« Wet marketing concept | Main | You go, Grammar Girl »

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So in addition to my primary caution to fellow journalists—do not publish articles about English usage without having someone who actually knows something vet them—I offer a more general caution: Don’t give the shouters credit for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


"Do not publish articles about English usage without having someone who actually knows something vet them," you say. May I generalize that?

Do not publish articles about anything without having someone who actually knows something vet them.

Two pet peeves -- yes, peeves, but I can admit it, I am strong...

Stories about the military describing "tanks" when the accompanying photo shows armored personnel carriers. Bonus points if they mention "armored tanks", as if there's some other kind.

Stories about almost anything connected with technical aspects of the internet, which seems to be a knowledge vacuum for most mainstream reporters.

[P.S. In deference your Americanness, I have used a "z" in "generalize", though privately I will still pronounce that letter as "zed", not "zee". I left the "u" out of "armoured" too. You're welcome.]

"But it is no longer to acceptable to articulate. . ."

You have too many tos, Herr McIntyre.

I love your column.

At least I'm not stingy.

I see "the shouters" occasionally in the courtroom, and I do my best to refrain from giving them "credit for more weight than they carry." Not all of them shout by raising their voices. Sometimes it's mere dogged insistence.

I remember one attorney who wanted me to make a ruling on a matter that was not the subject of that day's hearing. I pointed out that she had not given notice to the other side that the request would be made at the hearing that day, and suggested that if she wanted to pursue the matter she could follow the law by giving formal written notice to the opponent and set a date for a hearing. (Note to all: basic due process = notice and an opportunity to be heard.)

She then repeated her request for a ruling. I repeated my suggestion that she follow appropriate procedures for bringing her motion, and moved on to the issue actually set for hearing that day.

After we finished that piece of business, she yet again repeated her request for me to make an order on the topic not set for hearing that day. I told her the hearing was over and to step away from the counsel table. She was slow to do so, but I called another case and the next attorneys shouldered her out of the way.

She gathered her things and left. I never did see her back on the issue she wanted me to address without notice. Must not have been that important.

That's one way I deal with shouters trying to claim credit for more weight than they actually carry. Another way is I have my bailiff remove them from the courtroom. But that's a different story.


I hesitate to suggest that Professor Pullum is being unsubtle, but not for long I don’t. And I fear, Mr McIntyre, that you are following him down his garden path.

I haven’t read many of the comments on the BBC site about Mr Engel’s silly article and the “50 most irritating Americanisms”, but the few dozen I have read do not display “clear hostility towards […] Americans". There are a large number of people telling us the expressions they dislike, a number pointing out that many of these expressions are not particularly American, and a number suggesting that getting annoyed about such things is silly. Altogether quite an encouraging lot of comments for an internet site on such a subject. (I accept my selection was a relatively small one, and the professor may have read many more, and his selection may be quite different in tone.)

But in any case the paradox Professsor Pullum sees is no paradox at all. There is no reason why people who are irritated by what they think are Americanisms in British speech should necessarily be equally irritated when they hear those Americanisms in the mouth of a citizen of the United States. And there is no reason why they should extend their dislike of these verbal tics to some sort of hatred of Americans or America, any more than Americans who dislike particular Briticisms are necessarily anti-British.

We all find particular forms irritating. I dislike the form which uses “I was, like,” to mean “I said” – it’s not in my English, it’s fairly recent, and it jars. A year or two ago I was irritated by “Absolutely” to mean the reply “Yes” (conveniently forgetting that I might use “Certainly” in exactly the same way. Or “Exactly”, come to that). I don’t let it spoil my sleep. Many Britons think irritating new forms are by definition American, but that’s just because the United States is so dominant in anglophone culture, and its language so fecund. Some Britons may get more irritated by new forms than is necessary or wise. That doesn’t make them racists.

Professor Pullum has now added to his post some comments by an American chum of his, Fritz Newmeyer. Professor Newmeyer differs from Professor Pullum’s view of British behaviour. He says in “social situations (dinner parties, pubs, the person seated next to me on a train)” in Britain he has been repeatedly shocked by overt in-your-face anti-Americanism.

Now Americans have a particularly patriotic view of their country, and a particular tendency to regard it as exceptional, and this can lead them to be particularly sensitive to criticism. But if that is not the case with Professor Newmeyer, one wonders why he is not more discriminating in his choice of dinner tables at which to accept hospitality – and if he repeatedly addresses the person sitting next to him in the train, someone should inform him of the curious British rules on When You May Talk to a Stranger.

All in all, as so often with Professor Pullum’s posts, I believe we have a great hoo-hah about very little. Outside the circles in which Professor Newmeyer chooses to mix, the British public is not anti-American. Tony Blair took us to war (in part at least) because he believed he would face electoral ruin with Middle England unless he was seen to be pro-American. We can all probably calm down.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected