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

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Before the urchins come clamoring for candy

Item: Wishydig’s recent post, “The English language in America is not threatened,” a point frequently made on these premises, quotes the text of a 1987 resolution adopted by the Linguistic Society of America saying that efforts to make English an official language are misguided and potentially harmful. It will repay your attention.

Item: At Language Log, Arnold Zwicky goes into the peculiar hostility to quotative inversion. At his own site, he examines the peevish hostility to the word blog. For the record, no objection to it here; You Don’t Say appreciates useful monosyllables.

Item: In a weak moment, I succumbed to the temptation to set up a Twitter site, @FakeWardCleaver. Thoughts?

Item: The article on Halloween mentioned in the earlier post “Is that a demon at the door?” has generated a vast number of comments, many of them amusing and some of them intentionally so. The ensuing uproar has moved the editors of Charisma to post a second article defending a Christian’s celebration of Halloween. The comments on the anodyne article are predictably less amusing.

Item: A well-wisher’s anonymous letter today — the one calling me “a thief and a liar” — celebrates the belated discovery of my having been laid off by The Sun six months ago and kindly suggests that as an alternative to eating canned dog food, I might buy a gun and kill myself. Actually, and thanks for thinking of me, I have other plans.

Item: Remember that you can use the GoodSearch engine to find things on the Internet while, if you make the ACES Education Fund your designated cause, funneling pennies to that worthy endeavor.


  1. Your third item is less than 140 characters long. And still would be if it started "Dammit, June"

  2. Verbose. Write shorter, shorter, man.

  3. Perhaps you'd be happier at Twitter.

  4. I'd be happier if you cut 30%. Try it.

  5. As an editor, I keep telling people to write shorter and keep their sentences simple, but when I set out to write something myself, it invariably turns out to have long, complex sentences and phrasings meant to keep readers from feeling they're being beaten over the head.

  6. David Faldone Craig's comment on Facebook:

    Regarding the suggestion that, rather than eating dog food you buy a gun and shoot yourself, I might point out that A) cat food is probably better for you than dog food is and 2) you can buy a lot of cat food for the price of a gun. Plus you don't have to go through those pesky background checks.

  7. Peter:
    Your response scores a 34.9 (not very easy to read) on the Flesch Reading Ease scale and a 12 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale in MS Word. Is that being fair to the average reader?

    Most people read at a 7-9th grade reading level. Anything more than 12-15 words in a sentence and you're losing people; they just don't have the ability--or the "gana" to get it.

    How about:
    "As an editor, I keep telling people to write shorter and keep their sentences simple. When I set out to write something myself, however, I invariably write long, complex sentences and phrasings. I guess I’m trying to keep readers from feeling like I’m beating them over the head."

    That edit comes out at a 65.4 on the Flesch Reading Ease scale (easier to read) and an 8.1 on the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level scale. More like the daily newspaper, eh, John?

  8. Shorter isn't better. It's just shorter.

  9. Ridger: Thank you.

    Anonymous: This isn't a newspaper blog, and I am not writing for it as I would for a newspaper audience. Never having had any truck with the Flesch scales, I can say only that a slavish adherence to them appears to produce prose that sounds simple-minded, if your reworking of Peter's perfectly clear sentence is an example.

  10. And never mind that Peter intentionally wrote the sentence the way he did to demonstrate his point. Sometimes the best editing choice is to leave it alone.


  11. Ridger:
    Why'd you opt for the short version, then: "Shorter isn't better. It's just shorter." Seems you wanted to communicate in a terse, punchy, affecting way. Hmmmm...

    I thought this blog started out as a newspaper blog for newspaper readers way back at TBS?

  12. Is there some debate going on here about using more or fewer words than necessary? Pared thoughts are best. It's in the literature from Cicero on: Be bright, be brief, be gone.

  13. The whole thing is lost on me. I have no idea how to cleave wards or why anyone would wish to, and the only June I can think of is the one who works as a copy-editor and blogs at

    Obviously not the sort of person one would say "dammit" to, but if you don't explain yourself I shall tell her that you did. (I sometimes comment on June's copy-editing blog using the pseudonym "8'FED".)