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 jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Monday, May 4, 2009

All right, back to business

Item: A Washington Post article on runoff from power plants contained this sentence:

Plants in Florida, Pennsylvania and several other states have flushed wastewater with levels of selenium and other toxins that far exceed the EPA's freshwater and saltwater standards aimed at protecting aquatic life, according to data the agency has collected over the past few years.

Selenium, like lead and mercury, is an element that is toxic — poisonous. But not all toxic things are toxins. A toxin is a biological poison, like snake venom. The public may well use the terms interchangeably, but a journalist writing on scientific/medical subjects has an obligation to observe such distinctions.

Item: On National Public Radio this morning, a correspondent reported that in the collapse of the dome of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility, a coach had injured “a vertebrae.” You may think it absurd that English has retained plural forms of words from Latin. But we go into action with the language we have, not the language we want. Vertebrae, in the Anglicized pronunciation “ver-te-bray,” is a plural, vertebra the singular.

Item: CNN is running a headline, Accused Craigslist killer faces charges in R.I. One of the niceties of professional journalism involves taking care not to convict defendants in advance of trial. Accused killer is a construction that says that we know he is a killer and he has been accused. If it helps to clarify the point for you, recall that during the scandal over sexual abuse of children by the Roman Catholic clergy, the recurring phrase accused priest did not mean accused of being a priest.

Item: If you can come up with anything sillier than the pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting, out of their several interests, to the term swine flu, You Don’t Say would welcome the contribution.

Item: Whether to describe the euphemism waterboarding (itself a descendant of a previous euphemism, the water cure) as torture has political implications, and one understands a journalistic reluctance to appear to take sides. But at the same time, it is difficult to dodge the conclusion that it is only torture when someone else does it. At the end of the Second World War, the United States convicted Japanese soliders of torturing American prisoners of war with that technique. Let’s be honest.

Yeah, people still read books

Manning the pumps on the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun these last several months did not leave a great deal of leisure for reading. But now, temporarily adrift in a lifeboat, I’m looking forward to three books publishers have sent me:

Michael Malone’s new novel, The Four Corners of the Sky
Patricia T. O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language
Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

Watch for comments on them in subsequent posts.