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, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, and now at

Monday, August 10, 2015

For your back-to-school shopping

Some of you, aspiring writers or parents and relatives of aspiring writers, will be purchasing copies of Strunk and White's Elements of Style as the new academic year cranks into action, even though the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum would be pleased were every extant copy of S&W to be sealed in lead containers and dropped in the Marianas Trench. 

I suggest a different little book: The Old Editor Says, a compendium of a career's worth of reliable maxims for every ink-stained wretch. 

Favorable notices from, among other worthies, Jan Freeman at Throw Grammar From the Train, Stan Carey at Sentence First, and Steve Buttry at The Buttry Diary, have not been rescinded. 

You can also listen to The Old Editor himself read selections at a Grammar Girl podcast

The Old Editor himself is available to harangue students, writers, editors, and interested civilians, at very reasonable rates. Write to him at 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Metaphors to abhor

If you had the bad luck to be unable to attend the Editing Goes Global conference in Toronto last week, there is still a chance to catch up on one of its features. I will be conducting an audio conference for with a version of my session on misguided metaphors. 

Writers want to enliven their prose by making use of metaphors and other ornamental language. But laudable as the goal is, they are also prone to misjudgments that they have trouble recognizing without the patient assistance of an editor.

The conference will include examples from my extensive store of defective prose, and you will be invited to comment on them. Or argue with me about them, if you think that will get you anywhere. 

The conference runs this coming Monday, June 22, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. EDT, and there is still time to sign up. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dolce far niente, British-style

Few accounts are more tedious than those of other people's vacations. Feel at liberty to skip this one, even if you were wondering where I had got to.

At ease, above, in the Winter Garden lounge of the Queen Mary 2.

Kathleen's parents, Paul and Bonnie Capcara, wanting to do something special for her impending ending-in-zero birthday, booked passage for the four of us from New York to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2.

After our daughter, Alice, posted a couple of photos on Facebook, people who might have known me better remarked on my wearing shoes rather than flip-flops on deck and being dressed in slack, shirt, and jacket while enjoying a quiet ale. Think about what you would wear in a North Atlantic crossing when the daytime temperature rises to the low sixties and there is sunshine in one day of seven. 

The liner is admirably arranged for the activity for which I am best qualified: loafing. Breakfast, followed by a mile or two around the promenade deck, reading or writing through the morning, lunch, lounging on deck with a book, tea (the formal one, with still-warm scones and clotted cream served as a string quartet plays), resting, a restorative pint of John Smith's bitter before dinner, dinner (four courses, fresh china and silver with each), a meditative nightcap, and so to bed. 

Oh, there are lectures and shows and movies and musical performances and classes, but all are easily dodged. The Queen Mary 2  has enough bars that when one is invaded by someone conducting a trivia quiz or flogging vulgar gemstones, there is little trouble in finding a quiet one. (There was one evening in the Winter Garden lounge when a bore monopolized the bartender with his experiments in creating a sweet martini, which he was determined to name "Mr. Winge." But in compensation I got to hear, after years of reading British murder mysteries, someone say "summat" in person.)

After a week of delightfully doing nothing, we arrived in Britain and crammed a flurry of events into a couple of days: Matins at Westminster Abbey, where the choir was singing Orlando Gibbons's Short Service; a leisurely examination of the Turners at the Tate Britain; the Elgin Marbles at the British Museum; a ride on the London Eye; a series of pints at the Marquis of Granby in Westminster, which still has the bell that rings when members of Parliament are summoned to a vote; and a performance of Mamet's American Buffalo with John Goodman and Damien Lewis. 

A flight back on British Airways and a return to home and hearth and letting Mr. Saunders in and out the door. Back on the desk come Tuesday.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Your America

Even a has-been politician resorting to outright demagogy can point to matters of interest.

Rudolph Giuliani, one-time mayor of New York, told a group of conservatives that he doesn’t think that President Obama loves America, which invites us to consider what America he is talking about.

I wrote previously about the America that I think Mr. Giuliani is talking about: the America I grew up in, which was run by white men, largely Protestant though not so much as formerly, with a civic religion of American exceptionalism.*

The problem is that that America is fading. There are an estimated six million to seven millions Muslims living in the United States. They’re here, and here to stay. (By comparison, there are about 1.8 million Episcopalians.) There are about 19 million people of Asian descent. And there are about 54 million Hispanics. We have to find some way to accommodate the millions of Hispanics who are here illegally, because it would require an expensive police state to deport them all, and ruinously expensive to the farmers, hospitals, hotels, and restaurants that depend on their labor. They’re here to stay.

So as influential as the old white male culture continues to be, its dominance is threatened, and that explains some of the fevered imaginings about President Obama, that he is a secret Muslim, that he is not a native-born American,** that he is a Communist, that he is alien to us. Barack Obama, who continued many of the financial and national-security policies of George W. Bush, whose health care bill is a direct descendent of a Heritage Foundation proposal and an program enacted by a Republican governor of Massachusetts, who has been so cautiously conservative a Democrat as to set progressive teeth on edge every day.

But he does represent a changing demographic, that secular, multicultural society that conservatives, particularly white evangelical Christian conservatives, despise.

If I were a conservative, I would hesitate to suggest that the president of the United States hates America. But I am a hopeless East Coast media establishment liberal, so I’ll point out that the things that some conservatives fulminate about in this new America, the secularism, the tolerance, the gay marriage, the findings of science, are the same things that the Islamic State despises.  

I’m OK with them. It’s my country, too.

*I was denounced by a couple of former classmates on Facebook, one so intemperately that I took the unusual step of unfriending him, though several former classmates wrote that I was spot on.

**Another former classmate posted a link on Facebook today proving that the president was born in Kenya, which goes to show that the thoroughly traditional education we received in Fleming County, Kentucky, half a century ago did not necessarily immunize us against gullibility and nonsense.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Working conditions

As I was grading examinations yesterday morning and posting midterm grades for the editing class, I enjoyed the help of my graduate assistant, Saunders.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Help get a student through the door

I don't typically come here asking you for money (except when I'm flogging my damn book), but today I urge you to consider contributing to the Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Foundation's Reese Cleghorn internship fund.

Internships at publications are a double advantage for students: They gain invaluable practical experience in reporting, writing, and editing, and a successful internship is often the surest route to permanent employment (or to such permanence as journalism offers these days).

The Cleghorn internship is a paid internship, and the number of internships offered each year depends on the contributions to the fund. I have written a check again this year (all right, I'm a trustee of the foundation; it's the least I could do). I suggest that you consider what it was like when you were starting out in the business, how much you benefited, or would have benefited, from such an internship, and how much you are able to help give the rising generation a boost.

Your check is an investment in the future of the enterprise, which badly needs promising students with proper grounding in the craft. Here is a link to the contribution form. The mailing address is 60 West Street, Annapolis, MD 21401. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Cyber Monday suggestion

We pause for a brief commercial message.

While you are online, marshaling your forces for Christmas shopping, allow me to suggest that The Old Editor Says would be an excellent choice for that student, that aspiring writer, that editor, that stickler, that annoying know-it-all on your list.

A slim volume of fewer than seventy pages of pithy sayings, it distills three decades' worth of editing lore and wisdom, and it is cheap.

The Old Editor Says has been received favorably by Stan Carey of Sentence first, Steve Buttry of The Buttry Diary, Dawn McIlvain Stahl at Copyediting, and Mignon Fogarty, who invited The Old Editor to do a Grammar Girl podcast.

Available in print form or on Kindle.

We regret intruding with a commercial message, but there is no one else to flog that damn book.

We return now to regular programming.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mr. Saunders is in the house

It was only a few months ago that we had to say goodbye to Scout, the sweet tuxedo kitten whom Alice had adopted, and then bequeathed to us when she left for college. 

Scout, who was my afternoon companion and consolation during the long, fruitless job search of the [cough] hiatus [cough]. Scout, who after a year of declining health lost her vision and had to be euthanized at the age of fifteen. Scout whom we mourned--I found myself on getting up every morning looking to see if she was in the window or on the sofa. 

We were not going to acquire another cat. We were in mourning. And Kathleen, who loves cats, is allergic to them.

Then, a week ago as she was working in the yard, a cat whom we had noticed in the neighborhood, a handsome but skinny orange male, walked up to her and said in fluent Cattish, "I'm hungry. Feed me."

Of course she took pity, and put out some food and water, and the cat ate ravenously. He has wandered away from someone or has been abandoned, we thought. We'll feed him for a couple of days and make inquiries around the neighborhood. If no one claims him, we'll have to call animal control, because we can't take on another cat. 

Then the weather turned cold and I weakened. I let him into the house Friday, and he made himself at home. He is a genial cat. He loves to sit with people. He's a purring machine. 

Fatefully, we named him, calling him Saunders, and you know what that means. 

So on Monday, a trip to the Belvedere Veterinary Center for an expensive series of shots and tests (he charmed the staff), and now I have invested in him. 

He is sitting at my feet as I type, wondering when I am going to give up this frivolity and return to my proper duty of paying attention to the cat. 

On my way, Mr. Saunders. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Holy smoke

Today, November 2, the Feast of All Saints was translated to the Sunday morning service at Memorial Episcopal Church, and I was there with the thurible* to smoke up the joint.

(Those of you who are not liturgically minded may want to absent yourselves at this point. I will be returning to secular subjects tomorrow morning.)

The Episcopal Diocese of Maryland is traditionally a Low Church diocese, and it was exceedingly Low when my wife and I arrived here twenty-eight years ago. Incense, in particular, provoked reactions of dismay and horror as a Romish practice. It took years of wearing down opposition to establish its use on a certain number of festival days.

All Saints' is one of these festivals. The texts speak of "clouds of witnesses," and clouds I provide.

The use of incense, of course, is very old, antedating Christianity. Incense was burned as a sacrifice at the Temple in Jerusalem, as well as at the altars of virtually all religions in antiquity. Early on, Christianity ripped off the practice from Roman civic ceremonial, in which processions of civic officials in the streets were preceded by a thurifer with incense as an emblem of authority.

The major metaphoric sense with which incense is associated is the image of prayers rising to heaven with its smoke. But there are other associations. Incense was thought to purify, and because it was expensive, it was a worthy gift. Its function, the late Marion Hatchett explains his his Commentary on the American Prayer Book, is "honorific, fumigatory, and festive."

Or, as the Rev. James L. Jelinek, later bishop of Minnesota and the priest who presided at our wedding, liked to say, "It's for the nose." When incense is included at the Eucharist, all five senses of the body are involved, and smell is one of the most evocative associations. Incense smells like church.

Some, and they are vocal in making this plain, dislike it for physical reasons as well as theological ones and find it oppressive. But the pure Somalian frankincense that we use at Memorial is proudly labeled by the purveyor, the F.C. Ziegler company, as hypo-allergenic. I am not troubled at all by it, and I am standing directly above the pot (though it is true that I smoked a pipe for forty years, which may have inured me to fumes).

The Feast of All Saints, in which we commemorate the heroes of the faith, gets inevitably entangled with the Feast of All Souls, in which we mark the memory of all the faithful departed. And so, at Memorial today, incense was used not only at the entrance, exit, and censing of the altar at the offertory, but also at the reading of the names members of the the congregation had submitted to be particularly remembered.**

All Saints' is one of those days on which one wants it all: the Vaughn Williams setting of "For all the saints," the choir singing Anglican chant, a brass choir accompanying the hymns, the Elgar "Lux Aeterna," the solemn reading of names, and the aromatic smoke rising among the voices and prayers of the people.

*Thuirble, the censer in which incense is burned, from the Latin thurbibulum, ultimately from the Greek thyos, "incense, "sacrifice."

**Among those numbered today were Lucien Lundy Early, Clara Rhodes Early, Raymond McIntyre, and Marian Early McIntyre.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

You don't want to go home again

When I see people brandishing signs about wanting their country back, I'm pretty sure that their country is the one I grew up in. 

Fleming County, Kentucky, on the edge of the Bluegrass and Appalachia, was pretty much white in the 1950s and 1960s. The African-American population was small, and there were no Asians and Hispanics. 

It was not only white, but overwhelmingly Protestant. There were some Roman Catholic families, mainly descended from the German migration into Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky of the mid-nineteenth century, and there was one Jewish family, but the Lord's Prayer that we recited at the beginning of each school day was the Protestant version. 

The casual prejudices of the time were much in evidence. I recall hearing one prominent burgher and pillar of the Methodist Church complaining that the Jews had their hands in his pockets, and I recall one pillar of the Presbyterian Church explaining to me that Negroes were intelligent according to the proportion of "white blood" in them. The numerous homophobes were less genteel in their expressions. 

And, as in much of America, credentials were held in higher esteem than actual learning. Growing up, I must have heard some version of "He's got book sense but no common sense" a thousand times. 

Reading Sinclair Lewis's Main Street at fourteen was a revelation of the pervasive narrowness of that rural culture. At the first opportunity, when I was eighteen, I "went North" to college. I returned home for four summers, left for graduate school at twenty-two, and have never been back, except for brief visits. 

Mind you, I remain a son of Kentucky. My accent broadens when I'm there. There are friends of my youth with whom I am still in touch. I stand when the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home" on Derby Day. My parents and grandparents lie at rest on a hillside in the cemetery in Elizaville. I remember, and miss, the scent of the locust trees blooming in late spring. And I am in line to inherit what remains of the family farm, in the family since 1862. 

But I neither miss nor long for that insular white, evangelical Protestant, anti-intellectual culture I grew up in, or its many bigotries, genteel or otherwise.

It is not coming back, and it ought not to.