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/.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's just spelling

The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, whose column and blog I heartily endorse, keeps encountering some kind of obstacle in posting comments here. This comment on misused words came in an e-mail, which I am pleased to publish:

I'm on a mini-campaign to get people to remember that "confusions" like there/there and then/than are not actually semantic confusions, like infer for imply or flaunt for flout, but simply misspellings. Of course I care about spelling, but the people who think a mistake like "bigger then me" means the writer doesn't know "then" from "than" are truly confused. I wrote about it (briefly) in January (with itals in original, of course):

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/01/25/the_unkindliest_cut/

True, then for than is a fairly common spelling error, and one that spellcheckers don't catch. Then and (unstressed) than sound almost the same, and like other homophone pairs, they can be hard to keep straight. But then for than, like principle for principal, is not a confusion of sense -- it's just a spelling error.

For some reason, though, the Confusable Words industry -- dozens of websites use that label -- wants to scare us into thinking of spelling mixups as serious misunderstandings. "Check your dictionary," they intone. "Use than to make a comparison. Use then when referring to time."

But this is ludicrous. The person who types "he's bigger then me" isn't accidentally using then, the word that refers to time; he's just spelling than the way it sounds. In fact, than was often spelled then until the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "I had rather be a doore keeper in the house of my God, then to dwell in the tents of wickednesse," reads the psalm in the 1611 King James Bible.

Should students (and journalists) learn to spell correctly? Of course. But there's no need to overreact. The writer who mixes up hanger and hangar needs a spelling tip, not a brain transplant. ...

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.