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March 30, 2011

Don't call me Editor McIntyre

The linguist Dennis Baron, tweeting as @DrGrammar, complained yesterday, “One thing I never get used to, working with lawyers: they always call me Doctor. Not ‘Dr. Who’ ‘Dr. No,’ or ‘Dr. Grammar.’ Just ‘Doctor.’”

I suggested that he address the lawyers as “Counselor,” but his complaint got me to thinking about titles and the tangle of using them.

Titles of nobility or military rank, for example, are easy, as are the common courtesy titles Miss, Mr., Mrs., and Ms. We capitalize them, treating them as parts of a person’s name.

But there is also a tendency in journalism to capitalize occupational titles. For this, as for many other ill-advised things, such as treating kudos as a plural, I blame publisher Henry Luce. Time was much given to using false titles, and the practice was contagious.

The guideline is that you call it a title and capitalize it if you would use it with the person’s name in direct address: President Bartlet, Dr. Strangelove, etc. Chief executive officer, secretary-treasurer, principal, and superintendent are not in that sense titles.*

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is more thoughtful than The Associated Press Stylebook, and written for people who have more of a grasp of nuance than journalists, makes that point about corporate and organizational titles, and it goes beyond AP over titles used in apposition. AP prescribes “former President Jimmy Carter,” but in that case it is a descriptive phrase rather than a title; president belongs with former, not with the name. Chicago recognizes this.

I suppose we could resolve this by capitalizing all nouns, like the Germans, or writing everything in all caps, like the ancient Romans and the people who think that President Obama is not a native-born American citizen.

Or I suppose I could try to bring the sanity of Chicago to the paragraph factory, but the struggle for intelligibility takes up so much time ...


*Yes, I know about Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers. Don’t start with me; you know how I get.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (20)

March 28, 2011

Now it starts

It’s Monday, so you can kick off your work week with a fresh vocabulary word and a joke.

The word of the week is prescient.

We’ve now had six months of words of the week, and you can examine the entire set here.

The joke of the week is “Before It Starts.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:28 PM | | Comments (4)

March 27, 2011

Our wayward English

Still overwrought over the things the Oxford English Dictionary has picked up on the street? Here’s what a character in Robertson Davies’s 1981 novel, The Rebel Angels, has to say about language:

“Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Italian and Spanish, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages — things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way — becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams. Received Standard English has had it; even American English, that once seemed such an impertinent johnny-come-lately in literature, is fusty stuff compared with what you will hear in Africa, which is where the action is, in our day.”

Those inclined to hyperventilate over changes in vocabulary and usage should keep a few basic concepts in mind:

Language goes where it will.

No one, not the Brits or Americans, not the professoriat or the commentariat, owns it.

As the lexicographer Peter Sokolowski compactly put it, “Languages certainly do follow rules, but they don’t follow orders.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:08 AM | | Comments (7)

A cheerleader for capitalism

READER ALERT: Political subjects below. If you think reading this post would endanger your blood pressure, perhaps you could turn on public radio and listen to some music instead.

There are things you ought to know better than to do, and one high on the list is not to enter into a political discussion on Facebook.

But a Facebook acquaintance posted this: “Capitalism is the most fair, right, and opportunity-driven system possible. Anyone who does not support capitalism is either misinformed, prejudiced, jealous, or power-seeking” and followed up with "My question to liberals, and it's a sincere question: Is your belief in liberalism based on not seeing that's it's really socialism in disguise, or is socialism actually okay with you?”

In my most presentable faux naif tone, I started an inquiry into how she understood those terms, socialism and capitalism, having pointed out some time back a point that I took from Harry Golden forty years ago, that the Socialist Party platform of 1912 is pretty much mainstream today.

For my impudence, I got the standard treatment, being labeled a collectivist or a redistributionist, one of the people who “don't really care about gays, blacks, women, old people or kids. They only care about finding ways to redistribute money from the group that earned it to those that don't work.”*

Before long, someone started quoting Ayn Rand. I have leaned over the years that when they begin to quote Ayn Rand at you, it’s time to make sure you have an unobstructed path to the door.**

But really, I had an actual question to pose. I’m not sure what people are talking about when they denounce socialism. If it is President Obama’s health care plan, which leaves profit-making insurance companies intact and assures them of additional profits, then it is a very odd form of socialism. If it is President Obama they are calling a socialist, they should seek out some actual socialists to hear them hoot at the thought.

Is it governmental meddling in industry though regulation of food and drugs? Or the various attempts to regulate the financial industry from the time of Franklin Roosevelt to the present? Or if we’re simply talking about money and the redistribution of it, is it governmental taking of money from those who work to prolong the lives of a lot of old people through Social Security and Medicare? (The latter, you know, are the real threats to the federal budget, not public radio or scientific research.)

For that matter, I’m not at all sure what people mean when they talk about capitalism. I suspect it’s not the mercantilist capitalism of the sixteenth century, though I get doubtful when the protectionists chime in. I wonder if they mean the corporate capitalism of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. If so, a capitalism so dependent on tax breaks and subsidies from government is a very odd species as well.

The rough equilibrium between left and right that existed from the Eisenhower era of Modern Republicanism, which grudgingly accepted the new Deal and a mixed economy, to the recent past, is apparently gone. The country has come again to a point of debating what the appropriate role of government is in many areas, and that is a healthy debate—or would be if it could be conducted by people who try to explain clearly what they mean and make an effort to understand contrary positions without immediately resorting to mere slogans and name-calling and denunciation.


*Three subsidiary points:

1. Though I am a damned NPR-listening registered Democrat and journalist, I am also a taxpayer and homeowner, respectably married, a mower of grass and ironer of my own shirts, an investor in stocks and bonds though a 401(k) plan, and very nearly as complete a bourgeois as you are likely to find in captivity. (None remain in the wild.)

2. Redistributionist is an ugly term, but it occurs to me that if you attend a church and make an offering, you are partaking in redistributionism, much like those crypto-socialists in the Acts of the Apostles. Better be careful.

3. If I were inclined, though I am not, to respond in kind, I would ask the anti-redistributionist gentleman whether he is the kind of capitalist who thinks that it is impertinent of the government to forbid him to employ ten-year-old children in the mines for twelve hours a day, six days a week—an infringement on his freedom. (He did complain, after all, about children being unproductive.)


**If it is undiluted libertarianism that you’re looking for, let me recommend H.L. Mencken, who knew how to write.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:42 AM | | Comments (24)

March 26, 2011

Boys, we've lost

Strike the colors. It’s all over. Officers may keep their sidearms, and those who own their horses may take them home for the spring plowing.

The New York Times Magazine comes out again this weekend. We can inquire with it whether Miranda Cosgrove, “17-year-old tween idol, beloved by millions as iCarly,” can “turn into a grown-up star without becoming tabloid fodder.” A breathless nation waits.

In furtherance of the intention to make the magazine fresh, there’s a profile of 81-year-old Dick Clark.

And there is no “On Language.”

The protest has failed. The Keep “On Language” in the New York Times page on Facebook has stalled at 874 signatories, well short of Tunisian, Egyptian, or Libyan standards. There has been no popular revolt.

Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the magazine, has made the tough decisions. He has shifted the name of the magazine to the left on the cover and made it twenty percent bigger, and he has dropped Ben Zimmer and “On Language.” The editor of the paper, Bill Keller, who appointed Mr. Lindgren to the post, appears to stand by his man.

Never mind that public interest in the language, as seen in the attention being paid to Robert Lane Greene’s recently published You Are What You Speak, remains strong. Never mind that when grammar and usage are taught at all in our schools, they are presented in a tissue of superstitions and absurd fiats. Never mind that the staff of The Times itself, as we see in Philip Corbett’s “After Deadline” feature, could stand some polishing on the finer points. No, language is old hat, and must give way for Dick Clark.

Our remaining hope is that an editor at some other publication will prove capable of an intelligent decision and offer to take up “On Language” at a new location.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:54 PM | | Comments (5)

Yes, it's in the dictionary. Now pipe down

The lexicographers I have met personally or encountered on the Internet have been, mainly, low-key, decorous individuals. They may not be, as Samuel Johnson famously defined the tribe, harmless drudges, but one does not visualize them trashing hotel rooms or crashing stolen police cruisers into buildings.

That is a good thing. If they were more easily inflamed by uninformed comments on their craft, very few ignoramuses would ’scape whipping.

I share the disdain of my colleague Brian White expressed in his post at Talk Wordy to Me, “Please stop whining about the OED’s new words.” He is referring to the commotion over the recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary of LOL, OMG, and other neologisms that have become widely current, and he is particularly exercised by a Washington Post op-ed piece accusing the Oxford lexicographers of a ludicrous attempt to be hip.

You may be astonished that a newspaper would publish a humorous essay that is not funny, expressing opinion that is not informed, but I’m concerned with something broader than that feeble effort. Why is it that people do not understand what dictionaries are for?

The OED in particular describes itself as a dictionary on historical principles. It attempts to establish the pedigree and descent through generations of every word it lists. And so it is full of words that had their day but are no longer written and uttered. You can find brabble there, a word meaning to quarrel noisily about trifles. It lost out to squabble a long time back. Because it is such an enormous word-hoard, it will be consulted for decades, perhaps centuries, by scholars and by readers who are puzzled by obscure words. Someday, someone reading texts from the early twenty-first century will not know what OMG means, and the OED will be there.

Beyond that, it has been fifty years since the descriptivist Webster’s Third New International came out, giving schoolteachers the fantods because it included ain’t and sending Dwight Macdonald and other worthies to the ramparts to fume. We have now had five decades of the publication of dictionaries that earnestly attempt to show how people actually speak and write English rather than instruct them how they ought to, and people who write op-ed pieces still want lexicographers to legislate for the language.

I suppose such people are demanding certainty. And when they die and are in Hell they can demand fresh-squeezed lemonade, with as much consequence.

If you want to know the ways people use the language, consult a dictionary. If you want advice on how to use the language effectively, you can consult [cough] You Don’t Say.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:13 AM | | Comments (8)

March 24, 2011

Sic not

An article arrived at the desk last night with a couple of errors in a quoted text marked with [sic].

I marked the proof to delete it.

Sic, the Latin adverb for thus, is conventionally used, particularly in academic writing, to indicate that the error is in the matter being quoted, not an error by the writer. In journalistic writing it almost invariably looks, well, snotty, suggesting an I-know-better-than-this-schlub tone. And it requires square brackets, which are contrary to the effect of conversational language that journalism seeks.

Besides, the frequency of errors by journalists in orthography, grammar, and usage, in print and online, doesn’t leave much room to take a superior tone about other people’s mistakes.

If there is an error of grammar or usage in quoted speech, publish it as it was said or paraphrase it. In quoting from a text, quote it the way it was written or paraphrase it. In academic writing, where snotty superiority is central to the game, [sic] away. 



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:43 AM | | Comments (7)

March 23, 2011

Still OK by me

When I finish reading a proof page that is error-free—it does happen—I scribble “OK” in the margin, reinforcing the use of what may be the world’s most popular word.

Today is the anniversary of the introduction of OK to the English language, as demonstrated decades ago by Allen Walker Read and chronicled last year by Allan Metcalf in his splendid OK: The Improbable Story of America’s Greatest Word (reviewed here).

Pay no attention to the other etymologies you’ll find pushing themselves forward. It was the Boston Morning Post that on March 23, 1839, used OK (a joking abbreviation for the equally joking oll korrect, “all correct”) and gave the word to the language, and it was the peculiar set of circumstances Mr. Metcalf describes that permitted it to flourish.

When we consider how much English has sluttishly appropriated from other languages, it is gratifying to see that it has also given something back. Happy birthday, OK.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:45 PM | | Comments (21)

E-mail, email, anal

Last week, I twitted the Associated Press Stylebook over the shift from e-mail to email, along with the overheated response from copy editors.* Not everyone was amused: @Vonnestar tweeted, “No, AP changes aren't the most important thing in the world, but you don't have to be an ass about it, @johnemcintyre.”

I’m not sure that she grasps my mission.

Arnold Zwicky, however, did, commenting on his blog:

“As a practicing copyeditor, McIntyre is entitled to his mocking hyperbole. I share his sentiments entirely; this is not even a tempest in a teapot, it’s a fuss in a thimbleful of spit, a matter of no consequence at all.

“And, as McIntyre understands, the AP Stylebook (or Style Book, or whatever) has no scintilla of the force of law and is often profoundly silly in its blanket declarations. So the astonishing response that this change in advice has elicited on the web is dismaying.

“Please do not write to tell me that my practice of spelling the word E-MAIL rather than EMAIL is now simply incorrect (or, worse, and incomprehensibly, ‘ungrammatical’) and that I should be publicly shamed. There are justifications for both spellings, and why should there have to be One Right Way, and anyway why should anyone care?”

You should have a look at his posting, because he goes into some detail about the phenomenon of “two-part expressions as separated, hyphenated, or solid.” Anyone who pays any attention at all to the language is aware that variants—he pointedly suggests copy editor, copy-editor, and copyeditor—often exist simultaneously, depending on the habits and preferences of different communities. It is largely a matter of taste whether you or your publication prefers one, not a point of correctness. Associated Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, tomato, tomahto.**

I should warn you, however, that you who prefer hyphens may wish to guard your supply. A post today at The Subversive Copy Editor indicates that some behind-closed-doors deal between Chicago and AP is in the works. I won’t go so far as to say that it amounts to a combination in restraint of trade, but someone ought to alert the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division.


*Copy editors are the only people on the planet, Associated Press writers and editors not excluded, who pay any attention to what AP style is, or care.

**Someone suggested last week that when the American Copy Editors Society convenes in New Orleans in 2012, it should offer a smackdown between Chicago and AP. This is a splendid idea. I am confident that Carol Fisher Saller could take David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, either singly or together. If wagering is permitted, I will put money on it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:08 AM | | Comments (13)

March 22, 2011

Play ball

Andrew Zaleski, a senior at Loyola University Maryland who is serving as an intern on The Sun’s copy desk this semester, commented in his blog this week on a construction in sports articles that he finds annoying:

“The [insert team's name] return [insert player's name] for a second season.”

The reason: I have never heard even the most avid sports-buff friends of mine use “return” as a verb in the above context. People will say “Mike Vick is coming back for a second season,” or “Mike Vick returns for a second season,” or “Mike Vick will be returning,” but never do I hear people say “The Eagles return Mike Vick.” My next question, upon hearing that, is to ask where they are returning him. To the supermarket? The department store? Outside the NFL draft, is there a special store that houses players in hermetically-sealed packaging before throwing them on an AstroTurf field to live their lives in states of football-induced concussive bliss?

Jargon, whether specialized terms or constructions that vary from standard written English, serves two purposes. It expresses specialized meanings that cannot easily or conveniently be rendered in common language, and it identifies the writer and the reader who grasps it as being member of an in-group.

Sports stories are regularly written for fans—a non-fan can sometimes read half a dozen or more paragraphs in a sports story without being able to identify what sport is being played. And that is what the audience wants, to be on the inside, to be in the know.* If you ever listen to sports talk radio, you understand that any given fan knows better how to run the team than the current management.

The trick for the editor of this copy is to recognize which examples of jargon are apt to convey to the reader that cosy feeling of being in the know, and which are merely annoying tics. Mr. Zaleski has fastened on one that looks like the latter.


*The same thing holds true for a good deal of political reporting, which, rather than dwelling tediously on policies and what their impact on the reader might be, prefers to focus on the excitement of who’s up and who’s down today Significantly, much political coverage is referred to within the business as “horse racing” or “insider baseball.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:55 AM | | Comments (13)

March 21, 2011

Belly up to the bar

The word of the week is sagacity.

The joke of the week is "Single Malt."



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (18)

March 20, 2011

Be well

I was saving valetudinarian, the term for a person unusually anxious about his or her health, for the weekly word feature at, but Sunday seemed like a better day for it.

In my parish, the sharing of hand sanitizer, instituted in apprehension of a bad flu season, has become a ritual gesture, like crossing oneself at the benediction. As people line up for Communion, they pause to pump a little sanitizer and rub it in.

Never mind that there is little or no hazard of contracting anything from the bread and wine, or that the exchange of germs has already taken place during the handshakes and hugs at the sign of the peace.* The sanitizer is put out there before Communion, and they use it because they’re used to using it and want to preserve their good health.

Little rituals like this are the stuff of the valetudinarian’s life. As an example, you may recall old Mr. Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma, whose querulous concern about even a light fall of snow and the danger of contracting a chill mark him as the type. You can distinguish a valetudinarian from a hypochondriac; the latter imagines himself to have an illness, while the former is apprehensive about contracting one.

As we boomers age, you can expect the see the valetudinarian population multiply, given our self-regard, our obsessive consumption of vitamins and other nutritional supplements,** and our expectation that we can evade the common fate of humanity.

The word valetudinarian shows that language can display a nice sense of irony. It derives from the Latin valetudo, health, and valere, “be well.” Do put a sweater on. It’s only in the low 50s in Baltimore today, spring not quite having arrived, and you don’t want to catch your death.


*A word to those who intinct—that is, dip the bread into the wine instead of drinking from the cup. People’s hands are dirtier than their mouths; if you prefer intinction out of sanitary concerns, you are misguided. Even if you use the sanitizer.

**Americans, my biology major roommate used to say, have the most expensive urine in the world.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:58 PM | | Comments (28)

March 18, 2011


When the word went out today that the editors of The Associated Press Stylebook would announce changes in AP style at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, the nation ground to a halt.

Factories suspended production. Police and fire departments called in employees on overtime. Members of the Cabinet were summoned to the White House. Knots of anxious civilians gathered in the streets to speculate worriedly on the decisions about to be handed down. Some ducked into bars for fortification.

And then the tweets began scattering across the Twitterverse:

E-mail will become email as of 3 a.m. EDT on March 19, 2011.

The sensation that this announcement sparked cannot be described.

But there was more.

Cell phone and smart phone fuse into single words.

Gasps go up from the crowd in Times Square.

And in Britain, where they are apparently able to take these things with less commotion, @guardianstyle comments: “Early reaction to that #apstyle about-turn on email: ‘I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.’ "

No doubt other earth-shattering changes will appear this spring when the 2011 edition of the stylebook comes out. Until then, brown paper bags will be distributed to those hyperventilating over the initial announcement.

Hopefully, the next post here will be able to return to issues that matter.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:37 PM | | Comments (24)

March 17, 2011

New York Times, let's talk turkey

So, I see, The New York Times has announced a transition to a digital subscription plan, with subscriptions in the United States beginning March 28.*

How about this, New York Times: You bring back the “On Language” column, and I’ll take out a digital subscription.

Do we have a deal?


*Ken doctor’s skepticism is available at Nieman Journalism Lab.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:38 PM | | Comments (0)

Product placement

While You Don’t Say reviews and recommends books, and regularly directs readers to other blogs and websites of interest, You Don’t Say does not endorse commercial products and services.

Even if it did, it would not endorse the online-Viagra and escort services spam that has been cluttering the comments recently. Comments advertising such goods and services will be deleted as they come to notice. Please disregard them.

You Don’t Say does not advise purchasing Viagra or other medications from dodgy online purveyors and suggests that you seek companionship by more conventional means.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (4)

Not everyone can be in Phoenix

This morning the American Copy Editors Society is opening its fifteenth national conference, this year in Phoenix, Arizona. To my chagrin, I am not able to attend, but I, like you, can participate vicariously.

There is a conference website at which periodic updates will be posted. And on Twitter members will be tweeting updates that you can catch under the category. #ACES2011.

I concede that it’s not a completely satisfactory substitute for attending the sessions or swapping stories at the bar, but it’s what there is. And there’s ample time for you to lay plans to attend in person rather than vicariously at New Orleans, April 12-14, 2012.

If you happen to take a drink at some point today, lift a glass in tribute to that doughty crew in Phoenix, persisting in upholding standards of editing and seeking a deeper knowledge of the craft, year after year.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 AM | | Comments (1)

March 16, 2011

The toper's holiday

Item: One of my far-flung readers appears to be puzzled about the American celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, which he thought was meant to be a feast day honoring a saint. I can illuminate the attitude.

A few years ago, my editing class at Loyola happened to fall on March 18. A week in advance, one of my students asked me to cancel class that day, because he expected to be incapacitated after the 17th. It is a day for the Irish and the wannabe Irish to jam into those faux-rustic manufactured Irish pubs that have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain, drink far too many pints,* and grow mawkish over “Danny Boy.”

There’s enough Irish in me for the thought of a pint to be attractive, but I’d just as soon give the rest of it a miss. Besides, I have to work tomorrow evening, and editing requires sobriety.


Item: I see this in a tweet from @romenesko: “Bob Woodward says Google CEO's tombstone should read, ‘I killed newspapers.’ ” No doubt I’m remiss in not going to the link to see what Mr. Woodward had to say in detail and in context.

But I know that newspapers committed suicide.


Item: A salutary reminder from Carol Fisher Saller, who writes the question-and-answer feature each month for The Chicago Manual of Style. At her blog, The Subversive Copy Editor, she points out the futility of the search for The Rule that governs every conceivable situation: “[I]f you’re knocking yourself out trying unsuccessfully to find a rule, it might be because there isn’t one. ... No style guide can be exhaustive.”

And, newspaper copy editors please note, if the 1,026-page Chicago Manual cannot answer every imaginable question, then a fortiori it’s idle for you to play Talmudist with the Associated Press Stylebook.**


Item: You may have missed it: A few days ago The Baltimore Sun published a moving letter from Julie Francis. She is the mother of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, at whose funeral the unspeakable Westboro Baptist Church picketed, and whose right to picket the Supreme Court recently upheld.

Ms. Francis said, in part: “I truly believe this is an issue of free speech. I do not like it, and I do not like the WBC, but it is free speech. ... I am glad the Supreme Court has ruled with the law, with the nation, with the Constitution. In America, you cannot take away the right of free speech, no matter how vile. I do believe our blessed Matt would feel the same way.”


*I see on the Internet comments about a cocktail called the “Irish car bomb” and suspect that there are reasons in addition to tastefulness to shun it.


**I’m unable to attend the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society, which opens tomorrow in Phoenix. The editors of the AP Stylebook are scheduled to be there in a session. Will one of you be good enough to give them a little hell on my behalf?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (10)

March 15, 2011

My prescription

The motto of Gabe Doyle’s blog Motivated Grammar is “Prescriptivism Must Die!” And yet an examination of where he and I stand suggests a fair amount of common ground.*

I quote a salient passage from his recent post, “Gentlemen prefer prescriptivists”:

“If you want to know why descriptivists oppose rule-following in the absence of any justification for the rule, you don’t have to sit there and wonder if it’s something deeper. It’s right there! The absence of justification for a rule means that it is not a valid rule and should be opposed! Sure, demanding that people follow inaccurate rules reeks of snobbery, but that takes a back seat to the fact that you’re demanding that people follow inaccurate rules.”

And this: “Truth is hard, and linguistic truth is no exception. You have a choice, and you can live in a fantasy world with one right way of writing, where grammar is a series of edicts from an out-of-date book, and people who deviate from that book are verbally lashed with sharp-tongued put-downs. You can also live in a world where you can choose among multiple acceptable ways of writing something, you can actually research your claims about language usage, and in exchange you just can’t tell everyone who doesn’t say something your way that they are a moron. If you think that the first of these two options is preferable, then maybe you deserve that world.”

If you look at Mr. Doyle’s posts on debunked grammar myths posted on the successive National Grammar Days of 2009, 2010, and 2011, you will find many items that have also been roundly denounced, often for decades, by prescriptivists—H.W. Fowler, Theodore Bernstein, and Bryan Garner among them. Not all—there’s plenty of room for differing opinion on usage— but many.

We who edit are expected to be prescriptive, hired to follow a house style for clarity and consistency, to meet the expectations of particular audiences, to establish a particular level of diction, and to maintain the consistency of the text within identifiable variants of standard written English.

To do that effectively, we must not substitute our judgment for that of the writer without reasons that we can articulate and justify, and, as Mr. Doyle insists, we must not be in thrall to inaccurate rules—the ones Arnold Zwicky describes as “zombie rules” that continue to lurk among us and attempt to eat our brains.


*To anyone who has questioned my credentials as a presciptivist because I have been receptive to reasonable arguments by linguists, lexicographers, and other descriptivists, I say this: If one of your texts should come under my hands, you will find very quickly how much a prescriptivist I am.


Posted by John McIntyre at 3:53 PM | | Comments (3)

March 14, 2011

I lost an hour this weekend and now it's Monday

It’s Monday. Crocuses are in bloom, and, ominously, I saw yesterday that the grass is starting to grow again. Here are a couple of amusements to distract you from the coming onslaught.

Your word of the week is bastinado

Your joke of the week involves violins (but is not a viola joke).

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:54 AM | | Comments (3)

March 13, 2011

Come on, people, keep up

Item: I regret the necessity of the annual reminder that casual references to this coming Thursday should be St. Paddy”s Day, never St. Patty’s Day, because Patrick, though regrettably Celto-Roman (i.e., English), was nevertheless a man, not a woman, and the Irish diminutive of Patrick is Paddy. Give thought for a moment why paddy wagon is a pejorative.

Item: Today’s is the second Sunday magazine of The New York Times to lack the “On Language” column. The Facebook group Keep “On Language” in the New York Times is up to 836 members. If you have not joined, or expressed your displeasure to the magazine’s editor, Hugo Lindgren ( or the paper’s ombudsman, Arthur Brisbane (, or the editor on Twitter (@nytkeller), then you are not holding up your end.

And if you have already written, today would be an excellent time to remind them all that you are still here and still angry. Ecrasez l’infame.

Item: Interested in getting into copy editing? Stop snickering; I’m serious. Carol Fisher Saller has some advice.

Item: “I guess what’s happened is that what used to be a shockword has become a noise that’s supposed to intensify the emotion in what you’re saying,” writes Ursula K. Le Guin in an essay on our excessive fondness for employing the most versatile of the Anglo-Saxon verbs. Worth reading for the opening paragraph alone.

Item: Dilemma, from the Greek di, “twice,” lemma, “premise,” in the strictest sense is a choice between two equally appalling options: Scylla and Charybdis, the devil and the deep blue sea, Keeping Up with the Kardashians and The Apprentice. Casual usage has cheapened it into a mere synonym for problem or perplexity.

One of my correspondents has recently discovered something worse than casual usage: the belief that the word is spelled dilemna. It is not only a mistake; it is a mistake that appears to have been taught.

Item: I am not making this up, you know: Speaking yesterday in Manchester, New Hampshire, Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, the light bulb populist,  said: “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord.” She had said much the same thing in a speech the evening before.

Apparently history can join spelling as one of our neglected subjects.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:14 AM | | Comments (14)

March 12, 2011

Skip the team talk; there's work to be done

Back in 2000, when newspapers still had money, I was flown out to California to spend a week in a Times Mirror leadership program for managers.

There was no ropes course, thank God, but we did have to blindfold ourselves and stumble around in some group exercise whose purpose I no longer remember. We had to figure out how to get our parties across the “water” in a variant on the old man-transporting-a-fox-and-a-chicken puzzle. And , though Myers-Briggs claptrap strikes me as what people in Mensa believe in rather than astrology, I can tell you with utter confidence that you should never, never, never assemble a team in which everyone is a J.

No doubt my lifelong distaste for all forms of athletic endeavor, compounded by being herded into an auditorium in high school to hear excruciating motivational exhortations by coaches, accounts for my lack of enthusiasm for corporate team building charades. I don’t wear T-shirts with slogans or polo shirts with logos, and games are for children or parties at which liquor is served.

Let me suggest to you what it takes for a manager to foster a properly functioning team.

First off, you build a team by doing the team’s work, the way an orchestra becomes a team by playing the music in rehearsal, not by pretending to be ninjas.

The manager actually does that work. He (picking an arbitrary pronoun) may not know how to perform all the tasks for which the team is responsible, but he knows some of them and performs them, working alongside the other members of the team.

He sees to it that the members of the team have the resources they need to do the work: training, equipment, supplies.

He gets rid of the Successories posters his predecessor hung on the walls and instead rewards high performance with money.

He also rewards high performance with public and private recognition.

He takes responsibility for his decisions and his mistakes, and he holds the members of the team accountable for theirs.

He spouts only the corporate cant that he is absolutely compelled to, and is otherwise honest with the members of the team.

He encourages voluntary (emphasis intended) activities outside work—potlucks, picnics, outings, after-work drinks—in which co-workers can relax in one another’s company.

He is a buffer between the team and the weasels and inflexible authoritarians elsewhere in the operation.

The thing to aim for is esprit de corps, not Little League.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:00 AM | | Comments (31)

March 11, 2011

Jam cake time

My older sister, Georgia McIntyre, sent me an excellent jam cake from Ruth Hunt Candies in Winchester, Kentucky, for my birthday. It was as good as my grandmother’s. (Better, actually; it included bourbon.) By coincidence, she later came across my grandmother’s recipe for the cake and the caramel icing, which I am prepared to share with you.

But first the preliminaries.

My grandmother made her own blackberry jam each summer, and I don’t have a recipe for that. Besides, you wouldn’t want to attempt it with those flavorless, overpriced blackberries that you find in the supermarket.

More to the point, her recipe, like that of women of her generation, is essentially a list of ingredients. You’re supposed to know how to combine them, how long to bake and at what temperature, and things like that. I’m providing all the information I have; perhaps the experienced cooks among you will comment with advice.

Finally, my wife thinks that the cake recipe is enough for one layer, and a proper jam cake has two.


Clara Rhodes Early’s Jam Cake with Caramel Icing

Jam Cake

½ cup butter

2 ½ cups flour

2 eggs

1 ½ cup sugar

1 cup buttermilk

½ cup jam

½ cup raisins

½ cup nuts

1 t. cinnamon

1 t. soda (in milk)



2 cups brown sugar

1 cup white sugar

2 tbls. butter

2 tbls. white syrup

2/3 cup cream

Soft ball


Beat until creamy


I have previously shared my grandmother’s recipe for sour cream cookies and my mother’s recipe for bourbon balls.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:35 AM | | Comments (6)

March 10, 2011

Editing, the subtle pleasure

A couple of weeks ago someone addressed this tweet to me: “@johnemcintyre It must be tough, having a job that makes you so unhappy.”

It wasn’t immediately apparent which of my many remarks this referred to, but I think the writer misunderstands the satisfaction that a cranky and irritable personality derives from the quiet joys of editing.*

For newspaper copy editors, among whose ranks I have joyfully punched the DELETE button for more than thirty years, grousing is both a recreation and an art form. We are employed to be skeptical. We are engaged to ferret out error, and when we discover it, we are like a trained dog that has scratched up a truffle. We savor, hoard, and chuckle over the riper excesses that we remedy. And if our accomplishment is sometimes to render the execrable merely mediocre, we have done all that could be done with it.

We are as a class, as Flanders and Swann sang of the English, “clever and modest and misunderstood.”

Being misunderstood, we sometimes let out a good round oath or snicker among ourselves at the poseurs, the hacks, the fancied prose artists, the logorrheoids,** the blockhead managers, and all others who, deliberately or ignorantly, obstruct our godly task.***

I can explain to civilians how that task satisfies. You may find doing the laundry a chore, but you probably enjoy the smell and feel of clean sheets at bedtime. You may find vacuuming and dusting laborious, but it is good to stand and look around a clean and orderly room. Editing is cleaning up and establishing order.

When I call up an article, or when I lay a proof page on the desk and reach for a pencil, I am confident that by the time I get to the last paragraph, I will have identified careless slips, corrected inconsistencies, resolved perplexities, smoothed the rough places, and made the crooked straight. On publication, that article, on a page on the website or in the print edition, will display row after row of orderly sentences, a path the reader can negotiate without tripping.

There are times—the reporter files twenty-six column inches of type for a space that will accommodate no more than twelve—when I must be, as a reporter once called my first news editor, Bob Johnson, “the Texas chainsaw editor.” But when I wield the scalpel to excise excrescences and sharpen the focus, I can accomplish what a critic once told me about my editing of a review: “It says what I mean better than I said it.”

So, please, no tears for me over my three decades of the most congenial work I’ve ever done. If you hear a little grumbling or growling, that’s just the sound of the engine at work.


*Please, reader, do not think that I am universalizing. Carol Fisher Saller and Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, among others who regularly read these dispatches, offer editorial advice so unfailingly calm and irenic as to shame us lesser, cross-grained mortals.

**From logorrhea (logos “word” + rhoia “flow’), a twentieth-century coinage for a tendency toward unrestrained loquacity. I trust I need not mention what word it resembles.

***Oh, I should mention: Sometimes we like something.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (10)

March 9, 2011

Whose pronoun is it?

Writing last week at Throw grammar from the train, Jan Freeman pointed out that National Grammar Day has become International Grammar Day, what with interest from Johnson, the language blog of The Economist.

After praising this year’s “Grammarnoir” series (too kind, too kind), which also had an international component, she went on to throw her weight back of the inanimate whose, the subject of a simmering debate at Visual Thesaurus, and of the doughty Erin Brenner, who challenged a couple of writers who insisted, against all evidence, that constructions like “an idea whose time has come” are illegitimate.

Ms. Freeman writes that Ms. Brenner, after providing ample evidence of longstanding usage, “isn’t asking us readers if it's wrong; she has shown that it ISN’T wrong. She asked if we cared to use it ourselves. We are free to avoid it, or any other usage, but there are simply no factual grounds for calling it an error.”

Then there’s some muttering about “reading actual literature instead of dodgy usage advice” before she attempts to regain her good humor in the face of implacable peevery.

So let’s stay clear. You can prefer to restrict whose to animate beings, just as you can decline to use that in referring to human beings, but these little preferences do not have the force of law and in fact ignore centuries of usage by responsible writers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 PM | | Comments (2)

Obloquy as a hobby

Samuel Johnson had high praise for Lord Bathurst: “Dear Bathurst,” he said, “was a man to my very heart’s content; he hated a fool, and he hated a rogue, and he hated a whig—he was a very good hater.”

Though risking an accusation of self-aggrandizement, I have to say that I am no amateur at hating myself.

Once, visiting Columbus to lead workshops many years after leaving Ohio, I took advantage of the opportunity to spit on the statue of James Rhodes near the Capitol.

I once did considerable business with an outfit called The Readers’ Subscription. When the company changed hands, the bastards cheated me out of a bonus book I was entitled to and answered my inquiries with a series of idiotic form letters. If they have gone into bankruptcy and their children and grandchildren must forage in Dumpsters behind fast-food restaurants for sustenance, then it is no more than they deserve.

I mention this because until very recently I had no knowledge of an employee of The New York Times named Hugo Lindgren, who edits its magazine. No doubt Mr. Lindgren is a fine fellow—washes his hands before leaving the loo, never types two spaces after a period, returns his library books on time. I have no reason whatever to think that he might swear at schoolchildren or tip stingily or shove elderly ladies into the street during his brisk, purposeful march to the office each day.

But he is the person responsible for dropping the “On Language” column from The Times, and unless he repents of his folly, and pretty damned quickly, too, he will not only find his name in the To Be Despised Perpetually column, but moved close to the top. (They would be ill-advised to put up a statue of him.)

You may want to join the 814 Facebook members of the Keep “On Language” in the New York Times group. This post lists e-mail addresses to which you may write to complain to The Times about dropping the column and urge them to reinstate it. If you do so, you may save Mr. Lindgren from an ugly fate.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:01 PM | | Comments (4)

By the way

Yesterday on Twitter @CopyCurmudgeon set off a brief exchange on parentheses: I'd rather have too many em dashes than too many parentheticals. Parentheses say, "Ignore me (I don't matter)."

Responses came quickly from @Your_Wordsworth, Sometimes they're just an aside. But if the aside is important, it probably shouldn't be in parentheses* and @JuneCasagrande, Parentheses can be a 'dis to reader, too, cramming in info the writer was supposed to weave into digestible narrative.

So I thought, prone as I am to drifting off-topic in mid-sentence, I might clarify a little about parentheticals.

The most common parentheticals are appositives and other phrases or clauses set off by commas: His wife, whose first husband went out for cigarettes one night and never came back, is an accomplished cook whose coq au vin has been the centerpiece of many holiday meals.

Parentheses function as asides do in speech—you know, turning your head slightly and dropping your voice. His editing (they say he’s known to take a drink in the daytime) gets increasingly erratic by midafternoon.

And the em dash, with spaces on either side or not, as your house style dictates, is intended to indicate a sharp break in continuity: They don’t understand production, they make a dog’s breakfast of the coding, they might make deadline if they learned to tell time, and—damn, I didn’t think they could hear me.

You notice that this sequence, commas, parentheses, dashes, is a pattern of increasing interruption of the flow of the text. But not everyone honors it.

Newspaper journalists are in the unfortunate habit of using parentheses where brackets would be appropriate for interpolated information, a nasty habit encouraged by the Associated Press. And they are so dash-happy that they use dashes all the time and everywhere, cluttering the page and diluting the effect.

If you’re an editor, experiment with replacing the reporter’s em dashes with commas. I think you’ll find that it makes the text easier to read and also gains you a few lines when you need to cut.




Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (10)

March 8, 2011

Dearly beloved ...

As the Maryland General Assembly has wrestled with a bill that would redefine marriage, The Baltimore Sun’s Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey have wrestled with what to call the bill as they report on the debate.

The bill is formally called the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Civil marriage, of course, we already have. You pay the state a fee for a license to marry, the marriage is attested to by a qualified civil or religious authority, and you are in business with rights and responsibilities for children (if any), property, insurance, and a whole set of other legal statuses.*

The question is whether civil marriage, now defined legally as between a man and a woman, is to be extended to couples of two men or two women. Religious marriage, however it is understood by church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, doesn’t enter into it.

Calling it civil marriage, however, is problematic because of the potential confusion with civil union, which would be an equivalent of civil marriage not called marriage.

Proponents of the bill under consideration like to refer to marriage equality, because equality sounds like a good thing to everybody. They would prefer that to the other terms commonly used, same-sex marriage and gay marriage. I presume that their preference for the euphemistic term rises from their knowledge of the emotionally negative—irrational—reaction that some people have to homosexuality.**

But extending secular marriage rights to same-sex couples or gay couples, whichever term you prefer, is precisely what the bill is about.

So Ms. Bykowicz and Ms. Linskey quote proponents using the language they prefer and quote opponents using the language they prefer, and when writing neutrally about the bill use the most readily understood and accurate terms. Whether the terms same-sex marriage and gay marriage are aesthetically pleasing is immaterial; they are accurately descriptive, and they’re what we’ve got to work with.


*There are people who will argue that marriage is all about procreation. They are mistaken. If I may repeat myself, and frankly, you can’t stop me, people who think that marriage is not about property have never read Jane Austen.

**There is also difficulty with the term the other side uses, traditional marriage. Which tradition? The polygamous arrangements of the Hebrew patriarchs and kings of Israel? Arranged marriages? First cousins or not? Divorce permitted or prohibited? The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act? Marriage with concubinage? With mistresses? The marriage-divorce-marriage-divorce-marriage pattern that some anthropologists call serial polygamy? Dowries?


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (11)

March 7, 2011

What the encyclopedia salesman saw

Your joke of the week is about a door-to-door salesman.

Your word of the week is maladroit.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:12 AM | | Comments (1)

March 6, 2011

First Sunday without "On Language"

You have by now, even if you’re a slugabed, had a chance to glance at the Sunday New York Times and its excitingly redesigned magazine. And you will have noticed that “On Language” is missing from it.

These are people you can write to if you wish to criticize this shockingly bad decision (Complain, send, repeat):

NYT Magazine letters to the editor:

NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren:

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane:

You may also want to add your name to the growing crowd on the Keep “On Language” in the New York Times site on Facebook. (Nearly up to 800.)

As for me, I’ve written to Bill Keller, the editor of The Times. This dealing with underlings does not seem to be getting us anywhere.

I suggest that you do the same.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:39 PM | | Comments (3)

March 5, 2011

Nobody cares you're an editor

One of the illuminations that Hugo Lindgren has brought to the redesigned New York Times Magazine, in addition to a cover logo that “has shifted to the left and grown 20 percent in size,” is the practice of crediting editors of the articles.

This strikes me, an editor, as a Bad Idea, but I’ll give it a little thought beyond the first reaction.

All right, we’ll credit the originating editor, who worked closely with the writer on the article. That makes sense. Of course, the executive editor, who saw and did not like an early draft and demanded a completely different approach, ought to be mentioned. Oh, and the copy editor, who meticulously went through the text and regularized the punctuation and corrected the spelling, and made the subjects agree with the verbs and attended to the other little chores that the originating editor was too busy to dirty his hands with—shouldn’t a little credit be distributed there? Then there’s the slot editor who pointed out that the chronology was out of order. And the proofreader, who noticed that the article MISSPELLED THE SUBJECT’S NAME THROUGHOUT.

At a newspaper, even a minor article can pass through several hands before publication, and a major article will have many fingerprints on it. Apportioning editorial credit is at best a misleading indication of how this collective effort is conducted.

But that is not the most substantial objection to credits for editors. The major one is this: Readers don’t care who the editor was.

For that matter, readers often don’t care who the author was, because readers are not mesmerized by the cult of the byline.

Oh, readers remember the names of a few writers, some favorites they have grown used to, or the ones who write in the subjects they follow closely. But in the main, readers tend not to notice who wrote most of the articles in the publication. It is only the pitiable vanity of newspaper reporters that makes a byline strike possible—the misguided belief that withholding their names from their articles is injurious to the publication and gives them leverage in a dispute.

What such credits do accomplish is mainly to add to clutter in the text.*

What I write here on the blog bears my name, and I take responsibility for it. What I edit for The Sun is part of the collective institutional utterance of the publication. I do not need to carve my initials in it.


*One recent Sun article carried, in addition to the byline, a shirttail at the end with the names of half a dozen members of the staff who had contributed to the coverage. I’m pretty sure that in cutting the thirty lines required to make the article fit the space, I preserved the names of the contributors while excising their contributions.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:33 PM | | Comments (14)


The editorial page in this morning’s Baltimore Sun quotes a line of “The Star-Spangled Banner” thus: “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave.” But Francis Scott Key wrote “O say.”

Oh is an exclamation by which a number of emotional reactions—surprise, disappointment, anger, excitement—can be expressed. O is used in direct address, as in a prayer.* “The Star-Spangled Banner,” in addressing the listener, uses the latter form.

To keep the distinction in mind, think how “O God” differs from “Oh God”:

“O God, give me strength to endure these minor frustrations calmly.”

“Oh God, I’ve locked my keys in the car again.”


*In Baltimore, of course, the O’s has quite a different sense.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (8)

March 4, 2011

That Libyan strongman

Do not fret over the way you render the name of Libya’s longtime ruler. He Who Cannot Be Spelled has more variant transliterations from the Arabic than there are loopy anti-evolution measures pending in our state legislatures.

You can use Gadhafi, as the AP/Tribune/WSJ do; Qaddafi, after NYT; Khaddify, like NBC news; or your own fanciful concoction.

There are three things to keep in mind.

1. The lack of a universally accepted system of transliteration from Arabic makes multiple versions inevitable.

2. No matter which choice you make, no one is going to mistake whom you’re writing about, so just pick one and be consistent.

3. Once the armed people around him decide that, like Caligula, he is no longer of use to them, we will be able to stop writing about him altogether.



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

Grammarnoir 3: The wages of syntax, Part 4

GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax Part 4:

The mother tongue

Professor Luce looked bewildered; I looked at the sharp piece of metal near my vitals; Amber moved next to Rebecca.

“All right, blossom,” I said, “what’s this little dumbshow all about?”

“We have had our eyes on you for some time, and this masquerahd with my sister was a means to get you into our hands. Indeed, you fell into them like a piece of overripe fruit.”

“ ‘MasquerAHD?’ How’d you make your voice do that? And who in Fowler’s name are ‘we’?”

“We, you cretinous twit, are the Queen’s English Society. Unable to stanch the flow of your barbarous locutions to our once-fair isle, we have determined to re-colonise America and restore the Mother Tongue.”

“Babe, that’s crazy talk.”

“To effectuate this, it becomes necessary to neutralise likely obstacles. While you and your pathetic ‘blogging’—execrable word—are fundamentally insignificant, you have nevertheless shown potential as an irritant. So the decision was taken to remove you.”

“You’re spelling all those –ize verbs with an s, aren’t you?”

“We shall see how long your feeble witticisms persist after a few months at our re-education camp at Tunbridge Wells.”

“I think not,” I said, plucking a pica pole from the professor’s desk and bringing it down, hard, on her wrist. The copy spike fell to the floor.

Then Amber, little Amber, grabbed her sister’s hand and twisted her arm behind her back.”

“ ’Ello, ’ello, ’ello, what’s all this now?” came a voice at the door. It was a bobby, damn my eyes, followed by a figure in a trench coat and battered fedora.

“Who the hell might you be?” I asked.

Taking a pipe from his mouth, Trench Coat said, “Fabian, of the Yard.”

“Scotland Yard, here?”

“Just so. We’ve had our eye on the Queen’s English Society for some time, and the younger Miss Wurd Smith here tipped us to her elder sister’s activities and the society’s machinations. Her Majesty’s government feel, particularly in light of the difficulties with America during Lord North’s ministry, that the society’s plans were ill-conceived. And so my colleague here, the one with the handcuffs, will be taking Miss Rebecca Wurd Smith into custody.”

“It’s a fair cop,” I said.

“Quite,” said Fabian of the Yard.


 The End


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:46 AM | | Comments (14)

March 3, 2011

How to pronounce it, Part 2, revived

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:28 PM | | Comments (2)

How to pronounce it, Part 1, revived

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:28 PM | | Comments (0)

How to make a martini, revived

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:26 PM | | Comments (0)

How to tie a bow tie, revived

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:26 PM | | Comments (1)

National Grammar Day is tomorrow

Naturally you will want to tune in for the thrilling conclusion of “GRAMMARNOIR 3: The wages of syntax,” which will be posted tomorrow morning.

And you will want to see what is going on at the official National Grammar Day website.

And because language and intelligent commentary on language are important to you, you will want to know more about the status of Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” column in The New York Times, which was first eighty-sixed, and then, after the outcry became audible on the ramparts where Hugo Lindgren, the editor of the magazine, operates, was put on “hiatus.” If you have not complained about this deeply misguided decision, here are addresses to which you may, and should, write. If you have already written, and are curious what The Times means by “hiatus,” today or tomorrow would be an excellent time to make that language inquiry.

NYT Magazine letters to the editor:

NYT Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren:

NYT public editor Arthur Brisbane:

Beyond that, tomorrow, as always, don’t correct people’s grammar or pronunciation publicly. That’s rude. You’re allowed personal tastes and preferences, but harboring and feeding pet peeves is not healthy. Respect the dialects of English you don’t use yourself. Watch out for shibboleths; they’re everywhere, and they’ll trip you up. Learn a new word every chance you get. Honor and esteem people like Ben Zimmer and Jan Freeman and Mignon Fogarty and the merry band at Language Log and all the others who write about English with intelligence, affection, and force.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:49 AM | | Comments (10)

March 2, 2011

It's not just Charlie Sheen that's nuts

A moron in Tennessee has introduced a bill in the state Senate that would make observance of Sharia law a felony.

Sen. Bill Ketron’s measure exempts peaceful practices of the Islamic legal code but does say that adherence to it is treasonous and requires the state attorney general to investigate groups that comply with Sharia.

So presumably Muslims who pray or wash before praying or observe the Islamic dietary code, though not necessarily jailed, would be subject to investigation by the state, along with their mosques and clergy.

A moron in Missouri has introduced a bill banning observance of Sharia law in that state.

Rep. Paul Curtman says, “This legislation will help make it clear the constitution and laws of our country are the only laws that should be considered when governing our citizens in our country.”

It is not easy to tell from the available evidence whether these gentlemen are sincere about these idiotic proposals or whether they are cynically advancing them for political gain in confidence that the courts will eventually strike down their unconstitutional and fatuous statutes.

But while they are at it, if Mr. Ketron and Mr. Curtman are concerned about alien Semitic law codes infiltrating the United States, perhaps they should consider banning observance of the Mosaic code as well and demanding raids on the synagogues.

The Constitution prohibits any religious test for public office. But perhaps we should consider imposing a saliva test.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:07 AM | | Comments (17)

March 1, 2011

The week that is

Item: The word of the week, if you missed it yesterday, is philtrum. You may not have been aware that you have one.

Item: This work week culminates Friday in National Grammar Day. The pulse-pounding conclusion to “Grammarnoir 3: The wages of syntax” is only one of the events to mark the day. Check out others here.

Item: Don’t tell me that your outrage is spent over the cancellation of the “On Language” column by The New York Times. “Johnson,” the language blog of The Economist, has weighed in on the scandal, and there are hints that The Times may be rethinking the decision. Give them a push.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:48 PM | | Comments (4)

Write like people, not like newspapers

One of the recurring annoyances in Associated Press style is its comfort with non-conversational English. Why the AP is comfortable with writing that sounds unlike the way any speaker of English (at least any non-journalist speaker of English) speaks or writes continues to baffle me.

One example: Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. I don’t know anyone who would say or write Sen. Barbara Mikulski, Democrat, Maryland, said … or worse, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, dee, em-dee, said… . Most people would write Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat.

The abbreviations are handy and perfectly acceptable in charts, but charts are not sentences. Written sentences follow the patterns, conventions, and rhythms of spoken language.* That the Associated Press, and the publications that slavishly follow its style, continue to embrace a newspaperese that is increasingly alien to the speech of readers, and unlike the kind of writing they prefer to read, may help to explain why readers have turned elsewhere.


*I will stipulate that there are documents, medical, scientific, technical, and legal, that are not intended to sound like the productions of human beings.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (7)
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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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