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December 31, 2011

For your good luck

It’s supposedly good for you to eat pork or cabbage or black-eyed peas at New Year’s, and for my last post of the year I offer you this recipe for “caviar” made with black-eyed peas. It’s a variant of a recipe for the 1970s in a Time-Life book that The Sun published in 2000. It has been quite serviceable for the holiday in our house.

Here are a couple of things to consider. Dried black-eyed peas are better than canned, because you can have more control over whether they get mushy. If someone at your house despises cilantro, substitute parsley. Apple cider vinegar is acceptable in place of red wine vinegar. If you want to use more garlic than the recipe calls for, no one can stop you. Make sure that you have an ample supply of crackers or Melba toast for dipping and spreading.

New Year’s caviar

2 quarts water

1 pound dried black-eyed peas

1 large onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 teaspoons chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 cup olive oil

1/4 cup red-wine vinegar

1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped

1 cup tomatoes, chopped

Salt and finely ground black pepper, to taste

Tabasco sauce, to taste

Place water, peas, onion, garlic, chili powder, salt and cumin in large Dutch oven; bring to boil. Cover, reduce heat, simmer 40-55 minutes or until peas are tender. Drain and let cool.

Add olive oil, vinegar, cilantro, tomatoes, salt and pepper; toss well. Add Tabasco sauce.

Serve at room temperature with cut vegetables, tortilla chips or country bread.


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

December 30, 2011

Everything is always going straight to hell

The other day I seconded Jan Freeman’s dismissal of Ron Rosenbaum’s carrying-on at Slate as the self-appointed “catchphrase executioner” of vogue usages that annoy him.

Now there’s an article at Gizmodo asserting that hashtags, those words or phrases preceded by an octothorpe (#) on Twitter and Facebook, are “ruining the language.” The hashtag, Sam Biddle rants (“rant” is the logo for the article) “is a vulgar crutch, a lazy reach for substance in the personal void—written clipart.”

Well, maybe, but language has a good deal of ruin in it to exhaust. For a more thorough, thoughtful, and intelligent look at the hashtag phenomenon, with a feast of links, I refer you to an article by Mark Liberman at Language Log.

One salient paragraph from the article: “Among vaguely similar cultural developments in the past, I can think of the ‘fad for comical abbreviations that flourished in the late 1830s and 1840s’; the ironic use of stage directions (‘exit, stage left’); the rise of emoticons in the 1980s and 1990s; the use of HTML-ish verbal emoticons or text actions like or . No doubt readers will be able to think of others.”

So just as the tides of language continually fling neologisms and vogue usages onto the beach, so do they generate fads like the hashtag and the emoticon.

Then we get the inevitable lamentations that the language is being ruined and the barbarians are inside the keep. Let me suggest that instead of getting the jim-jams over these phenomena, we could adopt a more discriminating approach.

If you don’t like these novelties, don’t use them. It’s usually fairly easy to avoid the people who do. Lean back and enjoy the glow of your quiet superiority. In time, the novelty will fade as the early adopters go haring off after something fresher. If the novelty does stick, you can then use it yourself without appearing to have changed your position.

Or, like H.L. Mencken in writing The American Language or the Language Log set, you can give the novelties some close examination, hefting them, probing them, trying to understand what purpose they serve and why people make use of them. There is endless fascination in language and the purposes to which people put it.

You can hold your indignation in reserve for the targets that merit it. When Verizon, for example, decides to charge people for paying their bills and call the charge a “convenience fee,” you can unload on the company for meretricious conduct. Or, when the government of the United States shamefully decides to call waterboarding, which previous governments of the United States had called torture and prosecuted as a war crime, an “enhanced interrogation technique,” then you can ram a full charge of indignation into the muzzle and hold a lighted match to the touchhole.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (4)

December 28, 2011

The earworms of Christmas

Earlier today I became aware that that insipid Christmas song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” which I have loathed these many years, was running in my head and would not stop. Mild and even-tempered a fellow as I am, a virtual milquetoast, I could not help but reflect how gratifying it would be if the composer, lyricist, arranger, musicians, and everyone involved in the publication, production, dissemination, and broadcast of that song were set to work trimming Satan’s bunions.*

In other holiday news, at Motivated Grammar, where it had previously been thought that my strictures against holiday cliches were perhaps too severe, there has been a conversion experience, prompted by this headline from the Salt Lake Tribune: “Yes, Virginia, there is no Newt (on the ballot).” When you have to explain the joke in your headline with parentheses …

Now there are only a few more days to endure year-in-review top-ten features about things we already knew, and then we will have a fresh new year to clutter up with cliches and lame journalistic gimmicks.


*Irreverence runs in the family. My older sister, Georgia McIntyre, used to express mock sympathy for the little castrati in the Vienna Boys Choir, because “they sing that song every year and their voices never change.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:46 PM | | Comments (20)

December 27, 2011

Another year, another word

You’d think that here at Wordville there would be some excitement about the Word of the Year, but meh.

 Part of the lack of enthusiasm is that there are so many Words of the Year. Merriam-Webster went for pragmatic. Time picked occupy. liked tergiversate. Oxford Dictionaries picked squeezed middle, which prompted a well-bred skirmish between Geoffrey Pullum and Ben Zimmer over whether the Word of the Year had to be a single word (Pullum, yea; Zimmer, nay; McIntyre, meh). The American Dialect Society, which considers the Word of the Year “in its broader sense as ‘vocabulary item’ — not just words but phrases,” will convene in Portland, Oregon, next week and vote on its choice.

(I voted for the Word of the Year in 2010 when the American Dialect Society met in Baltimore—anyone who happens to be in the room gets to vote—and no longer remember which word won. And am too lazy to look it up. You see how enthusiasm can flag.)

Over at Slate, Ron Rosenbaum has weighed in as the “catchphrase executioner” to condemn “stupid and annoying” words and phrases of the year. As Jan Freeman trenchantly points out, the article is an ill-researched guide to what irritates Ron Rosenbaum and has little utility beyond that.

There, I think, is where my meh-ness kicks in about Words of the Year. There would be interest in looking at nonce words and phrases to examine what they indicate about social and cultural preoccupations. But they are more likely to provide material for people’s lists of pet peeves, fueling grandiose posturing as the “catchphrase executioner” for the nation.

Meanwhile—and I do have the grace to blush—the word of the week at is Yule.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:44 AM | | Comments (10)

December 26, 2011

This bloody season

Congratulations to all who have survived Christmas despite the hazards of excessive eating and drinking, or prolonged exposure to family members. Today, December 26, is the second of the twelve days of Christmas.

It is also, in British tradition, Boxing Day. The origins of the term are in dispute. It was probably not a day to return purchased presents. It may have been the day on which the wealthy gave their servants a Christ box of gifts and the day off. One explanation is that gifts from the charity box in church were distributed. It is, in any event, now a legal holiday on the first weekday after Christmas Day.

It is also the feast day of St. Stephen, deacon and martyr, who was stoned to death for persistently proclaiming the story of Jesus and the Resurrection to people who preferred not to hear it. And thus we are off on a post-Christmas week of days to commemorate bloody and unpleasant events characteristic in the history of Christianity, rather than relentless sentimentality about the baby in the manger.

December 27 is the feast day of St. John, apostle and evangelist. It seems extremely unlikely that the John to whom is attributed the writing of Revelation, circa A.D. 100, is the same John who was a companion of Jesus, circa A.D. 33. The former John, in exile on Patmos, composed a visionary book that includes moments of great tenderness and beauty, combined with visions of extreme violence and hostility. Revelation barely made it into the canon, and the nutty calculations subsequently derived form it suggest that omitting it might have been the wiser course.

On December 28 we mark the feast of the Holy Innocents, the children of Bethlehem slaughtered by order of King Herod. If you do not know the monologue W.H. Auden assigns to Herod, the reluctant liberal, in his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, it’s hilarious enough to merit your attention.

And December 29 commemorates St. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, murdered in his cathedral in A.D. 1170 by Reginald FitzUrse, Hugh de Morville, William de Tracy, and Richard le Breton, acting on what they perceived to be the direction of King Henry II.

By January 1, you can wash the blood from your hands and mark the Feast of the Holy Name.

Merry Christmas.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:00 AM | | Comments (5)

December 24, 2011

On the eve

Off to a good start, with the cleaning in preparation for Kathleen’s family’s descent upon us this afternoon, accompanied by the lessons and carols from King’s College on the radio.

Kathleen and J.P. are finishing up the tapas for late afternoon and the Ukrainian holy supper afterward (mushroom soup, sauerkraut and barley, four or five species of pierogi). Alice is on her way over, and I have the wine chilling.

Kathleen, of course, is obligated later for the Christmas pageant at Trinity, Towson, and in gratitude for my absence from all such involvements I will later pour myself a second glass of wine.

Then, after dining, the wrangling over whether to open the gifts tonight or tomorrow. Shortly afterward I will be off to Memorial, Bolton Hill, for the music of brass and organ, the old texts brought to voice again, the nave and chancel swirling with incense (my contribution).

Christmas dinner tomorrow with Kathleen’s family in Lancaster.

This is the sort of kinder, kueche, kirche Christmas we go in for every year, and sometimes the preoccupation with all the preparations and responsibilities, along with the need to step delicately through the family minefield, gets in the way of looking outward to wider things.

I am vaguely aware that there are out there fellow Christians who feel themselves embattled in a secular, multicultural society and have taken on a sour, defensive attitude. Really, though, to perceive a shop clerk’s “Happy holidays” as a hostile act suggests a twisted sensibility.

Earlier this week, the photo of two sailors, both women, exchanging a homecoming kiss at Norfolk provoked some angry reactions from readers, many of whom I suspect are fellow Christians. To compare an affectionate kiss between two adults in love with bestiality (I am not making this up) is so cramped and bitter a view in the world that I am reminded why we have prayers for the relief of hardness of heart.

Christmas ought to prompt more generosity of spirit—if you believe that God became incarnate to share in the full experience of humanity, then you might be a little more forgiving of humanity yourself, opening yourself to a less narrow sympathy with your fellows.

It is, or should be, a season of reconciliation. If we can reconcile with the cantankerous personalities of family, friends, and colleagues for this season, then we can perhaps look beyond those circles. Even to those people we find difficult.

Richard Wilbur’s splendid Christmas poem, which the Episcopal Church has incorporated into the hymnal, ends with that generosity of spirit and the divine example of willingness to be reconciled, all with all:

“But now, as at the ending, / The low is lifted high; / The stars shall bend their voices, / And every stone shall cry. / And every stone shall cry / In praises for the child / By whose descent among us / The worlds are reconciled.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 1:18 PM | | Comments (5)

December 23, 2011

Festivus felicitations to you all

Yesterday, winter arrived in Baltimore, with the sun shining and temperatures in the middle sixties. I really should have gone outside to rake up the remaining oak leaves from our neighbor’s trees and do something about all those damned Higgs bosons, but I had holiday preparations to do.

And today dawns Festivus.

The aluminum pole is up in the living room.

I am putting off the Feats of Strength, because later I will go to the paragraph factory to sit as the supervising editor on the news desk and shepherd through (and do a goodly amount of primary copy editing on) the Sunday Bulldog cover, the Arts & Entertainment section, the Saturday A section, the Sunday Business & Jobs section, and whatever loose pieces for the Sunday A section are lying about.

Beat that.

For the Rehearsal of Grievances, I point you to the 376 previous posts for this calendar year.

Add one daily grievance: The New York Times—how are the mighty fallen—has published PNC Bank’s accounting of the costs this year of the gifts enumerated in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” I cannot begin to imagine what Elizabeth Olson must have done, or whom she must have cheesed off, to have been given this assignment. It is a fatuous non-story and a publicity stunt for a bank, and for any publication to run it is a signal failure of imagination.

And add one overall grievance for the year: It has been another year of the diminution of copy desks. The attrition of the War on Editing has left some publications without any copy desk at all, the editing being done at distant “hubs” by editors with little or no knowledge of the locality being written about.

Square this with the proclamations about the primacy of local, news, the distinctive franchise of newspapers, the commitment to extensive local coverage, and all the other little songs that the industry has been humming nasally for the past decade.

Besides, once you have eliminated the copy desk, where are you going to transfer employees who have fallen out of favor?

A blessed Festivus to you all.





Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (6)

December 22, 2011

What eyebrows are for

Writing about a CNN interview in which Ron Paul objected to a reporter's questions, the National Journal reports that the Republican candidate “furrowed his eyebrows.”

Neat trick.

The idiomatic expression is to “furrow the brow”—that is, to wrinkle the forehead in perplexity. It’s a buried metaphor, furrow being a shallow trench dug in the ground by a plow and thus analogous to a wrinkle.

Brow derives from the Old English bru, or “eyebrow,” and came to mean the forehead in Middle English. It can still have the sense of “eyebrow” in the phrase “raise the brows.” The eyebrows can be raised to indicate surprise or disbelief—and the ability raise one eyebrow is handy to indicate ironic amusement.

But wrinkling the eyebrows? Don’t think so.

The writer, Adam Clark Estes of The Atlantic Wire, also describes Mr. Paul as “storming off.” But if you watch the actual video clip, all you see is the candidate, sounding a little testy but not shouting, fumble to remove the lapel microphone—not even leaving the room.

You might furrow your own brow over such reportage.



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

December 21, 2011

Enough with the "All are welcome"

It’s on all the church signboards and church ads: “All are welcome.” It’s in the refrain of a sappy little song that some congregations have even incorporated into their Sunday liturgy: “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.”

Oh, come on.

If “all are welcome” is going to be more than a tinny little self-congratulatory slogan addressed to everyone in general and no one in particular, there has to be a little more on offer.

While driving around on errands this morning, I was listening to Diane Rehm talking to the Rt. Rev. Marianne Budde, the ninth bishop of the Diocese of Washington, D.C. Bishop Budde explained that many Episcopal congregations, averaging about eighty to ninety members, come to be like an extended family, and it’s very difficult for a newcomer to break into a family. There are always signals about who is in and who is out of the group.

Being less charitable than Bishop Budde, I would suggest, after thirty-five years as an Episcopalian, that many Episcopal congregations function less like families and more like private clubs. They do not solicit new members, and anyone presumptuous enough to try to join must be examined and vetted by the Membership Committee before admission.*

If all were really welcome in the Episcopal Church, for example, some effort would be made to explain the liturgy and the ceremonial and the Prayer Book to newcomers. In his three years as priest at the little church of Bemerton in Wiltshire, the poet George Herbert was at pains to explain to his congregation, Izaak Walton tells us, “why the Church did appoint that portion of scripture to be that day read; and in what manner the collect for every Sunday does refer to the gospel, or to the epistle then read to them; and, that they might pray with understanding, he did usually take occasion to explain, not only the collect for every particular Sunday, but the reasons of all the other collects and responses in our Church service; and made it appear to them that the whole service of the Church was a reasonable, and therefore an acceptable sacrifice to God.” He explained as well the hymns and psalms and prayers and the calendar of the church year. His congregation must have been better instructed than most current Episcopalians.

If “all are welcome” were more than an empty slogan, newcomers would receive more welcoming hospitality than the watery coffee (simultaneously weak but bitter) provided after most Anglican services. They would be engaged in conversation. They would be informed about programs and activities of the congregation. They would perceive some personal interest in them beyond their possibilities as pledging units. They would get some follow-up attention from clergy and lay people—a call, a card, an email. They would be greeted warmly if they ventured to return.

If “all are welcome” meant something beyond the People Like Us at church, it would also mean something about the congregation’s reaching out to People Not Like Us, expressing some purpose beyond that of a private club meeting once a week for mediocre musical performances, a quietly endured homily, and bad coffee afterward.

It would mean what Bishop Budde called being “a public church” rather than an extended family. But this is not something that Episcopalians or the other mainline denominations have been very good at it. Perhaps that explains something about their decline.


*I may have mentioned in a previous post the experience my first wife and I had one winter at an Episcopal church in Syracuse. It was frostier on the inside than on the outside. When Elaine joined in the singing of the hymns, members of the congregation, who appeared to prefer enduring the music in stoic silence, glowered at her. After the service, no one spoke to us. We greeted the priest at the door; when he asked if we had signed the visitors’ book and we said we had, his fund of conversation was exhausted. An extreme case, but you may have encountered the like.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:46 PM | | Comments (14)

December 20, 2011

Now we are six

On the twentieth of December in 2005 I wrote and posted the first entry on this blog. My previous efforts at haranguing people about language and usage had been limited to writing an in-house newsletter at The Sun called Publish and Be Damned and presenting workshops at conferences of the American Copy Editors Society and for clients. With You Don’t Say, I have acquired over the past six years a platform and an audience.

Those of you who have been along for the ride from the beginning will have seen how much my views have been altered through exchanges with linguists and other editors. Exchange of views has led, as it should, to examination of the rules and usage advice that copy editors take as given. Some of them turned out to be not rules at all, some of them dated and outworn, some of them not worth the time and trouble.

The more than 1,700 posts here and at the [cough] hiatus [cough] site have been a long-term sifting, an effort to arrive at things that are essential to the craft.* Those of you who have hopped onto the carousel more recently are welcome to explore past posts.

No small component of the value of this blog—presuming to say that it has value—has come from the comments, some of them learned, some snippy, some funny, all welcome. We have been able to have conversations here, and I have enjoyed them all, even in the comment drift. Sometimes especially because of the comment drift.

Six years on, and I’m still finding errors to grouse about, books to recommend, follies and pretensions to mock. Great fun, and I mean to go on as long as I still have things to say. It’s been grand to spend time with all of you. Keep coming back.


Also, I neglected to link yesterday to the word of the week. It’s unctuous.


*Yes, yes, I know that some of them have been video barroom jokes and some of them digressions into politics and cookery and ecclesiology and personal reminiscence. Editing is great fun, but it’s not the only fun.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:48 AM | | Comments (9)

December 19, 2011

Tree's up

All right, got up at the ungodly hour of 8:00 a.m.—copy editors prefer the crack of noon, and went out to breakfast with Kathleen—eggs and corned beef hash at Valentino’s. Did grocery shopping and laundry (three loads). Neglected raking up the remaining leaves of the fall, plus all those damn Higgs bosons. That can wait, along with the leaves in the gutters on the garage. Wrote a review of James Wolcott’s entertaining memoir, Lucking Out, which no one much seems to have read. Bought a white pine my height for a Christmas tree. Got in mounted in the damn stand, with sap all over my hands, so that Kathleen can complain that there aren’t enough lights on it. (There are plenty. What is our living room supposed to be, Las Vegas?) It has only fallen over once, so far. Drank an astonishingly good Heavy Seas Yule Tide Belgian tripel ale, which made me a lot more amenable to fiddling with the Christmas tree and its stand. Soon Alice is expected over for pizza and hanging decorations on the tree to conceal the imagined inadequacy of the lights.

Tomorrow: back to the paragraph factory.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:38 PM | | Comments (13)

Some make their own luck

Pauline Kael, James Wolcott writes in Lucking Out, his memoir of New York in the Seventies (Doubleday, 260 pages, $25.95), believed that “first responses were the true responses and that repeated viewings gave rise to rationalizations, a fussy curatorship—a consensus-building exercise in your own mind full of minor adjustments that took you further and further away from the original altercation.”

There is a good deal of this Lord-Nelson, never-mind-maneuvers-just-go-straight-at-them approach in Wolcott’s writing for Vanity Fair, and his memoir combines that with a long-string, run-out-the-recollections narrative. Lucking Out takes the Seventies in large-chunk chapters, each focusing on an aspect of that era, such as his start at the Village Voice, his association with Pauline Kael, the rock music scene. It’s an exhilarating ride.

Growing up in Harford County, Wolcott was a student at Frostburg State when encountering the work of Norman Mailer opened his eyes to the fair field of writing. He published in the campus paper an enthusiastic response to Mailer’s account of the march on the Pentagon and presumptuously sent a copy to Mailer. Impressed, Mailer gave him a letter of introduction, and Wolcott dropped out of college there and then and went to New York to make his fortune.*

He was, as his title suggests, lucky. He took his letter from Mailer to Dan Wolf at the Voice, and Wolf sighed and said, “Why don’t you come don, we’ll see if we can find something.”

“And really,” he writes, “everything that’s happened to me since swung from the hinge of that moment, the gate the opened because one editor shrugged and said, Ah, what the hell.”

After a while he moved from clerical duty to publishing pieces in the Voice, and in due time moved beyond it to his current eminence.

I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Pauline Kael and her coterie at screenings. Of Kael’s writing, he says, “She wanted the writing to read like one long exhalation that would seize the reader from the opening gunshot and drop him off at the curb after a dizzy ride.”

The ride with Kael was dizzying for a lad with no particular background. At one point Gore Vidal makes a dismissive remark that takes in Mailer and Wolcott at once: “Boy, did I feel swatted! And yet thrilled too., Here I was, low person on the totem pole, being put in my place as a Mailer fanboy by Gore Vidal in his inimitable epigrammatic manner, his irony at my expense proof that he had been reading me in the Voice and was aware of my existence as a writer, however irksome. That he found me egregious was secondary. I had, in some small, meaningless, minuscule way, arrived.”

Here you see the double perspective that can be so tricky in memoir. He is trying, after the Kael manner, to hurtle along on the events of his callow youth—drinking Coca-Cola at the Algonquin after screenings while the Paulinistas down their cocktails—but with the skill and irony of the developed writer.

I was less enthralled by his account of hearing the young Patti Smith and others at seedy CBCG’s in the Village, having determinedly given no conscious attention to rock music for the past forty years, but there is material there about being a critic that is worth noting. Such as: “It’s better to be thumpingly wrong than a muffled drum with a measured beat.” Or: “Readers and fellow writers get a mean rise out of demolition work of overblown popularities or grandiose follies, but it’s the trail-scout discoveries that a critic cracks into daylight that make the difference after all the balloons have popped.” Or more still: “A reviewer’s praise only means something to readers if it has a force of personality and conviction behind it that hasn’t been compromised by too much cream filling in everything else you’ve written.”

This is a memoir of aesthetic experiences, of the experience of writing, of developing a critical apparatus, of the cultural values and mores of the groups within which he moved. It’s about the development of a critic of writing and music and the arts and society. There is not a great deal of intimate personal detail, even in the chapter on sex in the Village in the Seventies. There is not a great deal of information about people beyond the half-dozen or so figures whom Wolcott has chosen to highlight—though I assume that people in the know will decode the initials identifying certain persons and perceive some score-settling going on in the background. (But if you can’t have a little revenge in your own memoir, then where?)

It is indeed a bouncy ride from Harford County to Frostburg State to the Village, and on through the Seventies, and it does end in a bump with the dawning of the grimmer Eighties. If you were around then, you will recognize the time. If you’re young, you can see what you missed. 

*Here is as good a point as any to make necessary disclosures. Though I, like Wolcott, rose from obscure origins, unlike Wolcott, I stayed in school and tried always to live up to my teachers’ expectations (and you see how that turned out). But this blog caught his eye, and he has described me as “the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing.” You may take it for granted that I was well disposed toward him before opening the pages of his book.




Posted by John McIntyre at 12:40 PM | | Comments (5)

December 18, 2011

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

I strike fear into the hearts of reporters:

When I get up from my desk to take a turn around the newsroom, relieving my aching knees and pumping a little more blood to the brain, the writers look up apprehensively, knowing that when a copy editor approaches it’s never good news.

I strike terror into the hearts of motorists:

They see behind the wheel the thing they most dread on the highway: old old gray-haired guy wearing a fedora and driving at the speed limit.*

I strike consternation into the hearts of colleagues and fellow parishioners:

When I start a sentence with “That reminds me,” they know that another interminable anecdote is in the offing.**

I can fill the readers of this blog with apprehension:

I’m working on a book.


*More or less.

**Though I do not pretend to the mastery of my former colleague Caden Blincoe, who is reputed once to have emptied the bar of the Cricket Tavern in Cincinnati merely by coming through the door and saying, “I heard a story the other day ...”



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:49 PM | | Comments (13)

December 17, 2011

Who's to blame

Jonathan Swift, David Nokes’s excellent biography points out, held what has long been the established view of the comfortably off about the poor: “He is determined to identify financial distress with moral culpability and to see poverty as the out ward and visible sign of sinfulness.”

In a sermon on poverty, he preached: “Among the number of those who beg in our streets, or are half starved at home, or languish in prison for debt, there is hardly one in a hundred who doth not owe his misfortunes to his own laziness or drunkenness or worse vices.”

Mind you, he gave to charities, but the attitude lives on, finding an echo vulgarly expressed in Herman Cain’s recent pronouncement, “If you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself.”

(I am not necessarily out to thump Republicans, despite their risible belief that the president and the Democratic Party are a bunch of Bolsheviki. Rather, I’d prefer you to notice that Democratic officeholders are pretty much as beholden to corporate interests as their colleagues across the aisle. If there is a distinction, it is a subtle one: Democrats are willing to let the Interests steal everything but a hot stove; Republicans are willing to let the stove go.)

During the year, 2009-2010, that I spent enumerating the people who had no interest in employing me—and there were a lot of them—I did blame myself. For pursuing a career in editing, which nearly everyone needs but for which almost no one is willing to pay. For not foreseeing in 1980 that the newspaper industry would collapse thirty years later. For not jumping from newspapering into something else—and what? Banking? Real estate? Bah.

Unemployment demoralizes: the anxiety about money, the urgency of finding another position before all resources are exhausted, the dread of illness or some other reversal that will mean utter collapse, the contempt directed your way by public figures like Herman Cain. Add to that the strain of making a good face of it for your acquaintances, your family, yourself. Underlying it all a rueful acceptance of how much you have contributed to your plight by not being more frugal, more provident, more cautious.

And when something Micawber-wise does turn up, and is accepted, it bears with it the realization that what has happened once can happen again. At any time.

Then too there’s the anger. In my case, at the corporate nonentities throughout the newspaper business whose fecklessness brought the industry down. More broadly, the sort of thing now fueling the Occupy movement, at the financial wizards whose lack of understanding of the instruments they were wielding created a bubble and burst it. At the public officials who connived at the bubble. That’s bipartisan. It was the Clinton administration that went along with repealing Glass Steagall so that the bankers could have a romp with other people’s money, and it was the succeeding Bush administration that let them have their way because it appointed regulators who did not believe in regulation.

And today we are stuck with a polarized, dysfunctional Congress that lurches from one inadequate short-term fix to another, waiting to see whether an election eleven months hence will put into office a crowd different enough to spend a few moments working for the common good while jockeying for power.

At least I do have a job again—and an audience, bless you all, dear hearts—even though my best long-term strategy is to pitch forward gently onto the keyboard some day at the paragraph factory.

And the Republic, grubby little oligarchy that it has become, will survive.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:53 PM | | Comments (7)

December 15, 2011

An oft-neglected comma

In this representative sentence from a police story you can see one more example of how a comma can indicate a subtle shift in meaning.

As written: During the chase up Interstate 97, police said the man waved a handgun out of the window of the car. 

As edited: During the chase up Interstate 97, police said, the man waved a handgun out of the window of the car.

Without the second comma, the sentence indicates that the police gave this account during the chase. With it, the sentence incates that the police account was given later.






Posted by John McIntyre at 6:18 PM | | Comments (2)

December 14, 2011


Everyone who reads journalism—I include electronic versions, published by newspapers or not—knows that journalists have a serious weakness for trivial stories and non-stories. It’s ninety-eight degrees, with humidity that is both palpable and visible, and the newspaper or website will inform you, prominently, that it’s hot outside. Stunning. Then there is the annual discovery that it gets cold in the winter.

But at least those efforts, feeble as they are, contain a trace of substance. If it’s going to be as cold as a corporate vice president’s heart out there, you’ll know to bundle up. And they help fuel our need for desultory, time-filling social conversation. “Did you see the paper this morning? Going to be a scorcher out there.”

Then there are stories that are merely stunts. Truly meaningless stories that, because they occur with regularity and are the lowest of low-hanging fruit, are irresistible to writers and editors without imagination.

There is the seasonal article about the estimated cost of purchasing the gifts enumerated in “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” Someone at PNC Bank, for which this is a publicity stunt, looks at “Twelve lords a-leaping” and makes a fanciful estimate of how much it costs the rent the British aristocracy these days. Utterly bogus and, truth be told, not particularly entertaining.

There are the annual college rankings by U.S. News, which, pathetically, has become crucial to universities’ recruiting. Only a few recognize the highly questionable methodology and refuse to participate. It’s highly unlikely that any university changes very dramatically year to year (“We just hired an assistant professor of economics, and eighty percent of our undergraduate courses are taught by teaching assistants and underpaid adjuncts whom we never observe in the classroom!”), so the changes in rankings year to year have to be accounted for by shifts of social status and superstition. But it does boost sales for the faltering U.S. News.

Today, one of the most venerable stunts of all, Time’s Person of the Year, is upon us. No, if you don’t already know, I’m not going to break the exciting news here. I don’t care. Probably neither do you. It’s a tired stunt, which may have looked fresh in 1927, by another publication in decline. In recent years the person of the year hasn’t even been a person, but an attempt to pin a sociological label on the year. Remember when it was You? Remember which year that was? Neither do I.

Such stuff is of even less moment than articles about the Kardashians.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:37 AM | | Comments (4)

December 13, 2011

The editor and the potty mouth

Lenny Bruce was arrested for uttering language in nightclubs that Lewis Black now uses on cable television. A dozen years ago the editor of The Baltimore Sun prohibited use of the verb suck, described in our guidelines manual as “vulgar street language.” Recently an obliging editor* gave The Sun’s sports section the go-ahead to publish wanker in a direct quote.

What’s a mother to do?

On January 12, I will be conducting an audio conference for Copyediting: "Charged Language: Dealing With the Unspeakable in Copy.” It will look into profanity, ethnic slurs, vulgarisms, and circumlocutions, seeking to provide guidance for editors amid shifting standards of propriety.

You’re welcome—encouraged, even—to sign up for the audio conference, but you are also welcome to suggest dimensions of the topic for discussion or offer examples that would be useful to examine.


*Yeah, me.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:17 AM | | Comments (7)

December 12, 2011

It must be Monday

Something you may have missed at church: The name Tim Tebow keeps cropping up in my Twitter feed and elsewhere, and from context I gather that Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, Messiah, Pantocrator, the Word before the world began, the Lamb before the throne, the Alpha and Omega, has taken a personal interest in the outcome of certain professional football games.

If I had a hammer: Now that Lowe’s has bowed to bigotry from some odious pressure group and withdrawn its sponsorship of the reality show, All-American Muslim, I will be taking my business elsewhere.

Opening a new front: Veteran copy editor Pam Nelson is now blogging at The Grammar Guide on the American Copy Editors Society’s website. She previously blogged at Triangle Grammar Guide when she worked at the News & Observer in Raleigh. The battle lines of the War on Editing have now carried her to Charlotte, under circumstances she explains in her inaugural post.

Barely passing: I could only mark twelve items on the “Checklist for being a ‘real’ journalist.” That’s 60 percent, a very low D. But as you look at the list, what becomes apparent is that to be a “real” journalist, you have to be a reporter. Copy editing, we are once again reminded, doesn’t count for much.

Don’t cry for me: Your word of the week is maudlin.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:47 AM | | Comments (12)

Best-of joke of the week: "The Brewmasters"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:59 AM | | Comments (2)

December 10, 2011

Ready, steady, GO

Just started reading James Wolcott’s memoir, Lucking Out, last night, and almost immediately came across valuable advice for writers.

As he worked in a lowly capacity at the Village Voice while trying to break into print, examining the texts in the slush pile showed him what not to do and pointed him toward what ought to be done:

“Avoid preamble—flip on the switch in the first sentence. Find a focal point for your nervous energy, assume a forward offensive stance, and drive to the finish line, even if it’s only a five-hundred-word slot: no matter how short a piece there has to be a sense of momentum and travel, rather than just allotted space being texted in.”

More on the memoir itself later.



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:57 PM | | Comments (0)

December 9, 2011

You have neglected your loafing

Postings have been light this week, I know, but not because I’ve been idle, what with the paragraph factory and the last week of classes at Loyola and the usual domestic tasks. I would much rather have been idle.

As I stepped out of Beatty Hall yesterday morning after the final class of the semester, I noticed a number of things: a clear sky and sunlight after the previous day’s grayness and heavy rain, a brisk wind from the west on my face, and a handful of Loyola students walking along, heads down, texting on their smartphones.

This is not—really, you deserve better—the start of some rant about how we are too connected, or too preoccupied with the Internet and electronic toys. I want to talk to you today about our neglect of loafing. This is becoming critical, what with rising generations of children who are so overscheduled with activities that they may never master the knack. And no one is better qualified to advise you about loafing, equipped as I am by heritage,* predisposition, and training, lacking only the [cough] funds [cough].

Of course, anyone can loaf if the money is plentiful. Those of us who must labor for our bread look for creative ways to benefit from this most restorative inactivity.

For example, Kathleen and I once found ourselves in the airport at Charlotte, North Carolina, to change planes. Our flight was, of course, delayed. But the Charlotte airport, an eminently civilized one, has rocking chairs distributed around the terminal, and there were a couple outside a shop that dealt in wines of the region. So we bought a bottle and drank a couple of glasses of good wine while sitting and rocking and talking quietly. It was quite the most pleasant interval I’ve passed in an airport in years.

You have to be alert for your opportunities. Those Loyola students trudging along with their iPhones—not smart either; you remember that video of the woman who walked into a fountain at a mall while focused on her texting—missed the opportunity to take a couple of minutes between classes to stare at the sky and feel the wind on their faces. To seize a brief moment of what the Italians call dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing.

There’s also that interval in late afternoon, between the day’s work and the preparations for dinner, when you can, if you plan shrewdly, make a Manhattan and sit, for the time it takes to drink it slowly, on the porch without talking, without texting, and let the mind drift where it will.

There will be the odd slack interval at work, when no one upstream is sending along anything to do, when you can indulge in desultory conversation with colleagues about former colleagues. Do not omit to take advantage of this. It will stimulate memory and confirm solidarity.

Don’t mistake reading for loafing (as some members of my family did). Reading partakes of some of the qualities of loafing, such as retreating from the activities of the immediate world and recharging the mental batteries, but it is a more active phenomenon. Loafing in its purer forms recharges by purposeless inactivity, much as sleep does.

If you are smart, you will make room in your children’s days for play, and in your own for those invaluable intervals of loafing.


*My maternal grandfather, Lucien Lundy Early, derived enough income from the family tobacco farm to live the life of a rural flaneur. In his active days, he would sit on a bench in front of one of the two general stores in Elizaville for conversation with like-minded gentlemen. At home, his days were spent smoking cigarettes and listening to baseball games on the radio. (I will never get the voice of Waite Hoyt out of my head.) Had his judgment of the relative velocity of horses been as sound as he imagined it to be, I might have been able to live a similar life.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:55 AM | | Comments (3)

December 7, 2011

Your interest in distinctions

On Carol Saller’s invaluable advice, I’m going to drop the practice at this blog of bracketing case changes in quotations, because it “borders on pedantry and can get in the way of reading.” See at Lingua Franca what she says about changes that are permissible to make in quoted matter.

At Arrant Pedantry, Jonathon Owen quotes Steven Pinker as lamenting the erosion of the sense of disinterested as “impartial”—not having a personal interest in the outcome, no dog in that fight.*

But Mr. Owen points out that disinterested has swung back and forth between “unbiased” and “bored” for the better part of three centuries, indicating that no clear distinction ever existed. His suggestion dovetails with my own inclination: If you want to use disinterested to mean “impartial,” and you can, make sure that your meaning is firmly established in context.

His larger point deriving from this example is that we should be cautious about the distinctions we champion. He quotes his adviser, Don Chapman: “Often the claim that a distinction is useful seems to rest on little more than this: if the prescriber can state a clear distinction, the distinction is considered to be desirable ipso facto.”

In the original text, often is not capitalized, but I have paid attention to Carol Saller.


*Someone from PETA will be writing to upbraid me for using an expression that alludes to dog fighting. For the record I do not advocate, participate in, or condone dog fighting.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:58 AM | | Comments (6)

December 5, 2011

What percent just don't care?

We’ve been in the midst of a presidential campaign for months now, though I suspect that for much of the populace there has been more intense interest in the Kardashian wedding.* But as with other reality series, its fan base, though a minority, is loyal, and nothing stimulates it more than the weekly auguries, the opinion polls.

Over at HeadsUp: The Blog you will find cautionary admonitions about those auguries, which often have no more substance than the flights of birds by which the Romans attempted to divine the future. You should read it, but I m going to summarize a few points by way of protecting you from the breathless, and often brainless, energy that journalists tend to bring to the subject of opinion polling.

Item: Note who was surveyed. General population? Republicans? Likely Republican voters?

Item: Check the margin of error and the confidence level of the sampling. If the difference between two candidates lies within the margin of error, it’s misleading to say that one leads.

Item: Note who did the polling, and for whom. Reputable independent service? For a newspaper? For a candidate? It’s a pity that you don’t get to see the questions, because that would help you understand whether the wording skewed the responses.

Item: Ignore any report that “averages” polling results. You cannot reliably average the results of different questions put to different sampling groups at different times.

Item: Opinion fluctuates—and has been particularly volatile among the people following the Republican candidates. You should be skeptical about conclusions from polls about “trends,” because, as you have seen, those trends may well have reversed in another week or so. And no actual votes have yet been cast.

Item: Every election season the Sober Ponderers bemoan that the coverage has been that of a horse race rather than a discussion of the Issues. That, too, you can safely ignore, because once the bell rings and “They’re off,” so are the journalists who follow them. And the public too, at least those who follow the race, because the Issues articles are the ones nobody reads. The public prefers the narrative, because it likes reality shows.

The presidential race is in fact America’s original reality show. It would be difficult to find anything in the current cycle—and I include all the fatuities that Der Spiegel catalogues—more superficial and idiotic than William Henry Harrison’s successful “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign in 1840. When we tire at last of the Kardashians, we will always have the Republicans and the Democrats.


Additional item: Your word of the week is desultory.


*Der Spiegel suggests that the current Republican contest for the nomination more nearly resembles a reality series than anything else, describing the candidates as a “club of liars, cheaters, adulterers, exaggerators, hypocrites and ignoramuses.” But what do foreigners understand about the United States anyway?



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (8)

Best-of joke of the week: "The Lawyer's Accident"

Posted by John McIntyre at 8:31 AM | | Comments (1)

December 3, 2011


A colleague in graduate school, where a great deal of paper is consumed, divided people into two classes, bunchers and folders. (I’m a folder, as you might have guessed.)

The impulse to divide human beings into binary categories is very strong—Robert Benchley wrote that there are two classes of people, those who believe that there are two classes of people and those who do not. I’m in the former of Benchley’s classes, and I’ve amused myself during a slack interval thinking of opposites. Introvert/extrovert and liberal/conservative are obvious, but there are many more, though man and woman may not be as strictly defined as was thought in the 1950s. Add some of your own in comments if you feel moved to do so. I’ll get you started.








early risers/night owls


green salsaistas/red salsaistas





judgers/perceivers (if you go in for that Myers-Briggs sorcery)



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:10 AM | | Comments (17)

December 2, 2011

McIntyre Friday complains

When English lost most of its inflections, word order became crucial to meaning, and that is why I continue to grumble at a minor but nonetheless irritating quirk of journalese: the placement of the adverb of time.

To a journalist—this must have been taught somewhere in a journalism school, and then the monkey-see, monkey-do mechanism took over—this sentence looks right: President Obama Wednesday announced a new jobs plan. To people whose English has not been corrupted by reading newspapers, the adverb of time, particularly the day of the week used as an adverb, follows the verb: President Obama announced a new jobs plan Wednesday.

I suppose that this unnatural syntax is supposed to suggest freshness and immediacy. Feh.

But the placement of the adverb can also subtly alter meaning (quite part from the impression that the president’s surname is Wednesday). A few days ago I edited an article about a criminal case that referred to the defendant’s “Monday sentencing.” I changed it to his “sentencing Monday.” Do you see why?

“Monday sentencing” could suggest that there is more than one sentencing, and we are reporting the one that will occur Monday. It’s a restrictive sense. “Sentencing Monday” is a non-restrictive sense that there is one sentencing and that it will occur Monday.

I know that no one is likely to misunderstand. I know that the thousands of times I have reworded such sentences may not have been the most efficient use of my time and energy. I know that this looks like the kind of obsession with inconsequential details that I deplore in other editors. But—great Fowler’s ghost!—this kind of willful awkwardness is the grit in the oyster.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:09 AM | | Comments (15)

December 1, 2011

Getting "uppity"

Yesterday, writing about “politically correct” language, I referred to the use of uppity in describing the Obamas as a racist code word. There are, of course, people, particularly defenders of Rush Limbaugh, who turn to the dictionary and say that no, the word means taking airs above one’s station and can be completely innocent of any racist tinge. (Indeed, since the rise of the feminist movement, it has been freely applied to women.)

For them, and others who may have had a sheltered upbringing, here’s a little context.

The Oxford English Dictionary, which indeed has non-racist citations, also includes this specimen:

“1952 F. L. ALLEN Big Change II. viii. 130 The effect of the automobile revolution was especially noticeable in the South, where one began to hear whites complaining about ‘uppity [you know which epithet I’ve deleted]’ on the highways, where there was no Jim Crow.”

Those who think that there is a racist connotation to uppity, but that it has faded away in our enlightened age, some examples from the Corpus of Contemporary American English:

PBS NewsHour, 1996: BARI-ELLEN-ROBERTS: I was called uppity. I was called a smart-mouthed little colored girl.

Basquiat, 1996: You get a girlfriend and a little attention and then start acting all uppity with me. # BASQUIAT # (mortified)' Uppity?' Like as in' uppity [expletive deleted again]?'

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 1996: Calloway's view: " They got that plantation syndrome (in Belle Glade). Here is the master, Doug Wedgworth:' Yes'm, boss.' See, I'm an uppity black boy (to them).

Gloria Naylor, Essence, 1995: in the 1950's, uppity little colored girls were as unwelcome in their own culture and in the larger society as their sisters are today.

Houston Chronicle, 1995: " While we could compete against the white cowboys, we had to ride after they were done at the end of the show, " he said. # Plus, the black cowboy had to mount the bull from the back to avoid being seen by the fans and appearing too " " uppity, " he said.

Letter to editor San Francisco Chronicle, 1994 about Willie Brown: worse, he is uppity, and the combination of black, smart and uppity is not forgivable to your average Republican

CBS, 1994: MITCHELL: How did white cadets look at Johnson Whittaker? Mr-MARSZALEK: Oh, the -- the -- the -- they thought he had absolutely no business being there. MITCHELL: Uppity? Mr-MARSZALEK: Uppity. Exactly. It's an example of someone who does not know his place.

Homeland, 1993: He hated the idea that the nigras were free, he hated what he called their uppity pertinacious ways.

Essence, 1993: The racial factor of the " uppity Black " enters in.

Washington Monthly, 1993: Congress became " The Liberal Plantation, " where massuhs Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden lash uppity black conservatives.

And, perhaps most notably, you may recall this passage from Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearing:

"And from my standpoint, as a black American, it is a high-tech lynching for uppity blacks who in any way deign to think for themselves, to do for themselves, to have different ideas, and it is a message that unless you kowtow to an old order, this is what will happen to you."

If you still think that uppity carries no racial charge, perhaps you could ask Mr. Justice Thomas what he thinks.



Posted by John McIntyre at 5:53 PM | | Comments (27)
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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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