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July 31, 2011

Are you trying too hard?

You’ve earned a doctorate, and you style yourself Dr. Firstname Lastname Ph.D. Either would suffice; neither would be better.

You let it be known how many Facebook friends/Twitter followers/LinkedIn connections you have, or how big your vocabulary is.

Your personalized license plate hints at your prowess.

You say “an historic.”

You have a Chesapeake Bay license plate on your Chevy Suburban.

For that matter, you have a Chevy Suburban.

Or even worse, you live on a suburban cul-de-sac and drive a Land Rover.

Your children’s first names are last names.

Your pets’ names are last names.

Your potato chips are from Whole Foods.

You want to cut federal spending, lower taxes, and amend the Constitution to require a balanced budget. Right now.

I myself would be trying too hard if I tried to make this list exhaustive. Your suggestions?



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:28 PM | | Comments (10)

The Republic trembles, but there's laundry to do

Recently back from church—the lectionary this morning got around to Jacob’s dicey situation at the ford of the Jabbok after he sent away “his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children,” a passage I often think about when I hear those types go on about “biblical marriage.” That and King Solomon’s racy domestic arrangements.

Anyhow, having joined with others in praying for the best for the nation, I am waiting to see whether the Congress can get itself out of the prodigious hole it lately dug for itself.

But I’m not idle. I’ve started a load of laundry. Whatever the Congress does or does not do, I’ll need clean shirts for the coming week. And I’m boiling potatoes in preparation for making my mother’s summer salad. There may be grilling too, even though it is still hotter than the hinges of Hell in Baltimore. But Kathleen, I see, has come home with a couple of eggplants, and grilling them for caponata sounds like a good bet.

Earlier I tweeted that Twitter has invited me to follow myself, saying that I’m not that desperate, and a follower promptly retweeted, “But you’re interesting.”

One tries to keep the mico-realities separate from the macro-realities. If in their ineptitude our elected representatives should garrote our faltering recovery, it will still be necessary to wash the clothes, prepare the meals, and clean up afterward. That is not to say it’s time to be sanguine. I’ve already lost a job once, and those of us who have been through the experience and managed somehow to clamber back on board realize just how precarious the perches are these days.

But for today, the Republic has not yet collapsed. August starts tomorrow and perhaps the heat will begin to relent. Alice is bringing an old college classmate to dinner, and we’ll open a bottle of plonk and and talk around the table and tuck into that salad through which I keep both my body and the memory of my mother alive.

And there are you, you hardy band of readers who, for reasons I’m not about to question, find me interesting. Slainte.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:24 PM | | Comments (4)

July 30, 2011

So different in the '20s

My memory failed me the other day when I recalled that H.L. Mencken, surveying what he liked to call These States, determined that Mississippi was the worst of the lot. Turning to the Library of America’s two-volume collection of his Prejudices, I find “The Champion” in the Fifth Series:

“Over half the votes, if the question were put to a vote, would probably be divided between California and Tennessee. Each, in its way, is almost unspeakable. Tennessee, of course, has never been civilized, save in a small area; even in the earliest days of the Republic it was regarded as barbaric by its neighbors.* But California, at one time, promised to develop a charming and enlightened civilization. ... What remains is an Alsatia of retired Ford agents and crazy fat women—a paradise of 100% Americanism and the New Thought. Its laws are the most extravagant and idiotic ever heard of in Christendom. Its public officials, and particularly its judges, are famous all over the world for their imbecilities. When one hears of it at all, one hears that some citizen has been arrested for reading the Constitution of the United States, or that some new swami in a yellow bed-tick has got all the realtor’s wives of Los Angeles by the ears.”

It was all so different eighty-five years ago.


*Historic note for younger readers: Mencken had it in for Tennessee because of the Scopes trial, which he covered for the Sunpapers. There was a time in the early twentieth century when Christian literalists, unable to accommodate evolutionary theory into their rigid interpretation of Scripture, contrived to impose their unsound theology on public school curriculum by legislative fiat. Reflect on how far we have progressed since.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (1)

July 29, 2011

One is grammar; one is style

Haven’t gotten around yet to reading The Washington Post’s article on David Minthorn of the Associated Press Stylebook. (Get off my back; I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow yet. Do I still have to?)

But I did look in on Robert Lane Greene’s post on it at Johnson, where Mr. Lane Green makes an important point. The things that people quibble about in AP style are almost never about grammar or usage, but about points of house style. House style is often an arbitrary choice between two equally acceptable ways of writing something. Therefore—deep breath, fellow copy editors—it doesn’t matter except for maintaining internally consistent practice at a publication.

The Post article, Mr. Lane Greene points out, doesn’t distinguish between grammar and house style. Neither do most civilians, and not a few copy editors.

Rules of grammar and usage, so long as they are actual rules rather than superstitions or zombie rules, matter enormously. Clarity matters enormously. Accuracy matters enormously.*

House style matters some.


*I take it as an indication of our degenerate age that it was possible today for to pose this question in a headline: “Should journalists confirm information before passing it along on Twitter?” Yes, yes, you saw correctly. A reputable journalism organization feels that it must pose the question whether journalists should confirm that what they say is right before disseminating it.

The Internet, Twitter, all that is like some guy shouting in the street. Anything might be said. You’d think that journalism, if it had any standards left at all, would give some passing thought to the question, Is this true?



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:57 PM | | Comments (2)

You've got mail, but not here

I knew it was coming.

For twenty-four years, my mother was the postmaster of the fourth-class post office in Elizaville, Kentucky, the crossroads town where I grew up. During much of her tenure and throughout her retirement there was periodic talk about shutting down small rural post offices. Yesterday’s Ledger-Independent in Maysville published that Elizaville is on the current target list, and I doubt that it will escape.

It will be one more step in the town’s steady decline over the past half-century.

The elementary school I attended, in a brick building that had housed the private Willow Dell Academy in the late nineteenth century, closed the year I was in the sixth grade.

There were two general stores, one of which had been run by my paternal grandfather. They had been busy when Kentucky 32 was a main road to Lexington, but the traffic went to U.S. 68 and the customers went to the supermarkets in the county seat. Both have closed, and one has been torn down.

The Presbyterian Church, which split with the congregation in Flemingsburg over the slavery question in the 1850s, dwindled to two members, my mother and her oldest friend, before it was finally closed and sold to a buyer whose first act was to remove and sell the stained-glass windows.

The Christian Church (Disciples) appears to be thriving, the former gas station continues as a repair shop, and Price Bros. Funeral Home, through which my parents and grandparents passed on their way to the grave, is a going concern.

There’s a cemetery too, and I’m now at the point of knowing more of its residents than the living ones.

Oddly, I think there may be more people living there than the hundred or so of my childhood. It has become, in effect, a bedroom community.

And now, with the impending loss of its post office, which was a last nexus, its identity as a community grows even more tenuous.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (1)

I'm Scotch, so pour me one

A few days ago, sniping at Hugo Lindgren of The New York Times for dropping Ben Zimmer’s “On Language” columns, I wrote, “God may forgive—that’s the job description—but I’m Scotch-Irish.” A reader hastened to comment: “ ‘Scotch’! Please don’t! That’s the drink.”

I suspect that we may be dealing once again with the limitations of the AP Stylebook, which is correct, but only up to a point, in saying that Scotch is a drink and Scots are people.*

Samuel Johnson, who loved to chaff James Boswell about his origins, regularly referred to the Scotch, which was the common term in the eighteenth century for people from Scotland. In our time, the term has come to seem both old-fashioned and disparaging; it is mildly offensive to use it.

But the bony Lowland Scots who settled in Ulster and then crossed the water to America, many of them winding up in Appalachia, called themselves Scotch-Irish, and the term remains in use in the United States. And not just here. When John Kenneth Galbraith came to write about his people in Canada, the title of his book was The Scotch.

(You can call us Scots-Irish if you like. This is America.)

So by all means pour yourself a dram of Scotch, whether it’s the smooth Balvenie or the pungent Laphroaig, which John McPhee described as being like “drinking bacon.” Have a Scotch egg with it if you’re peckish. Stroke the ears of your Scotch terrier. Bring a Scotch pine into the house to decorate for Christmas.

But if you are in Scotland, courtesy requires you to speak of the Scots and things Scottish.

As for me, I remain Scotch-Irish. David McCullough, writing about Harry Truman’s ancestors, quotes what he says is a traditional Scotch-Irish prayer: “Lord, grant that I may always be right, for thou knowest I am hard to turn.”


*I am aware that AP insists on Scotch whisky but scotch as the drink by itself. It is a pity that its editors cannot see the curl of my lip.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:41 AM | | Comments (7)

July 28, 2011

"Ongoing" no longer nongoing

I direct your attention today to a detailed post by Stan Carey on the much-maligned, and sometimes deservedly so, word ongoing. Banning it, as some style guides do, strikes him as “excessive and unhelpful.”

My distaste for the word goes so far back in my career that I no longer recall the origin, whether book, style guide, teacher, or editor. I associate it with cablese, the journalistic indulgence in words like downplay and upcoming. And in fact, it is often a superfluous word. Police officers and police reporters regularly talk about ongoing investigations, though one could reasonably conclude that investigation alone, if not coupled with stalled or suspended, indicates a continuing action.

It is, as one of Mr. Carey’s correspondents remarks, a journalistic “crutch word.” After seeing the Guardian’s distaste for the word, Mr. Carey examined the Guardian website and found more than 20,000 occurrences of the word. (Who will guard the Guardian’s guardians?)

But as one of many synonyms for continuing, it has become relatively innocuous since its arrival about 130 years ago. After a slow start, it came into prominent use in the 1950s, which is probably when resistance to it as a vogue usage it set in. In Britain, where the resistance has been firmer, it has been scorned as an Americanism.

New words, or old words in new senses, get picked up by the early adopters. More conservative types shun, resist, hold off, or simply bide their time. Many new words and vogue usages fade away over time, and the late adopters learn to accept the ones that find a settled place in the language. This is a crucial point about usage: The tension between the early adopters’ enthusiasm and the late adopters’ resistance is the dynamic by which the language evolves. Each party serves a function: The former provide a testing ground; the latter, having shot the wounded, embrace the survivors.

Ongoing has endured for more than half a century. Overusing it is silly, as is using it where it is not needed or where some other word is more precise. But shunning it has also come to look a little silly. And dated.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:18 PM | | Comments (4)

Storm rising

Over at Britannica Blog, Gregory McNamee is making fun of Arizona.

A little while back—you may have seen the pictures—Phoenix was hit with a couple of huge dust storms. Amazing videos. The meteorologists called them haboobs, an Arabic word for that kind of dust storm sweeping off a desert. Many good people objected to that word. How would our troops feel, one wrote in a letter to the newspaper, knowing that we were using Arabic words? Why can’t we use English? Another asked.

So Gregory McNamee has a little sport with Arizona, “the state’s sole growth industry, namely xenophobia,” and “some of the writers’ seeming unfamiliarity with English in general.” It reminds me a little of those inquiries by H.L. Mencken into which was the worst state of the Union, the least educated, the cultivated, the most barbarous. (I recall that he settled on Mississippi, but that may have been a provisional judgment.)

Of course, Arizonans’ lack of understanding of the promiscuity of English doesn’t distinguish them much. But there’s more than ignorance at work here. We didn’t use to get shirty, like the Brits, over borrowings in the language. There’s suspicion here, and there’s fear, the products of an unsettled time.

We have become a fretful people. We worry about our jobs and provision for our old age, and with good reason. But we also worry about Muslims and Mexicans. We are suspicious of science, so we listen to cranks and airhead celebrities and their crackpot warnings against vaccination. We have elected a Congress that leaves the nations of the world goggling in disbelief at its incapacity to pass a measure to guarantee that we will pay our bills.

I begin to worry that if we do not, as a people, begin to get a grip, we will face a storm worse than any haboob.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (10)

July 27, 2011

Let me tell you where to go

A great deal of what passes for language commentary turns out to be peevery, superstition or outright charlatanry. But the Internet also harbors a multitude of resources from which reliable information and informed opinion can be obtained.

Arnold Zwicky, linguist and contributor to Language Log, has gone to some trouble to assemble on his own blog a list of such blogs and resources, which he is taking some trouble to keep up to date. You could do worse than to bookmark this site

and consult it regularly.

Disclosure requires that I point out that he includes, and recommends, You Don’t Say.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:31 PM | | Comments (1)

More than who, what, when, where

Some of you like to see what the act of editing is like, and this opening paragraph from an article, actually published in the Greyhound, Loyola’s student paper,* is an instructive example.

On Monday, March 16 at 7 p.m. in McGuire Hall Jennifer Storm gave a presentation about her memoir, "Blackout Girl," kicking off the events for Sexual Assault Education and Awareness Week. This event, hosted by the Take Back the Night Committee, Alcohol and Drug Education Support Services, the Department of Public Safety, the Women's Center, and several other organizations on campus, acted as a precursor for SAEAW's main event, Take Back the Night, which was held on Wednesday, March 18 at 7 p.m. in the Hopkins Courtyard.

Where to start?

Well, you may have noticed that this lead is eighty-seven words long. If you are writing a news article or a memorandum rather than a treatise, you’re better off with a single, concise sentence—maybe two, I’m indulgent—in the opening paragraph. But if you can’t establish your point in a dozen or so words, I suspect that you’re not clear on what the point is yourself.

You will also have noticed that the writer has taken Who-What-When-Where to the point of madness. This is indeed who, what, when, and where, and these eighty-seven words are entirely factual and, I presume, accurate. And all but one or two are entirely beside the point. Did you see anything of interest in it? Do you know anyone who would find it interesting? Can you imagine what kind of person would proceed to the second paragraph without compulsion?

If you are writing about a speaker, the thing the reader wants to know is what the speaker said. That opening paragraph should have included a single, hopefully arresting, quotation or summary of what Jennifer Storm had to say. (In fact, the published article—and I should get some credit for sparing you the entire text—does not actually get to what Jennifer Storm had to say until the sixth paragraph.) The day, the time, the location, the sponsors, and the allied events are all secondary and can be safely shunted to some point deeper in the article, if they are needed at all.

A competent editor would have reached down into that sixth paragraph and fetched up a single sentence to open the article, and then reorganized the entire thing on the basis of what a reader might be expected to find interesting. That editor would also have taken a sharp blade to the text, which ran for more than 1,600 words (!) and had more padding in it than Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps.

For example, an introductory paragraph: At the age of 12, Jennifer Storm went out with a 16-year-old friend, her friend's boyfriend and another guy, had her first experience with alcohol and awoke to one of the guys sexually assaulting her. “Easter morning, instead of being at church, I was at the hospital having a rape exam done. This was my introduction to alcohol and sex.”

And then a summary paragraph, or “nut graph”: That experience, from her memoir, Blackout Girl, introduced her presentation for the kickoff to Loyola’s Sexual Assault Education and Awareness Week.

You, reader, you writer, if you have not asked yourself these questions in advance, you must pose them once you have a draft:

What is the main thing I have to say?

What is the main thing the reader will want to know?

Can I say it in a dozen words?

Can I do without a preamble? If I need one, can I keep it short?


*In my editing class at Loyola, I use texts from the student paper sparingly, because criticizing the work of student journalists is like fishing with dynamite—too easy to be morally sound.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:48 AM | | Comments (10)

July 26, 2011

Many thanks for the mongrel bitch

Some remarks were made in this venue about a specious BBC article by one Matthew Engel carping that supposed Americanisms are corrupting British English. Now, in true patriotic Amurrican fashion, lexicographer Grant Barrett has given the BBC a riposte.

“The mongrel bitch you gave us as a parting gift is getting along quite well,” he says. He is referring to what Mr. Engel called “the original version,” or British English. That is, Mr. Barrett says, “like calling one's firstborn "the original child."

The fun apart—and there is a fund of it in the article—you’ll want to check it out for clear, sensible, informed remarks on language and the tribe of peevers who imagine that their idiosyncratic preferences and superstitions are authoritative.


Posted by John McIntyre at 5:33 PM | | Comments (3)

Use your words

Over at Johnson, R.L.G. is promoting a little research project at that invites you to take a brief online test from which is generated an estimate of your vocabulary—that is, the words you can say with some confidence you know the meaning of. You can take the test for your own satisfaction, and contribute to the research as well.

The test is here.

R.L.G. cautions that bragging about the results is naff,* so I shall remain mute.


*If you think you need to bone up before taking the test, naff is British slang for “tasteless.”


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:16 PM | | Comments (8)

When it was bad, it was very, very bad

Good writing is all alike; each piece of bad writing is distinctive in its own way. My own little corner of the world of letters is journalistic prose, specializing in the substandard variety. But bad journalistic writing, widespread as it is, is but one species of bad writing.

Dark and stormy: Sue Fondrie, an associate professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, is the winner of the grand prize in this year’s Bulwer Lytton Fiction Contest.

Her winning entry: “Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.”

Winning entries for the minor prizes can be found here, though to my mind they all seem a little forced or strained, unlike the natural bad writing that editors encounter every day.

Dark but not stormy: Here is one from the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest of 1998. The winner was a sentence from an article in Diacritics by Professor Judith Butler:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Of course, virtually any sentence from published academic writing in the humanities or social sciences could be substituted here, viz., the Postmodernism Generator.

The good and the bad: Bryan Garner, who is planning a book on good and bad business writing, would like to have examples of each kind. You can send them to him at He gives an assurance that names will be changed.

Your examples? I suppose I ought to make a similar request that you send in samples of the best and worst journalistic writing you encounter, but I’d really much rather see the bad.

Random reflection: On this date, July 26, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed the order desegregating the U.S. military. Truman came in for considerable criticism from people who said that this order would cause major disruption in the military because white and black soldiers simply could not serve together. Anybody think this sounds familiar?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (1)

July 25, 2011

Obstacle to ambition

Having long since achieved upward mobility by becoming a member of the leftist Eastern media establishment, exceeding my parents’ social and economic accomplishments, my remaining ambition in life is to become—it’s the Word of the Week this week—a flaneur.

Unfortunately, my means are not commensurate with my aptitude.

On the plus side, I mowed the grass this morning and did not drop dead in the heat. And tomorrow, back to the paragraph factory. More for you.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:01 PM | | Comments (3)

Joke of the week: "The Interstate"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:39 AM | | Comments (1)

July 24, 2011

A Sunday in July

It’s my day off, it’s bloody hot, and I’ve already posted once, but here are a few additional snippets.

The editor’s heavy hand: Bryan Garner has fallen victim to the kind of editor who reflexively changes that to who. He tweeted yesterday, “The NYT editors changed my "that" in the final sentence to "whom"--thereby changing the sense entirely.”

Here’s the sentence in question: “Short of such reform, the future for new law school graduates looks dismal. And the future of continuing-legal-education seminars for the practicing lawyers -- the kind whom I teach -- looks very bright indeed.”

The antecedent is seminars, not lawyers, as a more careful reading of the sentence would indicate. That would have been OK even if lawyers had been the antecedent.

That hair trigger: James Fallows has some strong words to say about a remarkably stupid column by Jennifer Rubin in The Washington Post about the attacks in Norway. A key sentence: “We don't know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today's events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.”

No doubt there is a reason—it eludes me—for which people quick to condemn what they call “Islamofascists” fail to response with the same verve to ordinary white fascists, especially when they go to church.

For your further amusement, I am linking to Jeffrey Goldberg’s attempt to justify Ms. Rubin’s column.

Same again, please: On Twitter, @debcha is one of many people linking to an article with this headline: “Study: Beer beats water for hydration.” I haven’t read the study; the headline suffices for me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:35 PM | | Comments (12)

A dash of restraint

A welcome sight in this weekend in The New York Times is an article by Ben Zimmer* on whether a close enough analysis of email texts can establish who the author is by identifying characteristic features of punctuation, capitalization, vocabulary, and syntax. It is a job for forensic linguists.**

In the course of the article, Mr. Zimmer made an admission: “Surely we all have our own written quirks and mannerisms — I tend to overuse em-dashes, for instance.” It came as no surprise to see a number of people tweet that they, too, overuse the em-dash, as if it were a point of pride rather than shame.

I know that tribe. Journalists as a group are dash-happy, employing dashes where commas would suffice nicely, or parentheses. Of course, they can’t use parentheses, because the Associated Press Stylebook imagines that parentheses are square brackets. Half the time they use also hyphens instead of dashes anyway.

So I’m offering a brief refresher for the punctuationally challenged.

Hyphens most often link things, such as compound adjectives: my 27-year-old twins. (And, dammit, use the hyphen to link all the elements of the compound. No “27-year old twins,” please.)

The em-dash, so called because it is the width of a letter M, or two hyphens in typewriter convention, separates things. It is most properly used to indicate some sharp break of continuity, or draw particular attention to interpolated material, as in the first footnote below. It loses its impact when it merely sets off appositives, for which commas would be the better choice.

The en-dash, the width of the letter N, (See, I could have used dashes there, but I refrained. And this is merely additionally parenthetical, not so sharp a break in continuity.) is more frequently used in book publishing than newspapers. It links ranges of dates, such as 1986–2009, my first stint at The Sun. You probably won’t have much call for it.

Let’s review.

Don’t use hyphens when you want dashes.

When you are tempted to use dashes, stop for a moment to consider whether you really want dashes there rather than commas or parentheses. I’m talking to you, Ben Zimmer.

(And it would be and good and salutary thing if you could bring yourself to use square brackets instead of parentheses to indicate editorial interpolations, the AP be damned.)

Now go and sin no more.


*Don’t think, New York Times, that I have forgotten that you incontinently dropped Mr. Zimmer as “On Language” columnist, and I’m talking to you, Hugo Lindgren. God may forgive—that’s the job description—but I’m Scotch-Irish.

**Not quite the same line of work that I do as a copy editor, though I have performed my share of necropsies. “Put that article on the table. Let’s open it up and find out where it went fatally wrong.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:08 PM | | Comments (17)

July 22, 2011

Intelligence, even in Texas

Signs and portents. Yesterday I marveled that the House of Representatives had discovered a measure too stupid to pass, the repeal of the requirement for more energy-efficient light bulbs. Today, there has been an outbreak of rationality in, of all places, Texas, where the State Board of Education has declined to insert material on intelligent design into the science curriculum.

Intelligent design, in case you haven’t been paying attention since the Scopes trial, is a Trojan horse by which theology can be smuggled into the biology classroom under the pretense of “teaching the controversy” over evolution. There is no controversy in science about evolution, which in the century and a half since Darwin’s Origin of Species has continued to accumulate additional evidence. Controversies lie only in the details of generally accepted theory.

Intelligent design attempts to dress in scientific garb the teleological Argument from Design, famously articulated by Archdeacon Paley in the nineteenth century and demolished by David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Since religious doctrine cannot be instructed in secular public schools, the scientific pretense is necessary. But it has gained no traction through free argument in science, and so its adherents have turned to the secular arm to impose it by legislative action.

Freedom of conscience, of course, obtains, and no one challenges people’s right to their religious convictions—though it would be well to keep in mind that a belief that the opening chapter of Genesis constitutes scientific and historical fact rather than poetry is by no means universal among Christians.

Evolutionary theory is a broadly held scientific consensus. If it is an obstacle to faith, than faith will have to accommodate to it, as faith finally accommodated to the Copernican theory, after some struggle. Forcing science to confirm to faith, as we saw with Galileo, is the wrong way around.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:15 PM | | Comments (8)

Meretricious Albion

You know Stan Carey’s work? Lovely man, Irish, writes intelligently about language. He has taken a good, hard look at the risible Queen’s English Society in two longish posts that merit your attention.

First, though, if you’re new here, you may need to be brought up to speed. The Queen’s English Society is a crowd of self-appointed deplorers whose ambition is to establish an Academy of English to regulate the language, never mind that it didn’t work for Jonathan Swift and won’t work for them. Peevers who uphold every peeve the peevish cherish, they add a layer of British nationalism that out-Pythons Monty Python. They exemplify McKean’s Law—“Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error”—and undermine their own position in every sentence they write.

Mr. Carey’s first post, “The Queen’s English Society deplores your impurities,” exposes their ludicrous pretensions and goes on to link to some of the many writers on language who have heaped obloquy on the QES, smiting them hip and thigh (including some of the best lines from my posts on the subject).

The second, “Academy of English? Ain’t no sense in it,” discovers that the QES doesn’t know the difference between a portmanteau word and an auto-antonym.* There’s some further great fun with the clotpolls, and then he proceeds to the grand news that the QES has inspired a couple of antagonists: the Anti-Queen’s English Society and the Proper English Foundation. The former is level-headed and sensible (and on Facebook!). The latter is satirical, establishing the Académie von anglais. I wish them well, but I fear that satire has its work cut out for itself catching up with the original QES.

Someone dropped a letter on my desk yesterday—I get the letters to the editor complaining about The Sun’s grammar and usage. It was from a gentleman objecting to a preposition at the end of a sentence, which he had been taught in his youth was an error, a view he has held fast to for decades. No return address, so I don’t have to engage in a bootless effort to reason with him.

So even though the eminences of the Queen’s English Society and its bogus Academy look like figures invented by Waugh, they retain a capacity to do harm, to the extent that readers, particularly if any of them are teachers, heed their humbug.


*A portmanteau word is generated by the combination of two other words, such as smog, from smoke and fog. The QES thinks that a portmanteau word is a “Janus word,” which can carry opposite meanings, such as sanction. Such a word is rather an auto-antonym. There is, by the way, no particular objection to either category.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 PM | | Comments (3)

July 21, 2011

Our God-given light bulbs

I hesitate to suggest that the nation may have turned a corner, but it does seem that we reached a significant point last week: the discovery of a measure too stupid to pass the United States House of Representatives.

The measure was an attempt to repeal a law, passed in 2007, under a Republican administration, requiring light bulbs to be 30 percent more energy efficient as of 2012. The law, thought to be innocuous during the benign years of George W. Bush’s administration (Did I just say that?) has been attacked by tea party types as a nanny state attempt to take away our precious incandescent light bulbs.

A little while ago, the lights in the newsroom flickered as The Sun’s generator kicked in, as it has done every afternoon this week to reduce strain on the electricity supply as the temperatures approach 100. In a few hours, toward evening, the lights will flicker again as we return to the grid.

The electricity grid is under strain, with the demand for lighting and air conditioning and power for computers and other devices. Some of that demand is for traditional incandescent bulbs, which consume more energy than fluorescent and LED bulbs, and waste most of it as heat.

In 2007, the Congress, thinking it a good thing to conserve energy, passed that law to promote the general welfare. The law has had the happy effect of encouraging manufacturers to produce improved models of fluorescent and LED bulbs, producing more satisfactory light , reducing energy demand, and—though the new bulbs are initially more expensive—saving the consumer money. This is the measure represented as a palpable threat to our freedoms.

That the House declined to repeal it hints at a faint breath of sanity.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:10 PM | | Comments (32)

You go, Grammar Girl

Mignon Fogarty has the grammar franchise. Besides her popular Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips website, there are her books: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing and The Grammar Devotional (reviewed here). And now there is published her Ultimate Writing Guide for Students (Henry Holt, 294 pages, $19.99).

Apart from an excessive reliance on the color orange, which I cannot endorse on aesthetic grounds, this should be a highly useful book for the young writer.

It repackages much of the advice on punctuation, grammar, and usage in her previous books. It is sensible advice. She knows when between can be used with more than two parties. She knows that hopefully can be used as a sentence adverb, though she advises that ill-informed people get worked up over it.

What is new here is the more extensive advice on writing, and what she offers is solid. Suppress the editing function until you have a draft. Then prune the wordiness. Ease up on the metaphors. Vary the length of sentences. Eschew cliches. Read the text out loud to yourself. Proofread, word by word. As with grammar and usage, she is sensible.

Her tone throughout is relaxed, and her information and advice are more readily digestible than what students find in standard manuals, which tend to be stiff. This, perhaps, is her greatest strength. The information she offers can be found in many places (even though she is mercifully free of the bad information that is also to be found in many places). But her approach is one that suggests that this is a book students might use.

I’ve often added my voice to the jeremiads about students’ lack of skill in writing and the defective instruction that fosters that lack of skill. Here is a book to which the befuddled student, baffled by the complexities of the language, stunned by the conventions of formal writing, and staggered by inept or misguided instruction, can turn for help.

I venture that there are adult writers who would benefit from a tour of its pages as well.


But wait, there’s more: St. Martin’s Griffin has also brought out two small paperbacks ($5.99 each), Grammar Girl’s 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again and Grammar Girl’s 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know.

The former comes with the familiar set of words commonly confused—hoard and horde and all that lot. Here too she is sensible, explaining the stickler’s distinction between nauseous and nauseated while explaining that it is vanishing from the language.

The latter should be quite useful; schadenfreude, obtuse, and trepidation all represent concepts that should be mastered in the adult working world. There’s also one I didn’t know: xeriscape, a patch of land that requires little water. It’s a good day when there’s a new arrow in the quiver.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (5)

July 20, 2011

Always look behind the curtain

A daily newspaper publishes an article about English usage. Inspection by experts discloses that it is riddled with errors. Meanwhile, the peevers have swarmed all over it with their intemperate comments.

The latest occasion on which the burlesque has been performed was the publication by BBC News of an article by Matthew Engel, “Why do some Americanisms irritate people?” Mark Liberman at Language Log took the trouble of examining Mr. Engel’s examples, discovering that about a fifth of them were of American origin, the remainder displaying British pedigree.

I’m not here to focus on the BBC or Mr. Engel—Professor Liberman has done a solid job of exploding the article. I’m intrigued by a follow-up post by Geoffrey Pullum, in which he observes:

“As a Scottish-born long-time American citizen working in Edinburgh among numerous fellow Americans, and a frequent visitor to London and other UK cities, I should have seen it somewhere by now; but I have never encountered hostility to America, Americans, or Americanisms in ordinary everyday interactions in Britain. … The furiously anti-American minority that the BBC has tapped into seem to keep their hatred of us and our speech tightly suppressed, letting it out only in blog comments and letters to the editor (particularly the Daily Telegraph, which is famous for its letters expressing how ‘appalled’ people are by purported grammar errors, neologisms, etc.).”

It seems to me that this British example throws into relief a pattern we’ve grown accustomed to. I’m fairly sure that racism, for example, has not gone away. But it is no longer acceptable to articulate it publicly, so it goes underground, surfacing in the anonymity of Internet comments, where angry people find it convenient—and safe—to vent.

The other element—the one I think we don’t pay enough attention to—is the “furious minority.” The Internet, as I’ve observed before, is a megaphone, and angry people can use it to indicate a strength disproportionate to their numbers, the people who are not angry having less of an impulse to post. So we often hear what sounds like the bellow of the mighty and all-powerful Oz, without noticing the sorry figure behind the curtain.

So in addition to my primary caution to fellow journalists—do not publish articles about English usage without having someone who actually knows something vet them—I offer a more general caution: Don’t give the shouters credit for more weight than they carry.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 PM | | Comments (5)

Wet marketing concept

On the D@L Facebook page, Lissa Potter posted about the merchandising of “organic” bottled water. It’s apparently water that comes from an aquifer, which I suppose is where much water comes from, apart from lakes, reservoirs, and rain barrels.

Hal Laurent was quick to comment: “Petroleum is organic. Water, not so much.”

You may add this stuff to the ever-lengthening list of products marketed for people who have more money than education or sense.

Posted by John McIntyre at 4:07 PM | | Comments (6)

July 19, 2011

How to tell it's summer in Baltimore

Tip #1: The Sun discovers that it gets hot. Today’s front page warns that the temperature is apt to reach 100 or more by the end of the week. Though not quite as unpleasant as Washington, D.C., which was built on a swamp and has remained one, the Patapsco Basin doesn’t really support human life in July.

Tip #2: Chessie has reappeared. Everyone’s favorite wandering manatee shows up again, celebrated in murky photos and articles about his irrepressible wanderlust.

Tip #3: Continuing the animal motif that marks news coverage in the warmer months, the snakeheads are advancing. The ugly-looking and predatory invasive species has been discovered in waters north of the Potomac. Speculation about its inexorable progress has not yet reached the point of warning residents to check swimming pools before plunging in, but we’ve got another six-eight weeks of hot weather to go.

Tip #4: You can’t get here from here. Last week, Artscape (which was moved to the hottest month of the year after its opening fell on a chilly day in June in 1982) tied up major streets in the middle of the city, at the same time that construction of a racetrack on streets in the Inner Harbor* cuts off Federal Hill from the rest of the city.

Tip #5: The Orioles stink.

Tip #6: Blogger, left listless by the overpowering mugginess, inflicts on readers a series of trite observations on the weather instead of writing a substantive post.


*I am not making this up. Several major streets in the harbor area are going to be an Indy Car racetrack over Labor Day weekend. This is supposed to bring fame and big bucks to the city, at the cost of months of major inconvenience for anyone trying to get anywhere.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (6)

July 18, 2011

Journos are not Homer

At Johnson, Robert Lane Greene has made a heartfelt plea to the ladies and gentlemen of the press to cease referring to Rebekah Brooks, the disgraced former Murdoch executive as “flame-haired.” He links to a series of such citations.

Reuters went so far to call Brooks “the ferociously ambitious titian-haired executive,” which is pretentious as well as excessive.

I wrote some summers ago—no doubt colleagues in the press in the U.S. and Britain have forgotten it—that indulging in Homeric epithets is not advisable in daily journalism. The rhetorical term for this particular trope is periphrasis or antonomasia, the substitution of a descriptive term for a proper name or a proper name for a quality associated with it. It can be stagy and intrusive, and in this case it is also tiresome.

Pray heed Lane Greene.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:39 PM | | Comments (18)

Is the weekend over already?

While you were at Tanglewood or Interlochen over the weekend, listeing to beautiful sounds, I was blogging away in the basement, such is my devotion to you.

If you missed them, here are links to the post on the pleasures of Not Keeping Up and the post on what to do if you’re teaching English or composition.

And the word of the week is recondite.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:58 PM | | Comments (0)

Joke of the week: "The Rowing Team"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:24 AM | | Comments (1)

July 17, 2011

Mourning Connie Knox

I am very sorry to have to report that I just received word that Connie Knox, a veteran copy editor at The Baltimore Sun and a stalwart member of the Newspaper Guild, has died in her sleep.

Connie, who welcomed me into the Guild when I was hired at The Sun twenty-five years ago, and endured being my subordinate when I ascended into management, retired this spring after more than three decades at the paper. She was a colleague, occasionally an adversary, and always a friend. Our discussions were always cordial, no matter on which side of the desk we were sitting, and I mourn her passing.

She stood up for her people.

A fuller account will appear in The Sun once the information can be assembled.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:34 PM | | Comments (5)

So you think you can teach English

I hope you have been following the amusing back and forth on Martha Brockenbrough’s Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar about that and who. It started with a flat assertion by Professor Peter R. Jacoby of San Diego Mesa College that that must not be used to refer to human beings.*

Ever since discovering what Professor Jacoby is pitching to his youthful charges, I have been ruminating about how teachers of English and composition might address the complexities more responsibly, misleading the young as little as possible. This much I have come up with:

You make clear that your focus is on a dialect of English, what is called standard written English. You do not police conversation or informal communication.

You establish that formal written English has a series of registers that writers observe, adjusting according to subject, occasion, and audience.

You identify rules of grammar and usage, explaining variations and exceptions.

You identify guidelines for usage and take care to make clear that they are not rules. **

You identify points at which the language is in flux and explain that students will have to exercise judgment in deciding whether to observe a traditional usage or adopt a new one.

You are free to express personal stylistic preferences, so long as you make clear that they are not the Law and the Prophets.

You recommend reputable authorities that your students can consult, and you explain how to arrive at judgments when the authorities conflict.

You follow reputable authorities yourself and acquaint yourself with continuing conversations about the language, regularly modifying your own views when you encounter persuasive evidence or arguments otherwise.

You will not have time to accomplish all this thoroughly, and your students will display varying capacities of absorption. You do the best you can by them, and try to do better next term.


*His assertion is, of course, nonsense, as I pointed out in comments there and in a blog post here. There are numerous examples of the usage by reputable writers going back centuries. Garner’s Modern American Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage agree on the point; when you find a prescriptivist and a descriptivist in agreement on a point of usage, you can take it to the bank.

His assertion that using that to refer to human beings “depersonalizes,” is, of course, exquisite nonsense. We can take that up another time.


**Openly disagreeing with the textbook can be a useful technique here.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:59 PM | | Comments (6)

Wait five years

Once I ceased to be a graduate student in English, I was relieved of the burden of Keeping Up. Not merely of Keeping Up with publications in my field, but also of Keeping Up with What Everyone Is Reading.*

Following one’s own tastes is liberating, and I have benefited from the advice of one of my undergraduate professors, who advised me to follow Paris’s Law. Bernard Paris, a professor of English at Michigan State, refused to read any book until it had been in print for at least five years. “Now,” he said, smiling, “I no longer have to read The Greening of America.”** Thus Paris’s Law.

I make exceptions, of course. If I agree to review a book, I read it. And when an author I know produces another book, I usually read it. (How long, Jane Haddam, before another Gregor Demarkian murder mystery?) But generally I trust the reliability of Paris’s Law. In another couple of years, for example, I’ll be able to see whether there is an expiration date on Malcolm Gladwell.

There are additional advantages. After five years, you’ll either be able to get the book from the library without having to wait, or find it cheaply remaindered. And when a group starts going on about The Latest Thing, you can simply put on that mildly baffled and bemused expression that I wear when people start talking about athletic competitions and reality shows.

See if it works for you.


*That counts for Everyone in the pretentious classes and Everyone who reads the middlebrow stuff. I once—I think it was 1965—read every work of fiction on the New York Times best-seller list, and I would not do that again even for ready money.

**I did not actually take any of Professor Paris’s courses, after being informed that he was infatuated with the work of Karen Horney and that every work he taught was run through a Horneyan filter.*** It was then that it occurred to me that in academia, once you own a grinder, you can turn everything into sausage.


***If any of you are Horneyans, please don’t write. I’m sure there must be much of value in her work and much meaning derived from it in your lives. Pace.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:26 AM | | Comments (6)

July 16, 2011

In praise of uncertainty

The Internet—you know, the electronic news media, the blogosphere, the realm of reader comments—is an arena of shouted certainties. Any assertion, no matter how preposterous, can be made, repeated, circulated, and amplified.

I came across a site this week that urged Congress to allow the nation to default on its debt and provoke a depression so as to deprive the president of re-election. At the same time, a group on the left is withdrawing its support of the president, as if it had anywhere else to go. The birthers appear to be somewhat subdued but have not gone away. The vaccines-cause-autism cranks are in full cry. In my own little corner of language and usage, Language Log has exposed the imbecility of a British article disparaging what the author supposes to be Americanisms—not that exposure to the light is apt to stop him.

Certainties, I suspect, may do us in. I prefer the attitude expressed in a Frank Conroy essay, “Think About It”:

“Indeed, in our intellectual lives, our creative lives, it is perhaps those problems that will never resolve that rightly claim the lion’s share of our energies. The physical body exists in a constant state of tension as it maintains homeostasis, and so too does the active mind embrace the tension of never being certain, never being absolutely sure, never being done, as it engages the world. That is our special fate, our inexpressibly valuable condition.”

Near to it in my commonplace book is a line from C.P. Snow’s The Masters, about the qualities looked for in the master of a college: “I want a man who knows something about himself. And is appalled. And has to forgive himself to get along.”

So too should you.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:41 PM | | Comments (1)

July 15, 2011

Someone skipped Sunday school

The Washington Post has posted an article that leads off with this: “The Lutheran denomination that GOP presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann quit in June sought to explain its belief that the papacy is the anti-Christ after reports questioned whether Bachmann is anti-Catholic.”

This is what you get when you have some gaggle of secular humanist types publishing articles about religion.

The traditional hardshell Protestant attitude toward the papacy is that the pope is the Antichrist. Capitalized, no hyphen. The Antichrist is the person representing the power of evil on earth in the Last Days, to be destroyed by Christ in his ultimate triumph. The Antichrist is the Antagonist at Armageddon. You can read all about it in the feverish Book of Revelation.

The term anti-Christ would merely describe any person or group opposed to Christ.

In our degenerate times, it’s a common blunder.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:34 PM | | Comments (14)


My highly esteemed colleague fev has an inspired suggestion that I fear the Associated Press Stylebook will ignore: a Whatever entry.

He was inspired by a question about whether to use active voice or passive voice. The correct answer is whatever. Use what fits the purpose. A secondary inspiration came from my post yesterday on that/who.* The answer there, too, is whatever. Write what is apt for the subject, the occasion, the audience, the overall tone.

I read a tweet this morning from a colleague wondering about buying the 2011 edition of the AP Stylebook, because it has so many changes. I haven’t looked at it myself yet, but my shrewd guess is that most of those changes are insignificant.

Stylebooks are useful for regularizing practice in spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, and a host of other mechanical details so that the reader is not distracted by inconsistent practice. And you want to maintain consistent practice for the ease of your readers. But it is a mistake to make idols of stylebooks, expecting them to substitute for judgment.

During the [cough] hiatus [cough] of 2009-2010, when I took this blog to, I wrote that “now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.” And you may have noticed that since my return to these precincts, I have continued to use the Oxford comma. I have spelled out numbers higher than nine. I have used the apostrophe s for possession with singular nouns ending in s. These are, to AP Style fundamentalists, high crimes and misdemeanors.

No one seems to have noticed. Or if anyone noticed, it was not a big deal. Certainly no one has complained that my apostasy has made these posts more difficult to read. Whatever.

By all means, consult stylebooks for guidance. Consult usage manuals and authorities on language. Consult the prose your read. Consult your own tastes and preferences. Then do what seems appropriate for the subject, for the publication, for the audience, for your own sense of rightness.

You need not fear that in the dead of night you will hear hobnailed boots on the stairs and pounding on the door as the AP Style Geheime Staatspolizei come for you.


*You are welcome to follow the exchanges between Martha Brockenbrough and me at the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, but the sardonic comments from readers on my post are also worth your time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (8)

July 14, 2011

Over the top!

Children, run out and play in the sunshine. Mr. John has gotten into one of his states. There may be shouting.

I tell you, blogging about usage is like fighting on the Somme in 1916. You keep going back and forth, back and forth over the same stinking patch of worthless mud. Today, Martha Brockenbrough reopened the “that vs. who” offensive at The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, and I’m vaulting over the parapet one more time.

She quotes a professor at San Diego Mesa College to this effect:

I teach college English, and it is becoming more and more difficult for me to find students not using "that" as the default indicative pronoun when referring to people or groups of people in both speech and writing. The simple example I hammer into their questing noggins every semester is this:

People = Who/whom Things (anything not human) = That (SPOGG: or which)

The rationale I give is also simple, yet I think quite profound:

Our society and culture depersonalize humanity -- individuals or groups of individuals -- too much as it is. Let us not contribute to that depersonalization any more, as it may ultimately depersonalize us all.

This advice is elegant, simple, and wrong.

For one thing, pets and other named animals are routinely personalized. Just try to tell weeping little Angela that she should say, “We will miss our little Fluffy, that [or which} was such a sweet cat.”

For another, while it may be dismissive or depersonalizing to apply that to an identifiable person, it is common, and has been common for a long time, to refer to groups of people or an unknown person with that:

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

“All people that on earth do dwell, / Sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.”

“The girl that I marry will have to be / As soft and pink as a nursery.”

If you want to take on the Authorized Version, Hymns Ancient and Modern, and Irving Berlin, go ahead; but I think you’re fighting above your weight.

Many of our students come to us woefully unskilled in English usage. They have either been taught nothing or taught rubbish: A paragraph is five sentences. Don’t split infinitives or use the passive voice—not that they can reliably identify either.

We should neither bemoan their ignorance nor preen ourselves over our superior accomplishments. They come to us to learn what they did not previously know, and our task is to instruct them. While it may be tempting to guide them through the thicket of English usage by giving them simplistic “rules,” we do them no favor if we fail to train them to make intelligent distinctions about the ways that literate people actually use the language.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:19 PM | | Comments (23)

A caution for prescriptivists

James Harbeck, writing about the shifting meaning of enormity at Sesquiotica, offers this useful guideline for those of us—and the prescriptivist tribe is still my tribe—trying to establish where to draw the line one day to the next:

“[T]here’s a difference between trying to keep the sense of a word from being bleached beyond usefulness and militating against an established sense of a word mainly with the effect of trumping others. I’m all for maximizing the expressive potential of the language – and not using it as some status-focused gotcha game.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:24 AM | | Comments (3)

It's a crime to write like that

Apologies in advance. This post is a long one. If you continue, allow yourself a little time.

My worthy colleague Peter Hermann, writing at his Crime Beat blog, has explained eloquently the difference between crime reporting and stenography. His post is worth your time.

A proper reporter does not merely record and publish uncritically the contents of police charging documents or court proceedings or other files, because they may contain irrelevant information or misleading factual accuracies. A reporter judges what is germane and reliable, insofar as his abilities and access to information and officials permit.

Let me show you why this is important.

Some years back, the copy editors of a newspaper where I had conducted one of my seances on editing sent me a text, which I have since used in my editing class at Loyola. I invite you to take a look and see what you make of it, what questions you would ask, what actions you would take as an editor.

I’ll just go into the next room and read a few more pages of Gerald Gunther’s biography of Judge Learned Hand until you’re done.

Don’t read ahead to the commentary on the story until you’ve finished your own.





THOMPSONVILLE — After purposefully running over a stray puppy resting in the dirt, say witnesses at the nudist colony where he lives, Andrew F. Sewall had this to say: I hope I killed it.

It began when Sewall, 49, spotted the little Rottweiler mix in the road as he was pulling into his driveway at 3210 Candlebrook Lane in the early minutes of Sunday morning, according to a Clements County Sheriff's Office report.

Sewall aimed his creme-colored Ford van at the puppy, sped up, ran over it, and intentionally dragged it 20 to 30 yards while it whimpered, the report said.

“The dog was screaming and yelping and making a whole lot of noise,” said Rosa Dodson, 51, a neighbor who witnessed the attack. “You could hear the thumping when it was trying to get out from under the van... There's no way he didn't hear the dog.”

Sewall, arrested on a felony charge of animal cruelty Sunday, left county jail Monday on $2,500 bail.

The puppy, meanwhile, while bloodied by the attack, apparently suffered no broken bones or internal injuries.

“The dog apparently seems fine,” said Elsie Burroughs, a supervisor at the Clements County Animal Control shelter, where the puppy was being cared for Monday. “If nobody claims it, hopefully it'll be put up for adoption.”

When neighbors confronted Sewall about the attack, the report said, he said the puppy should have gotten out of his way and that he hoped he killed it.

One neighbor told police Sewall appeared drunk.

After a deputy read him his Miranda rights Sunday evening, the report said, Sewall denied running over the puppy on purpose but could not explain why he didn't try to help it.

Dodson, the neighbor, said the puppy was a stray who in recent weeks had frequented the dirt roads of the Sunshine Naturist Park, a nudist colony. She took to calling the puppy Dakota, and described it as a sweet, peaceful dog.

“If she was a vicious, violent dog, I could see why (Sewall) might have a grudge against it,” Dodson said. “She definitely wasn't a violent dog. She was meek and mild.”

Most people at the nudist colony don't avail themselves of the clothing-optional policy. Sewall, Dodson said, is an exception. “He takes great pride in running around nude,” Dodson said.

The attack on the puppy is merely Sewall's latest brush with law officers. In 1993, records show, Clements deputies arrested him for probation violations relating to previous charges of grand theft and sexual battery. For parole violations in connection with charges of grand theft and lewd and lascivious behavior, deputies arrested him again in 1995. And in 1997, he was arrested for failure to appear on a lewd and lascivious charge.

Sewall could not be reached for comment Monday.




All right. That’s it.

You didn’t peek below, did you?

Let’s go to the commentary.

Item: First, keep this fact foremost in your mind: The dog is OK.

Item: We always take care to look at the opening. The first paragraph has Sewall expressing a wish to kill the dog, in what looks very much like a direct quote but has no quotation marks. It brands him as having an explicitly guilty intention, even though some weasely attribution is included. If this didn’t look suspect to you, along with the gratuitous reference to the nudist camp, you weren’t paying close enough attention.

Item: Sourcing. We have mention of “witnesses,” though only one is named, Rosa Dodson, and she does not appear to be well-disposed toward Sewall, complaining that he has the audacity to run around in the raw at a nudist camp—again a gratuitous reference.

There is an unnamed neighbor who told police that Sewall looked drunk. No further support to this assertion appears.

Item: We have details of Sewall’s previous brushes with the law, though the details are murky. He must have been convicted of something at some time if he violated parole, but we have only mentions of charges and arrests, without any explanation of which ones stuck. Or what, if anything, they have to do with this occasion.

Item: Details from the police report are presented as settled fact.

Item: Sewall is not quoted directly, and the reporter does not indicate that any strenuous efforts were made to reach him.

So we have a reporter who sets up an opening that makes Sewall look like a vicious person, quotes a neighbor who harbors an obvious animus, and includes unfiltered and incomplete details of a criminal history that may or not be relevant to this occasion.

Wait a minute. I know there was something else. Yes, yes: The dog is OK.

This text is not only a hatchet job on Sewall. It’s not even a story.

It is entirely possible that Sewall is a Very Bad Man, but there is no solid evidence in the text to establish that. There is, however, ample evidence that the writer is a Very Bad Reporter. This is the kind of work you get from a writer who either has no scruples or, more likely, is simply ignorant of the principles of the craft. Someone who dumps the contents of his notes into the text and thinks that that is reporting.

The copy editors who forwarded this article to me were very proud that they made the same arguments and got the story killed. (I, for my part, have altered all the proper nouns so as not to blacken the man’s name myself.)

And this—tell me you didn’t see this one coming—is how you put yourself at risk when you decide that you can dispense with the services of a copy desk. Reflect for a moment that in a newsroom today, the most likely action of the management would be to retain the reporter and discharge the copy editors.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:45 AM | | Comments (15)

July 13, 2011

That damn final "e"

I had barely put up a post today on preserving the loath/loathe distinction when comments began to come in indicating that loath/loathe is merely one example of a widespread problem. The final silent e in English usually changes pronunciation, making the vowel longer, but also changes the meaning.

The result is confusion because of the spelling.

Bath is a noun for soaking oneself in a tub, bathe a verb for taking a bath or (in England) to go swimming. (And yes, some people have a bathe. You can’t stop them.)

Breath is a noun for respiration, breathe a verb for inhaling and exhaling.

Swath is a noun for a strip (coming from the width of the stroke of a scythe), swathe a verb for wrapping up in bandages or a blanket.

I’ve seen all of these confused in text. I haven’t myself seen GreenCaret’s lathe (machine for shaping wood) for lath (thin strip of wood), but I don’t doubt that it has been done.

Now that I’ve opened this gate, further examples may wander in.

Those of you who bear the burden of educating the young might take a moment to explain to them that a final silent e changes everything.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 PM | | Comments (7)

No fear of loathing

Nancy Friedman, whom you may know as @Fritinancy, tweets this morning: “Have seen 2 examples this morning of "loathe" (verb) where "loath" (adj.) is needed. Time to give up this fight?”

To the barricades, citizens!

Both are very old words in English.

Loath, or loth, meant “hostile” or “repugnant” or “ugly” at one time or another until the sense of “averse,” “reluctant,” “unwilling” became dominant. Chaucer uses this sense in describing the Wife of Bath. The OED’s earliest citation of loathe, for “to feel disgust,” is from The Destruction of Troy in 1400.

Though their etymologies differ—loath from various Germanic cognates for “sorrow,” “pain,” loathe from Germanic forms of “to hate”—the spellings switched back and forth until orthography became standardized. The pronunciations, while close, are not identical.

The spelling is the problem, and people’s tendency to confuse the spellings blurs an important differentiation.

To be loath to do something is relatively understated emotionally. It is the equivalent of Melville’s Bartleby saying, “I would prefer not to.”

But to loathe is of a much higher intensity. If I loathe something, I am not reluctant to express my sentiments. I dislike it. I more than dislike it. I detest it. I despise it! IT IS A STENCH IN MY NOSTRILS!*

The difference in emotional intensity is a difference in meaning, and an important one. It would be a loss to the language to lose that distinction merely because some people have trouble with their spelling.

I, for one, am holding firm. Who will stand with me?





Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (20)

July 12, 2011

Garry Gene Barker, 1943-2011

It was plain from his recent dispatches that Garry Barker’s health was failing, that pulmonary disease was accelerating his decline, but it was still a blow to hear of his death today.

For five years, until circumstances forced them to sell this year, Garry and his wife, Danetta, ran the Flemingsburg Gazette, the weekly paper in Fleming County, Kentucky, where I got a start in journalism more than forty years ago. Garry was publisher and columnist, and Danetta, as far as I could tell, kept everything running.

Garry was a writer, author of a number of books and a column, “Head of the Holler,” that appeared in various Kentucky newspapers over the years. It was, you may well surmise, rural in tone rather than cosmopolitan. And that is fine. Garry was a man of his region, and his region informed his writing.

He graduated in 1965 from Berea College, which has for decades provided a college education to children of Appalachia who would not otherwise been able to afford one. He worked in the arts, for the Southern Highland Craft Guild, the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen, Berea College Crafts, and the Kentucky Folk Art Center.

And he wrote. Short stories collected in Kentucky Waltz and Fire on the Mountain. Essays and collections of his “Head of the Holler” columns. Fifteen books. You can find some of his work at

He described himself as a humorist, a wry observer of the past and the current scene in Appalachia. I think he was more than that. Though what fame he achieved was local, and some of his columns betrayed the marks of haste, he was a writer working tirelessly over the years to achieve on his terms what he had seen writers like Jesse Stuart and Harry Caudill and Wendell Berry accomplish: to give a voice and dignity to the people of his region.

His work is done, and it was honorable.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 PM | | Comments (1)

Do you have the Latin?

Jack Cannon, a colleague in Cincinnati, used to be fond of quoting an old British comic routine: “I wanted to work in the mines, but I didn’t have the Latin.”

For a long time, going to school meant learning Latin. You didn’t study your own language at school—you knew that—you studied Latin because it was the prestige language, the language of learning, law, and the church, and because it was hard.

Even in the United States within living memory, it was commonplace for students in public high schools on the college-prep track to take two or more years of Latin. I did myself, and was, like the Belgae, defeated by Julius Caesar.

The enduring impact of Latin on English can be seen in words imported intact from that language: We still have alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae, though I expect that fairly few alumni have mastered the distinctions.

And we find faux-Latin coinages irresistible: Literati, the literary intelligentsia, inspired glitterati, the ostentatiously fashionable.

But, English being English, the language naturalizes and transforms some of what it adopts. It is perfectly all right to use memorandums, referendums, and forums. Memoranda, referenda, and fora are more than a little precious. Data, like it or not, is either a plural noun or a singular collective noun, depending on context.

And, people being people, you also get coinages from writers whose knowledge of the classical languages doesn’t extend beyond changing us to i to form plurals. That’s why you see octopi, though octopus comes from a Greek word rather than a Latin one, with the plural form octopodes.* If you’ve got more than one, you have octopuses.

I know that some of you are going to yearn for a Rule to guide you thorough this thicket, and, as always, I’m pleased to provide one:

English is English, except when it’s not.

I’ve said before that English is a magpie language, forever picking up shiny things. Some borrowings keep their original forms, but many more are transformed. There’s no rule. You have to learn the distinctions, case by case, which is why investing in a couple of good dictionaries is a smart move.


*Insist on using octopodes, and you have a fair chance of getting a star on the Pedants’ Walk of Fame.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:19 AM | | Comments (34)

July 11, 2011

You know the types

Maybe you were at the beach all weekend, or perhaps just asleep. If so, you can still check out the post on the types of people who populate meetings at work and add in the comments any that I have omitted.

The word of the week, the etymology of which may make you wince, is evaginate.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:18 AM | | Comments (1)

Joke of the week: "The Soprano"

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:03 AM | | Comments (0)

July 10, 2011

The good old days of slavery

I commented yesterday on Facebook and in a tweet: “Is Michele Bachmann running for president of the United States or the Confederate States?” The occasion was an article from Fox News (!) explaining that she had endorsed a marriage-and-family-values pledge that included this opening sentence:

Slavery had a disastrous impact on African-American families, yet sadly a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President.

The Bachmann campaign tried to edge away from the reaction to this by saying that the candidate had endorsed the pledge rather than the preamble, which is, I suppose, a way of saying that her staff didn’t bother to look closely at the text.

But, hopeful that Ms. Bachmann will begin to read the things she signs, I want to turn away from her to examine the fatuous assertion itself.

To accept it at face value is to ignore that slaves were typically denied the right to marry in the first place (hence the “jumping the broom” tradition), that families were in fact frequently split up as members were sold elsewhere, and that quite a number of those well-off children were the offspring of the master or the master’s male relations, by rape or subtler forms of coercion.

But even if we overlook a mountain of historical evidence about slavery, accept this twaddle, and focus on the main contention about the current black family, we would have to conclude that blacks were also better off in slavery than under the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both George Bushes, since anyone living outside a gated community is aware that the current situation did not develop after January 20, 2009.

I know, I know, American political rhetoric is usually silly and often compacted of lies a child could see through. There is, for instance, the cant about Barack Obama being a socialist, though it’s a peculiar socialist who would preserve the private insurance companies and reduce the federal workforce. And on the left there’s the clamor that he is betraying Social Security.* Who could sift through it all to determine how much is ignorance and how much cynical posturing?

Still, we look at language here, and that means looking at rhetoric, and looking at rhetoric involves determining what works and what doesn’t. What doesn’t work is linking America’s first African-American president with slavery. It’s too ugly and touchy a subject from the nation’s past, with too many resonances, and invoking it is a little like having a smoke in a munitions plant.


*If the left had troubled to read what President Obama has written or listen to what he has said, it would understand that he’s a damn centrist.** And a realist who understands that only a combination of increased taxation and limitation of benefits is going to get us out of the hole. But the signature emotion of the left is disappointment, as rage is of the right.


**The various candidates opposing him and the discontented in his own party might recollect the lessons of Barry Goldwater and George McGovern: You can get nominated with the base, but you can’t get elected with the base alone.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:27 PM | | Comments (4)

July 9, 2011

Why is this so hard: premier/premiere?

The Young Victorian Theatre Company describes itself as “Baltimore's premiere professional summer theater company, specializing in Gilbert & Sullivan operettas.”

One might expect people involved in the theater to know that it’s premier (adj.) that means “first” or “foremost.” That’s why as a noun it is synonymous with prime [first, foremost] minister.

Premiere (n.) is a first performance of a work.

W.S. Gilbert would likely not be pleased.


Posted by John McIntyre at 6:40 PM | | Comments (6)

Around the table

Those whom the Lord wishes to punish for their waywardness he sends to meetings. These are the types you can expect to find there.

The Circumlocutor: Listen to him take eight minutes to paraphrase the four-paragraph text in front of you, and then realize that you are not quite sure what his point was. You are not permitted to scream.

The Quidnunc: Never mind the ostensible purpose of the meeting, He wants to chatter about what the big boys at corporate are up to, or who is in line to get the vacant office, or who is angling for a job with the competition.

The Realityist: Like the Quidnunc, he has no interest in the actual meeting. His function is to take up several minutes of everyone’s time with inane chatter about what he saw on television the night before, or some sporting event. His centripetal force tends to drag others along with him.

The Maverick: No matter what the group says, he has a different take on it. He not only thinks outside the box, he is never inside the box.

The Clotpoll: Apparently receiving signals from outside our solar system, he never quite gathers what is going on. His identifying mark: The answer to his question is the sentence immediately preceding his question. He is the reason everything has to be explained three times.

The Idea Assassin: No matter what anyone proposes, he will immediately spot and proclaim the flaw in it. We’ve tried it before, and it has never worked. They tried it elsewhere, and it didn’t work. It flat out can’t work. (And you’re a bit of an ass for having suggested it.)

The Auld Reekie: He only eats dishes prepared with garlic, he has gone European about deodorant, or he has some kind of kink in his digestive system. Better sit across the table from him.

The Literalist: He reads aloud every word on his PowerPoint slides.

The Anarch: He arrives late with a sheaf of papers, which he has trouble organizing. The items he wants to talk about are not on the agenda, and the items on the agenda he distributed are from a previous meeting. Questioned, he goes blank.

The Grand Inquisitor: He’s The Boss, and his behavior can, and will, combine elements of all the previous types.

NOTE: These people are the reason that nothing of importance is ever accomplished at meetings, which is why you have to go off by yourself, talk individually to people, and figure out on your own what has to be done.


*Please do not write objecting to the masculine pronouns. In three decades of attending news meetings, I have always been sitting at a table of white guys, who supply these types. I have not encountered enough female or minority participants in news meetings to be confident that I have a representative sample.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (28)

July 8, 2011

Copy editor, copyeditor, schmopyeditor

Carol Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor, author of the book of that name, and a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press, recounts at her blog her horror at the discovery, as her book was going to press, that The Chicago Manual of Style prefers copyeditor.

These things happen. There was grumbling in certain quarters when the newsletter for the trade changed its name to Copyediting. We’re copy editors, the Old Guard rumbled.

But in fact there has long been varying practice, the copy editing at newspapers, magazines, and books being distinct branches of the craft with little crossover. Some were copy editors and some copyeditors. (In Britain, we’re subeditors, or subs.)

There’s little prospect of a resolution of the inconsistency, and there is little need for it. One consequence of the Worldwide War on Editing is that both copy editing and copyediting are vanishing. To the advanced thinkers in the world of publishing and their cheese-paring financial minions, we’re living in a merry post-modernist world in which things like factual accuracy or external reality are mere constructs, chimeras. Readers don’t care so long as they get what they want.

To these worthies, copy editors might as well be scratching quills on vellum in the scriptorium. Dispensable. Oh, there will be some remaining redoubts—Chicago, Oxford, The New York Times while it lasts. But to those of us who have had a glimpse of the future, it’s evident that the time is not far off when a lexicographer will make an entry along these lines:

copy editor (alt. copyeditor) n. (archaic)



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:53 AM | | Comments (11)

July 7, 2011

Editors could learn from Apple

One of the trickiest situations in editing arises when dealing with a writer who is stubbornly wrongheaded about grammar, usage, or the merits of his novel metaphors.

Now, thanks to a post on Language Log, we learn how Apple prohibits its employees from using certain “stop” words with customers. Unfortunate, for example, is out. As it turns out is what Apple recommends. That would be handy in editing.

But the really useful sentence, the big prize, is “That’s not recommended.” That, a former Apple employee is quoted as saying, is how to respond when a customer has gone swimming with his iPod, instead of saying “That was really stupid.”

I’m endorsing “That’s not recommended” for immediate use by all my fellow editors.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:00 PM | | Comments (3)

July 6, 2011

"Allegedly" is a crutch

Late last night, at that time when the editor’s eyes ache from hours of staring at low-grade prose and the traitorous thought flickers across the mind that the game might not be worth the candle, @trudishaffer tweeted, “Sigh. I think I'm fighting a losing battle against ‘allegedly.’”

I immediately urged her to stand firm, and a number of stalwarts have chimed in. If the young ones give up the struggle, we’re all doomed.*

Even the obsessive-compulsive’s Holy Book, the Associated Press Stylebook, advises against over-reliance on alleged and allegedly. You can tell from its strictures what kind of nonsense writers are prone to engage in: “Do not use alleged to describe an event that is known to have occurred. ...”

There appears to be a prevalent misunderstanding that sprinkling copy with allegedly, as one grates Parmesan over pasta, protects against libel. But a more reliable protection against libel is simply to be clear and specific about who is making the allegation: “according to charging documents,” “a police spokesman said,” “the indictment charges that,” “a witness told police,” “in testimony at trial,” or the like.

You should only resort to alleged when it is not established as fact that the action or crime took place. There may or may not have been a bribe or a sexual assault. But even there you will want to be careful; if you write about an alleged rape, you risk appearing skeptical rather than neutral.

Throw away the crutch and walk on your own feet.


*I myself continue to reach for the cuffs over suspects in crime stories. You know, “The suspects fled the scene after the shooting.” No, you only have suspects when the authorities identify someone they are looking for. Until then, you might have gunmen, or shooters, or even, God help up, perpetrators, but they aren’t yet suspects. Should I say alleged suspects?



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:33 PM | | Comments (6)

July 5, 2011

Why is this so hard?

I wind up fixing these at least once a week, often in articles about construction or home decor:

If it is a wall, ceiling, floor, pillar or other structure instead of powder in a bag, it’s concrete, not cement.

If it’s a shelf above a fireplace instead of a cloak around your shoulders, it’s a mantel, not a mantle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 PM | | Comments (14)

Back with me?

I suppose if you were off to the Hamptons or the Vineyard for the holiday weekend, you may not have kept up with this site.

You may have missed, for example, word that the new edition of Bryan Garner’s admirable dictionary of legal usage has been published. You may have missed yesterday’s joke of the week. And, since I neglected to mention it yesterday, the word of the week this week is boustrophedon. Think of it the next time you mow the grass.

I was at the paragraph factory last night chronicling an old-fashioned Baltimore July Fourth celebration: fireworks, a fatal stabbing, and a four-year-old hit by a stray bullet.

Today the work week begins in earnest. Glad to have you back.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:53 AM | | Comments (2)

July 4, 2011

Cavalcade of Americana

There was a goodly crowd, as always, for the Fourth of July parade in Towson, and I was happy to join it to witness evidences of the health of the Republic.

They have everything in the Towson parade. The governor rides past, and the lieutenant governor, and two United States senators, a congressman, various public officials, and the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. The pipe bands were impressive—people just don’t get enough bagpipe music—and the Ravens marching band was stunning—I counted eighteen Sousaphones. Lots of small children on bicycles and scooters, and lots of older people in antique cars. Scouts of several stripes. Fire engines.

The entrepreneurial spirit was represented not only by vendors of kitschy patriotic items, but by the young people of Trinity Episcopal Church (where my wife works), who rent out spaces in the church parking lot for a modest $5 each to fund their programs. They also sold soda to the thirsty throngs, and there the Christian redistributionist principle went into operation: Parishioners donate the soda and then buy it back.

Trinity also holds fast to its tradition of a brief service before the parade, followed by the ringing of the church bell one time for each year of the Republic. It would have been rung 235 times this year if someone hadn’t lost count, but everyone was confident that many years were represented, and no one sought further tolling.

People in Towson know how to behave. They stand as the colors pass, and the men uncover. They applaud politely, sometimes vigorously. They cheer their favorites, like the Orioles mascot. And they have more stamina than I do. Even though cloud cover kept the heat down to the 80s, I packed it in after an hour and a half, no doubt forgoing many further delights, but confident that we the people continue to be a going concern.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 PM | | Comments (1)

Joke of the week: "The checkup"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:49 AM | | Comments (5)

235 years

In 1944, at an “I Am an American Day” celebration in New York City, Judge Learned Hand delivered a short address that has since been widely quoted and anthologized. Today, the 235th anniversary of American independence, I offer you the core passage from it.

What do we mean when we say that first of all we seek liberty? I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow.

What then is the spirit of liberty? I cannot define it; I can only tell you my own faith. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the mind of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned but never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest.


Posted by John McIntyre at 8:29 AM | | Comments (9)

July 2, 2011

Eighty-six the "1812"

Today, July 2, the day on which the Continental Congress adopted the resolution for independence, was the day, not July 4, on which John Adams predicted that subsequent generations would commemorate with fireworks and other celebrations. (A point I had to fix in a staff story this week.)

I have been remiss in the months leading up to this year’s Independence Day, failing to follow up on last year’s exhortation to orchestras to consider incorporating Dudley Buck’s “Festival Ouverture on the Star-Spangled Banner” into the holiday concerts.

It is incongruous that the “1812 Overture,” a piece of schlock despised by its own composer, commemorating Russia’s triumph over Napoleon, and mainly an excuse for firing ordnance, should have become the signature piece for our national holiday. If we must include this monumental piece of kitsch every year, we might at least make an effort to include the work of an American composer quoting our national anthem.

And if artillery is required, by all means write some into the score.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (29)

July 1, 2011

Yes! we have no mandamus

I’ve got another Garner.

If you have been reading through these posts, you know how highly I regard Bryan Garner’s book on English usage, Garner’s American Usage. It is thorough, thoughtful, comprehensive, and reasonable, and it compels respect even on the occasions when one arrives at a differing judgment about a usage. It is, if you are serious about working as an editor in America, an indispensable book.

But Mr. Garner has not limited his attention to English usage. He is the editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, and many of the twenty books he has written or edited have to do with legal subjects.

It was with pleasure that I found at my door today the new Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (Oxford University Press, 991 pages, $65). As a layman, I expect to rely on its lucid explanation of legal terms.

But Garner on Legal Usage is more than a dictionary. It is also a usage manual, commenting on apt and inept manipulation of the language. The preface to this edition, the third, indicates that not all the writers he cites are pleased: “I have continued to resist the lobbying efforts of certain writers to have citations to their work removed. (Yes, some have actually tried to pressure Oxford University Press with letter-writing campaigns.)”

I’ve only just begun to rummage around in it, and already little treasures are surfacing, such as the Mingle-Mangle entry: “known in erudite legal circles as macaronism, soraismus, or cacozelia, was a common vice of language in early English opinions. It consists in English larded with Latin or French. …”

Garner on Usage used to be my lunchtime serendipitous reading. Now I have another fat volume in which to graze.


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

American exceptionalism

When I was a junior in high school, my history teacher, Jimmy Johnson, tried to liven the subject with a series of debates. The most verbally agile in the class, I was always assigned the unpopular side: the Loyalist side at the Revolution (if I had only encountered Samuel Johnson’s “Taxation No Tyranny” then instead of a decade later) and opposition, like Lincoln’s, to the Mexican War.

The inclination to try to see history whole thus got early encouragement, and it leaves me seeing doubly during gusts of patriotic oratory. You may imagine that I nodded vehemently when I came across this line of Kipling’s that Sarah Vowell quotes in Unfamiliar Fishes, her book on American imperialism in the McKinley era:

“I never got over the wonder of a people who, having extirpated the aboriginals of their continent more completely than any modern race had ever done, honestly believed that they were a godly little New England community setting examples to brutal mankind.”

The Fourth of July, particularly in a year when a presidential campaign is beginning to lumber toward cascades of hoopla and distortions, is a time when the exceptionalists tend to give the “city on a hill” line a workout. Aspiration is a good thing. The national ideals are a good thing. Attempting to live up to them is a good thing. But it is also a salutary thing to recollect, amid the gassy exhalations of the holiday, that in our role as an example to the rest of unenlightened humankind, we have sometimes made a shoddy job of it.


ADDENDUM: Before you invite me to leave for Russia, Blighty, Scandinavia, or wherever you would like to consign me, I do not aspire to be an expatriate. I’m an American citizen (birth certificate proffered on request). I’ll be at the Towson Fourth of July parade on Monday. And on Sunday, at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill, as the temperature climbs toward the nineties, I will be at the console of the wheezing Casavant, accompanying the congregation in the singing of “My country, ’tis of thee” and playing for the postlude a march by John Philip Sousa. Spare me any air-conditioned patriotism.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (10)
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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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