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

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I'll write what I like, said he

Responding to the post “This is not a passive construction,” Bruce Holtgren posed these questions on my Facebook page:*

Regarding this topic, I'd appreciate you weighing in on this example:

1. "Let's go to the movies," John said.
2. "Let's go to the movies," said John.

Is the latter passive? If so, does it matter enough to fix it? (I once had an editor who insisted that the answers were yes and yes.)

The latter example is not a passive sonstruction but a simple inversion of normal word order. There are many journalists who get peevish about the Inverted Said. Perhaps they find it too literary.

Generally speaking, in ordinary journalism, the normal word order is preferable; the reader glides over it without distraction. But making a fetish of this point, as many writers and editors appear to do, leads to the occasional maladroit construction. Here’s an example:

“That will not do,” McIntyre, the language blogger and currently unemployed three-decade veteran of daily newspaper copy desk, said.**

That long, suspensive appositive (which, incidentally, I would also deplore) suggests that the reader is moving through a periodic sentence, with an emphasis coming down at the end. Arriving at the homely said creates a minor anticlimax.

If the attribution following direct quotation includes an appositive, the inverted veb/subject construction is both apt and natural.

*I feel a little uncomfortable about these comments on Facebook, which exclude from the discussion readers of this blog who are not members. Would you like for me to start copying Facebook comments to this site?

**In my seventh week of joblessness, it occurs to me to be grateful at my liberation from journalists (some of them, alas, copy editors) who dress up their idiosyncratic and uninformed preferences with ill-understood technical terms (split infinitive, split verb, passive voice) or mere buzzwords (flow, voice).


  1. For some reason, "said John" doesn't bother me, but "said he" sounds awfully pretentious. Fortunately, I never encounter either construction in the policies I edit, so I don't get to enforce my pet peeve on that one. (I save that for "indicate" and "impact" as a verb.)

  2. John,
    Sorry for being one of those who comment on Facebook.

  3. I don't mean to disparage anyone for commenting on Facebook. It's just that this site has a larger potential audience -- odd that the entire populace hasn't signed up for Facebook to take inane quizzes -- and I look at this one as primary. But say what you want wherever you want to say it; this is America.

  4. Actually, both orders seem pretty literary to me. The normal order of English sentences, after all, is subject-verb-object, which gives us John said, "Let's go to the movies." And this is indeed the order you hear in speech; whether the narrator is a fuddy-duddy who says John said or an up-to-the-minute dude who says John's all like, it matters not.

    Please do copy over the Facebook comments, if it's not too much trouble.

  5. Chris Harper had commented on Facebook about "This is not a passive construction":

    Bruce, you use No. 1 when you have no apposition.
    "I love grammar," John said.
    You use No. 2 when you do have apposition.
    "I love grammar," said John, the program director of the writing center.
    Neither one is passive voice. Your editor clearly didn't/doesn't understand what passive voice was/is.
    Passive voice is the following:
    I was told by the editor not to use passive voice.
    Active voice: The editor told me not to use passive voice.
    Simply put, your editor ain't much of an editor!
    Active voice: I suggest you not tell him about his grammatical disabilities.
    But John can give you much sounder advice than I. (Note: It is I rather than me because can is implied after the pronoun).

  6. "I want to respond, but I'm having difficulty doing so," the reader said, feeling more than a little overwhelmed.

    "I want to respond, but I'm having difficulty doing so," said the overwhelmed reader.

    "I want to respond, but I'm having difficulty doing so," she, the overwhelmed reader, said.