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 email@example.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/.
Friday, June 14, 2013
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
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
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.
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
"The Old Editor is an imposing man. As he walks into Nina’s, a small restaurant across the street from The Sun’s headquarters, the woman behind the counter says, 'Hello, Mr. McIntyre. It’s been a while' with an air of deference. If his sartorial sense were prose, John Early McIntyre would probably find it too flowery: With a dark suit, a blue-striped bow tie, cuff links in the sleeves of his starched shirt, a wide-brimmed hat, and a cane, he looks more like Gay Talese—the dapper don of New Journalists—than The Sun’s long-suffering, ink-stained copy editor."
(The cane, incidentally, is for arthritis, not affectation. I will not make the same claim about the other components.)
Since publication, The Old Editor Says, available in print or Kindle by clicking on the links below, has garnered some favorable attention.
Jan Freeman curled up with it at Throw Grammar From the Train.
Dawn McIlvain Stahl weighed in at Copyediting.
Stan Carey was characteristically generous at Sentence First.
Steve Buttry praised both the advice and the prose at The Buttry Diary.
Several short notices have been posted at Goodreads.
There's also a curt, dismissive notice at Amazon.com by a reader who claims reporting experience, but it would be snarky to point out its solecisms.
I am humbly grateful for the good notices from several colleagues whose work I respect. If you find them persuasive, perhaps you will want to give The Old Editor Says a look.
And now that the academic year is drawing to a close, perhaps you will find it an apt gift for that graduate who aspires to be a writer.
Sunday, April 7, 2013
We, who used to think of ourselves as a great and puissant nation, find ourselves unable to come up with the ready for the continuation of a long-running academic project that establishes something central about our greatness as a nation: the richness of our language.
There are locutions in DARE that Mark Twain would have recognized. There is language that I recognize from my people in rural Kentucky. My people come from people who never exercised much in the way of political power or wealth or cultural influence, but who had the right of the humble to add to the fabric of the national language. And it is the Dictionary of American Regional English, through the dedication of generations of volunteers and scholars, that gave them the dignity of recording their contributions.
Now we find that Joan Houston Hall, heir to Fred Cassidy and the other members of the American Dialect Society who started this project, is reduced to begging for small change to keep at least a part of the operation functioning.
We see every day people wearing American flag lapel pins and prating about their patriotism. A true and sincere patriotism, one that properly understood who we are and where we came from and why it is important to know this, would not allow the lights to go dark at DARE.
But now an appeal from the editor, Joan Houston Hall, has come out, and the whole project is in dire straits. She writes, "We were not awarded federal and private grants we had anticipated receiving; private gifts have declined precipitously; a major foundation that has provided a large gift annually for twenty years has decided it must move on to other worthy projects; the UW has endured grave reductions in state support, and the College of Letters and Science is unable to provide assistance."
As a consequence, the staff of the dictionary is to be given layoff notices, effective July 1.
This is her appeal: "To let language mavens and fans of DARE know that if they’d like to help us, it’s easy to do. The home page of the DARE website (www.dare.wisc.edu) has a “Donate” button. It will take readers to a secure University of Wisconsin Foundation site through which tax-deductible gifts can be given to DARE."
DARE is an ornament to scholarship and learning, an invaluable repository to the vigor and inventiveness and quirkiness and color of our national language. We have the full six volumes, but to lose the digital edition and to forfeit the continuing scholarship of the staff would be a calamity, a loss not easily repaired, if ever.
So I am repeating Joan Houston Hall's appeal to you, in hopes that you, my readers, lovers of our language, will be moved to do something, however modest, to ensure that "Zydeco is not the end."
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
"The prose is clear, concise, measured, and filled with sound guidance," he says. He calls it "a useful and original book that is also a pleasure to read," and he commends it to all in the writing and editing trade. It will, he promises, "satisfy, gratify, and edify."
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Then this evening you can drop by the Apprentice House spring launch of its new titles, The Old Editor Says among them, with the Old Editor on hand, in person.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Between 9:15 and 9:30 a.m. (Eastern daylight time) on WYPR-FM, 88.1, my interview with Sheilah Kast on Maryland Morning will be broadcast. If you are unable to listen, check the Maryland Morning website later in the day for a link to the recording.
Also on Wednesday, Apprentice House, the student-operated publishing operation at Loyola University Maryland, will conduct its spring launch reception for the ten new print books and fifteen new e-books in its catalog. The Old Editor Says is one of the books being featured, and The Old Editor will be present in person.
The event runs 6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. in the third-floor Reading Room of the Andrew White Student Center on the Loyola campus. Do drop by if you are able; "light fare" is promised.