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August 31, 2011

The persistence of superstition

Slow-witted as I am, it has taken a long time for the penny to drop about the reason that superstitions about grammar and usage are so durable. Because they are simple and easy to remember, they serve as “tells” about other people.

When I see a gentleman who is wearing brown shoes with a blue suit, I put a little tick against that person in my head. The same thing happens when I hear someone say “IN-ter-est-ing” or pronounce the t in often. Or when someone walks into a brew pub and orders a Bud Light. We all make multitudes of minor judgments about other people every day, and we keep them to ourselves if we’re smart enough to realize that they are purely personal and arbitrary.

The superstitions about grammar and usage have origins. Dryden campaigned against stranded prepositions because he imagined that to be correct, English had to resemble Latin. Hopefully slumbered peacefully in the bosom of the language for centuries until it caught on as a vogue term about half a century ago and was scorned by the type of people who didn’t like the type of people who talked that way.

The superstition outlives its origins. No one today thinks that English ought to be made to resemble Latin. Apart from the peevers and sticklers, resistance to hopefully has faded, as the objection to contact as a verb faded before it. But the objections survive because they are simple, easy to remember, and convenient for labeling people. They are shibboleths, in the same sense as the word is used in Judges 12: a marker to identify People Who Are Not Like Us.

Most of our private snobberies are relatively harmless. I’m not the fashion police; you can dress as you like. It’s of no real consequence to me that you drink Bud Light, so long as I don’t have to. But it is different with language peeving and snobbery.

In the first place, they don’t teach you in school how to dress or what booze to drink,* but they are supposed to teach you how to write. And if they are wasting their time and yours with a load of codswallop, they are inhibiting your ability to use the language with facility and grace.

And then, the peevers universalize their private preferences. Worse, they make them moral issues. They don’t carry on about the decline of Western civilization if hideously ugly and uncomfortable platform shoes come back into vogue, or people mix Red Bull with rum and Sour Apple Pucker,** but they do sound the barbarians-at-the-gate alarums over points of English usage. And when linguists and lexicographers point out that they exaggerate, or are simply wrong, they cannot abandon or even question their snobberies, which are essential for propping up their sense of self-worth.***

Though they waste time in the schools, and sometimes on copy desks, their protestations are futile—the language goes where it will—and ultimately comical. I recommend to you the purchase of Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain. If you can find one. Read his essays from the 1950s and early 1960s huffing and puffing and fulminating against Webster’s Third International, the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the National Council of Teachers of English, and all linguists. Today they sound tinny and fusty.

Or have a look at Jan Freeman’s excellent Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, to see how quickly each pronunciamento ages and begins to look misguided, pointless, silly.

There is no getting away from our private judgments and snobberies. They are essential to our navigating the world day to day, because we cannot investigate every person and situation and text exhaustively. But it is salutary to keep them within bounds, and to subject them to a little examination from time to time.


*Though, to be sure, it is learned there.

**I am not making this up.

 ***How do I know so much about the psychology of sticklers? Because I myself am a recovering stickler.




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:25 AM | | Comments (21)

August 30, 2011

In a hopeful manner

Motivated Grammar tweeted as @MGrammar: “Saw people complaining about sentence-modifying ‘hopefully’ (e.g., ‘Hopefully, we'll win’) being ungrammatical. Please stop, it's fine.”

From @ArrantPedantry, this response: “Surprisingly, some people still hold to that rule, but thankfully their numbers seem to be dwindling.”

Stubbornly, this superstition refuses to go away, and sadly, no amount of explanation suffices to wipe it out. Foolishly, Strunk and White perpetuates it. Laughably, people follow it unthinkingly.

But plainly, sentence adverbs, adverbs that modify an entire clause, do exist in English, and oddly, other than hopefully, cause no uproar when they appear.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:55 PM | | Comments (15)

Haven and harbor

I have railed for years against the irritatingly redundant safe haven—a safe safe place as presumably contrasted against an unsafe safe place—and to no avail. What I suspect may have risen as a bureaucratic fondness for unnecessarily multiplying words now appears to have become something like an idiom, a stock phrase that nearly everyone unthinkingly uses.

Today I have the unpleasant duty of disagreeing in part with Brenda Batten, who, tweeting as @BloombergStyle, wrote, “Safe harbor and safe haven are redundant terms. Harbor, haven or refuge is enough.” That is about half right.

A haven is always a safe place, a refuge. A harbor, not necessarily so. An anchorage in a harbor may be exposed, making it an unreliable refuge. Last week, for example, the Navy Times reported that thirty-six ships left anchorage at Norfolk to avoid the advancing Hurricane Irene. Not all the harborage was safe in such a storm.*

Safe haven remains an obnoxious pleonasm, and I will stand by Ms. Batten against it until the Last Trump sounds. But safe harbor is unexceptionable—likely the source of the confusion by which safe was transferred to haven but still a perfectly reasonable term.


*Twenty-eight ships remained in the Hampton Roads in secure anchorages, which, yes, the Navy Times called “safe havens.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:21 PM | | Comments (7)

August 29, 2011

It's all words

The Sandboxers at the old Dining@Large blog came to refer to this site as “Wordville,” and so it seems appropriate to start off the week with a set of words.

While many of us on the East Coast were hunkering down last week as Hurricane Irene passed over, Fritinancy was exploring the origins of the verb and sometimes-noun hunker.

Over at HeadsUp, the discovery of a sexist sentence about the hurricane prompted a look at the venerable and sensible Associated Press Stylebook rule against anthropomorphizing storms.

Here at Wordville, the ability to claim some expertise about words and language is central to our amour-propre, which is your word of the week.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (7)

Joke of the week: "The Veteran Accountant"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:37 AM | | Comments (2)

August 28, 2011

Back among you

When last we chatted, I was muttering under my breath those oaths that are so essential an element in the practice of journalism. Then, having succeeded once again in producing a home delivery edition of the paper, I headed out into the storm.

The rain was heavy, though not so heavy as a few downpours in recent weeks, and the wind was stiff but not terrifying. I made only a couple of detours, once to get around an intersection a couple of blocks ahead that I saw blocked by a police cruiser, once to avoid a stretch of street that I thought might be flooded. Then, on my own block of Plymouth Road, I came across a huge limb in the middle of the street, which I had to drag to the curb.

At home, I was congratulating myself to Kathleen on my safe return and thinking longingly of bourbon poured over ice when the lights went out. The rain continued to come down, and I repaired to the basement to gaze on the rising water in the sump. Nothing for it but to begin bailing.

I bailed the sump for the better part of the next seven hours, remarking at several points how heavy water is and suggesting aloud that it would be very thoughtful of Baltimore Gas and Electric to restore the juice. I collapsed and slept for a couple of hours, spelled by Kathleen, and returned to the task, with the back and knees of a much older man, continuing off and on as the water level began to stabilize until noon or one o’clock, when inflow had basically ceased.

A little before five o’clock the lights came back on.

So now, new plans: When the damn cable modem, which appears to have forgotten who is paying for it, makes up its mind to restore the Internet connection,* I can post this entry and approve any comments that have accumulated. Then that bourbon splashed over the ice. And tomorrow, off to buy a battery backup for the sump pump.


*As you can see, this took some time beyond the composition of this post.


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:28 PM | | Comments (12)

August 27, 2011

Sweet Old Bob recalled

There are nights on the shop floor at the paragraph factory when Bob Johnson, my first news editor, spontaneously comes to mind.

Tonight I recollected an evening when he was waiting at the news desk for a much-promised and long-delayed local story and observed pleasantly:

Goddamn city desk! If they’d written the Bible, you wouldn't be able to fit it in a boxcar—and it wouldn’t be done yet.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:45 PM | | Comments (3)

Awaiting the storm

If you’re on the East Coast, buttoned down amid your stockpiles of bottled water and batteries, here are some things you can read as you wait for the power to fail.

Something to bookmark: At its website, The Chronicle of Higher Education has launched Lingua Franca, a blog on language and writing featuring five distinguished contributors: Lucy Ferriss, Allan Metcalf, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Carol Fisher Saller, and Ben Yagoda.

Among the initial posts is a reflection by Ms. Saller on consistency in copy editing, and when it shouldn’t matter so much.

For the nerds: Writing at The Boston Globe, the estimable Ben Zimmer reflects on the cloudy origins of the word nerd in the early 1950s, disposing along the way of some of the folk etymologies people have crafted.

Oh yeah, that: At HeadsUp, a salutary reminder: “News is supposed to be interesting for its own sake.”

Stay dry, people.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:16 AM | | Comments (5)

August 26, 2011

Optional, not compulsory

Here’s a tweet from a Reuters story:

“Crowdsourcing tweeters bonding in bromance and tracking cougars earned an official place in the English lexicon Thursday when Merriam-Webster announced the addition of 150 words to its 2011 Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.”

It apparently stuns journalists to discover that lexicographers put words into dictionaries. Publishing houses know this, and their marketing departments regularly fling this sort of chum onto the waters.

The key word in the sentence from Reuters is, of course, official. Stories like this are written for people who think that dictionaries license language—like the schoolteachers and others horrified fifty years ago when Webster’s Third International included ain’t. Lexicographers, to them, are inviting the children to play with matches.

There is an error in thinking in this attitude, the same error that confuses people about the work of linguists. To say that a word or usage is current and that a fair number of native speakers find it apt in some contexts does not mean that its use is compulsory.

Dictionaries are simply published to inform you about words that are in use and what their meanings are. Words don’t get into dictionaries until they have already been out there in the language for a good while. Samuel Johnson thought when he wrote his Plan for the dictionary that he would be able to make English static, to fix it in place. Years later, when he came to write his Preface, he acknowledged ruefully that no such immobility of the language is possible. The only fixed language is a dead language, like classical Latin. English, while it is still alive, cannot be made like Latin.

There is, I think, another and allied attitude, the desire for purity, that leads hard-shell prescriptivists astray.

People who major in English get a dose of this: Spenser calling Chaucer the “well of English undefiled,” Dryden writing about the purity of the language, Johnson trying to establish a canon of the best English through the examples in his dictionary. And all this coalesces in the mind of the unreflecting prescriptivist as the idea that there is a pure English, an ideal English, with fixed meanings—typically the vocabulary and usage of the prescriptivist himself—from which any deviation is corruption.

Stated baldly, of course, it’s nonsense. We have Chaucer’s vigorous and earthy English, Spenser’s antique style, Shakespeare’s expansiveness, Dryden’s classicism, Macaulay’s sonorous periodic sentences, Austen’s irony, Twain’s colloquialism, Hemingway’s laconic masculinity. Just look in more recent times at the New Yorker plain style exemplified by Thurber and White, contrasted with the anti-New Yorker roccoco effects of Tom Wolfe. It’s all English, to be sure, and you can name any number of additional writers with distinctive effects, but it’s all too protean to be pure.

So calm yourselves. The dictionaries add new words. Old words shift or fall out of use. There are people who do not talk like you but yet are completely understandable, and often a good deal less stiff and fussy. I’m sitting in the paragraph factory waiting for Hurricane Irene to rumble up Calvert Street. There are more urgent concerns than the listing of bromance in a book.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:48 PM | | Comments (6)

August 25, 2011

Our chronicler of loons

A few years ago it was commonplace to hear some of the old hands at the paragraph factory reminisce about the colorful types they’d written about and mourn that Baltimore had gone all vanilla. There aren’t any real characters anymore, they’d say, shaking their heads.

Then came Laura Vozzella, whose last column for The Baltimore Sun appears in today’s print edition. I invite you to look at the first paragraph:

“The City Council president showed me his underwear. The state prosecutor let me try on Sheila Dixon’s ill-gotten mink. A state delegate swore at me for asking why she’d lied about her age. A priest denounced me from the pulpit. And David Simon sent me lots of angry messages.”

For that matter, I invite you to read the entire valedictory during the interval that it’s still available on the website. Ms. Vozzella has had an eye—and an ear and a nose—for the detail that illuminates the inner wackiness. I often had the pleasure of editing her columns, and it was a delight to attempt to craft headlines that lived up to the material.*

And now she leaves us to go to work for a newspaper forty miles down the road that does very well in its little way. For them she will cover Virginia politics.

I would almost paraphrase Thomas More speaking to Master Rich in A Man for All Seasons: It would not have profited you to give up Baltimore for the whole world, but for Virginia? Haven’t you firmly established how plentiful the supply of loons is here?


*The delight was evidently reciprocal. When I left Calvert Street on my [cough] hiatus [cough], she wrote a sweet column about how her dictionary had walked out the door.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:49 AM | | Comments (4)

August 24, 2011

Fess up

“No man,” said Dr. Johnson, “is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” Now, people can be hypocrites about their pleasures, like the fashionable people over the generations who have gone to the opera not for the pleasure of the music but for the pleasure of dressing up and being seen. And many people have guilty pleasures—low tastes that they conceal.

My own most enduring and lifelong pleasure has been reading, and while I do read history and biography for amusement, my low pleasure is reading murder mysteries.

I could, if I liked, try to dress that up. I could say that murder mysteries follow the archetypal pattern that we see in comedy: Into an apparently orderly world, disorder is introduced, and through a realignment of relationships, a new order is created. This is more or less the pattern that W.H. Auden describes in his classic essay on the detective story, “The Guilty Vicarage.” Further, the genre allows the reader to participate vicariously in dangerous and violent actions and impulses at no personal cost, for a psychological discharge of those impulses. (As I have said before, after a long day at work with professional journalists, nothing gives more comfort that a comfortable chair, a strong drink, and an account of disagreeable people meeting violent death.)

But I know in my heart that most of what I read in this vein is of marginal literary achievement.* In “Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?” Edmund Wilson returned to the detective novel after having disparaged Rex Stout (whose complete Nero Wolfe oeuvre I own and re-read periodically) and gave a it second chance after champions of the genre had written to him. On their recommendation, he picked up Dorothy Sayers. Listen to his voice rise: “Well, I set out to read The Nine Tailors in the hope of tasting some novel excitement, and I declare that it seems to me one of the dullest books I have ever encountered in any field. The first part of it is all about bell-ringing as it is practised in English churches and contains a lot of information of the kind that you might expect to find in an encyclopedia article on campanology. I skipped a good deal of this. ... There was also a dreadful stock English nobleman of the casual and debonair kind, with the embarrassing name of Lord Peter Wimsey. ...”

Pace, admirers of Dorothy Sayers. Elsewhere, in the essay “Reading,” collected in The Dyer’s Hand, Auden says, “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” If it gives you joy, it has some value.

The guilty pleasures give pleasure, and for reasons. And now, despite my repeated insistence on the importance of getting to the point immediately in writing, I tell you that the previous five paragraphs are merely a prologue to the point of today’s post: I invite you to share your own guilty pleasures, and explain how they satisfy you.

For the sake of seemliness, let’s restrict the comments to books. If your favorite tipple is two parts single malt to one part Gatorade, that is something we would prefer not to know. If you please, the books you genuinely enjoy, regardless of their prestige, and the pleasure they give you:


*I did manage to get through Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code by reading very fast for plot and paying no attention to the prose. But when I picked up Angels and Demons, I started hearing what it sounded like and ground to a halt within a couple of chapters, never to return.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:36 AM | | Comments (48)

Farewell to Generalissimo Franco

A colleague has inquired whether it is advisable to maintain the distinction in the Associated Press Stylebook that a regime is a system of rule rather than a particular ruler or government.

Garner on Usage is silent on the subject. The New Oxford American Dictionary gives as its first meaning “the government, esp. an authoritarian one.” gives “a form of government” but also “a government in power.” American Heritage also includes "a government in power," without triggering any dispute from its panel of usage advisers.

I suspect that the stylebook entry dates from the 1960s, particularly since the entry for regime in Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer (1965) closely parallels the AP Stylebook entry. Further evidence is that the government, junta, regime entry in AP gives the examples “[U]se the Franco government in referring to the government of Spain under Francisco Franco, not Franco regime.”

Some of our younger colleagues may need to be informed that the generalissimo climbed the golden staircase back in 1975,* suggesting that this unrevised entry is one more fossil remnant that current writers and editors can safely ignore.


*Still dead.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:07 AM | | Comments (10)

August 23, 2011

First day of class

Two weeks from today I will walk into a drab little room in Beatty Hall on the Loyola University Maryland campus to talk to a dozen or so undergraduates who have unaccountably registered to learn copy editing. It will be my thirty-second semester of teaching the course, and they will hear something like this:

This is not a gut course. Writing is difficult enough to do. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder. We can write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.

Before we even get to the analytical aspect, we will have to do some work on grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the five hundred students who have preceded you here, you will be shaky on some of the fundamentals. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught.

I should also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly dull. A student from last term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.

I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can.

Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I’m going to talk to you about basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I’m going to advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I’m going to show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.

You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.

Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft that one learns by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class. I can’t make you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters?

But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by Christmas be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead of most of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.

So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. Last semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.

One more thing. You may not care for my manner or my sense of humor. Not every student has. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to practice your coping skills.

Now, shall we get down to the particulars?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:15 AM | | Comments (18)

August 22, 2011

Immoral and irrational welcome here

Your weekend in review and Monday morning start on the week:  

Item: Did you know that prescriptivists are more rational and more moral than descriptivists? Neither did I.

Item: Who will stand with me to defend Baltimore? You know why you’re still here. Say so.

Item: Your word of the week is gonfalon.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:35 AM | | Comments (5)

Joke of the week: "The Panhandler"

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:04 AM | | Comments (0)

August 21, 2011

More on the difficult craft

Two quotations for the day, the first moderately flippant, the second dead serious, from the chapter “The Language Mavens” in Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct:

“[O]nce introduced, a prescriptive rule is very hard to eradicate, no matter how ridiculous. Inside the educational and writing establishments, the rules survive by the same dynamic that perpetuates ritual genital mutilations and college fraternity hazing: I had to go through it and am none the worse, so why should you have it any easier?”

“The aspect of language use that is most worth changing is the clarity and style of written prose.* Expository writing requires language to express far more complex trains of thought than it was biologically designed to do. Inconsistencies caused by limitations of short-term memory and planning, unnoticed in conversation, are not as tolerable when presented on a page that is to be perused more leisurely. Also, unlike a conventional partner, a reader will rarely share enough background assumptions to interpolate all the missing premises that make language comprehensible. Overcoming one’s natural egocentrism and trying to anticipate the knowledge state of a generic reader at every stage of the exposition is one of the most important tasks in writing well. All this makes writing a difficult craft that must be mastered through practice, instruction, feedback, and—probably most important—intensive exposure to good examples.”


*I suspect that Those People are not aware of such an attitude among descriptivists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:02 PM | | Comments (6)

Language is fine; people are the problem

David Bentley Hart has returned to the issues over which he and I disagreed a couple of weeks ago to clarify a couple of points about his views on language.

The first: “My column was just an elaborate flippancy, but it did express certain convictions regarding language that I truly hold. …” I believe that that is exactly what Arrant Pedantry and I understood him to be saying. It is gratifying to know that we were in agreement after all.

Dr. Hart then contrasts the viewpoint of the prescriptivist and the descriptivist: “The prescriptivist believes clarity, precision, subtlety, nuance, and poetic richness need to be defended against the leveling drabness of mass culture; the describer believes words are primarily vehicles of communicative intention, whose ‘proper’ connotations are communally determined. The one finds authority in the aristocratic and long-attested, the other finds it in the demotic and current. The one sees language as a precious cultural inheritance, the other sees it as the commonest social coin. The one worries about the continuity of literature, traditions, and the consensus of the learned; the other consults newspapers, daily transactions, and the consent of the people.”

I think that Dr. Hart is spot on in his description of the hard-core prescriptivist, because Those People, Queen’s English Society pretenders and the like, talk about themselves as an embattled aristocracy attempting to keep the fabric of the language from being spattered by the rabble.

But loath as I am to suggest that an eminent theologian and scholar of Orthodox Christianity might be given to loading the dice, his portrait of the descriptivist doesn’t match any of the descriptivists I’ve met. Imagine the response, for example, if you were to describe Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum’s prose as drab and demotic. Or to suggest that Ben Zimmer’s lively accounts of the language are “the commonest social coin.”

It might be well to keep in mind that the demotic is where new things bubble up in language, many of which come in time to be adopted by the aristocracy, which otherwise grows a little inbred and attenuated.

But really, the jaw-dropping part of this latest essay comes with his insistence that the “analytic, lexically antinomian line is that, in themselves, words mean nothing; persons use them as instruments to mean this or that. But, conversely, persons can mean only what they have the words to say, and so the finer our distinctions and more precise our definitions, the more we are able to mean. Hence, ‘prescriptivism,’ however hopeless it is, has a rational and moral worth that ‘descriptivism’ lacks.”

A specific example of where this preposterous attitude leads? Transpire “does not mean ‘occur,’ no matter how many persons use it that way.”

Yes. His own words, directly transcribed.

It is neither rational nor moral to suggest that words have some—let me risk lifting a word from Dr. Hart’s field—ousia or Platonic essence. Words mean only what people choose them to mean. That is precisely why nice no longer means “lewd.” Transpire came to mean something in English beyond its roots in Latin, from “giving off breath or vapor” to “coming to light.” And it is increasingly in use meaning “occur.” Over time, the vulgar, who created English in the first place, have their way.

But let’s keep our heads. These transformations do not mean that Dr. Hart and his fellow patricians are at risk of being carried off in a tumbril, or should be.

What it does mean is that there is a place—even at those dreadful demotic newspapers—for reasonable prescriptivists who take some trouble to understand what linguists are actually saying and who attempt to make informed judgments about which distinctions are worth preserving and which are decaying into shibboleths.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:08 AM | | Comments (14)

August 20, 2011

Baltimore, my Baltimore

My colleague Dan Rodricks wrote a few days ago in defense of the forthcoming Grand Prix race in downtown Baltimore,* chiding those who gripe that it is, among other things, an inconvenience. In the course of his argument, he characterized the town thus:

“The result has been an odd mix of southern rube, tattered aristocrat, yearning immigrant and landed gentry, reflecting a middle temperament that in the 21st century is still suspicious of pretense and leery of collective civic ambition. New York or Boston can compete to be the center of the universe; Baltimore just snorts along, with a post-industrial drip, hardly ever making a boast or brag. The city has always had a strange inferiority complex.”

I dissent.

Mr. Rodricks, like me, is an auslander. I have lived here a mere twenty-five years. I doubt that you can be thought a genuine Baltimorean unless your grandparents were born here, and even that may be a little arriviste. But I have been intrigued by the city since at age eighteen I came across H.L. Mencken’s “On Living in Baltimore” in James T. Farrell’s selection of his Prejudices essays.

Mencken worked for years as an editor in New York, which he described as “the greatest city of the modern world, with more money in it than all Europe and more clowns and harlots than all Asia,” but with “no more charm than a circus lot or a second-rate hotel.” When he took the train back to Baltimore he left behind “a place fit only for the gross business of getting money” to go to ”a place made for enjoying it.”

Baltimore for Mencken was where you could “accumulate the materials of a home—the trivial, fortuitous and often grotesque things that gather around a family, as glories and debts gather around a state.” A home like Mencken’s on Hollins Street appealed for “its capacity for accretion and solidification,” “its quality of representing, in all its details, the personalities of the people who live in it.”

In fine, he proclaimed, “I believe that this feeling for the hearth, for the immemorial lares and penates, is infinitely stronger in Baltimore than in New York—that it has better survived there, indeed, than in any other large city of America—and that its persistence accounts for the superior charm of the town.”

What Mencken describes is not an “inferiority complex”—what is this, 1955?—but a sense of person and place, a comfortable identity. To outsiders it may look like dowdiness** and provinciality, is a realism and practicality. And yes, charm.

We do not have to spend a fortune to live in a garret, as many do in New York, or compromise our citizenship, like those who live without representation in Washington, D.C. When the paper was still hiring copy editors, I would tell applicants that they could live better and more cheaply in Baltimore than in any comparable city on the Atlantic seaboard.

We are not smug. We know about crime—there have been three homicides within a block of my house in the past two years. We know that the public schools are in a distressing state—I spent a small fortune to educate my children at private schools. We know that the taxation is high, the public services sketchy.

And yet.

I can walk into the Baltimore Museum of Art—it’s free—to look at the Matisses in the Cone Collection. If I were not working at nights, I could go to concerts at the Baltimore Symphony or Peabody Conservatory. I borrow books from the well-run Enoch Pratt Free Library. There are now excellent places to dine on Harford Road a mile or so from my house. My commuting time to the paragraph factory is about twenty minutes. I know and am known by people in a parish in which I have been a member for twenty-three years. The house I live in is not the family home of many generations, but I shall have to die in it because moving would mean cleaning out the garage.

Though I am not a Baltimorean, I am a resident of Baltimore, and content to be so. I don’t need a Grand Prix roaring around the Inner Harbor to tell me than I have landed fortunately.


*You may rank me among the non-cheerleaders. (Note the hyphen.)

**When we write in The Sun about “fashion-forward” people, as when we write about the Grand Prix, I reserve a private opinion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (7)

August 19, 2011

You are not the drum major

Responding, I think, to the non- post, fellow editor @ceshove tweeted, “convicting for the rule-follower in me, but i still think standards have a place. standards + use of brain = gold”

To which @StanCarey replied, “Certainly standards have a place—problem is that ppl try to impose these conventions universally for no good reason.”

Let’s think a little about standards. Standards are most familiarly what Those People* brandish to defend personal preferences. That’s when you hear the keening about barbarians at the gate. Let go of who/whom or everyone/they, and the wall is breached and Constantinople falls to the Turks.

But there are not universal standards. English does have a grammar, the rules and principles of which linguists struggle to describe exhaustively, That grammar is not prescriptive. It just explains how you sound strange or make no sense if you violate those rules. Beyond that, there’s a lot of scope.

Standards, when Those People shout about them, are usually the conventions of standard written English (which Those People sometimes mistakenly try to apply to spoken English). Keep this in mind: Those conventions change over time, which is why we may admire Dryden and Macaulay but no longer write like them. And those conventions are local.

By local, I mean the conventions that one finds in the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style. Useful as they are for accomplishing consistency in small matters for a publication, they are not meant to be universalized. (This is the thing copy editors tend to have trouble with.) If you do something the other way, it is still going to be English and understandable.

If I tell you that whom is on the way out, or that English speakers have always confused lie/lay and it’s not something to get exercised about, I am merely describing facts to you so that you can form your own judgments. I am not telling you to abandon the standards. Look at this blog: It still uses whom and distinguishes between lie and lay, because I choose to. And the singular their crops up from time to time, because I choose to allow that, too.

A Facebook acquaintance commented the other day that she has had it: “There are just too many variations in this world, American Press Stylebook, Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style.....” (She subsequently corrected “American Press” to “Associated Press.”) She’s going to follow her own style, and I applaud her. If she is not under discipline from some publication or publishing house to follow a particular set of conventions, and she is consistent in her own choices, there’s no reason she shouldn’t set her own style.

Hers would be a very local set of standards, but let me remind you again that all standards are local, and transient. Observing them within their bounds makes sense; imposing them beyond those bounds does not.

English is not a parade, with everyone in ranks marching in step. It’s more of a cavalcade—a pretty disorderly one at that—or Chaucer’s ragtag crowd of pilgrims ambling toward Canterbury. And even if it were a parade, you would not be the drum major.


*General Lee—I think it was Shelby Foote explained this on Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary—did not refer to the opposing forces as Union or Federal troops. He called them “those people.” It may be that he wanted to skirt the knowledge that he was fighting officers he once served honorably alongside. Or it may be that he did not want to dignify them with a status. For both those reasons, “Those People” seems an apt way to refer to the tribe of peevers.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:50 AM | | Comments (16)

August 18, 2011

Hey non non- nonnio

For once—mark this, youngsters, Mr. John is being kind, or close to it—I find no fault with the Associated Press Stylebook. Its entry on non- is relatively straightforward:

non- The rules of prefixes apply, but in general [emphasis added] no hyphen when forming a compound that does not have a special meaning and can be understood if not is used before the base word. Use a hyphen, however, before proper nouns or in awkward combinations, [emphasis added] such as non-nuclear.

Oddly, some copy editors appear to have registered no hyphen when forming a compound, fixated on it, and blanked out the rest. It may have something to do with the regrettable tendency within the craft to prefer Rules, however illusory, to judgment, however variable. But AP makes it unmistakable that judgment is to be exercised.

I’ve ridiculed nonlife-threatening in the past and have apparently broken the staff at The Sun of threatening nonlife. Sometimes they even lapse into English and write that “injuries were not life-threatening.” But the other day I saw someone identified in edited copy as a nonpresident.

Maybe I’m wrong about their misinterpreting the stylebook. Maybe they just think that part of the cutbacks is a rationing of hyphens.

Anyhow, whatever dictionary you happen to use should have an extensive display of non- compounds, some hyphenated and many not. You can look things up or not, depending on whether you have the time, but here is a little guideline for non- compounds: If it looks odd without a hyphen, or you think the reader might stumble over it, put a hyphen in. Even if the dictionary shows it as solid. It’s less likely to be distracting with the hyphen than without.

If you’re not non compos, you should be able to handle that.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:17 AM | | Comments (8)

August 17, 2011

Kardashian? Intellectual? Hmmm.

Cast your vote: Mark Nichol is saying sensible things at Daily Writing Tips about the singular they, long established in English usage but shunned by hard-shell prescriptivists. In addition to making a good case for the usage, he is polling readers about their preferences. You know my view: The everyone/their construction is unobjectionable in all but the most formal contexts. Now you can express yours.

Looks and rights: I decided that it’s time to pour more coffee when I saw the words Kim Kardashian and intellectual in the same sentence. But it’s true. A post at Language Log explains that Ms. Kardashian is suing Old Navy because the company has engaged a model who looks like her, asserting that this is an infringement on her intellectual property rights. Geoffrey Pullum wonder to what extent the appearance of face, hair, and breasts constitutes intellectual property.

Speak up: We welcome back Alex McCrae to the ranks of You Don’t Say commenters as he convalesces from surgery. I see that Picky and John Cowan are going back and forth over whether English is an official language in Britain. I know that there are scores and hundreds of you out there listening in, and I would like to repeat my periodic invitation for you to join in.

Here in Wordville, as they used to call this site at Dining@Large, your views are welcome. You don’t have to hold more degrees than a thermometer. And you will not be subjected to rough treatment; we are a civil polity. Your statements may be subjected to examination and dispute, but you will not be insulted or impaled on a spit for a typographical error. (You do, however, get to say rude things about me. I do not fall upon the thorns of life and bleed.)




Posted by John McIntyre at 10:59 AM | | Comments (19)

You know damn well it's a word

An exchange on Twitter:

@cwceditor: @guardianstyle Please tell me there's no such verb as "to incent."

@guardianstyle There's no such verb as "to incent".

All right, boys, you’ve had your fun, but we all know full well that there is too a verb incent. We’ve seen or heard it used, and we know perfectly well what it means. In fact, as a clear, compact word for “to give an incentive to/for,” it serves a purpose.

What we are actually talking about is not whether it’s a word, but whether we care for the people who use it. Evidently we don’t. Neither do I, actually, having enduring my portion of management-speak over the years.*

And that is as it should be. We learn to talk initially by imitating the language we hear. As we grow older, we refine our speech by further imitation, and when we engage in writing, we imitate, consciously or unconsciously, the examples we encounter. That’s how it’s done.

If you boil down prose style to a single statement, it is that we choose whom we want to sound like. If faddy vogue usages and jargon grate on your ear, don’t use them. If you find much management chatter to be duplicitous and manipulative double-speak or vacuous cheerleading, congratulations on your perspicacity. Shun it as much as you can while keeping your job.

The same holds true for your other choices. Does formal language make you feel pompous and awkward? Colloquial language not a good fit? In your writing you are expressing a voice, so far as the occasion and the audience will permit it, and your judgment will lead you to the language that fits your personality.

English is a big sloppy language that offers you choices among words that are standard and non-standard, words with old meanings and words with meanings just emerging, and words being twisted out of their old shapes. Choose among them as it suits your style and your purpose. When you find one that you don’t like, be honest and just say you don’t like it. Don’t hide behind the “it’s not a word” pretense.


*Some time back, in an effort to improve the annual performance reviews in the newsroom, managers were issued a little paperback wordbook of vocabulary for evaluations. That this pathetic resource was thought advisable for a newsroom full of writers and editors doesn’t speak well of the newsroom, or of the human resources people who thought it a good idea. I used it solely for laughs.



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

August 16, 2011

Even Michele Bachmann deserves better than this

If you please, headline writers of America, no more headlines about Michele Bachmann that include the word overdrive. Every time you do this, you betray the inadequacies of pun headlines.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive was a band that had a certain vogue in the 1970s. As far as I know—I see little point in keeping up—they may still be touring the Canadian provinces, but linking them to the current Republican candidate for the presidency is fatuous, for reasons that I will explain.

1. Punning on people’s names is juvenile. It’s schoolyard humor.

2. So far as I can tell, there is no connection whatever between the candidate and the band. An effective play on words works like a metaphor, bringing into relief some essential likeness. There isn’t one here.

3. It’s not 1976 any more. So maybe you could explain cleverness is making a pun on the names of a current candidate and a superannuated musician most active more than thirty years ago. No? I thought not.


Posted by John McIntyre at 4:46 PM | | Comments (8)

August 15, 2011

That's not what I meant at all

I was about to sit down with a good book, John McWhorter’s What Language Is (of which, more to come) and a wee dram of the vacation bourbon (Old Forester, if you must know; makes an excellent Manhattan), when I was struck with a chill of apprehension.

I wrote earlier today about Joshua Kendall’s new biography of Noah Webster, pointing out that Webster saw his dictionary as establishing a specific American identity through American English. But what, it now looms over me, if that post should be taken as an endorsement by those people seeking to make English our official language? What if they should, God save the mark, cite me?

So let me be plain to them. Give it up, people. Return to your other favorite occupations, removing books from libraries and inserting nonsense into the biology curriculum of the public schools. English does not need your help.




Posted by John McIntyre at 4:37 PM | | Comments (24)

One of the Founders wrote a dictionary

My graduate school career was in BritLit, eighteenth-century division, and a paper I wrote on Boswell’s Life of Johnson was one of the few that was not contemptible. So it was with the reluctance of long-standing Johnsonian sympathies that I picked up Joshua Kendall’s The Forgotten Founding Father: Noah Webster’s Obsession and the Creation of an American Culture (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 355 pages, $26.95).

Boswell’s portrait of Johnson makes him look heroic despite his highly evident flaws, but Mr. Kendall goes head-on in conceding by the seventh page of his biography that Webster was not a very attractive character: arrogant, pedantic, obsessive-compulsive, self-aggrandizing, combative to the point of vituperation, withdrawn, and generally off-putting.

And yet. And yet his influence on American culture has been profound and enduring. His spelling book, which sold 13 million in its various editions, became a foundation of general literacy in America. He wrote about the defects of the Articles of Confederation and campaigned energetically for the adoption of the Constitution. His work as editor of the American Minerva gave a voice to the Federalist side in the political disputes of the early Republic. He worked effectively to establish a national copyright law. He helped to found Amherst College (in part to counteract the Unitarian tendencies at Harvard, then as now a whipping-boy for conservatives).

Then there is the dictionary. It was not just a titanic achievement in lexicography, with a precision and subtlety in definition not previously achieved. It was not just that he included everyday language among formal language and expanded the general scientific vocabulary. It was the central component of his lifelong campaign to establish that there is an American language, distinct from British English, that unites the regions and ethnicities of this nation.

It displayed some of his weaknesses. While publicly disparaging Johnson’s dictionary, Webster, after the manner of all lexicographers, borrowed heavily from it. His amateur etymologies were fanciful (read: crackpot). But it became the dictionary for Americans.

Its effects endure. Though most of Webster’s proposals to reform spelling were laughed down in his time, we still spell color without a u and critic without a k. The lineal descendant of his dictionary is the massive undertaking at G.C. Merriam Co. (Since the expiration of the copyright, Webster’s has been slapped on the cover page of any number of dictionaries produced by other publishers.) Though the language that we speak and spell, American English, was sure to develop, there can be no doubt that Noah Webster helped to shape its course.

Mr. Kendall, in his enthusiasm to rehabilitate his subject’s reputation, occasionally goes too far—if Webster’s abortive plan to publish as transatlantic dictionary in England had succeeded, “Americans and Britons might today be speaking the same version of English.” Doubtful. But he writes clearly, he has marshaled his evidence, and he does not flinch from Webster’s unattractive qualities. He makes a good case.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:19 AM | | Comments (3)

Jokeless Monday

It’s Monday and there’s no joke: Unable to set up a recording session the week before last, I left on vacation without supplying a video joke for this week. Apologies. The joke should return next Monday. In the meantime, your word for the week is craquelure.

What is a jink? From a reader: “I've never written you before, but had to today after seeing this headline in the Sports section: ‘Son of former NFL star is known for high jinks, intelligence’ What is a high jink? For that matter, what is a low jink?”

Jink is a verb meaning “to change direction suddenly and nimbly” and a noun meaning “a sudden quick change of direction,” the New Oxford American Dictionary says, going on to explain that the Scots high jinks, “denoting antics at drinking parties” is “probably symbolic of nimble motion.” Try a wee dram or two of the Balvenie and see what you can manage.

What he said: Arrant Pedantry has taken up the little essay on solecisms by David Bentley Hart and expresses, more succinctly and effectively in one post than I did in two, its misguidedness.

I’m not reopening the subject here. If you want to defend Dr. Hart, go there.

The beach: Now a pleasant but fading memory. Back to the paragraph factory tomorrow.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:01 AM | | Comments (12)

August 14, 2011

All hail the market

A person I am acquainted with through Facebook posted some days back that it’s time to abandon Keynesianism and return to the free market.

I find this a remarkable statement of faith—speaking as someone who watched the free market efficiently erase a third of his retirement savings a couple of years back.

Though I am not an economist, I know a little history, and anyone else who knows any will remember that recurring boom-and-bust cycles that have marked the free market in the United States for the past two centuries. The nineteenth century was predisposed to what were called “panics,” financial collapses that ushered in recessions and depressions. The Panic of 1837, which killed Martin Van Buren’s hopes of re-election to the presidency. The Panic of 1873, the Panic of 1893, and others leading up to the Big One in 1929.

Problems with the money supply were associated with such panics, as your recollection of those unenlightening debates over bimetallism will remind you. And panics were also marked by speculative excesses—bubbles. The consequences, when reckless speculators got their comeuppance from the Invisible Hand, also included the collateral damage of unemployment and bankruptcy for tens of thousands of ordinary people who had little or no role in the money supply or the stock market.

Those who romanticize the free market gloss over its destabilizing tendencies. And those who attempt to intervene to moderate that destabilization—the creators of the Federal Reserve System in Woodrow Wilson’s administration or the banking and securities reformers and creators of Social Security in Franklin Roosevelt’s administration—are labeled radicals, Bolsheviks, socialists, etc., etc. You can depend on it that today, as for the past century and more, any effort to establish governmental regulation in any area will be denounced as socialism, a word that has pretty much lost any tangible meaning in our political discourse.

I’m an American citizen resident in a capitalist mixed economy, and, thank you, I have no wish to go elsewhere. What I do wish, vainly, is that our public discourse could come to rely a little less on shouted slogans and a little more on examination of facts.

That said, I admit to a certain mordant pleasure at the knowledge that the circus is perpetually in town.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:02 PM | | Comments (5)

August 13, 2011

Say it ain't so, Jan Freeman

After a mere 600 columns, Jan Freeman is writing -30- to her column on language, “The Word,” at The Boston Globe. Even though she will continue to blog at Throw Grammar from the Train, and even though the capable and entertaining Erin McKean will continue the column at The Globe, this is a loss.

Beginning in 1997, at a time when “the usage mavens — many of us journalists, schooled in the faith of our copy-desk forebears — were just passing on the conventional wisdom,” she has proceeded to deepen and broaden her, and our, understanding of the English language.

In time, Steven Pinker, updating the chapter on “The Language Mavens” in The Language Instinct, wrote, “My call for a language maven who thinks like a linguist has been answered by Jan Freeman, who writes an unfailingly insightful column called ‘The Word’ in The Boston Globe. ...”

If you have been reading her columns, you have seen how good-humoredly she demolishes the shibboleths and superstitions perpetuated by misguided teachers and self-appointed authorities. If you have been paying attention to the comments at this blog, you have noticed from time to time how graciously and deftly she punctures my overstatements.

Her book, Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, in addition to “deciphering, appraising, and annotating” Bierce’s strictures on usage, examines the historical and psychological grounds of peevery. I loved it.

It has been a good run, and it would be selfish to begrudge her wish to “step off the print treadmill.”

So, in her farewell column this weekend, she offers something to take away from these fourteen years of writing about language: “[I]t’s far more fun to learn how the language actually works than to revisit the same dreary complaints, year after year, long after popular usage has moved on.” Reader, take note.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:38 AM | | Comments (3)

August 12, 2011

Beach balcony book bourbon bliss*

Only accounts of other people’s dreams are more tedious than the accounts of other people’s vacations.

Consider yourselves warned.

I did walk upon the beach, getting my ankles wet. I did not hear the mermaids singing, each to each. (Never thought that they would sing to me.)

Apart from that, and a little shopping in Rehoboth Beach with Kathleen, and the time spent reading and gazing out on the water, it was about food and drink.

On the way to Ocean City, we stopped for lunch in Cambridge and discovered Coolahan Irish Pub, which will serve along with your pint of Smithwick’s an excellent plate of rockfish and chips, the rockfish succulent, the breading light, and greasiness absent.

In Ocean City proper, we discovered, at the recommendation of a friend, a quiet little restaurant called Jules in a shopping center at 118th Street. We lingered over dinner with that friend, and It was so good that we returned the following evening with another friend. The fried oysters were spicy, the salads were excellently composed, the duck marinated in soy sauce was tender and flavorful, and the salmon was the best I’ve ever had in a restaurant. It is not cheap, but neither is it ruinously expensive.

Kathleen found in the ladies’ a set of letters from schoolchildren thanking the proprietor for a visit to their class and following up with additional questions. Among them: “Why is it so cold in restaurants? My brother said that it’s to keep down the flies.”

We did go to J.R.’s for ribs, which were good enough to counterbalance the noise and the crowd and the table full of children spilling their drinks. “Get my rag; it’s right over there,” one waiter helpfully told a parent. (Jules is the place to which you will want to retreat after this more characteristic Ocean City dining experience.)

I wound up too full for frozen custard, a misjudgment I mean to correct the next time.

And the books: Karin Slaughter’s Blindsighted was a perfectly satisfactory murder mystery, and I’ve gotten a good start on Kathryn Fox’s Skin and Bone, which is shaping up nicely. I’m two-thirds of the way through The Forgotten Founding Father, Joshua Kendall’s biography of Noah Webster, of which you will see more here once I have finished it.

Full moon tonight, and I shall be sorry not to see it reflected on the water.


*This was the tweet I sent out after arriving at a friend’s condo in Ocean City, Maryland, for a brief stay.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:31 PM | | Comments (1)

August 8, 2011

Books and words: a miscellany

Item: A cheery start for the week: You may have read that Slaughterhouse-Five was banned from the curriculum and library of the high school in Republic, Missouri—the attempt to withhold books from young people being a persistently recurring phenomenon in the United States of Moronia. Happily, a donor has made it possible for the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library to make as many as 150 copies of the book available, free, to any Republic high school student who requests it.

Item: If you missed them last week, don’t neglect the opportunity to hear Professor Christine Mallinson’s graduate students’ podcasts on how Baltimoreans talk.

Item: Your word of the week is penumbra. Keep an eye on the shadows.

Item: Still pondering beach reading, though Sis Smith’s suggestion that I begin the Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin roman-fleuve* all over again is tempting.


*Literally “river-novel,” a term to describe a series of novels, each self-contained, focusing on a main character, generations of a family, an era, etc. From the French. Think of Proust. From the German we have Bildungsroman, “education novel,” a novel about the growth, moral, psychological, etc., of the main character.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:54 AM | | Comments (10)

Joke of the week: "The Good Wife"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:02 AM | | Comments (0)

August 7, 2011

Packing for the beach

With a week of vacation from the paragraph factory stretching ahead, an urgent planning question moves to the fore: what books to take to the beach.*

I’ve just finished The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly, a murder mystery with a quite satisfactory and accurate portrayal of a newspaper in decline. Another along that line would be good.

Also in hand are John McWhorter’s What Language Is and James W. Pennebaker’s The Secret Life of Pronouns, sent by publishers for review.

It might be a good time to revisit a favorite, the way I reread Barchester Towers every few years to revel in Trollope’s best work. I went back to Northanger Abbey during last winter’s trip to England, rediscovering how sly Austen is. Waugh’s Scoop? A Barbara Pym? Anne Tyler’s Accidental Tourist? It’s decades since I read Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter. Difficult choices.

A Book of Good Intentions, brought along because one ought to read it but left resolutely untouched the entire span, is requisite. Henry James should fit nicely.

Something in biography and history, something with a little meat on it, would be good. The last time we went to Ocean City, I was in Ved Mehta’s memoir of working with William Shawn at The New Yorker, an unwitting demonstration of the limitations of hero worship. I’ll need to check the library to see what’s out.

You may be muttering among yourselves that even for his appetite for books, that’s more than he can get through in a week. Quite right, and I intend to spend some time walking on the beach and might even go into the water up to my shins (taking care always to preserve my pallor).

The point is that you should always have a reserve of unread books at hand, your ever-normal granary, your stock of acorns set aside for the winter. Provide, provide!


*I hesitate even to get on an elevator without a book in hand.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:34 PM | | Comments (21)

August 6, 2011


I’ve received a civil and gracious note from David Hart regretting the tone of the exchanges over our respective articles. At his request, Mr. Lyttle has apologized, at You Don’t Say and Johnson, for his intemperate tone.

Dr. Hart and I continue to have differences. He sees his original article as a light-hearted and self-deprecating look at language usage rather than a serious position. I see in it a restatement of standard-brand language peevery masked by the tone, and the seriousness with which the commenters on his article take the matter suggests that I am not alone in that reading. There are people who read his article as he does, and others who read it as I do. You will read it according to your own understanding.

But I did jump on him a little severely, without clarifying why I read his article as I did until the comments had already heated up. And I did mistype idyll.

When we write for publication, as with any other public performance, we have no guarantee of a respectful audience. And if members of that audience fling brickbats, old fruit, and dead cats, we accept that hazard—which is why less-than-flattering remarks by Mr. Lyttle and others were approved as comments here.

Similarly, if Dr. Hart and I have been misunderstood by readers, we have only ourselves to blame. He apparently did not intend to open the gates to a clamoring horde of peevers, and I did not intend to attack his person rather than what I took to be his position. Writing is slippery.

For now, though, the cannons have been limbered and the muskets stacked, and calm has descended as the parties attend to their wounds.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:57 PM | | Comments (6)

August 5, 2011

You saw it here

Item: A teacher asks if she has been wrong throughout her career in instructing students that they must not ever use a comma before because, and Professor Geoffrey Pullum gives tact a try. He’s quite good, actually, but great Fowler’s ghost, what a strain!

Item: Professor Christine Mallinson of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County has had her graduate students examining language variations in Baltimore. These students have produced podcasts on accent features among African-Americans, multiculturalism and ethnicity, and hon as a linguistic and identity marker. The hon podcast in particular, being academic and dispassionate, should be a welcome change from the recent shouting over the word.

Item: We’re painfully aware that bureaucrats in business and government, out of self-importance, enjoy those numbing noun-noun-noun combinations that English permits but does not much enjoy. You know, productivity enhancement incentive** for raise. Mike Pope demonstrates that technical writers are particularly given to the construction of “noun stacks.” This one is actual: failed password security question answer attempts limit. Read more.

Item: At Johnson, my new pal A Lyttle is urging David Bentley Hart to give me a sound thrashing at his website: “When he goes on the offensive, he writes some of the most amusing stuff out there. I'd like him to shred MacIntyre and RLG in public because I have an indecent attraction to blood-sport, and he doesn't leave a lot of carrion behind for the vultures.”

If I can control my trembling, I’ll post an update once Dr. Hart unlimbers that ponderous wit.

Item: I’m planning to go on vacation, beginning Sunday,* and expect to post less frequently next week—particularly during the days that Kathleen and I will be at the beach.


*If I’m spared. Still have to put out the Saturday and Sunday editions.

**I made it up on the spot, if anyone out there would like to offer me a second job as an Obfuscator.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:50 AM | | Comments (6)

August 4, 2011

No escaping it

Usually the Guardian’s stylebook presents a sensible, informed set of guidelines. It was, therefore, a little discouraging to see this tweet from @guardianstyle:

-ee: something is done to you; -er: you do something; employee or employer but attender, escaper not attendee, escapee

We had an editor at The Sun who held to the same belief, that because –ee indicated the acted upon rather than the actor, escaper was the proper word. And so escapers appeared in our pages until that editor moved on to other things and the dictum was silently abandoned.

Bryan Garner observes that escaper would logically be the correct word, “[but] the life of our language has not followed logic.” He rates escapee as fully acceptable.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says that escaper, the older word, dating from the early seventeenth century, has been “all but eclipsed by escapee.” (The “scanty evidence” for escaper, it says, is all from British sources.) Escapee dates from the nineteenth century, appearing in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, and is now the standard word.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:42 AM | | Comments (23)

Think you want to edit a magazine?

Item: Writing in 1936 to William Saroyan, H.L. Mencken said, “I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me when you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

If you have aspirations yourself, Baltimore’s Urbanite magazine is looking for an editor-in-chief. Here is a link:

I do not supply firearms.

Item: Carol Fisher Saller discloses at The Subversive Copy Editor Blog that by the end of the month she will be contributing to a new blog, Lingua Franca, at the Chronicle of Higher Education, along with Lucy Ferriss, Allan Metcalf, Geoffrey Pullum, and Ben Yagoda. That should prove to be some high-powered blogging.

Item: David Bentley Hart has entered the lists at Johnson, followed by a pageboy named A Lyttle. Although Mr. Lyttle’s comments seldom rise above the level of schoolyard taunting (R.L.G. and I, for example, are ignorant journalists; I am “barely literate” and R.L.G. is a “dolt”), he does make occasional revelatory remarks.

One such: “Transpire does not mean ‘occur’ in English according to Webster's 2nd, Chamber's, and the OED (at least, the OED I have).” He relies upon Webster’s Second, published in 1934, and presumably the 13-volume OED completed in 1933. If you asked him a question about physics, he’d likely turn to the 1911 Britannica.

Item: A colleague tweeted the other day in mild concern over wearing a dress for the second time in a week, owing to the exigencies of laundry. I saw the tweet and teased her, but had not the presence of mind to recall this passage from Northanger Abbey:

“It would be mortifying to the feelings of many ladies, could they be made to understand how little the heart of man is affected by what is costly or new in their attire; how little it is biassed by the texture of their muslin, and how unsusceptible of peculiar tenderness towards the spotted, the sprigged, the mull or the jackonet. Woman is fine for her own satisfaction alone.”

(Mull here is not the Scottish promontory but a variety of muslin.)

Item: A cheering indication that sanity has not yet been extinguished in the Republic. Chris Christie, the Republican governor of New Jersey, having appointed a Muslim to the bench, reacted to expressions of alarm that this would introduce Sharia into the courts. Responding directly to the criticism, the governor said: “Sharia law has nothing to do with this. It's crazy. This Sharia law business is crap; it's crazy and I'm tired of dealing with crazies.”

As are we all.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:14 AM | | Comments (11)

August 3, 2011

Someone else can clean up the mess

There’s more to it than Luddism.

Every day it falls to The Sun’s news desk to ferret out some article presumed ready for publication that is not visible in the vast NewsGate database. And it turns out that though the text has been “moved” to the copy desk, it lacks a print package, or it has been coded for the wrong date, or it was misnamed, or it was botched in some novel way. This for the basic tasks of creating and coding a text that everyone has performed every day for more than a year.

There is no dispute that NewsGate is user-unfriendly; some problems baffle even the adepts. But it’s also true that the people who stare and sweat and call down blasphemies on it are the same people who struggled with CCI before NewsGate, and Harris before CCI, and SII before Harris.

“I wasn’t given enough training,” some of them will whine when confronted with their failure to perform a basic task satisfactorily. I suppose it would be idle (rhymes with idyll) to inquire why over the past twelve months they did not seek additional instruction.

Lack of facility with computers—a failure to grasp the underlying logic of a system rather than simply perform rote tasks—is only part of the problem. There’s a barrier here.

Part, I think, is the lingering resentment that reporters and editors are now part of Production. Once upon a time, best beloved, reporters simply wrote, and blue-collar typesetters and compositors did the grunt work of transforming their prose into print. No more. Now when you write, you are doing at least the preliminary coding for Web posting and print. It’s an additional set of burdens that are not really part of Writing.*

So we begin to see that what in some cases may be merely a lack of competence—there was instruction, but it didn’t take—in others has deeper psychological roots. Though the attitude may not be fully conscious, it would go like this: “I resent having to do this, so I will, out of passive-aggressive mulishness, refuse to learn how to do it. Someone else can clean up the mess. And I will therefore express my rebellious resistance and superiority to the authority that imposed this system on me.”

As an attitude, it lacks the sonority of Milton’s Satan proclaiming, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” but ours are not epic times.


*While I suspect that the most resentful are the sort of people who were accustomed to having other people pick up their clothes from the floor, I do have a fugitive sympathy for reporters. They have to come up with fresh ideas every day, or carry out some editor’s dopey inspiration. They have to plow through tedious documents in search of nuggets, or talk to people who are either inarticulate or hostile. They are expected to meet deadlines—well, after a fashion—and refocus and recast and rewrite to satisfy the whims of higher-ups. Still, dammit, you’d think they could manage to perform two or three basic tasks that they have to do every damn time they sit down at a keyboard.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:39 AM | | Comments (15)

August 2, 2011

At the peevers' waterhole

I remarked yesterday about a fatuous article on language by David Bentley Hart at First Things, a publication of the Institute on Religion and Public Life. But if you want to get a sense of how peevers’ minds work, you need to look at the extensive comments on that article. I offer a sampling.

Item: ‘transpire' means 'to breath across’ not to happen.

One of the classic peever attitudes is that a word cannot stray from its etymological origins. You get that as well from the people who insist that decimate must mean “to reduce by a tenth.” The sensible position is to say that it can mean “to reduce substantially” while resisting the usage “to destroy.”

Transpire, meaning “to breathe forth” or “to give off or discharge” dates from the sixteenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A more common meaning, “to become known,” dates from the eighteenth century. What the Peevery calls an error, “to take place,” has cropped up for two centuries now and does not look as if it is going away. I’ll warrant that you would have some difficulty finding many citations for transpire meaning “to escape from secrecy to notice” in the past half-century.

(I will be charitable and suggest that breath for breathe in the comment is merely a typographical error.)

Item: I share in your despair over the misuse of "restive," though I'm afraid by now the barbarians have not only ingested it, but have popped it out in reverse. Witness this headline published in the NYTimes a few days ago: "Syrian Forces Crack Down in Restive City With Raids and Gunfire." The article makes it clear that the city in question is anything but "inactive" and "inert."

Similar to the etymological fallacy is the insistence that a word can have only one meaning, and that that meaning is eternally stable. Restive for “inactive” or “inert” is indeed in the OED, which labels it “Now rare or Obs.” In our time, it means either “stubborn” and “unmanageable” or “restless” and “impatient,” the latter sense being the more common. The most common error in using it is to make it a synonym of restful, which has the opposite sense.

Item: Dictionaries

Someone else made the same point in a comment that I made in my post, that idyll, pace Dr. Hart, is pronounced with a long i, as indicated by several dictionaries and Garner’s Modern American Usage. Dr. Hart’s riposte:

Apparently all three of the dictionaries you consulted are extremely bad. No surprise there: many dictionaries now record the pronunciation with which the lexicographer is familiar, even if it is wrong. Still, I have never seen the "idol" pronunciation listed as any but a secondary pronunciation, probably defective. As for Garner's, I now know never to consult it. Believe me, the preferred (and I would say correct) pronunciation is with an initial short i; and, to my ear, the second syllable should ideally have a sound somewhere midway between "ill" and "eel."

Apparently the Oxford English Dictionary is one of the defectives. Another acolyte chimes in:

I recommend the Webster's comprehensive Second Edition, the old Oxford English Dictionary (not the new one, which does not 'prescribe'), and Fowler's English Usage, either first or second version. Also The King's English by the brothers Fowler. There is an old American book called Index of English, but I don't remember who wrote it. An English dictionary that's pretty good is Chamber's (or it used to be).

There you have it: You can’t trust dictionaries, because they tell you what people mean with words. There’s an implied slap here at Webster’s Third for its “permissiveness,” about which the Peevery has now carried on for fifty years.

Item: The Myths of the Golden Age and Ideal English

What is back of much of this talk is the belief that there was a point, usually in the writer’s youth, when the English language was stable and teachers told everyone The Rules and everyone who had been educated followed them. Some time before that wicked, wicked Webster’s Third International.

There was, of course, no such time. Anyone who has taken a serious look at English from the time of Chaucer to the present sees that it, like any living language, is always in flux, with meanings and whole words becoming obsolete, new words being coined or appropriated from other languages, old words assuming new senses. This is the norm, and intelligent writers and editors are like pilots, continually making adjustments to allow for lift, thrust, and drag amid shifting conditions.

There is no ideal, eternal, perfect, Platonic English known to a handful of adepts. There is only the language that we all speak and write, and its grammar and syntax and the meanings of its words are established by the way that the great mass of us use them over time. There are choices to be made by speakers and writers who aspire to be clear and exact, but those choices are informed by judgment, not dicta.

You can adopt the attitude of Dr. Hart and his sectaries—you’re free to speak and write in English as you choose. But to the degree that you adopt his shibboleths and superstitions, you will find the language passing you by, and fewer and fewer people will understand what you are trying to say. Or care to listen.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:59 AM | | Comments (35)

August 1, 2011

Add another peever to the list

I can’t resist the rich target that @wordtofiction presented: a classic example of captious peeving, "Le Mot Juste," at

The author, David Bentley Hart, sends an unmistakable signal of what is to come with an early allusion to Rome and the Visigoths. The peevers all think they are embattled Civilization surrounded by Rude Hordes, and Rome always creeps into the text at some point.

Of course, a much more blatant signal was delivered in the first sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that it is only a short road that leads from grammatical laxity to cannibalism.” No, it is a silly overstatement combined with a feeble imitation of Jane Austen.

So we have literary pretension combined with cliche and linguistic peevery. Let’s look at what we can light-heartedly call the substance of the article. He insists that his catalogue of complaints is “not really the dilettante’s catalogue of petty annoyances it might at first appear to be.” Well, we’ll see.

Mr. Hart deplores blurring the distinction between imply and infer. So do I, but I doubt that this frequent solecism will lead to my liver being consumed with a side of fava beans and a rough Chianti.

He disparages people who pronounce idyll like idol. But the American Heritage Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, the New Oxford American Dictionary, and Garner’s Modern American Usage all indicate that the word is pronounced with a long i. If he is suggesting that “iddle” is preferable, he is mistaken.

Of course, those quisling lexicographers are not to be relied on, as we find out when he insists that any dictionary that records a usage of which he does not approve is “a scented and brilliantined degenerate in a glossy lavender lounge suit who intends to teach your children criminal ways while you are away at the grocery store.”

I’ll grant you that Mr. Hart operates with a good deal more verve than the pathetically querulous Queen’s English Society, but he is still a fellow-traveler of that intellectually and linguistically bankrupt assemblage of poseurs.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:09 PM | | Comments (10)

Curb your anthropomorphizing

An article in today’s Baltimore Sun about the N.S. Savannah refers to the ship throughout as she and her. By a happy congruence, the Associated Press Stylebook, the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, and the Chicago Manual of Style all advise that ships and boats are it. So, for that matter, does The Sun’s stylebook.

The Times is indulgent enough to add “except for literary effect.” But be advised, if you are a journalist striving for “literary effect,” you run the risk of stimulating the reaction expressed in one of my newsroom haiku: “Proud reporter asks, / ‘Don’t you think it’s lyrical?’ / Shoot me in the head.”

With hurricane season upon us, it is well to keep in mind that storms also lack gender.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:17 PM | | Comments (4)

Before you start your slog through the week ...

It’s Monday, the Republic still stands, and your word for this week is adumbrate.

If you lacked Internet access over the weekend while you were rounding the Horn, there are a couple of posts you missed.

Even if you read about the relative importance of grammar and house style, it’s worth reviewing. Copy editors feel a strong pull toward details of relatively minor importance.

I’m sure you could supply additional examples of people who are trying too hard.

And the admirable Ben Zimmer has a first-rate article in the New York Times Book Review on the language of the novel and why it is more literary and less colloquial than we like to think. (You Don’t Say takes the position that the regular appearance of Mr. Zimmer’s work in The Times amounts to the paper’s tacit admission that dumping his “On Language” column was a mistake.)

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (0)

Before you start your slog through the week ...

It’s Monday, the Republic still stands, and your word for this week is adumbrate. If you lacked Internet access over the weekend while you were rounding the Horn, there are a couple of posts you missed.

Even if you read about the relative importance of grammar and house style, it’s worth reviewing. Copy editors feel a strong pull toward details of relatively minor importance.

I’m sure you could supply additional examples of people who are trying too hard.

And the admirable Ben Zimmer has a first-rate article in the New York Times Book Review on the language of the novel and why it is more literary and less colloquial than we like to think. (You Don’t Say takes the position that the regular appearance of Mr. Zimmer’s work in The Times amounts to the paper’s tacit admission that dumping his “On Language” column was a mistake.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:34 AM | | Comments (0)

Joke of the week: "Dogs in a Bar"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:17 AM | | Comments (1)
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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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