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November 30, 2011

You can call it "politically correct," if you like

“Politically correct” comes accompanied with a sneer, directed at weak-minded liberals who pander to every minority group imaginable by adopting whatever ridiculous euphemism is fashionable at the moment. (Those who use the term should feel free to comment if I have misconstrued the connotations.)

The subject came up in a Language Log post last week on the politics of prescriptivism. A reader commenting as Andrew B. pushed the discussion in this direction:

[T]he left's form of prescriptivism is as strong or stronger than the right's, and it certainly has more cultural cachet, or oompahpah, as you called it. It's popularly known as "political correctness" and occurs any time a conservative says anything that is then accused of being racist or "hate-filled." While I abhor racism, the statements in question can be harmless, and the liberal writers who accuse face no consequences for being wrong. I'm thinking of Paul Krugman's column "Climate of Hate," or Frank Rich's new column in which somehow the marxist Lee Harvey Oswald becomes a product of the right wing. Or Bill Maher's "denying racism is the new racism."

You tell me which I should be more concerned about, the right's qualms over dis/uninterested, or the fact that I cannot open my mouth in some liberal circles without being a "racist" producing a "climate of hate" that could cause death and murder. To reiterate, your Tory says language produces uncleanliness. These writers say mine produces murder.

I’m going to explore political correctitude in a moment, but first I want to look at this comment and another by Andrew B. by way of introduction. Racist language used to be commonplace and clear-cut. People used to say things on the floor of the United States Senate that would make you shudder today. They make you shudder because overt racism has become as socially unacceptable as advocacy of slavery. It’s gauche. But it would be naive to imagine that racism has vanished merely because it is no longer public and explicit.

So while one should hesitate to call someone a racist, one has to be able to say that a statement sounds racist, whether it is knowingly or unknowingly so. Take uppity. A few years ago Rep. Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia described Barack and Michelle Obama as uppity, saying in the minor uproar that ensued that he had grown up unaware—in Georgia (!)—that the word had racist overtones. And a week ago Rush Limbaugh used the same term to characterize Ms. Obama. It may well be that people in their twenties and thirties who came to adulthood in the post-civil-rights era are unaware of the ugly history of the word, but Mr. Limbaugh can hardly claim innocence.

Andrew B. has a further comment in the discussion that merits examination:

I ran into a group of friends discussing the sexuality of another friend, whether he was gay/bisexual etc. Without any hint of malice I said he was "queer." It seemed to be the only word left that could describe this friend of ours, without more information. My use of the word was met with silent glaring, broken by a friend replying only with "You can't say that."

There is a very good reason for Andrew B. not to talk that way, and it has nothing to do with any left-wing totalitarian political correctitude. It has to do with common courtesy.

We know, or should know, that members of a group are free to talk within that group in ways that outsiders may not. We learn that from the family unit, in which the members may say all manner of cruel things to one another but join ranks to oppose any insult from the outside. African-Americans often use racist terms among themselves that I as an aging white guy had better not. (And if you should utter some slur against people from Appalachia, you may well get a glare from me.)

In Andrew B.’s example, he might have known that queer from heterosexuals is a slur that some homosexuals have adopted to take the sting out. The friend who advises him not to talk that way is not disparaging him because he is a self-professed conservative, but because he is socially awkward.

It falls to me as an editor and keeper of my newspaper’s stylebook to rule on whether language is acceptable for publication, because the goal of the publication is to be factually accurate and clear without wantonly offending readers. (That’s why we’re prissier about swearing in the publication than we are in the newsroom.) There are perfectly acceptable principles behind what is dismissed as political correctitude:

Item: We call people by the terms by which they identify themselves, aware that these terms are mutable. Think of Negro, black, African-American. Think how long many newspapers resisted gay for homosexual until it became embedded in common speech and writing.

Item: We avoid language that is gratuitously insulting, or describes groups of people as less than fully human. Retarded, once a classificatory term, has become an insult to be avoided in describing either an individual or a class of people. Ethnic slurs also fall into this category.

Item: We resist precious euphemism. While we no longer use crippled, we’re not about to swing over to differently abled. People who have handicaps or disabilities can be called handicapped or disabled. We get some pushback over those terms, but unless they happen to become fully pejorative, we will continue with them.

Item: We try to stick with neutral, factual language. Illegal immigrants are people—not aliens—who violated civil law by entering this country. Calling them undocumented is an apologetic term used by their advocates. We don’t say confined to a wheelchair. Polio patients in iron lungs were confined, but people who use wheelchairs achieve a degree of mobility.

A decade or so ago the Los Angeles Times revised its stylebook along these lines and was widely criticized for political correctitude. That’s fine. Call those of us on stylebook enforcement wimpy liberals as much as you like. Political discourse in this country has always been robust, to say the least, and no one in this business intends to fetter your political expression.


Today’s background music for blogging: Handel’s violin sonatas, with Andrew Manze, violin and Richard Egarr, harpsichord.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:51 AM | | Comments (12)

Yet still more from The Old Editor

More tweets collected for you.

The Old Editor says:

"Coveted" is as empty a piece of padding as "prestigious." Thou shalt not covet.

Stories to desk. Page One decisions made. Secret to improved copy flow: More national holidays.

You can’t fatten poor stock.

One of these days, I'm going to buy the newsroom a watch.

If you don't get it, don't use it.

Take care not to scorch the popcorn, and never heat up fish in the office microwave.

In interviews, always ask prospective employees whether they go in for home baking.

Journalistic ethics you should have learned by the second grade: Don't copy. Don't tell lies.

If [name] had written the Bible, you wouldn't be able to fit it in a boxcar. And it wouldn't be done yet.

If there's a word in the text you don't understand, and you let the text go, you haven't edited it.

Always honor the writer's intentions. If they can be discerned and make any sense.

RTFP. [Explanation for civilians: An exhortation to read one's own publication, with an intensive added]

Production of journalism, like the driving of mules, cannot be accomplished without swearing.

Unless you're still using an Underwood, it's one space after a period. One. Period.



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

November 28, 2011

Monday morsels

Item: If you are among those who bemoan our degenerate times and mourn the passing of strict teaching of grammar in the schools, here’s a description from 1903 by H.G. Wells of the old school of grammar teaching, quoted by Henry Hitchings in The Language Wars:

At present our method in English is a foolish caricature of the Latin methid; we spend a certain amount of time teaching children classificatory bosh about the eight sorts of Nominative Case, a certain amount of time teaching them the ‘derivation’ of words they do not understand, glance shyly at Anglo-Saxon and at Grimm’s Law, indulge in a specific reminiscence of the Latin method called parsing, supplement with a more modern development called the analysis of sentences, give a course in exercises in paraphrasing (for the most part the conversion of good English into bad), and wind up with lessons in ‘Composition’ that must be seen to be believed.

Item: Kansas learns about the First Amendment: A high school student, Emma Sullivan, tweets a rude remark about Governor Sam Brownback of Kansas. Brownback’s office gets in touch with Karl R. Krawitz, the principal of Ms. Sullivan’s high school, who calls her into the office and instructs her to write a letter of apology to the governor. Ms. Sulllivan, bless her stout heart, has refused.

Ms. Sullivan appears to have learned that Americans have a First Amendment right to free expression, even when it is, in the words of Governor Brownback’s spokesperson, “disrespectful.” Whether her principal has learned anything about the First Amendment rights of his charges, or whether the governor has learned that it is best not to be thin-skinned in public life, remains unclear.

Item: Tom Guadagno tweets as @DailyEngHelp: “Newsday headline - JETS GETS LAST LAUGH - Would the Baltimore Sun print the same?” Ewww, no. The Sun treats plural team names—the Orioles come to mind—as plurals.

Item: At Sentence First, Stan Carey writes about a fading but durable language superstition, that words from Latin and Greek should retain etymological purity, and that hybrid compounds of the two languages, such as television, should be shunned. This pedantic insistence on some imagined classical purity ignores that English is inherently a mongrel language, haphazardly stewing Germanic, Danish, Norman French, and Latin, with seasonings from a number of others as well. It also ignores—pace, Alice—that there is not enough Latin and Greek learned nowadays to make such a position tenable.

Item: Another superstition gets a good slap from Jan Freeman at Throw Grammar From the Train: the finicky placement of only in sentences. This was a hobbyhorse of the late James J. Kilpatrick, and it appears to survive in nearly all the journalism textbooks, with quaint illustrations of how the meaning of a sentence can be subtly altered by rendering it with only in different locations. The problem, as Ms. Freeman observes, is that there is almost never any ambiguity of meaning in sentences outside journalism textbooks.

There, now you have two pieces of surplus baggage you can safely heave over the side.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:45 PM | | Comments (12)

Heard melodies are indeed sweet

On Twitter, Colleen Barry, writing as @CopyCurmudgeon, requests: “Help me out, tweeps! I need editing music. Should be available on Spotify, up-tempo, with ignorable lyrics.”

I expect that many of you who write and edit prefer to do so in silence. And at the paragraph factory I must forgo background music so that I can be attentive to the groans, pleas, and imprecations of colleagues. But at home, crouching at the iMac in the basement, I can crank it up.

Not that I expect Ms. Barry to share my tastes or explore my recommendations, but I can tell you what I turn to most frequently.

Mozart operas are lively, and if you don’t know Italian or German, the lyrics will not distract. The Mozart piano concerti also work well, and the Sonata for Two Pianos, though it runs only a little over twenty minutes, has agreeably propulsive first and third movements. Handel and Telemann and the other Baroque composers also maintain a steady forward movement that encourages.

But the best music for writing and editing, I’ve found, is by Haydn. Those hundred and three symphonies have a verve and a bounce that cheer the heart and speed the fingers on the keyboard. The Paris and London symphonies are particularly good, as are Number 90 and 91. But you can’t go wrong with Haydn.

Tastes will vary considerably, so feel welcome to file your own preferences in the comments.

Also: It’s Monday, and your word of the week is jactitation.



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

November 26, 2011

It's nearly over

It’s here at last: the long awaited FINAL NOTICE from Newsweek. I let the subscription lapse, oh, a year ago, and have waited patiently, dutifully recycling each weekly issue for pulping and transformation into more honestly labeled cardboard.

I first subscribed as an undergraduate, and I still recall the thrill of the successive weeks of Watergate covers in 1973. I stayed with it over the years, and I allowed for some hope when Jon Meacham took over the faltering magazine and attempted to turn it into something like an Atlantic for people with shorter attention spans—you know, like in print.

But Mr. Meacham left, and the magazine was supposed to be transmogrified by Tina Brown, she who taught The New Yorker how to swear. I was not impressed by her early efforts and was even less impressed by subsequent ones. When I received the issue with Regis Philbin on the cover, I thought fleetingly about trying to get an injunction to stop the subscription, which is about the only way you can get a failing publication that is padding its numbers to cease delivery.

But now I have the FINAL NOTICE, and soon I expect to receive a series of further FINAL NOTICES—you know how the scheme works—until finally that blessed week will arrive when the recycling bin is a few pages lighter.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:52 PM | | Comments (8)

November 23, 2011

Prescriptivists to the left, to the right, volleyed and thundered

Geoffrey Nunberg’s post on “The politics of ‘prescriptivism’ ” at Language Log has taken an interesting turn in the comments. A reader posting as Andrew B., a self-described conservative, opines that linguists appear to be typically liberal academic types, and he suggests that they tend to overlook the prescriptivism of the left, which he identifies with political correctitude.

Responding, Robert Lane Greene remarks, “[O]f public "liberal-minded" language commentators, some of the more prominent are libertarians, hard to place, or at the very least often irritate liberals. Steve Pinker and John McWhorter are in this company. John McIntyre seems to be a very cranky moderate Democrat. ...” (“Spot on,” I responded.)

I think that the issue of political correctitude as prescriptivism from the left is worth some further thought, and I plan to post about it once that further thought has been explored. I may also have something to say about the political alignments of prescriptivism once my copy of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars arrives in the mail. Though the Queen’s English society, for one, seems to fit neatly in the Tory-Tory-hallelujah category, I suspect that there is something more here than a typical left-right split.

And I will be giving still further thought to the issue of Words We Do Not Print in preparation for an audio conference on January 12 for Copyediting newsletter, “Charged Language: Dealing With the Unspeakable in Copy.”

If any of you would like to submit remarks for me to take into consideration on these subjects, please comment below.


A brief pause: The Capcara-McIntyre ensemble will be on the road tomorrow for two family gatherings. Kathleen has already baked the two Derby pies to be appropriately distributed, with four more to go tonight—a mince, a pumpkin, a pumpkin cheesecake, and one I forget. I am at work on a cauldron of mashed potatoes before heading off to the paragraph factory. Given these commitments, it is highly unlikely that I will be posting tomorrow.

So enjoy the day as much as you can. I wish you all a wee dram of whatever cheers you, a hearty meal, and pie at the last.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:59 AM | | Comments (6)

November 22, 2011

Still more from The Old Editor

Latest tweets. The Old Editor says:

Kid, there are two places you want to stay away from when you write: gritty streets and leafy suburbs.

If you have to ask me when’s your deadline, you’re already late.

If you cover cops, try not to write like a cop. You know, "ejected from the vehicle." Like that.

If the AP Stylebook told you to jump off a bridge, would you?

Thinking about a career as a journalist? Plan on drinking too much, marrying twice.

If we thought you needed a life, we would have issued you one.

Your schedule stinks? You're talking to someone who's worked Saturday nights for the past thirty years.

We're not putting out a seed catalogue here, you know.

You can try writing drunk, but you have to edit sober.

Anything in 72-point Bodoni bold will look true.

Nobody’s going to read a story that has “still” in the headline.

In AP style, write the numbers one through nine as words, not numerals, except when you don't.

Don’t keep the good liquor where the staff can get at it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:07 AM | | Comments (5)

November 21, 2011

My blushes

In his introduction to the collected Sherlock Holmes stories, Christopher Morley quotes a passage in which Holmes and Watson are discussing Professor Moriarty. Watson says, “The famous scientific criminal, as famous among crooks as—” and Holmes interrupts, “My blushes, Watson.” Watson replies, “I was about to say, as he is unknown to the public.”

Nearly six years ago, unknown to the public, I began writing this blog, thinking that I might gather a few readers in my own newsroom and among local English teachers and a few editing colleagues around the country.

And so, mainly, it has been. I am lucky to get in a week the number of page views that our top sports blog gets in a day. I have also gathered a small following on Twitter, a little over 3,000, which is minute in comparison of those titans of the empyrean, Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian.

But yesterday’s New York Times includes a full page ad for the new edition of the American Heritage Dictionary that quotes a chunk of what I wrote about it in this blog.

At The Economist’s Johnson, Robert Lane Greene bracketed me with Gabe Doyle of Motivated Grammar, Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry, and Bryan Garner.

And Geoffrey Nunberg, in a thoughtful post at Language Log, “The Politics of Prescriptivism,” which I urge you to read, includes me among “the best critics writing about language now in major public venues.”

To have been granted such esteem leaves one a little giddy—at church yesterday morning, being quoted in an ad in The New York Times was treated as functionally equivalent to being published by The New York Times—and praise is always nice.

But really, this is a blog with a handful of readers, not that I don’t love you, every one, and at the paragraph factory I am a mere cog in the works. Really. Making sure that the winning lottery numbers are updated and the weather forecast is on the front page. Doing routine newspaper editing, which has two aspects: taking defective texts and rendering them merely mediocre,* and recognizing what is good enough and leaving it alone.

No need to have someone stand behind me in the chariot to remind me that I am mortal. I’m aware.

Back to business: Your word of the week is jejune.


*One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it,” said Anthony Trollope, summarizing all editing in a dozen words.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:36 AM | | Comments (6)

Best-of joke of the week: "The Turbulent Flight"

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

November 19, 2011

Shun the infamous green bean casserole

So I put out a humble little list of shopworn holiday expressions that have outlived any usefulness, even in journalism, and people call me a Grinch (people are so predictable) and accuse me of thought policing. I figure they’ll start reaching for rope and looking for high tree limbs once I disparage that loathsome Thanksgiving green bean casserole.

You can see what I said a year ago, and how the public responded.

I am not a bigot.* If my mother and grandmother were still cooking green beans the whole morning with potatoes and a chunk of pork for flavoring, I would gladly tuck in. If Kathleen, my wife, were to steam them and serve them with a sprinkle of sea salt and a dash of lemon juice, they would be grand. I had them in Florida years ago battered and deep-fried. (Southerners would eat lint if it were battered and deep-fried. Come to think of it, just about any American would.)

But dousing them with Campbell’s condensed cream of mushroom soup, which looks like something that has already been though the digestive tract once, is a survival of American culinary practice better abandoned.

Thanksgiving is still nearly five days away. There is still time to save yourselves, and your families.


*With turkey, either. I’ve eaten it with the traditional chestnut, cornbread, and sausage-based dressings. I’ve had it—well, once—with sauerkraut, in the Baltimorean fashion. I’ve eaten it with mango salsa, which I still think is the best accompaniment. There is no point in being doctrinaire about turkey.



Posted by John McIntyre at 8:50 PM | | Comments (15)

November 18, 2011

That nice little war

We’re cranking up a celebration of the War of 1812 in Baltimore, with a tall-ships “sailabration” (sounds like a used-car ad), fireworks, a new overture for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and whatnot. It’s a big deal for Baltimore—Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and all that. I’m fine with it. History is a good thing to know and appreciate.

Complete history is even better. The War of 1812 was not one of our more heroic moments as a nation.

It began over impressment, a legitimate issue. Seamen were deserting from the harsh life on British warships to work on the comparatively easier American merchant marine. The Royal Navy, not caring a fig for American sovereignty, stopped and boarded American ships, taking away any seamen they claimed to be British deserters.

This is the sort of quarrel that would ordinarily be resolved by diplomacy. But there were complications. First, the British did not, in fact, think much of American sovereignty. Second, the young Henry Clay and his fellow War Hawks in Congress thought that Britain’s distraction with Napoleon was an excellent opportunity to make a grab for Canada. So we went to war.

It was a disaster. The attempt to invade Canada was a fiasco. In fact, the British took Detroit. (After the war, they made us take it back.)

Then the British, not intending to reconquer America but give us a good smack, approached Washington. At Bladensburg, the heroic American militia skedaddled at the first sight of British regulars, and the British marched into Washington—President Madison having fled—and burned the Capitol and the White House.*

Afterward, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane sailed up the Chesapeake to administer a similar whipping to Baltimore. But Fort McHenry withstood bombardment, and the death of Major General Robert “I’ll dine in Baltimore tonight, or in hell” Ross took the sand out of the British infantry, who withdrew.

This we have decided to count as a victory.

There were actual victories: General William Henry Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, in which Tecumseh was killed, which along with his previous victory at Tippecanoe, was to elevate Harrison to the presidency, for a month. There was also Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. The greatest, of course, was the Battle of New Orleans, the triumph that made Andrew Jackson a national hero and eventually president.

In one of the many oddities of this strange little war, it was fought two weeks after the peace treaty was signed, but before word could get across the Atlantic from Ghent.

And the main result of the Treaty of Ghent? Status quo ante bellum.

But hell, it’s always good to have an excuse for fireworks and an overture.


*The burning was a retaliation for American acts. During the brief interval before being chased out of Canada, American troops plundered the city of York (now Toronto) and burned the Legislative Assembly.



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:06 PM | | Comments (7)

Friday for you, Thursday for me

As I suggested in a tweet yesterday, don’t bother whining about your schedule to someone who has worked Saturday nights for the past thirty years. But today is a good day to catch up with some items before your weekend.

Item: It’s good to see @romenesko tweeting about events in journalism. It is particularly striking to contrast his compact tweeted summary with the wordiness of Poynter’s MediaWire. (You don’t have to sign up for Twitter to read his tweets; a simple search will discover them.) One also looks forward to his forthcoming blog at

So far as I can tell, Poynter has not apologized publicly for the clumsy manner in which it forced him out. But then, I’m not visiting there as much as I did formerly.

Item: I knew I’d heard people use y’all as a singular, had even been addressed as such myself. But no, everyone said, y’all is always a plural, and it’s only damnyankees who get it wrong. But yesterday Stan Carey, that lovely man, quoted the linguist David Crystal on his first hearing—note that first—of y’all in the singular.

“When this first happened to me, in Texas in the 1960s, I was completely taken by surprise. As I entered a store, the assistant greeted me with a Howdy, y'all, and I actually looked round to see who else had come into the store with me. But there was only me there. And as I left he said Y'all take care now.”


Item: Jan Freeman, writing at Throw Grammar from the Train, investigates the origin of the term stocking stuffer—it’s fairly recent—and agrees with me that PNC Bank’s annual story on the cost of the gifts in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” is idiotic. And yet, so deaf are some to the murmurs of sweet reason, one of her readers commented to accuse me of “thought policing.”

Oh, if I had a badge ...



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (7)

November 16, 2011

Just leave English the hell alone

Those of you who have any propensity to be swayed by evidence-based argument will not be surprised at Robert Lane Greene’s post today at Johnson about what happens to Spanish among immigrant communities.

To sum up, adult Spanish-speaking immigrants learn little or no English, because it’s hard for adults to learn a new language. (That’s why so many native-born Americans, raised without exposure to languages other than English, are hopelessly monoglot.) Immigrants’ children become fluent in English and know some Spanish. The grandchildren speak English and learn little or no Spanish. The language endangered by immigration into the United States is Spanish.

Thus, you might reasonably conclude, those people clamoring about English-only laws and making English our official language are either uninformed or demagogic.

English, by historical accident—British imperial and economic power, succeeded by American imperial* and economic power—has become a worldwide lingua franca and will remain so, like every previous lingua franca, such as Latin or Greek or Aramaic, so long as people find it useful. But its status as a lingua franca cannot be established or protected by statute.

In fact, it cannot be regulated at all. Lexicographers have long since given up on efforts to legislate meanings and usages, a task that the first great lexicographer in English, Samuel Johnson, ruefully admitted at the completion of his great dictionary was hopeless.

Neither will the fatuous campaign of the Queen’s English Society to set up a royal academy to regulate English and purge it of impurities (chiefly American), the latest in a series of stillborn proposals over the past three centuries, amount to anything. And even if a monarch or Parliament were dotty enough to enact such a proposal, the academy would be impotent, a ridiculous assembly of self-regarding impotentates issuing universally ignored edicts.

If you are sensible, you will follow Candide’s suggestion and cultivate your own garden. You can look to the models of writing and speaking that you admire and imitate them. You can consult dictionaries and usage manuals and weigh their findings against your own sense of where the language is and what is appropriate for your own occasions and audiences. If you instruct the young, you can lead them toward evidence-based judgments instead of shibboleths and superstitions and class prejudices.

Yes, it is your language. But you don’t own it. Just leave English the hell alone. It can fend for itself.


*You don’t think the United States is an imperial power? Do you have any idea how many regiments we have stationed outside our borders?



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:33 PM | | Comments (10)

No one way to write

David Bowman, who tweets as @PreciseEdit, suggested last week: “Understand your ideas thoroughly before you begin typing. Then make the words fit the ideas.”

There are people who write like that. The blind John Milton turned over the enormous complexity of lines of Paradise Lost in his head at night and then dictated fresh passages in the morning, saying that he needed to be “milked.”

Of course, people who write extended works, such as books, have to develop methods of planning and organization: outlines, by chapter and within chapters; slips of paper with key passages or passages to be quoted; index cards by the dozen pinned to the wall, and then rearranged. I find myself turning over phrases in my head, in the shower, on walks, or as I pace the room restlessly.

For shorter efforts, a rough outline scribbled on a piece of paper or a handful of key sentences and phrases may be enough to get you started.

But you have to be careful about the advice people give you, because writing is not a one-size-fits-all proposition, and not every writer has thought through his or her ideas thoroughly before taking up the pen or sitting down at the keyboard.

Writing is also a process of discovery, and many of us also discover what our ideas are as we struggle to express them.* Sometimes you have to set out with a sentence and no clear idea of where you are going after that.

Such an approach, of course, demands revision. You identify false starts. You delete whole paragraphs of aimless wandering. You take what was at the bottom and move it to the top. You prune ruthlessly. Sometimes, if you have the courage, you throw it all away and start over.

Writing, in plain fact, is not an efficient process. It is inherently messy and time-consuming. It is all measure once, cut twice. You, like Milton, may cast and recast in your head before you are ready to put words down—and we have no reason to think that Milton himself did not revise and recast those initial drafts. Or you, like most of us, may struggle and groan and stare at the wall or window and pace before you can get the damned thing into some kind of reasonable shape. Even when it goes smoothly (you should be suspicious when it does), you will need to go back and give it a good, hard look and fix things.

It’s up to you to settle on a method, rather than to accommodate yourself to someone else’s method. Once you find what works for you, writing will become a little easier.

But not much.


*Thus the remark attributed to W.H. Auden: “Let me see what I wrote so I know what I think.”



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

November 14, 2011

Second-worst Romenesko consequence

It was a holiday weekend, and if you were out of the office instead of surfing the Web at work, there are a couple of posts that you missed.

I weighed in on a couple of aspects of Jim Romenesko’s abrupt departure from the Poynter Institute, suggesting that Poynter badly bungled the whole matter. At the moment, the second-most-distressing consequence, after the treatment of Jim Romenesko, is that the weak Poynter faculty explanations and the follow-up at the Columbia Journalism Review have given Robert Knilands an occasion to make remarks.

There was a second set of apothegms from the Old Editor.

There was a short meditation on cornbread.

Now we’re back in business, with a best-of joke of the week, “The Three Brothers,” and your word of the week, nugatory.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:25 PM | | Comments (3)

How to get on Page One

The surest way to get your story on the front page is to be lucky enough to be on the scene of a story that will have to go on the front page: the school bus smashed by a train, the high official disgustingly drunk at a campaign appearance, the announcement at City Hall of the Shiny New Thing. After this category, other elements come into play.

The next surest route to the cover is the Project, and the longer you work on it, the surer your chances. A publication that has allowed you to spend six months pursuing a single story is going to put the result out front, even if reading it produces an effect similar to ingesting a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

You are more or less at the mercy of your editor’s skill at pitching your story at the daily news meetings, but it will help if you know what cant is current at those seances. It might be “sweep.” Does your story have more breadth or wider impact? If not, your editor will make a note, “Insert sweep,” and come back to you. “Real people” is always popular. Are there people in your story other than public officials, ordinary sorts with whom the reader will presumably identify? Best to round some up early on. And always there is “the mix.” Can’t have too many stories of similar tone, subject matter, location on the same page.

Time can work against you and for you. If your story is not chosen on the first or second day it’s offered, interest will flag as it takes its place in the Backlog. If it is mentioned at all, it will get the weary yes-we-know-about-that-one nod, and it may well wind up going inside and being cut to fit. But if it survives long enough on the Backlog, there will come a Monday (the day stories that weren’t compelling enough to make the Sunday paper are published) or, even better, a Thanksgiving weekend when the cupboard will be stripped to fill the paper, and there you’ll be in glory.

Having sat in on many conferences about Page One stories, I can offer some tips on gaming the system. Sweep and Real People and Telling Quotes are always good, but there are some tricks that will give you an advantage over your fellow reporters.

1. Write tight. No, not drunk. Don’t file 1,500 words when you can say it in 1,000.

2. Skip the throat-clearing. Establish in the first two or three sentences what to focus of the story is. Give the reader a reason to go forward.

3. Make a checklist of the things you know the Higher-Ups will flag. Do you, for example, have solid and multiple sources? Every opportunity you give them to raise questions will be a reason to keep you off the front.

4. Meet your damn deadline or, if possible, file early. You may mistakenly think that filing at the last possible moment will forestall tinkering with your work. Wrong. They’re going to tinker with it anyhow, so give it to them early enough that it will stick in their minds for the cover.

5. One other thing. Could you make it interesting?

Good luck.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:38 AM | | Comments (3)

Best-of joke of the week: "The Three Brothers"

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:03 AM | | Comments (2)

November 13, 2011

There are no cornbread heresies

Fred Nelson and Ed McClanahan once published an anthology called One Lord, One Faith, One Cornbread, the title coming from a woman who would chant that phrase while walking the hills of Appalachia.

But even in the South there is enough multiculturalism that we know there to be more than one cornbread. My older sister, Georgia, recently found and sent to me my grandmother’s recipe for corn pone, a denser, sweeter variant of her cornbread baked in a bundt pan.

I’d like to share it with you, with cautions.

It is the kind of recipe that women of my grandmother’s generation wrote down: a bare-bones list of ingredients and sketchy instructions that assume you already know how to do this. Any of you skilled in baking who might like to flesh out the instructions are welcome to comment.

If you try it, eat slices warm, with lots of butter.

Clara Rhodes Early’s corn pone

2 cups corn meal

1 cup flour

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

Sift together and add 1 egg

1 pint sweet milk*

Melt two tablespoons lard** in baking pan and pour in mixture

When blended pour into baking pan and bake for 1 hour in moderate oven.


*I think this means whole milk rather than buttermilk or sweetened condensed milk.

**Get over it.



Posted by John McIntyre at 3:11 PM | | Comments (6)

November 11, 2011

More from the Old Editor

Tweets assembled.

The Old Editor says:

Dammit, if you think you're a professional, you should know that a hyphen isn't the same as a dash.

That's not editing; that's peristalsis.

Days off and vacations are a bad idea. They just habituate you to the illusion of leisure.

Reverse body type is a tool of the Devil.

Sitting in daily meetings shortens your life more than smoking cigarettes.

If the house you're writing about isn't Blenheim Palace, don't call it "stately."

Newsrooms operate on the same principles as the "Seinfeld" show: No hugging, no learning.

Learn how to make plural possessives of proper names, or it's off to the copy desk for re-education.

Read it in print too, Mr. Electronic Future of Journalism. You'll be stunned at how much you spot.

Use commas in compound sentences; omit them in compound predicates. (Ask a copy editor what those are.)

Use the God-given delete key on these: controversial, dramatic, legendary, massive, prestigious, storied.

Remember: It doesn’t get any better than this.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:35 PM | | Comments (2)

A sad business

I am a strict constructionist about direct quotations. It comes from my training as an English major—you reproduce the text as it is; if you modernize Milton’s spelling, you indicate what you are doing, etc., etc. It comes from my work at newspapers that do not “clean up” quotes—correct minor errors to spare the speaker embarrassment. What is inside the quotation marks should be the exact words of the text, or the words the speaker uttered, subject to conventions of spelling and punctuation.

So I should be pleased with the scrupulousness with which the Poynter Institute has examined Jim Romenesko’s practices in aggregating and summarizing news about journalism on the Poynter website for the past twelve years. Mr. Romenesko, Poynter found, was given to including verbatim material from the sources he linked to without enclosing them in quotation marks. This, Julie Moos, the head of Poynter Online, said was inconsistent with Poynter’s expressed standards.

This is what Ms. Moos posted on the subject yesterday. Yesterday evening Mr. Romenesko, who had planned to go on half-time status at Poynter in the coming year, resigned outright. (Ms. Moos’ post about the resignation includes links to some of the outraged reactions.) Steve Buttry has posted a typically level-headed and dispassionate account of the whole sad business.

I call it a sad business because I, like just about everyone else involved in journalism, have been following Mr. Romenesko avidly all these years. He has been an invaluable resource for information and, yes, gossip. I think he deserved better.

Let me explain. About his supposed offenses against Poynter’s standards: Ms. Moos herself concedes that in the past twelve years, not a single complaint has been lodged about his aggregating of information, from the sources he summarized or from other readers. Beyond that, it was clear in every instance that what he was doing was summarizing the sources, whom he always identified and to whose texts he linked. There is no reason to think that anyone up to this point has believed that he was attempting to pass off others’ work as his own. The people who write that he has been, at most, guilty of a minor mechanical lapse in using quotation marks have a point.

Then there is Poynter’s mishandling of the matter. Ms. Moos’s original post lays out in detail what Poynter’s standards are and how Mr. Romenesko’s work has fallen short of them. But it reads like a disciplinary matter, a public reprimand: “Effective immediately, Jim’s work for Poynter will change in a few important respects. First, it will follow our standards of attribution. Second, it will be edited before it is published. I asked Jim Wednesday night to refrain from publishing while we sorted out this situation, and he has done so. Jim has offered to resign and I refused to accept his resignation.”

At no point does her post quote Mr. Romenesko or allow him to respond to the accusations. Perhaps he was offered the opportunity and chose not to, but we don’t know that. Surely somewhere in Poynter’s well-developed standards there must be a proviso that people accused of misconduct should be given an opportunity to respond publicly, or it must be shown that they were given such an opportunity.

In this insensitivity, Poynter—which has gladly made use of Mr. Romenesko’s work for a dozen years to boost traffic on its website—has sparked considerable sympathy for Mr. Romenesko and outrage at his treatment.

So the outcome of this sad business is that Mr. Romenesko has been publicly and needlessly embarrassed after years of valuable service, and the Poynter Institute has sustained a self-inflicted wound.


Disclaimer: During the previous decade, I was a presenter at a number of Poynter workshops on editing. I have no current affiliation with the institute.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:13 AM | | Comments (3)

November 10, 2011

Looking for work?

Some openings have been announced at The Baltimore Sun:

Senior Features Content Editor: The Baltimore Sun features department is looking for a creative and experienced editor to help lead our lifestyle coverage online and in print. The editor would be responsible for creating content, editing stories, managing a staff of reporters and overseeing web production. This person would also help produce The Sun’s lifestyle print sections, which include Health & Style, Taste, Travel, At Home and Sun Magazine. We’re looking for an editor who will aggressively pursue front page story ideas, stay extremely organized and work well under pressure. If you’re interested, please e-mail Tim Swift, Head of Lifestyle and Entertainment at The Baltimore Sun, (

An opening on the audience engagement team for a community coordinator. If you’re interested, please send a cover letter and resume to and by Nov. 17.  Job description:,0,6255165.story

And these openings for a content editor, night production;a metro editor, government and justice; and a content editor, politics:



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:28 PM | | Comments (0)

November 9, 2011

Usage literalists

In my New Testament class at Michigan State all those years ago, Professor Anderson was going through those sweet old liberal Protestant efforts to explain away the miracle stories, and a student asked, “Why can’t we take them literally?”

“Because literalists are”—I recall he said but may be wrong—“clods.” He went on: “Nicodemus was the first literalist. Jesus told him he had to be born again, and he asked how he was supposed to get back into his mother’s womb.”

There is a kind of literalism that creeps into strictures on usage, and the people who go in for that make no more sense than Nicodemus. The other day Jan Freeman returned once again to the hoary stricture that over cannot be used to mean more than because it refers to a spatial relationship rather than an increase—despite having been used in exactly that sense in English for centuries.

In a comment on her post, Jonathon recalled being instructed that prices cannot be raised or lowered, because they are not physically moved; the can only be increased or decreased.

Ms. Freeman quotes Paul Brians as saying that people with these views are ignoring “the role metaphor plays in language” (as do those who insist that all Scripture is literally true and try to find evidence of the Noachian Flood in the Grand Canyon).

In her book on Ambrose Bierce, Ms. Freeman locates the origin of such peeves in the mistaken belief that a word should have only a single meaning. One sees it as well in the etymological literalists who insist that a word—decimate, for one—must not stray from its origins, particularly if it derives from Latin or Greek.

Now, I am a copy editor, on the prowl daily for careless combinations and ever aware of Mark Twain’s distinction that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. My job and my quest are to use language as precisely as we can manage.

But informed copy editors must also be aware that there is also a false precision, a will-o’-the-wisp that will lead them off into the marsh and waste valuable time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:26 AM | | Comments (11)

November 7, 2011

Hon ho-hum

My eminent colleague Richard Gorelick blogs that Cafe Hon proprietress Denise Whiting, evidently under the tutelage of Gordon Ramsay, is abandoning her claim to trademark the word hon.

So now, what was a manufactured controversy a year ago over a matter of minuscule significance* can be, one dares to hope, an extinct controversy. (I suspect, though, that the people who were so weirdly intemperate a year ago yet harbor considerable spleen to vent.)

I have been puzzled throughout by the claim, frequently advanced during the late unpleasantness, that hon is a distinctively Baltimorean word. My wife, who grew up in Ohio, called me “hon” well before we moved to Maryland. And the earliest citation of the word as a term of endearment, a diminutive of honey, in the OED is from a 1906 entry in Dialect Notes, which identifies it as prevalent in northwest Arkansas.


*No, I’m not going to link back to posts about it. If you are ignorant of the Hontroversy, consider yourself fortunate.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:10 PM | | Comments (19)

Hours away from a pint

There’s a respectable chance that you may find today’s joke of the week, “The Dying Teetotaler,” actually funny. Next Monday, by request, I’ll present the first in a series of “best of” jokes from the past.

If you managed to tear yourself away from the Internet over the weekend, you may have missed a couple of posts: “Sweating the small stuff,” in which I agreed with Jan Freeman that people get unduly exercised over minor spelling errors, such as it’s for its; “Major and minor,” in which I responded to some people exercised over “Sweating the small stuff”; and “Get out your thumbs,” in which I explained why I didn’t go past the first 650 words of a story published by some newspaper forty miles to the south—and why you shouldn’t, either.

Your word of the week, abecedarian, is posted.

And now on to the excitements of a day off from the paragraph factory: doing the laundry, paying bills, mowing the grass (it’s going dormant after the frost, but I want to mulch the oak leaves from my neighbor’s trees), prepping for tomorrow’s editing class, and, sevenish, heading to Liam Flynn’s Ale House for a cheerful pint or two with my former student Andrew Zalesky.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:30 AM | | Comments (1)

Joke of the week: "The Dying Teetotaler"

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:34 AM | | Comments (0)

November 6, 2011

Get out your thumbs

On Twitter, @stevebuttry was not impressed by a tweet from The Washington Post late last night: “News alert from WaPo: A year from 2012 election, U.S. electorate is frustrated. WaPo rules on big story that broke just after midnight.”

Unable to let that alone, he followed up: “Next WaPo news alert? U.S. electorate likes chocolate? NFL fans like football? Facebook users like social media?”

He is making fun of a tweet that is the equivalent of a headline, and I, as a longtime headline writer, am a little touchy. He should understand better, after his years in the business, the kind of service a headline can perform. In this case, if the headline fulfills its basic function and identifies the contents of the article accurately, the reader can expect a tedious belaboring of the obvious.

And indeed, a quick look at the article so tweeted reveals that it is—please excuse my introducing a term of art—a thumbsucker.

I read the first page of the online version, and there was nothing in it that I did not already know. Nothing in it that I had not known for weeks, or even months. Nothing in it that small children do not know.

The Post evidently underwrote some kind of poll that provides the basis for their startling revelation, but I didn’t get that far. It was perhaps on the second page of the online version, but the writers—three of them to do this heavy lifting—had already gone 650 words without saying anything of substance. Throat-clearing that extensive tends to indicate either authorial self-indulgence or an attempt to conceal how little is actually on offer.

You can read it. You tell me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:06 AM | | Comments (2)

November 5, 2011

Major and minor

In my own modest way, I chimed in to support Jan Freeman’s blog post pointing out that it’s/its mistakes and similar slips are commonly errors of spelling, not errors of knowledge or thought.

You can figure out what ensued, right? The first comment surmised that I am ignorant of “what the kids have to say today on the internet.” Kids. Then “I want very much to experience all my errors as moral failings and encourage others to do likewise!” Someone, evidently British, imagined that I was slandering Sir Thomas Browne. And somebody quoted bloodthirsty Lynne Truss, that people who confuse it’s and its “deserve to be struck by lightening, [sic] hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”*

After your deep cleansing breath, please consider what I was actually saying. Neither Jan Freeman nor I suggested that these slips were not errors or that anything goes. We said that they are minor errors, not major ones. As minor errors, they look sloppy, and they annoy some readers—usually the readers whose allegiance you want. Deidre Edgar of the Los Angeles Times points out in an article on complaints from readers how irritating these minor flaws can be, how distracting. And I, a copy editor for more than three decades, have been employed to clean up texts for publication.

What the Trussites, as well as some of my colleagues on copy desks, overlook is that exclusive focus on these minor errors, granting them disproportionate weight, allows major errors free passage. It is possible for a text to be grammatically impeccable, orthographically correct, observant of every jot and tittle of AP style, and still be opaque, false, or paralytically boring.

Taking the big key from the desk, I open the heavy wooden door and descend the cold, damp stone steps to the vault, to hoist up once more a classic example of what focus on the minor to the exclusion of the major can produce. This sentence, the opening sentence of an article, appeared in this form in The Baltimore Sun:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

You’ll observe that, apart from the journalistic inability to place the adverb of time where it belongs in ordinary English syntax, this sentence is grammatical. It is factually accurate. And it is an offense to the reader. Compared to this, an it’s/its slip looks like the minor error it in fact is.


*Those of you who are unaware of how thoroughly Ms. Truss has been discredited would do well to read Louis Menand’s devastating New Yorker review of her best-seller.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:44 AM | | Comments (6)

November 4, 2011

Sweating the small stuff

Jan Freeman, writing at Throw Grammar From the Train, points out that it’s for its is a spelling error rather than a mark of ignorance or a moral failing. People, at least literate adult people, know the meanings of the two forms and simply make a mechanical error. Everyone does.

The slip is made easy because English uses the apostrophe to indicate both contraction and possession. In Anglo-Saxon, es was one of the suffixes indicating possession. As Middle English developed, es came to be used for all possessives, and, since the e was not pronounced, the apostrophe was introduced to indicate the omission.

The development has not been smooth sailing. Some writers thought erroneously that ’s was a contraction of his, so you have Sir Thomas Browne writing things like “Moses his man.” And before orthography became standardized in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, you have Jane Austen writing her’s.

For today’s writers, as those busy fingers navigate along the keyboard at the brain’s direction, it is extremely easy for the pilot to blink and veer to the familiar pattern it’s rather than the equally familiar pattern its. The same thing happens with a lot of closely resembling pairs, such as then and than.

We're all susceptible to such slips, which look sloppy and require cleaning up to make a text presentable, but they are still minor errors, however annoying. They indicate that you are unkempt, not that you are illiterate.

Many of you have been kind enough to point out typos in these dispatches*—the other day I mistyped America in a headline, thanks to posting early in the morning, before coffee, while wearing the wrong glasses. That was embarrassing and a mark of haste and carelessness, but the reader who pointed it out did not assume that I was ignorant of the correct spelling.

Ignorant and incompetent writing abounds, so there is plenty about which to get huffy. But don’t spend your superiority on typos and trivial misspellings. Save it for the big things.


*Correcting a copy editor appears to be one of the profoundest satisfactions in life.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:16 AM | | Comments (15)

November 3, 2011

A less than romantic getaway

A news release from the Media Relations Office of the Anne Arundel County Police Department comes bearing this headline:


Your initial reaction may be to wonder whether Kim Kardashian has already got herself entangled in some fresh escapade, but the text, when it gets around to saying what happened explains that “an adult male inmate …walked away from a work detail.”

Now perhaps you are even more puzzled, since elope means to run away with a lover to get married. Merriam-Webster gives the meaning "to slip away," and the not particularly reliable Urban Dictionary gives an alternative meaning of escape for elope, with an example from mental hospitals. And a Canadian police site confusingly uses elopee merely to mean “missing person.” Usage appears not to have gelled.

I assume that the police like elopee as a milder version of escapee, a prisoner wandering off from a work detail being less alarming to the public than a hopped-up thug scaling the wall at the Big House as sirens wail and searchlights play over the Yard. And I have no authority to deny them their linguistic innovations.

But I do hope that police reporters, who are susceptible to cop jargon, will keep a safe distance from this one.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:54 PM | | Comments (6)

November 2, 2011

What the Old Editor says

For the past several days I’ve been tweeting the aphorisms of The Old Editor, some of them my own, some of them adapted from my own Old Editors. I’ve gathered them here for you, with some additions.

The Old Editor says:

When you have to trim an article to fit, take out the dumbest stuff first.

The people kvetching about the new editing software never mastered the old editing software either.

The more a page looks like a dog's breakfast, the more it will attract praise for innovative design.

Can't be cut? Son, I could cut the Lord's Prayer.

If you write "in the wake of" something, that something had better be a boat.

Before you heave that goat-choker over the fence, check to see if there's a page that can accommodate it.

I don't buy on spec.

Giving a reporter a thesaurus is like giving a toddler a loaded handgun.

"Said" suffices.

Whenever you see a percentage, fire up your calculator.

Why do I still have to remind you? If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

The next time you use "to die for" in copy, we can make that happen.

Dammit, if you think you're a professional, you should know that a hyphen isn't the same as a dash.

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth." 10-word lead. What've you got that needs more?

The AP Stylebook is a set of guidelines, not Heilige Schrift or a substitute for editorial judgment.

If you are your own editor, you’re working without a net.

Mistakes will lurk in the big type.

If you can’t tell me in one sentence what your story says, you don’t know what your story says.

The reader doesn’t care how hard you worked on that story.

Be suspicious of all one-sentence injunctions about writing and editing.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:29 PM | | Comments (10)

November 1, 2011

No better than a common scold

Jonathan Krim, senior deputy managing editor of the online editon of The Wall Street Journal, does not find the strictures in my annual holiday cautions particularly helpful, and he has kindly granted me permission to publish his note about the deficiencies of that post. Your views, as always, are welcome.

Mr. Krim writes:

Forgive me since we don’t know each other, but your column brings to mind this question:

Is there anything more clichéd than the annual, threatening scold from the standards editor/writing coach/copy chief on the horrors of holiday clichés?

I agree with the underlying message, and I support the role you and yours play. (We want you on that wall; we *need* you on that wall – Jack Nicholson.)

But honestly, could we perhaps drink a little of this cod-liver oil ourselves and come up with a new way to help journalists find and tell great stories at this time of year? To try to (gasp) actually connect with our readers, who may or may not care how many times we invoke Virginia, but who care deeply about what this time of year means?

Could we point to great, or at least provocative, examples like this one? Could we refer them to Tool 16 in the best book on writing, from the best writing coach (Roy Peter Clark), on *how* to avoid clichés but make them work for you nonetheless?

Could we – in the spirit of the holidays -- give to our increasingly young staffs a more useful present in their newsroom stockings, instead of this lump of NO?



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:20 PM | | Comments (18)
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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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