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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)


Your footnote marks the third instance in as many days where I've seen or heard references to "Federal" where I would have expected "Union" or possibly "Yankee" (acknowledging your inclusion of "Union"). Did I miss a memo, or have I not been paying attention all these years? And what is so un- (I'm avoiding "non") federal about the Confederates?

No point here; truly curious.

I used to be a drum major. If anyone thinks that everyone follows the drum major in perfect step, they are deluded.

"Left, right, left, right ... No no no! I said left and then right! And what's that piccolo doing in the trombone section? Would the cornets mind turning the other way and face the same as everyone else? Please people, stop using the cymbals as hats ... . Mom was right; I should have tried somehting less stressful and become a copy editor."


No comments? This is a great post! And I'm not just saying that because I feel the same way. Happy Friday afternoon.

Michael Penn Moore, the Confederacy abjured federalism; that's why they went with a confederacy and not a federal form of government. Apparently they even referred to northern troops as federals.


No, I am not the drum major, but I dated him in high school. Do I get any points for that?

Maybe there aren't many comments because most of the readers think this entry just states the obvious.

In my own language-related writing, the only standard I try to apply is whether the meaning gets across.

To the people who cry, "But we need standards! I say this: We don't need this standard. Insisting on one way of dealing with the prefix non is not standardization but hyperstandardization. It is an insignificant orthographic point that merely wastes people's time and distracts from language issues that really do matter.

Yes, this is just picky, and I've tried to resist, but my sub-editorial biro just keeps twitching ... Thomas Babington Macaulay was - as you well know but your left typing hand doesn't - with an A.

Assuming that's the Macaulay you mean, of course.

Resistance is futile. Grazie.

My mother, an immigrant to these shores and therefore uninitiated into the national sports, but a devotee of the English language, dated a boy whose role on the football team she persisted in calling the "full stop".

Prof. McI., when I initially read your earlier 'pronouncement' that "English is not a parade, with everyone in ranks marching in step....", and further, it's "more like a cavalcade", I almost immediately conjured up visions of the raucous tumult of pageantry, sound, sparkle, and gaudy color of the annual Carnival celebrations down Rio way, or the organized chaos, and joie de vie of full-tilt Mardi Gras festivities in the streets of New Orleans. Cavalcades indeed.

Far from the impeccable, regimented precision of say Scotland's much revered Black Watch military pipes & drums strutting their stuff---the spit and polish tradition of exacting regimentation, and solid esprit de corps.

The upfront strutting drum major, grand mace in gloved hand, commands full attention, and right conduct from his trailing rank and file, where there is no latitude for error, improvisation, or deviation from the musical score, and the drum major's prescribed directives. So much for the contrasting metaphors.

Thankfully, modern English continues to evolve as a rich, living, nuanced language w/ all the variety, personality, and eccentricity akin to that motley band of scruffy pilgrims wending their merry way to Canterbury, that you (Prof. McI.) cited in your article.

I'm afeared that the self-appointed linguistic standard bearers, i.e., diehard prescriptivists, and their kin, the chronic peevers will always exist when it comes to the seemingly interminable debate as to what constitutes 'proper' English usage. And the far less anal, rules-fixated descriptivists will continue to take a more laissez faire, less dogmatic view of our native tongue. (Hmm........ technically, our native tongue would be Ojiway, Algonquin, or Cree. But I digress.)

I say let them howl, and kvetch to their hearts' content, since clearly 'those people' (HA!) get their jollies from maintaining their inflexible, etched in stone positions. Voices in the wilderness, I say.


P.S.:---- The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which has been introducing novel, cutting-edge words of common usage since 1911, is apparently adding a slew of popular social networking terms w/ this month's edition.

They include sexting, cyberbullying, textspeak, and retweet, among others. A few sartorial entries made the grade, namely "jeggings"-----a jeans-leggings hybrid garment, and "mankini ",(not to be confused w/ the late musical conductor/ arranger, Ray Mancini HA!), ---- an overly revealing thong-like full-body bathing suit made infamous by the Brit comic actor Sacha Baron Cohen in the movie Borat. Frankly, that one we could have done without.


Unwittingly dropped the "b" in Ojibway in my last commentary.

Serves me right for trying to be a smart aleck. HA!


P.S.: @ John Cowan, sounds like your dear mum conflated the nomenclature of two of America's most popular team sports w/ her innocent "full stop", taking the "full" from football's fullback and "short" from that pivotal infield position in baseball, shortstop.

Could have been worse. Say a corner catcher, or tight fielder. HA!

I believe he was a fullback, and that "full stop" was simply the term she had learned for a period. I don't think shortstops entered into it.

John Cowan,

Hmm.......... I should have immediately clued into your earlier point re/ your mum's being "a devotee of the English language", well aware of the fact that in matters of literary transcription, and such, the term "full stop" is denoted w/ a period. (One of the keynotes of stenography.......... a seemingly dying art, save for the court room.)

Still like my "short stop" angled tie-in, but clearly I pulled that one from the bleachers in left field. A fullback, indeed.

Have a great week, John.


Belated correction!

In my 'P.S'. after comments on my Aug. 20th entry re/ the latest edition of the Concise OED, while addressing the novel term "mankini', my lame attempt at humor should have read musical conductor/ arranger HENRY Mancini, not "Ray" Mancini.

Ray Mancini is the former spunky American WBA lightweight boxing champ whose professional career in the ring peaked in the mid-'80s.

The animated Pink Panther would not be amused at my unwitting faux pas. HA!


The parade and drum major metaphor is definitely a keeper.

For what it's worth, the first piece of advice I give people interning at our publishing house is not to obey one style guide slavishly. It is important to be consistent within a work, but from one book to another you will find your universal rules humbled.

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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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