacherous because political and social implications, along with indicators of class and education, are always lurking within the words.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. The skill of the craft—of not just the composition of headlines, but of any writing—lies in the recognition of these complexities and the application of judicious, apt, and telling choices.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:37 AM | | Comments (7)

September 9, 2010

When they get to know you

A newsroom exchange, conveyed on good authority:

Reporter 1 (calling from outside the office): I need to talk to someone on the copy desk.

Reporter 2: I can see McIntyre over there.

Reporter 1: Not him.


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:45 PM | | Comments (3)

September 8, 2010

A pleasant coincidence

A commenter on the limn kerfuffle uses the occasion to give The Sun a slap in the chops:

“But then of course The Sun is no longer a major newspaper; apparently it's been reduced to using artsy-fartsy terms instead of reporting news.”

You may be amused to notice that this comment appeared on the day that the paper reported that a subcommittee of the United States Senate will hold hearings on police departments’ underreporting of rapes—a hearing prompted, in part, by articles by The Sun’s Justin Fenton on such underreporting in Baltimore. In addition to the Senate proceeding, publication of his articles has led to an investigation by the city and a public apology by the police commissioner.

Disparaging the local paper is as venerable a tradition as explaining in bars how you could run the local sports franchises better than the current management. But even though The Sun plainly has more limited resources than in the era when newspapers across America were fabulously profitable, it is equally apparent that there are still journalists on Calvert Street doing serious work.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:03 AM | | Comments (11)

September 7, 2010

Life and limn

When I clocked in at the paragraph factory on Tuesday afternoon, I discovered that there had been a kerfuffle about a headline on the front page: “Opposing /votes limn / differences / in race.”

The article was about the way that candidates for in Baltimore County had taken different sides of a set of issues. But it was that innocuous verb limn that startled and discomfited some readers who had evidently led sheltered lives.

You are most likely to have seen it in arts coverage in its basic sense of representing in drawing or painting. It also shows up occasionally in a broader sense of describing.*

One reader who had not previously come across it fired off an outraged letter to the editor:

“I consider myself an educated person. I graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Maryland, College Park some years ago with a degree in international relations/economics. I have never heard of the word "limn" and I have been a voracious reader all of my life. To put a word like "limn" in the headline for the lead article on the front page of this newspaper seems to me to be unbelievably arrogant and patronizing.”

Speaking as a headline writer myself, one who has often grappled with the constraints of the single-column headline, I heartily endorse all short verbs that are neither scatological nor obscene.** Speaking as a language maven, I applaud when people consult dictionaries to add another solid brick to the wall of their vocabularies. Now that you know what it means, it is your forever.

A fellow editor caught flak from readers for using limn in a headline at The Cincinnati Enquirer about 30 years ago. Speaking as an educator, I regret that the level of public education does not appear to have risen much in the intervening decades.


*The word, though moderately obscure, does turn up from time to time. Some examples:

Bloomberg,com: Obama Bio by Remnick Limns Networking, National Amnesia

Washington Post: Poll limns provisions of a more limited health-care reform bill ‘Times’ Workplace Columnist Limns Difference Between Old and Young

Sports Illustrated: A painter limns NBA players in an ancient style Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" Perfectly Limns The Zeitgeist of America


**Your suggestions for other options that might conceivably fit are, as always, welcome.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:33 PM | | Comments (38)

September 6, 2010

Please, no mosque-burnings or ethnic cleansings

If your blood pressure was dangerously elevated when you read previous posts on the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan, I earnestly suggest that you turn elsewhere now, perhaps to the “Joke of the Week.” It would distress me to think that I might have injured your health.

People who are outraged at the proposed Islamic center near the World Trade Center site might consider that the Masjid Manhattan has operated a house of worship on Warren street, between Broadway and Church, since 1970. Its members currently meet at a location on Broadway while they seek a permanent site.

Perhaps, since the residents of Manhattan have had no particular objection to their presence over the past forty years, just as the residents of Manhattan proper have had no particular objections to the proposed Islamic center, there is still an opportunity for rational views to prevail.

Of the people who commented on my original post about the right under the First Amendment of this Muslim group to build a house of worship, one, exactly one, acknowledged that constitutional right. The other objections went in for heavy breathing and arguments beside the point. One, and I think this was supposed to be the sockdolager, asked how I would like a Japanese temple at Pearl Harbor.

As it happens, Lisa Miller reports in Newsweek, about fourteen percent of Hawaiians consider themselves to be ethnically Japanese, and presumably some of them live and work on Oahu. Moreover, there already is a Buddhist temple, the Aiea Hongwanji Mission, half a mile from Pearl Harbor.

The hoo-hah over mosques in America will not come as a surprise to anyone who has read Mr. Hofstadter’s Paranoid Style in American Politics. We have been prone to these ugly and embarrassing outbreaks since we hanged witches in Salem. Like our periodic financial panics, they pass.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:46 PM | | Comments (8)

Mencken undiluted

R. Emmett Tyrell Jr, writing in The Wall Street Journal, is not impressed with the work of H.L. Mencken’s collected Prejudices series, which the Library of America has republished in two volumes and to which i have been devoting a little time every evening.

That the work is uneven, as Mr. Tyrrell, complains, cannot be denied. But even some of the articles casually tossed off contain glimmers of the echt Mencken.

Consider “Star-Spangled Men,” an essay on Americans’ fondness for the titles and gaudy vestments of the “Knights of Pythias, Odd Fellows, Red Men. Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, Knights Templar, Patriarchs Militant, Elks, Moose, Woodmen of the World, Foresters, Hoo-Hoos, Ku Kluxers”:

“There is an undertaker in Hagerstown, Md., who has been initiated eighteen times. When he robes himself to plant a fellow joiner he weighs three hundred pounds and sparkles and flashes like the mouth of hell itself.”

A man who fails to relish a sentence like that is just insensible.

Moreover, Mencken moves on in that essay to imagine the sashes, ribbons, and medallions that might be awarded to the patriots who, during the First World War, purged the curriculum of German language and literature, forced people out of their jobs, and informed on their neighbors during Attorney General Palmer’s Red Scare. Let the reader translate the sentiment to the present.

I have also admired “The Husbandman” since I encountered it at the callow age of eighteen. Mr. Tyrrell disparages it as a mere attack on farmers, but it is, of course, more than that. It is an attack on the militant fundamentalism that manifested itself in the Scopes Monkey Trial and William Jennings Bryan’s attempt to harness evangelical resentment for political ends:

“The mountebank, Bryan, after years of preying upon the rustics on the promise that he would show them how to loot the cities by wholesale and a outrance, now reverses his collar proposes to lead them in a jehad against what remains of American intelligence, already beleaguered in a few walled towns.”

Perhaps Mr. Tyrrell is more in sympathy with Mencken’s targets than with Mencken himself. At any event, he has my sympathy for having trudged through a thousand pages of prose of which he appears to have little or no appreciation.

If you would like to read a more sensitive review, I commend to you the article by Katherine A. Powers at Ms. Powers acknowledges that a few of the essays are “dull and stupid.” But, she says, “Mencken's flair for contumely and comic rancor are intoxicating, even to one who disagrees with him more than half of the time.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (9)

Joke of the Week: The Old Couple

You can view the joke below or click here for the mobile version link:

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:58 AM | | Comments (1)

September 4, 2010

Grandfather clause

If you labor under the impression that This is not your grandfather’s x is a snappy and original way to introduce a subject, it is my painful duty to inform you that the construction has grown as stale as your grandfather’s horehound drops.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:26 PM | | Comments (3)

My dark secret revealed

I harbor a love that dare not speak its name. I like reporters.

Oh, I’ve kept up a good front, maintaining a facade of the traditional hostility between writers and editors. A newish reporter once wanted an escort when she had to approach me about a change in her story. “I’ve read his blog,” she said. “He hates reporters.”

It’s a useful reputation. People prepare for court more carefully when they know that they are going to come before a hanging judge.

But—how could I have endured it otherwise over the past three decades?—I like writing, and I like the people who produce it.

Some of them, anyhow.

Back in my copy desk days before the [cough] hiatus [cough], I had the pleasure of working as the copy editor on several of the articles by Bob Little on medical care of U.S. soldiers in combat that so discomfited the military medical authorities. I also edited a number of articles by Diana Sugg, some of which won her a Pulitzer Prize.

Of course, little actual editing was involved with either Mr. Little or Ms. Sugg, because both of them took the trouble to think through what they wanted to say, to organize it, and to express it clearly. Their stories always came to me with their faces and hands washed.

I thought I’d mention a couple of the writers with whose work I’m smitten. Not to weary you with too lengthy a post, here are extracts from three of them.


1. Jay Hancock, wondering how it is that the heads of some nonprofit hospitals in Maryland make seven-figure salaries, plus perks, while the hospitals are taking people to court for inability to pay their bills:

Close to a dozen had personal dues for "social clubs" financed by your charitable donations, tax dollars and health insurance premiums. Many enjoy lavish and opaque executive retirement plans that also put upward pressure on the medical costs that threaten government budgets and the economy. Don't say they're worth it. Don't say that there's a "market" in hospital-management talent and that organizations must pay top dollar. And really, don't start quoting Wall Street salaries to try to make these look reasonable.

Hospitals aren't Goldman Sachs. They're not Stanley Black & Decker or Microsoft, either. They're nonprofits, getting charitable donations and huge government subsidies beyond all the loot they rake in from Medicare and Medicaid. If the newly required disclosures on the IRS "Form 990" put pressure on hospital boards and CEOs to tone it down, it's about time.


2. Here’s Eileen Ambrose, warning you in clear, straightforward prose about arbitration clauses:

Lease a car, enroll in a cell phone plan or finance the purchase of a major appliance, and you're likely signing away your rights.

Most consumer contracts include clauses that require you to take any disputes with the auto dealership, phone company or retailer to an arbitrator — one chosen by the business. You can't take the business to court. You might not even be able to take part in a class action lawsuit with others who have similar complaints. And the arbitrator's decision — with no explanation — is generally final.

Consumers often aren't aware of this because the clauses are buried in the fine print of contracts. And even those who know what to look for say it's almost impossible to avoid arbitration mandates when signing up for a product or service.


3. And Jean Marbella meditates on how we have come to be inundated with low-grade celebrities from reality shows:

For one thing, have you noticed that the whole concept of celebrity has depreciated even faster than your house? There are all sorts of these not-movie stars, not-royalty, not-rock stars who nonetheless have grabbed the public's imagination, or at least the imagination of the editors deciding who goes on the cover of In Touch or People.

Now, I try to keep up with the celebs as much as anyone — anyone, that is, who sneak-reads those magazines in the grocery store line. I admit I'm curious enough about who has sprouted cellulite or what's going on with Jen's ticking ovaries, but not so curious that I'll actually pay to find out.



Embarrassing to make such a public confession of my weakness. So I’m putting it out a little after midnight in the middle of a holiday weekend, in hopes that it may pass largely unnoticed and unremarked.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:36 AM | | Comments (13)

September 3, 2010

The fun in finger-pointing

A post yesterday, “In the realm of the White Queen,” about some of the preposterous things public figures say, provoked this comment from Bruce Robinson: “But, dear host, why do continue to give credence to the cretins by perpetuating their outrageous (?) ideas?”

He’s entitled to an answer.

When a plane crashes into the side of a mountain, we are more interested than when a plane lands without incident at BWI. When a public official or public figure makes flat statements so blatantly unreliable that a child could expose them, it captures our attention.

Then, too, you have to remember my trade. Establishing factual accuracy is part of my job description, and error, either ignorant or deliberate, draws my attention, offends my sensibilities.

There is additionally the journalistic imperative to see to it that the public has reliable information on which to make judgments. If it jangles your nerves when I bring up political whoppers, think instead of Jenny McCarthy’s efforts to expose multitudes of children to preventable, and dangerous, childhood diseases because of her discredited belief that immunizations cause autism.

But I don’t want to claim too much nobility. In plain fact, I derive from pointing out these misrepresentations foisted on the public the same satisfaction that people get from watching YouTube videos or jay Leno: an unearned sense of superiority.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (2)

September 2, 2010

An experiment with the "Joke of the Week"

“The Good Samaritan,” a joke that was not formerly available to mobile users, can now be seen through a hyperlink.

Here is the joke:

And here is the hyperlink for mobile users:

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:00 PM | | Comments (1)

In the White Queen's realm

You may recall that Lewis Carroll’s White Queen says, “Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Her spirit is abroad in our capacious Republic.

I’ve mentioned before that Andrew Schlafly at Conservapedia campaigns against Einstein’s theory of relativity because he imagines that physics, at least since Newton died, fosters moral relativism. You have perhaps seen how frequently the courts have slapped down Orly Taitz’s crackpot assertion that Barack Obama is not a U.S. citizen, and the surveys indicating how many of our fellow citizens have swallowed the preposterous assertion that the president is a Muslim.

But these examples only begin to hint at the volume of antic nonsense given voice throughout our fifty sovereign states.

For example, one Bob Enyart, a spokesman for Colorado Right to Life, argued in an interview with Fox News that the teaching of evolution undermines chastity—telling teenagers that human beings are descended from animals apparently encourages them to behave like animals. (One recalls Mencken’s remarks about William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee: “When he began denouncing the notion that man is a mammal even some of the hinds at Dayton were agape.”)

Various alarmist politicians have been baying about the threat of illegal immigration (anchor babies! decapitations! drug mules!) during a year in which the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has actually declined.

And on the left, there were many who thought a year ago that President Obama was going to enact the progressive agenda.

Is this a great country, or what? Further examples will be welcome in the comments.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:33 PM | | Comments (25)

A day for the books

Not quite of “Today in History” caliber, but on this date in 1986, I reported to 501 N. Calvert St. for my first day at work at The Sun. Because of the [cough] hiatus [cough], I am beginning my twenty-fourth year at the paper rather than my twenty-fifth.

Still happy to be here.

This morning, after several days of workshops, faculty meetings, orientation, and other business, my daughter, Alice, steps into her classroom at the Garrison Forest School to begin actual instruction in Latin. This will be her fourth year at the school.

This afternoon, my son, J.P., will report to work for his first day in the kitchen at Crush in Belvedere Square. It wouldn’t be the thing for me to endorse a commercial enterprise here, but I am confident that he will provide satisfaction to the customers.

Yesterday was the day that the full fall schedule started for Kathleen at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson, so today the whole family is fully, and gainfully, occupied.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:11 AM | | Comments (3)

September 1, 2010

Just for fun

The sport of twitting people for their ill-informed outrage over that proposed Muslim community center in Manhattan has begun to stale,* so let’s go back to picking on hapless journalists.

Today, just for fun, let’s deconstruct the opening paragraph of an article in which the writer was ineptly attempting something imaginative. This specimen from my files was published in the Tribune of Coschocton, Ohio:

COSHOCTON — The sticky, sweltering heat sent many South Third Street residents indoors Monday to keep cool. Two sheriff’s deputies guarding either end of house number 222 sought respite from the relentless sun in air-conditioned vehicles. But one man was not bothered by the heat, although he lay exposed to the weather through midmorning. Before dawn on Monday, Jeff Guinther had been shot to death and his body left on the lawn behind his apartment.

Let’s start out simply. This opening paragraph runs for more than seventy words. Nobody wants that.

Is it hot in here, or is it just me? Once I’ve seen sticky, sweltering, heat, and relentless sun, I’ve grasped that it’s a warm day. Not necessary to hammer it in.

So we have a progression: 1. People are staying indoors because it’s hot. 2. Two deputies are sitting in the air conditioning in the patrol car because it’s hot. 3. Then the turn: One man is not seeking respite from the relentless sun. Why? Because he’s dead!

That’s when you feel the writer’s elbow in your ribs. Didja get that? Huh? Didja? Didja? Didja see how I built up a little suspense and then surprised you? Aren’t you impressed? Huh?

I don’t know what, if anything at all, the heat of the day has to do with Jeff Guinther’s death. I have no idea why those deputies were sitting outside 222 South Third, or whether Jeff Guinther’s apartment was in that house, or why the authorities were in a car when there was a body lying on the ground. I don’t know these things because I never read beyond the first paragraph. It didn’t give me any reason to read further; instead, it gave me every reason not to.

It is natural for writers to attempt things, but not all attempts succeed. The editor who allowed this text into print did not do the writer any favors. Publication may have given the writer encouragement at further experimentation in the overwrought, and it certainly exposed the writer to public ridicule. The editor’s job is to protect the writer from his or her misjudgments and excesses, and to spare the reader those same misjudgments and excesses.

An editor’s failure to do so can usually be attributed to one of three causes: bad judgment, laziness, or cowardice.


*Especially now that even Orrin Hatch has joined the ranks of the spineless lefty Islamophiles who think that the Constitution grants even those people freedom of worship.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:48 AM | | Comments (19)
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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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