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September 30, 2011

A plan for you

I have been touched by your comments on the post announcing the impending requirement of digital subscription at I have been particularly touched by word from the people who indicate that they intend to subscribe so that they can continue to read and participate freely. I am in sympathy with those of you in the trans-Patapsco region who say that you cannot or will not subscribe, but your loss would be a blow to the little community of Wordville. And I do have a suggestion for you.

But first, a couple of technical matters. Some have inquired how the fifteen free page views a month will operate. If you open up the main blog site, you will be able to to read about two weeks’ worth of posts as a single page view. But every time you click on the comments to a post, that is another page view. If you return to comments to catch with the discussion, that will be a page view each time.

If you come to a specific post, from a link on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere, you will see the text of the post and the attached comments as one page view.

Some have inquired about the possibility of some kind of limited, discounted subscription. Nothing like that is in the works at the moment, though alternatives may certainly be considered as we see how the subscription model operates and what the readers want.

Now the suggestion.

If you believe as a fixed principle that blogs ought to be free, I can’t help you. But if you are disinclined to subscribe to the entirety of just to read and comment here, let me try to reframe the matter for you.Don’t think of it as subscribing to; think of it as subscribing to me.

For a little over three dollars a week, you get the blog posts, which are averaging one a day or more. At roughly 500 words each, that’s about 180,000 words a year, more than a Harry Potter novel. How much would you pay for a book of 180,000 words? But wait—there’s more. You also get the ability to comment and respond to comments, to take part in the conversation. You get the video joke of the week—I just recorded another half-dozen yesterday, a couple of which are actually funny. And there’s the word-of-the-week vocabulary feature. All for three dollars American.

So give it a little thought. Even if you decide not to subscribe, you can check in on the monthly free views. And if you should miss You Don’t Say and decide you would like to come back and subscribe, I’ll leave a light on in the window.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:47 PM | | Comments (14)

Not just here

If you would prefer to listen to my blather, a short interview with Sheilah Kast will be broadcast on Maryland Morning at WYPR-FM on Monday morning, October 3, at 9:15 a.m. Eastern time or shortly thereafter.

WYPR-FM is at 88.1. A recording of the interview will be posted at Maryland Morning’s website later that day.


Posted by John McIntyre at 2:52 PM | | Comments (0)

No more catering to peevers

I am taking a stand with Arrant Pedantry, whose proprietor points out the flaw in going along with shibboleths and superstitions—split infinitives, singular they, hopefully as a sentence adverb, you know them—of usage to avoid exciting the attention of their adherents:

The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage. ...

You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics.

In editing, I haven’t revised split infinitives or stranded prepositions for years. Recently I stopped rewriting singular they in copy and have encountered no reaction; perhaps it is becoming so commonplace that even the peevers don’t always register it. And now I think it’s time to stet hopefully.

Here’s a suggestion for you: Go back to yesterday’s post about the fifth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary and copy the entry on hopefully. Keep it handy. When you get an email from a reader complaining that you allowed it, paste the entry and hit Reply. If it doesn’t persuade, it may at least silence.

You know how the Associated Press Stylebook decides on usage? Its editors say that they follow the practice of newspapers. You know what newspapers do about usage? They follow the AP Stylebook. (Or did while they still troubled to employ copy editors.) That serpent has been chewing on its own tail long enough. It makes more sense for informed writers and editors to establish usage than to cede authority to the zombie rule crowd.

That does not mean that anything goes or that every skunked usage is fine. Editing always requires judgments. I am, for example, going to use prompts the question or raises the question when some statement or action leads to a question, restricting begs the question to contexts in which someone is making a circular argument. (So many people do that it is a useful term.) But I am highly unlikely ever to use niggardly. I know and you know that it comes from a Scandinavian root meaning “stingy” and has nothing more to do with a racial slur than an accidental phonetic resemblance. But the amount of energy involved in justifying it to a general and inflamed audience would be disproportionate, and the original point would be lost in the shouting anyhow.

You, too, will have to draw lines, depending on subject, occasion, and audience, but I think you can be bolder than you have been.



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

September 29, 2011

Mr. Molotov's legacy

In a Baltimore Sun article tomorrow about a rash of firebombings around town, we refer to Molotov cocktails, and I begin to wonder whether we should think about retiring the term.

One reason the rising generations don’t read newspapers is that the texts look dated in language and references, and I am highly doubtful that those rising generations have much of a sense of the effervescent Vyacheslav Molotov, Stalin’s foreign minister.

It was the Finns, attempting to repel Soviet troops in 1939 who first called their improvised incendiary devices—typically gasoline in a bottle with a cloth fuse jammed in the neck—Molotov cocktails. The term remained popular in 1956, when similar improvised devices destroyed hundreds of Soviet tanks during the Hungarian uprising. In one of history’s little symmetries, Franco’s Fascists had used the same tactic effectively against Loyalist tanks while moving on Madrid.

It may be all right to use the term without any historical resonance. We don’t need to know who Captain Boycott and Dr. Alzheimer were to understand the words derived from their names. But Molotov cocktail seems different somehow in its sardonic allusion to the deservedly defunct Soviet imperium. Musty.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:27 PM | | Comments (21)

Infatuated with a book

I have never before thought of a dictionary as gorgeous.

But the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is coming out (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2,112 pages, $60). It weighs more than eight pounds, and it is a beauty.

All the pages are in color, with copious illustrations, and the headwords are printed in a blue sans serif type that makes them easy to identify. The entries are in a small but highly legible serif type.

This edition has added 10,000 words and senses, and the supplemental material, including a sensible essay on usage by Steven Pinker and an extensive appendix on Indo-European languages and roots, impresses.

There is also exceptionally useful explanatory matter within the dictionary. For example, the entry on hooker gives the lie to the folk etymology that the Union’s Major General Joseph Hooker gave his name to prostitutes, the sense appearing in texts that antedate the Civil War. There’s a note to hoosegow, a classic American slang term for a jail, with an explanation of its origins in Spanish and its distant links to the Latin word that also gives us judge.

 Since one of the distinctive features of the American Heritage is its employment of a panel of experts, now numbering 200, to advise on usage, I want to illustrate the consequences of that by quoting the usage note on hopefully in full:

“When used as a sentence adverb (as in Hopefully the measures will be adopted), hopefully has been roundly criticized since the 1960s, when it saw a sudden increase in use, for being potentially ambiguous and lacking a clear point of view. It is not easy to explain why people selected this word for disparagement. Its use can be justified by the similar use of many other adverbs, such as mercifully and frankly: Mercifully, the play was brief. Frankly, the food at that restaurant is terrible. And though this use of hopefully may have been a vogue word back in the 1960s, it has long since lost any hint of jargon or pretentiousness for the general reader. In fact, its widespread use reflects popular recognition of its usefulness; there is no precise substitute. Someone who says Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified makes a hopeful prediction about the fate of the treaty, whereas someone who says I hope (or We hope or It is hoped that) the treaty will be ratified expresses a bald statement about what is desired. Only the later could be concluded with a clause such as but it isn’t likely.

"People often warm to a usage once novelty fades and it becomes well established. But not so with hopefully. Opposition continues to run high or even higher to this usage than it did in the 1960s. In our 1968 survey, 44 percent of the Usage Panel approved the usage. This dropped to 27 percent in our 1986 survey. We asked the question again in 1999, and 34 percent accepted the sentence Hopefully, the treaty will be ratified, while only 22 percent accepted the adverb when placed at the end of a sentence in the example The new product will be shipped by Christmas, hopefully. It would seem, then, that it is not the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb per se that bothers the Panel, since the comparable use of mercifully is acceptable to a large majority. Rather, hopefully seems to have taken on a life of its own as a sign that the writer is unaware of the canons of usage.”

So the American Heritage lexicographers, bless their hearts, survey the usage experts and then, instead of following them slavishly, form sensible independent judgments. May their tribe increase.

I go back to how beautiful this book is, as well as how thorough and informative. And I think that, no matter how handy electronic resources are, no one thinks of a website as a beautiful artifact.* (No one but a website designer.) I am a member of the receding generations for whom the printed book, particularly when it is executed ably and gracefully, is a sacred object, palpable learning that can be held in the hand. This is one such volume.


*Don’t be cross,, I use your site regularly. I love your site. You too are doing the Lord’s work. OED, if I could afford you online, I would be at your feet as well. But this book is just gorgeous.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:51 AM | | Comments (13)

September 27, 2011

Prepare to pay toll

As many of you are already aware, as of October 10, will become a subscription site, and this blog is one of the many offerings on the site that you will have to pay to read.

The charge is modest: about thirty-five cents a day, $2.49 a week, $49.99 for twenty-six weeks. Subscribers to the print edition will get a discounted rate, seventy-five cents a week, or $29.99 a year. That’s less a week than you would pay for a medium cappuccino.

Those who don’t subscribe will have free access to fifteen page views a month, as well as access to the section fronts and classified ads. You can click on this link for details.

You may, as always, comment freely below, but I am not going to enter into a discussion of the merits of digital subscriptions or other matters above my pay grade. Once October 10 arrives, if you want to travel regularly to Wordville, you will have to pay a small toll.

I hope that many, even most, of you will be willing to do so. This blog is the better for your presence, your comments and private messages, your suggestions, your information. I have learned a great deal from associating with you and taken considerable pleasure in our association.

As The Baltimore Sun continues to navigate the uncharted waters of digital journalism, your company on board would be welcome.




Posted by John McIntyre at 5:41 PM | | Comments (61)

September 26, 2011

Tell me when you stop*

One of the murder mysteries I read last week was Cheating at Solitaire, one of Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian novels. I was irritated by numerous slips in usage—principle for principal was one that recurred—but I continued to the end.

Last night, I was several pages into James W. Pennebaker’s Secret Life of Pronouns—already skeptical of his blithe assurance that his word-counting software can measure the emotional charge of texts even though it is incapable of distinguishing among the different meanings of individual words—when I came across this sentence: “In Aldous Huxley’s words, this was the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” It was Thomas Henry Huxley who said, “A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly, little fact,” and that was the point at which I put the book down and went to bed.

I am not here today to rail against publishers who go cheap on the copy editing, THOUGH THEY OUGHT TO BE ASHAMED OF THEMSELVES. What I am curious about is whether your reading patterns match my own. “The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading,” said Barney Kilgore of The Wall Street Journal seventy years ago. I want to know what makes you stop.

There are some automatic stopping points that are easy to spot: the point at which the writer first calls Barack Obama a socialist or suggests that Sarah Palin is not the mother of her Down syndrome child. Any talk of the Mayan calendar or the Rapture. If you’re older than sixteen, any mention of Justin Bieber.

We also know that the inverted-pyramid structure popularized by wire services, in which the most important information arrives in the first paragraph and becomes successively less immediate or important as the article proceeds, invites readers to stop reading as soon as they have had their fill. And they fill quickly.

And I know from a piece of drive-by praise a Very Senior Editor administered to a Sun reporter some years back—“I liked your story this morning. I read it all the way to the end”—indicates that my colleagues, like our readers, are accustomed to cutting their losses when reading our articles.

But I, as a semi-reformed stickler, get cranky when I see elementary lapses in grammar and usage or factual inaccuracies that it would have been simple to check. Mellower as I age, I seldom fling the newspaper across with room, accompanied by a good round oath, but I do feel the impulse to stop reading at those points, and it is only by an effort of will that I continue. That could be me. How about you?

I’m serious about this. As journalists compete for readers’ attention, we need some more secure ground of judgment as we write and edit than reporters’ giddy self-regard and assumption that our readers, like their mothers, lovingly caress every word. What are the burrs under your saddles?


*The first person who writes, “I stopped reading after the title,” will be clever. Subsequent ones, less so.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:15 PM | | Comments (33)

Keep an eye on your freedoms

Last week was a vacation week. Hmmm. Multiple household chores, ten blog posts, two classes at Loyola, a guest appearance at Professor Stacy Spaulding’s new media class at Towson University, and a little chat on evil at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson. Oh, and I read eight murder mysteries. Back to the paragraph factory tomorrow.

Took to my bed yesterday afternoon to fight off the first cold of the season rather than post here. Had I posted, I would have mentioned that yesterday was the anniversary of the day on which the Congress approved the Bill of Rights and sent those amendments to the states for ratification.

Our constitutional rights are admirable in theory but touchy in practice. For example, Park51, the Islamic center and mosque near the site of the World Trade Center in New York, opened last week. You will recall the torrent of opposition and ill-disguised anti-Muslim prejudice from people operating under the impression that freedom of religion is restricted to religious beliefs and practices they agree with. Fortunately, others rose above ignorance and bigotry, so perhaps the First Amendment still means something.

As we take notice of our freedoms, we should also be aware that this is Banned Books Week, when we are reminded of all the petty authorities who attempt to restrict access to information to control how people, particularly students, think and understand the wider world.

For my contribution to Banned Books Week, I would like to pay a short tribute to Raymond and Marian Early McIntyre. My parents, recognizing my voracious appetite for reading, made sacrifices and efforts to get me books, which we not in plentiful supply at the time I was growing up. (There was no public library in Fleming County, Kentucky, until 1964.) And not once did they ever make the slightest attempt to control or restrict what I read. I was grateful to them then, and I honor their memory.

One last item for this post: Today’s word of the week is quixotic. I hope that it is not quixotic to uphold the Bill of Rights and to advocate the freedom to read.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:32 AM | | Comments (12)

Joke of the week: "Don't Ask Questions"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:48 AM | | Comments (1)

September 24, 2011

The semicolon won't bite you

Today, National Punctuation Day, you can thank Aldus Manutius, the Italian printer who originated italic type and the octavo book, for the semicolon, which he is thought to have reintroduced in the late fifteenth century. He borrowed it from Greek, where it had been used as a question mark.*

Today it oddly stirs passions. Many writers disdain it, because they think it looks ugly or old-fashioned or pretentious. Hemingway seldom wrote a sentence long enough to require a semicolon, and the commas and dashes in Faulkner’s cascading sentences create hardly a ripple.

You want the full flavor of the semicolon, you have to go back to the nineteenth century. Here’s a random sentence plucked from Carlyle’s French Revolution: “Guillotining there was a Nantes, till the Headsman sank worn out: then fusillading ‘in the Plain of Saint-Mauve’; little children fusilladed, and women with children at the breast; children and women, by the hundred and twenty; and by the five hundred, so hot is La Vendée: till the very Jacobins grew sick, and all but the Company of Marat cried, Hold!”

Ah, they’re not writing semicolons like that anymore.

Today—and here you can proceed without fear—we mainly use the semicolon in two ways.

Indicating a complex series: If the elements of a series have items separated by commas, we use semicolons to separate the elements, including the final one: Some, a great many, eschew the semicolon out of principle; some, an insignificant minority, employ it out of principle; and some, by far the great majority, are ignorant of it and indifferent to it.

Suturing independent clauses: If we join two independent clauses without a conjunction, we link them with a semicolon: People who use the semicolon regularly are the type who like to parade their erudition; people who shun the semicolon are the type who like to be seen as just folks.

Two cautions here. First, remember that syntax implies relationship. If you join two clauses with a semicolon, they should be of more or less equal value in meaning, and they should have a connection in meaning.

Second, two independent clauses linked by a mere comma constitute the dread comma-splice run-on, the bugaboo with which generations of English teachers have frightened little children, to little visible effect. Linking independent clauses with commas is commoner than spam in written dialogue, and the practice is to be found among all sorts of British and American writers.

If you write a complex series, you are obligated to use semicolons. Apart from that, most people can shun them without ill effect. They will only come into play if you write with a particular kind of architecture, with a degree of complexity of elements and relationships that requires careful articulation of the parts. Should you embark on a sentence of that complexity, the semicolons will be the breadcrumbs that help readers find their way back.


*For more on the semicolon, including speculation on how the telegraph contributed to its drop in popularity, see Paul Collins’s excellent article in Slate from 2008.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (15)

September 23, 2011

Nothing wrong with lowercase, dude

A reader has a disagreement with a colleague over the construction “I don’t know, man.” The colleague insists that man should be capitalized because it’s a vocative that has the same status as Mom or Captain or a person’s name in direct address. The colleague goes so far as to say that all such substitutes for a title or name should be capitalized: Boss, Sweetheart, Dude, Brother, Toots.

My correspondent doesn’t agree but has yet to marshal a conclusive argument. Let me try to help.

First, in a general way, the tendency in British and American English over the past century has been to reduce the amount of capitalization.

Second, there is a common distinction between nicknames and mere vocatives or terms of endearment, and a quick Google search on vocative capitalization will turn up multiple sources. When you say to your father, “You’re not as funny as you think you are, Dad,” Dad is a nickname, a substitute for the person’s name. But a waitress’s “What’ll you have, hon?” is more of a generic placeholder than a nickname.

If everybody in the office calls the manager “Boss,” as in “I heard Boss say he wants your memo by five o’clock or there’ll be hell to pay,” that’s a nickname and should be capitalized. But in “It’ll be on your desk, boss,” though not exactly a term of endearment, boss is in the same class of lowercased terms of address as sweetheart, dear, and the like.

The colleague’s insistence on capitalization in all instances flies in the face of common practice.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:40 AM | | Comments (5)

Commas, and what you should know about them

It’s National Punctuation Day tomorrow. Please contain your excitement.

I wrote about it in 2008 and in 2009, apparently skipping it last year. Since one of Professor Stacy Spaulding’s new media students at Towson University asked me about serial commas during a seance I conducted yesterday, I thought it would be good to honor the day this year with some remarks on the humble comma.

There are constructions in which the comma is simply required. For example: You set off appositives with commas: McIntyre, an editor, has seen it all. You set off non-restrictive/non-limiting/non-essential phrases and clauses with commas. McIntyre, who has been a working editor for three decades, has seen it all. You use commas to separate items in a simple series: McIntyre is an editor, an adjunct faculty member, and a common scold.* (For a complex series, having commas within the elements, you set off each element with a semicolon.) Though you might safely omit it with short compound sentences (independent clauses joined by and, but, or or), it should be there in longer ones: McIntyre goes through this with his students at the beginning of every semester, and he is relentless about it to the end of the term.

But the comma may also be used in places where it is not grammatically required. Writers of fiction in particular use it to indicate the pauses in speech. It may also be freely used to indicate emphasis, with less intensity than a dash. And the preceding sentence is an example of that use.

For another example of discretionary use, have a look at the post about a minor dust-up I had with a Towson University instructor after talking on Dan Rodricks’s radio show on National Grammar Day in 2009. Fortunately, the astute Jan Freeman had my back in the comments.

You do not want to become comma-happy, or dash-happy, or (however unlikely) semicolon-happy. You don’t want to overuse any device. Also, you need to have some idea of why you are using punctuation, rather than sprinkling it all over the text as if you were a waiter with a pepper mill. Know your tools, and respect them.


*I implore you not to hyperventilate over the final comma in a series, the serial comma or Oxford comma. Use it or not, as it suits you. But even the Associated Press Stylebook, which ordinarily dispenses with the final comma in a series, says there is nothing wrong with using it to avoid confusion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (24)

September 22, 2011

Let slip the dogs of Waugh

Even that prickly person Evelyn Waugh, never shy about parading his opinions, was quite aware that the things people complain about in language and usage are generally idiosyncratic preferences. From a 1955 letter to Nancy Mitford:

“I wish in your Upper-class Usage you had touched on a point that has long intrigued me. Almost everyone I know has some personal antipathy which they condemn as middle class quite irrationally. My mother-in-law believes it middle-class to decant claret. Lord Beauchamp thought it m.c. not to decant champagne (into jugs). Your ‘note-paper’ is another example. I always say ‘luncheon’ but you will find ‘lunch’ used in every generation for the last 80 years [by?] unimpeachable sources. There are very illiterate people like Perry Brownlow who regard all correct grammar as a middle-class affectation. Ronnie Knox blanches if one says ‘docile’ with a long o. I correct my children if they say ‘bike’ for bicycle.’ I think everyone has certain fixed ideas that have no relation to observed usage [italics added]. The curious thing is that, as you say, an upper class voice is always unmistakable though it may have every deviation of accent and vocabulary. Compare for instance the late Lords Westmoreland, Salisbury, Curzon. A phonetician would find no point of resemblance in their speech.”

This is taken from Mark Amory’s 1980 edition of the letters.

A lagniappe for you, the opening of a letter to Nancy Mitford in 1946, to which the book fell open when I took it from the shelf:

“My little trip to London passed in a sort of mist. Did I ever come to visit you again after my first sober afternoon. If so, I presume I owe you flowers. I left a trail of stunted & frightfully expensive hyacinths behind me. On the last evening I dimly remember a dinner party of cosmopolitan ladies where I think I must have been conspicuous. Were you there? I awoke with blood on my hands but found to my intense relief that it was my own. I sometimes think I am getting too old for this kind of thing.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:40 PM | | Comments (10)

September 21, 2011

Be bold with Bodoni

Giambattista Bodoni is my man. The elegant and dignified late-eighteenth-century serif* typeface that bears his name, with sharp contrasts between bold and thin strokes, like calligraphy, was the headline typeface at The Cincinnati Enquirer when I first worked there in the 1980s. It still looks elegant and dignified to me, and I regret that publications have drifted away from it.

But it is only one of a multitude of fonts in Simon Garfield’s entertaining book about typography, Just My Type (Gotham Books, 356 pages, $27.50). Well worth your time and attention.

This blog, for example, is in Arial, a highly readable sans-serif typeface that is nevertheless scorned by many in the trade** who see it as a Microsoft rip-off of the modern classic Helvetica (the only typeface about which, to date, a film has been made). I chose Matthew Carter’s Georgia, a variant of Times New Roman, as the font for You Don’t Say during the [cough] hiatus [cough] because it’s a highly readable serif typeface on a computer screen and coincidentally bears my older sister’s first name.

Mr. Garfield covers the technical aspects of typography—stonecutting, calligraphy, metal punches and casting, up to and including contemporary computer-generated design—clearly and succinctly. He also, in the course of describing the technological changes, sums up the styles that prevailed during historical periods and supplies information about creators of the more notable typefaces.

But his is also a book about aesthetics, the individual tastes and judgments that influence the choices of one font typeface over the other options, tastes and judgments that can be highly variable, and sometimes unfortunate. Now that anyone with access to a computer also has access to a multitude of typefaces allows those judgments to run riot. And the continuing development of new fonts suggests that nothing will soon limit the range of choices.

If you want to examine variations of typefaces before choosing, type them in the word Handgloves. That will highlight the distinctive qualities. Mr. Garfield quotes Stephen Coles of FontShop: “It’s got the straights in the h, it’s got the a and the g, which are the most distinctive part of any typeface, it shows the way a curve meets a straight in the n and the d, and it’s got the round with the o and the diagonals with the v. It’s got ascenders, descenders and it feels good as a shape.”

Just, as you make your choice, stay away from Comic Sans, and, hey, it wouldn’t kill you to give Bodoni a look.


*A serif, if you’re unacquainted with the terminology, is a finishing stroke on the tip or foot of a letter. The typeface called Trajan, named after the carved letters on Trajan’s Column in Rome, indicates how old the serif tradition is.

**Though nothing like the scorn heaped daily on Vincent Connare’s Comic Sans.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:28 PM | | Comments (30)

Facile, yes; cipher, no

The City Paper has seen fit to proclaim my estimable colleague Jay Hancock the best columnist in Baltimore, writing: “He’s a facile cipher of the holy grail of finance. ...” While it may be churlish to cavil at the citation, everyone knows that copy editors are churls.

So, where did they get cipher? One of the common meanings of the noun is, The New Oxford American Dictionary points out, “a person or thing of no importance, esp. a person who does the bidding of others and seems to have no will of their own.”* They can’t have meant to say that Jay Hancock is a nonentity. (Can they?)

A cipher can also be a code, and perhaps they meant to suggest that he unlocks the code of finance. And, as a verb, it has an old-fashioned sense of “to do arithmetic.” Perhaps they meant that he can penetrate the arcane calculations of finance. Your interpretations are welcome.

Beyond that, decoding or calculating a grail is, if I have divined their intention, still a mixed metaphor of some clumsiness.

He is, withal, a fine columnist. They got that much right.


*You want to mix it up over a person/their, step outside.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:37 AM | | Comments (10)

September 20, 2011

The fruits of failure

I brought this on myself.

I’m invited to speak this week for Professor Stacey Spaulding’s class at Towson University on journalism and new media. She told them that journalists are expected to pepper subjects with questions, and they have come up with more than I could answer in a day and a half, much less in and hour and a quarter on a Thursday afternoon. One of them wants to know how I got into this business, and to be honest, I would have to tell them that I got into it by being a failure.

Oh, it would be tempting to quote Mark Twain and say that I got into journalism because there was no honest work available, but that would be a mere half-truth.

When I graduated from Michigan State with a degree in English, I was accepted into the graduate program in English at Syracuse as a university fellow. In my first year, I took a seminar with a bright young member of the faculty, and wrote a clumsy and amateurish paper. He returned it to me with several pages of single-spaced sarcasm that accurately and devastatingly ripped into the inadequacies of the paper. For the next two years I froze whenever I had to write a paper. I showed that commentary once to a fellow graduate student, who was floored by it, saying that he had never seen anything like it, and it was only years and years later, after having carried it from state to state, that I finally consigned it to a recycling bin.*

What I dodged for my six years at Syracuse, and came to recognize only gradually after leaving, was that though I love reading and love to talk about books, I do not have the temperament for being an academic scholar, for sitting all day in a carrel in the library coming up with publishable insights into texts.

So, after leaving Syracuse, with a dissertation topic approved but the thesis unwritten, I abandoned the Ph.D. for journalism. I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available.

Since 1980, I’ve found my niche as an editor, enjoying the camaraderie and gallows humor of the copy desk, establishing a small reputation in that circumscribed sphere of endeavor, and even returning to the work after having been laid off during a crisis.

The point of indulging in this personal account is to be able to say to Professor Spaulding’s students that they should not be afraid of false starts and failures, that the disappointments they will inevitably encounter do not have to define them. You are what you can become.


*The instructor, as it happens, was denied tenure in the following year, and the last I heard of him, many years back, was that he was on the West Coast growing succulents for a living.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:58 PM | | Comments (6)

Unassigned reading

Language Log invites you to consider how, when you are talking about a person’s height, you sometimes use feet and sometimes use foot.

Johnson looks into y’all.

HeadsUp shows you when question headlines are a bad idea. (Usually.)

At Throw Grammar from the Train, Jan Freeman is as puzzled as I am about Allan Metcalf’s attempt to differentiate nuances in but and though.

And, finally, at, your word of the week: obdurate.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:16 AM | | Comments (0)

September 19, 2011

They call it your day off

I did sleep in, but I’ve attended to the cat litter, cut the grass and started on four loads of laundry, with ironing, and tried to goad the Calvert Street staff into posting the word of the week that I filed five days ago (Grrrrr). The trip to the hardware store and the trip to the grocery remain.

If I can get through all that by 5:30—and even if I don’t—I plan a trip to the Hamilton Tavern for a restorative pint or two and their pork belly banh mi. It is an extraordinary sandwich; you first get the rich taste of the pork, then the cilantro (yeah, yeah, I know half of you think it tastes like soap and despise it), and then the heat comes up behind it. It’s a three-stage sandwich, and I have come to like it even better than their Crosstown Burger, one of the finest burgers in Baltimore.

In the evening, class prep for tormenting the undergraduates tomorrow. I have threatened them with a grammar quiz and must maintain my credibility.

A reminder: This is International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Those rhotic rogues say “Arrrrr.” “Arrrgh” is a cry of agony or despair. I should not have to keep reminding you of this.

Bogus distinctions: I have leapt a high hurdle to become a Finalist in’s contest for Best Grammar Blog of 2011! That means I got five votes. Even for a journalist, in a profession that hands out certificates, plaques, and trophies the way civilians hand out Halloween candy, this seems a bit much.

I don’t begrudge the eventual winners whatever distinction this competition affords, but I am comfortable about sitting this one out.



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Joke of the week: "The Matchmaker"

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (0)

September 17, 2011

Bourbon, a national treasure

Lisa Baxter Sajna notified me on Facebook that this is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and surely Americans have every right to take pride in having contributed our native beverage to the roster of the world’s distinguished distilled spirits.

A blog post at—with a handsome accompanying photograph of a Manhattan— chronicles the recent rise of bourbon from a period of undeserved obscurity during Prohibition and the decades immediately afterward. For some, of course, particularly in the South, and in bourbon’s natal state, Kentucky, the popularity never waned. And Kingsley Amis, one of the great British authorities on drink, warmly praises bourbon in the julep, the Manhattan, and, supremely, the old-fashioned.

The tradition that the Rev. Elijah Craig, a Baptist clergyman who established a distillery in the Commonwealth in the late 1780s, invented the process by which the raw corn liquor, aged in charred casks, is transmuted into bourbon has been called into question. Perhaps no one will ever know what anonymous hero of civilzation was responsible for this sublime alchemy. He deserves, at minimum, a statue.

Before September wanes you may still exercise your Twenty-First Amerndment rights and simultaneously commemorate this heritage. Until the frost gets at the mint, you have time to enjoy a julep. For a Manhattan, my usual tipple is Old Forester, and Maker’s Mark makes an excellent cocktail. Should you be in funds, a dram or two—make it two—of Woodford Reserve, Booker’s, Knob Creek, or one of the other premium brands should provide deep sipping satisfaction.

There are many bourbons—when the American Copy Editors Society convened in Louisville, the Galt House had a hundred varieties in stock in the top-floor bar—and some of them pose a hazard to the lining of your stomach, and perhaps the enamel of your teeth. If you are unaccustomed to grown-up drinks, as opposed to the candied confections that pass for cocktails today, let me suggest that you line up a [cough] reliable guide and adviser before you head out to the dramshop.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 PM | | Comments (7)

Two days

History throws up little coincidences that can bring you up short. The Associated Press “Today in History” feature for September 17 has offered this one.

On September 17, 1787, after a hot summer in Philadelphia, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, or most of them, adopted and signed the Constitution of the United States.

In twelve hours on September 17, 1862, 23,000 men died on a battlefield near Sharpsburg, Maryland. Antietam remains the bloodiest day in the history of U.S. warfare, and the events that led to it were set in motion seventy-five years previously during that hot summer in Philadelphia.

The deadly bargain—you can read about it in Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution*—in the Constitution, the price of ratification, was the enshrining of slavery, along with the three-fifths clause that gave the slaveholding states disproportionate power. Without the document of 1787, there would have been no United States; with it, the conflict over slavery as the nation expanded became inevitable, and it took the deaths of more than 600,000 men to resolve it.

This is the sort of thing that those anodyne texts they use in the schools won’t touch, because they have to express the myth of our inevitable greatness without causing any offense to anyone. That is a pity, because our history is fascinating, and sometimes terrible, to contemplate, and we contrive to make it artificial and dull for the young.


*To digress, when you understand how diverse the views of the Framers were, how much their understanding of the document they crafted diverged, at the time and later, you must irresistibly speculate to what degree the doctrine of Original Intent is a mere fiction—that the constitutional opinions of conservatives are just as much shaped by personal political inclinations as those of the liberals they disparage.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:15 AM | | Comments (3)

September 16, 2011

No second opinions

You may have seen this. At York University in Toronto, Professor Cameron Johnston, in the course of an introductory social sciences lecture, said that there is a difference between acceptable and unacceptable opinions in public discourse. For example, he said, you simply cannot say, “All Jews should be sterilized.” At that, a student, Sarah Grunfeld, walked out of the lecture hall and filed a complaint of anti-Semitism.

When the context was patiently explained to her, her response was “The words ... still came out of his mouth.” When it was explained to her that Professor Johnston is himself Jewish, she expressed skepticism that he is a Jew. She has received support for her preposterous accusation, though and the news media have made fun of her, which she thinks is unfair.

Writing at Language Log, Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum sees this wretched little episode as an example of our sanctification of opinion: “Some undergraduates today seem to think that when something is their opinion, that automatically gives them a right to say it and have it accepted respectfully.”

Not just undergraduates. In our public discourse, we see repeatedly how people seek to extend their right to hold an opinion to an imagined right of freedom from contradiction.

If you believe that all Creation was assembled in a week in October 6,015 years ago, I will never contest the sincerity of your belief or your adamantine right to hold and espouse it. But when you and those who share this opinion band together to find an imbecilic and compliant clutch of legislators—always a safe bet in the United States of Moronia—to legislate this opinion into the science curriculum of the public schools, you are stepping over the bounds.

We see this phenomenon over and over. We see candidates for high office make provable erroneous statements of fact, then refuse to back down. We see people reject empirical evidence about climate change and the place of the president’s birth and grow angry when they are challenged. In the little realm of discourse in which this blog participates, we see how warm people grow when their linguistic shibboleths are called into question.

Professor Pullum sums up the controversy that Ms. Grunfeld triggered: “This is not a funny story, and not a serious story about free speech or anti-Semitism either. This is a sad little anecdote about kneejerk hypersensitivity, intellectual immaturity, and gross irresponsibility.”

And that, even more sadly, describes a good deal of what we see every day in the world beyond the university.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:35 PM | | Comments (15)

September 15, 2011

Somebody noticed me

An email in the in-box at work from advises me that I should put You Don’t Say up for consideration for The Best Grammar Blog of 2011 or, out of modesty, engage someone else to nominate me.*

I would prefer not to. This blog has too small an audience—much as I prefer to think of you as “select” and “discerning.” And I’m really a working hack down at the paragraph factory, turning this thing out with the left hand. I’m no Grammar Girl.

Beyond that, upon nomination I would have to keep at you to vote for me. I have little shame—which you know if you’ve looked at any of the video jokes—but self-promotion is tedious.

Instead, I think you should go to and vote for someone more worthy. Editor Mark has been nominated, and Language Hat and Sentence First and Throw Grammar from the Train and The Editor’s Desk. Many others, and probably more to come.

Put someone else on the red carpet.


*Good God. While writing this, I see that someone already has.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:34 PM | | Comments (6)

Of minute importance

I picked up an article last week in which one of our writers talked about “dealing with the minutia,” and it was far from the first time I had seen that.

The word for petty details, those of you who have had even a little Latin should know, is minutiae. It is the plural form of minutia, which would be a singular petty detail, and is a word unlikely to be encountered. Both would be pronounced in English as “my-NOO-sha,” a likely source of confusion.

Minutia, “smallness” in Latin, is linked to minutus, “little.” Minutus also gives us the English minute, pronounced “my-NOOT,” as in the title of this post: very small, tiny, trifling, of slight importance, etc. It is also linked to the homograph minute, which we pronounce as “MIN-it.”

You could also say that insistence on minutiae is also of minuscule importance, which also means petty or trifling. (It originally identified a small cursive script, as distinguished from the larger, often upper-case majuscule.) And there, the prescriptivist tide flowing high in my blood, I will insist that you observe that first u instead of writing, as many do, miniscule.

Some trifles merit your attention.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:49 PM | | Comments (5)

September 14, 2011

Bent on evil

Sorry that posts are skimpy this week. I’ve been at work on a project: Kathleen has inveigled me into doing two sessions on evil at adult education at Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson.

The first, this Sunday, will be on Milton’s Satan and rebellion. The second, a week from Sunday, will be on Voldemort and Hitler and the exercise of power over the Other.

As is always advisable with good churchgoing people, I will emphasize that evil, rather than being remote and exotic, is close at hand and mundane.

I should be returning to whinge at full strength about editing and journalism in a few days.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:53 PM | | Comments (8)

September 12, 2011


Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism points out an interesting hypercorrection: “Lattimore finished with 27 carries for 176 yards and one touchdown, one fewer scores than defensive lineman Melvin Ingram.”

This is the sort of thing you get when someone learns a Rule—in this case, that less is used with mass nouns and fewer with count nouns—and applies it like a coat of thick varnish over every surface. But English doesn’t take well to Rules applied unthinkingly. As Professor Fisher points out, the idiomatic expression in English would be one less score than. It just is.

You also find hypercorrection in speech. Jan Freeman and I have had some friendly disagreement over the pronunciation of often, which can be pronounced with or without sounding the t. My view, which I am not prepared to abandon, is that sounding the t is a hypercorrection that over time has become so commonplace as to be acceptable.

There is some interesting information at English Language & Usage, which quotes the Random House Dictionary as saying that the t pronunciation was common until the seventeenth century, after which omitting it became common in educated British and American speech. “Common use of a spelling pronunciation” has restored it.

Thus, as literacy became more widespread, “spelling pronunciations” developed, either because people encountered words in print more than in speech, or thought that written language had primacy over spoken language. That coincides with my own experience growing up—mind you, I am not a phonologist—of hearing the t in often more commonly in the speech of schoolteachers, or African-Americans who had a college education, than among the slovenly pronouncing uneducated, who said offen and also commonly used ain’t.

But I’ll grant Ms. Freeman’s point that the t pronunciation has become widespread enough that it can no longer be considered solely as a marker of striving for upward mobility and might be a regional variant.

If any of you are interested in exploring other hypercorrections, please feel free to comment.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:22 PM | | Comments (10)

September 12

I didn’t post yesterday, choosing not to add my inconsequential recollections of September 11, 2001, to the cresting tide. Instead, I went to church, where we prayed for those lost in the attacks, for solace for those who lost family and friends, and for intelligence and restraint in our conduct as a nation. Later, at home, I made spaghetti sauce and a salad and opened a bottle of plonk for Sunday family dinner. In the ordinary rhythms of daily life we affirm that we go on.

Today in 1814 the Battle of Baltimore began, with the British infantry’s futile attempt to take the city and the Royal Navy’s equally futile bombardment of Fort McHenry. This is Defenders’ Day in Maryland.* So the nation has known dark hours before, and we can say today, as a Baltimore attorney said at the conclusion of that bombardment, that our flag is still there.

Your word of the week is hegemony, a tricky business for nations.

September 12 is also the birthday of Henry Louis Mencken, born in 1880. Of his many accomplishments, not the least is his authorship of The American Language, first published in 1919 and periodically revised during the rest of his working life. Though its research is dated, it brims with the Menckenian brio. To commemorate his birth, I will drag out once more one of my favorite passages, a piece of cautionary advice for those of us who write about language:

The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach "correct" English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.


*And it’s a plural possessive, dammit.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:46 AM | | Comments (3)

Joke of the week: "The Sleeper Compartment"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:49 AM | | Comments (1)

September 10, 2011

Ever the treasonous clerks

If you don’t know Jane Smiley’s delightful comic novel Moo, set in a large Midwestern university, you have a treat ahead of you that should not be delayed. From this 1995 novel, a short passage to illustrate an enduring feature of our political landscape:

It was well known among the citizens of the state that the university had pots of money and that there were highly paid faculty members in every department who had once taught Marxism and who now taught something called deconstructionism which was only Marxism gone underground in preparation for emergence at a time of national weakness.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:26 PM | | Comments (4)

September 9, 2011

You should look this good at a hundred

A venerable centenarian arrived at the house this week: the Concise Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1,682 pages, $35), which turns one hundred this year.

The Oxford University Press has many mansions, and its various dictionaries occupy several of them. The Concise is not the same thing as the Oxford English Dictionary. It is the one about which people wrote recently because it included bromance and some other novelties. (No doubt all those novelties are also slowly accumulating in the strongrooms of the OED, which, even though I know it is all electronic I prefer to think of as possessing heavily secured vaults like the gold repository at Fort Knox.)

The Concise is what it claims to be, a reduction of the vast OED to current essentials, most obsolete and obscure words stripped out, etymologies simplified, definitions made compact. It’s a desk dictionary, not a research dictionary.

Still within those 1,682 closely printed pages the little devil has a wealth of information. I almost called it a little bugger, but thought to look that up. Bugger as a verb is rude. As a noun, it means “a contemptible or pitied person” or “an annoyingly awkward thing,” and the Concise is neither of those. The entry does include a short etymology, which is always part of the serendipitous benefit of looking up words. Bugger comes from the Old French bourgre, “heretic,” and from there traces back to the medieval Latin Bulgarus, “Bulgarian.” You get heretic out of Bulgarian because the Bulgarians were Eastern Orthodox.

And the next entry is Buggins’s turn, a happy British expression for appointments or awards by rotation rather than merit. Buggins’s because Buggins can represent “a typical surname.”

The Concise is like a jar of smoked almonds. Once you read one entry, it’s difficult to stop reaching for another. Happy birthday, and many, many more.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:06 PM | | Comments (1)

September 8, 2011

Oh, the fracking you'll see

One of my spies forwards an article in which a member of a public relations firm looking at attitudes about hydraulic fracturing of shale to produce natural gas observes, “Fracking has become almost a dirty word.”

Well—recent concerns about the volume of groundwater consumed by hydraulic fracturing and the potential for contamination of the rest aside—fracking was already almost a dirty word. As followers of Battlestar Galactica ought to be able to attest, fracking and the more common freaking and the fugging Norman Mailer adopted for The Naked and the Dead are all substitutes for a more vigorous verb that needs no introduction.*

Hydraulic fracturing is a cumbersome term, unlikely to capture the popular imagination, so the advocates of this form of extraction are going to have to learn to live with less than savory overtones of the word in common use.


*To that list should be added frigging, which a current generation—it appeared once in a comic strip in The Baltimore Sun—is apparently unaware of its history as a term for manual stimulation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:25 PM | | Comments (14)

English is a mess, and so is everything else

Writing is a skill developed only with effort and long application. Speech is something that any first-grader can do. So it is not surprising that those who have achieved some mastery of writing should be vain of the accomplishment, even to the point of exaggerating its importance.

Thus we begin to explain something about the clamoring tribe of peevers. What is implicit in their cant about the purity and precision of language is a set of assumptions: that writing is of primary importance and speech secondary, that written language should be the template for spoken language, and that their particular dialect—in this country, standard written American English; in Britain, standard written British English—calls the tune for everything and everyone else.

What we can discover by reading John McWhorter’s What Language Is (Gotham Books, 228 pages, $26) is that those assumptions crumble upon examination by linguists who have done the research about the ways that language actually operates.* Professor McWhorter, who teaches at Columbia, sets forth, in an entertaining mixture of the formal and the demotic, some home truths about language. The basic one: Languages are a mess.

Languages are ingrown, he says. Left to themselves, “they grow hungrily, ceaselessly, and rampantly into available space,” like kudzu. They are disheveled. Over time they grow messy, develop peculiarities, become “jerry-rigged [probably he intended jury-rigged. Sorry] splotches doing the best they can despite countless millennia of unguided, slow-but-sure kaleidoscopic distortion.” They are intricate, developing ever greater complexities unless something interrupts the tendency. They are mixed. All languages bear the traces of encounters with other languages, and no language is “pure.”

Take English. The orthography may be a nightmare, but the language as a whole is much simpler than most—Professor McWhorter mentions one obscure language that has ten genders. English has been simplified for the same reason that Persian and other trans-national languages grew simpler: “blunted adult language-learning abilities.” The invading Vikings had trouble learning Anglo-Saxon, and so they made mistakes in speaking it and corrupted and simplified it, as did the later Norman French. (Today’s mistakes are tomorrow’s grammar.) So we have spelling that is insane, but the other side of the bargain is that we lack a thicket of case endings and verb conjugations.

This then is observed fact, with citations by Professor McWhorter from multiple languages to back it up: The more isolated a language, the smaller its population of speakers, the more ingrown, disheveled, and intricate it will be, learned by small children but nearly impenetrable to adults. The international languages have been simplified, worn smoother, by their friction with speakers of other languages who radically simplify them.

I should mention that Professor McWhorter is also great fun to read. Of the Vikings: “Making do with their crummy Old English, they plugged in so many of their Old Norse words into it that we can barely get through a sentence without them: get, they, wrong, take, anger, bag, low, club, knife (funny what kind of people that list makes the Vikings look like, but from reports it doesn’t seem far off).”

So, to get back to Those People, the ones who fret and fume about the purity of English and its supposed decline into barbarism. English comes from barbarism, and demotic speech continually replenishes and enriches it, as do its sluttish brushes against other languages. All of this is normal, and documented.

Those of us who concern ourselves with standard written English can certainly discuss nuance and precision, and there are indeed rules to observe and standards to uphold, though the latter, which might better be called conventions, are flexible and variable.

But if we were so ill-advised as to take seriously the Queen’s English Society or the other targets familiar from posts at this site, we would run the risk of winding up with what professor McWhorter describes in another context as a “taxidermal artifice.”


*We are fortunate to have access to multiple books that explain, in terms accessible to the laity, essentials about linguistics. You may have read Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct and, more recently, Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak. Professor McWhorter’s book is an extremely valuable addition to the literature.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:34 AM | | Comments (23)

September 7, 2011

Mr. Pietila's neighborhood

We know that grand old Baltimore, that comfortable town that Mencken loved, with the tidy streets of rowhouses with marble steps that housewives washed every Saturday night, with crab feasts and people chatting with their neighbors on front porches on warm summer nights as the children chased fireflies under the streetlights.

We also know that that Baltimore of the sweet haze of nostalgia existed because a complex web of legal and business arrangements, formal and informal, kept African-Americans and Jews out of Roland Park and Guilford and many other neighborhoods.* We know that black residents in particular were the victims of predatory practices that kept them in overcrowded districts with deteriorating housing stock.

Both Baltimores existed, side by side. If you want to understand Baltimore, what it was through the twentieth century and how it became the Baltimore of today, you need to read Antero Pietila’s Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City (Ivan R. Dee, 320 pages, $28.95, also now available in paperback). Mr. Pietila is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun—I edited his copy when he was the paper’s Moscow correspondent—and a writer of clarity and force.

Everyone in white Baltimore in the twentieth century was involved in the racism, the fear and dislike of black people, that created these two Baltimores. Everyone. Residents, real estate agents, governmental officials, businessmen (including a prominent philanthropist), journalists, and, most shamefully, clergy. The most reprehensible were the blockbusters from the 1940s into the 1960s who helped insinuate black residents into white neighborhoods, stampeding the white residents, buying their houses on the cheap and flipping them to black buyers at inflated prices. But the blockbusters could not have operated without the complicity generated by the dominant racist attitudes.

There are not many heroes in Mr. Pietila’s neighborhood. There is W. Ashbie Hawkins, who bought a house in a white district on McCullough Street in 1910. That triggered a series of municipal segregation ordinances. And there are many other African-Americans who braved hatred and legal obstacles to provide better housing for their families. There are the members of the United States Supreme Court, who struck down housing covenants in 1948 and school segregation in 1954. There is Mayor Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, a Republican (!), who tried valiantly to diminish the hysteria in white neighborhoods.

And that is how we got where we are today: Baltimore, with many exclusively black impoverished neighborhoods, with a number of still largely white neighborhoods, and some in which a mixed population manages to live harmoniously. (There are also Jewish families in Roland Park.) The city abuts Baltimore County, to which many whites fled and which, though there are corridors of black neighborhoods, remains largely, and determinedly, white.

Legal segregation is gone, and the most vicious forms of public racism are silenced. But I think that much of the talk at the time of Barack Obama’s election to the presidency of a “post-racial society” was hopeful blather. We need to face the realities. The past is past, and unchanging, but understanding how it shaped the present might help us to organize the future better. Mr. Pietila has a great deal to tell us in Baltimore about who we were, and who we are.


*Not just the tony neighborhoods either. The deed to my house in Hamilton Hills, a modest middle-class neighborhood, bears a covenant prohibiting sale of the property to blacks (and another prohibiting the keeping of pigs on the premises). Such covenants the Supreme Court ruled unenforceable, so we were told when we bought the house that it was meaningless. I don’t like that it’s there, but it is a reminder of how things once were. Ours is a mixed block now, as it should be. 




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:23 AM | | Comments (14)

September 6, 2011

Summer's end

Today was the first day of my editing class at Loyola University Maryland, and one of my students knew what an en-dash is. I’m almost giddy. Here, in case you missed the preview of coming attractions, is what they heard in that first class session.

Yesterday’s word of the week, tergiversation, prompted Linda Seebach to quote a delightful double dactyl by Anthony Hecht that employs the word, and Picky to issue this invitation: “I did want to write one that starts ‘Higgledy Piggledy, John Early McIntyre, Night Content Manager, Baltimore Sun.’ But I got stuck. Can one rhyme Sun with Hon in Baltimore?”

Surely this is bait you cannot resist.

Picky also posted this comment: “Higgledy Piggledy
/ John Early McIntyre
/ wears a straw hat / and a
 seersucker suit:

“even a male and an /
 episcopalian, /
 blessed with a tailor, / can
 still look a beaut.”

Sadly, summer’s gone, seersucker and boater are put away, and the fedora makes its return engagement.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (17)

September 5, 2011

Holiday bonus

They also labor who have the holiday off. In addition to the joke of the week, I offer these items.

Item: Mike Pope knows the words and the tune. Yesterday I posted this on Facebook and Twitter: “Maryland plates LNB 883, perhaps you could find someone to help you interpret what a YIELD sign means.”

Mr. Pope commented thus: “Yielding is not American, and represents an unwarranted intrusion of the government into my right to drive. There is no Constitutional basis for regulating traffic in this way, and the government has no right giving entitlements like ‘right of way’ to pedestrians, many of whom pay no income tax at all. Yield signs are obviously a conspiracy by the elites to cripple American drivers and bring about a one-world tyranny of pedestrian-only cities. Why do they hate our freedom to drive?”

Item: I hope you got your paper on time this morning. Mine was faithfully delivered. (And if you don’t subscribe to a print newspaper, shame on you.) But Andy Bechtel identified a salient point about newspapers at The Editor’s Desk last week after talking to a friend who canceled his subscription to the News & Observer because calls to the paper’s automated complaint line and to a person in the circulation department failed to get a problem resolved.

Crappy customer service may not have done as much as any other factor to motivate people to give up on print newspapers, but it has been so widespread for so long that it cannot be ignored as a contributor. Where else would you be expected to take in stride the periodic failure of delivery of a product you have paid for?

Item: I’ve been intrigued by the talk by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and other conservatives about the possibility of repealing the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the one that provides for the popular election of United States senators. It was a reform measure ratified in 1913 because in the nineteenth century business interests—often railroads—controlled the state legislators, which elected senators under the original Constitution.

I assume that corporate interests continue to control much of what the state legislatures do, so it looks as if the main motive behind repeal is a solicitude for corporations, since purchasing legislatures would be cheaper for them than purchasing general elections.

Item: Your word of the week is tergiversation.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:20 PM | | Comments (7)

Joke of the week: "The Bargain Hunter"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:04 AM | | Comments (1)

September 4, 2011

If I may be permitted ...

Standing on the sidewalk at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill this morning for the post-service iced tea and lemonade, I was dressed in a seersucker suit, bow tie, and boater. A neighborhood resident came by walking her dog and remarked in passing, “Whenever I see you here, I know that there is still something right in the world.”
Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (8)

September 3, 2011

Last and past

One of the minor fetishes still observed on The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk is an invented distinction between last and past.

If a reporter writes that “the students have been violently ill for the last four days,” a copy editor will change last to past. The thinking is, I suppose, that those are not the last days of the illness but merely the most recent, up to this point. We presumably imagine that if last were allowed to stand, the reader would assume that all the students had died.

I suspect this of being some Talmudic extension of the AP rule not to confuse recency with finality—an author’s last book being the one completed immediately before his death, his latest book being the one just published. The two terms can converge only once.

But “final” and “most recent” are both current senses of last. Referring to last year does not mean that you think that Harold Camping was right about the End Times.

Seeing little or no likelihood of confusion in the reader’s mind, I conclude that this distinction is another copy-desk-invented time-waster.

What I do not know is whether this fetish prevails in other shops as well. Readers, thoughts?



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:18 PM | | Comments (21)

Headline here

A letter from Polly Thornton published this morning in The Baltimore Sun defends the integrity of the linemen who have been struggling all week to restore electrical power after Hurricane Irene:

I felt outrage when reading a recent headline in The Sun describing the efforts to restore power ("Four days without juice, too much time spent in Panera," Sept. 1). The headline seemed to indicate that the workers were wasting their time sitting in a restaurant. These linemen and Baltimore Gas & Electric workers are working double shifts day after day and deserve all the credit they can get.

I edited that article and wrote that headline. If Ms. Thornton had read beyond the headline before resorting to pen or keyboard to express her outrage, she would have noticed that the article is about the ways in which residents were coping with outages. There are no linemen in the story.

(Or perhaps she did, and was so keen to vent that she ignored the content.)

This is the lonely life of the headline writer. You work on a text of 600, 800, 1,200 words, knowing that you will have six to eight words with which to distill its central meaning. You know that you will be elliptical and telegraphic—that can’t be avoided. You work with headline conventions—dropping articles, substituting a comma for “and”—that you hope readers will recognize. You struggle to reduce ambiguity and avoid double entendres.

You do this knowing that there will be some readers who will read the headline, interpreting it according to their presuppositions, and never read the article. There will be some, perhaps, who will perversely misinterpret it. And there will be many who will read into it some sinister agenda.

Writing headlines is a mug’s game.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:28 AM | | Comments (6)

September 2, 2011

On this date

On September 2, 1986, I reported for work on the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, so today marks a quarter-century (minus one year of [cough] hiatus [cough] to pass over quickly).

So for twenty-four years, some of them fat, some of them lean, I have been showing up at the paragraph factory to identify and correct error and make the rough places smooth. Only another editor is apt to understand the private satisfactions derived from the enterprise, share the camaraderie of our embattled band, or recognize the zest and pride that underlie the endemic grumbling and swearing.

And I will dare to say that the paper has been the better for my being there. Not pristine. Not free of error. Not purged of all hackwork and cliche. But still, better than it would have been without me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:32 AM | | Comments (13)

September 1, 2011

Don't cut a wide one

Picked up a story yesterday in which the writer had written swathe for swath. This is a muddy patch in the language, and the Old Prescriptivist is going to lay down his coat so that you don’t have to get your shoes dirty.

Use swath as a noun, meaning a strip of space. Its origin in Middle English indicated the amount of space covered by a single stroke of a scythe. The metaphorical expression cut a wide swath means to make a big impression or to indulge in some ostentatious display. Pronounce it “swahth.”

Swathe is a noun for a bandage or wrapping. Put it out of your mind that it is an alternative spelling for swath; that will not help you. It is more frequently used as a verb, pronounced “swaythe,” meaning to wrap a strip of bandage around something, or, metaphorically, to surround or enclose. It’s akin to swaddle.

Keep them separate

This is the sort of point on which the Associated Press Stylebook could be useful, if it had an entry on this point. (Perhaps you could suggest it to them; I lack confidence that they listen to me.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:49 PM | | Comments (24)

Prescription for prescriptivists

Better to write it dignified / with boughten counsel at your side / than none at all. Prescribe, prescribe!

Arrant Pedantry takes a look at David Bentley Hart’s recent effusion on language and concludes, much as I did, that his claim that prescriptivism is more moral than descriptivism is a specious argument.

The conclusion to the post interests me in the question it raises: “So does prescriptivism have value? I think so, but I’m not entirely sure what it is. To be honest, I’m still sorting out my feelings about prescriptivism. I know I frequently rail against bad prescriptivism, but I certainly don’t think all prescriptivism is bad. I get paid to be a prescriber at work, where it’s my job to clean up others’ prose, but I try not to let my own pet peeves determine my approach to language.”

Though readers of this blog have labeled me both a prescriptivist and a descriptivist, I continue to lay claim to being a reasonable prescriptivist, and I think that I can make a reasonable claim for that position.

If you consulted a doctor who prescribed the same treatment for every patient—bleeding, say, as in the eighteenth century—you would be dubious, and rightly so. A mark of bad prescriptivism is universality. There is only one proper pronunciation of idyll, Dr. Hart’s. Another is the tendency to ignore evidence, as Dr. Hart comes a cropper when he makes flat statements that turn out not to be supported by one of the authorities he does recognize, the OED.

A reasonable prescriptivist, such as an editor, is like a competent doctor who sizes up each patient individually.

So, this text is written by a particular writer, and it bears some mark of the writer’s personality and tastes. An editor’s task is to operate without effacing all those traces. (“Always respect an author’s style,” wrote Wolcott Gibbs, “If he is an author and has a style.”)

But it is also written for a reader, and the editor must do what is necessary to make the text clear and effective for the reader’s purposes.

And it is written for a publication or a publishing house, which has its own preferences. An editor applies—sometimes enforces—house style, recognizing the value of consistency even if he or she may not personally prefer each element of that house style.

Not that those writer/reader/publisher generalities are much help on individual points of usage. The editor has to exercise taste and judgment, and taste and judgment cannot be reduced to a set of rules, however comprehensive.

Like a doctor who realizes that what was taught in medical school twenty years previously may no longer apply, the editor has to realize that time may have passed by the ukases of his sixth-grade English teacher or her first managing editor. An editor has to keep up with the field, has to know what the various authorities say in usage manuals, has to keep up with the intelligent bloggers on language and usage who have proliferated in recent years, has to be willing to examine and evaluate long-standing personal preferences and sometimes abandon them. If thoughtful examination determines that some of your preferences are merely peeves, you will have to let go of them.

Taste and judgment in editing, as in music and art and dining, are developed by exposure to the best models. A competent editor will have a mental canon of the most effective—the most trenchant, the most graceful—writers he or she has encountered over the years, and will be looking continually at current writers to see how the language is being most effectively deployed today.

Reasonable prescriptivism is thus judgment and advice rather than decree.

An example: You know that if your writer uses hopefully as a sentence adverb, some readers will grow hair on the backs of their hands and commence baying at the moon. You know that if you change hopefully to it is to be hoped that, some readers will find it insufferably pompous and affected. You may damn the torpedoes and stet it, you may change it, or you may write around it. You will reach a decision, not by applying a Rule, but by gauging the various weights of the author’s preference, the reader’s needs and expectations, and the publication’s tone.

The hungerers for certainty will not like this. This demands a lot of the editor, and should, but as with doctors, however experienced, there will be variations in diagnosis and treatment. But the alternative, as with the good Dr. Hart, is something that looks very much like quackery.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:28 AM | | Comments (10)
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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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