Sunday, February 25, 2024

Language sneaks up on you

Making my way through the thousand pages of The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and published by the Oxford University Press, I came up short against a word: snuck

Some of you, I suspect, will be as horrified by this as by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. But you, like the House of Palaiologos, will be on the wrong side of history. 

Snuck, a variant of sneaked, lived for decades in the United States as a regional colloquialism. But in the twentieth century, and particularly in the current one, it picked up speed. 

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary says that 75% of its usage panel found snuck acceptable in 2008. 

Merriam-Webster notes that snuck "has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked." 

And Bryan Garner, in the fifth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage, writes that "with startling alacrity, it has become a casualism," perhaps because of "phonemic appeal." He continues: "In any event, the numbers don't lie: in AmE, snuck has become strongly predominant; in BrE, it has become about equal in frequency to sneaked." It crops up in legal opinions, and "the last year in which sneaked appeared more often in print than snuck was 2009."

Resistance remains. I don't care for snuck and do not recall ever having used it in speech or text. But resistance in language is usually futile. 

That's it. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.  

Saturday, February 24, 2024

My life as a drudge

 February 8 marked forty-four years since I began work as a copy editor. 

The Cincinnati Enquirer took a risk in hiring a fugitive graduate student for the copy desk, where I absorbed the principles and customs of the work from colleagues like Phil Fisher, slotman Bill Trutner, and news editor Bob Johnson. My colleagues were, typically of copy desks, smart, competent, and irreverent. 

After six and a half years on the desk, I made good my escape from Gannett. The saloon where my colleagues gathered for the farewell to McIntyre party turned out to be the same saloon where the city editor had scheduled a good riddance to McIntyre party. Awkward. At least for those who came through the door and realized that a choice had to be made. 

Then thirty-four years as a disciple of Andy Faith on the desk at The Baltimore Sun, which when it was in funds gave me a free hand to hire, train, and mentor the smartest editors I could find. We had a grand time and a national reputation until the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. Tribune Publishing eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and I spent two years as a "content editor," viz., a processor of copy rather than an editor. 

Now in retirement, I mark two years this month as a freelance copy editor for the online nonprofit Baltimore Banner, where the work is as rewarding as it first was more than four decades ago. 

"Rewarding, huh?" you ask. "Weren't you just a comma jockey? You just called yourself a drudge." 

I have to concede that regularizing other people's erratic punctuation, though necessary, was not the most gratifying aspect of the job. Nor was correcting the spelling of names. (We had a reporter who once misspelled the name of the U.S. attorney for Maryland fourteen times, but because he misspelled it the same way fourteen times we took it as an advance in his technique.) 

 But untangling syntax, tightening loose prose, making sure the elements were in the proper order, clarifying murky points, and occasionally taking my hands off the keyboard (when something good required no further work) provided satisfactions way beyond commas. 

Every time I opened a story, my question was what is this writer trying to do, and how can I assist them in achieving their purpose while serving the readers' interests. And every time I shipped a story on to publication, I wanted to say it had been done shipshape and Bristol fashion. 

That's the job: leave it better than you found it. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

So you want to be an editor?

 The following text is an article on U.S. involvement in Kosovo during the Clinton administration, compiled by an editor at The Baltimore Sun from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times, that was sent to the copy desk, in this form as God is my witness, for publication. I used it for some years in The Sun's brutal applicant test for copy editors. See what you can make of it in the comments. 

LONDON — NATO allies endorsed a last-ditch U.S. effort Friday to end the violence in Kosovo peacefully, even as Secretary of  State Madeleine K. Albright warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that “time is all but gone” for him to avoid airstrikes.

Albright declared that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was united and ready to authorize the bombing. “There was an attempt to divide us, and that has failed,” she said.

In Washington, President Clinton told senior senators in a letter what they could expect if force is used. He described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity.

“There will be no ‘pinprick’ strikes,” he said.

As to NATO options that would involve U.S. and allied ground forces in hostile action, “I can assure you the United States would not support these options, and there currently is no sentiment in NATO for such a mission,” Clinton said. 

Albright met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, trying to shore up support for airstrikes. “If he was looking for rescue from any member of the Contact Group, he did not get it tonight,” British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said.

She also met with the foreign ministers of the other five nations that make up the Contact Group on former Yugoslavia: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, but failed to gain Moscow’s support for airtrikes against the Milosevic’s security forces.

“If he was looking for rescue from any member of the Contact Group, he did not get it tonight,” British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said.

But there was no word from Italy and Germany as to whether their disquiet over the threatened military operations had been eased. A statement issued by the foreign ministers called on Milosevic to meet conditions of U.N. resolutions and made no mention of military action.

Albright accused Milosevic of “cosmetic gestures” to meet international demands on Kosovo and said he has “but a few days” to reverse course and avoid NATO military action.

“One of the keys of good diplomacy is knowing when diplomacy has reached its limits. And we are rapidly reaching that point now,” she warned.

Albright said earlier yesterday that Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. mediator for the Balkans, would return to Belgrade for a fourth round of talks this week with Milosevic. The foreign ministers endorsed Holbrook’s mission to the Yugoslav capital. 

Albright declined to say categorically that Holbrooke’s visit would be the last peace mission before NATO airstrikes, but a British official, briefing reporters after the meeting, said, “Holbrooke’s trip is the last attempt.”

Despite the arguments, Russia did not relent its opposition to the use of force. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who chaired the Contact Group meeting, said Russia was not being “invited” to participate in NATO’s decisions.

Albright met with the foreign ministers of the Contact Group in London after conferring in Brussels, Belgium, with Holbrooke, Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander, and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Cookies, you need cookies

 Today Kathleen baked sour cream cookies from my grandmother's recipe. They were the great treat of my childhood, the batter alone tasting better than any other cookie batter I have sampled. I have shared the recipe before, and today I'm offering it to you again. 

Kathleen, who thinks they are cakey (de gustibus non est disputandum), likes to do a light lemon icing, and you, of course, are free to do that. 

Clara Rhodes Early’s Sour Cream Cookies

1 cup shortening

2 cups sugar

3 well-beaten eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

5 cups sifted flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon soda

1 ½ cups nuts (optional)

Drop from teaspoon onto cookie sheet.

Press down.

Bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Um, about that anthem

Yesterday Armstrong Williams, co-owner of The Baltimore Sun, deplored the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the Super Bowl: "It is an anthem created for one race, and one race only. Playing it at the Super Bowl epitomizes attempts to divide the nation at its core by race."

By contrast, he says, the "Star-Spangled Banner" "is not a white national anthem. It’s not a Black national anthem. It’s not a national anthem for any race. It is a national anthem for everyone, regardless of race."

Perhaps Mr. Armstrong has not had occasion to read Francis Scott Key's poem in its entirety. The third verse contains these interesting lines: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." They refer to Britain's offer of freedom to any enslaved person agreeing to serve in the British army against the American. 

So you see, as is so often the case in this nation, race keeps cropping up all over the place. Luckily, we only ever sing the first verse. 

Mr. Armstrong might also take a moment to ponder the opening of what is colloquially called the Black national anthem: "Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty." It celebrates freedom, a freedom that was not acquired easily. 

It is small-minded for anyone celebrating "the land of the free" to begrudge another celebration of freedom. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Nothing's more democratic than English

Language is the most democratic thing we have: Each English speaker gets one vote, and the language becomes what we collectively make of it over time. 

Some people do have influence, but it is limited. (You may think a big-time former newspaper editor is influential, but you would be mistaken.) Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of English that would “fix” (in both senses, "repair" and "make permanent") the language, but on completion ruefully acknowledged that it goes its own way. 

Noah Webster’s dictionary got Americans to spell “honour” and “colour” without the “u,” but simplified spellings he promoted — “wimmen” for “women,” “soop” for “soup,” “tung” for “tongue” — went nowhere. 

Two and a half centuries of grammarians and schoolteachers have hammered away that it is incorrect to use “they” as a third-person singular pronoun, all in vain. We have been using “they” as a singular since King Alfred burned the cakes, and today even the “Associated Press Stylebook” and “Chicago Manual of Style” have grudgingly accepted it. 

(You may not be comfortable with it, but you’re already OK with using “you” as either a singular or plural, so you can get used to things.) 

The same generations have labored to maintain the “lie” and “lay” distinction, that “lay” is the past tense of “to lie,” not “laid.” But I taught editing to undergraduates for 24 years, and let me tell you, it’s not going to happen. You can try to hold on to it in formal prose, but over time even formal prose yields to the the way people actually speak. 

H.L. Mencken, with characteristic bluntness, summed it up in “The American Language”: “The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and without much insight.”

Jonathan Swift proposed establishment of an English Academy that would, like the French version, establish and legislate the correctness of the language. But we English speakers are a stubborn and unruly lot. We made a mongrel language out of a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. We take things freely from other languages and do as we please with them. (Imagine a francophone’s wince at the way we pronounce “lingerie.”) It’s our language, we do as we please with it, and we have always done so. 

In our language, we are a free and unfettered people. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The editor's hand

The reputation of editors, particularly copy editors, has not been enviable. There is a long tradition of writers affecting to believe that if we were only rid of these petty, pedantic, literal-minded, comma-chopping drones, we would experience an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. But all parties should grasp that writers, editors and copy editors alike work toward a common goal: accuracy, clarity, and precision of expression  perhaps even elegance. It is essentially a communal and collaborative activity.

Christopher Ricks, reviewing Johnson on the English Language for The New Criterion in 2005, said: "The meaning of a word is neither a matter of opinion, nor a matter of fact, neither subjective nor objective, but an exercise of communal judgment. ... A language is a body of agreements (not opinion or facts but agreements, judgments that are at once personal and impersonal, individual and social), agreements not only between people who are alive but also between those who are alive and those who are dead, It is by courtesy of the dead that we are able to communicate at all, and this is one of the many reasons why those of us who are (for now) alive should treat with courtesy the dead." 

Mutual respect among the parties —  the editor for the writer’s primacy of imagination and invention, the writer for the editor’s sharpness of eye and sense of precision, the respect of both for the language we have inherited and of which we are custodians — is necessary for the formation of reliable judgments. For the writer, understanding the editor’s role and methods will sharpen perceptions during the first crucial editing, the writer's self-editing of the text. For the editor, improving the techniques of editing will better serve for the writer — and the reader. D'you remember there's a reader?

The reader’s interests transcend the preoccupations and vanities of both writer and editor. All readers demand clarity and order, and when they do not find it, they turn aside without compunction. Particularly the informed reader, the literate reader offers the greatest promise for appreciation of the writer’s effort; for them, precision in the use of words shows that the writer is to be honored for having mastered the craft.

Though the perspectives and skills, not to speak of the temperament, of writing and editing are distinct, what they have in common is what John Updike said of The New Yorker’s Katherine White in an essay reprinted in Odd Jobs: “To the born editor, it must be, the mass of manuscripts looms as nature and experience do to the writer — as a superabundance to be selected from and refined, and made shapely and meaningful.”

Let us be clear: Writing is a primary function, editing a secondary one, and no one should pretend otherwise. Editors must also realize that their task is to bring out and clarify what is inherent in the text, to make it shapely and meaningful, but they cannot go beyond what they are given. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.” 

The personal element, always present, cannot be ignored. However much writers tell themselves that they are professionals, that the text they have written is an artifact rather than an extension of themselves, that criticism of the text is not a reflection on their selves, very few really believe that. No one enjoys being edited. This is what editing looks like to the writer: After the vividly recalled circumstances of the conception of the article, the prolonged gestation, the sweat and pain of the labor that brought it forth into the world, the writer murmurs, “This is my child.” And then: “Here comes some editor, saying, " 'Mmmm-MMMMPH, that is one ugly baby.' "

Disarming the writer’s psychological reaction is an editor's crucial responsibility if anything useful is to be accomplished. When a discussion of editing issues turns instead into a struggle over who will prevail, on who has say-so, editing turns into a battle. The loser leaves the field smarting from defeat and vowing to be a victor in the next round, guaranteeing a continual cycle of conflict in which the reader is the ultimate loser.  

A writer might consider a different metaphor. Imagine that you, the writer, are about to receive an award at a formal banquet. You are wearing your best clothes and have taken trouble with your grooming. Just as you are about to walk into the bright light to claim the plaque or the trophy and savor the applause, a person standing beside you points out that you have a foot-long streamer of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. You do not want to hear that. You feel foolish and embarrassed — but not nearly as much as you would have been had you walked out before an entire audience with a length of toilet paper flapping at your foot. The person who warned you is a friend who has performed a useful service for you. An editor is, or can be, that kind of friend, who spares you public embarrassment.   

You as a writer are, of course, perfectly free to ignore your editor, just as you are free to check out of the hospital against medical advice. But do you want to take the chance? 

Learning on your own, without an editor’s advice, is learning the hard way. Russell Baker describes the method in The Good Times, explaining the relationship between reporter and copy editor (copyreader) at The Sun in Baltimore more than half a century ago: "The Sun believed in learning by doing. … Copyreaders rarely changed anything you wrote, no matter how dreadful it might be. Once promoted to the big time, you were given a lot of rope. A reporter could also learn by making a fool of himself. So went the theory, and the Sun dared to live by it until it became obvious the offender would never learn anything, in which case he was tucked away in an inconspicuous niche where he could no longer embarrass the paper."

So we can do it the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

I subscribe to The Baltimore Sun. For now

 For more than thirty-seven years, thirty-three of them on the staff, I have been a daily subscriber to The Baltimore Sun. The announcement that the newspaper has been purchased by a conservative crank with no experience, and apparently no interest, in newspaper publishing has led a number of people in my orbit to announce that they have canceled or plan to cancel their subscriptions. 

But I have friends and colleagues who, stunned and dismayed, are still there, working as professionals, trying to provide readers with accurate, reliable news about the city and the region. I am loath to abandon them. 

The Sun has undergone a painful decline over the past two decades because of corporate management that has been alternately incompetent and avaricious. (Occasionally both.) Everyone on the staff during that time understands how hard we worked to produce a reputable publication with fewer people and resources. The remaining staff members today face the greatest challenge yet. 

So I am still here, reading the print edition each morning and watching online during the day, waiting to see what can be done to salvage the work against great odds. Very likely there will come a point at which it is unbearable to look at a paper to which I have given half my life. Should that point arrive, I will make the call to circulation, and mourn the loss. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The plot against the copy desk

 It was the 1990s. I was chief of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.

One day a senior editor came into my office, closed the door, and sat down.

"What's up?" I asked. 

He said, "[Editor X] is compiling a list of the sins of the copy desk and inviting other editors to contribute."

"Ah," I said. 

"What do you want to do about it?"

I thought for a moment and said, "Nothing." 


"Nothing. They can't complain about our editing without showing what they send to the desk, and that stuff can't stand up under examination."

He got up, opened the door, and left without another word. 

Nothing further was ever heard about the sins of the copy desk. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Yeah, you probably need an editor

We know, because we have looked at the internet, that few people can write effectively, and we also know that all human beings are prone to error. Engaging an editor compensates for this state of affairs. 

First of all, your editor will catch lapses in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage. Trivial details as they are, they give readers an opportunity to discount your competence and dismiss your message. Your editor works to make your text clean. 

Then, do you actually know what you are trying to say? When we write, we have an idea in our heads of the meaning and importance of what we are attempting to say, but what appears on the page may not correspond. Your editor will keep asking what you mean here and whether you meant to say that and how you think the reader will understand this. Your editor works to make your text clear. 

Do you know how to shut up? First-draft writing tends to be slack, and revision may not fix it. An editor will know how to tighten your prose, identify rambling, drop verbiage, make your point more direct. Your editor works to make your text concise. 

The main thing is that your editor will weigh what is appropriate. Is what you say appropriate to the subject? To the situation? To the occasion? To the publication? To the audience (the party frequently disregarded in these operations)? Your editor may have to be the person to tell you, tactfully, that you are not as funny as you think you are, as elegant, as impressive. 

Your editor, if they are competent and professional, does not want to demonstrate superiority over you, but to assist you in accomplishing your purpose, to collaborate to make your text more efficient and effective, to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public. 

Yes, you need to pay for this. Expertise as an editor is acquired by study and apprenticeship in the craft. Your friend who got a passing grade in English in high school is not an equivalent.