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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)


None of those are wrong.

Quite so. "Be not the first by whom the new is tried / Nor yet the last to cast the old aside." -- Pope's Essay on Editing, er, Criticism.

And when you're used to being told that X has been used to mean Y since Chaucer (or even Alfred) 1895 doesn't quite convince, does it?

OOOrah Picky! The Old World strikes back with perspective. Ta very much.

Madam. (Doffs cap).

I thought they were all correct, though I admit I was tempted to edit #4 in the manner the answers admonished us not to.

On another topic, I'd like all of your opinions (or, since I'm writing from Arkansas today, all y'all's opinions) on a grammar situation I found myself in when posting to a forum yesterday. I wanted to mention the corporate leadership of Wegmans in my post. Wegmans, as some of you may know, is still family-owned by the Wegman clan. Originally, the name of the stores carried the apostrophe. Early on, though, the apostrophe simply vanished from the official company name.

"Wegmans's corporate leadership" didn't sit right with me, since 'Wegmans' is already possessive, albeit without the apostrophe. (A possessive of a possessive? Erk.) "Wegmans corporate leadership" looked too much like my pet peeve #6, possessives without apostrophes. In the end, I invoked the "when in doubt, rewrite" rule and simply wrote "the corporate leadership of Wegmans."

John and the rest of you, what would you have done?

Nothing else you can do.

But, Robin, you do have a possessive of a possessive: the leadership of the company of Wegman. No problem with Wegmans'

It's Wegmans, pas de apostrophe. I just checked my Shoppers Card, which has no apostrophe either. (Picky - I think the closest you have to Wegmans -other than the Food Halls at Harrod's - is Marks & Sparks?) Has Harrod's an apostophe? Or is it now the Arab Emirates?

No, Harrods has long mislaid its apostrophe, but in a "double-possessive" case like Robin's I would have no hesitation is calling the Emir of Qatar and his mates Harrods' owners.

And don't get me on Marks and Spencer (no posses), a retail store so well thought of that it attracted at least three fond nicknames - but which is now marketing itself by one of the nicknames: M&S.

Why do managements so frequently turn to b*ggering up long-established and admired brands? I knew we were headed for catastrophe when they decided GKN was a sexier name than Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds Ltd

Picky - I keep meaning to burst through the doors of a Knight Frank office and demand: "All right, you bastards - what have you dome with Rutley?"

Good lord, I'd actually forgotten poor old Rutley.

Or the shop which has taken to calling itself capital B lower case h lower case s. How are we supposed to pronounce that except as a sort of expectoration?

Picky - Robertson Davies, one of my favorite writers, wrote a book called "The Papers of Samuel Marchbanks." Hilarious!!! In it is a law firm called Mouseman, Mouseman & Forcemeat. You can't get any sexier than that. Read the book! (Davies was a Canadian, educated at Oxford, who worked in the London theatre and married an Aussie. He later worked in newspapers and then began to write. He was the first Master of Massey College, the Graduate School of the University of Toronto. His writing is just wonderful.)


"He later worked in newspapers and then began to write."


Actually, I think he did some thing in management at a large Toronto paper. Then he began to write fiction. But of course, many reporters also write fiction.....

I quite agree about Robertson Davies; perhaps the first thing PtT and I have ever agreed upon publicly. A wonderful writer in all his moods.

Mr Davies swore that all the names of his characters could be found in any metropolitan Toronto telephone book. He claimed he once met a shoe salesman named "Hamlet."

For what it's worth, Massey College is not "the Graduate School of the University of Toronto." It is, to quote Massey College's website, "a graduate student residential community affiliated with, but independent from, the University of Toronto." He was editor of the Peterborough Examiner, which as you might guess is in Peterborough, not Toronto. Davies was literary editor at Saturday Night, which was based in Toronto but was not a newspaper.

Tanti grazii, JD

Tanti grazii, JD

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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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