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

Friday, June 26, 2009

Those damn copy editors again

You may have read that a former writer at the student newspaper at the University of Hawaii-Manoa has been accused of fabrication: An examination of his work identified twenty-nine people quoted in fourteen articles whose existence could not be confirmed.

Now, according to an article in the Honolulu Advertiser, the student, Kris DeRego, has come up with a novel explanation: It’s the copy editors’ fault. His articles, he says, were “adulterated” on the copy desk.

The faculty adviser to the paper, Jay Hartwell, found it odd that no other reporters for the paper had complained about such bungling on the copy desk, and he found it additionally odd that other names in the articles, such as faculty members, were correct.

Mark Brislin, the editor of the student paper, Ka Leo O Hawaii, said that DeRego, asked to supply names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses for the twenty-nine questionable sources, submitted five. Only one of the five responded.

It would be idle to pretend that copy editors do not make mistakes, even inserting errors into texts — I bear the scars of many such lapses myself. But I have also seen over the years how tempting it is for some reporters to condemn the copy desk before determining the facts. The human reflex to shift blame elsewhere, especially on a target group, is quite strong. Any number of times I have reported to work to take up the day’s fresh complaints, discovering frequently on examination that the reporter actually made the error, or the originating editor made the error, or even, on some occasions, that there was actually no error.

I’m not privy to Mr. DeRego’s work or the work of the Ka Leo copy desk, but the reported information casts a shadow over his explanation, as well as over his work.

English is not in danger

A few days back, Language Log published a sneer at a panel discussion on English-only measures at the “Building the New Majority” conference sponsored by The American Cause, Pat Buchanan’s organization. I am afraid that Mark Liberman, whose headline for the post was “Conferenece of dunces,” may be insufficiently respectful of Mr. Buchanan and his endeavors.*

For my part, I have been bewildered for years at the recurring propositions that (a) the English language is in some kind of danger and (b) some kind of governmental action can protect it.

I once wrote an op-ed piece for The Baltimore Sun on proposition (a). It is no longer available in a public archive, but I can summarize its points. English has become a world language, more widespread than Latin at its high-water mark. It’s hardly like Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, whose dwindling population of speakers gets annual attention in wire service feature stories. People around the world are keen to learn English, and you can make a modest living by teaching it to them.

I suppose that the perceived threat to English is the number of people in the United States whose primary language is Spanish or Chinese or something else that sounds like an outlandish tongue to middle-aged white American monoglots. But I live in a city that as recently as a century ago had public schools in which instruction was conducted in German, and yet somehow the Kaiser did not prevail here.

As to proposition (b), the failure of the French Academy to preserve the purity of French from inroads by English and other languages should be instructive.

If that is not a sufficient example, consider this passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language:

[S]o early as February 15, 1838, the Legislature of Indiana, in an act establishing the State university at Bloomington, provided that it should instruct the youth of the new Commonwealth (which had been admitted to the Union in 1816) “in the American, learned and foreign languages ... and literature.” Nearly a century later, in 1923, there was a violent upsurging of the same patriotic spirit, and bills making the American language official (but never clearly defining it) were introduced in the Legislatures of Illinois, North Dakota, Minnesota and other States.

Further, Mr. Mencken writes, Jay McCormick, a Republican of Montana, introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing “That the national and official language of the Government and people of the United States of America, including Territories and dependencies thereof, is hereby defined as and declared to be the American language.” Mr. McCormick’s bill died quietly and unmourned.
You may be aware, from what you say and hear and read and write every day, that American English, as distinct from the British and other varieties, has done all right for itself, without having to be propped up by the regulatory and military might of the federal government or the constituent sovereign states.

The polar ice caps are melting, hundreds of thousands of people (including your most humble & ob’t. servant) are out of work, and the National Threat Level is an ugly orange. Worry about those things and leave English alone. It has done quite nicely on its own for the past six centuries and more. It does not require assistance.

*When a measure was introduced to make English the official language of Taneytown, Maryland, I had a little innocent fun with the subject myself.