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

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. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

O brave new world, that has such pixels in it

The Internet is not as smart as it thinks it is. 

I know that we all crouch under the all-seeing eye of Mordor, our surfing and shopping monitored by our government, our email and search engine providers, the merchants with whom we shop. 

But if you look closely, you see slippage in the surveillance.

Item: The servers to which The Sun is connected are not in Baltimore, so when I go online at work, Google assumes that I am in Chicago. 

Item: I was once mistakenly put on a mailing list for an Atlanta swim club. (Have you ever tried to get your name off a group email list? It's worse than getting chewing gum out of the cat.) I think I finally extricated myself from that, but I still get come-ons from Atlanta businesses every day. 

Item: regularly communicates offers for me to buy my own book

Item: Nearly a year ago, AT&T confused me with one James McIntyre, who has, or had, an account with them, and started sending me his billing information. I was naive then, and I went to the AT&T website to remedy the matter. It was an electronic version of an Escher drawing. Email was equally futile. 

So I posted at this blog in September about AT&T's ineptitude. Apparently susceptible to public embarrassment, some functionary wrote and promised to clear the matter up. When I was still getting James McIntyre email in November, I posted again. I got a reply and assurances from yet another functionary. 

I still don't know whether James McIntyre's account is in order, and I don't care. Let the dead bury their dead. This morning I got another AT&T offer calling me "James."

The thing that will blind Mordor's all-seeing eye is the sheer volume of this stuff. 

At my work email, I delete scores of messages a day, many of them irrelevant to my purposes, many of only ephemeral importance. Recently, someone added me to The Sun's electronic tip line. Now, in addition to a daily flood of p.r. bumf, I am privileged to receive the pronouncements of every crank in Christendom, and I delete messages by the hundreds. 

I no longer even look at the spam file, which apparently purges itself every gigabyte or two. That means I shall never draw on that Nigerian banking account, but journalism trains one to live modestly. 

Yes, you are under perpetual surveillance and any sense of personal privacy you cling to is illusory. But be of good cheer: They are all inept.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Sweetest words in English: check enclosed

A couple of days ago a check from Apprentice House arrived, the royalties for The Old Editor Says from 2013.

Several of you have been kind enough to praise the book, and Jan Freeman. Stan Carey, and Steve Buttry, among others, have written generous reviews of the little book. Now I have an additional reason to be grateful to those of you who bought the book: cash in the bank.

Some of you, no doubt through oversight, have not bought The Old Editor Says, but don't be troubled; it's still available, in print and electronic versions. A previous post carries a link to and also includes links to those favorable reviews.  Let me assure you that a royalty check next year from your purchases will be just as gratefully received as this year's.

And since the stores are already flogging their back-to-school merchandise, this might be a good time to think about purchasing a copy for that young person who aspires to be a writer and would benefit from a little sound advice.

Monday, March 10, 2014


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, 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, 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.