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 jemcintyre@gmail.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/.

Monday, May 4, 2009

All right, back to business

Item: A Washington Post article on runoff from power plants contained this sentence:

Plants in Florida, Pennsylvania and several other states have flushed wastewater with levels of selenium and other toxins that far exceed the EPA's freshwater and saltwater standards aimed at protecting aquatic life, according to data the agency has collected over the past few years.

Selenium, like lead and mercury, is an element that is toxic — poisonous. But not all toxic things are toxins. A toxin is a biological poison, like snake venom. The public may well use the terms interchangeably, but a journalist writing on scientific/medical subjects has an obligation to observe such distinctions.

Item: On National Public Radio this morning, a correspondent reported that in the collapse of the dome of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility, a coach had injured “a vertebrae.” You may think it absurd that English has retained plural forms of words from Latin. But we go into action with the language we have, not the language we want. Vertebrae, in the Anglicized pronunciation “ver-te-bray,” is a plural, vertebra the singular.

Item: CNN is running a headline, Accused Craigslist killer faces charges in R.I. One of the niceties of professional journalism involves taking care not to convict defendants in advance of trial. Accused killer is a construction that says that we know he is a killer and he has been accused. If it helps to clarify the point for you, recall that during the scandal over sexual abuse of children by the Roman Catholic clergy, the recurring phrase accused priest did not mean accused of being a priest.

Item: If you can come up with anything sillier than the pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting, out of their several interests, to the term swine flu, You Don’t Say would welcome the contribution.

Item: Whether to describe the euphemism waterboarding (itself a descendant of a previous euphemism, the water cure) as torture has political implications, and one understands a journalistic reluctance to appear to take sides. But at the same time, it is difficult to dodge the conclusion that it is only torture when someone else does it. At the end of the Second World War, the United States convicted Japanese soliders of torturing American prisoners of war with that technique. Let’s be honest.

18 comments:

  1. My blog has been given a Splash Award, and I am supposed to select other blogs to honor. I've picked your blog as one of them. You can read about it here.

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  2. In the Fashion & Style section of Sunday's New York Times, there's an article, "My Sportscaster Is Gone, No Film at 11," wordsmiths may enjoy. It's about Len Berman, an NBC sportscaster just released from his contract. Author Michael Winerip points out that Berman's choice of words made his broadcasts special. Here's the link:

    http://tiny.cc/LbkqU

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  3. May I say that, while I find it silly, I find it much more sad that calling it swine flu may lead to people's being labeled "unclean" and possibly deprived of care?

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  4. producers’ and Israelis’
    What are those apostrophes? I seem to remember that there's a rule allowing their use, but it seems to have fallen out of favor

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  5. Patricia the TerseMay 5, 2009 at 2:04 AM

    After WWI, the Japanese were also tried for much worse practices;they also never have answered for their horrible imprisonment, torture and starvation of civilians. The current waterboardees aren't uniformed soldiers,but rather armed combatants suspected of terrorism. The people who carried out the investigations, and the waterboarding, were trained to do it, and had had it done to them. Ask someone who has been through SEARS what that was like, before anyone gets too weepy about a few jackals.

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  6. I heard a local official refer to "swine flu"

    patients as being "in the process of recovering"

    Is that not a bit redundant?

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  7. Virtually everything is toxic at a high enough dose - even water.

    Regarding euphemisms of torture, Andrew Sullivan wrote about an eerie historical parallel to "enhanced interrogation".

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  8. @Patricia the Terse
    The US is bound by, e.g., the Geneva Convention, not because anyone else ever obliged it to be, but because it has chosen to be, on the grounds (or so I have always understood) that there are things decent societies simply don't do. To say that what has been going on in Guantanamo is acceptable because it is the good guys who are doing it is a contradiction in terms.

    (Not a tear welled up inside me as I wrote that, incidentally)

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  9. Still trying to make sense of this headline:
    "Sex charge head aided toilet girl"

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/south_west/8034082.stm

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  10. Selenium would usually be considered to be a non-metal. (The stable allotrope is a weak electrical conductor.)

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  11. I should add, as a chemist who works for the US EPA in the Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics, that I wince every time I mention the Office's name. "Toxic" is a perfectly good adjective but a rotten noun.

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  12. Just so, Theophylact. I'll adjust.

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  13. @Joe - "the pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting" - since John didn't answer yet, I will: the subject of a verbal noun (or gerund) such as "objecting" was traditionally in the possessive. It's quite common now to see it in the objective case, and many authorities accept it as a alternative. With nouns, of course, that means it looks like the nominative ("to see the pork producers and Israelis objecting" is "to see them objecting", while "to see the pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting" is "to see their objecting"). Some people see a difference in meaning.

    "Their objecting" is Standard.

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  14. "Sex charge head aided toilet girl"

    The head of a school who is in some way involved in a sex charge - going to guess he's been charged with some sex crime - has helped a girl whose salient feature for newspaper readers is that she did something or had something done to her in a toilet.

    British newspapers love to shorthand players with nouns like that. If you're up on the stories you know who they mean. If you're not - you are lost in the wilderness.

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  15. @The Ridger, FCD: I thought Joe was seeing your second meaning, as was I, and was being satirical, since many today seem to have lost mastery of the plural possessive apostrophe (if indeed they ever had it). Joe, am I right? Were you being facetious? Or am I reading too much into it, and was it an honest question?

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  16. Professor, if it's toxic, but it's not a toxin, then what do you call it?

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  17. I agree that accused killer is problematic.

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