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

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday roundup

Item: A reader* inquired whether I used sex in the headline for a post just to lure readers. Of course I did. The point of a headline is to lure readers. You think I’m going to draw throngs to this site with “Friday roundup” or “Jay Hancock”? (Sorry, Jay, but you’re no Ashton Kutcher. Perhaps you should be grateful for that.)

Item: A reader wonders what was meant by stentorian in this overripe passage from The New York Observer: For the past 19 months, since Mr. Murdoch got his hands on The Journal, he has been slowly, deliberately turning it into his newspaper. The Journal, until so recently the quiet, stentorian creation of Barney Kilgore, reported in a newsroom with the hush of the library about it by gentleman commuters generally more interested in making it home for dinner than making it to Michael’s for lunch, worried over by editors with a literary bee buzzing around in their fedoras, has been his for a year. None of the doomsday scenarios have played out.

Stentorian, the classicists among you will remember, derives from the eponymous Stentor, a herald in the Iliad famed for his loud, carrying voice. The word means “very loud,” so the writer, pairing it with quiet is either straining for the effect of oxymoron or mistaken about the meaning of the word. Feel free to suggest a substitute in the comment field below.

Alternatively, suggest how this passage might be pruned into something offering more meaning and less affectation.

Item: As I have been plodding through Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World this week (up to the Peloponnesian War), I came across a construction that I recognize from the newspaper copy that it used to fall to my lot to untangle: [I]n 449 the new temples did start to be built on Athens’ Acropolis. ... Ah, so many programs I’ve seen started to be carried out. This combination of active voice and passive voice — inanimate object does something while being acted on — may not be an error of grammar, but it is certainly maladroit. An editor would probably smooth this out into In 449 Athens did begin building new temples on the Acropolis.

No charge, Professor Fox.

Item: In case you missed the hoo-hah over the putative millionth word in English, watch here as Geoffrey K. Pullum and commenters at Language Log explode this stunt for one more time.

Item: On June 4, Twitter carried this tweet from @APStylebook to its thousands of followers: @johnemcintyre disagrees with Stylebook on our split verb guidance. What do you think? (Find it under "verbs.") I saw two tweets in agreement with my post attacking the “split-verb” non-rule that has been repeatedly denounced by linguists and prescriptivists alike. How about it, AP?

*My practice when I use material from readers’ messages is not to name the reader unless I’m given specific permission to do so.


  1. Speaking of headlines, I saw this online:

    Man Found by Dumpster Identified.

    I thought that was a pretty neat thing for a dumpster to do--find a man.

    As my former managing editor liked to say, all sentences in English can have 2 meanings. Nowhere is there more true that in headlines.

  2. John, I started following your blog recently and do admire your command of the language. Being a foreigner, more of my knowledge of English came from literary works than from speaking. Being a historian, I can't help but defend Fox in your sideline item.

    And without even presenting my argument, I have to scratch my head and say that the larger sentence is even more confusing. "Predictably, Sparta refused to to attend, but in 449 the new temples did start to be built on Athens' Acropolis, financed by her allies' continuing payments."

    Part of the reason why this sentence has to be awkward is because the historian can't use active voice on something that isn't entirely correct. For example, Pericles was a very strong force in the politics at the time and some historians will strongly argue that he single-handedly created the Acropolis as we see it today. Divorcing his wife and taking on a prostitute as a companion didn't help his image and many voices of discontent suggesting impropriety in both politics and religion (temple construction) are still resonant today.

    This boils down to a question of historical accuracy; new age historians are hesitant to make strong claims while historians prior to around 1950s felt free to even fabricate facts to match their writing style. We're not sure if Athens, as a polis, can be credited with beginning of the construction as there was noticeable public discontent over a single character (general Pericles) controlling the coffers.

  3. okay, so splitting infinitives is fine. I think I know your answer to this question, but does that still hold when the word being inserted is "not", as in, "the teachers asked the Governator to not cut their budget."

  4. It does. Saying "not to cut" rather than "to not cut" is an aesthetic rather than a grammatical preference.

  5. Wonder what Jennifer Aniston thinks about all this...

  6. A smoother revision of Fox's sentence, and one that does not assign agency, would be:
    "Predictably, Sparta refused to to attend, but in 449 construction of the new temples did begin on Athens' Acropolis, financed by her allies' continuing payments."

  7. I have to object to Dino's characterization of Aspasia as a prostitute. She was a hetaira, not a porne.

  8. Dino will be hearing from the solicitors for her estate.

  9. If you are willing to accept an alternate definition of "stentorian" as "commanding," I like the characterization of The Journal under Mr. Kilgore as "quiet, yet commanding." One needn't shout to be heard and heeded.

    If someone says "Acropolis" do any of you think of some place other than Athens? If not, isn't "Athens' Acropolis" redundent even though there may be others elsewhere?

    Retired in Elkridge

  10. Well, "quiet, yet commanding" would have made an intelligible point without leaving the reader wondering what the hell the writer intended.

  11. Re: Stentorian

    I think the writer meant "staid" or "stodgy" or something like it.

    I'm having a lot of trouble picturing a quiet, library-like newsroom. The writer certainly seems to have created a fanciful picture of the creation based on the end product. Which is as dangerous with newspapers as with anything else, if not more.

    A veteran newsman with whom I once worked likened newspapering to sausage-making. Now there's meaning without affectation.

  12. I thought "stately" might have made more sense.