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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)


While I was writing and posting this, word came that Governor Brownback has apologized to the student for his office's misplaced zeal:

> whether the governor has learned that it is best not to be thin-skinned in public life ... remains unclear

We now have evidence that the governor has learned, at least, that it is better not to appear to be thin-skinned in public life. Not a fast learner, perhaps, but potentially educable.

I'm glad that Gov. Brownback apologized, but I think that you should be clear that it wasn't the governor who was being thin-skinned and complained but some staffer or staffers who work for him. Personally, I would like to see whoever did this lose their job as they clearly are not fit to be trusted with a job with any power.

Would you have been as enthusiastic had this been a white Maryland girl Tweeting something much the same about either our President or our own Lieutenant Governor? One wonders. Would Gawker have covered that? Would they have been as supportive? Would they have sarcastically tagged the story with "#heblowsalot"? Just asking.

@Lawrence: and the reason you're "just asking" is because those folks wouldn't have had her hauled into the principal's office. Because if you think there's never been a tweet about Obama or O'Malley that said "he sucks" you're living in a fantasy world.


I trust there have been such tweets you describe about Obama or O'Malley, but what I was actually asking, rhetorically, was how much coverage, never mind supportive coverage, such a tweet would have received.

I have to keep saying this, but I'm not taking sides.

And I forgot to mention something: Good for Emma!

Way off topic, one wonders how much coverage this story (such as it is) would have received were all the facts the same except that Emma was overweight and unable to make friends easily.

Not only rude, but vulgar. Since when as 'he, she or it *****" been standard English, and fit for public conversation?This little girl may have learned a lesson - speech has consequences and is not 'free.' Adolescents think they live in a vacuum and what they put on the Internetto isn't seen by anyone not in their little clique. Not brave but rather not thinking.

As it happens, the First Amendment doesn't insist on polite speech.

Emma Sullivan's tweet was both rude and a self-aggrandizing lie: she claimed to have told the governor to his face that "he sucked" -- despite having done no such thing. This was not a brave tweet (and I don't think anyone claimed it was) and it was pretty typically adolescent. Sullivan's bravery was in standing up to the principal and refusing to apologize. Civil rights aside, and considering only civility, there was no reason for her to apologize (unless you count her tweeting during the governor's undoubtedly boring address as worth an apology). She had not actually insulted the governor in her communiqué; she had only claimed to have insulted him; she wanted to make herself look important to her Twitter acolytes.

As it turns out, in this case at least, the governor, or at least someone on his staff, did, indeed, "suck." So did the school principal. And thanks to their sucky stupidity, Sullivan did, ultimately, make herself important.

Well stated, Rolig.

Patricia, there's very little on Twitter that would pass for standard English.

Laura Lee,

Nice to 'hear' your voice once again, even though you are kind of treading on Patricia's hallowed 'terse' territory w/ your very attenuated post. HA!

As a non-tweeter (huge bird-watcher, though), non-Facebook kinda guy ( a genuine social networking misfit, if you will), I really can't fairly speak to your point re/ the greater Twitter cyberscape's general paucity of "standard English". Yet I suspected as much....... or as less. I trust your astute judgement.

Frankly, I usually have too darn much to say to limit myself to a mere 140 characters, and further, my aged opposable thumbs would likely start majorly balking at their inordinate overuse; and I'd literally become 'all thumbs'.

Call me an old foggy if you wish, but I'm pretty sure amongst us 'early-boomers' I'm not entirely alone in my aversion to short-attention-span techie intercommunications.

Do we really, really have to be in touch w/ our fellow human beings 24/7? I think not.

"No man is an island", yet these days we appear to be drowning in a sea of inane, incessant babble, and mundanity. Not only are the social waters shallow, but our Western society has become inundated w/ shallow infotainment, and fawning pop-star idolatry.

This too shall pass? (Am I sounding like an old curmudgeon here? I'm really not an old stick-in-the-mud.)

Laura Lee, looking forward to your next selection of pithy poesy, whenever the muse moves you. (Hopefully sooner than later.)


I believe you about "Twitter." I don't go anywhere near it.

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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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