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May 31, 2011

Going, going, gone missing

A colleague tells me that one of The Sun’s readers asked him why we use the constructions go missing and went missing, instead of disappeared or vanished.

I wrote about went missing four years ago, but apparently it is still getting up people’s noses. People like the late James. J. Kilpatrick. Perhaps because it is originally a British expression, like “getting up one’s nose.”

The thing to be said for it is that it is a neutral term, which I think must be why the police seem to have grown fond of it. Missing people may have been abducted, or fled the jurisdiction, or merely wandered off. If you don’t know how they came to be missing, using the least alarmist term is appropriate.

The objection that went missing makes no syntactical sense is persuasive only if you deny the existence of idioms. If you go free, where is free? How do you go one better? Or have a go at? If you understand to go missing as being absent for reasons unknown, then you can’t complain that it makes no sense, merely that you do not find it aesthetically satisfying. Well, hard cheddar.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:13 PM | | Comments (18)

Joke of the week: "You Can't Take It With You"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:04 AM | | Comments (1)

May 28, 2011

Wackadoodle dandy

There is, I discover, a website for an organization called the Flat Earth Society, advocating what you would expect such a society to advocate. I would like to assume that it’s a put-on, attracting people like the wags at the Journal of Irreproducible Results. But in modern America, you can’t be confident of such a surmise, lest you discover that legislators in Texas and Tennessee are introducing bills to demand that the science textbooks give equal time to the theory that Earth is a flat disc, wackadoodlery being endemic in the Republic, like Ebola in Gabon.

The Rapture not having occurred on schedule—was it only a week ago?—Harold Camping has recalculated his timetable, promising that the actual End Time will arrive in October. We’ll see if his followers have any savings left to advertise this date.

Meanwhile, if your interest lies in cranks who comb texts for hidden codes and clues, there is a website that will direct you to some of the more noted exponents of the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare industry. (One of my favorites is that Christopher Marlowe, fatally stabbed in a tavern brawl in 1593, was busily scribbling acts and scenes twenty years afterward. But, as always, let your own taste be your guide.)

An article in Sunday’s editions of The Sun quotes the comedian Lewis Black—to the extent that he can be quoted in a daily newspaper—as saying that the Democrats are the party of no ideas and the Republicans are the party of bad ideas. I think that, on the whole, he is correct, but they sometimes switch sides. The Republicans’ proud endorsement of Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare scheme, the Democratic demagogy that followed, and the Republican candidates’ edging away from the Ryan plan are but the start of the delicious twists and turns we can expect over the next several months as members of both parties shrink from difficult choices.

And in Maryland, the state Board of Physicians has suspended the license of Dr. Mark Geier for using the drug Lupron to treat autism, which he believes to be the result of mercury in vaccines. Lupron, in one of its approved uses, chemically castrates sex offenders. And the governor has fired Dr. Geier’s son, David Geier, from the Commission on Autism. (We should probably check to see how much pertussis has resulted from Jenny McCarthy’s evidence-proof views on the supposed link between vaccination and autism.)

I must be a fair wackadoodle myself, posting this late at night on a holiday weekend when no one but other wackadoodles would be online. (NOTE: For wackadoodle, see Mr. Safire, back before The New York Times allowed a wackadoodle editor to drop the language column.) 



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 PM | | Comments (22)

May 27, 2011

It's Friday, and I can't be bothered

It is the second ninety-plus-degree day in Baltimore in a row, and the Spring Pollen Offensive, which seemed finally to have left off, threw in a fresh division yesterday. Moreover, I have five sections to oversee during the next ten hours.

So, instead of something original, you’re getting served something about the writing life warmed over from The Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes:

George Watson on William Empson: “Revision claimed him. He had to revise until his prose ceased to bore even him. ‘I still have to put in the careless ease,’ he once remarked, sitting by the pond in his Hampstead garden, when I reproached him gently for not collecting his essays. ‘The careless ease always goes in last.’ ”

While you are unlikely to have a pond in Hampstead to linger by, I hope, as our long holiday weekend begins, that you at least have a cool place and a restorative beverage. You have my leave to put in the careless ease next week.



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

May 26, 2011

Worker, know your tools

In a sensible article at this week on the uses of stylebooks, Jojo Malig opened with a mention of a journalism instructor who had his students copy out the Associated Press Stylebook by hand, the better to grasp the details of AP style.

Not ever having taken a journalism course myself, I know only indirectly about malpractice in journalism schools—from the people who tell me that students are still being taught how to count headlines by hand (as if a navigation class demanded proficiency with the astrolabe) or from the evidence of writers who continue to uphold the bogus split-verb prohibition.

I’d like to think that the stylebook-copying instructor is apocryphal, or retired, or cavorting in the company of the blessed rather than wasting his students’ time and wrists.

Yes, anyone who uses a stylebook should have a working knowledge of the basics policies on capitalization, abbreviation, numbers, and the like. But stylebooks contain information that you will need once or twice a year, or once every three or four years, or never. That’s why they are reference books; you are meant to look things up when you need to. Imagine an instructor requiring students to copy out the dictionary to improve their orthography, or the almanac to increase their store of general knowledge.

Better to know the purpose of a reference book or website, what matters it covers, and how it is organized. When you have a question, you want to get to the place that will furnish an answer with the minimum of time and frustration.

Reserve the space in your head for the things you must urgently need to know day to day. Everything else you can look up.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:17 PM | | Comments (13)

May 25, 2011

Obama fake birth certificate Britney Spears' nude pics

Over the years I’ve been engaged to judge headline competitions involving other publications, and it is almost always dispiriting. You riffle through a sheaf of samples of what the publications consider their best work, only to discover obvious puns and plays on advertising slogans.

My long-suffering colleague Phillip Blanchard encountered just that phenomenon, commenting on it earlier today on Facebook:

The winner of a major newspaper's internal headline award -- we're not saying who -- “‘bowled over’ the judges with her ability to transform the pun into literary metaphor. ‘Snappy,’ ‘sophisticated’ and ‘layered’ were some of the adjectives used to describe gems such as ‘Claire buoyant’ on a profile of actress Claire Daines; ‘Toto recall’ on a spate of ‘Wizard of Oz’-themed movie projects; and ‘Do fence me in,’ about a Texas museum dedicated to barbed wire.”

Punning on people’s names is childish, associating Toto with The Wizard of Oz is likely the first association that came into the headline writer’s mind (Always be suspicious of your first idea), and “Do fence me in”? Puh-leese.*

In a recent article in The Atlantic, David Wheeler bemoaned and deplored the death of the witty headline in the age of Search Engine Optimization. (For you civilians, that means writing the kind of headline that will be noticed by Google algorithms and put your story high among the search results.) He should know better, because the pathetic examples Mr. Blanchard quotes are just the sort of fancied wit you typically get.

There is a reason for SEO headlines, and it is a good one. Print headlines come with a context. They are on a page, often with an accompanying photo and a secondary headline that establish that context. That’s is where a clever headline, if it is genuinely clever, has an impact. But increasingly the people who come to your article electronically are not doing so from a home page. They are discovering your work through a search engine or a link from another page. That means the six to eight or so words in your main headline are bare, without context, and your wit is unlikely to ignite.

The best SEO headline is a straightforward, clear, factual, informative headline.** There was a time early on when people writing headlines for electronic publication would just fling a handful of keywords at the top of the page to draw the attention of Google or Yahoo. The headline on this post is one such example. The search engines got wise to that and started to filter that stuff out. Headlines are still written for human readers, not for robots, and intelligibility is not a quality to scorn.



*I do not come before you as one without sin. My first citation for a headline, in an in-house memo at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, was for “Bakery break-in yields no dough.” And once, in an article for The Sun on the enduring popularity of the Malayan dagger, I wrote, “A kris is still a kris.” All have fallen short, &c., &c.

**A reader, responding to a previous remark advocating SEO headlines, pointed out that I don’t write them for these blog posts. Such is my whim.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:24 PM | | Comments (15)

The rebel yell

Really, all my carping about substandard prose has got to have a bad effect on you and me both. I should Make An Effort now and again to point out that there are Better Things. Picking up the late Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination, I find a gorgeous passage that I think you will also like:

“I cannot remember any mention whatever of history in grammar school. All we learned of the Civil War is that our principal, Miss May Russell, was taken from her bed and kissed as an infant by the notorious renegade Manse Jolly, who had, to Miss May’s great satisfaction, galloped his horse down the length of a banquet table at which Union officers were dining, collapsing it as he progressed, emptying two sixshooters into the Yankees and yodeling, ‘Root hog or die!’ This was the rebel yell that Douglas Southall Freeman gave for a recording and dropped dead at the end of. This grotesque fact would not have fazed Miss May Russell; what finer way would a gentleman wish to die? We all had to learn it: the root is pitched on a drunken high note in the flattest of whining cotton-planter’s pronunciation, the hawg is screamed in an awful way, and the aw dah is an hysterical crescendo recalling Herod’s soldiery at work on male infants. We loved squalling it, and were told to remember how the day was saved at Bull Run, when Beauregard and Johnson were in a sweat until the Sixth South Carolina Volunteers under Wade Hampton rode up on the left flank (they had assembled, in red shirts, around our own court house and marched away to Virginia to ‘The Palmyra Schottische’).”



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:17 AM | | Comments (6)

May 24, 2011

This is where you get to be a bigot

Talking this morning with Sheilah Kast on Maryland Morning, I suggested that for important matters—faith, morals, grammar—it is good to be latitudinarian,* and safe to be dogmatic about things that don’t count—not wearing brown shoes with a blue suit.

Let me enlarge a little on that.

Education in grammar and usage and the popular understanding of these matters have been damaged by the dogmatic rigidity of teachers and the peeving class: the insistence that there is only one “proper” form of English, the standard written; adherence to a set of “rules,” many of them bogus; and an implied and unwarranted belief that upholding such standards constitutes intellectual, social, and moral superiority.

Put that baldly, it sounds wacky. And so it is.

The latitudinarian recognizes that there are many Englishes, spoken and written, and many of what linguists call registers of English. You choose the register that is appropriate to the subject, the occasion, the audience, and the authenticity of your own voice. You allow other people their own voices. You recognize and accept the plasticity of language.

That doesn’t mean that you have to accept shoddy thinking or lack of clarity or outright dishonesty. And it doesn’t mean that you are prevented from speaking and writing as you choose. Some people seem to feel affronted when I tell them that whom is well on the way out or that the lie/lay distinction is nearly extinct., as if I were abridging their freedoms. They are perfectly free to stick with who/whom and lie/lay; I do myself. But they ought to acknowledge reality about the nature of the language and the people who use it.

Now we get to the good part: You get to be dogmatic about things that don’t matter. I insist that a martini is made with gin and vermouth, stirred. I’ve never worn brown shoes with a blue suit. I prefer Haydn and Mozart to Bruckner and Wagner, and I only ever listen to rap music when another motorist is generously sharing it. You may share these preferences or not, but it doesn’t matter.

Human beings have a need to maintain a sense of superiority. It would be dangerous and unwise for me to feel superior merely because I am white and male; you have seen where that leads.** The same for any sense of superiority based on religion or politics.

No, what you want to indulge is the soft bigotry of innocuous preferences.


*The Latitudinarians were seventeenth century Anglican divines who, F.L. Cross writes in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church gave relatively little importance to ”matters of dogmatic truth, ecclesiastical organization, or liturgical practice.”

**I wish I could remember the name of the gentleman who, being told that a support group for white males was being established, said that one already exists, called the United States of America.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 AM | | Comments (40)

May 23, 2011

That annoying voice on the radio

It will be mine. I recorded an interview this afternoon with Sheilah Kast for WYPR’s Maryland Morning. The interview will be broadcast tomorrow morning between 9:15 and 9:30 at 88.1 FM. It should also be available on the show’s website sometime tomorrow afternoon.

You do not, however, have to endure that annoying voice to get the word of the week, scapegrace.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:47 PM | | Comments (2)

Joke of the Week: "The Lecture"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:33 AM | | Comments (3)

May 21, 2011

Now that we're still here ...

The last time I looked out the window, the world was still there.Quite a nice one, actually. After a week of clouds and storms and chilly rain, the sun is out and the day is warm. I haven’t logged on anywhere to find how Harold Camping and his followers are rationalizing the failure of a rolling rapture across the time zones to occur, but I’m confident that their enterprise is in full swing.

“Aren’t all Christians millennialists?” a colleague asked me yesterday. Up to a point. The Parousia (Greek “presence” or “arrival”) is orthodox doctrine. Jesus is to return in glory, judge humanity, and wrap up history. Those of us in attendance at church repeat this regularly in the creeds.

But the text I was thinking of this morning as I woke and first looked out into the sunshine is a line from Auden’s aubade “Lay your sleeping head, my love”: “find the mortal world enough.”

This mortal world is what we have to work with. We can savor the beauty of a sweet spring day in Baltimore. We can flinch from the destructive power of earthquake and flood. We can struggle to repair the damage done to the world by human greed and carelessness. But this is what we have, and it is the proper focus of our attention.

You can speculate, if you like, on what is beyond it: oblivion, or a long sleep until the Last Day, or a succession of lives. Like Harold Camping and the other hard-shell millennialists through the ages, you can fall to your calculations in an effort to outwit the Lord. (Apart from the futility of the effort, there is something unsavory about the smugness of numbering oneself among a saved Elect while consigning family, friends, and all humanity to bloody destruction. Not, I think, quite Christian.)

But for me, the mortal world is enough, and the day is what you can make of it. My day is not Judgment Day but Preakness Day, and in a little while I will be going down to the plant, where we will make and ship many paragraphs.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (26)

May 20, 2011

Closing time

You heathens who are going to be left behind tomorrow when the godly are swept up into the skies, if Harold Camping has anything to say about it, will want to straighten out your terminology about the event.

Apocalypse, from the Greek for “unveiling” or “revelation,” is the umbrella term covering the whole process of Christ being revealed as the world comes to the end of time.

Eschaton is the final series of events in history, the end of the world.

Millennium is a period of a thousand years, and Christian millennialists hold that there will be a golden age of a thousand years of Christ’s rule over the earth until the end of history arrives and the universal resurrection takes place and the Last Judgment is carried out.

The Rapture is not the end of the world, oh no, not by a long shot. Dispensational pre-millennialists believe that a select group will have a dispensation sparing them from the tribulation that will precede the millennium. Those are the people expecting to be carried away before the rest of us endure appalling hardships and suffering. All for the best, though, because it comes out right at the end.

So one apocalyptic sequence goes like this (there are other interpretations of the sequence, St. John not being distinguished for clarity in the Book of Revelation): Rapture, Tribulation, Millennium, Eschaton, Last Judgment. Got it?



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:04 PM | | Comments (11)

Shall we? I think not

I remarked once that the shall/will distinction, which I was taught in English class in elementary school—it was a rule, dammit—has almost completely vanished from spoken American English and is largely absent from written American English. If, for example, you do a search for shall on this blog, you’ll turn up no more than a couple of dozen examples, some of them quoting older texts.

But shall remains established in legal writing, I was quickly advised. And so it does. Now Robert Lane Greene, writing at Johnson, the language blog of The Economist, endorses the Plain Language Action and Information Network’s* suggestion to abandon shall. It is imprecise, PLAIN argues: “It can indicate either an obligation or a prediction. Dropping ‘shall’ is a major step in making your document more user-friendly.”**

I have my doubt that shall will ever be dropped from legislation, given lawyers’ slavish devotion to precedent. But I am fairly confident that in common speech and common writing, shall is going the way of whom, surviving in a handful of stock phrases and expressions—shall we dance?—or as an element in efforts to achieve an archaic effect.


*Yes [sigh], the acronym is PLAIN. The temptation to strain and stretch a title into something that will yield an acronym that is also a word, viz., the odious PATRIOT Act, is apparently irresistible.

**Almost immediately, “LaContra” loaded and discharged a blunderbuss:

I'm really starting to resent this tedious drive for drab homogeneity, simplistic articulation, and dull expression in language. I see no reason to regress simply because many people fail to appreciate style, flair, and exuberance in the written word.

Perhaps I am too old to consider 'txt spk' and 'twittering' attractive or particularly useful. Perhaps I appreciate an education which promoted and understanding of grammar and the cache of a large vocabulary.

So I shall resist RLG and his nefarious effort to impose 'Plain Language' upon the readership! I shan't ignore the placement of apostrophes, I shall continue to never end a sentence with a preposition, nor shall I split infinitives. I shall even strive to retain the serial comma before the word 'and' as the coordinating conjunction. ...

I didn't endure having English grammar and vocabulary lessons beaten into me as a child simply to abandon in middle age because of the whim and fancy of the tedious texting majority!

It might be difficult to find a single text more abounding in the fallacies of peevery. We have the disdain for the Young People, who, you know, text, quelle horreur; we have the introduction of the irrelevant, since texting has nothing to do with the entry in question; we have the conspiratorial suggestion that some sinister cabal is trying to impose something on the English language; we have the flourishing of shibboleths about prepositions and infinitives that were exploded generations ago; and finally, we have the empty I-suffered-through-it-and-so-must-you argument. In its own way, the comment is brilliant in undermining itself. The Queen’s English Society could hardly have done it better.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (17)

May 19, 2011

A moment of silence

“Picky,” a British reader of this blog who generously offers me his “firm but sympathetic guidance” in the comments, has drawn my attention to a notable event.

The British monarch, you know, has little direct influence on the governance of the kingdom but has become rather a symbol of continuity. Yesterday, in Dublin, the British monarch was a symbol of discontinuity, and a welcome one.

A band played “God Save the Queen,” and Elizabeth II stepped forward to lay a wreath on a monument. She stood before it in a long moment of silence. Then, as she and the president of Ireland stepped down, the band played the Irish national anthem.

It was historic enough that the British monarch was making a state visit to the Republic of Ireland, but the wreath-laying was even more significant. The monument is to “those who gave their lives to the cause of Irish Freedom”—that is, rebels who died resisting the rule of her grandfather.

There are moments of reconciliation that resonate for a long time. Some of you may recall Willy Brandt, the chancellor of Germany, falling to his knees in a long moment of silence before the memorial to the uprising of the Warsaw Ghetto.

It would be foolish to imagine that this one gesture by Queen Elizabeth would undo the centuries of bitterness and violence between England and Ireland, and indeed the account in the Irish Times mentioned the snipers and helicopters necessary for security.

But it would have been foolish to imagine for many years that the Rev. Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams could accommodate each other in a power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland. Or that Protestant and Catholic leaders of the governments of Northern Ireland and the Republic could come together to mourn an officer of the Northern Ireland security forces killed by IRA dissidents, but that happened last month at the funeral or Ronan Kerr.

Sometimes we contrive to be better than we used to be.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (28)

May 18, 2011

What rules are for

A brief reminder, taken from Nicholas Ostler’s excellent history of Latin, Ad Infinitum:

Perhaps the cultural overlay of grammar—the complacent, and hence resented, elitism of those who have learned the rules—had ended up getting in the way of its utility. Rules are learned, after all, not primarily to demonstrate the intelligence of the person who knows them, but as a shortcut to sophisticated performance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:04 PM | | Comments (2)

May 17, 2011

174 years

The first edition of The Sun was published on this date in 1837. To mark the 174th anniversary, has posted a gallery of notable front pages.

You’re invited to write potential front-page headlines yourself over the span of the next 174 years. (Quick, try to get there before the trolls discover it.)

And you can look at some aspects of the paper’s history, including a short history of the paper’s vignette, or distinctive nameplate, and some of the articles that won the paper Pulitzer Prizes.

It is still here, and it means to continue.

I have worked at The Sun for twenty-four of the past twenty-five years, going in to the newsroom each working day over that span resolved to identify and correct errors without creating new ones, to order disordered texts, to establish clarity where there was confusion.

Every one of those days, I, along with the other editors, fell short of what we might have accomplished, and on every following day we fell to work determined to do better.

Today I go back to try once more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:00 AM | | Comments (6)

After demolition, reconstruction

Yesterday I took apart an innocuous but incompetently written announcement from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland’s website to show the kinds of things that editors notice: lapses in grammar and usage, ill-chosen prose effects, gaps of information, lack of clarity, and the like.

Subsequently a commenter asked what I would do with the text after pointing out those limitations, and that is a fair question. That announcement could be revised in two ways, one for the in-group Episcopal audience, one as a general release.


First, the original unedited text:

The New ASSISTING BISHOP has arrived!!

Our new Assisting Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Donald P. Hart and his wife Elizabeth have arrived. Bishop Hart joins us after serving in several climatic extremes. He served in Alaska as Priest-in-charge, Diocesan staff and Rector, then moved to warmer climes as Bishop of Hawaii from 1986-94. He has also served in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. The move to Maryland puts the Hart’s within a close commuting distance to their children and granddaughter in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Hart enjoys the prospect of another assistant bishop position “because it lives out the hart of all ministry, which I believe rests in dynamic partnership between ourselves and the Lord, between all of us, lay and ordained.” He began Diocesan duties on October 15th and will begin visitations in the near future.

Please welcome the Hart’s into our Diocesan family.


Next, assuming that my surmise yesterday about the bishop’s previous service was correct, the revised announcement for the diocesan website:


The Rt. Rev. Donald P. Hart, our new assisting bishop, and his wife, Elizabeth, have arrived in Maryland. He assumed his diocesan duties Oct. 15 and will soon begin parish visitations. Bishop Hart served as a priest-in-charge, a member of diocesan staff, and a rector in Alaska before being elected bishop of Hawaii, where he served from 1986 to 1994. Since retiring as bishop of Hawaii, he has served as an assisting bishop in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Bishop Hart says that his new position “lives out the heart of all ministry, which I believe rests in dynamic partnership between ourselves and the Lord, between all of us, lay and ordained.” This new role also gives the Harts the advantage of living closer to their children and granddaughter in Washington, D.C.

Please welcome the Harts into our diocesan family.


Finally, a general news release:


The Rt. Rev. Donald P. Hart assumed duties as the new assisting bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland on Oct. 15, the diocese announced.

Hart served as a priest-in-charge, a member of diocesan staff, and a rector in Alaska before being elected bishop of Hawaii, where he served from 1986 to 1994. Since retiring as bishop of Hawaii, he has served as an assisting bishop in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut.

Hart says that he looks forward in his new role to the “dynamic partnership between ourselves and the Lord, between all of us, lay and ordained.”

Hart and his wife, Elizabeth, have children and a granddaughter in Washington, D.C.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 AM | | Comments (2)

May 16, 2011

The things editors see

On the first day in my editing course at Loyola, I give my students a short text copied years ago from an announcement on the website of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. They mark or question what they see, and then I show them what I see. And thus they have a foretaste of the appalling tedium that they will experience over the following fourteen weeks.

See what you make of it.

The edited version with commentary will follow, but don’t peek.

The New ASSISTING BISHOP has arrived!!

Our new Assisting Bishop, the Rt. Rev. Donald P. Hart and his wife Elizabeth have arrived. Bishop Hart joins us after serving in several climatic extremes. He served in Alaska as Priest-in-charge, Diocesan staff and Rector, then moved to warmer climes as Bishop of Hawaii from 1986-94. He has also served in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. The move to Maryland puts the Hart’s within a close commuting distance to their children and granddaughter in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Hart enjoys the prospect of another assistant bishop position “because it lives out the hart of all ministry, which I believe rests in dynamic partnership between ourselves and the Lord, between all of us, lay and ordained.” He began Diocesan duties on October 15th [superscript in original] and will begin visitations in the near future.

Please welcome the Hart’s into our Diocesan family.


I told you not to peek.

Changes and comments are bracketed and boldfaced.


The New ASSISTING BISHOP has arrived!! [Get rid of both exclamation points. If the news is not exciting, you can’t make it so with punctuation. And there’s no reason to for the all-caps.]

Our new Assisting Bishop, [Not a point of grammar or usage but of style. Generally today, titles are not capitalized unless they immediately precede a name.] the Rt. Rev. Donald P. Hart [Comma here; it's an appositive.] and his wife Elizabeth [“Elizabeth” is an appositive. Set it off with commas unless you wish to suggest that he harbors multiple wives.] have arrived. Bishop Hart joins us after serving in several climatic extremes.[“Climatic extremes” is pointless gussying-up. We’re about to see Alaska and Hawaii mentioned, and even the dimmer reader knows that the one is cold and the other warm.] He served in Alaska as Priest-in-charge, Diocesan staff and Rector, [Again with the needless capitalization. And he was probably a member of diocesan staff rather than the entire staff.] then moved to warmer climes [Ah, the echo of “climatic extremes,” in case you should have forgotten the distinction between warm and cold.] as Bishop [Lowercase.] of Hawaii from 1986-94. [“from 1986 to 1994” ] He has also served in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut. [Doesn’t say how he served there. This will become material later.] The move to Maryland puts the Hart’s [“Harts.” Making names plural with apostrophes is a mark of incomplete mastery of the conventions of standard written English.] within a close commuting distance to [“of” would be idiomatic.] their children and granddaughter in Washington, D.C.

Bishop Hart enjoys the prospect of another assistant bishop position [Another? We haven’t said where he was assisting previously. Perhaps Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut?] “because it lives out the hart [A misspelling that the spell-check won’t, and didn’t, catch.] of all ministry, which I believe rests in dynamic partnership between ourselves and the Lord, between all of us, lay and ordained.” He began Diocesan [If you’re not going to capitalize the noun, you’re surely not going to capitalize the adjective.] duties on October 15th [Superscript unnecessary; delete.] and will begin visitations in the near future.

Please welcome the Hart’s [So it’s ignorance, not a typo.] into our Diocesan [Lowercase.] family.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:17 PM | | Comments (18)

One of the better doctor jokes

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (3)

Some catching up to do

Well, you may have missed some things over the weekend if you weren’t goofing off at work, which is where and when American consults the Internet. So, to catch up:

“A prescriptivist’s lot is not a happy one”

“Easy on the quotation marks”

“End times”

But if you’re ready to start a fresh week, the word of the week is consanguinity.

The joke of the week is moving separately.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:33 AM | | Comments (1)

May 15, 2011

End times

Last week I had a little fun with the chiliasts,* the usual mixture of instruction (vocabulary, history, theology) and ribbing.

Then a commenter opined that “I hope to be left behind in a country where the political situation will be vastly improved thanks to the departure of all those nutty Christian fundamentalists,” and other commenter said “Long ago, when I was a kid and fire was still a new fangled idea, our Mama's told us not to make mock of other peple's religious beliefs. Be real careful, y'all. There are things more important than clever. Respect is not entirely out of style.”

I grew up among evangelical Protestants, many of them fundamentalists and good people in the main. And I have no reason to think that most American evangelicals and fundamentalists are other than basically good people trying to live out their beliefs in a secular society that presents much that disturbs them. (I do wish they would leave off toying with the biology textbooks, though.) So I’m sympathetic to the issue of insulting other people’s religious beliefs.**

Still another reader, writing privately, wondered why we can’t refer to “ ‘nutty Islamic fundamentalists” and “nutty Christian fundamentalists” on a blog? How about “nutty colonic irrigators” and “nutty carrot-juice proselytizers”? Is there any doubt that some adherents of various beliefs are nuttier (less rational, more disruptive) than others?”

I have some sympathy there, too. The Rev. Fred Phelps and his congregation have seen their right to proclaim their obnoxious views protected by the courts. I agree with the First Amendment principle, and I abhor the Phelpsian gay-baiting as much as anyone. And no one appears to be shy about denouncing these repellant views and behaviors. So we can apparently deplore some religious views.

The obverse side of the First amendment is that once you exercise your right to proclaim your views publicly, others enjoy the same right to counter those views. I was, I concede, dancing on the edge that separates condemning idiotic views from labeling people as idiots. That’s where the challenge lies.


*Chiliasm, from the Greek chilioi, “a thousand,” is the belief in the, usually imminent, coming of the millennium.

**Someone writing as “Cranmer” (nice touch) said, “I thought Mr McIntyre was an Episcopalian. It seems disingenuous for someone who believes in the trinity, and possibly even the real presence, to mock another's laughable delusion.” But Anglicans have always been fair game. Barchester Towers. Monty Python’s "dead bishop" sketch. The weather report in Anglican chant.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:53 PM | | Comments (20)

May 14, 2011

Ease up on the quotation marks

Deep cleansing breath? Time to switch to decaf? Need to take your hands off the keyboard?

The other day Ben Yagoda suggested on that it’s time in American English to put the quotation marks inside the punctuation. He has two reasons, the first having to do with computer coding in text, the second, and greater, that putting the quotations marks inside the periods and commas is more logical. (For our purposes, we’ll call it an aesthetic preference, given that small part that logic ever has to do with language.) decided to put this up for discussion and polled people’s preferences. “How outraged are you?” suggests the responses for which Poynter was trolling, and it got them. On Twitter: “141 ppl responded to our punctuation poll; 40% are crazed by commas/periods outside quotation marks! 33 left notes”

So, whaddya think? That forty percent have never read a British book? They wig out at the spelling colour? They break out in hives if they switch from a newspaper that uses AP style and pick up a book that uses Chicago? (He just wrote out forty instead of using the numeral! What is he on?) If their wits are at such a precarious equipoise, they might be better off avoiding text altogether.

Where you put the quotation marks is a purely mechanical and arbitrary matter. While switching between American and British practice within a single text might be mildly distracting, most readers of experience and sound mind move back and forth between the two without much noticing the difference.

But the vehemence, the vehemence. From Poynter’s Facebook page: “WHAT????? How can something so wrong, now be OK? I thought grammar was the last bastion of hard and fast rules that cannot be broken, as well they should be. Don't we stand for anything anymore?” and this: “Nooooo. Make it stop.” And this: “We should abandon proper punctuation because some students can't figure it out?”

You begin to wonder whether these people have started to stockpile canned goods in the basement against the impending Breakdown of Civilization.

My recommendation to them: Pour yourself a generous tot of the good bourbon (if you’re teetotal, brew a pot of tea, quite restorative) and sit down in a comfortable chair with a good light to read a book. Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak would be both salutary and entertaining.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 PM | | Comments (13)

A prescriptivist's lot is not a happy one

Earlier today on Twitter, Bryan Garner vented with a couple of complaints:

In a new piece in the TLS, Tom Shippey preposterously claims that the descriptivists have trounced the prescriptivists in the language wars.

Prescriptivism is now a snarl word in linguistics. All it means, in its modern form, is that it's legitimate to encourage standard forms.

Nice as it may be to think that linguists have finally gained a little traction—though I’m skeptical—I am reluctant to fall out with Mr. Garner, whose books on usage you will have noticed I consult and recommend regularly. For that matter, I was one of a multitude of a panel of readers for the third edition of his book on American usage.

But I am increasingly persuaded that if prescriptivists are losing the language wars, the reason is not those dodgy linguists. The enemy is within the prescriptivist camp.

Who gets identified with prescriptivism? The risible Queen’s English society and Shouting Lynne Truss. The propagators of zombie rules: no-split-infinitives, no-split-verbs, no-prepositions-at-the-end-of-sentences. (Mind you, there are prescriptivists as well as linguists who have flailed away at these shibboleths and superstitions for years without making much headway.) The English teachers who impose idiosyncratic and idiotic strictures on their students. The people who rant that the slang of the young is the End of Civilization.

These are the people who have made prescriptivism a snarl word, giving much ammunition to the linguists.

Reasonable prescriptivism—if I keep saying this, will someone hear it?—doesn’t get snotty about the way people speak or text. It concerns itself with clarity and precision in the dialect we call standard written English, and it takes cognizance of changes in the language as new words and usages gain currency and old ones fade away.

Bryan Garner is one such reasonable prescriptivist. So, in my own small way, am I. We do not agree on every point of usage and should not be expected to. It’s a big language, with lots of possibilities; results will vary.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:21 PM | | Comments (8)

May 13, 2011

Distinctions that matter

Earlier this week, over at Language Log, Mark Liberman took a swipe at the comprise/compose distinction, pointing out through the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage entry on the subject and a set of recent examples that is comprised of has a long and not necessarily disreputable history in English.

He makes quite clear in the comments that his point is not that anything that was ever done in the past is OK.* It is to counter the prescriptivist position that some deplored usage is a modern corruption of some previous purity of language.

I still teach the prohibition against is comprised of, because Garner and AP and a host of others insist on it, but my confidence has been shaken.

Here is the thing. A useful principle enunciated by H.W. Fowler is that when a useful distinction of meaning has developed in the language, a careful writer or editor will strive to maintain it.

My students almost universally have difficulty with the lie/lay and who/whom distinctions. The reason is that those distinctions are passing out of the living language into the historical language, like thou/thee/you, and the main issue for an editor to resolve is when to strike the colors.

Career/careen is another lost cause, and one could comb the Associated Press Stylebook for others.

But there are other distinctions still worth maintaining. Loath and loathe may have been interchangeable spellings in the sixteenth century, but today the words have different meanings and intensities. Imply and infer are worth holding on to. A modified that/which distinction—use that exclusively for restrictive constructions, which mainly for nonrestrictive but occasionally for restrictive—makes sense.

And failing to observe some distinctions will still leave you looking less than educated: grisly/grizzly, palate/palette/pallet, discreet/discrete, free reign for free rein, and more. Want to suggest some?

The difficulty, and this is where an editor wins his or her spurs, lies in making informed and intelligent judgments: weighing the disagreements among the authorities, consulting his or her personal sense from wide reading of where the language is, determining whether the distinction is meaningful to the intended audience and appropriate for the publication and the occasion. There are often no easy answers, and you should distrust anyone who insists that there are.


*You have to be careful with the Oxford English Dictionary; you can find just about anything anyone has ever done in written English. The historical evidence has to be weighed. Jane Austen, for example, used every body … their. Further investigation shows that just about anyone else who ever published a book has also used the singular their. That carries weight. Austen also wrote her’s. Nobody is suggesting that we should go there.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 AM | | Comments (16)

May 12, 2011

Metaphor pop quiz

@AllBmoreMD tweeted this line from Ralph Waldo Emerson earlier today: “Passion, though a bad regulator, is a powerful spring.”

Emerson was employing a metaphor. Can you identify where the metaphor comes from? (You do not have to reveal your age.)


Posted by John McIntyre at 6:46 PM | | Comments (9)

Wave goodbye as you rise into the sky

I hear murmurings that the world is going to end a week from Saturday, but I’m not worried about it.

As a journalist, liberal Democrat, and Episcopalian, I already have the Mark of the Beast affixed to my forehead, and my doom is certain. But some of you among the un-Raptured may be concerned. You, too, can relax. If these latest neo-Millerites* are premillennial dispensationalists, they are queuing up for departure, but the rest of us will be around for a while.

Premillennial dispensationalism, as popularized in the Left Behind books, holds that first the saved will be carried up into heaven in a rapture is a dispensation from the trouble to follow, then the forces of the Antichrist will prevail on earth for an extended period of tribulation, and finally at the battle of Armageddon, Christ will return and establish a millennium of direct rule. Then, after those thousand years, will come judgment and eternity.

So the Parousia, the arrival of Jesus, and the eschaton, the end of time, will not, under that scheme, occur Saturday sennight.

Mind you, many Christians, including many Evangelicals, do not hold with this, recalling the texts that say that no human being will know when the time is at hand. In A.D. 381 the Council of Constantinople declared millennialism to be not only presumptuous but heretical. Nervous people in difficult times, however, get hold of the books of Daniel and Revelation, obscure and difficult texts which, like the prophecies of Nostradamus, are open to multiple interpretations, particularly to the credulous. (Origen was not fond of Revelation, and so many others were dubious about it that it barely squeaked into the canon in the fourth century.)

So while there may be a possibility that the godly will drop everything and ascend into the sky on May 21, I suspect that there is a much greater chance that we’ll all still be here Sunday morning, trying as before to make the best of it.


*Millerites were the followers of William Miller, who calculated that the Second Coming of Christ was due in 1843. Some of his followers sold everything in anticipation. Then the Day of Judgment had to be adjusted to 1844. Postponements have continued since. The business of predicting the return of Christ started with Montanus in the second century and has been luring gulls ever since.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:13 AM | | Comments (28)

May 11, 2011

The world will little note, nor long remember

I skipped my graduation from Michigan State, not caring to troop into Spartan Stadium in the hot sun with thousands of fellow undergraduates to be graduated in something like a Moonie mass wedding. I don’t remember the speaker when I got my master’s degree at Syracuse, but my father-in-law, as he then was, told me that the speaker was faithful to the text of his op-ed piece in the previous week’s New York Times.

Today I see on Twitter that The Washington Post has invited people to submit advice for this year’s graduates, and why should I supply free material to The Post?

Mr. President, esteemed faculty, honored guests, and member of the Class of 2011, thank you for this opportunity to share my life experience with you. You are free to forget it as you leave the auditorium, if not before, so relax.

Graduates, you may not have had a great deal of what is misleadingly called “life experience,” but you have been in classrooms for sixteen or more years and have encountered a range of personality types among your teachers. How many of them were jackasses?

As you enter the working world, you will be encountering jackasses in at least the proportion you encountered them among your teachers. Some of them will be your bosses, some your ineffective colleagues, and perhaps some your worthless subordinates. Dealing with jackasses is one of the most crucial life skills you can master.

You can defer to them, particularly when they are your bosses. You can subvert or work around their idiotic decisions or performances. You can butter them up and exploit their pathetic vanities. But on no account should you let slip your awareness of their jackassery. They can and will turn on you.

Much of the work you do in your career may seem pointless and boring. Most of the time it will be. Do not make the mistake of thinking that business is better run than governmental or educational bureaucracies—remember what I told you about the proportion of jackasses being constant.

If you really love your work, you will find ways to do it, no matter how frustrating the obstacles. If the work is merely something you have to do to live rather than something you can love, find the thing that you love to do and make room for it in your life.

Never let go of your irreverence. Humor is your main weapon against jackassery and pretense.

And remember the things that are perennially true. Stay away from watery American beer. Pick up after yourself. It’s still wrong to wear brown shoes with a blue suit or white after Labor Day. Don’t write in library books. Personal grooming is done in private, not at the table or in the workplace. Don’t tell any more lies than you absolutely have to. Don’t jump the line. Tie your own neckwear. Don’t heat fish in the office microwave. The highway is not a speedway. Take off your hat at table, in church, in court, at the library, and other places that merit your respect. Read books. Read more books. When you encounter people who aren’t jackasses, keep them close.

Your education is not finished, but I am.


Posted by John McIntyre at 1:45 PM | | Comments (27)

The craft so long to lerne

If you rummage around the Internet with a search along the lines of “college students can’t write,” you’ll find that the “why Johnny can’t write” jeremiad has a long history.

The University Writing Center at Texas A&M quotes Adams Sherman Hill from 1879: “Those of us who have been doomed to read manuscripts written in an examination room—whether at a grammar school, high school, or a college—have found the work of even good scholars disfigured by bad spelling, confusing punctuation, ungrammatical, obscure, ambiguous, or inelegant expressions. Everyone who has had much to do with the graduating classes of our best colleges has known men who could not write a letter describing their own Commencement without making blunders which would disgrace a boy twelve years old.”

So with writing, as with just about any other subject covered in the op-ed pages, it’s clear that everything has been going straight to hell for a long time.

Still, an article at by Kim Brooks, “Death to high school English,” is instructive about the particulars of our current descent into hell.

Ms. Brooks starts with a sentiment that virtually any college instructor could make:

For years now, teaching composition at state universities and liberal arts colleges and community colleges as well, I've puzzled over these high-school graduates and their shocking deficits. I've sat at my desk, a stack of their two-to-three-page papers before me, and felt overwhelmed to the point of physical paralysis by all the things they don't know how to do when it comes to written communication in the English language, all the basic skills that surely they will need to master if they are to have a chance at succeeding in any post-secondary course of study.

But, the moaning over, she goes on to inquire of students, and high school English teachers, what goes on in classes. The non-AP/honors track kids do journaling and skits. The honors kids read a few classic books, discuss them in small groups, and write some kind of essay on them. They work together, do peer review of writing, maintain folders, do informal stuff. They are not studying grammar and usage, or rhetoric or argument, or much in the way of formal writing at all.

Ms. Brooks talks to Mark Onuscheck, the chairman of the English department at Evanston Township High School, who says, “It's very hard to get a lot of teachers to teach those things, especially grammar. We have such a need to engage students. There's such an emphasis on keeping student enthusiasm going and getting them to want to actively participate. When you start talking about grammar, it's like asking them to eat their vegetables, and no one wants to ask them to do that. They prefer class discussion, which is great but to a certain degree, goes off into the wind.”

Then, in sympathy, she observes:

And of course, there's also the logistical issue, the almost insurmountable challenge of teacher-to-student ratios, miserable ratios that are only going to get more miserable in light of the devastating teacher layoffs taking place around the country. At this particular school, every English teacher teaches five sections of English, and each section has approximately 25 students — a dream load compared to what teachers at, say, a Chicago public face. But that still means a three-page formal essay assignment would translate into 375 pages of student prose to be read, critiqued and evaluated. The very thought makes a cold, dark dread creep across my soul.

It used to be, when I was a boy, that English class drilled the (supposed) rules of formal grammar into you from at least the fourth grade on, and you were required in high school to write essays in a stilted, artificial, formal pattern according to similar supposed rules. Plainly, the schools no longer do that. But—and this is important, remember Adams Sherman Hill?—most people didn’t write very well under the old system either.

Most people probably never will write all that well. I use as examples in my editing class real-world texts written by professional, paid journalists, some of which are so appalling as to make even an undergraduate gape. As I quoted Robert Lane Greene yesterday, “Writing is an artificial modern skill that must be taught for years when children are older, and (as the stickler knows) the results often fail to impress.”

I have no particular advice to give to high school English teachers, who are trapped. Save this. If you do give advice on grammar and usage, stop giving bad advice and promulgating zombie rules. If you have a student who shows promise, don’t steer her toward Strunk and White; recommend Joseph Williams’s Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

If you are a student, ill-served by a defective education and ambitious to become an accomplished writer, I do have some advice.

Item: You are going to have to do this on your own. Even if you were lucky enough to have a few good teachers, you must make yourself a writer.

Item: Start reading, and stop reading crap. Identify prose stylists whose clarity and effectiveness you admire. Examine them closely. Try to imitate their diction, their syntax, their cadences, their metaphors. John McPhee’s books may impress, and the other New Yorker writers are worth attention. But find the writers who speak to you, in newspapers, magazine, books, and online.

Item: Get yourself informed about language. You need to understand the tools in your toolbox. Garner’s Modern American Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, and other manuals will help you to achieve greater precision.

Item: Write, and revise. Writing is a craft you learn by doing the work. When you have a first draft, put it aside. Come back to it a few hours later, or better, the next day. Manage your embarrassment at how shoddy it is and get to work at tightening it, sharpening the focus, selecting more effective words.

Item: Get advice. Find an outlet other than your private journal. Blog if you have to. Better still, get paid for it. Seek responses from your readers. Find someone whose taste and judgment you trust, and ask him or her to be frank about your work. Your mother may want to frame your every scribble, but you need someone who will tell you what you need to hear to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public.

Item: Settle in for the long term. The headline on this post is one of my favorite lines from Chaucer, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.” The life so short, the craft so long to learn. So get at it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (28)

May 10, 2011

Speak up

My name is John, and I’m a stickler.

(Your response: “Hello, John.”)

Early ambition to be a good student—that is, to be a teacher’s pet—reinforced by becoming an English major and graduate student, made me a terrible snob in my twenties, unrelentingly judgmental about people, based on their grammar, syntax, and pronunciation.

The stickler claims that he merely upholds high standards against a rising tide of sloppiness, imprecision, vulgarity. But while one indeed encounters a great deal of sloppiness in thinking and expression, what the stickler resists confronting and admitting is how much his sticklertude is a prop for his ego and his class status.

In You Are What You Speak (Delacorte Press, 312 pages, $25), Robert Lane Greene points out repeatedly how much of our talk about language is fundamentally political rather than linguistic, often “the politics of an aggrieved conservatism, standing against youth, minorities, and change.” The ludicrous idea that English in the United States requires some kind of statutory protection is the product of a fantasy about our nation, our history, and our culture: “American longs for an overwhelmingly ‘Anglo-Protestant’ model that never existed in the form in which most people imagine it.” (Benjamin Franklin, he points out, thought that all those Germans were a threat to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.)

It is telling that when the most hidebound prescriptivists talk about people in linguistics—the Enemy—they say that descriptivists believe that anything any English speaker says or writes is OK, and then they link the anything-goes attitude to the permissiveness of the Sixties. Logomachy is Kulturkampf.*

Happily, for those who do not have the spittle of rage on their lips, Mr. Greene is a thoughtful and reasonable exponent of sensible information about language. If you, like I, were brought up on schoolroom grammar and usage that mixes actual rules with bogus ones, you will find his account of the development of English and the activities of linguists informative. Example: Descriptivists hold that “[g]rammar rules should generate sentences that a large majority of speakers of a given (dialect of a) language would accept as correct.” There are rules.

For another example, he corrects the sticklers’ insistence on the primacy of written language. “Spoken language may be a natural faculty wired in the brain, which needs input only during the formative years to become the amazing machine that is the adult language-producing box.** Writing is an artificial modern skill that must be taught for years when children are older, and (as the stickler knows) the results often fail to impress.”

Mr. Greene is not limited to the rules and superstitions of English and the identity that they support. He examines French, in which the dialect of Paris has had considerable success in suppressing regional forms of the language, but which the famous Academy has been powerless to protect against inroads from English.

And he presents a cautionary account of what happened with Arabic, in which the official form of the language is frozen as that of the Quran, but which few speakers of modern Arabic use. “This is an ironic result of an extremely successful prescriptivism; the standard language was frozen by prestigious grammar codifiers, but the spoken language moved so far along that a thousand years later, writing and speaking require two different languages. (English and French prescriptivists, take note: this is what ‘success’ looks like in the long run. You can freeze writing, but you will never be able to freeze speech.)”

Mr. Greene would have you think of language not a box, with sharp borders and clearly defined “correct” rules inside, but as a cloud, fluid, shifting, and unavoidably messy. Rather like reality.

In my case, abandoning hard-shell prescriptivism has been liberating. No longer responsible for regulating other people’s speech and signage, I can be a snob about things that don’t really matter much (bourbon and martinis) while employing prescriptivism where it is legitimate, in editing. Editors uphold the (admittedly arbitrary) standards of their publications, making judgments on the basis of subject, context, and audience rather than an inflexible set of Rules, and respecting the variety and originality of the language.

I am a recovering stickler. Keep coming back.


*Logomachy (Greek “word battle”) is a dispute over words. Kulturkampf (German “culture struggle”), originally the fight in Bismarck’s Germany between secular and religious authority, can be extended to our contemporary culture wars.

**In another passage: “Speech is jazz—first you learn the basic rules , and then you become good enough to improvise all the time. Writing is somewhat more like classical composition, where established forms and traditions will hold greater sway.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:39 AM | | Comments (8)

May 9, 2011

Lay your aching head on the pillow

I am just about thisclose to giving up on lie and lay forever in the classroom.

By now—I turned in semester grades today—I have taught editing to more than 500 Loyola undergraduates, and I can tell you that lie/lay is a lost cause.

This semester I explained painstakingly that the distinction has largely vanished from spoken American English but that it survives in formal written English. The distinction is explained in their textbook. I explained it in class. I tested them on it and explained it again and wrote out the permutations on the board and included it in exercises and explained it once more.

I warned them to expect it on the final examination. They were allowed to use the textbook and other references during the examination. And a handful of them still got it wrong. The traditional distinctions simply do not register with them. They do not hear them.

If there are any superintendents of schools out there reading this blog, I’d like to give you some advice: Require your English teachers to be certified in ESL. Formal written English may not be a foreign language, but it is a foreign dialect of English to my undergraduates, who appear never to have had adequate instruction in it during the dozen or more years of schooling before they had the misfortune to fall into my hands.

Those English-as-a-second-language people know their job, and they have the materials for presenting the subject. Mainstream them.

Now I think I have to lie down.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:14 PM | | Comments (20)

At the interview

The word of the week is desuetude. The joke of the week is “The Applicant.”
Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 AM | | Comments (0)

May 8, 2011

Look at the numbers

According to the 2007 World Almanac (I don’t have the current one in the house), there are between four and a half million and five million Muslims in the United States. That’s about twice as many Muslims as Episcopalians, who number about two and a quarter million.

I put it to you, that if the country has learned to tolerate Episcopalians, learning to tolerate Muslims should not prove much of a challenge.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:43 PM | | Comments (11)

May 7, 2011

Ugly, just ugly

Two imams dressed in Muslim garb are headed for a conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, on prejudice against Muslims. They go through security screenings in Memphis and board an Atlantic Southeast Airlines plane. They are forced to leave the plane because the pilot refuses to fly with them on board.

So, two questions:

1. Does that pilot still have a job with Atlantic Southeast Airlines today?

2. If so, why?



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 AM | | Comments (24)

May 6, 2011

Ground Zero

A message sent out today over my signature to the news staff of The Baltimore Sun:

In blatant defiance of an imbecilic Associated Press Stylebook rule:

Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City, is capitalized.

But “ground zero,” the generic term for the place directly under the detonation of a nuclear explosive, is lowercased.

There, I feel better now.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:54 PM | | Comments (9)

May 5, 2011

Be on the alert

A little while back, The Washington Post experienced some embarrassment when a draft of an article, including an editor’s queries, was accidentally posted on its website. I wasn’t inclined to remark on it because it might have looked like gloating, and besides, it was a purely mechanical mistake rather than a lapse in editorial judgment.

But one of my readers has sent a link to a commentary on the blunder, wondering what I have to say. It’s this: Since any text you ever create in a computer could potentially escape and be seen by a wider audience, be careful.

That goes particularly for e-mail. Don’t write it when you’re angry or drunk, and take particular care about the address. Have you ever absent-mindedly addressed a snarky message to the subject of that message? (Me, too. The person I sent it to has ignored a friend request on Facebook, more than twenty-five years later.) Or to a group instead of an individual recipient?

When you’re editing a text, you want to be direct but tactful, sometimes even deferential, about your comments and questions. And you want to make sure that you address essential points, economically, instead of marking up everything in sight and coming off like an obsessive noodge. You don’t know whom the writer might show it to.

And this: Master the damn technology. Microsoft Word, if that’s what your shop uses. Ours uses CCI and NewsGate, which were invented by Danes after they gave up pillaging seacoast towns and turned to writing software. The programs are difficult to learn and maddening to operate, but they give the inept user a power to do considerable damage. The typewriter is over. Stop hitting two spaces after a period and learn how to manipulate the machinery you’re using.

One other point, on a different subject, about being careful out there:

Derby Day approaches, and there is a danger that some of you, misled by the premature appearance of seersucker or of ladies wearing broad-brimmed hats, may think that the mint julep is some kind of genteel ladies’ drink.

I have given you the recipe for a proper mint julep. Use your power for good, not for evil. You and your party should sip it, not gulp it, and, as my colleague Rob Kasper advises, one to a customer should be plenty. Once a second round hits the medulla oblongata, you had better check your liability insurance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:15 PM | | Comments (22)

May 4, 2011

Don't be shy

Google Analytics tells me that this blog, unaccountably, has thousands of regular readers, only a handful of whom ever comment. You don’t need to be a wallflower. Come on in. The door’s open. The only obstacle is the irritating CAPTCHA feature.

Now you may be under the impression that the conversation is a private exchange between Picky and Patricia the Terse, but that is just not so. They are happy to talk with anyone. Or you may be apprehensive of provoking some extended rejoinder from Alex McCrae. But really, he’s tame.

Or you may shrink from the thought of criticism. We certainly allow spirited disagreement here. And, you may have noticed, it’s OK to zing me. The Terse One, on the strength of long acquaintance, can be sharp, and you enjoy the same privilege. But this is a civil little polity, and no one will insult you. If comments get abusive or insulting, they are deleted. It hasn’t been necessary to block anyone but spammers, but anyone who acts like a lout can expect to be escorted out.

Also, really, we don’t care about typos in comments, or slips in grammar or usage there. This is a conversation, not a damn dissertation defense, and, as Al Gore once told George W. Bush, there’s no need to get snippy.

So, don’t forget to write.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:38 PM | | Comments (29)

The comeback kid

On May 4 one year ago, I walked into the newsroom of The Baltimore Sun and took a seat at the news desk, back after an absence of twelve months. It took a little while to acknowledge all the congratulations before I could get down to work,* but the pace has been steady ever since.

It has been a year of night content production at the paragraph factory, along with repatriating this blog and inflicting video barroom jokes on the public. Editing is just as necessary, and gratifying, as it was before (though I will admit—and this is the hell of it—editing, like cutting diamonds or piloting a riverboat on the Mississippi, has to be done stone cold sober).

It is a new world, with its emphasis on getting stories online fast and following up more deliberately in print, exploiting the possibilities of video and engaging with readers through social media in a way that would have been unimaginable a decade ago.

Well, newspapers have difficulty imagining anything different from The Way We’ve Always Done It, but the halting steps newspapers are taking seem to be going somewhere. Print circulation continues to decline as the generations with the lifelong newspaper habit proceed to that farther shore where the circulation department does not reach—though home delivery is up 1.6 percent on Sundays.** But both audience and revenue online have been expanding.

So this is a day to be grateful: for a return to useful, collegial work; for the new ground to explore in journalism; for Mary Corey and Trif Alatzas, who run the news operation here and offer support and encouragement; and for you, the readers who stayed with me in the transition to the personal version of You Don’t Say and the reverse transition back here, and also those who have come aboard during these past twelve months. There are many more of you than I ever hear from, but I know that you’re out there.


*I assume that the person who sent me the anonymous gloating you’ll-never-get-a-job-again-and-end-up-eating-dog-food letter when I was laid off a year previously was not elated over the development, but just about everyone else seemed pleased.

**Take that, you Scum Paper people.



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

May 3, 2011

That man and his pronouns

Apparently President Obama’s announcement that U.S forces killed Osama bin Laden has led some writers to fall back on the threadbare canard* that the president is uncommonly fond of the first-person pronouns.

I call this a canard because it has been demolished by Mark Liberman, the University of Pennsylvania linguist who presides over Language Log. Professor Liberman has taken the trouble to compare President Obama’s public statements with those of recent presidents, discovering that he uses first-person pronouns no more often than any other recent chief magistrate, and often less than the Presidents Bush, père and fils. You can see for yourself.**

I do not reflexively assert that every criticism of President Obama is based in racism, and I think that accusing anyone of racist attitudes is something not to be done casually. But I grew up hearing racist remarks and racist attitudes, and when I see complaints that President Obama uses I excessively, what I hear is “That boy is getting uppity.”


*Great word, canard. It is the French for duck or hoax and has come to mean a rumor without foundation. The French root, caner, means “to quack.” Coincidentally, English uses the word quack to mean a fraud, but that word comes from the Dutch quacken, or “prattle.”

**Of course, Professor Liberman is one of those Ivy League In-tel-lec-tu-als, so your frame of reference may identify him as a tool of the Bolsheviks. But still, he can count. See also Fev at HeadsUp: the Blog.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:49 PM | | Comments (29)

May 2, 2011

A taste for the pawky?

If you read this blog, and the comments, you probably do. Check it out as the word of the week. And now, without further ado, the joke of the week.
Posted by John McIntyre at 2:25 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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