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October 31, 2011

Invective and remonstrance

Commenting on Facebook last week about the annual post condemning holiday cliches, Pete Zicari wrote:

“I have had several bad experiences trying to persuade people who write more than they read that certain phrases are geriatric cliches and more, that tired expressions like that are to be avoided. I wonder if it would work better to wear a bow tie that bristles and had the skills to apply ferocious invective while making it sound like gentle remonstrance.”

If you know of anyone with such skills, please refer him to Mr. Zicari.

Your word of the week is contumely.


Posted by John McIntyre at 11:49 AM | | Comments (6)

Joke of the week: "The Headache"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:56 AM | | Comments (0)

October 30, 2011

I wonder why they hate America so

No, I am not talking about Muslim fundamentalists. I think I know why some of them hate America. We are a secular society that has embraced values contrary to theirs, and like the imperial powers of history, we have troops garrisoned among them.

Rather, I wonder why so many Americans appear to hate America—not because we have expanded our military reach around the globe, but because we are a secular society that allows people to embrace values they don’t like: multiculturalism, gay rights, feminism, science. It’s odd that they should dislike and fear Muslim fundamentalists, with whom they seem to have a good deal in common.

I briefly tuned in to a radio interview with Patrick Buchanan the other day. He has a new book out, Suicide of a Superpower, and he was talking in that reasonable-sounding light tenor about his alarm that white Christian people are losing control.* And though I am not using him as a template for conservatives or suggesting that anyone who is not a liberal Democrat is racist (I’m talking to you, Gary Kirchherr**), I see that he is tapping into a widespread anxiety.

For demographic reasons, America is becoming more multicultural. It won’t be long before African-Americans and Americans of Hispanic descent will outnumber white Americans. Younger Americans are more tolerant of homosexuality than older Americans, as reflecting in polling that shows gradually increasing support for gay marriage. Add economic anxiety as people lose jobs or their houses or their retirement funds or all three because of forces over which individual have no control, and you have people feeling threatened and nervous.

This, Karen Armstrong argues in The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, is a common thread among fundamentalists in all three of the great monotheistic traditions. Modern scientific, secular society is difficult for them to accommodate into more traditional beliefs, and their reaction is to embrace extreme forms of those beliefs. Tolerance, like multiculturalism, becomes a fighting word.

I would like to see some ground for optimism in things like the changing attitudes toward homosexuality. If more people could see, as I have seen, gay couples in long-term committed relationships—some that have lasted longer than my marriage—they might cease feeling threatened. Or in the profound disgust the public has developed for the current Congress—both posturing, ineffective parties in it. And there are those demographic trends, so deplored by Patrick Buchanan, and so promising.

My sister found my grandmother’s recipe for corn pone (not the corn pone of Mississippi or Tennessee, I think, but a denser, sweeter cornbread that she baked in a bundt pan), and I plan to taste it again soon. The Hamilton Tavern recently introduced a pork belly banh mi (itself a multicultural artifact, blending French and Vietnamese traditions) of which I am inordinately fond. I love and honor the foods my grandmother cooked in Kentucky in my childhood, but I’m not prepared to forgo the delights I’ve discovered as an adult.

This humble example should help to explain to you why I would not care to live in Patrick Buchanan’s whitebread Elysium.


*In his own weird way, Mr. Buchanan is an Originalist. The Founders, after all, were almost exclusively white male Protestant property owners, and they thought that the country ought to be run by white male Protestant property owners. But the White Protestant Ascendancy eventually came around to admitting Catholics, and even some Jews, to the club. May we hope for further expansion?

**Mr. Kirchherr is a fellow editor, and we share many views on editing but differ politically. I write this librul pap, and he makes sharp retorts. I doubt that we will ever agree politically, but when I write here I have to think more carefully about what I say and its implications, so that I write more precisely. Awareness of the gravitational pull of opposing views is one of the things that help to pull people into balance.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:30 AM | | Comments (7)

October 29, 2011

Take it all off

Writing at his World Wide Words newsletter, Michael Quinion credits H.L. Mencken with a notable addition to the American lexicon: ecdysiast.

Mencken came up with it in response to Georgia Sothern, a notable stripper of the 1940s in Baltimore, who asked him to “coin a new and more palatable word to describe this art.”

Mencken obliged, working with ecdysis, the technical term for molting, derived from the Greek ekdudis, “shedding” or “molting.”

Ecdysiast for “strip-tease artist” did not catch on, though it turns up occasionally in a jocular tone.

Do you follow Mr. Quinion? World Wide Words is available as a weekly email. Here’s where you can sign up for it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:55 PM | | Comments (3)

October 28, 2011

The holiday cautions

I know that it’s not even Halloween yet, but today someone at, someone who will be lucky to ’scape whipping, referred to tomorrow’s impending snow as “white stuff.” This must be nipped, and nipped promptly. I therefore republish the annual holiday cautions. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire are fine, but they should be kept out of copy and headlines.

You have been advised.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must mention Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction is right out.

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too. Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage — and dignity — than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted. And should be.

Stocking stuffers: Stuff it.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Ignore tiresome objections to Xmas from people who do not understand that it is an innocuous abbreviation. The Roman alphabet X in this case is understood as the Greek letter chi, also X, which is the first letter of Christos. Xmas in no way takes Christ out of Christmas; it merely abbreviates.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And typically they do not scan.*

On no account are you to publish that execrable article on the estimated cost of the gifts in "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Whoever gets assigned to write it every year patently did something very, very bad in a previous life. If you have been guilty of publishing that thing in the past, do not compound your sin.

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality comforts them. It is for such people that television exists.


*If you are in any way traditional in outlook, or informed, you understand that Christmas was originally a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The modern, saccharine, holly-jolly Christmas, which can’t even wait until the post-Thanksgiving-dinner Alka-Seltzer is swallowed, has essentially effaced the original. There is no point of trying to swim publicly against the current, though you are free to observe Advent privately.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:05 PM | | Comments (28)

Colossal! Epic! Glorious!

One of my readers cringes at the casual use of epic. “In my opinion, if it isn't the universe, the ocean, or a heroic character—it's not epic."

Journalism and advertising alike have an inherent weakness for exaggeration. To sell your product, you exaggerate its merits; to sell your story to the reader, you reach for exaggerated language. So every sword-and-sandal drama becomes an epic in the advertisements, and every squabble between suburban property owners and developers becomes an epic battle.

Crisis, narrowly a term in medicine or drama for the decisive point, has come in political discourse to mean merely a big problem. Tragedy, an account of the fall of a great person (not necessarily a good one) because of a flaw in his or her character, has been domesticated to refer to any terribly sad event.

Journalists in particular are given to violating the “show, don’t tell” rule with adjectival inflation. Writers will call something dramatic, even though it is devoid of any visible drama, in a vain effort to make it look more important. They will call some award or position no one has ever heard of prestigious, and then they will tell you that the person holding it is prominent. (Hint: When someone wins a Nobel Prize, it’s not necessary to tell the reader that it’s prestigious, right?) They will casually label something the first, the only, the biggest, the oldest, when five minutes’ research will establish that the thing is far from distinctive.*

The one-sentence advisers you encounter in books and on Twitter—“Omit needless words!” “When you meet an adverb, kill it!”—will not be of much help to you. You will of course find it necessary to lance and drain the copy, but indiscriminate bloodletting is not good for the patient.

You can delete every dramatic and prestigious—I’ve been doing so for years—but you will better serve the reader if you take additional steps by asking questions, as editors do. What makes the situation dramatic? From what does the prestige emanate? Explanation is what readers look for, with specifics.

It does not end, that lonely epic battle of the solitary warrior, the copy editor, armed only with pencil or “delete” key, his back to the cubicle, as colossal looming forces of puffery, leviathans of cant, brigades of Brobdingnagian mendacity swarm and threaten to overpower him. Hard-pressed as the Spartans at Thermopylae, he dare not surrender, but must struggle to the end.


*Not, unfortunately, just the writers. Sometimes their editors will connive at exaggeration they try to “sell” the story for bigger play. This is one more reason to engage copy editors, who are not lobbyists for the texts they edit.



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

October 27, 2011

Too many words

Like the criticism leveled at Mozart in Amadeus, “Too many notes,” the criticism at KUEditing of a Garrison Keillor article in The New York Times is too many words—145 in the opening sentence.

Here’s what Doug Ward, a fine fellow and a professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, said of it:

“I can only guess that the editors of the Times Book Review were either afraid to confront Keillor or were blinded by his fame. So the emperor was allowed to parade naked through the Book Review, creating a garish spectacle that had no place in print.

“The site was so abominable that it stopped me cold. I couldn’t read beyond the 145-word sentence, couldn’t read about the Harry Belafonte book Keillor was reviewing, couldn’t bring myself to read anything else in the Book Review.”

See what you think of it:

“Here is a gorgeous account of the large life of a Harlem boy, son of a Jamaican cleaning lady, Melvine Love, and a ship’s cook, Harold Bellan¬fanti, who endured the grind of poverty under the watchful eye of his proud mother and waited for his chances, prepared to be lucky, and made himself into the international calypso star and popular folk singer, huge in Las Vegas, also Europe, and a mainstay of the civil rights movement of the ’60s, a confidant of Dr. King’s, who lived for years in a U-shaped 21-room apartment on West End Avenue, but never forgot what he ran so hard to escape from, the four or five families squeezed into a few rooms, the smell of Caribbean food cooking, the shared bathroom, his father drunk, yelling, blood on his hands, beating his mother, and 'a terrible claustrophobic closet of fear.' ”

I read the sentence myself and didn’t scream, faint, or go blind. Though a bit lengthy for current tastes, it is grammatical and articulated. It is readable.

We may have lost some of our stamina as readers. Here, for example, is a 135-word paragraph plucked from William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Ignorance of the Learned”:

“An idler at school, on the other hand, is one who has high health and spirits, who has the free use of his limbs, with all his wits about him, who feels the circulation of his blood and the motion of his heart, who is ready to laugh and cry in a breath, and who had rather chase a ball or a butterfly, feel the open air in his face, look at the fields or the sky, follow a winding path, or enter with eagerness into all the little conflicts and interests of his acquaintances and friends, than doze over a musty spelling-book, repeat barbarous distichs after his master, sit so many hours pinioned to a writing-desk, and receive his reward for the loss of time and pleasure in paltry prize-medals at Christmas and Midsummer.”

And this is by no means unusually long for Hazlitt, who had a lot of breath in him.

My own long-standing advice to my charges and colleagues has been congruent with Professor Ward’s: Get to the point fast. I ask them, you know the sentence “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth”? The creation of the universe has a ten-word lead. Why do you need more?

But still, one needn’t be doctrinaire. Perhaps it’s my familiarity with Mr. Keillor’s leisurely, long-spun monologues, but I can see some virtue in that opening sentence. He is, after all, reviewing a biography, and to sum up the elements of an entire life, and an eventful one at that, in 145 words is not a measly accomplishment.

I leave the point up to you, good people. What say you?



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:38 AM | | Comments (21)

October 26, 2011

I am not about the numbers

As E.E. Cummings* wrote, “i am a little church (no great cathedral).” Like all who blog on subjects of a minority interest to a tiny audience, I prefer to reflect on the quality of my readership rather than the quantity. Thus I don’t put much stock in competitions, which I am unlikely to win anyhow.

But the annual Mobbies competition at for the best local blogs also includes a category for the best Sun blog, and since I am part of the Enterprise down on Calvert Street, I don’t feel quite right about ignoring it.

If you would like to nominate You Don’t Say for the competition, you may do so through 5 p.m. today at The actual voting will run October 31 through November 10.

This is not public radio, so I will not hector you repeatedly about the nomination or the voting. We will return shortly to our regularly scheduled quibbling.


*Yes, he capitalized his name. This is not up for debate.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:21 AM | | Comments (1)

Every day in every way we are getting worse and worse

One of the dusty treasures in my office is a binder with copies of The Baltimore Sun’s in-house editing and writing newsletter from the early 1970s.

The entries are instructive to read when people complain about the decline in literacy and the multiplication of errors in print. Many of those doughty Sun writers and editors and copy editors had been in high school and college in the austere and blessed Fifties, before the wanton Sixties undermined all that was good and true and pure. Let’s see how adept they were.

“COMPOSE AND COMPRISE are not synonymous. The parts compose the whole; the whole comprises (is composed of) the parts.”

“MINUSCULE – The dictionary accepts miniscule as a variant of minuscule. The Sun does not.”

“SPELL them liquefy and rarefy. Also, ophthalmologist has two h’s.”

“GRAMMAR: The author wrote: ‘The Calley case … is one of the issues which are making the United States regard…’ The copyreader changed it to read ‘one of the issues which is making.’ The author was correct.”

“POLITICS is singular.”

“HOMONYMS – ‘I would be loathe to put it into a political context.’ The adjective, meaning unwilling, is spelled loath. The verb, meaning to hate, is spelled loathe.”

“1 2 3 OWL’S EYES – ‘Patrolman Howard R. Banks, 23, lost 10 days’ leave for making an illegal search of a man whom he was told had a switchblade knife.’ And in the next paragraph: ‘Patrolman Jimmie W. Wallace, Jr., 24, lost five days’ leave for misconduct in demanding to see identification of a girl whom he thought was too young to be at a bar.’ In both cases, the word should be ‘who.’ Take out the words ‘he was told’ and ‘he thought’ to see how wrong it is.”

“GET IT RIGHT – ‘The amount of lawyers who have been decimated on prime time would fill a nice-sized coliseum….’ ‘Amount’ is not a synonym for ‘number.’ This misuse has appeared more than once recently.”

“WHICHCRAFT Cutline: ‘(Mrs.) Austin looks through a cart of well-wishing mail for the Alabama governor who is hospitalized in Silver Spring.’ There is only one Alabama governor, and that fact makes ‘who is hospitalized’ an unrestrictive clause, and that makes a comma after ‘governor’ necessary.”

As you see, the same damn things have been cropping up regularly, in good times and bad, fair weather and foul, for the past forty years. If you imagine otherwise, you might consult a professional to determine whether you are suffering from the Recency Illusion or the Frequency Illusion.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:48 AM | | Comments (0)

October 25, 2011

Taking responsibility

I commend to your attention an excellent article by David Sullivan at the American Copy Editors society’s website, in which he addresses concerns about copy editing raised in an article by The Washington Post’s ombudsman.

The ombudsman observes, as does anyone who deals with readers, that there is irritation over errors of fact, eroding the publication’s credibility, and Patrick Pexton, the current ombudsman, lays the blame on the copy desk, where the blame is always laid.

Here’s the thing: As newspapers have increased the volume of content—print and electronic—they have decimated their copy desks. I’m not talking about the classical reduction by a tenth, but rather reduction to a tenth. The People in Charge think this is all right. The customers will just have to get used to a few more insect parts per million in the produce.

Since you are likelier to win the Powerball jackpot than see newspapers beef up the copy desk, concern about accuracy will have to be directed toward an unlikely target: the writers.

Don’t take umbrage, at least not immediately. I’ve worked with many writers who are scrupulous and precise, and when their copy comes across the desk I understand that I should mainly keep my hands off the keyboard.

But the culture that has prevailed in the business for a long time is that, like adolescents who leave their clothes strewn on the floor, the writers have expected that someone will be there to pick up after them.

I see that still today, when I open up stories whose web headlines, written by the reporter and already posted on the site, contain misspellings and errors in grammar. I see it when I ask about an article that contains two sets of numbers that appear to be contradictory, and the reporter’s response is that one set was just “picked up from the clips,” without noticing the discrepancy or making any effort to address it.

The writers, if newspapers are to shore up their eroded credibility, are going to have to take on a level of responsibility to which they are not accustomed. They will have to make sure that the names are spelled correctly and the numbers add up. They are going to have to be responsible for grammar and usage. They are going to have to spell-check their own work. They are going to have to learn how to write intelligible headlines for the web.

If they do that, the remaining copy desk staff, instead of having to fix everything, will be able to focus on the handful of minor slips that inevitably get past even the most careful writer.

All might do well to heed a couple of pieces of advice from fev at HeadsUp:

“1) Time that goes into enforcing every bogus secret-handshake rule in the AP Stylebook is not well spent.

“2) Time spent on taking a deep breath and giving the cop-blotter items a quick read for clarity and common sense before hitting the 'publish' button, on the other hand, is rewarded. The people on the receiving end of our prose appreciate it.” 



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (8)

October 24, 2011

Who's lazy now?

Yesterday I suggested that the singular they (shorthand for they as a gender-neutral pronoun following a singular or plural antecedent, as in “Everyone should bring their books to class”) should be accepted in general use without cavil.

Today the Writing Centre at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, tweeting as @SMUWritCentre, presents its reasoned response: “Using the singular 'they' means you're not trying, you don't know grammar rules, or you're lazy.”

Readers of this blog can pick the category into which I best fit. Meanwhile, I think I’ll give a try at characterizing St. Mary’s University Writing Centre.

Someone operating a writing tutorial for undergraduates might, you’d think, show some awareness of the context in which the singular they has been discussed at length. But it appears that linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and his colleagues at Language Log, or the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, are such sketchy characters that their views merit no consideration. Or that even a prescriptivist like Bryan Garner, who explains that the usage has become common because “[i]t is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language—the generic masculine pronoun,” cuts no ice at St. Mary’s Writing Centre.

You might think that at a university some importance would be placed on consulting authorities and weighing evidence. But not at St. Mary’s Writing Centre, where, if you possess Received Truth about The Rules, there is no need to bandy words with the ignorant and the lazy.

That the teaching of grammar and usage, when it is done at all in the schools and universities, has degenerated into promulgating a set of traditional, uninformed oversimplifications explains a lot about the limited writing skills of their graduates. These same institutions of learning appear to have pretty much given up the teaching of argument as well, which explains why public discourse has come to consist mainly of shouted assertions.

If any victims of the St. Mary’s Writing Centre should happen to read this, let me steer you toward some reputable sources:

An article, “All-Purpose Pronoun,” by Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman of the Grammarphobia blog and authors of Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.

A comprehensive summary of the arguments for the usage at Motivated Grammar.

The archive for posts on singular they at Language Log.

Assuming, of course, that you’re not too lazy to look things up.


And your word: Your word of the week at is Stakhanovite.


Correction: I am informed by tweet: "It is Saint Mary's University Writing Centre, not St. Mary's. Please offer a correction your blog post." I have accordingly corrected the first reference. Observing that the centre refers to itself as "St. Mary's Writing Centre" on  its Twitter profile, I have retained the shorter title for subsequent references.




Posted by John McIntyre at 11:55 AM | | Comments (6)

Joke of the week: "Late-Night Call"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:41 AM | | Comments (1)

October 23, 2011

Sin boldly

Attendance was down slightly at Memorial Episcopal this morning, but I do not attribute that to the possibility that part of the congregation has been lifted into the clouds in Harold Camping’s latest foretold Rapture. So, while we’re still waiting for the Parousia, let’s get back to grammar.

Arrant Pedantry, which we can congratulate for having just placed third in’s contest for Best Grammar Blog of 2011, suggested last week that we should act on what we know to be the case rather than cravenly cater to the Assertionists.

Writing about they used as a gender-neutral singular, he covered some familiar territory. The usage is centuries old and has survived despite the strictures of eighteenth-century grammarians and their descendants. English has accepted you as a singular, even though it was previously only a plural. The he-and-she construction is clumsy. All previous efforts to coin a gender-neutral singular have failed. Etc., etc.

Then his charge to those of use who count ourselves as reasonable prescriptivists:

Rather than join the ranks of grammarians who walk through all the arguments in favor of singular they but then throw their hands up in defeat and tell you to avoid it because it’s not accepted yet, I’m taking a different track and recommending its use. The problem with not using it until it becomes accepted is that it won’t become accepted until enough people—especially people with some authority in the field of usage—use it and say it’s okay to use it. If we sit around waiting for the day when it’s declared to be acceptable, we’ll be waiting a long time. But while there are still people who will decry it as an error, as I’ve said before, you can’t please everyone. ... I think it’s the best solution for a common problem, and it’s time to stop wringing our hands over it and embrace it.

This makes sense. When I’m on the plant floor down at the paragraph factory, I no longer recast the everyone ... they sentences, and I have occasionally used the singular they in these operations. It’s instructive, particularly given how quickly readers are prepared to swoop down on errors (or perceived errors) and brandish them, that no one ever writes anymore to complain about a singular they.

The hour has arrived—not of the Rapture, but of acceptance of singular they. Go with it.*


*Yes, I realize that some fussbudget on your dissertation committee is going to demand that you kowtow to what he thinks is a Rule. But I am talking about what you should do in writing that is meant to be read.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:56 PM | | Comments (6)

October 22, 2011

Self-abuse and journalism

It falls to me, sometime head of The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, author of an in-house newsletter, keeper of the house stylebook, perpetrator of this blog, to issue curbside rulings on style as stories come across the desk. My masters, of course, rule on substantive or sensitive issues, but I deal with the small change of daily issues.

So they come to me one day from sports to ask about the acceptability of using a vulgarism in a quote. Some athlete is calling another a “wanker.” This is supposedly essential to the dynamic of the story. Wanker, you may already know, is a British slang term for a masturbator, and is not a compliment. But sports makes a case for it, and I say that it can be justified in that case but that it should not be considered a precedent.

Of course, in the monkey-see, monkey-do world that is big-time journalism, it was less than a week before someone else tried to get wanker into the paper, and the discussion about the precedent I had set was accompanied by comments volunteered by the gallery. I said no.

Nobody loves a censor. Censorship sucks. (Sucks was long prohibited at The Sun as “vulgar street language, but there has been some loosening-up.)

The alternative press and many online publications and HBO and that guy’s radio blaring from the car next to you at the traffic light can all use vulgar language, extremely offensive language, freely, and the British press is also quite relaxed. But American daily newspapers are prudish—you may prefer tight-assed—about bad language. So are many of our readers, who expect their paper to observe the conventions that they are accustomed to from decades past.

That leaves us using clumsy circumlocutions: “performed a sexual act on him,” “the N-word,” “the F-word,” “[expletive],” initial letters followed by dashes, as if we were doing the Jumble. It seems childish, and yet if we publish anything more straightforward, we are deluged with complaints that we are corrupting the children.*

I’ll be giving further thought to this issue in coming weeks, having offered to present an audio conference on charged language for Copyediting newsletter. Editors have to weigh the importance of potentially offensive language to the story, the tastes of the audience, and the standards of the publication, all while weighing shifting social and cultural values. And no editor wants to wind up looking like a wanker.


Bonus link: At That’s the Press, Baby, David Sullivan has written a thoughtful post about the online subscription model for newspapers.


*I am considering offering a small reward to anyone who can produce someone under the age of forty who reads a newspaper regularly.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:52 AM | | Comments (8)

October 21, 2011

Enlightenment comes slowly

Our daughter asked us to record for her the broadcast last night on the Oprah Winfrey Network of Miss Representation. Description: “Some of America's most influential women, including Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem, come together to give audiences an inside look at the media's message and depiction of women.”

Kathleen was out, and I, being male, of course forgot all about it. So we had to record the repeat, which started at 1:00 a.m.

It turns out that the Oprah Winfrey Network resembles other broadcasters by loading up late-night programming with additional commercial interruptions. More interestingly, Virtuous Oprah’s people sell late-night air time to low-rent, sexy-babe commercials like the ones the Less Virtuous make money from.

Alice should find the juxtapositions instructive.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (0)

You have to look at the evidence

For prescriptivists, the difficult thing is determining whether there is an actual basis for one’s preferences in language. Take deteriorate.

I have no difficulty with the verb in the intransitive sense. English has not deteriorated over the past century. That is what I take from my reading to be the normal usage. Whenever I encounter it in the transitive sense—Peevers like to sneer that the Internet has deteriorated the English language—it just looks off, sounds off, seems off.*

But the OED has citations of the transitive sense going back to the sixteenth century, with later examples from Cowper, the Duke of Wellington, and Matthew Arnold. And a check of a handful of usage manuals, including Garner, MWDEU, Fowler, Bernstein, Follett, and Bremner, finds that all are silent on the subject.

So I am left with a strong preference but no warrant for it.

Well, not entirely. A quick look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English, not a systematic analysis of the 971 entries for deteriorate, but a scan of several pages of examples, suggests that the intransitive sense has become dominant, by a substantial margin. Perhaps there is something to my perceptions.

But even if the transitive sense is slowly losing out to the intransitive, it’s still there. I may not prefer it myself, but I’m not in a position to forbid it to anyone. Not even a reporter. Damn.


*I most often encounter the transitive in reporters’ writing, which reinforces my intuition that anything that turns up mainly in newspaper writing is likely to be wrong.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:21 AM | | Comments (2)

October 20, 2011

"Coffee" or "a coffee"?

I heard a character on an American television show talk about having “a coffee” and thought, aha, more British infiltration.

Americans talk about having “coffee” or “some coffee” or “a cup of coffee.” Having “a coffee” is a British locution, obviously being insinuated into American usage by all those imports from perfidious Albion on public broadcasting.

Not that we’ll all be taking lifts to the upper floors and buying any suspiciously cheap merchandise that fell off the back of a lorry, but there is a continual seepage of British vocabulary into the reservoir of American English. When men’s suspenders came back into vogue in the 1980s, for example, many people started calling them “braces,” after British practice. And now and again voices are raised in pointless fury about the phrase “go missing,” which Americans have found too useful to give up.

Across the water, there is periodic sniffing about American vulgarisms corrupting the purity of the only true and pure English. One of the notable recent exponents of this view is Matthew Engel, whose shrill and ill-informed tantrum for the BBC was roundly thumped by Mark Liberman at Language Log.

Perhaps I was corrupted in my youth by studying British literature in graduate school, but I switch back and forth, Mark Twain and Anthony Trollope, Rex Stout and P.D. James, without tremor or qualm. I follow with delight Lynne Murphy, who writes the Separated by a Common Language blog under the name Lynneguist, exploring the differences in vocabulary between British and American English. (The post on women’s shoes is illustrated.) It seems to me to be foolishly limiting to think that the one should exclude the other, denying the possibility of cross-pollination.

Besides—familiar warning coming here—British English is no more pure than American English or any of the other Englishes. English is, and always has been, an entirely mongrel language. It is like a crow (American) or jackdaw (British) always picking up shiny things. And being the language of freedom-loving and upstanding peoples, it will never tolerate some self-anointed bureaucracy like the French Academy to pronounce on its “purity,” which is largely imaginary anyhow.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:55 PM | | Comments (14)

October 19, 2011

Not enraptured

Around the end of the first century of the common era a writer on the island of Patmos, probably reacting to the persecution of Christians under the Emperor Domitian, wrote a strange, violent book of visions.

This apocalyptic book (apocalypse means “unveiling”) is Revelation, and the authorship is ascribed to St. John the Divine. It seems, to say the least, unlikely that John the son of Zebedee wrote it, and in fact, though the Western Church accepted that ascription of authorship early on, many figures in the Eastern Church rejected it and opposed its inclusion in the New Testament canon.

But it squeaked by and Christianity is stuck with it. Worse, as much as it was obscure at the time of its composition, it now carries centuries of accretion of interpretation, a good deal of it crackpot.* For it describes the Parousia, the return of Christ in glory to sit in judgment over the living and the dead and to terminate this earthly order, and thus becomes the blueprint for anyone attempting to calculate the date of the Second Coming.

Recent descriptions of the End Times lean heavily on a strain of interpretation called pre-millennial dispensationalism, which dates from the nineteenth century and includes the Rapture, in which the godly faithful are to be carried up into the sky to escape the coming tribulation that will precede Christ’s return.

I mention this because Harold Camping, whose calculations proved to be a little off last May 21—remember all those billboards?—has recalibrated and concluded that October 21—yes, this Friday—is the date on which the balloon goes up.

I will remain at my post. As a damned latitudinarian Anglican, not to mention a hireling of the Mocking Eastern Liberal Media Establishment, there’s not a chance in a thousand of my being enraptured. And if you are a regular reader of this blog, chances are excellent that you too will be Left Behind.

Mainline Christianity does not go in for such calculations, in part because it holds that it is presumptuous and impertinent to pretend to know the mind of God, and also because it does not go in for the literalist reading of Scripture that is essential to the operation.

Fundamentalism, in its Christian, Jewish, and Islamic flavors, as Karen Armstrong described in detail in The Battle for God, is a reaction to secular and scientific trends of the modern world. Those who hunger for certainty and authority double down. The people who quit their jobs and gave up their property on the strength of Harold Camping’s prediction last spring are an extreme example, but there are many more whose need for belief forces them into contortions.**

Religious faith, I am sorry to say, is not uniformly distributed, and serenity is not given to all believers. All humans face existential issues—our knowledge that we will die, our craving for freedom and our fears of exercising it, our confrontation with the dominant cultural values of our time—and believers very commonly have to struggle, as Paul and Augustine and Luther and innumerable others have. The world is what it is (the only time I ever plan to use that cant phrase), and our understanding is temporal and limited. We would do well to face what is in it without resorting to cranks and nostrums and easy answers.


*Those of you eager to purge schools and libraries of books that are potentially dangerous influences on young minds might want to give a close look to the Bible.

**I direct you to an article by Peter Enns at about the Reverend Doctor R. Albert Mohler Jr. of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville and his argument for the “apparent age” of the world. To compress the history of the planet into the 6,000 years that his literalist reading of Scripture demands, the reverend doctor argues that fossils and other geological phenomena were put at Creation to make the world look older. So, you see, if God had built a house, it would be new upstairs but would have broken furniture and half-empty cans of paint and a dripping faucet in the basement. (Yes, this is the same Reverend Doctor R. Albert Mohler Jr. who argued last year that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga because of its origins in Hinduism.)



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (12)

October 18, 2011

Telling stories

I picked up Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels today, perhaps the best novel about the Civil War. Re-reading a book—this one after more than a quarter-century—gives the opportunity to savor what one gulped down the first time. And only a couple of dozen pages into it, I know that it is pointing toward that place in the narrative where Joshua Chamberlain and the Twentieth Main save the Union at Little Round Top.

That is perhaps an exaggeration, but it is not much of an exaggeration, and the story it tells is one that continues to hold meaning for us.

The narrative includes that story of who we are as a people reflected in Chamberlain’s inward meditation: “He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his belief in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. This was the first place on earth where the man mattered more than the state. True freedom had begun here and it would spread eventually over all the earth.”

It is part of his story that the men on the other side also have honor and nobility, and their deadly clash is part of our national tragedy, the convulsion that put an end to slavery and the fatal contradiction embedded in the Constitution of 1787 and kept alive the belief of freedom and autonomy for all men and women.

The stories that we tell one another shape how we understand the world, and we should be careful about which stories we tell. We are bombarded every day by stories that are cheap and meretricious and unable to stand the light of day. You’ve heard a score of them. Barack Obama is a Muslim who was born in Kenya. George W. Bush connived at the September 11 attacks. Vaccines cause autism. Global warming is a fraud perpetrated by scientists just to get more government grants.

You may have seen on television ads for a forthcoming film called Anonymous, which presents as truth the crackpot claim that William Shakespeare did not write the works that bear his name.* No reputable historian thinks so.

Such a film would be harmless, no more to be taken seriously as history than the hare-brained Da Vinci Code, but Chris Le writes that “[t]he studio plans to concurrently release Last Will. & Testament, a documentary about the authorship debate, through First Folio Pictures ... and has been providing materials to educators that encourage teachers to “make this thought-provoking new film part of your class plan.” So we can expect weak-minded and gullible English instructors to “teach the controversy,” as if Oliver Stone’s JFK were to be presented in American history classes.**

So thus does the post-modernist principle that reality is a story that we make up to tell ourselves pass from the realms of Higher Thought in the universities to the level of history processed through the multiplex.

I know that Michael Shaara was writing fiction, somewhat florid and orotund fiction at that. I know that he steered his course close to the documentary sources of the Battle of Gettysburg and the participants. I know that he made up that passage about Joshua Chamberlain’s inward reflections but that it expresses an important belief for him, for that time and ours. I know that fiction can illuminate our understanding of the world and other people.

But I know that it’s important pay attention to what stories we tell ourselves and others.


*Perhaps it will explain how the Earl of Oxford continued to write plays for ten years after his death to be published under Shakespeare’s name.

**Dear God, please tell me that no one is actually doing this.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:25 PM | | Comments (5)

October 17, 2011

Did I really use "staycation"?

I am technically on vacation this week—actually, teaching responsibilities and the exchequer make that clumsy neologism staycation more accurate—but will be posting all the same.

I’ll save you a comments page view on the joke of the week by conceding here that I switched the protagonist’s name from “Tom” to “Ted” in mid-joke without noticing it. Or have I deprived you of the pleasure of pointing out the copy editor’s error? Many people find that sweet.

You do have a word of the week, vicissitudes, and there is a purely personal post today on the old Blogspot site from the [cough] hiatus [cough].

Taking the rest of the day off.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:52 AM | | Comments (0)

Joke of the week: "Time off"

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:04 AM | | Comments (0)

October 16, 2011

Tea for two

Great Fowler’s ghost, I am about to defend David Minthorn.

A worthy by the name of Eric Wemple, who opines for The Washington Post, accuses Mr. Minthorn of discriminating against the good and virtuous folk of the tea party movement. That is because Mr. Minthorn, editor of The Associated Press Stylebook, lowercases tea party and capitalizes Occupy Wall Street. And the Wicked News Media generally follow his lead.

Now The Post has every right, which it sometimes mistakes for a duty, to publish imbecilic opinion pieces. But since Mr. Wemple is plainly not interested in exploring why the news media might lowercase the one and capitalize the other, but rather make tedious arguments about that old bogey Media Bias, I thought I might give it a shot.

The argument Mr. Minthorn makes, and it is a respectable one, is that the tea party is not an organization but a movement of disparate elements. It’s a distinction we make elsewhere, and perhaps even Mr. Wemple can manage to parse the distinction between, say, republican and Republican. And when people in the tea party movement form organizations, such as the Tea Party Patriots, the news media do capitalize the name. Got that?

Now you can make an argument for capitalizing Tea Party, as some publications do—the news media not being monolithic—but that does not mean that the contrary view is invalid.

As to Occupy Wall Street, what you, you eagle-eyed lot, have already noticed, though it appears to have escaped Mr. Wemple’s attention, is that two-thirds of that name is already capitalized. How would Mr. Wemple have us write it? occupy Wall Street? occupy wall street?

Really, there are levels of silliness that ought to be beneath even op-ed articles.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:39 AM | | Comments (3)

October 15, 2011

Don't you know, they called the police in

HeadsUp: The Blog is embarking on a late-night campaign to stamp out the Police investigate headline. Praiseworthy. And the Police investigate lead sentence should follow it out the window.

As fev points out, the act that the police are investigating is pretty much always going to be of more interest to the reader than the police investigation—particularly one that has not yet turned anything up. And there’s the awful monotony of that formula turning up day after day in crime story after crime story.

Besides, if a woman is found dead in the yard of a southwest Charlotte home, after being dropped off at the unoccupied residence by a friend, who you gonna call, Ghostbusters?

Once fev has stamped that one out, perhaps he can turn his attention to the zebra mussel, the emerald ash borer, and starlings.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:32 PM | | Comments (4)

If you please, the Sixties are OVER

The little branch of the Occupy Wall Street movement encamped at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor reports that some motorists shout “Get a job!” as they drive by. If getting a job were that easy these days,* a lot of those people wouldn’t be demonstrating.

The choleric response to the Occupiers says something about how deeply stereotypes are embedded in our culture wars. We have the Spoiled College Kids Smoking Dope stereotype, the Lazy Bums stereotype, and the Dirty Hippies stereotype surviving from forty years ago, and some people reach for them reflexively.

Alison Kosik of CNN summed up the movement thus on Twitter: “bang on the bongos, smoke weed!” Bongos? Bongos! Has Maynard G. Krebs** turned up?

So the generals are once again fighting the last culture war.

If you concede that the tea party movement has legitimate grievances to express—and I concede that, even though those grievances have been somewhat obscured by the racist overtones and the illogical, frequently misspelled get-the-government-out-of-my-Medicare placards—then you ought to look for legitimate grievances among the Occupiers. I suggested previously that if you are suspicious of government, as Mr. Jefferson thought you should be, you probably ought to be equally suspicious of corporations.

Mr. Jefferson didn’t think much of banks, either.


*Let me suggest, from personal experience, that it’s not.

**Little Ones, Mr. John has to explain something from the Olden Times. Before there were dirty hippies smoking weed, there were beatniks, a kind of ur-hippie. They were represented to middle-class American on television in the early 1960s by the Maynard G. Krebs character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The character was played by Bob Denver, who went on to become the eponymous Gilligan in Gilligan’s Island, another dark chapter in America’s cultural history.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:14 AM | | Comments (5)

October 14, 2011

It's all up to you now

At Lingua Franca, Carol Saller offers some sound advice on self-editing.* You should read what she has to say, and also the useful comments on the post, because the War on Editing is leaving you alone and unprotected out there. If you don’t spot it and fix it, it probably won’t get fixed at all.

Her advice there is all good. Unless there’s a gun at your head, take a break after you finish a draft and try to come back to give it a fresh look. Get to the point. Watch out for your own tics. Beware bogus advice. So are the suggestions in the comments: Read the text out loud. Print it out and read it; people notice things on the printed page that they do not spot on a screen.

I have a few suggestions of my own.

Arm yourself with the tools for the job. Dipping into Garner on Usage and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage will make you more knowledgeable and self-aware as a writer. Bookmark the electronic references you find most reliable and useful. (Hint: Comb Katharine O’Moore-Klopf’s Copyeditors’ Knowledge Base.)

Don’t neglect the spell-check function on the machine. It won’t protect you from the wrong word correctly spelled, but it will highlight your typos and inconsistencies in spelling proper names. Run the spell-check as the last thing you do before shipping the text.

Making some kind of outline before writing is a good idea. Another good idea is to go over the text afterward and identify the components in an outline. That will help you spot whether you have structured and organized the text effectively.

Revision is tedious and frustrating. Do it anyway.

Write a headline for your text. If you cannot summarize the main point in six to eight words, you may not have an adequate focus.

Pace while you write, or take a walk between drafts. That pushes blood up to the brain where you need it.

Coffee, tea, and water enhance self-editing; gin does not.

When you err, and you will, take correction humbly and gratefully.


*Disclosure: Ms. Saller’s post includes this endorsement: “Writers would profit from hanging out at John E. McIntyre’s blog, You Don’t Say (it’s worth climbing that pay wall). An editor at the Baltimore Sun, Mr. McIntyre provides classy entertainment educating readers on issues like these.”

Now I suppose I will have to give good value.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:03 PM | | Comments (7)

October 13, 2011

They call themselves Christians

A pastor supporting Gov. Rick Perry of Texas dismisses Mormonism as a cult. Supporters of Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, insist that Mormons are Christians. And soon the Internet is featuring articles on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and addressing the question of whether its adherents should be called Christians.

This is nonsense, but it is nonsense with a pedigree.

The followers of the God of Love have been much given to contumely about one another from the very earliest days of Christianity. The Book of Acts describes a spat between Paul and the followers of James in Jerusalem that is unconvincingly papered over. The Council of Nicea was convened by imperial authority because squabbling between the Arians and Athanasians was disrupting public order. The Roman Catholic participants in the Fourth Crusade happily bypassed Palestine and sacked the Greek Orthodox city of Constantinople. The Inquisition was on the hunt for Protestants; Protestant Britain inhibited Roman Catholics’ civil liberties. Must I go on?

Given the variety of beliefs and practices of people who have described themselves as Christians over the past two millennia, it is ill-advised for any denomination or sect to claim to determine who is or is not a Christian. Besides, like the issue of who is ultimately to receive salvation, the question is not one susceptible of resolution by any temporal authority.

In American political discourse, Christian has come to be identified with a spectrum of politically conservative evangelicals, who, though numerous, do not have an exclusive claim on the term. Other Christians now tend to identify themselves by their denominations instead.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:50 PM | | Comments (11)

October 11, 2011

10 tips for men

Women don’t seem to need much advice, but men, hapless as we are, need as much as we can get. Thus:

If someone who is not embracing you can smell your deodorant, body wash, or cologne, you have overdone it. (You do, however, get points for daily bathing.)

Pajamas are nightwear, not daywear.

You may imagine that going unshaven makes you look rugged, masculine, Brad-Pittish. It’s likelier that you look like someone coming off a three-day bender.

If you’re OK with knowing that that tattoo is going to get faded and saggy as you age—not to mention the waning of an enthusiasm for a person or topic that you will have outgrown—go ahead. But first get a copy editor to go over the spelling of your choice. Genius does not begin with a j.

George Washington’s rule still holds: “When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usually Discovered.”

Take off your hat when entering a church, library, concert hall, restaurant, or private home. If you usually wear a cap instead of a hat, take that off, too, and give some consideration to buying a hat.

Your chewing should not be audible to people at the next table.

What my daughter tells me merits your attention: “You are not as funny as you think you are.”

Prowess is demonstrated by performance, not palaver.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:31 AM | | Comments (7)

October 10, 2011

Murder will serve

After I talked about murder mysteries with Sheilah Kast on Maryland Morning, and made that remark about the pleasures of reading them that I’ve made a thousand times, some people have asked me for recommendations. This will not be encyclopedic, but rather a retrospective on half a century of enjoying the genre.

I started, of course, with Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. My parents gave me a boy’s anthology of the stories as a gift when I was ten, and it was not long before I laid hands on the complete set and devoured them.

Later, Chesterton’s Father Brown stories pleased, despite the creaky Roman Catholic apologetics. I read a little Agatha Christie but was not enthralled. Much better to see the dramatizations with Joan Hickson, the consummate Miss Marple. Same with Dorothy L. Sayers—much better to see Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.

In high school I discovered Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, and, usually forgetting the plots after the lapse of a couple of years, have enjoyed re-reading Archie Goodwin’s cocky narratives ever since. They do not pall. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels—they were on my son’s reading list at the Park School—also return repeated reading.

Simenon for atmosphere: Inspector Maigret ducking into a little bar for a quick pint or, on a cold day, brandy, before exploring the drams of deceit in the streets and apartments of Paris. Or Donna Leon, whose Commissario Brunetti novels set in Venice, with details of the commissario’s daily meals that leave your mouth watering.*

There were times when instead of working on the dissertation I skived off for an afternoon with P.D. James. The Brits give good value. Reginald Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe stories work the mismatched-pair gimmick that has worked ever since Cervantes paired Don Quixote and Sancho Panza: the fat, loud, earthy Dalziel and the introspective, educated Pascoe.

On these shores, Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct police procedurals, Ross Macdonald’s Southern California Gothic narratives, Sue Grafton’s alphabet series, and Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian mysteries have aptly accompanied the after-work nightcap.

Not everything appeals, of course. I liked Patricia Cornwall’s early novels about Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner, and thought the angle original. But as her novels have gotten considerably longer, the plots have grown more baroque and less readable. I ground to a halt a dozen pages into a recent one and never went back. Same thing happened with Elizabeth George.

I have enjoyed Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels, though I say with regret—the man was a committed writer who died at his desk—that the last dozen novels were increasingly slender. We long ago grew acquainted with the Spenserian Stoic Hero ethic, and it has not been necessary for Spenser and Susan to rehearse it endlessly. And the denouement in Sixkill, the last completed Spenser novel, is presented almost offhand.

The pattern of the murder mystery is the same as the pattern of comedy: in an apparently orderly world, a disruption breaks in, and through a sequence of reversals and discoveries a fresh order is achieved. In mysteries it usually turns out that that apparent order was in some way corrupt, and it is interesting to note that Martin Beck, Commissario Brunetti, and many others are skeptical of governmental authority and the existing social order. The detective, like Holmes, Father Brown, and Miss Marple, is usually an outsider; the protagonists with official status like Beck and Brunetti are outsiders within authority.

Standing in opposition to the disorderly world of corruption and crime is the detective’s order, and in addition to the pleasure of experiencing violence at a safe remove, we enjoy the pleasure of the order the detective achieves. Who would not like to share those rooms in Baker Street, with the cigars in the coal scuttle and the pipe tobacco in the Persian slipper? Or that Manhattan brownstone with the ten thousand orchids in the rooftop conservatory? Or pop over to the Brasserie Dauphine for a quick one? As story succeeds story, we sink comfortably into a world that, for all its external disorder, has grown familiar and comfortable to us.


*At the Festival-on-the-Hill Saturday, I heard from Charlie Duff, whose taste is to be trusted implicitly, that Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montabano mysteries, set in Sicily, are even better. He sold me a copy of The Wings of the Sphinx at the used-book table, and it looks promising.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:54 AM | | Comments (13)

Subscribe, subscribe

Later today, content, including this blog, will become available through digital subscription, as previously announced.

I am touched at hearing from a number of readers that they plan to subscribe, principally for access to this blog, the joke of the week, and the word of the week.

Some details may be helpful:

The Baltimore Sun’s customer service line is 410-332-6807

The email address is

You can fill out a contact form for asking questions at

You can find @SunDigitalSubs on Twitter

And there’s the FAQ on digital subscriptions:

I understand the reasons for which some of you are choosing not to subscribe, and I hope that you will at least take advantage of the fifteen free page views a month. And perhaps revisit your decision later.

And now, your word of the week: bloviate.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:53 AM | | Comments (6)

Joke of the week: "The Marriage Counselor"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:31 AM | | Comments (0)

October 7, 2011

The seat of power

An innocent reference last week to my office at the paragraph factory prompted unexpected responses. You have an office? An office? There was a lurid reference to casting couches.

For the record, that office is where I sit to record the weekly video joke, and the accompanying photo should confirm that it is both an actual office and a modest ten-by-ten-and-a-half-foot one. All that you fail to see on the wall by the door are the bookcase, coat rack, and cuspidor.


Posted by John McIntyre at 6:19 PM | | Comments (21)

The seat of power

An innocent reference last week to my office at the paragraph factory prompted unexpected responses. You have an office? An office? There was a lurid reference to casting couches.

For the record, that office is where I sit to record the weekly video joke, and the accompanying photo should confirm that it is both an actual office and a modest ten-by-ten-and-a-half-foot one. All that you fail to see on the wall by the door are the bookcase, coat rack, and cuspidor.

Posted by John McIntyre at 6:17 PM | | Comments (0)

Let them be heard

While I was on vacation some last month, a reader left a voice mail inquiring why The Sun had not been covering the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Not having been privy to any news decisions while I was out, I couldn’t say. Nor could I say why the major news media were giving the demonstrations little or no attention.

But I can speculate.

The first thing is that, this being America, someone is always demonstrating against something, so protests, even large ones, tend not to get much in the way of ink or pixels. The second is that the major news organizations, having been accused of bias ever since Spiro Agnew was taking payoffs and Richard Nixon was attempting to subvert the Constitution, are skittish about appearing sympathetic to lefties.

Now the protests against corporations, every bit as inchoate as those of the tea party, have swelled to dimensions not to be ignored, and that is probably to the good.

I marveled at the tea party, organizing on the Internet, which was created and made available free to all by the government,* and traveling on roads and streets built by the government, would appear to voice a belief that we cannot trust our elected government but should instead trust corporations.

The same thing mystified me during the debate over President Obama’s health care plan. Are there people who feel affection for their insurance companies, who admire and respect the faceless functionaries who increase their premiums every year and then, when illness strikes, deny coverage? When people complained that the Obama plan would subject us to choking paperwork and arbitrary decisions made by unaccountable officials, I wondered what the bumf** they thought we have now.

Not that I enjoy a pure and unsullied faith in our government. Both the left and the right have their favorite lists of ineptitude and waste, and it is quite right that they should be leveling those accusations. The Founders were distrustful of government, devising stratagems to cub the powers of each of the three main branches, and they would approve of our skepticism.

But I have worked for corporations for the past three decades, and the experience has sharpened rather than dulled my skepticism about their wisdom. And the current economic slump, to which the major banks and investment houses made such important contributions, has not left me any more sanguine.

So, the tea party has enjoyed its time in the public eye, and now others want a turn. I say let the people be heard. The goose having been sauced, bring on the gander.


*D’you think that it IBM or Apple had developed the Internet, it would be free for you to use?

**Bumf is a lovely bit of British slang for official forms and paperwork. It is a shortened form of bumfodder, that is, toilet paper.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:40 PM | | Comments (17)

October 5, 2011

The first three letters of "assertionist"

Those of us in the prescriptivist tradition striving to break free of crazies and zombie rules can be grateful to Eugene Volokh of The Volokh Conspiracy for articulating a long-needed distinction:

“But while I have philosophical disagreements with prescriptivists in general, my main practical disagreements are with people who might best be labeled ‘assertionists’ — people who don’t just say that prescriptionists [“prescriptions” probably meant] set forth by some supposed authorities define what is ‘right’ in English, but who simply assert a prescription even in the face of what those supposed authorities say.”

Exhibit A is a person who commented on his post about the zombie rule that one may not begin a sentence with the conjunctions and, but, and or. “I have a Ph.D. in linguistics and I taught grammar at a university for 20 years — for what it is worth. It is indeed a rule in formal English that you cannot begin a sentence with a conjunction.”

Lord have mercy on the students who sat through those classes. Bryan Garner, whose credentials as a prescriptivist are beyond question, calls this a superstition. Mr. Volokh cites Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Oxford English Grammar, and other authorities. In fact, the best that the assertionist came up with was a text that, on Mr. Volohk’s examination, proved to be “a developmental skills text for lower-intermediate and intermediate students of English as a second or foreign language” that says, “Except in very formal writing, a conjunction can also come at the beginning of a sentence”!

The assertionist will not be persuaded by evidence; neither will he be persuaded by the arguments of authorities who contradict what he asserts. We have seen the type elsewhere, among the birthers and the anti-vaccine cranks, for example. The psychology gives rise to the paradox that the need for certainty, for authority, can give rise to beliefs impervious to genuine, evidence-based authority.

And we know the pattern. Some bogus rule is articulated by a teacher, and, because it is an easy-to-remember oversimplification, it sticks through life. Or an editor early in the assertionist’s career lays down some idiosyncratic pronunciamento. Occasionally one of these counterfeit precepts makes its way into a stylebook, like the split-verb nonsense enshrined in The Associated Press Stylebook, mesmerizing the naive, who mistake the stylebook for Heilige Schrift.

We who work as editors are inherently prescriptivist. If we have any sense, we pay attention to what lexicographers and linguists tell us about how the language is being used, and we read widely to form our own sense of the state of things.

But we pick up a text to make it read as it ought to read, for our publication and our audience. We do this recognizing the arbitrariness of our stylebooks, that their conventions are not the same thing as rules of the language. We do this recognizing that our writers, and we ourselves, were taught things that we need to unlearn. We do this recognizing that words and constructions that were deplored thirty years ago may be entirely acceptable today.

And—this is the fourth coordinating conjunction introducing a sentence in this post. Bother you much?—we as moderate and reasonable prescriptivists know that to be effective in our work we need to put some distance between ourselves and the assertionists.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:24 AM | | Comments (17)

October 3, 2011

Passive voice has its uses

Geoffrey K. Pullum reports at Lingua Franca that a colleague whom he had asked to read a manuscript returned it with the advice that he should avoid the passive voice.

I know, I know. You will have crawled under the desk to wait for the concussion to shake plaster from the ceiling. But actually, his response was quite mild—no suggestions of disinterring Strunk and White and George Orwell and displaying their heads on poles on the National Mall. He merely pointed to a couple of his sentences and explained mildly his reasons for casting them in the passive.

Then he turned to a piece of the colleague’s work and demonstrated just how frequently she resorted to the passive voice.

Of all the bogus pieces of advice about English usage, and it is as common as nostrums purported to cure cancer, baldness, and erectile dysfunction, few can rival the uninformed belief that the passive voice is, in and of itself, a Bad Thing. This is quackery, and I want you to be freed from its spell.

If you want a thoroughgoing, technical explanation of how the passive voice functions in English, I recommend a post by Professor Pullum at Language Log. There are subtleties. If you stay here, I’m offering a streamlined account.

The active voice in its simplest form follows a subject-verb-object pattern in which the subject of the sentence performs the action the verb describes: Quack writes nonsense.

The passive voice in its commonest form combines a form of be with the past participle of a verb in a sentence in which the subject receives the action rather than performing it: Bad advice is followed by the credulous.*

People scorn the passive voice because it can be used in reprehensible mistakes-were-made constructions to dodge responsibility. But the active voice can be used just as cravenly. The weasely mock apology I am sorry if my remarks offended anyone is not a passive construction.

There are places in which the passive voice is perfectly acceptable, even desirable. The two most common are sentences in which the actor causing the action is unknown, and sentences in which the action or the object of the action are more important than the actor.

In the first category: The door was jimmied after midnight. You could write a flabby active-voice Someone jimmied the door after midnight, but since you can’t identify who the someone is, the action is more important information.

In the second: The university president was arrested and accused of drunken driving. Who arrested him? Who d’you think arrested him, the faculty senate? You can assume that the police arrested him. The more important information is who got behind the wheel while hammered, and the passive construction allows you to put that information up front in the sentence for more impact.

Professor Pullum’s conclusion at Lingua Franca: “[T]his is where modern American writing instruction has brought us. Totally unmotivated warnings against sentences that have nothing wrong with them are handed out by people who (unwittingly) often use such sentences more than the people they criticize. And the warnings are consumed by people who don’t know enough grammar to evaluate them (which is why the percentage of passives in published prose continues basically unchanged over time). The blind warning the blind about a danger that isn’t there.”


*It’s notable that the quacks and the people who make the mistake of taking their advice frequently misidentify passives. Not every sentence containing a form of be is a passive. They are paying attention to Pullum is not a passive construction. There is no reason to panic is not a passive construction.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:02 PM | | Comments (12)

Weekend's over

If you are up and about, you can catch my brief interview with Sheilah Kast on today’s Maryland Morning (WYPR-FM, 88.1, about 9:15 a.m. Eastern time). Otherwise, it should be posted at the Maryland Morning website sometime this afternoon.

Your word of the week is pellucid.

Coming later today or tomorrow: why you should not fear the passive voice.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:56 AM | | Comments (1)

Joke of the week: "The Talking Dog"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:43 AM | | Comments (6)

October 1, 2011

Back in the day

On the wall of my office is a framed panel from an old Brenda Starr strip. A male reporter is lowering an unconscious woman with long dark hair onto a sofa, and in his thought balloon appear the words “I’ve got to get into something safe like editing.”

Would that it were still so.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:34 PM | | Comments (4)
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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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