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

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Got prestige?

A sentence in The New Yorker’s profile of Angelo Mozilo refers to the head of Countrywide Financial as having delivered “the prestigious Dunlop Lecture for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.”

Like dramatic, prestigious is one of those adjectives you should probably shy away from. If circumstances are inherently dramatic, giving the details suffices. If an award or a lecture carries genuine prestige, you shouldn’t have to say so; writing about “the prestigious Nobel Prize” would make you look like an idiot.

“The prestigious Dunlop Lecture for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.,” tells the reader that this lecture, which he has probably never heard of (which is why the writer needs to add “for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.”), is important for a limited audience of which the reader is not a member.

It would have been better for the writer, rather than resort to the prestigious shortcut, to explain what the audience is and why the lecture is important to it.

I possess a certain small stock of prestige among copy editors, as the comments on my farewell post at attest.* It is an exceedingly dim flicker of glory among a very small populace, and attaching the term prestige to anything I have ever been or done would strike most readers as, at best, peculiar — hell, would look ludicrous even to copy editors.

Writers who are tempted to pump up the importance of a subject by adjectival shortcuts — dramatic, prestigious, prominent, significant, premier, momentous, outstanding, renowned, storied — would be better advised to heed the venerable show-don’t-tell maxim.

*I don’t expect that I will ever be able to express my full appreciation for those comments and the regard of those readers.


  1. Don't forget my favorite near-ubiquitous adjectival shortcuts, legendary and historic.

  2. People who've practiced journalism, but who will now have to try to blog for food--or, worse, give up and go into PR--should get used to those cutsey, saccharine modifiers. Don't forget: state-of-the-art, ground-breaking, revolutionary, unparalleled, breathtaking, top-drawer, first-class, up-town, and so forth.

  3. We must first kill all the adjectives.