Friday, January 20, 2023

The foggy, foggy "due"

Perhaps you were taught, as I was, to cringe when due to is used as a preposition, viz., Due to unfounded objections by twentieth-century commentators, the usage has been stigmatized as vulgar and ungrammatical. You would have been told to use owing to or because of instead. 

You would have been taught that due is an adjective, not a preposition, and in proper use follows a linking verb: The prohibition was due to unfounded objections by twentieth-century commentators, due being an adjective referring back to prohibition

Wilson Follett condemned the prepositional sense in Modern American Usage, saying that it is shunned by "everyone who cares about workmanship" and deploring that Webster's Second (yes, the sacred Webster's Second) finds that it is "in common and reputable use." 

In Garner 5 Bryan Garner notes the traditional view but concedes that the prepositional sense is ubiquitous.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, tracing the history of the dispute, points out that many people who concede that prepositional due to is established in the language still remark that it is informal or disparaged by some people; thus "due to has entered the folklore of usage." 

MWDEU concludes: "In our judgment, due to is as impeccable as owing to. ... There has never been a grammatical ground for objection, although the the objection formulated in the early part of this [twentieth] century persists in the minds of some usage commentators."

And Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler's 4, says that despite "the tut-tutting of last-ditch pedants," the prepositional sense of due to "is now part of the natural language of the 21c." 

There you have it: a usage distinction invented out of thin air a century ago, promulgated in a series of usage manuals and classroom diktats, and enforced by platoons of copy editors wasting their time on dog whistle edits,  now finally, blessedly, fades away. 

You still object? Get a life. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

A weekend with the dead

One of the drawbacks of becoming a septuagenarian is the number of people who have climbed the golden staircase before you. 

I've been reading people's comments online about Margaret Lord, a Baltimore Sun copy editor who died recently at 88. Maggie was a fixture on the copy desk at The Sun when I came on board in 1986, and she generously assisted me in acclimating. She was British, swilling endless cups of Red Rose tea, and she had an eagle eye for defects in copy. When we went on strike in 1987, after an overnight stint on the picket line, she took me home and cooked me scrambled eggs. Everyone knew her generosity of spirit and her politeness, and everyong knew that she was invariably right. 

Her ability to deal with editors and reporters without ruffling feathers was matched by the late Paul Mattix, who was also on the desk when I arrived. Paul's infectious good humor endeared him to everyone, but as an editor he had no illusions. He got along fine with les enfants terribles in features while exchanging a knowing nod with colleagues on our desk. 

You will not have heard of Dacia Dunson, a young Black woman I hired for the copy desk, who won the affection and respect of her fellow editors, and who would have had a glorious career had not cancer taken her from us. Walter Dorsett, an experienced copy editor with no illusions, was with us too briefly to get to know him thoroughly before cancer took him, too.  Connie Knox, the thorn in The Sun's side as Newspaper Guild leader, was also theoretically my subordinate, and death took her shortly after her retirement from the paper.  

At The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bill Trutner, long gone, a balding former schoolteacher as slotman gently introduced me to the customs and procedures of the copy desk. And the late Bob Johnson, my salty first news editor, offered one of his country expressions as a caution against pursuing a futile line of questioning: "Son, you're looking up a dead hog's ass."  

Lowell and Gene Denton, who gave me a start as a high school and college student during summers at The Flemingsburg Gazette from 1968 to 1973, indulged me in youthful excesses and gave me an introduction to the practicalities of journalism at a weekly newspaper in rural Kentucky that proved to be of enduring value. 

And I am left to honor their shades. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Yeah, I read books

 As a child, a nearsighted teacher's pet allergic to sports, I was, of course, a bookworm, and reading has sustained me these past sixty-plus years. Last year, in retirement, was no exception, and since there appears to be a thing about parading one's reading online, I might as well make a few remarks. 

People do not talk enough about the pleasure of re-reading books, but last year I returned to Master of the Senate, my favorite of Robert A Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (And I wait impatiently for Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, to publish the fifth and final volume.) Trollope's Barchester Towers, one of the most satisfying Victorian novels, satisfied once more. 

Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander briefly tempted me to repeat the twenty-novel Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve, but I resisted. Forty years later, I still enjoyed Austen's Mansfield Park. People complain that it doesn't flare as brightly as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but Austen was bold to explore the life of a heroine who is quiet, shy, and apprehensive of her place as a poor relation among a great landed family. The carelessness of Sir Thomas, the lassitude of Lady Bertram, and the delicious dissection of Aunt Norris always give pleasure. 

But there was new stuff too. I enjoyed Daniel Okrent's Public Editor #1, about his service with The New York Times, and I tried to enjoy Margaret Sullivan's Newsroom Confidential, about her service as a public editor, but as engaging as her autobiographical account of her infatuation with newspapers was, she might at the end have gone beyond what she had already said in her columns to talk about the strange new landscape of journalism and where things may be heading. 

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt filled in the details of an online phenomenon, Mel Brooks's All About Me! was unfailingly amusing, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry's The Bright Ages gave a fresh perspective on the Middle Ages, and Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile offered details of Churchill and London during the Blitz. 

I had seen criticism that Nicole Hannah-Jones et al. had overstated their thesis in The 1619 Project, but however much you may admire the Founders as children of the Enlightenment who enunciated values that they did not live up to, The 1619 Project is unrelenting in displaying the ugly facts that the public school curriculum always glosses over. (It did in my day, and I am confident it still does: We had some problems, but America is going great guns. Yeah.) A very useful companion is Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, in which a clear-sighted writer tries to come to terms with the white supremacy in which he grew up and still lives. Jess McHugh's Americanon focuses on key books that have shaped--and misshaped--U.S. culture. Also in history, Stacy Schiff's elegantly written The Revolutionary: Samual Adams shines a bright light on the events leading up to the Revolution. 

In my line of work, Lane Greene's Talk on the Wild Side, a refreshingly non-pedantic book on English as she is spoken and written, was a welcome addition to the discussion, and Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause, recounting her discussions with the public when she set up her Grammar Table around the country, was unfailingly genial. 

Donna Leon's Transient Desires momentarily slaked my appetite for murder mysteries. (As I have said before, after a full day of working with professional journalists, noting gives more pleasure than to sit down in a comfortable chair, with a good light behind you, a strong drink at your elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.) 

 In a relapse to my long-abandoned career in graduate school thinking about eighteenth-century literature, I picked up Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Johnson. The account of Boswell's writing the Life, along with description of his fugitive encounters with Johnson, becomes as much an account of his life as of his book, because the two cannot be readily separated. The foolishness of Boswell's public behavior cannot diminish his accomplishments as a great writer of biography.  

And by the way, if you haven't read the Life of Johnson, what the hell is keeping you?


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Speaking American

One hundred and four years ago, H.L Mencken published the first edition of TheAmerican Language, arguing that this nation had developed a distinctive form of the English language, in no way inferior to the form spoken and written in the British Isles. Over the decades it grew in multiple editions and ultimately to two fat supplementary volumes. 

This month sees the publication of The People's Tongue: Americans and the English Language, edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless Books, 512 pages, $35). This hefty anthology covers the territory with selections from The New England Primer to John McWhorter writing in 2022 about "English as a Living Language--Period." 

You will find John Adams advocating for an American Language Academy to keep English in good order, and you can read Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's proposal to make English the official language of the United States. (Neither proposal came to anything, and neither should have.)

Noah Webster's preface to An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 is included, as are "The String Untuned," Dwight Macdonald's hissy fit over Webster's Third, and Merriam-Webster's Peter Sokolowski's lucid explanation of how new words find their way into dictionaries. 

David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage," his response to Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 2001, will alternately delight and irritate. And you can savor nine pages of tweets in which Donald Trump insulted CNN from the announcement of his candidacy for the presidency in 2016 to the suspension of his Twitter account in 2021. 

What I found most interesting was a series of contemporary essays, Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue," Chang-Rae Lee's "Mute in an English-Only World," Jamaica Kincaid's "In History," Ilan Stavans's "In Defense of Spanglish," and others by Americans whose cultural background is not standard American English, and who by finding means to cope with the language are also contributing to it. It is not the kind of English that John Adams anticipated, but it is a rich one. 

And, of course, there is something from Henry Mencken, "The Characters of American" from 1919, in which he identifies as a principal characteristic of our language "its impatient disdain of rule and precedent, and hence its large capacity (distinctly greater than that of the English of England) for taking in new words and phrases and for manufacturing new locutions out of its own materials." 

So we were; so we are. 

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Length, 1,200+ pages; weight, about nine pounds

 Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Garner? 

A copy of the fifth edition of the newly published Garner's Modern English Usage arrived yesterday, and it is even a more impressive work than the previous four editions.  

One mark of its impressiveness is the increasing use Mr. Garner has made of online corpora to determine how people are actually using the language in formal speech and writing, which informs and updates his Language Change Index, with its gradations of acceptability. Another mark is the firepower of the people he has consulted, among them the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who examined hundreds of entries, and John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.* 

To illustrate, the entry on they, which occupies two and a half double-columned pages, begins by saying that the pronoun "has been under great pressure to take on singular sense--and has been doing so since the late 20th century," which he accounts for by a combination of "natural linguistic evolution and a few social-engineering campaigns." 

The natural linguistic evolution is that, given the lack of a common-gender, third-person singular pronoun in the language, English speakers have blithely been making use of they for centuries, despite the strictures of grammarians. The campaigns to accept they as a singular were an aspect of the gender politics of the previous and current century; what was formerly identified as incorrect has come to be seen as nondiscriminatory toward women. Mr. Garner says that roughly in the space of a generation, they answering for indefinite pronouns such as anybody and everyone became fully accepted.  

The next stage of evolution, in a citation from Mr. Pullum, was "a radical reform proposal ... [in which] they refers to a single specific individual who purports not to be locatable in within the familiar male/female/neuter ontology."

"Traditionalists won't have it. Progressives champion it," Mr. Garner writes, and he projects that "the progressives will prevail," though the new uses won't be fully accepted in Standard English "until a whole generation dies off."

Obviously, the they entry is far more detailed and sophisticated than this three-paragraph truncation, and it merits your examination as you review your own choices in usage. 

That level of examination and reflection is precisely what this book makes possible, and desirable. Standard English, or Standard Written English, however you choose to call it, is a learned dialect. Whatever you may think of the social and cultural values of the people who use it, it is how much of the work of the world is conducted. To participate effectively in that work means mastering its conventions. 

I say conventions, not rules. Bryan Garner is no ill-informed stickler; his book explodes any number of superstitions and shibboleths. He recognizes the need to identify natural linguistic evolutions and identify which conventions work most effectively.

So should you. 


* Mr. Garner also consulted me on a handful of points, so you can see that he casts a wide net. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Clergy, what are you going to do about them?

 The New York Times tells me this morning that in the Georgia race for the U.S. Senate "the Warnock campaign wanted to make the race a contrast between a reverend and a running back." 

Hmm. My copy of the Times stylebook (admittedly dating from 1999) and the current Associated Press Stylebook maintain the traditional distinction that reverend is to be used as an adjective (synonym of revered), never as a noun. And even as an adjective, there are restrictions: always "the Rev. Firstname Lastname" or "the Rev. Mr./Ms. Lastname," never "the Rev. Lastname" or "Rev. Lastname." 

Among U.S. Christians, Episcopalians tend to be strictest about this convention, perhaps because they prize so many levels of reverence. Deacons and priests are "the Rev.," deans of cathedrals are "the Very Rev.," bishops are "the Right Reverend" ("the Rt. Rev."), and the presiding bishop is "the Most Rev." Bryan Garner says that use of the title without the article "has long been stigmatized as poor usage. And if the stigma is wearing off, it's doing so very gradually."*

But you know that U.S. Protestants, regardless of stylebooks, regularly use reverend as a title and speak of "Reverend Lastname" and describe that worthy as being "a reverend." (Reverend, incidentally, has been in use as a noun in English since the early part of the seventeenth century.)

Religion, I used to tell my editing students, is a thicket in which one quickly becomes entangled. All the Christian denominations have varying titles and practices, making it very easy for a writer to look like a fool. The problem, as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage sums up, is that "there seems to be considerably greater acceptance of 'Reverend Moomaw' than most authorities recognize." And "this is really a matter of etiquette more than linguistic propriety, and the preference of the clergy involved should be taken into account if it can be determined." 

So what are you, trying to sort out Reverend and the cluster of other current titles (Father, Mother, BrotherPastor), going to do? You will first have to ascertain the conventions of the denomination you are writing about and then, if possible, the preference of the individual subject. Luck to you. 

As for "a reverend," I'd steer clear of it as still too colloquial and allow it only in direct quotation. 


* That citation is from Garner 4. My copy of Garner 5 has not yet arrived; when it does, I'll look to see if the entry has been revised.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The common comma

A couple of times a week I come across an online forum with people who are wobbly about the use of commas, so let me set this straight: Should the comma be used to indicate syntactical relationships, or should it mimic pauses in speech?

The answer is yes. 

We'll start with syntactical conventions. And let's keep our focus on conventions and not talk about rules; all punctuation is convention. Some are relatively trivial. In the United States we use double quotation marks to introduce a quotation and close; in Britain they use single. In the U.S. we use a period with Mr. In the U.K. they omit the full stop. You'll just want to observe the conventions your intended reader is familiar with. 

I'll take a moment to suggest that you could, FOR FOWLER'S SAKE, STOP CLAMORING ABOUT THE OXFORD COMMA. The serial comma, the final comma in a series, is endorsed by the Chicago Manual of Style, omitted, except when needed to avoid ambiguity, by the Associated Press Stylebook. I use either, depending on the house style of the publication I'm editing for, and you should do the same. You are not a paragon of virtue and cultivation if you prefer the Oxford comma, and you are not a stout-hearted freethinker if you omit it. Just shut up.

Observing the syntactical conventions enables you to make your meaning clear. Using a comma when the conjunctions and, but, and or introduce an independent clause assists the reader in identifying separate thoughts, particularly with longer constructions: I am merely acquainting you with the conventions common in formal writing, but you are free not to follow them if it suits your purpose. 

Setting off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses with commas allows you to add information without gumming up the main thought: You, the writer, whose job is to make choices, must always keep in mind your reader. 

It will make sense for you to use the comma as in common practice, with dates, introductory phrases, and the multiple other instances enumerated in style guides. 

But yes, there is also something to a freer use of commas to indicate pauses as in speech. Punctuation was invented in antiquity to indicate pauses for readers of a text. David Crystal, in his history of English punctuation, Making a Point, quotes Richard Mulcaster's The Elementarie (1582) that the period "in reading warneth vs to rest there, and to help our breth at full."

You can consider the standard punctuation marks, comma, semi-colon, colon, and period, as the equivalent of musical rests for reproducing the rhythms of spoken English, the comma the briefest and the period the longest. The comma has proved extremely useful in the effort to reproduce demotic speech, particularly in fiction. 

But it requires some discretion, to avoid the hazard of beginning to sound like Henry James "Experience is never limited and it is never complete: it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue."

Discretion requires judgment, and judgment means decisions, so keep in mind Oscar Wilde's account of proofreading his own work: "In the morning, after hard work, I took a comma out of one sentence. ... In the afternoon, I put it back again." 

Monday, November 28, 2022

Stoops to conquer

 The late John Plunkett, for many years an assistant managing editor at The Baltimore Sun and overseer of its copy desk, insisted that in describing Baltimoreans sitting in front of their rowhouses,* one must write that they are sitting on their steps. Stoops, he insisted, was a foreign term imported into Baltimore by reporters hired from out of town, probably from New York, who didn't know the territory. 

Indeed, stoop comes to us from the Dutch stoep, "flight of steps, doorstep, threshold," and etymologists** suggest that it entered English from the Dutch-speaking inhabitants of New York, spreading into American English from there. 

If Mr. Plunkett was correct that the word was carried here by auslanders, the invasive species has taken root. Efforts, always feeble, to extirpate it from the pages of The Sun were abandoned years ago, and it appears without shame in other local publications. The popularity of the Stoop Storytelling series of podcasts and public events indicates a thoroughgoing acceptance.   

Stoop culture prevails. 


* Merriam-WebsterWebster's New World, the Concise Oxford and American Heritage are all under the impression that row house (terrace house in Britain) is two words, but in Baltimore it's rowhouse

** Including H.L. Mencken in The American Language, who also marks the Dutch contributions of bosscruller, coleslaw, dope, spook, snoop, and Santa Claus

Monday, November 7, 2022

Testing, testing ...

 One day about thirty years ago I arrived at the copy desk, and my boss, Andy Faith, took me aside and murmured, "The editing test has been compromised." Someone had got hold of the general knowledge test we administered to applicants for the desk and had circulated copies at a job fair. 

Andy invited me to revise the test, and I went to the task with a will, creating what came to be known in some circles as The Sun's brutal applicant test. 

The compromised test was a handful of pages of general-knowledge questions. It had once been required of applicants for reporting jobs, but it had apparently been determined that general knowledge was not necessary for reporting but essential for copy editing. (When I took over the test, I had access to its archive, where I discovered John Carroll's score when he applied to be a reporter in the 1960s. I told John, who had returned to the paper as the editor, that if he were to apply for a position on the copy desk, he would be a prime candidate.) 

The new test that I devised had ten categories of general knowledge--arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports--with ten questions in each. Some example questions:

In a symphony orchestra, who is the concert master?

What is the difference between Chapter 7 bankruptcy and Chapter 11 bankruptcy?

What is a pocket veto?

The English portion required deciding whether mantel or mantle was the proper word in a given sentence. 

What term is used for the breaking off of an iceberg from a glacier?

Which president of the United States served for only one month?

Which amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the individual from being forced to testify against himself or herself? 

Name the author of the American novel Invisible Man

How many pints are in a gallon?

What is Ash Wednesday?

What is a zygote?

Name one of the four events in women's gymnastics. 

The reason for this battery of short tests is that newspaper copy editors must have broad general knowledge to be effective. The cumulative scores of the general knowledge section were more reliable at the lower range than at the upper. I hired and subsequently fired the person who attained the highest score ever registered on the general knowledge section, who turned out to be a know-it-all who could not get along with fellow copy editors. We found through grim experience to pass on applicants with a cumulative score lower than fifty percent, because they just did not have enough furniture upstairs to do the job. 

But wait, there's more. 

I put together three items for an editing section. The first was a series of short passages, some taken from the work of Sun reporters that had made it as far as the copy desk, presenting issues of grammar, factual accuracy, and tone. An example: "No matter what your interest, from fun and free family activities to competitive pet and pie eating contests, you're sure to find something distinctive at Mount Airy's annual Spring Fling festival this weekend."

The second item was a wire service story in which an assigning editor had combined elements from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times to create a dog's breakfast. Information was duplicated, word for word. The structure was so jumbled that the sentence explaining what the opening paragraph was about appeared in the twelfth paragraph. The story included a sentence saying that President Bill Clinton, explaining his course of action, "described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity." 

The third and final item was a short feature story describing the draining of a pond in a public park and what it revealed. It was entirely innocuous, and there were in it, at most, a couple of things I would have considered changing. I put it there to see who would go to town on it. Those who found something to comment on in every paragraph and who effectively rewrote the story did not impress me. I didn't want people on the desk who would waste their time on inconsequential changes while alienating the reporting staff. 

There was no time limit on the test. Most applicants completed it in two hours, though some took as long as four. Some wept. But better to have a brief unpleasant experience than to find oneself in a job and ill-equipped to perform it. 

All this can be told because the applicant test is a dead letter. It has not been administered to anyone in years, because The Sun stopped hiring copy editors long before it abandoned copy editing altogether. But while it was in use, it helped us recruit people who gave The Baltimore Sun a national reputation as a newspaper that took editing seriously. People we hired, trained, and mentored are working today as editors at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and other publications. 

Monday, October 31, 2022

Just the facts, in English, please

 My former colleague Bob Erlandson has forwarded a specimen from the Associated Press, about the Pelosi assault, as an example of what passes for police reporting: "The San Francisco Police Department responded to a report of a home break-in at about 2:27 a.m. Friday, a spokesman for. ..."

It's a sentence that combines a false precision with imprecision. They could have responded, as Bob remarks, at 2:27 a.m. or about 2:25 a.m. or about 2:30 a.m. but not at about 2:27 a.m. And you may be excused for supposing that it was the report that was received at precisely 2:27 a.m., with the police response coming some minutes afterward. 

This fudging of the time of the event and the time of the response is one of many irritations that crop up in police reporting. 

There is, for example, the misuse of the word suspect, which means in common English "a person suspected of a crime," that is, an identified person who is under suspicion. When the name of the person being sought is announced, that person is a suspect. But in the copspeak of police reports, suspect means "the person who did it," though the person's identity is unknown to the police. They could write gunman, driver, assailant, perpetrator, or any number of other serviceable nouns, but they always resort to suspect. I wonder whether the increasing use of person of interest is a way of getting around the confusion their usage has created. 

Let me add my lack of enthusiasm for the reporter, evidently subject to echolalia, who merely repeats the stock jargon of the police report, in which people bail out of the vehicle rather than abandon the car and flee on foot instead of running away. Guns are discharged rather than fired. Victims of shootings and stabbings seem never to be found in houses or apartments, but inside a dwelling.  

I understand that police officers are trained to write in this jargon, for uniform practice in giving evidence. What I do not understand is the inability of reporters to convey this information in the ordinary English that their readers speak.