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February 28, 2011

Your Monday amusements

There’s a bonus today. Shane Arthur, who asked me to respond to questions about editing last week, also maintains a site, Creative Copy Challenge, in which writers are given a set of ten words that must be incorporated into a short narrative. You can have a look and try your hand at it. After sending him the ten words, I did so myself.

The word of the week isn’t posted yet, but the joke of the week is:



Did you nag The New York Times yet?



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:43 AM | | Comments (1)

February 27, 2011

Have you written The Times yet?

Here’s the link to yesterday’s post about where to write to tell The New York Times that you object to their boneheaded decision to cancel Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column.

There is no reason to be optimistic that they will change their mind. The Facebook page on the subject, Keep “On Language” at the New York Times, has 263 subscribers at latest count, and it would take a good deal more than two or three hundred letters to make the management take notice.

But, dammit, they shouldn’t come out of this unscathed. Make them smart.*

Also today at the Other Place, the version of the blog I set up during the [cough] hiatus [cough], there’s a personal post on religious subjects. If you’re not keen on churchiness, there’s no reason for you to look at it.


*In both senses.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:33 PM | | Comments (0)

February 26, 2011

Tell The Times what you think

At Facebook, 156 people have signed on to Keep “On Language" in the New York Times, which states its purpose succinctly:

Let's get a letter-writing campaign going! Tell the Times what you think of this decision by sending your complaints to these e-mail addresses:

NYT Magazine letters to the editor

NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane

I have written a letter, though I must tell you that I have little hope that a letter-writing campaign will have much effect. At an American newspaper, nothing is more stubbornly adhered to than a misguided decision—the dumber the decision, the more determinedly.

Still, they shouldn’t get away with this unscathed.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (2)

Don't tap that

I’m not quite sure how it came to pass in journalism that people selected for government appointments are almost invariably tapped, rather than chosen, named, or picked. I’ve always disliked the word myself, no doubt because of my distaste for college fraternities, which have traditionally used that verb to signify the selection of members.

Now, thanks mainly to the Young People, bless them all, I’ve got a reason in addition to frat-aversion to object. To tap in current vernacular—you knew this already, didn’t you?—means to engage in intercourse. It is commonly expressed as I’d tap that as, I suppose, a statement of admiration, but of the smarmy, derogatory admiration of the male reducing the female to her components. (Same contamination happened to booty.)

Last night I didn’t change an article that spoke of a woman being tapped for a federal post, but perhaps I should have. And in the future, I probably will.

But I’m not inflexible. I’ll raise no objection every spring when we run the stories on tapping the maple trees to make syrup.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:10 AM | | Comments (13)

February 25, 2011

Curb your abbreviation

An appeal for assistance on abbreviations and acronyms comes from a colleague at a professional publication. Apparently there has been heated discussion in the shop, bordering on acrimony.

The specific question is about the advisability of putting the abbreviation of an agency in parentheses immediately following the full name of the agency. But it feeds into the larger question of how much abbreviations may or may not compromise readability.

The Associated Press Stylebook is apparently of the mind that a proliferation of abbreviations is an obstacle to readers, because it advises sternly to minimize them. The relevant entry goes so far as to say that if an abbreviation is so unfamiliar as to require being identified within parentheses, it should be avoided altogether.

That, of course, is in composition of articles for a general readership. Professional publications embrace abbreviations and acronyms much more readily as a kind of lodge handshake identifying who is in the club.* Lawyers and civil servants are particularly addicted to the practice. I suppose we could sew them in a sack and drop them in the sea, but it would be gentler, more humane, and less polluting to reason with them.

My colleague wonders on what basis the AP reached its policy, whether from editorial preference and whim or from readability studies, focus groups, or some other organized investigation of the matter. Is there academic research into this? Or investigation by professional journalism organizations?

I’m not able to provide much information beyond a personal preference for minimizing abbreviations and acronyms because they distract me and quickly convey a leaden bureaucratic tone to articles.

So I am casting a net among my readers to determine whether this matter has been investigated and what conclusions have emerged. The comments, as always, are open.


*That also includes the annoying bureaucratic habit of dropping the definite article in front of the acronym, for the fancied brisk, clipped effect of saying “EPA reports” instead of “the EPA reports.” This tic is particularly detestable because reporters, who suffer from echolalia, almost invariably adopt it in articles written for the civilian population.


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:33 PM | | Comments (14)

Another dumb newspaper decision

The New York Times is about to introduce a redesign of its Sunday magazine. When that redesign appears next week, “On Language” will not be a part of it.

“On Language” was written for thirty years by the late William Safire (nil nisi bonum) and more recently by the estimable Ben Zimmer, a linguist who wears his learning lightly and informs reliably. His graceful final column can be found here. It alone can suggest to you the quality of what the paper is discarding.

The Times, despite its inherent interest in clarity and precision in language, apparently finds that “On Language” no longer fits its editorial vision for the magazine. I have been on the business end of such editorial illuminations for three decades, and the only thing that one can do is to close one’s eyes and think of England.

Perhaps a more alert publication will move quickly to take advantage of the talent The Times has so incontinently shrugged off. In the meantime, Mr. Zimmer’s work, and that of other informed commentators, can be found at the excellent Visual Thesaurus, for a nominal subscription. (I had allowed mine to lapse but, ever a repentant sinner, have returned to the fold.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:43 PM | | Comments (4)

Grammarnoir: The wages of syntax, Part 3

GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax

Part 3: Sanctuary in the academy

Amber and Rachel and I hoofed it to the car.

“Where are we going?” Rachel asked. Always with the questions.

“I know a place,” I said.

We pulled up behind a blank brick building. Didn’t look much different from the content farm. In the parking lot, empty bottles, sandwich papers, silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends, and other testimony of summer nights.

“What’s this?” Rachel asked. Again with the questions.

“It’s the Blair-Glass School of Mass Communications and Nugatory Studies. A pal of mine once taught here as an adjunct for beer money.”

It was unlocked. We walked down a corridor of drab offices that looked as if no one had kept hours for many semesters. Unclaimed manuscripts and portfolios lay on the floor by office doors, dust thick on them. And then a voice came: “Well, well, well, what have we here?”

A little man, balding, gray, with a limp bow tie and cigarette ashes mingling with dandruff on his tweed jacket popped out of an office. He smelled as stale as a Saturday bulldog edition on Sunday morning.

“I am Professor, ahh, Luce, ahh, Charles Foster Luce. What brings you to our department?”

I had to think fast. Amber needed a place to crash before the content farm goons could find her and drag her back.

“We have a potential student for you, Professor. Young Amber here is interested in a writing career.”

“Splendid, ahh, splendid,” Luce said. “Step this way, please.”

He popped back into his office, and we followed.

Place looked like a museum sacked by vandals. Teetering stacks of yellowed newspapers on the floor, desk and table piled as high as an elephant’s eye with folders and tear sheets, gnawed pencils, stubs of grease pencil, broken-backed books, paper cups and plates with remnants of food not even mice would touch.

The professor began his song and dance. “We have, ahh, a complete program here, and you, Miss, ahh ...”

“Amber. Amber Wurd Smith.”

“Yes, Ms. Wurd Smith, owing to a recent, ahh, diminution in enrollment we can offer you individualized instruction in, ahh, the elements. We’ll start you with Bernstein’s Headlines and Deadlines and Arnold’s Modern Newspaper Design. You’ll learn the inverted pyramid form for articles, ahh, and go on to more, ahh, technical matters: picas and points, how to count a headline by hand, how to, ahh, size a photograph with a proportion wheel—have you ever operated an electric typewriter?”

“Well, doc,” I said, I can see she’s in good hands, so I’ll be off.”

“No you won’t.”

It was Rebecca. She had picked up a rusty copy spike from the professor’s desk and was pointing it at my midsection.

“You will not be going anywhere just yet.”

Next: The mother tongue


For readers catching up:

Part 1: It's always some dame

Part 2: How you're gonna keep 'em down on the farm



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:59 AM | | Comments (8)

February 23, 2011

The editor's frailties

The other day Shane Arthur of Editing Hacks invited me to answer his questionnaire for editors, and, constitutionally incapable of keeping my mouth shut, I did so. You can read the responses here.

Since l’esprit d’escalier* haunts us all, I’d like to add a piece about the editor’s limitations.

The greatest limitation for an editor is the inability to get beyond whatever level of quality is inherent in the text. “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it,” said Anthony Trollope. When I said previously that much of my work over the years has been to take the execrable and leave it merely mediocre, I was hardly exaggerating.

But similarly, the editor is trammeled by the limitations of his or her skills. That is why it is essential for you, if you work as an editor, to be honest and clear-headed about your own defects as a craftsman.

If, for example, you tend to go too fast and miss details, you will need to find some way to compensate, perhaps by requiring one or two additional readings before letting go of the text. Or if your tendency is to edit too slowly, perhaps you need to set yourself a deadline for each text you pick up.

One hazard to dodge is rigidity. Every time I see some colleague genuflecting before the Associated Press Stylebook (that compendium of sensible advice, inconsistent practice, and laughable shibboleths), I cringe. Every time I see an editor lovingly cataloguing pet peeves, I shake my head; of course we all identify irritants, but I wonder how many important things get overlooked as editors tend to their fetishes.

Then there are the troubling evidences of unexamined assumptions about usage. I too have been guilty of making editing decisions on the basis of something I read once in a book or article, or heard someone say once, without investigating to determine whether it had any validity.

At the worst, there’s the temptation toward one-size-fits-all rigidity, the uniform coat of battleship gray slapped on every text, the ultimate hazard of collective unexamined assumptions, blind adherences to rules real and imagined, and obsessive-compulsive control. Don’t go there.


*The French “spirit of the staircase” is sometimes translated as “staircase wit,” the comeback you think of on your way out the building, the additional remark you wish you had made at the time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:58 PM | | Comments (3)

The words you love to hate

Mark Liberman has performed a signal service over at Language Log: He has posted an entry on words that get up people’s noses, and has left the comments open (!).

One need not consult a haruspex to anticipate the slowly gathering avalanche of bleats and whines in the comments section.

So, I urge you, go there for amusement at the variety of things people dislike for arbitrary and idiosyncratic reasons, and at their willingness to trumpet inconsequential preferences.

Or go there to vent your own peeves. If you detest moist, gobsmacked, or expressions in French, you will be among your people.

There, not here. Any such manifestation of peevery in the comments here will be speedily deleted.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:30 PM | | Comments (22)

Transgender and pronouns

In this morning’s Baltimore Sun Justin Fenton writes about a victim of homicide found asphyxiated in a vacant house. It is one more in Baltimore’s apparently endless series of killings. But the trouble for the reporter, and for some readers, was a matter of pronouns.

The victim, born Anthony Trent, more recently known as Tyra, was a transgendered person who preferred to live as a woman and did so openly.

Mr. Fenton’s article quotes members of the Trent family referring to the victim as “he.” Mr. Fenton refers to the victim in the article as “she.” And today, I’m told, the family is upset with the feminine pronoun, advocates for the transgendered with the masculine.

There are two principles we follow here. The first, and simplest, is that we do not reword direct quotations. If the family says “he,” so will the article. If friends and associates say “she,” so will the article.

The second is that we refer to people as they choose to be known. When, for example, someone prefers to be known by a nickname rather than a given name, and no fraud is involved, we honor that preference. That is why we have written about Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton rather than James Earl Carter Jr. and William Jefferson Clinton.

In the far more delicate area of sexual identity, we refer to people by the gender by which they choose to be known. Ordinarily, of course, this is no problem, but with transgendered individuals we have to provide additional context, as Mr. Fenton did in his article.

This is an aspect of our effort to remain faithful to the truth and the facts, however complicated they may be.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (41)

February 22, 2011

Back at my post

Domestic concerns kept me preoccupied and away from blogging yesterday, as did shoveling snow this morning, so I wasn’t able to point out to you that the latest word of the week, panegyric, was up at Have at it.

In other news:

When Geoffrey Pullum turned to linguistics, the craft of demolition lost a master. Watch on Language Log as he takes the BBC to task for its ill-thought-out but self-congratulatory stylebook entry on the passive voice. asked whether whose may be used to refer to inanimate objects and concluded, quite reasonably, that it can. Let’s not pile up nonsensical restrictions.

There is a new site for people interested in editing, Shane Arthur’s Editing Hacks. Check out the copyediting tutorials and see how much you agree with, and then stay for the interviews with editors about the craft.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:45 PM | | Comments (6)

February 20, 2011

Don't hang the lexicographers

Erin McKean, tweeting as @emckean, alerts to a fresh blast of peevery at, where one Barry Saunders inveighs against misuses of the language.

It appears that the prevalence of ginormous, a portmanteau of gigantic and enormous, has gotten his shorts in a bunch*. It’s a bastardization of two perfectly good words, he says, and he doesn’t care much for the people who use it—especially commercial enterprises that use it in their advertising. They will no longer have his custom.

I suppose I ought to feel more sympathy for him, given the number of words that grate on my ear. Not that one, though. Ginormous is, after all, used hyperbolically, and the combination of two hyperboles into a hyper-hyperbole seems oddly appropriate.

No, Mr. Saunders is welcome to sputter and fume as much as he likes about words and usages that he finds infelicitous. That’s his right, though we’re not obliged to heed him. But—and this is the important part—he needs to keep his hands off the lexicographers.

Conversate, he complains at one point, has been “accepted into respectable dictionaries.” And then: “The real culprits most likely are the dictionary editors who, in an apparent effort to be hip and inclusive, have lowered their standards.”

Mr. Saunders, it appears, expects lexicographers to be legislators. They are, he thinks, a fraternity’s or club’s membership committee. When a word presents for admission, they examine its pedigree—who its parents were, where it went to school, what kind of car it drives, all that—and then decide whether or not it is our sort and let it in to the dictionary.

But they aren’t gatekeepers. Lexicographers are more like botanists: When they find a new species, they examine it and describe it, and if it breeds true, they add it to the list. You may not care for dandelions, but there they are.

I read recently a brief outburst online by someone whose views appear to coincide with Mr. Saunders’s, complaining about the crazy idea that if enough people make an error in language, it’s then all right. (I can’t remember whether it was someone raving about irregardless or could care less or something equally pointless.) Well, that is exactly how it is. We have English because multiple generations of illiterate peasants demolished Anglo-Saxon grammar wholesale. And if enough people use a particular word or adopt a usage and agree on its meaning, then there it is.

Dictionaries tell you what words people use and how they use them. It’s up to you to decide which ones are suitable for your purposes. Keep in mind that when other people make different choices, the dictionary is not a rule book you can throw at them.


*That’s knickers in a twist for our trans-Atlantic audience.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:37 PM | | Comments (20)

February 18, 2011

Showing your work

There are times when I sit in the slot and open up a text from a copy editor who has indicated every change in a highlighted notes mode: every deletion, every correction of a typo, every change in capitalization, every substitution of one word for another. And I clench my teeth, because screaming in the newsroom makes other people nervous.

My professional colleagues may differ from me on this point, and they are welcome to say why in comments, but I don’t want you showing me your work. It’s distracting, and I wind up missing things I should have noticed because I’m paying more attention to what you highlighted than to what remains.

It’s true, I have asked students or probationers to do this, and I have done so myself, with Microsoft Word’s really, really annoying “track changes” function, when required to do so by a client. It is defensible as a limited, preliminary measure to determine that an editor is doing the job reliably. And I suppose that in contracts or other formal texts, where the addition or deletion of a single comma can have tremendous consequences, it may be a regrettable necessity.

But in general, I don’t see much good in it. It does, as I said, distract the reader from the actual edited text—and sometimes, grrrrr, if the note highlighting isn’t done precisely, it generates additional spaces—and I suspect it encourages anality in writers who misjudge the quality of their prose and demand an accounting of every last keystroke.

If you’re uncertain about your work, ask questions before you turn it in. You’ve been engaged to use your judgment, so just edit the damned thing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:10 PM | | Comments (23)

Grammarnoir: The wages of syntax, Part 2

GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax Part 2

How you’re gonna keep ’em down on the farm

A rat scuttled around the corner at the content farm, an old warehouse that a developer had gotten government money to rehab, with exemption from taxation until the twenty-second century. No windows, and muscle at the door.

“How are you going to get in?” Rebecca whispered.

“Look at the disguise,” I said, shedding my coat to reveal a faded Blue Oyster Cult T-shirt, ragged jeans, sandals.

“You’re wearing that?” she gasped.

“Listens, babs, there was a time, you wore a short-sleeved shirt and a necktie and carried a clipboard, you could waltz into any building in the United States short of the gold depository at Fort Knox. Now, if you dress like this, they think you’re tech support and too unimportant to notice, or you’re the CEO and too important to challenge. What’s your sister’s name?”


“Figures. Stay here.”

I sauntered through the front door. The muscle barely looked up from his sudoku.

On the main floor a room ran the length of the building, a city block, with row on row of cubicles, each one occupied by someone tappng away furiously at a keyboard while at a platform at the other end a guy in a leather vest was beating cadence on a big drum.

The drumming stopped as a paunchy party stepped forward and bellowed:

“Ten-minute break. Anybody spends more ’n ten minutes in the bathroom, spends the night in the box. Anybody brings back food to a cubicle, spends the night in the box. Anybody tries to leave without he turns in his 9,000 words, spends the night in the box.”

They hustled out, and I wandered around, looking at computer screens, ignored by Paunchy and Leather Vest. One wretch had been writing how-to instructions for making toast. In a toaster. Another was cutting and pasting passages from Wikipedia. Then there was one who seemed to be copying and pasting columns, removing the bylines, and inserting the byline of the editor/publisher.

I spotted Amber’s nameplate on a cubicle wall just as they all hurried back to their places.

I bent down and whispered to her. “You. I’ve come from your sister to get you out of here. I know a safe place. Shut up and follow me.”

I straightened up, looked around, and shouted, “There’s a copyright lawyer in the building!”

All of them, as one person, ducked and covered under their desks. I grabbed Amber’s arm, and we moved.

As we walked, casually, down the street to where Rebecca waited, I asked Amber, “How in the name of Sulzberger did you get mixed up with an outfit like that?”

She whimpered, “It paid better than the Huffington Post.”


Next: Sanctuary in the academy



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:20 AM | | Comments (7)

February 17, 2011

How it goes

A correspondent wonders whether the constructions “he goes on to say” and “she went on to say” are appropriate in lengthy quotations. Wouldn’t “he continued” be preferable? Is “go” wrong here because they are speaking, not going? Isn’t this a form of “Valley speak” from the 1980s that we’re better off without?

Well, go is a protean verb, with senses that do not involve physical motion, so that need not be a problem.

“He goes on to say” and “she went on to say” are more conversational than “he continued,” which probably explains their appeal to reporters. They are a trifle wordy, and if writers overindulge in the construction, everything is going to start sounding like a codger sitting on the bench in front of the feed store.

But neither is an example of “Valley speak,” which would involve the substitution of the solitary “goes” for “says,” as in “Like, my boyfriend and me, we’re like at this bar? And I go, let’s get out of this dump, and he goes, I want to stay for another couple of rounds …”

You get the flavor. Don’t go there.


Tomorrow on the blog: The second thrilling installment of “GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax,” will be posted sometime during the morning.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 PM | | Comments (11)

February 16, 2011

Please, no wagering

Now this comes over the transom:

Please settle a lunch bet. Is it better or is there a difference between using the words "some or about." For example, what is correct? "About 24 journalists were injured in Egypt" or "Some 24 journalists were injured in Egypt."

I see AP uses about and Reuters uses some.

What do you suggest? 

I suggest a look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, which says that some in the sense of about as an adverb with a number is entirely conventional. However, that conventional use is with a round number, to suggest approximation rather than precision.

Some commentators, such as Theodore Bernstein, M-W points out, have objected to some with specific numbers, as in the instance above. This, I think, explains why some editors, with their inherent proclivity to make law out of guidelines, object to some in place of about with all numbers.

I can’t say that the usage bothers me much in either instance, and I suggest that the point is not worth spoiling anyone’s digestion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:30 PM | | Comments (12)

What is WRONG with people?

On February 11, Lara Logan, a reporter for CBS News, was attacked by a mob in Cairo, beaten, and raped.

This was bad enough, but her treatment since the story became public amounts to a second assault. It has elements that people of a certain mind-set have pounced on with glee.

For example, one Debbie Schlussel, with whom I was previously unacquainted but who appears to be one of those blond female cyborgs so much in vogue of late, suggested that the sexual assault may have taught Ms. Logan a valuable lesson. (Here’s another: women, beware women.)

Thus an apparently irresistible opportunity to smack several favorite targets at once, viz.:

Attractive, sexy woman reporter gets herself raped. Well, she should have known better and probably asked for it, the liberal slut.

Aha, Muslim men are no better than animals after all, and we were right to tell you that they are all vicious and dangerous.

And the liberal news media, trying to portray Egyptians as peaceful aspirants to democracy, is once again exposed as weak-minded propagandists.

If you found this three-part summary distasteful—and I certainly hope you did—check out the comments on various blogs and news sites, which are considerably less restrained. Some sites, in fact, have closed comments for lack of any better means to stem the flow of rabid commentary.

I have to go wash my hands.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (13)

February 14, 2011

Since you're wasting time anyway ...

Amusement and instruction, the Horatian combination.

Here’s the joke of the week, “A mugging”:



And with it, the word of the week, euhemeristic.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:06 PM | | Comments (3)

February 12, 2011

The Minnesota farceur

The residents of Minnesota have a reputation, buffed by Garrison Keillor, of being dour, stolid Scandinavians, but I detect in them an antic sense of humor. Surely that must account for their great gift to the Congress, and the nation, the Hon. Michele Bachmann.

Representative Bachmann made some remarks this week at a “Tea Party Express Forum,” including some suggesting that the nation’s schools teach history no better than they teach grammar:

"Other than Native Americans who were here, all of us have the same story." She described “us” as the descendants of "a risk-taker from their home country, doesn't matter what the country is, but they took a risk, and they came here."

"And they knew when they came here they weren't coming for a welfare state. They were coming here for the thrill of writing their own ticket. Who did we attract? People that wanted a better life and were willing to do what it took to get it."

Others have commented on the signal omission of African-Americans. Even in the tea party, I think, it must be better to ignore the descendants of slaves than to suggest that the happy darkies were lining up to write their own tickets on the Middle Passage.

But it wasn’t just kidnapped Africans whose arrival here was less than voluntary. We were initially, like Australia, a set of penal colonies, and people convicted of minor crimes such as theft and prostitution were sent here, the better to remove the trash from Britain. It was so commonplace that Daniel Defoe has Moll Flanders sentenced to transportation to the colonies as an alternative to hanging.

Some came here an indentured servants in a kind of limited slavery. Some were wastrel younger sons and bankrupts. In later centuries, once we were an independent nation, some came here, sensibly, to dodge the draft in their home countries.

We would do well to keep in mind Paul Theroux’s sardonic remarks about the Old Dominion in The Old Patagonian Express: “ ‘We’re English,’ say some citizens of Charlottesville, Virginia, referring to the fact that their ancestors abandoned soot-grimed mining towns in Yorkshire and made enough money raising pigs to set up as gentry and keep Jews out of the local hunt clubs.”

Some indeed came here as risk-takers eager for a better life, but many of our ancestors arrived on these shores simply because they were not wanted somewhere else.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (36)

February 11, 2011

The previous Grammarnoirs

Part I of “Grammarnoir 3: The wages of syntax” was posted today: The remaining three installments of the series will appear on successive Fridays, February 18, February 25, and March 4, National Grammar Day.

If you have not read the previous two Grammarnoir series, here are some links.


“Grammarnoir 1,” 2009, on a post that has links to the four installments:


“Grammarnoir 2: Pulp diction” was published on the other You Don’t Say site during the [cough] hiatus [cough]. Having more time on my hands then, I combined the texts of all four installments in a single post:



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:43 PM | | Comments (0)

GRAMMARNOIR: The wages of syntax, Part 1

GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax

Part 1: It’s always some dame

It was late, last call long past, and I had just gotten home from the paragraph factory. I was nearly at the door, my lunch pail in one hand and Garner on Usage in the other, when she ran up to me.

“You’ve got to help me,” she said, clutching at me, her doelike eyes wide with fear. She might have been twenty.

“Easy on the waistcoat, sister,” I said. “It’s not as if it has bespoke stitching.”

“Sorry,” she gulped,’ “but I’m in terrible trouble, and you’re the only editor on earth who can help me.”

Dames. Why am I always the only one who can help them?

“All right. Sit down here on the porch. I don’t know how much trouble you’re in, but I’d get in more by taking you inside.”

She sat, trembling like a rewrite man’s hands the morning after.

“All right, poopsie, first off, what’s your name?”

“Rebecca Wurd Smith.”

“Uh-huh. And what’s the story?”

“Well, I’m a communications major.”

“Sorry to hear it. Have you considered professing vows in a religious order? Then at least they’d have to clothe you.”

“No, really, I’m ready to go to work. I’ve had five internships and freelanced for six publications. I’ve got clips,” she said, tilting her little chin proudly in the air.

“Good for you. Then you can’t need me for anything.”

“It’s not for me. It’s for my sister. You’ve got to help her.”

“No way, toots. No more Galahad stuff. I’ve got a cushy berth now—I’m a Night Content Production Manager. Do you know what a Night Content Production Manager does?”


“Neither does anyone else. That’s the beauty part. When no one knows what your job is, you can make what you will of it.”

“But you’ve got to help her. You’re the only one who can.” And she turned those blue eyes on me with a wattage that would have thawed, temporarily, a managing editor’s heart.

“Oh for Fowler’s sake, all right,” I said. “I know I’ll live to regret this. What’s your sister’s trouble?”

“Well, she’s working …”

“That’s good. That’s a start. Working where?”

“She’s on … she’s on ..”

She gulped, swallowed.

“She’s on a content farm.”


Next: How you’re gonna keep ’em down on the farm



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

February 10, 2011

A crowded day

You, dear readers, are not on the agenda for today: an early–morning editing class at Loyola, the funeral of a friend, the weekly on-time meeting, and, of course, a stimulating shift of night content production.

But tomorrow—ah, tomorrow, best beloved—you will have the first installment of “Grammarnoir 3: The Wages of Syntax.”

Stay tuned.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:28 AM | | Comments (10)

February 9, 2011

That dangerous book, the Bible

Imagine my astonishment—we’re about to talk religion for a few minutes, so back off if that’s not to your taste—at reading this passage in the latest Newsweek:

... Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, that citadel of Christian conservatism, concludes that one’s Bible reading must be overseen by the proper authorities. Just because everyone should read the Bible “doesn’t mean that everyone’s equally qualified to read it, and it doesn’t mean that the text is just to be used as a mirror for ourselves,” he says. “All kinds of heresies come from people who read the Bible and recklessly believe that they’ve understood it correctly.”

When I was a boy, what we understood to be one of the fundamental tenets of the Protestant Reformation was that the Bible was to be read by all believers for their own understanding and enlightenment, and that setting up some authority mediating between the believer and the book was wicked, abominable priestcraft.

Now the Reverend Doctor Mohler is surely correct is saying that the Bible has given rise to many crackpot interpretations; I would include his among them. (You may remember the Reverend Doctor Mohler from a previous post about his contention that yoga is a filthy pagan practice unfit for any Christian. Must be an interesting place, his madrassa in Louisville.)

Of course, in another sense, the Reverend Doctor Mohler is squarely in the Protestant tradition. John Calvin thought it a fine thing when Michael Servetus was burned alive for expressing qualms about the Trinity, and the Massachusetts Bay settlers who fled persecution in England discovered that they had quite a taste for it when members of their own party turned heterodox.

But still, for a Baptist divine to tell you that you are not qualified to read and understand Scripture shows us what a peculiar time we’ve come to.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (29)

Accomplishing pressure in the academy

One of the advantages of operating a relatively obscure blog—with a select audience like you, good people—is that it attracts little spam. Oh, there’s the Viagra merchant who recently latched on to The Sun’s blogs and has been methodically larding the comments with substandard English.*

But since I write occasionally about academics, I’ve drawn the attention of spammers for term paper services, and the things they write are truly pathetic.

Here’s the opening sentence from a comment I deleted this morning: “No one can be ready to a great academic papers accomplishing pressure.”

Obviously written by a machine or a non-native speaker. Or a machine programmed by a non-native speaker.

It leaves you wondering who patronizes these services. Presumably there are non-native speakers whose command of standard American is so sketchy that this stuff makes some kind of sense to them. And—back me up, fellow wielders of the red pen—there are native speakers in our classes whose prose is not far off this.

But it must be economically viable, even if only one spam recipient in a thousand, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, takes the bait. After all, undergraduate and graduate cheating is, at a guess, as common as cheating on the income tax, so there is a tremendous potential market out there, and many consumers do not appear to be particularly discriminating.**

But then, learning is less what the university enterprise is about than certification for membership in the upper middle class. If learning were actually prized in this fair country, there would be less moronic legislation attempting to curb it.

Doubt me? Think that’s too sour? NPR interviewed Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, this morning. The book concludes, after studying 2,300 students at twenty-four universities over four years, that there were “no statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills for at least 45 percent of the students in our study. An astounding proportion of students are progressing through higher education today without measurable gains in general skills. ...”

I expect that many of the 45 percent may be susceptible to help with readying a great academic papers.


*Are these comments, which vary from post to post, being generated mechanically, or is some poor soul actually troubling to write fresh nonsense each time?

**I once had two students who submitted papers that were identical in paragraph structure and language in the same class. They were stunned when I confronted them. I suspect that many students have so little an ear for the written language that they do not understand that there are people who hear echoes and perceive similarities.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:37 AM | | Comments (7)

February 8, 2011

Among the locals

Allow me a few minutes, if you will, to rationalize a personal preference. Perhaps a prejudice.

I loathe the use of locals in news stories as a noun meaning local residents.

This is, I concede, a widespread usage, and in casual conversation—“Anybody know where the locals go for good barbecue?”*—unobjectionable. But in journalism, it smacks to me of condescension, of a reporter, an important person, coming into a place and commenting on the quaint customs of the indigenes. The way that a New York Times reporter sent to Baltimore would write like an anthropology major.

We all know that local rhymes with yokel.

So give it to me straight. Is this echo of a sneer something that you sense when you see the word in an article? Or have I made myself hypersensitive?


*In Baltimore, that would be Big Bad Wolf on Harford Road.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:47 PM | | Comments (7)

February 7, 2011

Not quite the voltage we expected

A late start to the day: Last night at Volt I began to feel ill shortly after dessert. Rich food—I’d had lobster—and abundant drink had something to do with it, but I think that the overnight aching-all-over and the chills point to some ague.

I expect to be on my feet again by tomorrow morning to torment my undergraduate charges over English grammar. And today’s Web offerings, previously prepared, have been served up: The joke of the week, “The bad cold,” is on, as is the word of the week, exiguous.

As to Volt itself, it is a handsome restaurant with a cheerful and assiduous wait staff. The various breads were all quite good. The lobster that Alice and I had was excellent, and J.P. enjoyed the sturgeon. But Kathleen thought that the lamb was a little tough, and I found the New England chowder unremarkable.

Here’s the thing: Volt is the kind of fashionable restaurant that likes to cram as many elements as possible into a dish. (Example: sturgeon beluga lentils, cauliflower, cilantro pudding, medjool dates, ver jus 31.) They look impressive on the menu but sometimes appear as mere dots on the plate, and my palate is insufficiently sophisticated to fully appreciate that much subtlety.

The consensus that emerged afterward is that we were treated very well and that it was a very good dinner but not a great one.

Volt partisans may take advantage of the comments function to berate me for my philistinism. 


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:21 PM | | Comments (15)

February 5, 2011

Preview of coming attractions

National Grammar Day, March 4, will be upon us soon, and work has begun on “GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax.” Expect the first installment of four near the end of the week.

Also, as previously mentioned, I plan to provide an account of the family dinner tomorrow evening at Bryan Voltaggio’s Volt restaurant in Frederick. Expect that Monday or so, once I have slept off the indulgences.

For additional attractions, I offer two things that you should not expect to see again.

No further posts are contemplated on Denise Whiting, Cafe Hon, or the hontroversy that has occupied such a disproportionate amount of attention. A couple of commenters have suggested that there are still worthwhile issues to explore, but the yahoo shouting tends to drown out any attempt to be objective or reasonable, and the game is not worth the candle.

Second, as much as Investigative Voice could benefit from editorial advice on its prose, You Don’t Say is not an eleemosynary operation, and no more will be coming to it from this quarter.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 PM | | Comments (21)

February 4, 2011

Frabjous day

The downstairs bathroom is finished, four and a half months after Contractor #1 began the job. There have been days during the interval when I would have settled for a chamber pot and a washbasin, but the result is quite nice.

Kathleen says that Stage 2, the renovation of the upstairs bathroom, must be put off for some time, which is just as well, because, who knows, I might die before it comes to that.


Touchy, touchy

Investigative Voice has discovered the post in which I criticized an article for its hyperbole and cliche. You’re more than welcome to examine the response yourself, but a summary is that Investigative Voice does not take well to criticism and retains its unfortunate predilection for white-on-black reversed type.


Still at a high pitch

Over at the City Paper, Edward Ericson Jr. has an article about Denise Whiting, Cafe Hon, and the hontroversy—no, I’m not going back into it. It’s an excellent piece, clear, balanced, fair. But writing dispassionately about Ms. Whiting is a mug’s game, which you will see immediately upon examining the comments. I recommend them; they are a hoot.

The outrage with which people talk about Ms. Whiting is so blatantly disproportionate to the circumstances that the comments quickly come to sound like Daffy Duck spluttering about Bugs Bunny. A reader begins to wonder after a time what responsibility Denise Whiting has for global warming, violence in Darfur, the Ravens’ loss to the Steelers, and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.


Fine dining

My son has made reservations for us this Sunday evening at Volt in Frederick so that we can mark one of those round-number events in the coming week. I plan to try, at a minimum, the smoked ice cubes in the Manhattan that Laura Vozzella wrote about last week and will report back to you, even though this isn’t dining@large, on the rest of the meal.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:02 AM | | Comments (19)

February 2, 2011

What? No joke?

Things got backed up at the plant last week, leaving the website with no video joke for this week, but yesterday I recorded seven more* that should have you wincing for weeks.

More updates: 

We did have a word of the week, lapidary.

I have been trying to keep up with and delete the Viagra spam that someone has been assiduously planting in comments on past posts, but if I overlook any, please let me know.

My sighting of a city snowplow on Plymouth Road turns out to be just the rarity I thought it was. My colleague Yeganeh June Torbati reports in today’s Sun that residents of Hamilton, unaccustomed to street-clearing services, feel that they have to fend for themselves when it snows.

And now off to the paragraph factory, where the new copy desk academic intern, Andrew Zaleski, will be arriving for some tedious paperwork and initiation into the arcana of NewsGate.


*I told a colleague about the seven weeks’ worth of jokes, and she remarked, “I hope they like that sweater vest.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:54 PM | | Comments (1)

February 1, 2011

Whose motive

It’s not just other publications I scold. The Sun has reporters and editors who regularly overlook a small but irritating lapse, one of which I saw in print on my day off.

To write that police have no motive for a crime is not exactly the same as to write police have no knowledge of a motive for a crime.

We usually assume that the police are not motivated to rob, burgle, carjack, stab, etc. civilians. When they do, that’s usually in the first sentence of the article, not the last.

When they don’t have a clue who did it or why, we write that they know of no motive for the act, thereby establishing a degree of precision in prose and avoiding the scowl of a cranky old editor.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 PM | | Comments (2)
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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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