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October 30, 2010

The editor and the renovator

One of the things I liked about Roy Peter Clark’s The Glamour of Grammar was its reminder of the exuberance of writing. Yes, it’s hell getting started, everyone knows that, but once the work is under way, once the sentences and paragraphs start to form, it’s a romp through the language. Writing is exploration, a discovery of the connections between words, and a discovery of one’s own ideas as they emerge and amplify on the page.

Editing, though allied, is a very different experience, as I was reminded this morning when the plumber and the contractor stopped by the house. That’s the new contractor. The gentleman first engaged to remodel the bathroom in the basement, a three- week project, he assured us, tore many things out, drilled puzzling holes in the concrete floor, installed new copper pipe, and vanished. That was in September. For more than a month, we have had no word from him, he has not responded to telephone calls or e-mail—in fact, his telephone number seems to have been discontinued—and his tools lie dusty and unclaimed in the basement. Odd.

An editor is like our new contractor. He steps into a project not completed. Here, too, there is a period of discovery: He sizes up the dimensions of the task and gravely evaluates the work of the previous craftsman. He estimates the scope of what remains to be done, how much time it will take, in what sequence of steps he will perform the work, and what materials and tools he will require. Then he sets to it. Any of the previous work that is solid he leaves alone. Where something has been done improperly or amateurishly, he makes it good. He gives attention to the fine details and cleans up after himself. And when the job is completed, he checks to make sure that it conforms to the design and intent, and he sees with satisfaction that he has brought something to completion.

Writing and editing are allied crafts, making use of the same tools, but the approaches are distinct, and the temperaments required for the two crafts, like those of the builder and the renovator, are not evenly distributed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:23 PM | | Comments (3)

October 28, 2010

Dreck in the halls

Though I lack both minions and janissaries, this blog does receive reports from volunteer sentinels, one of whom reported today the first sighting of a ’tis the season headline. In a newspaper in New Jersey. YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE.

So, even though we have not even endured Halloween—urchins being trained to beg in public, surly adolescents trolling for candy, raw egg dripping down the picture window—it becomes necessary to issue the annual caution against holiday cliches that You Don’t Say provides.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must mention Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage — and dignity — than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Ignore all tiresome objections to Xmas from people who do not understand that it is an innocuous abbreviation. The Roman alphabet X in this case is understood as the Greek letter chi, also X, which is the first letter of Christos. Xmas in no way takes Christ out of Christmas.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And typically they do not scan.*

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality comforts them. It is for such people that television exists.


*If you are in any way traditional in outlook, or informed, you understand that Christmas was originally a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The modern, saccharine, holly jolly Christmas, which can barely wait until the post-Thanksgiving-dinner Alka-Seltzer is swallowed, has essentially effaced the original. Do not try to swim against the current.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 PM | | Comments (30)

One of those things

Yesterday on Twitter, @DailyEngHelp and @EditorMark were tossing this sentence back and forth:

Mary Smith is one of the librarians who oppose(s)? the contract.

I thought I’d bring this to a wider audience, because determining whether the verb in the subordinate clause should be singular or plural is a point in which writers often get entangled.

The matter to settle is whether the pronoun who is a singular or plural. Many writers wrongly assume that it must refer back to Mary or maybe one, since one is identical to Mary, and must therefore be singular. But the nearer antecedent is librarians, and it cannot be ignored.

There are two ways to talk about Mary in this context. The first would be to emphasize her individual status: Mary is one who opposes the contract. The antecedent of who is one.

But if the intent is to identify Mary as part of a discrete group, then: Mary is one of the librarians who oppose the contract.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (11)

October 27, 2010

Try, try again

A reader, one whom I have already agitated by my laxity over could care less, inquires, with some trepidation, about try and:

... I noticed that Geoffrey Pullum of the Language Log ... used the phrase "try and" instead of "try to" in front of the verb rectify. I would be interested in your take on try and versus try to in front of verbs. ...

I'm not entirely a grammar pedant ... but this particular idiom bothers me more than most. Here is my take on it: using and instead of to effectively breaks the verb to which try is attached. Let's use jump as a verb. In the phrase "try to jump" we have two chunks, try (a verb) and to jump (infinitive form of jump). If we rephrase it as "try and jump" we have turned an infinitive that is modified by try into two separate verbs (I'm going to try and I'm going to jump).

Bryan Garner calls try and a casualism but notes that it is ubiquitous. It certainly is in speech and has become increasingly common in writing.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that a number of commentators on usage have found nothing in particular the matter with it. One was H.W. Fowler, who observed that though it was colloquial, it “has a shade of meaning that justifies its existence; in exhortations it implies encouragement—the effort will succeed; in promises it implies assurance—the effort shall succeed. It is an idiom that should be not discountenanced, but used when it comes natural.”

Merriam-Webster’s points out that the idiom has been common in English since the sixteenth century and has been increasingly common in print for a century and a half, with a full page of citations. The basis for disparaging it, the entry says, is “usually the notion that try is to be followed by the infinitive combined with the mistaken assumption that an infinitive requires to.”

So here you have one more concern you can cross off your list.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (7)

Don't be a crybaby

Yesterday I listened to Juan Williams talk on Diane Rehm’s show about his abrupt dismissal from National Public Radio, and last night The Sun’s David Zurawik filed an article after interviewing Mr. Williams, who said yesterday, “I’m not even sure what I did wrong.”

Perhaps I can be of help. The remark that got him fired, the proximate cause, that seeing people in “Muslim garb” on airplanes made him nervous, was, without regard for journalistic ethics, richly stupid. Someone’s comment that he understood Juan Williams because ever since Timothy McVeigh, the sight of white men in trucks has made him nervous, which might help you put Mr. Williams’s remark in perspective.

So Mr. Williams might at least express some mild regret for his minor contribution to anti-Muslim bigotry.

But what comes through most clearly in his public statements is that Mr. Williams feels wronged, shabbily treated by NPR, and eager for our sympathy for his plight. You will recall that on the afternoon of his dismissal from NPR, Mr. Williams signed a $2 million contract with Fox News. As someone once abruptly dismissed from a media job and reduced to scratching around for freelance work for twelve months, I am not soaking my pillow with tears over the injury to Mr. Williams’s pride. Look around and you can see many people turned out of their jobs for reasons less compelling.

My own sentiment is that Mr. Williams might benefit from a little manning up. Instead of touring the outlets and venues to whinge about how mean NPR was to him, he could comport himself with a little more dignity. After all, NPR, whatever the merits of its dismissal of Mr. Williams, has taken a huge hit for the gracelessness of the manner in which it sacked him. He has admirers and partisans and advocates. Let them manage the clamor.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 AM | | Comments (15)

October 26, 2010

Could you care less? Indeed you could

Oliver Wendell Holmes fils famously said about the common law, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” The same holds true for the life of the language.

I’m reminded of this point (which I’ve made before, but were you listening?) on reading Jan Freeman’s latest column on language in The Boston Globe, in which she points out that—brace yourself, here it comes—could care less has become a perfectly acceptable idiomatic expression, even though it gets up the nose of people who think that only couldn’t care less is correct.

“[A]ll over the Web,” she writes, “sober professionals and spelling-impaired amateurs continue to insist that ‘I could care less’ really must mean ‘I care to some extent.’ But it doesn’t; it never has; it never will.” She’s right, and while some people may itch with irritation when someone says, “I could care less,” no one ever mistakes the meaning. The expression, Ms. Freeman points out, has been around for half a century and shows no indication of fading away.

English, like any language has identifiable patterns, like the order of adjectives,* that grammarians and linguists can catalogue. But its patterns are not those of logic. And it is full of idiosyncratic elements, like its notoriously wayward spellings.

Idioms, in any language, convey meanings that cannot be determined from the literal sense of the words. So you can object to an idiom and shun it because you find it trite or common or inappropriate for the tone or subject or audience. But you don’t get to kvetch about it for being illogical. Idioms are inherently illogical. Here’s an idiom: Put a sock in it. You may not care for could care less, but I could care less about your objections. And frankly, apart from the tiny company of peevers, no one else gives a tinker’s damn either.


*opinion, size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, material



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:36 PM | | Comments (13)

October 25, 2010

A Monday two-fer

I give you the joke of the week, “”The Turbulent Flight”:

And the word of the week: nonage:,0,4648307.story

Bonus: The “In a Word" gallery:,0,5861503.storygallery


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

October 24, 2010

A flutter among the Janeites

A quantity of careless writing has greeted the announcement by Professor Kathryn Sutherland of Oxford University that an examination of Jane Austen’s manuscripts reveals that she was far from a polished writer, along with speculation that her books had to be cleaned up and perhaps revised by her editor, William Gifford. The article in the Guardian is a specimen.

Well, we know that some authors, notably Thomas Wolfe and Raymond Carver, were aggressively edited. We know that Ezra Pound tore into Eliot’s Waste Land. (We also know, for a contrary example, that Emily Dickinson’s originality was marred by her editors, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, until a reliable edition was brought out half a century ago.)

We know that all kinds of writers are edited, sometimes heavily. The announcement of the award of Pulitzer Prizes is greeted by applause and the popping of champagne corks in newsrooms, but also, I suspect, by winks and nods among the copy editors.

But before we dismiss Jane Austen as a pathetic spinster who needed a man to make her scribbings publishable, these accounts will bear some further examination, as Geoffrey K. Pullum suggests at Language Log. What we have been offered so far is skimpy with details about Austen’s supposed limitations.

It appears that Professor Sutherland has been examining draft manuscripts, and virtually no author looks good in the rough drafts or should be held accountable for them. And as the estimable Marie Sprayberry, a doughty Janeite and my friend since graduate school, points out in an exchange of messages, the fair copies of the six published novels have not survived. If we could see the manuscripts that Austen prepared for the publisher, we could form a clearer impression of how much editing the texts underwent.

Until we look at the digital version of the manuscripts being made available and see an academic rather than a journalistic account of Professor Sutherland’s findings, we’re left to understand that William Gifford did something to regularize Austen’s spelling, punctuation, paragraphing. Big whoop.

I’m afraid that the press does not come out too well in these accounts, though The Chronicle of Higher Education offers, as one would expect, a more nuanced and sophisticated set of particulars. The Daily Mail, for one, says, “One of her grammatical errors was the inability to master the ‘i before e’ rule and her works were littered with distant ‘veiws’ and characters who ‘recieve’ guests.”

Ms. Sprayberry remarks, with a tartness Austen herself would appreciate, “If I couldn't tell grammar from spelling, I believe I'd take up another line of work.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:49 PM | | Comments (4)

October 23, 2010

A taste for toddy

In the immediately preceding post I mentioned the need for a toddy, and it occurs to me that some of you may have grown up in culturally deprived areas where this source of solace is unknown. Prepare to be instructed. If you do not require instruction, you are excused.

For the traditional hot toddy, at least as I make it, you will need a standard short glass. Put a spoonful of sugar in it, heat some water to boiling, pour a quantity of water into the glass and stir, leaving the spoon in the glass to transfer heat to keep the glass from breaking. Squeeze in the juice of a quarter-lemon. Then pour in a quantity of bourbon until the color of the beverage is one that you find seemly. If your preferred tipple is rum or brandy, either may be substituted. Stir, sit, sip.

A variant can be made with tea. Brew a mug of strong black tea. To it add the juice of a quarter-lemon (or half-lemon, to taste), a heaping spoonful of sugar, and enough whiskey (rum, brandy, you know) to give it strength. Repeat as necessary. Good for colds or flu, also despair.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 PM | | Comments (6)

Bind and loose

The first edition is in, I’m fighting off a cold, and there’s no prospect of a toddy for four more hours. Still, there’s you, my faithful audience.

The Subversive Copy Editor posted a truly subversive editing quiz the other day. Make a good-faith effort to complete it before you turn to the post with the answers.* Never forget that editing, properly understood and conducted, can foster humility.

John Cowan, whose comments I always take seriously, pointed out, responding to my post on refute, that the OED shows the word in the sense of rebut back to 1895 and said that it’s too late to go back now. He may be right, and I may be standing at the barn door more than a century after the horse has run off, but I still think that the distinction is worth considering.

The thing about the OED and the historical record of English—both of which I have cited freely in argument—is that you can use them, like Scripture, to back up any point you like. Jane Austen wrote every body … their; which I have come to think is fine, but she also used an apostrophe with the possessive pronoun hers.

Probably a majority of English speakers use refute in the loose sense; I am, of course, free to use it myself in the strict sense, but what am I to make of widespread practice when I edit or instruct my students?

I’m still trying to steer a middle course between fussy hyper-precision and Anything Goes.

If you are, or aspire to be, a reasonable prescriptivist, you can’t ignore widespread usage. At some point, it sweeps away the previous senses of words. Not even a hard-shell representative of the peevery would insist on nice in its original sense of “stupid” or “foolish” in a contemporary text.

But a reasonable prescriptivist takes to heart H.W. Fowler’s advice that useful distinctions of meaning ought to be maintained. Loath and loathe may derive from the same Old English root, but they have developed useful distinctions in meaning. I won’t insist that decimate can mean only to reduce by a tenth, but I won’t let it mean “destroy” or “annihilate” or whatever else they intend it to mean on sports pages.

Fowler’s advice, however, also means that when distinctions cease to be meaningful, there is no point in struggling over them. You won’t find me in the last ditch if the skirmish over career/careen should ever be renewed.

So you, you aspirant to reasonable prescriptivism, make your judgments, based on how you see the language used by the most effective writers you encounter. Just keep in mind how humble you were after taking Ms. Saller’s quiz.


*All right, go ahead and cheat. But you won’t get the full benefit.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 PM | | Comments (21)

October 22, 2010

So you think you can refute, do you?

We turn attention today to a word subjected to frequent careless misuse, refute. While it is repeatedly used in the loose sense of “to challenge” or “to take exception to,” its traditional, formal sense has been “to disprove conclusively.”

To be used in this sense, refute would mean that not only the challenger but also the person challenged would agree on the point. People being what they are, that would mean that refute in the strict sense would almost never be seen.*

The word that most people are reaching for when they pluck up refute is rebut: I challenge, I disagree.

A vivid illustration of the distinction between refute and rebut has come up this week since Virginia Thomas, wife of Justice Clarence Thomas, left a message to Anita Hill inviting her to announce publicly that she is a liar.

Nineteen years ago, in Senate confirmation hearings, Ms. Hill accused Mr. Justice Thomas of improper behavior, which he denied. He rebutted the accusations vigorously, comparing the confirmation hearings to a lynching.**

But he did not refute them. The testimony before the Judiciary Committee was not conclusive for either side, and people’s beliefs about which party was untruthful dovetail neatly with their political beliefs. So today there are many people who believe that Ms. Hill was speaking out of animus (the scorned-woman hypothesis) or acting as the tool of liberal groups bent on derailing the nomination. There are many people who believe that Mr. Justice Thomas perjured himself to gain a seat on the court.

And so it stands. Anita Hill’s testimony will be mentioned in articles on the day that Mr. Justice Thomas retires from the court, and will be mentioned again, more discreetly, in his obituary. This appears to be what is eating at Mrs. Thomas, explaining why, two decades later, it would be urgent for her to approach the one person who can move the needle from rebut to refute.

Certainty, in our sublunary world, is elusive, no matter how much people attempt to establish it by sheer volume of expression.


*Some writers, in apparent solidarity with Sarah Palin, have used the portmanteau word refudiate, refute plus repudiate, in serious published work. You Don’t Say refrains from commenting on the legitimacy of this usage because all the returns are not in.

**It appeared at the time, and some may think so still, that United States senators are less troubled by the accusation of misogyny than of racism.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:20 PM | | Comments (9)

October 20, 2010

AP Stylebook is asking for it

The Associated Press Stylebook, under its Twitter identity @APStylebook, continues to solicit suggestions for the 2011 edition:

We're still eager to hear your suggestions for the 2011 AP Stylebook. Post them here:

D’you suppose they’re lonely?

Their site for submitting suggestions doesn’t reveal what suggestions have previously been submitted, so I think you might as well bombard them without worrying whether you are repeating other people’s suggestions. And I mean bombard them with everything you find deficient in the current manual. Surely there’s more on your mind than a passionate belief that Internet should be lowercased.

Because if you don’t smack them around a little, the 2011 edition will be like the 2010 edition: twiddling with inconsequential details. Remember the ACES conference in Philadelphia, when the leak about website was supposed to be a screamer?


In other matters: has opened nominations for the annual Mobbies awards for best local blogs in an array of categories. This is your chance to shower glory on your favorites. A new element this year is a category for Baltimore Sun blogs, the only one for which the Calvert Street wretches are eligible.

That means that [cough] this one [cough] is eligible for nomination.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 AM | | Comments (7)

No need for tension about tenses

Someone probably told you once about the sequence of tenses—how the tense of the verb in a main clause dictates the tense of the verb in a subordinate clause. This is of particular concern to journalists because they must write reported speech so frequently. So:

Past tense main verb/past tense subordinate verb: She said she knew who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder.

Present tense main verb/present tense subordinate verb: She says she knows who put the overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder.

Past tense main verb/conditional subordinate verb: She said she would give her regards to Broadway.

Present tense main verb/future tense subordinate verb: She says she will give her regards to Broadway.

Present tense main verb/present perfect subordinate verb: He says he has had a hot time in the old town tonight.

Past tense main verb/past perfect subordinate verb: He said he had had a hot time in the old town that night.

On Twitter, @guardianstyle has recently been ringing some of these changes, but one instance demands a quibble:

Reported speech (1) - She said "I like chocolate" (present tense) becomes in reported speech "she said she LIKED chocolate"

The exception to past/past sequence is the statement that is continuing or perpetually true. Thus, she said she liked chocolate could be understood to mean that she liked chocolate as a child but lost her taste for it as an adult. She said she likes chocolate means that her taste for it continues into the present.

Also, don’t get your feet tangled in infinitives when you have past-tense verbs. Write she would have liked to waltz around again with Willie, not she would have liked to have waltzed around again with Willie.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:14 AM | | Comments (22)

October 18, 2010

Crap, is it Monday already?

The word of the week is chthonic. Make it your own. And here is the gallery of the previous words of the week.

That’s words of the week, not word of the weeks. I mention this because I heard someone on the Today show this morning refer to mother-in-laws.

If you missed the post over the weekend, there’s still time for you to make suggestions for improvement—and there is room for plenty—to the Associated Press Stylebook. On Twitter, @GRAMMARHULK has already weighed in with “HULK HAVE TWO WORDS FOR @APStylebook: SERIAL COMMA.”

And if you find eye, mull, tout, tap, fete, and nab used as verbs in headlines as annoying as I do, and you should, Andy Bechtel has compiled a list that includes these and other offenders. Any headline writer who continues to use them as anything other than a guilty last resort in a single-column choker is displaying a poverty of imagination.

And there is no excuse whatever for using them on websites.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:12 AM | | Comments (26)

October 17, 2010

The week that was, the day that is

The week has been a little fatiguing, what with midterms at Loyola and a couple of freelance projects, one of which was completed and the other baffled by the malign force that deleted the contents of the project from my thumb drive.

And down at the plant, Friday was a little dicey, with both my brother foremen off. I had to preside over part or all of six sections. I was too busy even to swear much. (Saturday remedied that, though.) Not much time for posting.

Today is going to be another gap, because I intend to spend it marking my twenty-eighth wedding anniversary. Kathleen and I plan a quiet meal together, there is a bottle of chilled champagne awaiting attention, and you, dear people, can go roll a hoop.

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 AM | | Comments (5)

October 16, 2010

Want to slap AP Stylebook around?

I thought they’d never ask.

There, on Twitter, from @APStylebook: “We're still looking for ideas for the 2011 Stylebook. Post your suggestions here:”

This is [SPORTS METAPHOR ALERT!] a nice slow fat one right across the plate.

How about revising the entry on verbs, finally admitting that there is nothing terribly wrong in standard English with splitting infinitives, and certainly nothing wrong with placing an adverb between the auxiliary and the main verb? Man up, AP. You’ve fostered a superstition for years. Make good.

Maybe add some advice on the passive voice, since some people think every sentence with a form of to be is a passive construction, and few seem able to distinguish when it is appropriate. That would be useful.

How about revisiting sewage/sewerage? There’s nothing wrong with the latter term, even if some people have a puzzling difficulty in distinguishing between the pipes and the contents. You’d think the smell alone …

I asked Andy Bechtel at Chapel Hill whether his editing class would like to take on the AP, and maybe editing classes elsewhere should take up the challenge, rather than leave the matter in the hands of the grizzled peevers who usually show up for these operations.

Pick up your bats, kids. AP’s lobbing softballs.


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

October 14, 2010

I may not be a doctor, but ...

From time to time copy crosses the desk with a reference to dying from an aneurysm, which is only half right.

An aneurysm is a bulge like a balloon in a blood vessel with a weakened wall. You could possibly harbor one, undiagnosed, in your brain or in your aorta. It is a time bomb, potentially fatal. And yet you may have had it for years, carrying out normal activities. You will not die from having it. But you may well die if it ruptures before it has been identified and repaired by surgery.

Make that copy read dying from a ruptured aneurysm.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:19 PM | | Comments (7)

October 13, 2010

The unkindest cut

One of our reporters used the phrase cut off the music in an article, prompting a reader to write, “PLEASE! You must know better.”

Understandably perplexed, he replied, asking what the reader objected to.

The reader answered: “I thought you would be an English or journalism major. When used as a verb, I believe cut means to tear or slice as with a scissors or a knife. I think turn off the music would be proper. Did you ask a copy editor?”

Well, he did, after that. And I was able to assure him that though cut does mean to sever with a blade, it, like so many other common verbs, has a series of idiomatic senses. One of them is cut off, which means to discontinue abruptly. (It’s in all the dictionaries.)

I would have imagined as well that the reader would be familiar with the film director’s “Cut!” to indicate that action should stop immediately, or the hand-horizontally-across-the-throat gesture indicating the same thing. This is not an exotic usage.

Over the years I have received many have-any-of-your-writers-been-to-college? letters from readers, and the interesting point is that they are wrong about the grammar or usage about half the time. The writers labor under a misapprehension that a word is allowed only one sense, or they have fastened on some hoary superstition that is all they remember from English class in elementary school, or they elevate some idiosyncratic preference to the level of moral law.

Mind you, when we’re wrong, we fess up. But when we’re right—you may remember my telling you about a tussle, one of many, that veteran Sun copy editor John Scholz had with the editors on the business desk, after which he returned to the copy desk and announced, “They have agreed to forgive me for being right.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:44 PM | | Comments (4)

Hello, I must be going

I am dilatory in welcoming Richard Gorelick to dining@large. Wordville and the Sandbox always enjoyed cordial relations when Elizabeth Large presided over the blog. When Elizabeth retired and Laura Vozzella brought her own sassy voice to the site (instead of making a disastrous, doomed-to-fail effort to mimic Elizabeth’s), that cordiality continued. Now Mr. Gorelick, an able reviewer, is at the helm and has already put his own stamp on the blog. Many vigorous voices are a good thing.

Today one voice quits the choir. Nancy Johnston Knight leaves The Sun at the end of business today to take up a post up the road at the College of Notre Dame. When I engaged Nancy as an intern on the copy desk, she showed such promise that I was pleased, some time afterward, to be able to offer her a full-time position on the copy desk. She was energetic, diligent, quick to learn. She became one of the co-bloggers on Read Street and eventually shifted from the print side to the digital side of the newsroom. (She also wrote a brief tribute after I went on [cough] hiatus [cough] in 2009 that touched even my flinty old editor's heart.) Notre Dame will benefit from that same energy, diligence, and quickness to learn. Godspeed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 AM | | Comments (1)

October 12, 2010

This is the song that never ends

Reported to work for my shift as a foreman at the paragraph factory.

Picked up a story that said that “sympathy cards line the mantle.” Changed mantle to mantel, and if you don’t know why I did, you ought to.

Picked up another and almost immediately encountered a reference to a three-story brick row house as a manse. If it doesn’t have Presbyterian clergy living in it, it’s not a manse. Instead we have a pretentious archaic word for “big house.”

And after that another damn false range, accompanied by adjectives as thick as kudzu. I used to say that copy editors, like surgeons, heal with the knife. But sometimes you need a machete.

A reader asks in an e-mail about another hardy perennial, the verb graduate, specifically whether it’s permissible to say that someone graduated college. In the nineteenth century, and well into the twentieth, graduating was something the college did, not the student. My grandmother was graduated from the Millersburg Female College in Millersburg, Kentucky. In the twentieth century the usage shifted, and by the latter half of the century it was well established that students graduated from a high school, college, or university. The current evolution of the verb, I graduated college, is still considered colloquial, and to some ears may cast doubt on the accuracy of the statement.

But while someone else will surely be dealing with mantel/mantle and manse when I have taken to my rocking chair on the porch at the Old Editors’ Home, I am not entirely discouraged about the rising generation of editors. Sarah Morayati, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has published an essay on the importance of editing. A key sentence: “Editing isn’t suddenly less important when you replace ink with pixels. It’s more important.” I commend her entire article to you. It is clear, well-reasoned, articulate, and persuasive. Someone should be on the alert for her when Chapel Hill graduates her.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:25 PM | | Comments (5)

October 11, 2010

A poem for Columbus Day

Richard Wilbur, our wittiest and most urbane American poet, wrote a patter song for Dr. Pangloss for the original production of Candide. It was. I believe, not used, but it has been preserved in his New and Collected Poems.

The occasion is the point in the narrative at which Candide meets Pangloss after a long separation, to discover that the good doctor is in the advanced stages of syphilis. But, Pangloss explains, it is all for the best on the best of all possible worlds. Two stanzas from “Pangloss’s Song: A Comic-Opera Lyric”:

“Columbus and his men, they say, / Conveyed the virus hither / Whereby my features rot away / And vital powers wither; / Yet had they not traversed the seas / And come infected back, / Why, think of all the luxuries / That modern life would lack!

“All bitter things conduce to sweet, / As this example shows; / Without the little spirochete / We’d have no chocolate to eat, / Nor would tobacco’s fragrance greet / The European nose.”

If your library lacks a volume of Mr. Wilbur’s verse, it is sadly incomplete.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:03 PM | | Comments (3)

Double your pleasure; double your fun

Two options to start off the work week:

The joke of the week is “The Golf Tournament”:

And readers on the mobile site can see the video at


The “Word of the Week” is louche.

And if you want to review previous entries, there is now a gallery of the words.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:24 AM | | Comments (2)

October 10, 2010

Will C-SPAN become Comedy Central?

READER ALERT: Smartass political remarks to follow. Perhaps you would prefer to switch over to dining@large and make some suggestions about Mr. Gorelick’s pending top-ten beer-something list.

We’re three weeks away from a general election, and the body politic is enduring chills and fever. The Republicans are combative, the Democrats pusillanimous, the sober citizen increasingly tired of the din. It is easy to lose sight of the basics, and one of the basics is how much merriment the aspirants are offering in exchange for our votes and tax dollars.

A candidate for the House of Representatives in Ohio turns out to have enjoyed dressing up in the uniform of the 5th SS Panzer Division to participate in Nazi war re-enactments.* His interest was purely in the history, you see. I believe that we do not have, at the moment, an explicit Nazi perspective in the House.

I am very much afraid that the good people of Nevada may re-elect Harry Reid, which would deprive the United States Senate of the comic stylings of Sharron Angle, who said last week, “Government isn't what our founding fathers put into the Constitution.”** If she can maintain this level of discourse, and all reports indicate that she can, she might well ascend to that political pantheon with such worthies as the elder Mayor Daley of Chicago, who once famously said, “The police are not there to create disorder. The police are there to preserve disorder.”***

It was also last week that Christine O’Donnell of Delaware broadcast a campaign ad that opened with the candidate saying, “I’m not a witch.” Visualize her joining Senator Angle in that august chamber where, as heirs to Calhoun, Clay, and Webster, they could hold forth jointly on the future of the Republic.

(In my own state, Messrs. O’Malley and Ehrlich, both lacking the insouciance of Ms. Angle and Ms. O’Donnell, have been jabbing each other with attack ads, sometimes running back to back, in an apparent effort to goad us into voting for whichever we find marginally less irritating. That may ask too much subtlety of the electorate.)

As the House and Senate races shape up, we are getting closer and closer to the point of being able to write 112th Congress and laff riot in the same sentence. It is, of course, the sort of phenomenon so common in the Republic that once led Mr. Mencken to refer to the United States as “a buffoon among the great nations,” but a nation that must otherwise depend on Two and a Half Men for humor will take its laughs where it can find them.


*I’m not making this up, you know.

**I’m still not making this up.

***See, I mock Democrats too.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:06 PM | | Comments (5)

October 8, 2010

At least they didn't say 'limn'

Another kerfuffle over headline words has broken out at the Los Angeles Times which published a front-page headline reading “A gay teenager’s daily gantlet.”

You can guess the rest. Readers complained that gantlet should have been gauntlet. But Henry Fuhrmann, a good man and the paper’s assistant managing editor in charge of the copy desk, had to explain that the Times maintains a distinction that has been blurred in common use:

A gauntlet is a glove. The mailed glove that a knight flung to the ground as a challenge gave rise to the expression “throwing down the gauntlet.” A gantlet is a trial by ordeal, in which the object of the trial runs between two rows of men who beat him as he passes. “Running the gantlet” is a metaphor for enduring an ordeal.

Speakers of English, you’ve noticed, are not obsessively precise about pronunciation, and the similarity of the two words has made “running the gauntlet” increasingly prevalent.

The Times was within its rights to uphold an eroding distinction in usage.

(But let me tell you, Henry, it’s a mug’s game to have to explain yourself, even when you’re right.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 PM | | Comments (4)

Filthy pagan Christmas

The Rev. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has caused a minor uproar by condemning the growing popularity of yoga among Christians, because yoga’s philosophical basis in Hinduism is inconsistent with Christian teaching.

Let’s pass over without comment the circumstance of the head of a major theological seminary who appears to be unacquainted with the extensive tradition of meditative and mystical practices within Christianity. Instead, let’s just look at where his argument could lead.

To Christmas. Or rather, to the abolition of Christmas.

Christmas, as the Reverend Doctor Mohler must surely have heard, was originally a pagan solstice festival, the holiday on which the Romans celebrated the Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. It occurred at the time of the Saturnalia, the annual bout of feasting and exchange of presents.

There is no biblical warrant for dating the birth of Jesus at or near December 25. 

The Reverend Doctor Mohler may also have heard that the Christmas tree also has dubious origins, during a time when pagans in the Teutonic forests brought evergreens into the house to mark the solstice.

And he may also know that those flint-eyed Evangelicals, the Puritans of early New England, despised the Christmas holiday and forbade its observance.

So, if he wants to purge ungodly and non-Christian practices, he might just let yoga go for the moment and aim for the Big Target.

In the unlikely event that he is instead amenable to reason, he might consider that yoga, apart from its philosophical dimension, can be considered as a purely mechanical function, especially since meditative techniques show up commonly in many religious traditions.

Or he might get a little more relaxed about the syncretic tendencies in Christianity. English, as I’ve remarked before, is a sluttish language that has incorporated elements of the many other languages it has brushed against. In a similar fashion, Christianity has adopted and transformed for its own purposes numerous practices of non-Christian origin, Christmas being mainly one of the most obvious of the lot.

Take a deep cleansing breath, Reverend Doctor.



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

October 7, 2010

Try your hand at it, if you dare

I assigned this sentence in an exercise on grammar and usage and confounded my students.

The Oakland police sergeant was found guilty of extortion by an Alameda County judge.

Can you do better than they did at identifying and remedying the problem?


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:13 PM | | Comments (28)

Don't give a hoot about whom?

Writing letters to the editor to complain that the newspaper is illiterate is a common, if harmless, hobby. A few years ago, The Sun printed a letter from a reader complaining about two points in an article on grammar:

… I was dismayed to see Jonathan R. Freeman, their teacher, quoted twice saying “kids that …” when it should be “kids who.” Kids, in his statement, are people, not goats.

Moreover, a direct quote from Mr. Freeman’s book, “this is where we begin to despise whoever invented English,” should be to despise “whomever.” The pronoun is the object of the preposition; therefore, the objective case is needed.

The first point, that kids should be reserved for young goats, is a giveaway of the writer’s age. That particular shibboleth was still being taught in the 1950s and even 1960s. Today kids for children is freely used by professional educators as well as by civilians.

But the interesting part, the one I hope you noticed, is that the second complaint, about whoever, is dead wrong. Whoever invented English is a clause, and the pronoun is the subject of it. The entire clause is the object of—not a preposition—the infinitive to despise.

When I said yesterday on Maryland Morning that the who/whom distinction is one to consider abandoning, Sheilah Kast blurted, “Oh no!” But the stickler who wrote that letter to the editor got confused over it. One of my former colleagues at The Sun, an able editor, had to ask me about who/whom constructions frequently. And even people who use the pronouns correctly often have to pause in mid-sentence to work out which one is appropriate.

I put it to you that if literate people, for whom she/her and they/them pose no mysteries, can’t automatically and reliably choose between who and whom, it is well past time to relax our attention to that matter and concentrate on graver solecisms.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (13)

October 6, 2010

The great copy editors

Some years ago, no matter how many, I got to know Pam Robinson, because we were both copy editors in the Times Mirror trenches. And when she and Hank Glamann revived the idea for a professional organization for copy editors, I was honored to become a charter member of the American Copy Editors Society.

In its maturity, ACES has established an annual award, the Robinson Prize, for people who demonstrate excellence in our obscure but essential craft.

Chances are excellent that if you are a writer, you know a copy editor who has spared you public embarrassment, who has assisted you in drawing out of a text the best work of which you are capable. Or if you yourself are an editor, you know someone who has shown you how it is done, has stood steadfast for the highest standards of accuracy and clarity and precision in published work.

Now is the time for you to repay that debt, to honor an editor has worked in anonymity to uphold our highest standards, and to make that editor’s contributions known to the world at large. December 1 is the deadline for nominations. Here are the details. You know who made you look better. Don’t let that be forgotten.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 PM | | Comments (0)

In the background

Over at The Subversive Copy Editor, Carol Fisher Saller has some suggestions for managing those days when the glamour of editing fades. (Yes, Best Beloved, even editing, like fashion modeling and skydiving, has low points.)

Her final piece of advice: “Accept your fate. Yep, just do it. If possible, break it into smaller chunks. Listen to music. Give yourself little treats as you make progress and a big treat at the end. It’s going to feel so good when you’re done.”

That, in turn, prompted a reader’s comment: “I find ... that rock 'n' roll works well for wake-up-the-brain-and-body dancing breaks, while baroque instrumental music gets me more deeply into the editing zone. Your music choices will vary according to your generation and personality.”

Vary they will, and I wonder whether you would care to discuss what music assists you during the slog. At the paragraph factory I forgo music, because headphones or ear buds would block things I need to hear—the abrupt reversals of decisions, the alarm that the computer system is about to crash again, the urgent query about what our style is on work force (two words, AP says, even though every business writer in America writes workforce). But I can crank it up when I’m working at home.

Haydn symphonies, I’ve discovered, are excellent adjuncts to editing: not too much crash-bang (Imagine what a manuscript would look like if you were listening to Stockhausen while editing), harmonious with the requisite energy, and a little bounce. But when the text is pure stodge, deadline looms, and something more propulsive is required: Sousa.

And you?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 AM | | Comments (18)

October 5, 2010

Tune in tomorrow morning

This afternoon I taped a brief segment for Sheilah Kast’s Maryland Morning show at WYPR-FM. It will air tomorrow at 88.1 between 9:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. Eastern (still) Daylight Time. A recording of the show should become available at the website tomorrow afternoon.

While the Maryland Morning website permits comments, you are, as always, welcome to come here to post that I sound like an utter prat.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:14 PM | | Comments (1)

October 4, 2010

Get a running start on the week

It’s Monday, people, but that’s no reason to be lachrymose.

Lachrymose is the word of the week at I’ve given you a sentence with it; now see if you can top mine.

Another reason not to be lachrymose: Geoffrey Pullum is putting out a hit on two categories of stranded-preposition bores: “One type says ‘I think a preposition is a fine thing to end a sentence with!’, or words very much to that effect (unaware that instances of this lame ‘look-I'm-violating-the-rule’ joke have been going on since at least the 1700s). The other type says, ‘This is nonsense up with which I shall not put!’ (invariably thinking that they are quoting Sir Winston Churchill, though Ben Zimmer definitively refuted that misattribution years ago. ...”

He goes on: “Unable to bear any longer the tedious work of seeking out all the instances of these two dopey comment types and deleting them, I have decided that from now on I will hunt down the relevant commenters and kill them.”

He concedes that “it is unusual for a popular science blog to launch upon a policy of killing its own readers,” but if Luca and Enzo wind up at your door, you’ve only yourself to blame.

It is possible that Professor Pullum is a trifle excessive. I myself favor a graduated schedule of punishments, much like the ones I recommended for violations of English when Taneytown, Maryland was considering making English its official language. If the pillory suffices, there’s no need to resort to the gallows.

Also today, you still have a little time to submit a sentence using a stereotype or set of stereotypes to match your city with my colleague Erik Maza’s description of Baltimore as a “blowsy broad with a million stories.”

Go ahead. Embiggen your week.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:00 AM | | Comments (6)

October 3, 2010

Teach the children well

Since the fall of 1995, I have started every semester of my editing class at Loyola with three or more weeks on grammar and usage. Nearly all of my students have been—and I’m struggling to be restrained here—hazy on those matters.* It’s not that I think that every student in every discipline should grasp the technicalities of grammar, but my students are majoring in communications and looking to make a living by writing. Would you place confidence in a physician who was wobbly on anatomy?

I am not talking about arcana, either. I have to make sure that they understand what a clause is. I ask, and they look blank. So there is a quantity of basic stuff to go over. The students who have studied a foreign language are usually a little quicker to pick this up.

But I also have to help them unlearn things. You can depend on it that several students in every class will have been instructed that ending a sentence with a preposition is wrong, that splitting infinitives is wrong, and that the passive voice has something to do with the verb to be and is very wicked.

I am up against it, because there are still teachers at the college level fostering nonsense about language, as I pointed out the other day in a brief rant about a professor emeritus of journalism at Missouri who appears to have done a great deal of harm in his career. And at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum has responded to that post, saying in part:

I agree with John McIntyre that it is a bit scary to think that this man spent a career "standing before the impressionable young" and packing their heads with arrant nonsense that editors like John ultimately have to try and rectify by returning the victims to a state in which they can write their own native language sensibly.

It's another illustration of why I am worried that prescriptivism harms the economy: think of the senselessly wasted thousands of hours each year as dim-witted journalism professors with old-fashioned ideas teach falsehoods about English out of hundred-year-old books of toxic waste (you know which sort of book I mean)** so that editorial staff members of newspapers can later spend their expensive time struggling to shake the poor graduates out of their didactogenic misconceptions and get their writing back into a state where it's fit to publish.

I am grateful to Professor Pullum for the phrase didactogenic misconception, which is a perfect term for the form of malpractice I keep encountering.

It gets worse when we move from grammar to usage, because American English in particular has been growing steadily more informal in published work over the past century. In that wide continuum between the most formal writing and the most colloquial, it is easy to misjudge. There, too, students come in bearing various superstitions and shibboleths that they have picked up along the way.

Teaching editing is demanding, and a semester allows only the barest beginning in the craft. And to have to spend time undoing other people’s bad work subtracts from the time available for the real work.

When I say “other people,” I mean you, you teachers of English, you journalism instructors, you editors and supervisors of interns. What the hell do you think you’re doing? Do you own a copy of Garner on Usage? Do you ever leaf through Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage? Have you put Strunk and White on the high shelf and picked up Joseph M. Williams’s Style? Do you ever look in at Language Log? Do you follow Jan Freeman in her Boston Globe columns and at Throw Grammar from the Train? Do you ever think about those statements that come out of your mouths? Ever check, just to make sure, whether what you say about grammar and usage has any foundation?

Well, do you?


*None of that things-used-to-be-different nonsense. It was ever thus. I went to public schools that taught traditional formal grammar relentlessly, and if any of my former classmates can distinguish today between a participle and a polecat, it is because they know what a polecat looks like.

**Though I am considerably less vehement on the subject than Professor Pullum, whenever I see someone tell a young writer something along the lines of “Strunk and White is all you need,” I do feel a powerful impulse to break things.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (19)

October 2, 2010

English embiggened

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey Pullum celebrates the appearance of embiggen in a perfectly serious article in The Economist and wonders whether the word, which Dan Greaney coined for The Simpsons, “might really be taking off as a mainstream item of vocabulary.”

One can only hope.

D’you remember when The Simpsons was a Dangerous Influence? We knew people who would not watch it or allow their children to watch it. Bart Simpson’s pride in being an underachiever was thought to send the Wrong Message to Our Young People. Homer Simpson was thought to belittle American men by portraying them as obese, boorish clods.*

Even though my son thinks that the show peaked about a decade ago and has been coasting ever since, with occasional flashes of the old verve, my suspicion is that in years to come the collected episodes will tell more about the American people and American culture than a library shelf of earnest sociological studies. The writers have got us down.

And now, they are also infiltrating the dictionary. That’s perfectly cromulent.



Professor Pullum also weighed in the other day on the issue of whether Australians are better at distinguishing lie and lay than Americans, an assertion made in a comment on this blog. He is doubtful, and I invite you to look at the comments on his post for a glance at the intricacies of research into how people actually use the language.


*Seriously, have those people ever been to a football game? Seen how men dress for air travel?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (17)

October 1, 2010

Sexing butterflies

Grammar Girl spends some time today on the distinction some writers and editors maintain between like and such as. She generally supports the distinction, but I must, with regret, dissent.*

In fact, she undermines her own argument by presenting sentences exemplifying the distinction and then adding two in which it is impossible to determine which sense is intended. Or see how the meaning is altered.

Perhaps you have ever so much more time than I do in editing and can enjoy the leisure of maintaining gossamer distinctions. Or of sexing butterflies. For my part, I consider like and such as to be interchangeable, and I leave them as I find them.


*Quoting Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage in a previous post, I challenged readers to mark the distinction in a set of sentences. Predictably, they could not agree.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:56 PM | | Comments (6)

No, no, no, no, no

I reprint a letter to the editor from one Rod Gelatt to the Columbia Missourian.

The letter

I applaud the plan, announced in Sunday's Columbia Missourian, to invite readers of the online Missourian to "....find and report errors in online content." But why stop there? How about expanding the challenge to include such goofs in the print version, as well?

Many of us still rely on the inked page product for our morning news fix, and we too cringe when we come across singular nouns mixed with plural verbs, sentences ending with prepositions, mis-use of the subjective "I" when the sentence calls for the objective "me," or the typographical relocation of an historic landmark.

Awarding readers of the online Missourian with points, and possible prizes, for pointing out errors, but not dangling such prizes in front of us print version readers, makes as much sense as the Missouri General Assembly outlawing texting while driving ONLY among teenagers.

And, by the way, in the announcement of the invitation for us to become grammar police, I found two errors: "....who wants to generously point out..." (splitting an infinitive) and "Spell check won't help you when you have the wrong word to start with" (ending sentence with preposition).

As Sir Winston Churchill is said to have remarked: "This is something up with which I will not put."

The commentary

The Missourian explains in a note that Mr. Gelatt is a professor emeritus of journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism. It was at that point that I began to tear my garments and cast about for ashes to rub into my head.

Adopting once more my more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger tone, I remind you that there is absolutely nothing wrong with splitting infinitives or ending sentences with prepositions, that both are arrant superstitions with no foundation in the idiomatic usages of the language.

And, shifting into that annoying higher pitch that you have heard so often before, I have to point out that it is highly unlikely that Sir Winston ever uttered that remark about prepositions, and, further, that this letter is one more piece of evidence about the prevalence of bogus authorities, because a major university gave tenure to someone who appears to have spent years, perhaps decades, standing before the impressionable young and FILLING THEIR HEADS WITH NONSENSICAL PRACTICES THAT I HAVE TO BREAK THEM OF. AND DON’T YOU SAY A DAMN THING TO ME ABOUT THE PREPOSITION AT THE END OF THE PREVIOUS SENTENCE.

Where are my pills?


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:31 AM | | Comments (16)
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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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