You Don't Say

John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Manifestations

You still have time, though not much, to sign up for Wednesday's Copyediting audio conference, "Judgment Calls," in which I will be talking about how to adapt to trends in English usage, including the increasing occurrence of singular they, the decline of whom, the old comprise/compose conundrum and other issues.

Moreover, you will have an opportunity to participate in discussion of the issues. Operators are standing by.

Tough "Judgment Calls" is audio only, I will be present in the too, too sullied flesh on April 26 at the Maryland Writers' Conference in Linthicum Heights, talking about social media.  Still time to sign up for that one.

And if you are planning to attend the American Copy Editors Society's national conference in Las Vegas, March 20-22,  look for me in the bar. Don't neglect the silent auction, to which I am donating two copies of The Old Editor Says, and which I am willing to autograph.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Sitting in judgment

The old schoolroom certitudes about grammar and usage that many of us were taught have come under fire: from linguists who question their validity, from lexicographers who record widespread usage that flouts those rules, and even from prescriptivists like Bryan Garner who call them superstitions.

Those of us who edit have to watch and monitor the development of the language. Singular they appears to be gaining ground. Whom  seems to be on its last legs (though Geoffrey Pullum suggests puckishly that there may be a biological advantage in using it). Whether to stick up for or abandon a long-standing usage is a delicate point of judgment.

Thus on March 12 I will be conducting an audio conference for Copyediting, "Judgment Calls," in which I will address a number of these thorny points of usage and offer advice on how to make reasonable editorial choices.

I not only hope that you will sign up for what I hope will partake of conversation as well as monologue, but that you will also offer suggestions about points of usage that you find vexatious. Be assured that I have a list of my own cued up, but I think the conference will be more productive if it takes account of the issues you identify from your own work.

Feel free to make suggestions in the comments, or to write to me directly.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Reach out, AT&T, and ignore someone

In late September, I posted a speculation that the people running AT&T might be "the most feckless pack of bungling gits and lubberly clotpolls ever to set up in commerce since the Dutch oversaturated the tulip market.

I may have overestimated their capacities. 

The circumstances are this: On my gmail account I was receiving numerous messages addressed to a James McIntyre about his AT&T U-verse account. Despite the cunning baffles AT&T puts in place to thwart people attempting to resolve problems, I reached some poor devil immured in customer service. After consultation with his supervisor, he assured me that he had identified James McIntyre's correct email address and I would no longer be troubled by misdirected messages. 

After a series of new messages to James McIntyre provoked the September post, I received a message from a gentleman whose name I will not yet consign to infamy but who purported to be in the Office of the President Manager of AT&T Mobility, assuring me that he would attend to the matter personally. 

That was in early October. 

Since then I have received a message to James McIntyre about returning his AT&T U-verse equipment, a feedback request about his AT&T U-verse receiver, a billing statement, and most, recently, a promotional offer for U-verse movies, but no further communication from the Office of the President Manager of AT&T Mobility. 

James McIntyre, can you hear me? It may be premature to suggest that you abandon your house, move to another city,  and assume a new identity through the AT&T Customer Protection Program. But if I were you, I'd give it some thought. 

And you, reader, if you have not fallen into the fell grip of AT&T U-verse, be on your guard, because once you find yourself in their oubliette, your pitiful cries for help will go unheard. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

In time for Christmas

I have Burl Ives in my head singing, "Have a holly jolly Christmas,"* which reminds me that it is time to begin making seasonal preparations.

If you are seeking a small present for that relative or friend who is a writer, or who wants to be a writer, or who you think ought to write, let me suggest The Old Editor Says. In addition to its timeless wisdom, it is inexpensive and easy to slip into a Christmas stocking or hand out as a party favor.

Not available in stores: You can order it from Amazon.com, well in time to arrive for the holiday, in print form or in Kindle:




The book has received favorable notice from, among other worthies, Jan Freeman at Throw Grammar From the Train, Stan Carey at Sentence First, and Steve Buttry at The Buttry Diary.

You can also preview it, listening to The Old Editor himself read from it at a Grammar Girl podcast

However you mark the season, you have The Old Editor's good wishes for pleasant company and a prosperous year to come. 



*Oh, have I put it in your head now? Terribly sorry.  

Sunday, September 29, 2013

James McIntyre, I wish you the best of luck

For some time now I have been receiving email from At&T about an account for one James McIntyre. I spent a fair amount of time on Friday attempting to surmount the barriers they erect between themselves and customers, and I finally reached some wretch who had apparently been assigned to customer service as a disciplinary measure.

I explained the situation, furnishing considerable personal information to demonstrate that I am not James McIntyre and possibly not even a resident of the state where James McIntyre lives. He put me on hold while he consulted with his supervisor. On his return, he put me on hold again so that he could call James McIntyre and ascertain that James McIntyre is not me. Finally, he returned to give me the profoundest assurance that the mixup had been corrected, that AT&T knew all about James McIntyre and his account and his proper email address, and that I would be troubled no further with email about the James McIntyre account.

Yesterday I got an email with a link to a statement for James McIntyre's account, and today I got an email reminding me about the email about James McIntyre's statement.

Generous-spirited as I am, particularly right after Divine Service, I hesitate to surmise that AT&T is operated by the most feckless pack of bungling gits and lubberly clotpolls ever to set up in commerce since the Dutch oversaturated the tulip market, but you would think that even they would have the nous to distinguish between James McIntyre and John McIntyre.

James McIntyre, I wish you luck in your dealings with AT&T. You are going to need an abundance of it.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Put this in the backpack

At the office supply store the other day, I noticed that the back-to-school merchandise is already on display. And yet there is one essential article for the aspiring writer/editor not to be found there.

I refer, of course, to The Old Editor Says:

In print:



In Kindle:




The distilled wisdom of three decades in the paragraph game, it will give the fledgling advice that should, if heeded, spare the tyro upbraiding, shouting, reproach, derision, and more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger correction.

The Old Editor Says has been praised in reviews by Dawn McIlvain Stahl at Copyediting, Steve Buttry at The Buttry Diary, and Stan Carey at Sentence first. Don't neglect the reader reviews at Amazon.com, where the sole negative notice presents three solecisms in three sentences.
Dawn McIlvain Stahat Copyediting, Steve Buttry's Buttry Diary, Stan Carey's Sentence first,

For a preview, you can listen to the Old Editor at a Grammar Girl podcast.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Product placement

When I go in to get a haircut, I am always asked, "Do you want some product?" (They always offer to sell you stuff, but they never offer to comb out the loose clippings that subsequently land on your shoulders.) I always say no. I pay, tip, and go away for six to eight weeks. I was a child of the Sixties.

When I hit adolescence, I was a regular user of Vitalis or Brylcreem, in a vain attempt to make my curls and waves ruly. Considerably more than a little dab did me. Over time I developed a distaste for having a greasy head. But today, with product undreamed of in the hair-oil-and-paste era of my youth, I see men every day whose hair glistens, who have evidently been persuaded that little oily spikes are attractive.

Women, bless their hearts, have long been accustomed to this commodification of appearance. Pope wrote about it in Rape of the Lock: "To save the Powder from too rude a Gale, / Nor let th' imprison'd Essences exhale, / To draw fresh Colours from the vernal Flow'rs, / To steal from Rainbows ere they drop in Show'rs / A brighter Wash; to curl their waving Hairs, / Assist their blushes, and inspire their Airs."

And now men as well. There is a mention in today's Sun of a collection of unguents, oils, and powders costing in excess of seventy dollars to make shaving an enterprise as complicated and expensive as exploratory surgery. No wonder some have chosen to go about in public sporting two or three days' worth of stubble.*

Yesterday I was offered the chance to buy some exotic shampoo that would prevent an ugly sheen from appearing on my "lovely silver hair." No sale.

Most of us are not Adonises. I certainly wasn't in my hot-blooded youth, and there is no prospect of it at this late date. Being washed, combed, shaven, and decently covered is about the best I can expect, and I recommend it to my fellow Y-chromosome bearers. Save your money for the things that matter in life, and books and good liquor.



*Incidentally, you do not look like Brad Pitt; you look like you're coming off a bender.


Friday, June 14, 2013

Is "data" singular or plural? Yes

At LinkedIn, the group STET: Professional Copy Editors has been considering "the data are" and "the data is." Here is the post that presented the issue:  "I run into this a lot at work. Our guide calls for 'data are,' but I think it sounds awkward. I understand that 'data' is the plural of the singular Latin 'datum,' but I would argue that we use it as a collective noun, which often take singular verbs. Thoughts (and reasons) for or against?"

What follows in the comments does not quite fill one with confidence about the professionalism of copy editors. One editor consulted friends and family; one recalled a pronouncement from a journalism professor four decades previously. Most expressed some personal preference. (You will have to sign up for LinkedIn to read them.)

But at least some editors thought to consult dictionaries. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, has a citation for data as a mass noun taking a singular verb from an 1826 number of the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal: "Inconsistent data sometimes produces a correct result." The singular sense in computing dates from 1946. 


Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary calls data "plural in  form but singular or plural in construction" and appends this concise note on usage:

"Data leads a life of its own quite independent of datum, of which it was originally the plural. It occurs in two constructions: such as a plural noun (like earnings), taking a plural verb and plural modifiers (such as these, many, and a few) but not cardinal numbers, and serving as a referent for plural pronouns (such as they and them); and as an abstract mass noun (like information), taking a singular verb and singular modifiers (such as this, much, and little), and being referred to by a singular pronoun (it). Both constructions are standard. The plural construction is more common in print, evidently because the house style of several publishers mandates it."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage  has a long and interesting entry on the career of this Latin word in English, summing up: "Data has never been the plural of a count noun in English. It is used in two constructions--plural, with plural apparatus, and singular, as a mass noun, with singular apparatus. Both constructions are fully standard at any level of formality.

The current edition of the American Heritage Dictionary finds that "singular data has become a standard usage."

Garner's Modern American Usage calls data a "skunked term," a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't word. Though he prefers using it as a plural, he ruefully recognizes that the singular sense has gained traction and is approaching "fully accepted" status.

So anyone seriously questioning whether data is singular or plural has simply not done the homework. 


That leaves only the question of whether to use it as a singular or a plural in context. 


Some editors, I gather from the LinkedIn responses, are shackled to scientific or technical style guides so rigid as to make a hard-shelled acolyte of the Associated Press Stylebook gasp in envy. Thus data-ever-plural can be added to the long register of pig-headed and arbitrary strictures one encounters in the workplace. Submit under protest.


Then there are the individual preferences, and several responders to the LinkedIn post inform us whether data as a plural or singular sounds good to them.  Individual tastes and preferences do have a place in writing; if you dislike one of those senses, don't use it in your own writing. But unless evidence is brought to bear, your individual preference for data as a singular or plural is of no more help to me than your preference for green or red chile.

Data, the evidence plainly shows us, is in common use as a singular or plural noun. If the sense of data is "facts," then a plural verb is called for. If the sense of data is "information" or "evidence," then a singular verb is appropriate. 


And there, as Dr. Johnson would have said, is an end on't. 



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Not a fan of vodka

Liquor should taste of something.

That is why the brown liquors, bourbon, Scotch, and rye, have appeal; they have flavor. For martinis, gin is the obvious choice; it has flavor. It tastes like something.

I've never understood the appeal of vodka. It tastes like rubbing alcohol, the sole advantage being that you don't go blind. I've had an occasional vodka martini. It's nice to notice the flavor of the vermouth, but there's always a sense of something missing.

Today, however, vodka moves from its customary level of indifference to one of irritation. The reason is a Grey Goose commercial I've already heard twice, for its "cherry noir" black-cherry-flavored brand. Never mind my suspicion that all cherry-flavored liquors taste like cough syrup. The git engaged to read the commercial pronounces noir as "noh-are."

I suppose most of the customers do, too.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Anybody thirsty?

A couple of weeks ago, John Bosley, one of my local readers, said something nice about me on Facebook, and on a whim I suggested that we meet for a drink and a chat.

We met on a Sunday afternoon at the 13.5% Wine Bar on 36th Street in Hampden and enjoyed a genial hour. A writer enjoys an opportunity to meet readers face to face, and sometimes the readers also enjoy it.

So if you are in town this Sunday and not obligated for some Mother's Day observance, I plan to be at the 13.5% Wine Bar again, at 1:00 p.m. It seems to take a while for the place to fill up on Sundays, so we should have ample room and reasonable quiet.

I dislike drinking alone, so if you fancy a pint, a glass of wine, or a cup of coffee, I would be delighted to have your company.