« Watch this space | Main | Stay away from question heads »

What the Dickens

It falls to my lot to write little front-page capsules for The Sun, directing readers to articles of interest inside the paper. Last night, one of the likelier-looking ones was John Fritze’s article explaining that veteran congressman Roscoe Bartlett of Western Maryland had made clear his intention to run for re-election in his remapped district. I summarized that and, for the boldface lead-in, wrote: BARTLETT IS WILLING.

Today I learn from Mr. Fritze that a number of readers wrote to him to say that the allusion to Dickens* had gladdened their hearts.

It’s just a little thing, but it illustrates what must be done to make an allusion effective. The allusion must work on its own, not depending on the reader’s catching an echo. For the reader who does, the allusion is an additional treat, a lagniappe.


*For the non- Dickens-inclined: In David Copperfield, the minor character Barkis expresses his matrimonial interest in Peggotty by saying, “Barkis is willin’.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:51 PM | | Comments (5)


Thanks, John. I've been trying to teach this in our newsroom for years, with varying success. This is a perfect example.

I wrote a front-page headline on tryouts for the Ohio State University mascot, calling the competition to choose the next Brutus Buckeye a search for "the noblest nut of them all." *

I never heard of any gladdened hearts, but I will continue to believe they were out there.

* Julius Caesar, Act 5, scene 5 (

And another favorite, seen here in print for the first time because it was cruelly changed before publication. On a story about a home economics class that invited parents in to learn the art of needlework from their children: "As they sew, so shall they teach."

Too much of a stretch?

Prof. McI.,

What I'm about to offer is hardly as pithy, succinct, or clever as your "Bartlett is willing'. Yet in it's own ham-handed, wordy way one might argue that my effort adds perhaps another layer of metaphor, as it were. (Or maybe not?)

Mine might need a tad more pith, and a little less ham? =)

Here goes nuttin';:

----Familiar Bartlett quotes*, " I'm willing."

Or even sillier, BARTLETT is willing, but ANJOU and BOSC are not. (Groan. That last one was for the pear enthusiasts in our audience.)

* Of course, I'm alluding here to the renowned Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, first published back in 1855, still relevant and going strong to this very day.

Well, that's all I got...... for now.


A Huffington Post headline just today:
"So Long, and Thanks for All the Pork"... I'm a big fan of Hitchhiker's Guide....

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

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
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected