« Lines in the sand | Main | Colonel McCormick would be pleased »

Just look it up

When an article assigned in my editing class contains an uncommon word, I ask my students what it means. The usual response is a row of blank stares. It appears that they just shrug when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary. And then I explain to them that if you release an article that contains words you do not understand, you have not really edited it. But you will be held accountable for anything in it that is wrong.

An article on Newswise, “Study Shows Universities May be Failing to Sufficiently Teach Basic Research Skills,” suggests that many students don’t use the library and fail to take full advantage of electronic sources—in fact, don’t have a clear sense of how to begin research.

A salient paragraph: “To manage large amounts of information, the report says, ‘students in both large universities and small colleges use a risk-averse strategy based on efficiency and predictability.’ In other words, students avoid drowning by limiting the sources they turn to and the amount of information they take in.”

There is another side to this phenomenon, the willingness, displayed widely on the Internet, to make assertions or challenge other people’s work without troubling to check. What is a character flaw in civilians is a sin in copy editors, as Carol Fisher Saller explains today at The Subversive Copy Editor. (Check the link to the Jan Freeman column about the readers who snarkily miscorrected a reference to Goober Pyle by telling her she meant Gomer Pyle.*)

As Ms. Saller points out, if you have a decent dictionary and a search engine, the information you need—the correct information—is seconds away.** The only obstacles to your being correct are an apathetic reluctance to check things out, or a hair-trigger willingness to express what you mistakenly think you know.


*I probably shouldn’t start on cultural literacy—you know how I get. But I am regularly discouraged, semester after semester, to discover that vitually none of my students have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie. O tempora, O mores.

**Within arm’s reach at home, I have Garner 3, MWDEU, Original Fowler, Gower-Fowler, Burchfield-Fowler, Corbett on Rhetoric, Chicago Manual 16, AP (yes, for what it’s worth), and more. For dictionaries, American Heritage, Compact OED, Shorter OED, Oxford New American, and the excellent Merriam-Webster online. Not to mention two shelves of additional books on language and the set of bookmarked electronic references.

One more thing: If you are a copy editor, you should probably think about replacing that dictionary and edition of the AP Stylebook that you’ve had on your desk since the Ford administration. Things change.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (9)


I asked one of the librarians at our local branch recently whether from her perspective it seemed like people knew how to use a library and whether she'd seen a change in library skills. Oh, boy, she said. She used to actually go to local high schools and give presentations on this topic, but apparently hadn't done that in a while.

On the plus side, the librarians' station is always crowded with seekers after knowledge, so it's not as if people just don't want to know any more.

--"vitually none of my students have ever seen a Marx Brothers movie"

Not to argue about the merits of having a thorough knowledge of the Marx oevre, but one might also wonder how many of your students' eventual readers have seen these movies, and to ask about the students' knowledge of more recent cultural iconography that is likelier to be shared with their audience.

As a history major, I was in the library a lot, but I still don't feel I have a firm grasp of how to fully utilize all it has to offer. I'm currently working on my husband to realize I paid for his degree, maybe he can pay for a MLS for me?
As for Marx brothers, I'm 28. I haven't seen one Marx brother movie, but my 25 year old brother has the set and watches them regularly with his wife. I was always more of a Jerry Lewis fan.

Fans of language should certainly know the Marx brothers, for Harpo is all about phonology, Chico all about morphosyntax, and Groucho all about semantics.

Regarding cultural references: Someone pointed out recently that the breakup of the Beatles is as far back in history (40 years) today as was, at that time, the introduction of talking motion pictures.

I'm about the same age as your students' parents, and the Marx Brothers were well before my time.

Every high school kid should learn the old saw hammered into us in j-school: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Of course, that won't help people who aren't interested in learning a new word when they read it. Does anyone remember the scene in "Say Anything" where John Cusack's character thumbs through a dictionary in Ione Skye's room? She's marked all the words she's looked up ... and the dictionary has lots of marks in it. Love that scene.

As a kid, I frequently asked my parents, "What does this word mean?" when I came across words I didn't know. Their response was almost always the same: "Look it up." I was annoyed that they didn't just tell me (but perhaps they often didn't actually know), but we did own a couple of dictionaries, so it's not like it was a big burden to find out for myself. And anyway, it established a very good lifelong habit.

I was a real big Marx Brothers fan growing up in the late 60s/early 70s. And all but Groucho were dead.

I always had a penchant for reading and looking things up if I didn't understand them. And like Jonathon, it established a great habit of looking things up for myself and always having a curiosity for "what stuff means".

Arnold Zwicky enlarges on the issues involved in looking things up, with his customary acuity:

I'll never forget an article I co-authored in a technical journal. It contained the phrase "this conclusion was predicated upon...". The editor changed "predicated" to "predicted". We caught the miscorrection in galleys and fixed it. We caught it again in page proofs, and fixed it once more.

It's there in the published article as "predicted", and I still look like a fool 34 years later.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected