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June 30, 2011

Disability and hypersensitivity

A reader wrote to one of our reporters, complaining that she stopped reading an article when she came to a reference about Maryland’s new alcohol tax that some of the proceeds would be used to assist disabled people. “Horrible and offensive,” she wrote. It should have been people with disabilities—put people first and disabilities second, she said.

Following the Associated Press Stylebook,* The Sun does not use disabled as a label for a specific person, but there is no objection to using it to describe classes of people. The subtlety of “people with disabilities” as distinguished from “disabled people” looks more finicky than meaningful. A person with a disability is, by definition, disabled.

I understand the point that it is undesirable to define a person’s identity by a disability. But unless we are to stop talking about white people or black people or female people or older people or sick people for fear of defining them in limiting categories, we ought to allow the adjective to precede the noun. It usually does in English.

While The Sun, also like AP, avoids disparaging terms—“cripple” and “retarded,” for two—it also avoids euphemisms like “physically challenged.”

We prefer neutral, factual terms, and “disabled” is still one of them.


*It has its lucid moments.


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

June 29, 2011

The lights go out again

Yesterday was the anniversary of the day that Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo, setting in motion events that destroyed the old order.

Today dawned sunny and mild in Baltimore, with little indication that the old order was once more imperiled.

But now the disturbance in the Twitterverse is profound. I was alerted by a tweet from @CopyCurmudgeon: The University of Oxford style guide recommends against using the Oxford comma.

Oh, it’s permitted “to resolve ambiguity,” which is the same weasely dodge the Associated Press Stylebook allows.

Oxford on a level with AP. How downmarket.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (14)

Enough, already

Newsweek arrived in the mail yesterday with the cover featuring Kate Middleton walking down the street next to Princess Diana, a photo doctored to approximate what Diana would look like today if she had lived. It contrives to be both tacky and creepy.

I’ve had enough. They’ve let my subscription run past expiration—a traditional trick to keep the numbers looking good—and I am going to have to write to them to demand that they stop it. There’s no point in giving Tina Brown any further encouragement.

A reader commented yesterday trying to goad me into writing about Denise Whiting’s temporary restraining order against one of her tormentors. I don’t know the specifics of Ms. Whiting’s complaint or of the defense the gentleman will make to a judge, so I have no grounds to comment. It might be interesting to explore the grounds of the gentleman’s obsession with Ms. Whiting, but I lack training in abnormal psychology.

I’ve had enough with this particular pointless dispute, and so, evidently, have a number of my readers.

Gannett’s website offers this encouraging statement: “At Gannett, you can build skills and knowledge while having fun at one of the best companies in the world. We have a variety of programs that can help get you started or take your career to the next level.”

This is the same corporation that dropped 700 people over the side last week. Two years ago, the corporation eliminated 1,400 jobs. So for many, the “next level” is the state unemployment office. Meanwhile, Gannett Blog points out that the CEO, Craig Dubow, was rewarded last year for his exceptional stewardship with pay of $9.4 million.

Fortunately, I had had enough of Gannett twenty-five years ago when I made my escape.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 AM | | Comments (1)

June 28, 2011

Give up: careen/career

I happened to pick up the late John Bremner’s Words on Words and noticed the entry on CAREEN / CAREER / CAROM. As recently as 1980, a precisionist would observe these distinctions:

Careen, from the Latin carina, ship’s keel, means to move from side to side. Those of you who have read naval novels will remember that in the absence of a dry dock, a wooden ship could be careened, tilted on its side, on a beach to permit repairs and the removal or barnacles.

Career, Mr. Bremner pointed out, is etymologically distinct, deriving from the French carrière, racecourse, and means to move at high speed—to hurtle.

Carom is to strike and rebound, from the French carambole, the red ball in billiards.

But twentieth-century American English determinedly made careen do the work of career, as Wilson Follett was saying as far back as 1966. Today, the old “correct” usage career looks odd to many, perhaps most, readers and, the shades of John Bremner and Theodore M. Bernstein notwithstanding, should probably be retired if you haven’t done so already.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:51 PM | | Comments (10)

A day off

Much as I regret failing to do my bit to boost page views at, yesterday, my day off, I made no paragraphs, neither here on the blog or down at the plant.

There was the weekly marketing to do, and there was some yard work. Having secured a couple of steaks from the dwindling carcass of an about-to-close Superfresh grocery, I treated them with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper and grilled them over coals. Along with some asparagus and some sliced potatoes I had marinated in olive oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper. Then I opened a bottle of plonk and sat down to dinner opposite my wife at a table. We had our after-dinner coffee on the front porch as the light faded.*

Today it’s back to blogging and a sandwich at my desk, and I think that a day away from you good people has been salutary for me, and probably for you. It is the right thing, when you have nothing to say, to say nothing.

The joke of the week wasn’t posted yesterday because of an editor’s illness, but it’s up now.

And your word of the week is tendentious.


*Elizabeth Large complained on Facebook last week that the summer solstice meant that every succeeding day would be shorted until we were once again plunged into the gray of winter. I noticed as Kathleen and I drank our coffee that the first half-dozen leaves have turned red on the sweet gum tree across the street.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:17 AM | | Comments (6)

Joke of the week: "In the Garden"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (4)

June 26, 2011

Talking the code

On Thursday, Professor Mark Liberman did me the honor of quoting me in a post at Language Log. Please excuse the exposition that must follow before I can get to the point.

He was demolishing the latest article on the recurring theme that President Barack Obama’s use of first-person pronouns indicates that he is a narcissist. This time, to the standard cautions—that there is no foundation for the premise, that a raw count of pronouns out of context is meaningless, that Obama in fact uses first-person pronouns less frequently than his immediate predecessors—Professor Liberman pointed out that the author hadn’t even counted the pronouns in the text accurately.

He then speculated on the popularity of this meme, quoting one of my blog posts: “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.' ”

His gloss on my comment: “John McIntyre's point is ... that there's a specific and well-known traditional response to members of low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations of self-effacement (and, for that matter, to caste-related expectations about speech patterns).” And further, “When a meme like this one takes hold of the punditocracy's imagination, without any rational basis in fact, it's natural to look for an explanation in irrational areas.”

In response, for the past three days, one Alan Gunn has been commenting, with vehemence, that my hearing racist overtones is without foundation and without “evidence,” is a slur, and is a symptom of the universal practice among journalists of making statements of fact without any substantiation.

So let me say a few things further.

The first is that I did not accuse anyone of being racist. I said that that argument about Obama sounds racist. People can make racist statements without realizing it. It is also possible for people who are not racist to make racist statements in a cynical maneuver for political gain. I’m not peering into people’s hearts; I’m listening to their words.

Second, I want to talk about “evidence.” Mr. Gunn seems to expect me to produce a videotape of authors saying. “I think black people are inferior,” or brandishing one of those cartoons depicting the president and first lady as monkeys dressed in human clothing. Surely he must be aware how much expression of attitudes about race is in code words.

In 1966, the Democratic candidate for governor in Maryland, George P. Mahoney, ran on the campaign slogan “Your home is your castle.” Mr. Mahoney was no James Otis; he was universally understood to indicate that he would protect white people from encroaching black people, and it was nakedly enough racist that Marylanders elected Spiro Agnew, because he looked more like a moderate(!). This is a specimen. If Mr. Gunn demands more, more can be furnished.

Third, that reaction to “low-status groups who fail to conform to caste expectations”—read black people who give themselves airs above their station—is so commonplace as to be a theme in literature and popular entertainment. Think of the reaction to Sidney Poitier as a Harvard-educated black man in a suit, speaking standard “white” English in In the Heat of the Night.

And last, the main point. Racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and homophobia continue. But they are, to varying degrees, no longer respectable, so expression of these sentiments has become covert, coded. Thoughtful people recognize those codes by inference and take care to avoid them.

The sneers at President Obama’s imagined fondness for the first person are, as Professor Liberman has repeatedly demonstrated, based on an undemonstrated premise, methodologically flawed, and historically inaccurate—and in some cases evidence of an alarming incapacity to identify parts of speech and perform simple arithmetical calculations. And because they single out our first African-American president for a kind of criticism leveled at no previous chief magistrate, they also sound racist.

Lord knows there is plenty to criticize about President Obama’s policies and decisions, and neither I, nor Professor Liberman, nor anyone else I know who hears these overtones has attempted to muzzle the president’s critics or shout them down. But if they want their criticisms to be respectable, they should endeavor not to appear bigoted.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:09 PM | | Comments (12)

June 25, 2011

No, not that

Many years ago, little ones, Henry Fowler made a suggestion that it would be a Good Thing to make a distinction—he loved distinctions—between that and which, reserving which for parenthetical clauses and using that for restrictive or limiting clauses.

Britons, who lightheartedly used which in both respects, continued to do so, but on These Shores the that/which distinction became a minor fetish among copy editors and the dear old, so frequently misguided, Associated Press Stylebook. Early in the course of writing this blog, I attempted a justification of the distinction, for which Geoffrey Pullum applied one of his gentle savagings.* Now I am as lighthearted as any Briton about which

But I still wince when a construction like this lands on the desk: “The accident that took place near the Naval Academy remains under investigation.” There was one accident, Best Beloved, and its location is incidental to the sentence. There was not a spate of accidents compelling us to identify this one by its location.

And I see such nonrestrictive that clauses all the damn time.

So long as you are clear in context, you may indulge in whichery to your little hearts’ content. But stick to that only when you mean to single out one of two or more possibilities.


*No, I am not going to link back to it. Do I look crazy?


**Strike the question.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 PM | | Comments (7)

What year is it?

We are, of course in mid-2011, reckoning the number by counting from a point mistakenly calculated as the year of the birth of Jesus Christ. The years before that we identify as B.C., “Before Christ.” The years after that point we mark as A.D., “Anno Domini,”* “in the year of our Lord,” taking care to use it as a prefix: A.D. 2011.

Over the past forty years or so, it has become increasingly popular to use an alternative labeling, “C.E.,” for “Common Era,” and “B.C.E.,” for “Before Common Era.” Though you will not see them much in newspapers or magazines, they have become standard in academic writing. They are handy because they are neutral and secular. Everyone has a calendar—Jews and Muslims have their own numbering, and some people have gotten nervous about the Mayans.** “Common Era” says that this is the numbering we all use now for convenience, believers and non-believers alike.

Nothing escapes politicization anymore. If you use “C.E.,” some people unfamiliar with academic practice will be puzzled, but some will accuse you of secular humanism and hostility to Christianity, and you will be understood to participate in a conspiracy to undermine the Faith.

Here’s a thought: Give it a rest. “C.E.” harms no one, and since many believers get the other method wrong, writing “A.D.” as a suffix, maybe they shouldn’t insist on it.


*Anno domini has also come to be used jocularly in the sense of “age” or “passage of time”: “I used to stay up all night drinking and talking with friends, but now anno domini has caught up with me.”

**Since we are the current imperial power, with our legions stationed at the periphery of our sphere of influence, we could call this year 2764, dating from the supposed founding of Rome. I offer this as a mere suggestion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:56 AM | | Comments (8)

June 24, 2011

Which will it be, guns or drugs?

A couple of days ago a man was fatally shot two blocks from my house, in daylight, just after 7 p.m. The police say it was a dispute over money. In January a young man was fatally shot from a passing car as he stood on his front porch, a block from my house. Police don’t know why. A couple of summers ago, a man was fatally shot in a car half a block from my house. Police speculated on involvement in a drug transaction. And my neighborhood is, by Baltimore standards, a quiet one.

I live in a city where weaponry is readily available and often in the hands of people with bad temper and poor impulse control.

Over the past four decades of the “war on drugs,” guns have been legal and drugs have not. I wonder how the past forty years would have gone had the legalities been reversed.

Daniel Okrent’s history of Prohibition, Last Call, describes the major elements of that failed experiment: powerful political lobbies poised to punish any officeholder who did not fall into line, enforcement that was generally ineffective and often corrupt, an appetite for the stuff among a large section of the populace that was not to be denied, vast criminal enterprises that battened on the huge sums generated by the illicit traffic, and a wave of unprecedented violence.

Substitute “drugs” for “booze,” and you have a history of the past forty years.

We’re not going to give up our guns.* The National Rifle Association, along with its cadre of hunters, hobbyists, and conspiracy cranks, backed up by the Supreme Court, all unmoved by any amount of slaughter in the streets, is poised to thwart any serious effort to scale back the national arsenal, and to punish any politician rash enough to propose such a measure.

That being the case, maybe it’s time to experiment with legalizing drugs (if the GOP can be persuaded to regulate and tax them) to see if the body count declines.


*I encountered a fair amount of flak a while back over a post about the language of the Second Amendment, in which I argued, I think cogently, that the Framers were talking about weapons for militias. People who react without thinking accused me of advocating limiting guns to militias today, but I never said that. We have two centuries of constitutional jurisprudence in which the Second Amendment has developed into a right as established as free speech to individual gun ownership. I don’t contest that, and would have said so if anyone had bothered to ask.

While I was describing what the original intent of the Framers was, I am not an originalist. Originalists today, like those in the 1930s who struck down New Deal legislation, are mainly people who want to use “original intent” to veto any development since 1787 that they do not like. (And they do that by ruling laws unconstitutional, a power the Supreme Court got from Marbury v. Madison, not from the Constitution. Once you argue that judicial review is implicit rather than explicit in the Constitution, you have opened a very wide door.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:49 AM | | Comments (11)

June 23, 2011

Not a venireman this time

My number wasn’t called.

I had hoped to be on jury duty today. Having just started on a biography of Judge Learned Hand, I looked forward to a whole day in the quiet room to make some progress with it. But they only summoned jurors up to number 600, and I was above that.

The reason I felt assured of a day in the quiet room is that I, as an older white guy wearing a suit and a bow tie, have better odds of being elected a bishop* than serving on a Baltimore jury.

(Oh, there was one occasion a couple of years ago when I was selected. I found out, when the defense attorney talked to us in the hallway after the acquittal, that she wanted a journalist on the panel to be assured that someone would be skeptical about the thin evidence the prosecution was presenting. Odd that she didn’t seem to understand that all Baltimore juries are skeptical of police evidence.)

That attorneys for defendants, usually African-American, would exclude me looks suspiciously like racial profiling—white guy + gray hair + suit + bow tie = racist. But in the absence of those jury consultants whom only the wealthy can afford, it seems likely that prosecution and defense attorneys rely on stereotypes.

Years ago, Clarence Darrow wrote an article for Esquire on the science of picking a jury that relied on the crudest of stereotypes. Defense attorneys should pick Catholics and Jews, he wrote, because they are emotional and easily swayed. He may have been puckish—avoid Presbyterians, he advised, because they know right from wrong but seldom find anything right—but he knew his craft.

No doubt my readers at the bar can advise whether the science has advanced much since Darrow’s day.

In the meantime, I will instead be going in to the plant this afternoon. Time to make the paragraphs.


*Nolo episcopari.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (12)

June 22, 2011

Body parts, body positions

Today we give a little attention to body positions.*

A Facebook friend inquired yesterday about the distinction between prone and supine. I explained that prone means lying face down—like the young people in the recent fad of “planking”**—and supine means lying on one’s back.

The distinction has blurred some. The New Oxford American Dictionary offers a weasely entry on prone: “lying flat, esp. face downward.” In the metaphoric sense, prone means to have a predisposition or to be liable to something. If one is prostrate—and please observe the second r—one is lying flat, face down, at full length, in submission or adoration.

Supine has variants. In the Trendelenburg position, one lies supine with the feet higher than the head. The reverse Trendelenburg is, as you have already guessed, the opposite. Supine also provides a metaphoric sense of behaving passively out of indolence or moral weakness.

Similarly blurred is the word akimbo, which describes a posture with hands on hips and the elbows extended. The phrase legs akimbo crops up, which I would have thought ill-advised for anyone not a yogi, but the NOAD tells me that with other limbs—and I presume they mean legs—akimbo means “flung out widely or haphazardly.”

If all the limbs are extended, one is spread-eagled.

In kneeling, one distributed the weight on one’s knees and feet. In church, the faux-kneeling crouch, with the behind on the edge of the chair or pew, is neither reverent nor aesthetically gratifying. Better just to sit.

In genuflection, one bends one knee to the ground, rising as gracefully as one can manage.

In the crab position, familiar from gymnastics and breakdancing, the torso is supinated (from supine, back parallel to the ground), the knees bent, the arms extended straight, and the weight borne on the hands and feet.

In bowing, one inclines the upper body, bending at the waist. In the more courtly bow and scrape, one bows deeply with the right leg drawn back, the left hand pressed across the abdomen and the right hand at one’s side. This is the male form of the curtsey, in a girl or woman one bends the knees outward, inclining forward slightly and sweeping one foot behind.


*Sorry to disappoint, but no sex positions or bondage positions will be described here. You can find the Kama Sutra and Krafft-Ebing elsewhere on the Net.

**I suppose they can’t stuff themselves into telephone booths, since cellphones have done away with telephone booths, but couldn’t they swallow live goldfish or something else traditional?



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:30 PM | | Comments (20)

June 21, 2011

The parsley on your fish

Today’s inquiry: whether to use garnish or garnishee.

The 2010 edition of The Associated Press Stylebook* continues to insist on the distinction that to garnish is to decorate and to garnishee is to attach wages or property.

The new edition of The New Oxford American Dictionary lists garnish as a verb in both senses, garnishee as a verb as an alternative spelling, and garnishee as a noun for the person whose wages have been attached.

Garner’s Modern American Usage says that the garnish (v.) garnishee (n.) distinction is usual in American English, though Britain and some American jurisdictions favor garnishee (v.).

I suspect that when someone is told that his wages are being garnished, he does not expect that parsley will be put on them. Garnish/garnishee is another of those unnecessary distinctions long immured in AP style and unthinkingly enforced on American copy desks. (I’ve changed it in The Sun’s much-disregarded electronic stylebook; we’ll see if anyone notices.)


*Yes, I somehow still haven’t gotten around to ordering the 2011 edition. Should the suspense be killing me?



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:46 PM | | Comments (9)

June 20, 2011

Those damn accent marks

This is how I get roped into these things. On Twitter, @palafo announces that The New York Times has openings for copy editors and invites candidates to send in their résumés. Then @paulwiggins upbraids him: “accent marks in the word resume show a tin ear. English is English.”

There is some back and forth, which you can look up yourself on Twitter, and finally @paulwiggins tweets, “when it comes to American usage I'll bow to whatever opinion @johnemcintyre has on the use of accents in resume.” So now someone’s trying to give me the power to bind and loose.*

Well, I don’t want it, but I can explain some things for the civilians who may be wondering why this is an issue.

Associated Press style does not use accent marks. Like much of AP style, that is not out of any reasoned-through principle. Their transmission system has simply been unable to produce them. This made things easy for copy editors, who did not have to know where to put accent marks in common words, and who were spared the burden of knowing where to put them in proper nouns—for instance, the orthographic nightmare of Czech.

But now, thanks to the version of Microsoft Word that we and many other newspapers use, it’s a simple matter: When resume comes up, just go to the top of the screen and click on Symbols, scroll through the charts of symbols until you locate the one with the properly accented lowercase e, click on that in two places, and resume editing. If the word occurs more than once in the text, you can always do search-and-replace.

Of course, you could switch to a setting that does use the accent marks, producing texts that put an accented e in cafe and decor and all manner of other words that have been anglicized since Fowler was a little boy. Then, of course, a copy editor has to go through and substitute unaccented letters to keep the publication from looking precious.

All this, along with the formatting for online and formatting for print, adds to the purely mechanical tasks that must be performed and which take away time that could be used for editing, for working to establish accuracy and clarity.**

As for resume, it is awkward that there is a completely different word with the same spelling, but the sense is almost always clear in context; I do think that adding the accent marks looks a little fussy. There are, however, less common words from French and Spanish that turn up and probably ought to have accent marks.

So here’s the ruling. Go to whatever dictionary is the basis for your house style. If it shows words adopted from foreign languages with accent marks, use them.

Unless you decide not to.


And now for something completely different: The word of the week is mephitic.


*Matthew 18:18, for you heathens who miss allusions because your parents allowed you to stay home from church.

**And don’t tell me how damn easy these functions are, thanks to the miracle of modern computerized text editing. They’re still additional mechanical tasks that add up cumulatively and distract people from more crucial concerns.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:19 PM | | Comments (38)

Joke of the week "Last Wishes"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:24 AM | | Comments (0)

June 19, 2011

Father to sons

No better prose to quote (again) for Father’s Day than one of my favorite passages from John Cheever’s works. This is Leander Wapshot’s posthumous advice to his sons in The Wapshot Chronicle:

Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:29 PM | | Comments (8)

June 17, 2011

Rising to the occasion

A correspondent looked in on the Associated Press Stylebook’s online question-and-answer site* and found this exchange:

Q. Does AP have a rule or guideline on the order of compared numbers? For example, in "Tuition would rise from $12,681 per semester to $13,176," does AP care which number comes first, old or new? – from Mount Pleasant, S.C. on Thu, Jun 09, 2011

A. It may be a clearer to say ... Tuition would rise to $13,176 per semester, from the current $12,681 per semester.

The correspondent reports being “baffled by editors who think it is more helpful to put the old number after the new number when comparing numbers.” Right. Typically, when we say that something rises, we talk about a starting point and then a higher. That is what “rises from” suggests.

My suspicion is that AP prefers “rises to” not because it is “clearer,” but because that allows placing the newer number first, which is, after all, the news. That the reader may have to work backward to figure it out is of no consequence to the AP, because the customary reading expectations and ease of the reader are not a consideration. (Think of the AP’s insistence on placing adverbs deliberately awkward places in sentences.)


*You Don’t Say strongly advises against this. Where AP is silent or opaque, you should establish your own style preferences.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:24 AM | | Comments (12)

June 16, 2011

Where indictments are handed

A reporter approaches me on the floor of the paragraph factory and asks—having heard conflicting language—whether indictments are handed down or handed up. Immediately the gallery responds: “Across!” “Over!” “Under!” “Around and through!”

Never ask a public question in a newsroom.

A little research, and very little it was, disclosed a post on the Editingmonks blog from 2007: It quotes Webster’s New World Law Dictionary that indictments are handed up from the grand jury to the court, and decisions from the bench are handed down.

The blog also quotes the eminent Dr. Ink of the Poynter Institute.

It is also correct to say that grand juries return indictments.

Somewhat more soberly, Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage says that decisions are handed down and that that grand jury decisions are traditionally handed up to a criminal court.

Mr. Garner says that references to a grand jury’s handing down a decision are incorrect, but, as Google will show you, such references are legion.

The safest course: Say that the grand jury indicted.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:03 PM | | Comments (1)

You there

It’s a shame that we can no longer tutoyer in English.

French, like many other languages, has two forms for the second-person pronoun, tu and vous. But for the French, the distinction is not merely between singular and plural forms, but also for a whole gradation of social meanings.

Tutoyer, to address familiarly, allows the speaker to use tu for those with whom one is on intimate terms—a spouse, one’s children, a lover, pets. But it can also be used with social inferiors, e.g., the help. The formal vous can be used as a term of respect for a boss or other social superior, but it can also be used to pointedly distance oneself from a social equal—we know each other, but we are not really friends.

English used to have that capacity, with thou and you.* Now even the Quakers have given up on it. Instead of an easy marker, we have to look for more subtle clues to those social gradations, especially now that everyone also appears to be on a first-name basis with everyone else. When the boss calls the underlings “you guys,” the tutoyer may be a signal of something ugly in the offing. And that exquisite Southern courtesy may be telling you that you have gotten through the door, but you’ll never get into the club.


*Speaking of that, where are the peevers? Who is protecting us from the long slide into barbarism? The thou/you thing used to be a rule, people. You’re letting down the side.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 AM | | Comments (22)

June 15, 2011

Their to stay

If you’re not on Twitter, you missed this exchange among the language-usage set:

1. @sinandsyntax, posting: As bad as Palin: "At the end of the day a member of Congress makes their own decision." Debbie Wasserman Schultz: 1 cliche, 1 errant pronoun

2. @verbolixity. rseponding: @sinandsyntax Using "they," "them," "their(s)" as gender-neutral alternatives to "he"/"she," "him"/"her," "his"/"her(s)" is a sin? @TheSlot

3. @TheSlot, responding in turn: @verbolixity @sinandsyntax I wish I had the power to decree the plural pronouns acceptable as singular to avoid the gender problem.

4. @sinandsyntax: responding to both: @TheSlot @verbolixity But why muddy the language? Is it so hard to be precise? Obama would be happy though. He loves "somebody" ... they.

At least @sinandsyntax is bipartisan in scorn.

I’d like to see less scorn, though, toward the singular they. For one thing, I dispute that it is muddy or imprecise. Is there anyone who has encountered the singular their in Shakespeare or Austen, or heard a teacher say, “Everybody should bring their textbook to class tomorrow,” who has failed to understand the meaning?

I begin to suspect that it is mainly my fellow copy editors, and ever fewer of them, who still object to these constructions, or even notice them.

It comes down to this: We want a non-sexist (epicene), third-person, singular-or-plural pronoun. All efforts to invent such a pronoun have been futile.* We already have a gender-neutral pronoun that has fulfilled this function since the time of Caxton and Chaucer: they/their. So the sensible thing to do is to abandon the stricture against it from your fifth-grade English class.


*Dennis Baron’s catalogue of the failures.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:23 PM | | Comments (12)


As I was driving to the paragraph factory this afternoon, I heard a reporter on NPR* talking about today’s attack on Afghanistan’s Wardak police training center and saying that a mortar landed within the grounds.

A mortar is a piece of artillery. I’m assuming that a mortar shell or mortar round was fired into the center.


*Yes, I listen to NPR, dangerous lefty that I am. Mark my name down for the roundup.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:10 PM | | Comments (7)

Score one for the anti-hons

Look away, ye who are weary and heavy laden with hontroversy posts. I did swear off again, but, despite what the small-minded think about The Baltimore Sun in general and this blog in particular, we are committed to factual accuracy. Thus this follow-up.

The Baltimore Business Journal reports that this year’s Honfest drew a crowd estimated at 40,000, down substantially from the 60,000 or 65,000 estimated in previous years.

You will recall that The Sun’s Jessica Anderson filed an article on Saturday for Sunday’s editions saying that there was a goodly crowd at Honfest that day, despite rain in the morning. And I referred back to that article in a post. Neither of us said that this year’s crowd was the same as a previous year’s—and in fact could not comment definitively on a comparison. First, The Sun does not count crowds but reports what organizers of events such as Honfest and Artscape announce as their attendance estimates. Second, we were writing Saturday, before Honfest was over. Nevertheless, it is clear that attendance this year was reduced.

The campaign to boycott the festival must have had a considerable impact beyond @BoycottCafeHon’s 23 followers on Twitter (though that number is up from last week’s 14, a 64 percent increase!). While it wold be churlish to deny 94-degree weather some of the credit for discouraging attendance, the anti-hon campaign can count its efforts at least a partial success. The event went on but was diminished.

A private communication from a Hampden business owner confirms that he had substantially less custom. Collateral damage, I suppose.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:53 PM | | Comments (5)

June 14, 2011

Maybe you COULD teach English

At Language Log, a post on Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One gives Professor Fish a moderate thumping for his reliance on grade-school grammar terms instead of more sophisticated analysis of syntax. But the real interest develops in the comments.

There the commonplace observation that students wind up at college innocent of an understanding of grammar and syntax gives way to some suggestions.

John Lawler attached a pdf of a term paper by Melissa Demyanovich, one of his students at Michigan, that describes a proposed language arts curriculum for elementary and secondary school that is sensitive to linguistics while developing a more sophisticated understanding of writing than the old ram-them-with-grammar approach, which traditionalists love but which never worked all that well for most students. You should have a look at it.

And I liked a comment from Spell Me Jeff so much that I’d like to reproduce it here:

“There is no point in teaching the grammar of a linguistic system to children who do not use that system with a high level of sophistication. One acquires such a level of sophistication by using the language. In particular, since English-speaking folks provide grammatical instruction in the written form of the language, one should be a highly competent reader of the language before beginning any program of grammatical study.

“In other words, if a kid enjoys reading and by 5th grade has consumed 1000 books or so (from Dr. Suess to Harry Potter), grammatical instruction will mostly seem to remind him of things he already knows but did not have a vocabulary for. It might also polish up a few loose ends. But it will not, repeat will not, teach that fifth grader to use the language correctly. He (and most likely his family) have already handled that job.

“If, on the other hand, by 5th grade a kid has avoided reading anything more sophisticated than text messages and the satellite television menu, then formal grammar instruction will feel like so much child abuse. If it leaves any lasting impression at all, it is more likely to be deleterious than salutary, and stands a good chance of turning him against formal education in general.

“Actually, a 5th grader in such circumstances is still salvageable if emergency action is taken; a 9th grader less so; while a freshman in college is lost, lost, lost.

“When I say such things to legislators and so on, the usual objection is something like, ‘But they need to use correct English.’"

“To which a suitable reply might be, ‘Yes. And trees dying in the desert needto walk 500 miles to the nearest river. Sadly, you cannot teach trees this skill.’"



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:25 PM | | Comments (13)

June 13, 2011

Post obitum

If I should succumb to some lingering disease instead of the hangman’s noose, and my obituary should include the words “after a long battle with,” I solemnly pledge that I will return from the dead and torment that obituary writer all the days he remains on this side of the ground.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:52 PM | | Comments (10)

How have you offended?

Come back. Really, it’s safe. I’ve sworn off the hontroversy again. Dealing with those people is worse than trying to reason with birthers. We’re back to the usual business.

The word of the week this week is taken from law: gravamen.

Please do not use it in a sentence with Denise Whiting’s name.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:11 PM | | Comments (4)

Joke of the week: "Car Ride"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:12 AM | | Comments (0)

June 12, 2011

Nice talk

I’ve got to let go of this hon stuff. For my non-Baltimorean readers, it is boring and pointless. For my Baltimorean readers, apart from the small group of people rabid about Denise Whiting (and I wonder sometimes if that usage is metaphoric), I’m wasting time on a synthetic controversy. And besides, it feeds my impulse to tease the humorless, which is not one of my more admirable qualities.

But there are two things about it that I want to mention today.

The first—and doesn’t it strike you as odd?—is that this involves a group of people who are attempting to organize to damage, and perhaps destroy, a woman’s business, because they dislike her personally. I’ll grant you that Denise Whiting, whom I do not know and have never met, appears to be a pushy person with a tendency to overreach, but if we were to put all such people out of business, commerce would grind to a halt.

But the main thing, and the thing that keeps drawing me back to this non-issue, is the degree to which the conversation about Denise Whiting and the hon caricature she has incorporated into her business exemplifies the coarsening that dominates our public discourse.

There are basically two arguments to be made, one that Denise Whiting is acting within her rights to make money legitimately. The other is that she is riding roughshod over the feelings of the public in doing so. I understand the second argument, but look at what happens if anyone attempts to articulate the first.

The way we talk now

I can’t hear you, la-la-la-la-la: When I wrote last year that a case could be made for the trademarking, or when I laid out similar arguments Friday,* no one, except Andrea, made any attempt to respond directly to them. Instead: Anyone who disagrees with me must have sinister motives: The Sun was a sponsor of Honfest, so nothing in its positive coverage in Sunday’s editions can be trusted. Never mind that Friday’s editions carried a front-page story quoting the people who want to boycott Honfest. Denise Whiting must be sleeping with someone at The Sun. I must be in the pay of Denise Whiting.

Anyone who disagrees with me is not entitled to an opinion: You’re an outsider, like those “suburbanites” and “tourists” who come to Hampden. You’re not from here. A couple of people have generously suggested that I should go back where I came from.

Anyone who disagrees with me is subject to miscellaneous abuse: In a way, the sweetest example was on Boycott Cafe Hon’s** Facebook page: “DonnaAnn Ward He's white trash from Kentucky.” Not that I blush at my humble origins or have ever attempted to conceal them, but the people I come from, Appalachians, are, ethnically and culturally, pretty much the same people whose hon heritage is, you know, deserving of respect.

(Neither do I object to being called white trash, mind you. I’ve been the recipient of obloquy from experts, and DonnaAnn Ward is, sadly, not in that class. )

So there you have, in epitome, how we conduct disagreements today. When Republicans say that Democrats are spending the country to ruin, or Democrats say that Republicans are going to cancel Medicare and let old people die in the streets, you have the Honfest kerfuffle on a national scale, with serious rather than laughable consequences. We ought to be able to fo better.


*For the record, this is the comment from Friday's post:

All right, I’ll grant you that the boycott line was an exaggeration—but there is still something inherently comic about the proclamations of people who have never patronized Cafe Hon that they will shun it.

Since Andrea asks, I’ll explain what’s back of the mockery.

Denise Whiting is an aggressive businesswoman who has taken legal means to protect her brand. That she had trademarked “hon” years before last year’s kerfuffle shows how little effect that action had on just about everyone. Her restrictions on vendors at Honfest may be elaborate, but they are not extreme. (My parish runs an annual street fair in the fall, and I’m sure it controls what vendors are present.) I’ll grant you that she looks pushy, but so?

And “the economic gain of one businessperson” puts it a little strongly. I’m fairly sure that the tens of thousands of people who attend Honfest patronize businesses other than Ms. Whiting’s. And despite the complaints about “outsiders” coming to Hampden, I doubt that the neighborhood businesses want to turn them away. Anybody close up shop this weekend in opposition to Honfest?

As to the cultural heritage, the “hon” figure is a cultural stereotype. John Waters may have manipulated it in more aesthetically sophisticated ways than Denise Whiting, but it is a stereotype nevertheless, and he has surely profited from it. Perhaps rather than “stereotype,” I should say “kitsch.” If the articles and booklets and cheapjack souvenirs about the local dialect, “Bawlmerese,” don’t mock the cultural heritage, then Honfest is no worse than them.

But the fundamental thing—let’s get down to it—is the disproportionate rage. I don’t see than anyone has been injured by the trademarking or by the Honfest activities. So where does all the anger come from?

I suppose there may be some business rivalries at play, and there may be some hostility toward outsiders in Hampden’s cultural heritage (manifesting itself when I first lived in Baltimore to the risk that African-Americans took if they ventured into the neighborhood). There may be some anxiety about the changes in the neighborhood as new elements, like the hipster population, make it their own. But I think that there are deeper roots: unhappiness that the blue-collar culture has been eroding as the jobs that supported it have vanished. Honfest is a synthetic and sentimentalized version of what used to be a broad reality.

Denise Whiting is a convenient representative of all those changes, and thus an obvious target.


**Let it not be said that I am ungenerous. On Twitter, @BoycoittCafeHon has fourteen followers. You can’t make a mass movement out of fourteen people. You Whiting-haters out there, it’s time to step up to Twitter and sign on with @BoycottCafeHon. Otherwise somebody is liable to think that I am right in calling you a noisy fringe group.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:13 PM | | Comments (5)

June 11, 2011

The Honfest goes on

Earlier today, in response to a serious comment about my mocking post on the anti-Denise Whiting, anti-Cafe Hon, anti-Honfest campaign, I wrote a serious comment explaining why I don’t take the protests seriously.

Now, back to mockery. It’s what I do.

The Sun’s account of this year’s Honfest indicates that, despite rain and muggy weather, the usual crowds turned out again, with no indication that talk of boycotting the festival has had any appreciable effect.

I have suspected that the anti-Whiting crowd is a negligible group using the Internet as a megaphone, and now it appears to be confirmed that they are several surges short of a groundswell.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:46 PM | | Comments (13)

June 10, 2011

Let it go, hon, let it go

I won’t be attending Honfest this year, but then, I never have. Today’s Sun has an article about the latest hontroversy swirling around Denise Whiting, the owner of Cafe Hon and impresario of the annual festival, and it will be interesting to see what effect—if any—it has on attendance.

One reason to stay away is that during last year’s hontroversy, over Ms. Whiting’s trademarking of “hon” merchandise, I said what needed to be said.* I’m sure that the familiar chorus is ready to sing again—Disgruntled Former Restaurant Employee, Naive About Business, Deplores That She Makes Money On It, and Suburban Protector of Hampden—but the virulence of their hostility is, though comical, of limited entertainment value.

This is a language blog, and I can offer one piece of advice about how you should use language if you take part in any of these heated but trivial exchanges. It’s the same advice Mobtown Shank gave last year: It’s not a boycott if you never went there in the first place.


*"The ‘hon’ kerfuffle,” “A modest defense of Denise Whiting,” and “Try the Pancakes”



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:34 PM | | Comments (14)

June 9, 2011

Leave Oscar Mayer out of this

I haven’t had the stomach to look for it myself, but @mrose_SJ tweets, “Actual headline on CNN news: Dems Let Weiner Roast Alone.”

It was too much to hope that American journalists would have the strength of character to forgo obvious, childish puns on Rep. Anthony Weiner’s name. Once again our low expectations have been met.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (30)

Yes, there is a future for editing

An able editor, Brian Throckmorton, made an astute comment to yesterday’s post about the dismissal of the copy desk at the Raleigh newspaper, saying that the shrinkage of print editors and diminution of local coverage doesn’t leave enough work to justify a full copy desk and that regional editing hubs may not be ideal but are practical.

Steve Yelvington posted a complementary opinion yesterday at his blog, “Let’s bury the nightside copy desk.” The world of the print copy desk is gone, not to return, he says, and it’s time to give up on the concept. (If I can, just to a degree, demur, to the extent that newspapers continue to publish print editions—which even in decay are still the greatest source of revenue—copy editors are necessary for their production.)

Mr. Yelvington makes a couple of salient points:

[E]diting should be tightly coupled with newsgathering and writing. If your newsgathering process isn't producing clean, publishable copy, you're not ready for a digital world. Fix it.

Print is, at best, a static fork of a continuous digital process. If you're waiting to post news until it's edited for print, you're killing your job. If you're posting news on the Web that isn't of publication quality, you're killing your job.

And there, I think, is the point that is missed by the managers who are eliminating copy desks. They would be better advised to find ways to incorporate copy editors more thoroughly into the production of the electronic editions.*

It has apparently been thought at high levels that because people will spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet looking at photographs of cats accompanied by ungrammatical captions, that they will read anything online. Thus, engaging copy editors to improve the accuracy, clarity, and concision of online prose would simply waste money.

I suspect that as news organizations grow savvier about interpreting the available metrics—not just how many page views an article gets, but also how long the reader spends on it and whether the reader returns to the site—it will be discovered that the quality of the material does matter if the publication is to capture the readers the advertisers are looking for.

Unfortunately, by the time the publishers make this discovery, they will have put one of their most valuable resources out on the curb.


*Not all copy editors will welcome the new environment, and some may be so habit-bound that they cannot make the adjustment. (Newspaper journalists’ resistance to change makes the Vatican bureaucracy look innovative and fleet-footed.) But those who can make the adjustment possess the skills and the temperament to accomplish the task.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (8)

June 8, 2011

Hang the black crepe in Raleigh

In what has become a monotonously familiar—and depressing—measure, the McClatchy newspapers have decided to eliminate the copy desk and design desk at the News & Observer at Raleigh, transferring the work to the Charlotte Observer.

Winston-Salem lost its copy desk a few months ago. The casualties mount.

The Raleigh paper, like the other papers that have resorted to this shabby expedient, will bolster its profitability while compromising its quality. The papers that have reduced or eliminated their copy desk staffs experience an increase in factual errors and slack writing. In a business that trumpets the importance of its local coverage, the elimination of people who have the local knowledge is particularly self-defeating.

So if you are reading in Raleigh or elsewhere that your local publication has thrown people over the side to improve its service to you, I think you will recognize what you are being fed.

Andy Bechtel is conducting a wake at The Editor’s Desk.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:56 PM | | Comments (5)

You may fire at will

When this blog was returned to service a year ago, it was set up with automatic approval of comments. Moderation of comments was apparently thought unnecessary because you are a decorous and well-behaved group.

Commenting, which was turned off because of the spam attack on Tribune’s blogs, has been turned on again, but with moderation, to forestall further spamming. You are free to resume commenting, and I will be as prompt as circumstances permit in approving your comments.

I've missed you.  






Posted by John McIntyre at 2:08 PM | | Comments (14)

Which side are you on, boys?

Robert Lane Greene does me the double honor of quoting me on Johnson, The Economist’s language blog, and mentioning me in the same breath as Kingsley Amis.

In “Berks and wankers,* prescriptivists and descriptivists,” he quotes from Sir Kingsley’s The King’s English:

Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one's own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.

Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one's own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.

It is not easy to keep a reasonable middle ground between the prescriptivists—by whom I mean the informed prescriptivists, like Bryan Garner, whom I admire and with whom I seldom disagree, rather than the propogators of zombie rules—and the descriptivists, whose indulgence for ripe, rich colloquialisms has much appeal. It is particularly tricky because social and class issues lurk beneath nearly all questions of usage, and Sir Kingsley compactly indicates.

The ground can be treacherous. Watch where you put your feet. But try to enjoy the walk, too.


*A little more strait-laced (not, thank you, straight-laced) in America than in Britain, we don’t casually use berk (dolt, fool, idiot), which has a link through Cockney rhyming slang, (“Berkeley hunt”) to a much more objectionable word, or wanker (masturbator, jerk). Apologies to anyone whose sensibilities are offended. But if your vocabulary is now enriched, you’re welcome.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:07 PM | | Comments (9)

June 7, 2011

Mr. Revere's latest ride

I had no inclination to write about Sarah Palin’s peculiar remarks about Paul Revere. Correcting her errors, or those of Michelle Bachmann, merely confirms to supporters that the Wicked Leftist Establishment News Media are out to cut down the righteous. (You remember how the WLENM attempted to torpedo Newt Gingrich’s candidacy by repeating statements he made in a televised interview.)

But Andrew Malcolm, writing in the Los Angeles Times, asserts that Ms. Palin was correct and the rest of us have been bamboozled by slanted press coverage.

The core of his argument is that “Revere was captured by said redcoats and did indeed defiantly warn them of the awakened militia awaiting their arrival ahead and of the American Revolution's inevitable victory.”

“Palin knew this. The on-scene reporters did not and ran off like Revere to alert the world to Palin's latest mis-speak, which wasn't.”

You might want to have a look at what Ms. Palin said, as quoted by Mr. Malcolm: "He who warned, uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed."

It seems fairly clear to me, even in Palinian syntax, that the effect of this statement is that Revere set out to warn the British about colonists’ determination to keep and use their arms. But Mr. Malcolm’s own text establishes that Revere spoke defiantly to the British after he was captured. That is, his initial purpose, to warn John Hancock and John Adams that they were in danger of arrest, was accomplished, and his defiance to the British—surely it was not his intention to be captured—was incidental.

Mr. Malcolm’s effort to restore Ms. Palin’s credibility on this point does not look much different in kind from the efforts of Palin partisans to rewrite the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to conform to her statements.

I may flatter myself to think that you, the readers of this blog, are impressed by fact-based journalism. If so, as an extra today, I’d like to offer you an analysis by Bruce Bartlett, who served Republican administrations, about the relative tax burdens of U.S. and European citizens. Have a look, and decide for yourselves how you want to think about the commonplace statement that Americans groan under an oppressive tax burden.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (2)

June 6, 2011

A little more on pie

Forty years ago I was gracile—six feet tall and 130 pounds. Find out more about the word of the week.

A fondness for pie was one of the factors changing those circumstances. Patricia the Terse commented thus on the weekend’s pie post (sorry, comments not yet enabled):

I believe that tarts are a more convenient way of eating pie - NOT pie wannabes. On a picnic, per esempio, it is much easier to pass around tarts than to cut a pie into convenient wedges. And you can have a choice of tarts, whereas several pies just look like gluttony. My mother used to make lovely little chess pies - miniature pecan pies. O rapture! O bliss! A friend's mother never thought of making pastry with anything but lard. She was appalled that people used anthing else. The food police would have gone to her home and arrested her and confiscted her supply. PtheT



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (0)

Joke of the week: The Bronze Statue

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:05 AM | | Comments (0)

June 4, 2011

Comments pending

The comment function on this blog is still suspended while Tribune’s boffins work on measures to protect the blogging platform from further spam attacks. In the interim, I will post comments mailed to me. A couple have already arrived. I’m publishing them without names; if you wish your name to be used with a comment, please advise me.

First, on the go missing brouhaha:

These expressions were first used incorrectly. Editors could have corrected the usage but didn't. So, now, some people are defending the incorrect expression because it is used by many. It was not like there weren't words available. In the case of go missing we had vanish and disappear. In the case of issues we had problems.

I could care less means there is still room at the bottom. That is what I understand when someone uses this expression. Speak precisely or else you are open to misinterpretation.

(The “incorrect expression used by many” is where English came from. Unless we are to return to Anglo-Saxon and apply gender to every noun and inflexions to every noun and verb, I think we should get used to the idea that any point of grammar, syntax, or usage that comes to be widely used by native speakers gets to be part of the language. And when it is widely used and understood by literate users of English, it becomes part of standard written English. JEM)

Second, on the “jittery nation” post:

" And surely you have not forgotten the shouting and posturing about the proposal to build an Islamic mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan."

It seems to me that those shouting and posturing are the very same people who said things like this:

‎"Islam. I keep hearing about the peaceful Muslims. I keep hearing about them but NOT from them. Where were they 911? Where was the outrage? For goodness sake, they danced in the streets of Gaza that day!."*

In my view, the lower Manhattan cultural center would have been a perfectly lovely statement of Islam's peaceful intent, if such were needed, or possible. But no, that was reacted to as if it were pure aggressive provocation. Sigh.

I'm always glad to see what you post: thank you for the voice of sanity cum levity, or vice versa.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:47 PM | | Comments (0)

In defense of pie

At, you can find an article by Nathan Heller disparaging pie.* It’s messy, inedible, and overly sweet is the burden of his argument.

I will grant that there are many ill-made pies, such as those things from the supermarket with a crust undistinguishable from the box it comes in, and I take Mr. Heller’s point that pie a la mode is a bad idea for a picnic. But there is still much to say for pie.

My grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early, was deft with what in our part of Kentucky is called transparent pie, a version of chess pie, rich with butter, eggs, sugar, and vanilla. Late in life she mourned that it was no longer acceptable to use lard in piecrust, which she said was the only thing to make it properly light and flaky.

My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, made a lemon meringue pie in which the tartness and sweetness were delicately balanced.

At Michigan State, a fellow student introduced me to the household of Iren Raisler, a teacher of Russian who in the springtime made an astonishing deep-dish strawberry-rhubarb pie.

My wife, Kathleen Capcara, once boosted the morale of The Sun newsroom by making half a dozen pies for me to take in. One of them was a variant of Derby pie, a chess pie made immortal by the addition of chocolate and bourbon. Kathleen has learned that vodka in piecrust will supply qualities of lightness and flakiness attributed to lard. Thus civilization advances.

I would be no true son, student, or husband if I failed to uphold the honor of these women and their pies. Mr. Heller, reader, Mr. Heller is a cad.


*No, I am not giving you the link. Someone speculated that the article was a provocation by Slate meant no more than to drive up the page views. You can find it for yourself. (And Nick Nielsen, commenting on Facebook, said, “He says he likes tarts. What are tarts? Wannabe pies.”)


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:40 AM | | Comments (0)

June 3, 2011

One nation, proud but a little jittery

Americans, we tell ourselves, are a proud, self-reliant people. Hardy pioneers, we braved the voyage to the New World, we set out boldly across the wilderness, and we made ourselves a world power. But I was reminded this week by a passage in Last Call, Daniel Okrent’s history of Prohibition, that we are also a people given to hysteria over imagined threats.

Advocates of Prohibition were happy to use anti-German sentiment during the First World War to bolster their cause, because their most determined opponents were German-American brewmasters. Here is Mr. Okrent’s description of the atmosphere of the time:

Soon Red Cross leaders were claiming that German-Americans had penetrated their organization and were putting ground glass in bandages meant for U.S. troops. Addressing the members of the Union League Club in New York, Elihu Root—former secretary of state, former secretary of war, Nobel Peace Prize winner, recently retired U.S. senator—said, “There are men walking about the streets of this city who ought to be taken out at sunrise and shot for treason.” In his infamous “Babel Proclamation,” Governor William L. Harding of Iowa declared speaking German in public or on the telephone unlawful. German books were banned in Wisconsin, playing Beethoven in public was banned in Boston, and throughout the country foodstuffs and street names of German origin were denatured by benign Anglo-Saxonisms. Nearly ninety years before french fries became freedom fries during the Iraq War, sauerkraut became liberty cabbage and, in an odd homage to the president, Cincinnati’s Berlin Street became Woodrow Street.* “Cotton Tom” Heflin of Alabama, who could always be counted on to transcend the limits of ordinary, everyday bias, said, “We must execute the Huns within our gates. The firing squad is the only solution for these perverts and renegades.”

It wasn’t all silliness. Mr. Okrent also recounts that mob in St. Louis lynched a man for no more reason than he was of German extraction.

After the war, of course, there was Attorney General Palmer’s Red Scare, a precursor to the anxieties and witch hunts and proscriptions over communism during the 1950s. The Know-Nothings of the 1840s and 1850s had trembled at the threat of Irish Catholics and other non-white-Protestant interlopers. And surely you have not forgotten the shouting and posturing about the proposal to build an Islamic mosque and cultural center in lower Manhattan.

We are, in fact, a proud nation, energetic, innovative, imaginative—all the qualities of which Walt Whitman sang. But we should also acknowledge that when things get difficult, when we’re worried or frightened, we look for someone to blame, we blur the distinction between real threats and imaginary ones, and we do things that we later come to regret.


*Also in Cincinnati, Heilige Ludwig Church became St. Louis Church, and in Baltimore, another city with a strong German heritage, German Street downtown was renamed Redwood Street.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:40 AM | | Comments (0)


It turns out, the boffins* tell us, that the Tribune Company’s blogs were under a sustained spam attack yesterday. That is what paralyzed the system and denied access to posters and commenters alike. At some point the comment function was suspended to prevent further attacks, and I haven’t had word yet whether it has been restored.

Comments that some of you attempted to make yesterday during the difficulty apparently made it through; I’ve deleted duplicates that were made as you struggled with the CAPTCHA function.

I hope to be hearing from you again soon.


*Boffins, the term coined in Britain during the Second World War, are people doing scientific or technical research, or who have arcane skills. It was the boffins at Bletchley Park who broke the German Enigma code.


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:35 AM | | Comments (0)

June 1, 2011

You hate "went missing"? I could care less

The objections to went missing this week followed the same pattern as the objections in 2009: “Ugh.” “Too British.” “Doesn’t make sense—missing isn’t a place you go to.”

No one is going to stop you from objecting to this or any other expression on aesthetic grounds. If you find went missing a disagreeably jargony piece of cop-talk, or if you dislike British expressions as much as some Brits dislike Americanisms, matters of taste are not subject to legislation, and no one is going to compel you to use expressions you dislike.

But what you can’t get away with is to claim that an expression widely understood and widely used is illogical or doesn’t make sense.

While languages have rules and patterns, they are not necessarily logical. Languages have idioms, and idioms, by definition, have meanings that do not coincide with the literal meanings of the constituent words. One commenter objected to turn up dead as not logical. But no one who hears it imagines that a corpse has suddenly acquired volition and motion.

Once idioms are established, speakers and writers understand them. I’m a little reluctant to open up a second front on could care less, but the people who object to that idiom always say, “No, you mean you couldn’t care less.” They dislike the expression, but they are never confused about the meaning.

Language being the most democratic thing we have, your objection to a word or a phrase or a grammatical or syntactical construction is one vote, as is mine. Those of us who edit enforce the standards and preferences of our publications. We should take care, however, to keep in mind that neither our house stylebook nor our individual preferences have statutory force. We should, of course, discuss what language is most effective and weigh our judgments—without preening ourselves over our peeves.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 PM | | Comments (6)
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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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