« December 2010 | Main | February 2011 »

January 31, 2011

Hyperventilating on crime

I’m sure we’re all pleased that someone who has repeatedly raped is arrested, tried, and convicted. That is a good thing.

It would also be a good thing if we could write about it using our indoor voices.

Here is the opening sentence from a post on Baltimore’s Investigative Voice blog:

A man alleged to have brutally beaten and raped three women in a violent killing spree has been convicted of attempted murder and rape in the first of three trials.

If I may be forgiven for parsing this:

Let’s move away from alleged. The defendant was charged.

Rape and murder seem seldom to be accomplished gently, so brutally might be understood.

Is it a killing spree if he has not yet been tried and convicted of killing anyone?

Don’t rape and attempted murder already suggest violence, so that violent killing spree is just some more heavy breathing?

And is spree, which used to be used for something more nearly innocuous, like drinking spree, quite what we want here?

The bare facts are ugly enough. They don’t require hype.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:21 PM | | Comments (16)

January 30, 2011


Having put up a (mildly) snotty political post, I feel a mild compulsion to establish some common ground, especially with my conservative readers. Rather than get up their noses again, I like to suggest some things we can agree on. After all, when I worked at the Flemingsburg Gazette all those years ago, Jean Denton, the editor, and I disagreed on Richard Nixon but both admired Joan Didion’s essays and Ross Macdonald’s murder mysteries.

Common ground:

The Hamilton Tavern’s Crosstown Burger, the best hamburger in Baltimore.

Psalms sung in Anglican chant by a competent choir.

John Cheever’s short stories.

Small-batch bourbon, Manhattans, gin martinis, Prosecco, and craft beers.

Rossini’s Barber of Seville.

The Monty Python cheese shop and dead parrot sketches.

Jane Austen.

Haydn’s symphonies (all 104 of them).

An e-mail or letter from an old friend of thirty years’ standing.

Even better: an exchange on Facebook with someone once wooed that clears up a misunderstanding from forty years previously.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, seen from the Millennium Bridge.

Julia Child’s beef burgundy. And Cincinnati’s Skyline chili.

A pot of good black tea accompanied by scones with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

John Philip Sousa’s marches.

Melitta-brewed coffee.

Ingmar Bergman’s film of Mozart’s Magic Flute. (If you don’t know this, get the DVD without further delay.)

The headline that fits and makes sense for the edition closing on time.

Trollope’s Barchester Towers.

The daily newspaper with morning coffee.

Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.”

The Schubert Octet.  

The comment from a reader who understood and appreciated a post.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (22)

Enjoy the show

Reader advisory: This is a weekend political reflections post. You do not have to read it or agree with it, though you are welcome to comment on it. If my political observations irk you, please feel free to look instead at Jan Freeman’s excellent Boston Globe column on the mutating phrase work from home and the history of the preposition from.


No one would have taken greater joy in the tea party phenomenon than Henry Mencken, who reflexively distrusted all True Believers but found their antics hugely amusing. I myself am happily awaiting the discovery, already beginning to dawn in Washington, that campaigning is comparatively easy but governance is hard.

The squirming of the Republican leadership in Congress, as they attempt to rein in the more extreme and crackpot measures advocated by the tea partiers without alienating their votes should be exquisite to view.

I commented some years back about the distorted perception fostered by the red state/blue state maps and consequent chatter. Those broadcast electoral graphics, with the winner-take-all-colors for each state give the unbalanced sense of majority that the Founders designed the Electoral College to produce.

But if you think about it, New York City alone has more voters that several heartland states combined. Further, if you break down the red-state/blue-state vote according to the proportions in each state, you find much sharper divisions. The United States is basically a moderate to moderately conservative polity, veering one way or the other, as recent elections have shown.

The Democrats made the mistake after 2008 of thinking that Barack Obama was another Franklin Roosevelt with a fundamental realignment of the political balance. (Never mind that Obama is no FDR—and neither was the actual FDR, who tacked to the left and right as the political winds blew.)

Now the Republicans who cant about their mandate in the recent election are poised for the same mistake.

Take the grandstanding about the budget deficit. You can make public radio go out to beg for quarters on street corners—hell, it’s already doing that—but the bulk of federal spending goes to Social Security, Medicare, and the military, each with large constituencies that tend to scream loudly when touched.

Or take the cant about constitutional government. We already have constitutional government, and the Constitution means what the Supreme Court says it means through more than two centuries of case law. The Constitution does not say explicitly that the Supreme Court can rule laws unconstitutional, but the court does that because John Marshall outfoxed Thomas Jefferson in Marbury v. Madison. I doubt that even the great Originalist Mr. Justice Scalia is prepared to abandon judicial review.*

My own advice for the coming months: Pour a brimming beaker of the adult beverage of your choice and sit back in a comfortable chair. The carnival has come to town.


*I believe that a respectable argument can me made that Original Intent today is essentially the same mechanism that the Nine Old Men of the New Deal era used to thwart liberal or progressive legislation with which they disagreed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:22 PM | | Comments (4)

January 28, 2011

Witness to history

It might, I suppose have been an hallucination, some kind of aura triggered by impending cardiac arrest from shoveling snow, but I swear that it was real and I saw it.

This morning, a city snowplow made its way up Plymouth Road.

Not only that, it turned and plowed Roselawn down the hill.

This is staggering. In twenty-three years on the block, I have seen a snowplow no more than two or three times, and only God has ever cleared Roselawn.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:27 PM | | Comments (16)

January 27, 2011

More white death from the sky

I’ve been at this long enough to know what to do. So when the hysterics on television started carrying on about the quantity of snow expected yesterday, I put a clean shirt, clean underwear, and my shaving kit into a bag and headed for the paragraph factory.

The snow fell, outpacing the plows, motorists got stranded on the streets and highways, and the governor told us to stay off the roads. When I heard that my neighbor David Zurawik, The Sun’s television columnist, had taken two hours to drive six miles and could get no nearer than three blocks to his house, I knew it would be an overnight stay.

After closing the final edition, I trudged up the hill to the Tremont Plaza, where I had prudently made a reservation. The bar was closed, but I had brought provisions. After toying for some time with the remote control, I realized that the television wasn’t receiving anything. I would have called the front desk about that, but the telephone didn’t work either. So I sipped some bourbon and observed the paralysis of Mount Vernon and West Baltimore from the thirty-fifth floor.

Fortunately, the room was warm and the bed comfortable.

After breakfast this morning, with nothing else to do, I returned to the office, where I have amused myself by drinking tea, blogging, and switching back and forth between New Twitter and Old Twitter. Later, after the final edition is closed, I’ll head back to Hamilton, and hopefully* I’ll be in my own bed tonight.


*Stop twitching. I’ve told you that that is perfectly OK.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (18)

Meum et tuum

Regret the Error has pointed me to a Gawker report on the latest intellectually dishonest defense of plagiarism.

David Zinczenko, Gawker discovered, regularly copies articles from Rodale’s Men’s Health, removes the bylines, and republishes them under his own name on his “Eat This, Not That” column at Yahoo Health.

A spokesman for Rodale rationalizes this scummy practice:

Rodale owns all rights to the majority of the content that appears in Men's Health, Women's Health, Eat This, Not That! and other branded products. Our editors use that content to promote Rodale and its various properties across all media. As the editor for the Men's Health brand, it's Dave's job to promote the magazine and its extensions. The byline doesn't take credit for the work, but serves as an overarching tag used in conjunction with the logo to indicate that the material has been written, assigned or edited by the brand (i.e. Dave and his team) at some point.

So a byline does not indicate authorship, but merely branding, and David Zincaenko stands shoulder to shoulder with undergraduates who copy and paste from the Internet and authors like Stephen Ambrose who simply appropriate other writers’ work and fob it off as their own.

But, you may ask, isn’t this the same thing that newspaper reporters do in mining the archives? It is true that The Sun owns the rights to the material the staff produces.* And yes, it is common for reporters following up on a story to incorporate information from articles written by other reporters. But simply replacing another writer’s byline with one’s own is not done—and a veteran columnist at the paper who was discovered to have repeatedly incorporated other writers’ distinctive language into his columns, without attribution, no longer works at this paper.

The practice that Rodale approves of is no better than common thievery. If you have David Zinczenko to your house as a dinner guest, I suggest that you might want to count the spoons afterward.


*If I ever make any headway with my book on editing, I will have asked for and received permission from the paper to use material from the staff, including my own.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:30 AM | | Comments (10)

January 26, 2011

Too good to miss

You may have noticed that I have been on a tear since returning from vacation in England, but you may not have noticed all the posts, some of which were made on weekends or at odd hours. If you happen to be in the Mid-Atlantic and temporarily immobilized by THE WHITE DEATH THAT FALLS FROM THE SKY (Sorry, been watching television weather forecasts), here is some reading you can catch up with.

Why bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn is at best misguided, at worst stupid:

You need pay no attention to the peevers’ strictures against hopefully as a sentence adverb:

Online writing is supposed to be ethical?

Undergraduate writing is vile, and we know why. (And unfortunately, it persists beyond college, as commenters observe.)

Newsweek provides a prize specimen of shoddy journalistic technique:

A recommendation of Geoffrey Pullum’s admirable explanation of the passive in English:

And tomorrow I will be recording another round of video jokes.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:46 PM | | Comments (0)

Get me rewrite

After roughly forty years, I am letting my subscription to Newsweek expire. It is not just that its content has thinned as its advertising has shrunk—I still subscribe to The Sun despite the same phenomenon. It’s that I have no confidence in its recent embrace of longer-form articles.

I offer you a specimen of the mediocrity that passes for imaginative writing in contemporary American journalism, the opening paragraph of an article in the most recent issue about Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York:

As a cold, gray Saturday afternoon fades into evening, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand—jeans, pale pink sweater, no makeup—sits tucked into a blue velvet armchair in her Capitol Hill office, trying to retain her composure as she talks through the events of the previous week. "To have something so horrific happen to someone so good and so promising," she says, blue eyes welling with tears, "it hit me very hard."

Senator Gillibrand is speaking of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson. I have no doubt that her emotion is real, but the setting in which Michelle Cottle has placed it makes it look mawkish.

This paragraph has all the marks of the standard opening of a feature story that has been a cliche for at least a generation.

Item: We have the obligatory scene-setting, the blue velvet chair in the Capitol Hill office. This is like the table in the hotel restaurant where the noted author/actor/whatever we are interviewing is eating scrambled eggs for breakfast. (Scrambled eggs! For breakfast! Imagine! Of course, we’re at breakfast because our publication didn’t rate a lunch or dinner interview, but let that pass.) We’re alone with the senator in her very private office. Ooh.

Item: We note what the subject is wearing, the “jeans, pale sweater, no makeup.” If the subject were a man, we would note his jeans/suit, necktie/lack of necktie. But she’s a woman, so we have to know the answer to the makeup question.

Item: We present the obligatory quote/note of emotion to supply the human identification with the subject. And, in a vulgarity straight from the tradition of women’s magazine fiction, her blue eyes well with tears.

I don’t know what is in the second paragraph of that article. I never got that far.

Writing in The American Scholar in 1995 in an article, “The Press and the Prose,” Jacques Barzun cautioned against “fake fictional style”: “ ‘The sky is streaked with violet and the cocktails have turned watery by the time the Senator, a late arrival, clambers onto the dock.’ Now, I don’t want to read that. I want the traditional, first-paragraph lead, which when well done is infinitely better than this feeble imitation of story openings in the old Saturday Evening Post.”


Feeble imitation of fictional technique is the hallmark of contemporary journalism, and Ms. Cottle’s opening paragraph is a classic example: artificial, banal, and cheap. I should pay to read that?



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 PM | | Comments (6)

January 25, 2011

Shocking undergraduate writing

If I tell you that the writing of today’s college undergraduates is depressingly shoddy and incompetent, I tell you nothing more than I could have said when I was a graduate teaching assistant at Syracuse in the 1970s.* And if I were even older and creakier than I am now, I could probably have told you the same thing about student writing of the 1950s and 1960s.

But the deficiencies are less in the writing, bad as it is, than in the thinking. I’ll get to that after removing some underbrush.

The first thing you will want to clear from your mind is the belief that things are worse now than they have ever been. That doubtful judgment is subjective rather than rigorously demonstrated, and generations of lamentations by English teachers give the lie to it.

The next thing to get rid of is excessive concern about mechanics. True, most undergraduates appear to approach commas in the same way that the waiter offers to grind some fresh pepper on your pasta, sprinkling them promiscuously over the page. And the inability to get plurals and possessives of proper names appears to be universal. But mechanics can be taught—well—mechanically.**

Students could probably also be trained to do a little better in paragraphing than putting heterogeneous sentences in the same paragraph, or spreading several sentences one the same topic over as many paragraphs. Or taught a little about subordination so that they could put secondary information in subordinate clauses instead of stringing together a series of simple sentences.

It is more difficult to get at awkwardness, such as the hackneyed opening sentence that some phenomenon is not “something that you see every day,” which I found cropping up regularly in a batch of undergraduate articles that I recently edited.

Moreover, like the writers of Saturday Night Live, students appear at a loss to bring the work to a satisfactory end. They frequently resort to a concluding sentence of editorializing conclusion or prediction which they have no personal authority to make and for which there is no warrant in the preceding text. “X’s determination to become the first human to build a perpetual-motion machine will surely bring him success,” &c., &c.

A major failure in thinking proclaims itself in the throat-clearing the often begins a student paper, as if the topic cannot be broached without a preliminary discharge of marginally relevant remarks. (The pattern will be familiar to those of you who have received a letter that remarks on your excellent qualifications and impressive experience before informing you that you did not get the job.)

Such throat-clearing is symptomatic of a failure to identify focus, and the failure to establish and stick to a focus is primarily a failure of thinking. If the writer has not identified the single main thing the article is about, and clued the reader to that early on, there is a good chance that the reader will never fathom what the point was supposed to be.

That failure of thought leads to others, particularly in organization. Failure to focus yields the newspaper article that is a notebook dump by the reporter, or the memo that takes you from Troy to Schenectady by way of Chattanooga.

Thinking of a particular kind, analytical thinking, is required for effective prose in these categories:

Focus, as previously mentioned, requires identifying what the main point is, what subordinate elements are included in it, and what material is extraneous to it and can be safely omitted.

Organization of the facts and supporting information to be marshaled in subtopics that proceed from one to another in an orderly and recognizable manner comes next. (Make an outline of your text after you have written a draft. Does it make sense? Can you reorder it more effectively?)

The audience must be identified and considered: what its concerns and interests are likely to be, what background information can be taken for granted and what should be furnished.

The rhetorical strategy that will most effectively make the point to the reader must be identified and followed throughout the text. This will determine the tone as well as the rhetorical figures to be employed.

What I see in the students with whom I am examining the elements of editing is that while they have had some training in expression, they do not appear to have had much in argument or analytical thinking. I can drill them on mechanics, and after a semester they will understand that some people care about distinctions between lie and lay, even if they are mystified by such concerns. But training them to look analytically at texts is hard work for them, because they haven’t been asked to do much of it.

And their own writing shows that.


*During the year I taught freshman composition, the English department inflicted Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist on the students. Its deadening formula was fatal to any originality of thought or expression, and the topics the teaching assigned students were almost as stifling as those on which the young John Milton was assigned to write prolusions—“Whether Day or Night Is the More Excellent.”

**It’s not, mind you, that I am unwilling to teach college juniors and seniors elements of grammar and usage that I learned in the seventh and eighth grades, but we would have time to talk about the more intricate delights of editing if the baseline were a little higher.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (11)

January 24, 2011

I say, Holmes

Herewith the joke of the week. And the vocabulary word of the week: eructate. Bon appetit.
Posted by John McIntyre at 1:58 PM | | Comments (7)

Sense amid the clamor of nonsense

People believe all kinds of nonsense about politics—that George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks, that Barack Obama is not a native-born American citizen. Moronic legislators in what H.L. Mencken used to call the cow states are forever trying to smuggle Genesis into the biology curriculum of the public schools. Crackpot theories—that immunization causes autism, for example—take root in the public consciousness and remain long after they have been discredited.

Nonsense also infests my little realm of writing about the English language, as you have seen in numerous previous posts. People obstinately adhere to what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—you know, split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences—that no reputable authority has advocated for decades. Popular books on writing and websites offer stunningly unsound advice, including statements about the language that are demonstrably incorrect. Much of the writing on language in newspapers and magazines is simply laughable, with the exception of a few intelligent stalwarts such as Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe.

So today I want to steer you toward something reliable.

First off, Geoffrey K. Pullum has taken on the task of explaining passive clauses. “The passive in English” at Language Log runs to 2,500 words, but don’t be daunted. Professor Pullum has taken the trouble to minimize the number of technical terms and to explain them clearly. His essay will do two things for you:

1. It will explain thoroughly how the passive operates in English, including a number of cases that people do not generally recognize as passive.

2. It will also show you how linguists approach the language, and just why the traditional terminology of grammar that you learned in the classroom long ago is not adequate to the purpose.

Take time for it.

Afterward, you can turn to a short article by Anthony Gardner on the practice of turning nouns into verbs. Even though you can find abundant commentary scorning the practice, verbing nouns, along with nouning verbs, has been commonplace in English since the peasantry dropped all those inflections from Anglo-Saxon long, long ago. Impact, for one, has been a verb in English for centuries, despite what your personal preferences might be.

And there lies a point often obscured in wrangling over language. These changes in usage crop up continually. Some of them stick, and some of them fade. But they are not grammatically incorrect. You may, with justice, find them aesthetically repugnant—vogueish, affected, awkward, wrong-headed, pretentious, obscurantist. (If there is any justice in the universe, the hours I have spent listening to management-speak in meetings should materially shorten my time in Purgatory.) But your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language.

That bears repeating: Your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language. Keep stylistic issues separate from grammatical issues.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (6)

January 23, 2011

Not everyone got the memo

I pray you, good people, tyro and weather-beaten hack alike, to heed this piece of advice from HeadsUp: The Blog:

When you undertake to report on behalf of the public, you agree in advance to not be the sort of dimbulb who prints everything that comes over the transom.

Context may be useful.

For a fuller expression of maxims by which you might conduct your career as a journalist, the twenty-five commandments from Tim Radford, a former editor at the Guardian, will not steer you onto the rocks.


Posted by John McIntyre at 6:09 PM | | Comments (1)

January 21, 2011

Best comment ever

Of nearly seven thousand comments on this blog, my favorite, made today, comes from Picky, in a response to my remarking that I allow my readers to express themselves freely and at length, without interference:

Ah, but that's just the Fabian glove that hides the grim mailed fist of oppression. Your tolerance is in fact an act of violence against the toiling masses.

Full marks for working in Fabian.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:51 PM | | Comments (12)

Your online ethics

A former colleague who has veered into professing wrote this week to ask if I could send her some comments on ethics issues in online editing. So I dashed off a few quick remarks along the lines of the following.

Wait for the question at the end.

You don't get a pass from ethics or common standards of accuracy and decency just because you're writing fast for the Internet.

The reader is entitled to know how you know what you say. Anything not from direct personal experience has to be sourced. You are also obligated to check out your sources to make sure that you're not, say, repeating something from the Onion as a straight story, or from some wacko conspiracy site, or a premature report of Justin Bieber’s death.

By all means link to your sources so your reader can make independent judgments, but do a little vetting on your own first.

You have to be accurate; and when you are not, you have to correct and apologize for the error. Silently correcting typographical errors is fine, but mistakes in statements of fact ought to be acknowledged plainly and fixed.

Paradoxically, owning up to your errors enhances your credibility.

When you have a stake in the subject—you're writing about someone you know personally, or reviewing a book written by a friend, or advocating for some organization with which you have an affiliation or a financial interest, for example—say so. Transparency should be more than a buzzword.

Quotations should be the words the person uttered, subject to the conventions of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and the like. You can paraphrase, use partial quotes and ellipses, or interpolate bracketed material, but you are not to reword the speaker's utterances.

And if you are quoting text, quote it verbatim.

You do not get to take quoted matter out of context and distort its intended meaning to score some point.

The main ethical principles to be followed are the same ones your teachers told you in elementary school: Don't copy. Don't tell lies.

Got that? Now here’s the question. You can consider it to be rhetorical, or you can take advantage of the comments function to answer it:

What in online ethics is different from print ethics?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:40 AM | | Comments (11)

January 19, 2011

Veterans of the War on Hopefully

Over at Grammarphobia—you do check out Grammarphobia regularly, don’t you?—Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman take on once more what R.W. Burchfield called “one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20th century”: the dispute over hopefully as a sentence adverb.

In this post they quote what they wrote in Origin of the Specious, so please allow me to repeat myself: Many people believe that hopefully, as an adverb of human emotion, can only be used in the sense of “in a hopeful manner” and not in the sense “it is to be hoped,” modifying an entire clause. Sadly, they are mistaken.

Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman cite a use of hopefully in the latter sense in The New York Times in 1932, and no furor about the usage was raised until the mid-1960s. I don’t know what class of despised wretches—teenagers, advertising executives, business consultants—brought the usage into vogue, but you can depend on it that the peevers identified the usage with some class of people over whom they could demonstrate their imagined superiority.

If memory serves, the taboo made it into the current edition of The Elements of Style and is now among the unhelpful strictures inflicted on the impressionable young by instructors who should know better.*

Let us be clear. We use sentence adverbs all the time. The prejudice against hopefully goes against both logic and established usage.

And yet style manuals that know this encourage writers to avoid hopefully in this sense for fear of stirring up the objections of the uninformed. I call this cowardice. It is like uttering mealy-mouthed equivocations about evolution because there are people who believe, against all evidence, that the planet is a little over six thousand years old. It is like catering to the no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences crowd or mechanically following the Associated Press Stylebook’s asinine no-split-verbs rule.

Enough truckling, I say. There are real errors to avoid and inane vogue usages to shun. Don’t waste your time honoring superstitions. Just go ahead. Hopefully, over time you will prevail. Happily, you certainly will.



*I keep a copy of the 1959 edition of The Elements of Style, acquired in high school, on my shelves for purely sentimental reasons. A copy of a later edition came into my hands and was speedily discarded.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:40 AM | | Comments (8)

January 17, 2011

The lawyer's accident

The latest joke of the week:
Posted by John McIntyre at 1:53 PM | | Comments (6)

January 16, 2011

Dr. Bowdler's heir

I take a little time out for a trip to London and return to find that some feckless pedagogue has castrated Huckleberry Finn.*

Professor Alan Gribben of Auburn University is the editor of a new edition of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn coming out from NewSouth Books “in a single volume with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that does away with the ‘n’ word (as well as the ‘in’ word, ‘Injun’) by replacing it with the word ‘slave.’ ”

Apparently many teachers would like to use Huck Finn in class but can’t because the word nigger is too taboo, too difficult to manage, too hot to handle.** So Professor Gribben comes to the rescue. In this he follows the path blazed by Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who excised all the racy passages from Shakespeare so that the works could be safely read by women and children, as a bonus giving us the useful word bowdlerize, for prudish editing.

One of the reasons that Huck Finn may be the American novel is that it goes straight at the issue of race that has troubled us since the Colonial era, that led to the great flaw in the original Constitution, that brought on the bloodshed of the Civil War, and that continues to trouble us to this day. One of the great moments in that novel is the point at which Huck recognizes, confronts, and rejects the casual racism in which he has been brought up.

Teaching Twain’s novel without that word, with all its historical and emotional baggage, is like talking about the Civil War as if it were merely a difference over which rights accrue to the national government and which to the states—the approach most commonly taken by people who want to deny the historical reality of the slavery issue as the central concern in the secession crisis and to prettify the Confederacy.

Teaching Huck Finn, even at the college level, is challenging, in part because of the explosive charge that taboo word carries. It is an ugly word, a hateful word, and I have heard it used for hateful purposes. But my belief that it should not be deleted from Huck Finn is more than an old English major’s purism about texts. The things that word stands for are central to the book, and if Huck can face them, so should we be able to.

Besides, if a taboo word cannot appear even in a classroom, subject to analysis and study, then we have granted it a power beyond our control, and that cannot be a good thing.


*Castrate is only partially hyperbolic. The verb has been in use as a synonym for expurgate since the seventeenth century.

**This will be the only explicit mention in this post of that word, which I do not use myself, and do not recommend for any white people to use casually. I use it here simply to make clear what the central issue is.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:05 PM | | Comments (18)

The Lord's pronouns

A reader who has been made editor of the religion section of her paper—she will need your prayers—wonders about the proprieties of capitalizing pronouns referring to the deity. She has read my previous post “God’s pronouns” and understands that Chicago and AP lowercase those pronouns, but she wonders whether exceptions can be made for columns and op-ed essays.

The short answer: Sure, she can. She’s the editor.

A longer one: There was no such capitalization in either the Hebrew Scriptures or the Greek New Testament, both of which were written in capitals. And there was, I now discover, no such capitalization in the Geneva, Douay-Rheims, and King James Bibles of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a time when capitalization was rife.*

Capitalizing the pronouns as a mark of respect is common in devotional literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, such as hymns, and remains common in evangelical circles. But it is purely a matter of taste and personal preference. An ardent believer may feel that the capital letters reinforce his piety, but preferring them to be lowercase does not make The Chicago Manual of Style an agent of the Evil One.

The editor of religious articles should follow the newspaper’s established style for ordinary articles, which would in most cases lowercase pronouns referring to God, but it would be perfectly acceptable to allow the practice in a personal essay, where more editorial latitude is given generally.

It might be useful to draft a stock answer for readers who are agitated by the apparent inconsistency.



*This may astonish readers who assume that the capitalization was always there. The widespread phenomenon that what one encountered as a child is ancient practice and that anything different is a dangerous innovation turns up often in ecclesiastical circles. Vide the members of the congregation who prefer the “old” hymns, the ones written in the nineteenth century, to newfangled plainchant.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:48 AM | | Comments (11)

January 15, 2011

Daddy's home

It has taken some time since returning from London yesterday evening to sluice off the dried travel sweat, unpack, delete more than a thousand messages from the work e-mail, and get a little sleep after twenty-four waking hours. But now I am prepared to give an account of our travels to those who have been waiting breathlessly.

Those of you who find other people’s travel accounts excruciatingly boring would do well to skip this post, In a day or so, I will resume posting on language, journalism, politics, haberdashery, and the other topics you find excruciatingly boring. (Yes, I’ve read the comments you posted while I was away, and I’ve taken names for your Permanent Records.)

Rather than dwell on the sausages of the full English breakfast at the President Hotel in Russell Square or other morbid elements of the trip, I offer some highlights.

* A splendid production of The Rivals by Sir Peter Hall at the Haymarket, with Penelope Keith as Mrs. Malaprop and Peter Bowles as Sir Anthony Absolute. Letter-perfect timing and exquisite delivery. It would be hard to imagine Sheridan done better.

* Rory Kinnear’s athletic Hamlet at the Olivier Theatre. The production is in modern dress, with Claudius the model of the bureaucratic dictator, which enables the play to emphasize elements of spying and surveillance as well as the revenge motif. David Calder’s Polonius has nice touches of the sinister beneath the canting.

* An evening of Bach and Vivaldi at St. Martin-in-the-Fields with the Belmont Ensemble. The Four Seasons has been done so often that I no longer listen when some ensemble saws through it on the radio, but Helena Wood delivered a performance on solo violin that combined great passion with absolute precision. St. Martin’s exquisite acoustics were a help, even to us seated behind a pillar.

* Choral evensong at Bath Abbey, with a large choir, half of them boys, doing the Psalm in Anglican chant. Magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling.

* One of Kathleen’s best ideas: high tea at Brown’s Hotel in Mayfair: warm brown wainscoting, plaster medallions in the ceiling, a piano player, a quietly attentive staff steadily replenishing the tea, the finger sandwiches, the scones. No better way to sped two hours on a dark gray rainy afternoon.

* Pub lunches at the Swan in Bloomsbury (meat pies) and the Crown in Oxford. Late-night pints and snacks at the Marquis Cornwallis, also in Bloomsbury.

* Another of K.’s best ideas: a walk through the Borough Market in Southwark on one of the days it is open to the public. Food of every imaginable kind, both raw and cooked. And exploring the adjacent Southwark Cathedral, I was able to pay my respects at the tombs of John Gower, the first great poet in English, and Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible.

* Walking across the Millennium Bridge, with an incomparable view of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

* Exploration of the Cabinet War Rooms, preserved since 1945. A claustrophobic warren from which the British war effort was coordinated. Little rooms that must have reeked of tobacco smoke as the Nazi bombardment of London roared overhead. Maps, typewriters, log books, all preserved.

* Twenty minutes in Blackwell’s in Oxford, limited by the scheduled departure of our coach. That’s all right; any more would have been dangerous. I did snag a secondhand copy of a selection of Hazlitt’s essays.

Oh there was more: Stonehenge, the British Museum, Christ Church at Oxford, and the Birthplace Museum at Stratford with its inane videos and a walk of fame that puts Leonardo DiCaprio (!) on a footing with Lord Olivier. And a compressed one-day trip on the Eurostar to Paris to lunch with Robert Youngblood and Ursula Liu, who left The Sun for the International Herald Tribune. We had time to see Notre Dame de Paris and a little of the Louvre.*

Didn’t make it to Westminster Abbey, the British Library, the original Tate (though we walked through some of the Tate Modern as museum fatigue began to overtake us). But no regrets. It was grand. The weather was British: chilly, cloudy or rainy, generally depressing. Our stamina was tested; one day K.’s pedometer registered more than 17,000 steps, many of them on stairs in the Underground. We both came down with colds, as did just about everyone else of the College of Notre Dame party. But no regrets. It was grand.


*Let me advise you, if you admire the Mona Lisa, to buy a postcard or poster rather than attempt to see it at the Louvre. You are, first, kept as such a remove by a barrier that the painting might as well be a photograph on newsprint, and you will additionally have to fight your way to the front through a crowd of frenzied tourists taking photographs, usually with prohibited flashes. Among the things I will not miss: the filth of the Paris Metro, souvenir shops of all descriptions, and mobs of tourists snapping photographs of every object in sight. 



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:48 PM | | Comments (23)

January 3, 2011

London beckons

Tomorrow evening I leave with Kathleen for a ten-day trip to London, with brief sorties to Oxford, Stratford, Bath, and Paris. I will be without cell phone and computer so as to be delightfully out of pocket. But I will have a volume of Jane Austen close at hand and will give your regards to Dr. Johnson at the Abbey.

Postings will resume sometime in mid-January.

Today we have the joke of the week, “The coincidences”:



And the word of the week, haruspicy.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:08 AM | | Comments (241)

January 2, 2011

Wrapping up

The new year is well under way, but there remain some loose ends from the year just past. If you have a few minutes to spare, let’s dispose of them.


Calm yourselves, hons

My worthy former colleague Rafael Alvarez has weighed in on the bogus controversy about Denise Whiting’s trademarking of hon. I understand and respect his views, though I do not entirely concur with them. So before I leave this subject, as part of last year’s business, I’d like to explain why I think that all the outrage is misplaced.

Ms. Whiting has a brand to promote, and, so far as I can tell, has been doing so through legal and conventional means. She has not, like the horse racing and gambling interests, or BGE, attempted to gouge the public to make good for inept business decisions. She has not, like the insurance companies, extorted higher payments in exchange for reduced service. And I still think it odd that a city awash in tacky Ravens memorabilia challenges her on the grounds of taste and propriety.

Those who dislike the food she serves or the tchotchkes she flogs are under no compulsion to patronize her businesses. Those who do—and they appear to be numerous—are no threat to public order.

The torrent of vilification sweeping over her says uglier things about Baltimore than anything she has done. For an example, a remark posted by “W.C.H.” as a comment to Mr. Alvarez’s article:

Mr. McIntyre - Your constant defense of Ms. Whiting is getting tiresome. One has to wonder what your personal connection is to her if you're willing to stick your own neck out in defense of selfishness and greed. I also have to assume that you would have defended Irsay as well. I for one wonder why the Sun hires hacks like you.

For the record, I do not know Denise Whiting and am not in her pay. And how much of a hack I am is left to you to decide. But my point is not that “W.C.H.” has left me smarting—I’ve been subjected to contumely far more expertly delivered, and my hide is still intact. My point is that for most people there is no argument on the merits; anyone who presumes to disagree with the pack baying against Ms. Whiting is branded as having discreditable motives.

My prediction for 2011: Ms. Whiting will continue to draw customers, and the noise about her will subside as some other non-issue attracts the attention of those who like to feel aggrieved.


Flyover boys

Christopher Harper, a journalism professor at Temple University whom I met a few years ago when we were teaching in a summer program in Italy, has brought out a book, Flyover Country: Baby Boomers and Their Stories, which I commend to your attention.

Mr. Harper is a distinguished journalist—one of the first on the scene after the Jim Jones cult’s mass suicide in Guyana, for one—but at heart he is a son of “flyover country,” that middle section of the country that gets comparatively little attention from either coast, except to misunderstand and undervalue it.

He examines what became of the members of his high school class, the Class of 1969, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota: the values they grew up with, the experiences they shared, and their subsequent lives, including his own career. It is a compact picture of the boomer generation and the shifting values of American culture.

I gave the manuscript an edit and found much in it to identify with, since I, too, was a member of the Class of 1969, and the half-Southern, half-Midwestern values with which I grew up in Kentucky were similar to Chris Harper’s. We both even had a brief, unlikely career in rock music.* There is sound, clear, straightforward, evocative writing in his book. If you grew up in flyover country in our generation, you will recognize yourself. If you did not, you can learn something about those of us who did.


Oh, that Mr. Mencken was a caution

Continuing to make my leisurely way through the two volumes of H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices, I feel sad for the reviewers who had to make a forced march through more than a thousand pages of text (unless, as I suspect from some of the reviews, they skipped a good bit). Every page has some manifestation of the characteristic Mencken tone. For example:

On Richard Wagner’s first wife: “She was a singer, and had the brains of one.”

On truth and lying: “The truth never caresses; it stings. ...”

On the conduct of public officials: “Anything is fair and decent that keeps a man his job. That has been the settled American doctrine since Jackson’s time.”

On architecture: “[T]he principles of architectural design ... at the very dawn of history have been unchanged ever since, and are poll-parroted docilely every time a sky-scraper thrusts its snout among the cherubim.”

I shall be sorry to come to the end.


*If you have some difficulty in visualizing me at the keyboard as the band swings into “Twist and Shout,” then you are no more gobsmacked than my own children.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:26 AM | | Comments (29)
Keep reading
Recent entries
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