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, May 26, 2009

It's summer, already

As regularly as the swallows return to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, journalists reach for seasonal cliches. If you read a newspaper or watched television news over the Memorial Day weekend, you inevitably encountered the phrase unofficial start of summer.

The phrase might lead you to think that there is an official start of summer. There isn’t. June 21 or 22, when the ill-informed may tell you that summer begins, is the summer solstice. Summer, by the third week of June, is well advanced everywhere, except perhaps Minnesota. (A friend in Minnesota tells me that if summer there falls on the Fourth of July, they have a picnic.)

Similarly, December 21 or 22 is not the beginning of winter but the winter solstice. The vernal equinox in March is not the first day of spring, and the autumnal equinox in September is not the first day of fall. But journalists will use these handy dates as a peg for their annual commemorations of the obvious.

Thirty years in the paragraph game, and I never figured out the point of stories, often on the front page, about things that everyone already knows: When the temperature hits a hundred degrees or more, the paper is sure to tell you that it is hot outside; when there is a foot of snow on the ground, count on the paper to inform you that it is winter.

Perhaps such stories are the journalistic equivalent of phatic speech — small talk or chatter that instead of conveying substantial information expresses feelings or establishes sociability. Talk about the weather is a classic example. For my part, I much prefer gossip.

Anyhow, as I was spreading mulch around the azaleas yesterday, with temperatures in the eighties and the humidity rising in advance of the afternoon thunderstorm, I did not require a reporter or news anchor to let me in on the arrival of summer. No doubt you, my readers, in your far-flung locations, observe your own seasonal markers. If you’d like to tell me what marks the start of spring, summer, fall, and winter in Arizona or Colorado or Upstate New York or any of your other venues, feel free to comment.


  1. High of 97 in Minneapolis on May 19. Hit 100 in Granite Falls. Of course, at the same time, it was only in the 40s in Duluth and the Arrowhead.

  2. In Palo Alto, California, seasons are recognizable only by traffic patterns, specifically the number of cars speeding through the neighborhood (cutting each other off, passing on the right in the bike lane, parking on the sidewalk, and so on) to drop off children at school in the morning: many in the fall, less at ski season (for a while the high schools here actually had a “ski week” vacation, in addition to the normal religious holidays), a few in the spring, zero in the summer. I should also include school-related noise as an indicator: for three seasons, the class bells and announcements made over the loudspeaker toll the hours, in the spring the marching band makes sure you are not oversleeping, and for various seasonal celebrations (homecoming, etc.,) the dances and related commotion in the parking lot ensure that you don’t go to bed too early either. Oh, and during the summer, the fire alarm is regularly triggered at random times, and left to ring (far stronger than any car alarm), sometimes for hours, by the fire department (a station is less than a block away), I presume because they realize there are no children there to be harmed during the summer.

    OK, enough of my complaining about living so close to a school. In all seriousness, there are no seasons here, because every day is a friggin’ season, with temperatures that range 50°F (or more) in less than 24 hours. Websites that tell you they don’t vary more than 25°F are lying. When you move to California, you quickly learn to understand “layered” outfits. If the morning is freezing, you must make sure you have a tank top and sunscreen and a hat to step into the sunshine at any point between 11:00 and 4:00 (or you will melt and burn like a pizza in an oven). If the morning is pleasant, you must not forget a heavy jacket for the afternoons, which will surely be freezing, with a strong wind. And the hotter it gets during the day, the colder it will be at night. Any and all of these conditions can and do occur in every season. To go to the beach, you must bring your parka (even in the “summer”). The ocean here is never more than 52°F, and fog is a fact of life until mid-afternoon at the coast, so don’t bother with the bathing suit layer. People who live in shorts and flip-flops here are in denial. They are equating light with warmth and/or have no temperature sensors in their skin.

    Changes in vegetation here are of no help in determining the seasons. Or at least it takes a while to understand them if you have been raised in white winters and green summers. Here green grass means it is the middle of winter (and it will last only a week or so). Brown grass (or what they call “golden”) is the rest of the year. And I just have to make mention of the “oak” trees the city has planted on our street (and many other places) before I finish: These trees cannot be of nature; they must have been engineered by man. In the fall, the leaves go straight from green to dead brown (no color in between) and then they stay attached all winter long and do not begin to fall off until the new spring growth pushes them off. You can shake them all you want, those hideous dead brown leaves stay on no matter what, through rain, wind, rakes being swung at them, and so on. In other words, winter under these “trees” is hideous; it’s like having piles of dead leaves in the sky for six months of the year. What were they thinking?!

  3. At the risk of prompting you to shake your head and say those things you say, summer begins with "Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines" and ends with the kickoff of the first regular season Bronco game. I've been snowed on after the former and before the latter. Those are summer snow storms. They don't usually last more than a day.

  4. For this native Californian (reared in Los Angeles proper, long resident in the Bay Area), summer begins whenever the rains end, sometime in early May, and often lasts through Thanksgiving. Summer in San Francisco and Oakland means fog ("June gloom"), wind, and highs in the 50s and 60s; travel 15 miles north, south, or east, and the temperature rises at least 25 degrees. For a few days in May and September there will be a "heat wave," meaning highs in the 90s. Winter (January and Feburary, mostly) means rain on the coast, snow in the mountains, and dense tule fog in the Central Valley accompanied by horrific highway accidents. Fall is when school recommences and the wildfires pick up in earnest. Spring is asparagus season.

    For the record, I never heard the expression "winter coat" until I was in my 20s. I couldn't fathom why one would need a coat in any season BUT winter.

  5. "Thirty years in the paragraph game, and I never figured out the point of stories, often on the front page, about things that everyone already knows: When the temperature hits a hundred degrees or more, the paper is sure to tell you that it is hot outside; when there is a foot of snow on the ground, count on the paper to inform you that it is winter."

    I always felt there should be a "No S**t!" section of the paper just for headlines and stories like this. Headlines such as "Rising prices due to inflation" belong in this section also.

  6. Here in Florida, we have Summer almost all year long. You know it's Summer when it's hot and humid and there's a thunderstorm at about 3 p.m. almost every day. Fall is when it stops being hot. Winter is the two or three weeks on either side of New Year's Day when you can wear sweaters. Spring is when it becomes too warm for a sweater, but not terribly hot. Summer interrupts Spring far too soon.

  7. There are two weeks of the year I call Junetember, when the weather around Syracuse is the best in the world. They start and close the summer. Otherwise, our seasons would be winter, road construction and state fair.