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

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Breaking into newspapering

In the spring of 1968, when I was a junior in high school. Lowell Denton, publisher of the weekly Flemingsburg Gazette in Fleming County, Kentucky, offered me a job for the summer.

His wife, Jean, who was editor, reporter, and columnist, liked to take the summers off, and Lowell, having spotted a letter to the editor I had written to the Times-Democrat, the other county weekly, decided that I had enough literacy to handle the job.

So that summer, for my first paying job ($1.25 an hour), I sat down at a table with a Remington standard typewriter and a stack of copy paper. My first task was to English the county correspondence. The Gazette engaged a group of older ladies in communities around the county to send in weekly social notes from their locales, and my task was to regularize the spelling, punctuation, and grammar.

Though I began as an editor, I was also a reporter.

Sent to cover the fiscal court (the county council), I quickly learned not to begin taking notes when the Rev. Owsley Crain began speaking, but to hold off until he more nearly approached his point. At the Ewing Fair, I had to get the names of the winners of the Beautiful Baby contest. (One summer, Mr. Pierce Million, who provided the sound system, played a scratchy recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies approached the infield.) I interviewed the superintendent of schools at summer's end about plans for the new school year. I wrote profiles of local citizens, often having to ferret out information from the inarticulate

I learned early on to pay attention to the typesetters. It was Cecil Pugh, who operated the Linotype, who pointed out that internment for interment had gotten into an obituary. Later, Lowell acquired a typesetter that produced a punched tape allowing the typist to delete a line with a mistake and start over; when the tape was run through a dummy machine, it produced a galley of the corrected type. The typesetter was my cousin Marie Arrasmith, who was also the bookkeeper, and I paid close attention to her, because her store of local gossip was encyclopedic.

I wasn't all writing and editing. I collected the mail every morning, took classified ads and social notes over the phone, fetched colas and snacks from the gas station across the street, typed subscribers' addresses on stencils for the Addressograph, later in the offset era drove the pasted-up pages to the printer in the next county, drove the finished papers back, helped with the addressing and bundling, and swept the office on Friday afternoon.

Jean Denton wrote a column, "Jean's Jottin'," and in the summer it became "John's Jottin'," the main burden of which was to offer congratulations to local worthies. I was allowed a separate column of my own, "From the Wastebasket of John E. McIntyre," in which I wrote about things I had read and offered naive liberal political comments. (Lowell, remarking on my enthusiasm for Eugene McCarthy that summer, asked someone, "Is John Early still supporting that Communist?")

Jean was harder-shelled than Lowell, the kind of Republican once described as "rock-ribbed," a Nixon loyalist to the end, and beyond. We got along fine, because in spite of political differences we shared a taste for Ross Macdonald's murder mysteries and an admiration for Joan Didion's prose.

Lowell and Jean were ideal employers. They encouraged me to learnt the craft and indulged my youthful excesses. (The Gazette's circulation was around 3,000 a week. There is a good deal to be said for making your early mistakes in a place where not many people see them.)  The six summers in high school and college that I spent working for them were an invaluable education.

The Flemingsburg Gazette was, in fact, my journalism school. As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I was told I couldn't take a journalism course without first undergoing Introduction to Communication. I took it for one term. The text was a crudely photocopied set of vapid essays by the department chairman, and we had to watch video of two other department faculty members who evidently thought that their feeble badinage constituted dry donnish wit. At the end of the term I took all the course materials and dropped them down the incinerator shaft at East Akers Hall.

When in 1980, abandoning an uncompleted dissertation in English, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for an opening on the copy desk, I had enough grounding as an alumnus of The Flemingsburg Gazette to make headway there, and for all that has happened since I owe a profound debt of gratitude to Lowell and Jean Denton, who identified and encouraged promise.

Monday, January 21, 2019

I'll stand with government workers

My mother, Marian Early McIntyre, was the postmaster in Elizaville, Kentucky for twenty-four years, much of that time as a federal employee before the Postal Service was spun off.

She pretty much saw everyone in town every day and was quite accommodating to the patrons, even the difficult ones. We lived upstairs (it was a one-room post office), and she often opened up to hand out mail to people who had been unable to come by during regular hours. She was diligent, too; her accounts tallied exactly every month.

Of course she was a Democrat. (I've remarked elsewhere that the reason government workers are Democrats is that they are the people who believe that government works.) She and my father were Franklin Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy Democrats. I do, however, suspect (nothing was ever said aloud), that they may have voted for Senator John Sherman Cooper, of whom they always spoke with respect.

For her, as for many federal employees, the pay was modest, but the post offered health insurance for the family and a decent pension.

She saw her job as providing a necessary service to people, and she did it gladly. That is why I do not mutter or grumble when there is a long line at the post office. I know that the employees are trying to accommodate all the patrons, even the difficult ones, for modest pay and benefits.

And I think that that is the case for many, perhaps most, federal employees, working with little acclaim to provide the services we need or want. I'll stand with them, particularly the ones who find themselves in distressed circumstances because of an unnecessary government shutdown begun as a political stunt.

They deserve much better. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

We pause now for a brief commercial announcement

As you consider your holiday gifting (yes, gift is a verb and has been for centuries; get over it), you might consider a small book of seventy pages, costing no more than a couple of repulsive Starbucks concoctions, that tells writers what they need to know.

I mean my [cough] own The Old Editor Says, readily available from Amazon.  For the tyro or the pro, it is a compilation of hard-learned and easily remembered maxims about writing and editing, useful for self-editing, the hardest kind.

Slip it into a stocking or use it as an amuse-bouche before a more substantial gift. It can be read in an hour, but its value is enduring.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled internet surfing.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Making them stand

Newsweek has published an article about India Landry, an 18-year-old student who was expelled  from Windfern High School outside Houston last year after repeated refusals to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.

She is suing the principal, other school officials, and the school district. Ken Paxton, the state attorney general, is backing the school.

Under state law in Texas, students are expected to stand as the Pledge of Allegiance is recited each day. In 1943, the U.S. Supreme Court in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette held that “the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment prohibits public schools from forcing students to salute the American flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance.”

Texas evidently attempts to circumvent the Constitution by requiring under its statute that a student's parent or guardian must approve the refusal to stand; the individual student does not have the right in Texas. It will be interesting to see what the courts have to say about that.

But apart from the legal and constitutional issues, I'd like to make this point: Coerced patriotism is more the mark of a totalitarian regime than of a free society.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

White people should take a calming breath, or go for a walk

Of course, paying any attention at all to Laura Ingraham cuts into our limited time on this side of the turf, but people are posting some particularly ignorant remark of hers, and it irritates me. Here it is:

"The America we know and love doesn't exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people, and they are changes that none of us ever voted for, and most of us don't like ... this is related to both illegal and legal immigration."

I realize that some white people are nervous about the prospect of having to treat non-white people as if they were fellow human beings and citizens or something, but let's look at the record.

African-Americans have been here since 1619, and a great many did not arrive voluntarily. This means that there are black people in this country today whose ancestors have been here longer than Laura Ingraham's. They have been citizens since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and they vote as citizens, despite repeated attempts to repress their franchise.

Puerto Ricans have been American citizens, by the Jones-Shafroth Act, since 1917.

There are Spanish people in the Southwest whose ancestors were here before there was a United States.

We know that our national history shows repeated anxieties about strangers, strangers usually including anyone not white and Protestant. Benjamin Franklin worried about all those German speakers in Pennsylvania. Some people were so exercised about the arrival in the 1850s of Irish and Italian immigrants, with their weird papistical practices, that they formed a political party (the American Party, natch, though the nickname Know-Nothings is more resonant) to halt their arrival.

And on and on until the current moment of white fragility and the opportunists keen to exploit it.

Two things to keep in mind:

1. These people are not going away.

2. This is the nation we chose to make.

Love it or ...

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

I know where I come from

My parents, Raymond and Marian Early McIntyre, spent their entire lives in Fleming County, Kentucky, in Appalachia.

They graduated from high school in Elizaville, their twelve grades in the same school I entered, with eight grades in five classrooms. My mother was the Elizaville postmaster for a quarter-century. My father worked for many years as an engineer for the state highway department; I have driven on roads he helped to build.

And when I went to school at Michigan State University, they were a little apprehensive, fearing that they would be seen as "country" by the cosmopolitans of East Lansing. (That distant rumbling is the sound of thousands of Michiganders snorting.)

I bring this up because a little while back I got into one of those fruitless online political discussions with some people back home in Fleming County. One of them ultimately accused me of dismissing him as an ignorant hick. The interesting point is that I had not said that. I had chivvied him about being too credulous about right-wing memes of questionable accuracy, but I had not disparaged his origins.*

I know who I am and where I come from. I am the child of Raymond and Marian McIntyre, who were devoted and supportive parents, and good citizens. Also good Democrats: Roosevelt, Stevenson, Kennedy Democrats, progressive Bert Combs and Ned Breathitt Democrats.

My father's mother had a sister who was in the DAR, so I suppose if I did the research I could claim an ancestor who fought in the Revolution. My great-great-grandfather on my mother's side bought the land that became the family farm in 1862, so the family link to that land lasted a century and a half.

I am a child of Appalachia, and I had the benefit of growing up among good people. I had teachers like Frances Dorsey and Linda McKee, dedicated to the profession. (The people I was arguing with had some of the same teachers; they had the opportunity to learn how to think more independently.) I had as employers Lowell and Jean Denton of the Flemingsburg Gazette, where I began to learn journalism. They helped me become who I am.

I have never been ashamed of where I come from, have never attempted to conceal my Kentucky heritage, though I am aware of the stereotypes many people have about Kentuckians. (It's not just coastal elites; there are people in Ohio, who think that way, if you can credit it.)

It doesn't do any good to be ashamed of your people, and it doesn't do any good to shame others because of their people.

My Scotch-Irish ancestors chose to live in a scorned backwater like Appalachia because they weren't wanted back in Britain. Our founding colonists were mostly considered trash by the people back home.

The Germans who fled the draft and endless eighteenth-century European wars were not esteemed here; Benjamin Franklin worried that they would ruin Pennsylvania, in part because they didn't speak English. You know if you're Irish that your nineteenth-century ancestors who fled famine were openly despised in this country; a political party organized against them. And the same with the Italians, the Poles, the Ukrainians, the Eastern European Jews, the Chinese and Japanese in California, the latter of whom we interned in concentration camps during the Second World War for no reason other than blind prejudice.

And today people from Mexico and Central American are being called vermin by the descendants of people who were called vermin in their own time.

It doesn't do any good to be ashamed of your people, and it doesn't do any good to shame others because of their people.

* One of the parties to the conversation thought it a crushing retort to call me a "libtard," but I long ago took the measure of the type who is noisy in the schoolyard and mute in the classroom.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018


A week from today I will be flying to Chicago for the national conference of ACES the Society for Editing (formerly the American Copy Editors Society).

The conference is at capacity, with seven hundred editors registered. Among them will be many old friends with whom to reunite and see the marks the years have left on us. And there will be people to encounter for the first time, which is always stimulating.

Some of you at the conference will be numbered among my readers, and I hope that you will take advantage of the chance to speak with me. Writing is isolating, and it is always good to put a face and a voice and a personality to a reader.

Herewith my annual advice to first-time participants: Don't hang back. The grandees of editing will be there, and they are approachable. Everyone at ACES will be happy that you are there, happy to get to know you. Go to the sessions; go to the bar. These are your people, the people who love what you do and understand who you are. Don't be shy.

And, of course this conference will allow me to see once more my grandson, Julian Early McIntyre. Another opportunity not to be missed.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Stand with the teachers

West Virginia's 20,000 public school teachers went on a nine-day strike over their pay and faced down the state legislature. Good for them.

In my native state, Kentucky, there have been extensive protests over a bill in the legislature that would reduce benefits for retired teachers. The governor, Matt Bevin, expressed himself last week: "If they get what they wish for, they will not have a pension system for younger people who are still working. And that to me is remarkably selfish and shortsighted."

I stand with the teachers.

Coming from what one would discreetly call modest circumstances, I can see that a good deal of what I am today I owe to underpaid Kentucky teachers. I entered the first grade in a school that had eight grades in a building with five classrooms. One grade studied while the teacher taught the other, and then reversed. But my fourth-grade teacher, Frances Dorsey, opened up the wider world to me. In high school, Lynda McKee drew me out of my introversion with public speaking and drama, encouraging my writing in her senior English class.

It was the instruction and encouragement of underpaid public school teachers that enabled me to come out of Elizaville, Kentucky, and become a National Merit semi-finalist, go on to become an honors graduate of Michigan State, earn a master's degree from Syracuse, and eventually become as an editor part of the East Coast liberal media establishment.

Some of my classmates went on to become underpaid public school teachers themselves, and I stand with them.

We live in a time when legislatures focused on austerity are unwilling to fund public education, when we have a national secretary of education who appears neither to support nor understand public education.

But public education, adequately funded and properly structured, is the means to achieve our future. Neglecting it, making teachers bear the brunt of misguided austerity measures, will shortchange  students, leaving them less ready, less prepared to take on adult responsibilities in the world developing around us. It's bad judgment and bad policy. It is, to apply the words properly, selfish and shortsighted.

Stand with the teachers.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

In a technologically advanced workplace

This morning, in my office at Loyola University Maryland, I attempted to print from my desktop computer a handout for my editing class.

Though I had done so numerous times this semester, I got an error message. The printer, which is networked did not recognize that I was supposed to be connected to it.

I though for a moment to call the technical support office, but then I noticed that the telephone in the office was not working. Perhaps a coincidence, or perhaps an additional symptom of some network disruption.

I might have sent an email to the technical support office, but that was not possible. The Communication Department is housed in the bowels of a campus building in what used to be a swimming pool. There is no cellphone reception in the offices, which leaves me unable to use the two-factor authentication to sign in to my campus email.

In more than twenty years at Loyola, I have noticed that nearly every technical advance makes it just that much more difficult to get anything done.

I walked to my editing class and wrote the information for my students with chalk, on a chalkboard.

Some technologies are enduringly useful.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

No home to come home to

This was the year that my sister sold the family farm.

My great-great-grandfather, John Early, bought the property outside Elizaville, Kentucky, in 1862. My great-grandfather, Benjamin Given Early, built the farmhouse circa 1890. It was the home of my grandparents, Lucien Lundy Early and Clara Rhodes Early, during my childhood. It was in that farmhouse that my mother, Marian Early McIntyre, the last of the Earlys, felt her heart begin to fail on November 2, 2001.

My mother left the property to my older sister, Georgia, who found it increasingly burdensome to manage from her home in Cleveland. In conversations during recent years I encouraged her to consider selling it. Otherwise she was going to leave it to me, which I would have found  burdensome to manage from Baltimore. And I entertained no fantasies of retiring there.

This is the year that Georgia sold the property, house and land, to an Amish family moving to Kentucky from Pennsylvania. Their plan is to convert the property, which for generations was devoted to growing tobacco and corn, to an organic dairy operation. I wish them well. It is better for the land to be worked, and to be worked by people who live on it. It is better for the house to be lived in than to be allowed to deteriorate. She made the right decision, a good decision.

But it is still a wrench to sever the link to the land and the past. There were the fields I roamed and the creek I played in. There was the house where my grandmother watched her “stories” every afternoon. One of her favorites, The Brighter Day, had as its theme the slow movement from the Brahms Double Concerto, and every time I hear it I am for a moment back in the front room of the farmhouse, reading, with my grandparents in the next room, the world stable and secure as it was meant to be.

I effectively left Elizaville when I went off to graduate school in the fall of 1973, returning since only as a visitor, an expatriate Kentuckian. Today what remains for me to visit is a row of headstones on a hillside. Home, a construct of memories and metaphors, hasn't been my home for years, and now can't be.

On my desk there is a tobacco canister I filled with soil from the family farm years ago. In a small way, I am a landowner. And if I should succumb to sentimentality, I may ask my family to mingle that dirt with my ashes, to reestablish the connection at the end.