John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Further distinctions

We’ll start out with some additions to the “Making distinctions” post and then proceed to odds and ends.

I meant to add there, their, they’re to the list of distinctions to be preserved. But the really interesting ones are the distinctions in transition. Please be clear about this: You’re perfectly free to observe these distinctions in your own writing — as I often do. But in editing, you should be aware that the ground is shifting under your feet and you don’t get to legislate from personal preferences.

Distinctions that are dissolving

enormity I’m trying to hold on to enormity in the sense of “a great evil.” It seems to me that once you have used it in the context of the Holocaust or the millions killed by Stalin and Mao, you trivialize the word by using it to mean merely something large. I also resist the “task of daunting dimensions” sense — the enormity of health care reform. But it’s almost certainly a losing battle.

hanged/hung Restricting hanged to execution by rope is another lost cause. (A wag, commenting on Facebook about the distinctions, said that there’s a cable TV show that explains it.)

lend/loan Loan as a verb is out there. It has been out there for centuries.

who/whom Whom is not dead yet, but it is increasingly feeble. Since the language appears to be moving steadily toward using who as both subject and object, the safe course for the skittish writer is to do just that.

Verdict rendered

A reader who has acces to a a listserve of Maryland criminal defense attorneys reports concern about the opening of an article in The Sun about the reporting of a life verdict in a capital case: “A federal jury on Wednesday failed to agree on a death sentence, sparing the lives of two convicted killers and showing them the mercy that they denied their victims.”

The reader asks: “Both the use of the verb “fail” and the last phrase were objected to as being judgmental. I opined that a lead like that wouldn't have gotten through in the “old days.” Was I right?

Fail suggests that the jury attempted to impose the death penalty but was unsuccessful, something that it is doubtful the reporter could have known. Neutral, factual language would have been preferable: A federal jury declined to impose the death penalty or, even better, A federal jury reached a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. ...

The mercy they denied their victims is one of those superfluous flourishes that writers think will juice up their dry reporting. Its effect is to telegraph that the writer thinks that killing people is a Bad Thing, which scarcely needs telling.

And, while I’m piling on, on Wednesday, at least in idiomatic English syntax, belongs after agree. Putting adverbs of time in the wrong place in sentences is an annoying journalistic tic.

Greek to me

This query arrived in an e-mail, and I have no idea what the writer is seeking.

What not to say to greeks?
I was thinking that your advice would be very helpful. I know you must be very busy so any pointers would be very much appreciated. A little advice would go a long way right now.

Maybe not to praise Turks?

On the air

I recorded an interview yesterday on the state of copy editing for National Public Radio’s On the Media. In Baltimore, you can hear it on WYPR-FM at 2:00 p.m. this Sunday. Then you can return to this blog and comment on how fatuous I sounded.


  1. I favor retaining whom as the direct object of a preposition. "For who was this intended?" just sounds silly.

    But then, Im also in favor of just giving up on using the apostrophe in almost all instances. It seems hardly worth the trouble anymore.

  2. Yes, but you are likelier to encounter "Who was this intended for?"

  3. RE Anon: I wouldn't say "For who/whom was this intended?" I would say "Who was this inteded for?"

    But I'm with you on the apostrophe--I'm willing to give it up too.

  4. For whom the bell tolls?
    Why, the fatuous of course.

    You're a good sport Professor.

  5. As the movie has it, "Who ya gonna call?"

  6. "The World Health Organization has come up with more than three dozen actions that governments could take to encourage better eating and fitness; these include ... insuring access to sidewalks and bike paths."

    I asked about this a couple of days ago, when this discussion of decaying differences was first aired. I said then that some posh US publications, including The New Yorker, seemed inclined to use 'insure' where a Brit would say 'ensure'.

    And then I saw the above in, yes, The New Yorker.

    Is this normal, Stateside?

  7. RE "on Wednesday": or, maybe better yet, at the beginning of the sentence, just not where they've put it.

    RE apostrophes: Please don't give up on them folks!

  8. Give up the apostrophe?

    Imagine no possessives.
    And no contractions too.

  9. The adjective enormous that underlies both enormity and enormousness originally meant simply 'outside the norm'. Early on, though, this sense was displaced by the pejorative sense 'evil, wicked'. It's perhaps the old cliche enormous wickedness, which dates back to the original sense of the word, that gave enormous its modern and only usual current sense 'huge'.

    Meanwhile, the abstract noun enormity changed its meanings in the same way, and it is today a perfectly fine synonym for hugeness. Because the ending -ness is productive, the word enormousness has always been available as an alternative, though according to MWCDEU it has been little used. Any attempt to distinguish it semantically from enormity, though, is a will-o'-the-wisp.

  10. Re: what not to say to Greeks. I think avoiding the topics of Macedonia and Cyprus would be advisable!

  11. It's probably just me looking for it, but I feel I've actually noticed more (and proper) uses of "whom" during the last couple of years or so.
    Again, it's anecdotal. But I think "whom" will hang on for a while, even if just as a point of emphasis or a way to assume a faux haughty tone.

  12. Patricia the TerseJuly 19, 2009 at 5:17 PM

    If a Greek offers you a beautifully wrapped package, say "No thank you."