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, March 31, 2010

Don't mock the afflicted

The saddest examples of Teabonics, the photo array of hand-printed signs displayed at Tea Party rallies, are those championing the English language.





Tuesday, March 30, 2010

He has to pay WHAT?


W. Charles Bailey Jr., a Baltimore attorney who says that this blog is one of his favorite diversions, has found what he thinks is an error in an Associated Press article, and with it, he raises a question about editing.

He has given me permission to quote at length from his note:

Mr. Bailey: I have a copy editor question that may actually be a topic for your blog.  It seems to be a classic example of a lack of good copy editing.

I opened my NY Times browser I and found the following AP Article:

Maryland:  Dead Marine 's Father Must Pay Protestor

By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

March 29, 2010

Lawyers for the father of a Marine who died in Iraq say a court has ordered him to pay legal costs for the anti-gay protesters who picketed his son’s funeral. The protesters are led by Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. The father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa., had won a $5 million verdict against Mr. Phelps, but it was thrown out on appeal. On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, in Maryland, ordered Mr. Snyder to pay the costs of Mr. Phelps’s appeal. The United States Supreme Court agreed earlier this month to consider whether the protesters’ provocative messages, which include phrases like “Thank God for dead soldiers,” are protected by the First Amendment. Members of the church maintain that God hates homosexuality and that the death of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan is God’s way of punishing the United States for its tolerance of it.

Reading the article, I was left with the understanding that the Court ordered the deceased Marine's Father to pay the legal fees of that despicable organization that pickets soldiers' funerals.  As a lawyer, I was stunned, because the American rule is that legal fees are not paid by the losing side. The only time the rule is set aside is when there is some statutory exception mandating a fee shift.

I suspected that the AP was mistaking "legal fees" with "costs" associated with an appeal.  Specifically, I suspected that the Court did not order the Marine's father to pay legal fees, but only ordered him to pay under a standard procedure that taxes the costs of photocopies to the losing party.  This is found in Federal Rule of Civil procedure 39, and applies in every case.  Suffice it to say, though, that the cost of copies, while expensive, are not the same thing as "legal costs" such as attorneys' fees in litigating an appeal.

I looked up the opinion and, sure enough, the only thing that was assessed was the usual copy fees.  In other words, this was what happens in every case.

So, my question is whether or not this is the sort of thing that a good copy editor should catch?  It certainly would be news if the court had assessed legal fees.  That's why I took the time to go and look up the case.  That didn't happen, though. Instead, the Court just applied the rules that have applied to all appeals for a long, long, time.

So is this a blunder or what?

My response: There certainly appears to be sloppiness in the Associated Press reports. One dated March 29 referred to an order “to pay the protesters’ appeal costs,” and one dated March 30 to an order “to pay legal costs.” Both stories were posted on The New York Times’s Web site, and the language appears in numerous other news sites.

I too thought that the order was to pay the legal fees. Had the article referred to an order to pay “court costs,” I would have assumed that it meant expenses such as filing fees and photocopying of documents, rather than attorney fees.

This is precisely the sort of distinction that a sharp-eyed copy editor might have made, and a well-timed question could have led to a call to the AP for a clarification, which the AP could have in turn sent out to subscribers. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer copy editors in the business, and those who remain have less and less time and encouragement to raise necessary questions. 



Recognize the inner bully


Never mind that Romantic era and Victorian gush about the innocence of children. I have been convinced for years that on any given day any given group of children is thisclose to Lord of the Flies.

You might want to consider the nine students at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who face criminal charges over a relentless campaign of harassment that led fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince to hang herself.

No, children are not civilized human beings, and it takes a great deal of effort over a long span to bring them to that point. Judging from the behavior we can witness on the Internet and in public discourse, the process has been incomplete for a substantial segment of the adult population.

I am not speaking from a platform of moral superiority here, and I suspect that most of us have reason to feel shame in recollecting our childhood and adolescence. Though I was, as a bookish, nearsighted teacher’s pet, occasionally bullied in elementary school, I sometimes took the other side.

Children have a feral gift of identifying the weak in the pack and turning on them. There was a girl in elementary school in Elizaville, Kentucky, who was cross-eyed and slow-witted, and some playground genius recognized one day the phonetic similarity of Margaret and maggot. I’m not sure that she was ever taunted to her face with the word, but I can’t rule that out.

I said nothing. If you ally yourself with the weak, you too step forward to be attacked.

There was a boy in my class, until the year he failed to be promoted to the next grade, who was short and wizened and quiet. I remember mocking him one winter because he wore a red jacket with a hood. (I no longer recall what led me to single that garment out.) As an adult, I realize that he, like most of the class, was a child of farmers of limited resources, and any clothing he wound up with he was doomed to wear. But, as usual, compassion arrives late in the day.

It appears that the teachers and administrators at South Hadley did little or nothing to help Phoebe Prince, and I doubt that there are many places where anyone would. In the first place, it is extraordinarily difficult to govern the behavior of children and teenagers. In the second, there appears to be a widespread belief that, like puberty, enduring bullies is a necessary part of adult formation, the toughening required for a harsh world. And in the third – you have probably known them – there are people who appear to have gone into teaching because they like to push people around and children are available for it.

I have no remedy. I would like to think that those of us who aspire to be civilized can take a hard look at the bully who lives within us and keep him in restraints, modeling better behavior. But it’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work.






Try to keep up


I’ve been meaning to write up some appreciations of Jack Lynch’s The Lexicographer’s Dilemma and some books on language sent over by Oxford University Press, but other matters have pushed themselves to the fore. Be patient. The posts will be coming, as will one about the important matter I hinted at previously.

For now, some random amusements:

Item: Arrant Pedantry suggests that there could and should be peace in the valley between prescriptivits and descriptivists (the while linking my name, though I am not worthy, with Bill Walsh’s and Jan Freeman’s). You Don’t Say heartily endorses his reasoned and irenic tone.

Item: One of Andy Bechtel’s students at Chapel Hill has written a guest post at The Editor’s Desk about the importance of editing beyond journalism:

When I received my employee handbook at orientation, I was appalled to see a typo, spelling error and incorrect word choice on every single page. The PowerPoint presentation wasn’t any better. And when my boss got up to speak, I cringed when I heard the word “interpretated” fall out of his mouth.
Individuals and businesses seem to be under the mistaken impression that editing is only for news media. But it’s not just about using the language correctly. It’s about maintaining an image.

Worth a longer look.

Item: As a longtime reader of British detective fiction, I would be happy to see some Britishisms creep into common use here, in exchange for the Americanisms we have exported.

There has been some whingeing (whining, peevish complaint) about gone missing (a perfectly fine neutral term that can accommodate both abductions and simple wandering off), though even a git (a fool, a twit, a useless person – think of the contempt you can pack into that short vowel and terminal consonant) can suss out (figure out, investigate to discover) what it means in context.

Any other admirers of P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Reginald Hill, Martha Grimes, Ian Rankin (Scotland for aye!), and their like out there who would care to suggest additional terms?  





Sunday, March 28, 2010

Preoccupied

You must have thought we were down to seeds and stems this past week, but there were reasons for the less frequent posting.

Item: I had a real job for five days, working temporarily as an editor at Baltimore’s Daily Record for my old Sun colleague Tom Linthicum. He and his staff were both professional and cordial, a delight to work with, but an 11 a.m.-8 p.m. shift cuts a little into the day.

Item: There was also the event that finally marked me as a true Baltimorean: A man was shot to death half a block from my house on Tuesday night.

Just as I had turned the corner from Roselawn and headed down Plymouth to pick up my son from the train station, Kathleen heard half a dozen gunshots in rapid succession. By the time J.P. and I got back, the ambulance had gone and police officers were stretching crime scene tape around the area.

What emerged over the next couple of days was that a 22-year-old man in a sedan service car, parked on Roselawn halfway between Plymouth and Pioneer, had been shot in the head, through the window of his car. Neighbors reported seeing two other cars drive away rapidly but could furnish no details.

A truck carrying floodlights drove up, and police officers combed the street for evidence. The next morning, homicide detectives were examining the area and questioning neighbors, and a fire truck appeared to wash the blood off the street.

Neighborhood speculation is that the drug trade, which can been seen operating in the area as two cars rendezvous for a brief exchange and then drive off, was involved, though some personal revenge is also possible. We will almost certainly never know.

Item: A certain amount of time was also taken up with a developing matter that I am not yet free to disclose but hope to bring to light within the next few days.

All in all, an eventful week, but not on the blog. I’ll be back to posting this week. 

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Gray is good


You can tell from the photograph above that I am a grizzled gentleman. Grizzled, meaning gray or graying or streaked with gray hair, comes to us from the French grisel, a diminutive that rises in turn from gris, gray.

I am not a grizzly, the common name of the Ursus arctos horribilis, or grizzly bear. The bear has brown fur with white tips, so the bear is grizzled too.

Grizzly is sometimes confused with grisly, from the Old English ­grislic, or terrifying. What a grizzly bear can do to a human being may be grisly to look at, but the two words have no connection other than similarity of sound.
There is also a verb, to grizzle, an old dialect word from Devon and Cornwall meaning to cry or whine.
If you are a devote of voodoo, you may possess a gris-gris (also grigri), a word of West African origin for an amulet or a bag containing herbs, small bones, hair, and other objects, worn to attract good luck and ward off evil. It can also be a charm performed by an adept, so you want to be careful not to confuse grizzled, grizzly, and grisly, lest someone put the gris-gris on you. Grizzling about it will not help.


Thursday, March 25, 2010

Writing is overrated

I’ve worked with people who believed in writing memos – I used to believe in the practice myself. Spoken English is too sloppy, too casual, too little thought-out, they think. Sitting down with a pen or resorting to the keyboard, they think, gives them time to collect their ideas and present them in an orderly, succinct progression. It is more efficient, they say, clearer and less likely to result in misunderstandings.

Unfortunately, and my heart goes out to them, they are completely mistaken.

If you are to avoid their mistake, there are some things you have to understand.

First, people will not read your e-mail and your memos. They just don’t. They have pieces of prose flying at them all day long, as if they were pilots navigating through a barrage over Berlin. So they skim, or they stop at the third sentence in and never go back, or they ignore the text altogether.

That may be just as well, because if they paid attention to what you wrote, you might well be in trouble. Writing may be precise, but it lacks the cues of facial expression, tone, and gestures with which you communicate meaning in speech. That makes it dangerously easy for readers to misinterpret your tone and attention. What you intended as patient explanation, they see as pompous condescension; what you saw as puckish wit, they see as a sarcastic affront; what you present as a reasoned plan to correct faults, they will regard as impudence. You will do yourself no favors with these documents.

In government, in ecclesiastical circles, in business, and in other bureaucracies employing people of modest abilities keen to establish their value to the enterprise, the writing of memos resembles those Confucian exams that the Chinese imperial bureaucracy favored, or the dissertations that earn contemporary academics their doctorates: exercises pointless in themselves that serve to qualify the author for advancement. Keep it bland, and do not expect anyone to pay serious attention.

In my hot-blooded youth I imagined that wooing could be accomplished by lyrical letters and poetry, only to have the inutility of that approach regularly established. At work as in love, try face-to-face first.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Oh, that

­­­Since being given a thorough thumping by Professor Geoffrey Pullum in 2008, I have not returned to the which thicket, but a former Sun colleague now operating elsewhere has called for assistance. His shop includes editors from different backgrounds who do not agree on that/which usage.

In 1926 H.W. Fowler suggested in Modern English Usage that it would be a good thing to use that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses.

We interrupt continuity to discuss the vexatious terminology. You may have been taught different terms. Fowler referred to “defining clauses.” You may have been taught “restrictive,” “limiting,” or “essential” as the terms for clauses that limit meaning, identifying one out of two or more possibilities, and “nonrestrictive,” “non-limiting,” or “non-essential” for information that is merely additional or parenthetical.

Restrictive: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”* Not all people, but the specific class of people who have been in darkness. Nonrestrictive: “Jainism, which was born at about the same time as Buddhism, has had a great impact on Indian culture.” The coincidental rise of Buddhism is not an essential element of the sentence. The former class of clauses is not set off by commas; the latter is.

To get back to Fowler’s distinction, the first thing to stress is that this is not a rule. He merely offered that observing it would be a “gain in both lucidity & ease,” a recommendation that Garner’s Modern American Usage stoutly maintains.

The distinction is frequently, but not universally, maintained in American English, especially in written English, but British and Commonwealth writers continue to use which in both restrictive and non-restrictive senses, and nobody complains.



Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, after a discussion of the historical switches back and forth, comes to this:

We conclude that at the end of the 20th century, the usage of which and that—at least in prose—has pretty much settled down. You can use which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic—and which to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.  


So if you are writing for American readers, observing the that/which distinction is a safe and advisable course. But unless you can identify some actual ambiguity that would lead to misunderstanding, it’s not a matter worth fretting over.

I am a little disconcerted, however, to see in newspaper journalism increasing instances of that clauses that are plainly nonrestrictive. Perhaps it is just another example of the carelessness and sloppiness characteristic of journalism. But – I want to be charitable – perhaps reporters are adopting it because of their immersion in the prose of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the nonrestrictive that was common.



*I can’t resist saying again that you were mistaught if you were told that that may not be used to refer to people. That is a perfectly acceptable pronoun to identify groups of people, as in the example sentence, or a person whose name is not known.




Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tea Party, please note


The New York Times has an article on the accelerating collapse of ACORN, the grassroots community-organizing group, which appears to be on the brink of bankruptcy:

Over the last six months, at least 15 of the group’s 30 state chapters have disbanded and have no plans of re-forming, Acorn officials said. The California and New York chapters, two of the largest, have severed their ties to the national group and have independently reconstituted themselves with new names. Several other state groups are also re-forming outside the Acorn umbrella. …

But wait, there’s more:

[T]he organization was dogged for years by financial problems and accusations of fraud. In the summer of 2008, infighting erupted over embezzlement of Acorn funds by the brother of the organization’s founder. Some chapters were also found to have submitted voter application forms with incorrect information on them during the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, leading to blistering charges from conservative organizations linking Acorn’s errors to the Obama campaign.

The extent of sheer incompetence, tinged with possibilities of corruption, does indeed give off a bad smell. But before conservatives indulge themselves in the shouting of hosannas, there is this to consider.

The Tea Party movement, like ACORN, includes many impassioned and well-meaning people who are not part of established groups and whose expertise in setting up and maintaining a national political organization is unproven. There are fledgling organizations within the movement whose goals and tactics may turn out to be inconsistent. And there appear to be large sums of money floating about – and conservatives know as well as anyone that when the money is flowing many people will be tempted to dip their own buckets into the stream.

Both ACORN and the Tea Party movement have their origins in citizens’ disenchantment with the existing political parties and lobbying operations, which they have found ineffective, unresponsive, or susceptible to corruption – or all three. Unfortunately, good intentions do not guarantee immunity from bad decisions, or protection from lurking rascals.




Thursday, March 18, 2010

No Irish need apply


Sure and it was a grand day when conservatives finally claimed political correctitude for themselves.

William F. Gavin, writing for National Review Online, opines that McCarthyism is a slur against the Irish.

Don’t leave it with me. See what you make of his argument.

After years of scorning the “culture of victimization” and ridiculing style guides that prohibited paddy wagon and dutch treat and welsh on a bet, a conservative stands up to defend an alcoholic senator who made incoherent and unsubstantiated accusations of subversion, and who was ultimately censured (Do you know what it takes for the United States Senate to censure one of its own?) on the basis of defending his Irish Catholic ethnicity.

A different ethnic tradition might term this chutzpa.



Religion and politics


Yesterday afternoon I sent out this tweet: The Rev. Canon* Mary Douglas Glasspool has received the necessary consents for her consecration as a suffragan bishop. This is significant because her consecration in May will make her only the second openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church and the first lesbian bishop.

Subsequently, @mkecoffee tweeted thus: I think the Episcopal church has long been little more than a thin veneer on top of a secular worldview.

There is something to that. (Thought I was going to spring to the defense of liberal ecclesiology, didn’t you?) If I will concede that there is an argument to be made here, will Mr. Coffee and those who agree with him entertain the possibility that other denominations or congregations are cloaking secular conservative cultural views in the mantle of religion?

Discuss.



*Because she serves as canon to the bishops of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland, her formal title is the Rev. Canon. My former newspaper, The Baltimore Sun, continues to refer to her as the Rev. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.



Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Maybe hire a copy editor?

Yahoo News headline: Women, girls rape victims in Haiti quake

Comment on CNN screen crawl: Jewish lobby runs America

MSNBC: I-Team: Judge Married Woman, Suspected Abuser

WJZ-TV: Man Arrested For Sexual Assault On College Campus

Reuters: BOJ split vote raises doubts about future easing

CNBC: End of Mortgage Buys Form of Tightening: Pimco


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Manners maketh man


A post from last September, “Take off your hat, sir,” continues to provoke occasional comments, including this most recent one: “I know you say it's disrespectful [to leave one’s hat on in a courtroom], but why is that? it just doesn't make sense.... so please explain that to me so I have a better understanding and so I have a better reason than ‘because it shows respect.’ ”

I can give some historical perspective. Removing headgear was likely a gesture of peacefulness. A warrior removing his helmet exposes his head, and this gesture of vulnerability indicates that no harm is intended. Similarly, the custom of shaking hands upon meeting seems to have originated as an indication that one is not carrying a weapon.

Over time the practice of uncovering took on additional meanings. A man removed his hat as a gesture of respect for authority in the presence of the monarch or a judge. And in time good manners dictated such practices as removing the hat at the theater, at the dinner table, at the opera, in church, in an elevator when a lady is present. Tipping the hat in encountering acquaintances became a gesture of friendly acknowledgement.

This may seem quaint and arbitrary to you, particularly if you’re wearing a baseball cap at table in a laughable effort to conceal your male-pattern baldness. And it is. Manners are inherently arbitrary. If you are male and Jewish and Orthodox, you follow a completely different set of customs about headgear.

Manners are like idioms in language. Idioms convey meanings that are not expressed by the literal words, which is why students learning a new language have to memorize idioms. There is no point in arguing over the gender of nouns in French or German; they’re just that way, and if you don’t trouble to learn them you will sound uneducated and crude to native speakers.

The force of custom can be stronger than law, which is, I think, why some people who write about usage often mistake stylistic preferences for rules of grammar. And even though they are wrong-headed in their advice, such people are on to something. The way you dress and conduct yourself and the way you write transmit messages about yourself.

You may think that wearing a baseball cap in court demonstrates your autonomy and your freedom from the dead hand of archaic custom. That’s fine, but you should be aware that the judge is going to think that you’re just a jerk or a slob. You can ignore or flout the conventions of standard written English, “just so long as you get your meaning across,” as my freshman composition students used to say, so long as you can accept that some readers will conclude that you’re subliterate and will then ignore what you have to say.

Just take off your hat, and no backtalk.  



Sunday, March 14, 2010

Beware of the editor


I have spent thirty years working with copy editors, several of whom I have trained and many of whom I admire. They have been boon companions. But it is regrettably true that not all copy editors are equally able, and, even more regrettably, some can be positively dangerous. Here are a few you will want to watch out for.

SPEED DEMON
Speed Demon tears through copy. Hand him a text and he’ll return it to you before you’ve swallowed another sip of coffee. Speed can keep up this pace all night. Unfortunately, as he careers along he fails to notice that a proper name is spelled two different ways, not all of the subjects and verbs agree, and he has left a typo in his headline.

ONE GEAR
One Gear goes to the opposite extreme. One is meticulous. Every name is checked, every fact looked up, every sentence weighed, tested, and verified. One can handle three, maybe four texts a shift, and the pace never changes. If it is twenty minutes past deadline, steam is escaping under pressure from the news editor’s head, and the printing plant foreman is approaching hysteria, One’s lumbering pace never quickens.

PICKY PICKY PICKY
You should have been suspicious when you scored Picky Picky Picky’s applicant test. Something was marked wrong in every single sentence, usually two or three things. Picky is determined to show you that she is, by gum, an editor, and being an editor means finding lots of things wrong, without regard to significance. Large errors, small errors, things that are not errors — Picky vacuums them all up and dumps them on your desk.

BLACK/WHITE
Editing, as Black/White understands it, means following the Rules. The Rules can mainly be found in the Associated Press Stylebook, which Black/White has annotated more thoroughly than the Talmud. For every instance, there is a clear right answer and a clear wrong answer, and Black/White has a no-tolerance policy for wrong answers. Everything that comes from Black/White’s hands has a coat of battleship gray slapped over it.

LOOSEY GOOSEY
If you wrote it, it’s fine with Loosey Goosey, because changing it would interfere with the Writer’s Voice, and the voice of God is not any more sacred than the Writer’s. Loosey is particularly treasured by writers in features departments, because she never thinks that a self-indulgent goat-choker ought to be shorter or that a metaphor that would look excessive in the Bulwer-Lytton competition ought to be challenged.

AUTHOR MANQUE
There are, one blushes to admit, copy editors who fit the stereotype that writers cherish: the frustrated writer who rewrites other people’s prose just because he can. Author, unlike Picky Picky Picky, does not hold that the texts he edits are factually or grammatically defective; he just thinks that he could have written them better, and, whenever he is not closely watched, he simply rewrites to suit his own taste.

I KNOW BETTER
Those reference books on grammar and usage on the shelf next to the copy desk? That list of electronic references painstaking compiled, vetted, and distributed to the editors? I Know has never looked at any of them, because I Know knows better. I Know, as you can count on being reminded, was editing copy when you were still a zygote, and he has forgotten more about the craft than you will ever learn. (Both those statements, oddly, may be true.) He isn’t having any truck with your newfangled enthusiasms about language and editing, and if you are weak and cowardly, you will let him get away with this.

OUT OF MY DEPTH
Nobody knows why Out Of applied to be a copy editor. Perhaps someone on the parole board suggested it. Perhaps Out Of just heard that it was a job where you could sit down all day without having to run around town and talk to people you don’t know who don’t want to answer your questions anyhow. Nobody knows why Out Of was hired, either, except that the managers don’t have a clue about what editing is and imagine that just about anybody can run spell-check and format a text for the Web. Out Of doesn’t know much about language, so he doesn’t fix anything. He’s not particularly curious, so he doesn’t ask many questions. He just takes what comes along and passes it along.

I Know Better is the past of editing. Out Of My Depth is the future.



Friday, March 12, 2010

It just don't add up

Before you go all peevy on me about the headline, you should be reminded that it is a direct quotation from a Warner Bros. cartoon of my youth. I will offer a public salute to the first reader who accurately identifies the source.* What it does indicate is that we live in a world in which many things simply make no sense.

Item: Mattel is producing a series of Barbie-style dolls based on characters from Mad Men. But the dolls will not have drinks and cigarettes as accessories. What next, a Glenn Beck doll that doesn’t cry?

Item: A lawsuit has been filed claiming that the E-Trade commercial showing a “milkaholic” baby named Lindsay appropriates Lindsay Lohan’s name and image without her consent. Oddly, milk is an addiction with which Ms. Lohan has not previously been associated.

As my first news editor, the late Bob Johnson, used to say, “You can sue the Bishop of Boston for bastardy. But can you get a judgment?”

Item: The Itawamba County School Board in Mississippi canceled a high school prom to which a lesbian student wanted to bring a date, saying that it did so “taking into consideration the education, safety and well-being of our students.”

Now I see that I must have been psychologically scarred by the sight of girls dancing with each other at dances when I was in high school. (Not because they were lesbian, mind you, but because the boys mistook awkwardness for masculinity and gracefulness for effeminacy.)

Item: There appear to be a great number of people interested in Tiger Woods’s sex life. There appear also to be a great number of people interested in golf. Neither interest is fathomable.

Item: Warner Bros. has begun development of a Gilligan’s Island movie. Further comment should be superfluous, though you may still have time to light out for the territory.



*Hint: Did you remember the gravy?




Thursday, March 11, 2010

The world turned upside down


Two propositions worth considering:

Item: Glenn Beck is a satirist employed by the sinister left-wing media to subvert conservatism by making it look ridiculous.

Evidence: Jon Stewart’s Daily Show simply runs excerpts of the Beck interview with Eric Massa. Commentary is hardly necessary.


Item: The Onion is not a satirical publication, but a factual one.


WASHINGTON—Unable to rest their eyes on a colorful photograph or boldface heading that could be easily skimmed and forgotten about, Americans collectively recoiled Monday when confronted with a solid block of uninterrupted text.
Dumbfounded citizens from Maine to California gazed helplessly at the frightening chunk of print, unsure of what to do next. Without an illustration, chart, or embedded YouTube video to ease them in, millions were frozen in place, terrified by the sight of one long, unbroken string of English words.
“Why won't it just tell me what it's about?” said Boston resident Charlyne Thomson, who was bombarded with the overwhelming mass of black text late Monday afternoon. “There are no bullet points, no highlighted parts. I've looked everywhere—there's nothing here but words.”
“Ow,” Thomson added after reading the first and last lines in an attempt to get the gist of whatever the article, review, or possibly recipe was about. …

 Think of the students whose eyes glaze over if they are asked to read more than a page, or the managers unable to conceptualize except in PowerPoint. This is a documentary article.




Wednesday, March 10, 2010

It's good to be the king

Memories have not yet faded of the pleasure derived from being the benevolent despot of The Baltimore Sun’s copy desk, so I took a natural interest in learning that Randy Michaels, the CEO of the Tribune Company, has issued a ukase forbidding the use of 119 words or phrases on WGN-AM.

Some of his preferences merit hearty endorsement. I was rolling my eyes at giving 110 percent from the mouths of blowhard coaches at mandatory school assemblies forty years ago. Anyone on television or radio who refers to snow as white stuff should be sent to a re-education camp in Thunder Bay, Ontario, for the winter. He scorns close proximity (where else would it be?) and the confusion of podium for lectern.

Some preferences may leave you shaking your head. No seek for look for. Motorist is out, officials verboten, pedestrian eighty-sixed. Don’t ask me why. I can understand tired vogue words like diva, idiotic weather-speak like shower activity­ for showers, and affected diction like perished, but allegations has always seemed to me to be a perfectly good word for unproven claims.

Still, it’s his radio station, and he has say-so.

What will be interesting to see will be the long-term effect. Those of us in the paragraph game were long familiar with decrees from Jupiter Optimus Maximus coming down from the summit of Olympus.

One Sun managing editor took exception to escapee. The –ee suffix, he insisted goes with the name of the person who is the object of the action, not the doer of the action. He decreed that any miscreant who slipped his collar was to be referred to as an escaper. And so we did, for a time. But that managing editor moved on, and the decree lapsed into desuetude. At some point, I silently deleted it from the electronic stylebook, and no one noticed.

But some idiosyncratic directives linger long after the departure of the lawgiver, even past the point at which anyone can remember its rationale. Newspaper stylebooks and copy desk lore are full of these fossil remnants. The phenomenon has been explored in Jan Freeman’s excellent Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right, which identifies arbitrary edicts about usage that have survived for generations in American newspapers, along with other idiosyncratic preferences that are completely, and rightly, ignored. It is analogous to the way that people retain actual rules of grammar and usage mixed with utter superstitions from their childhood, solid ware and junk eternally mixed.

But, as I said, it’s Mr. Michaels’s shop. He has the scepter, and, baby, he can flaunt it.

Some people at WGN will see it as their responsibility to honor Mr. Michael’s directive to the letter; some, I suspect, will take glee in subverting it at every opportunity. And someday, when Mr. Michaels himself has progressed to fresh woods and pastures new, some of his strictures will remain in force and some will have dropped from living memory.

And no man can say today which will be which.



Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Those who can't, teach

Geoffrey K. Pullum, the celebrated linguist, laid down a full barrage yesterday, directed at a Web site called The Apple, which proclaims itself to be “Where Teachers Meet and Learn.”

The object of Professor Pullum’s artillery was a post, “11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid.” As he brought each gun to bear, the target disintegrated in a cloud of smoke and smithereens. Some of the eleven “mistakes” were not even about grammar but about subjective stylistic preferences, and the ones that were about grammar and usage were manifestly defective. You owe it to yourself to click on the link and watch the action.

Repeat customers at this location will recognize that I have exercised my own more modest battery in similar manner, recently taking aim at the bogus advice of one Sam Greenspan, whose own “11 Little-Known Grammatical Errors That Will Shock and Horrify You” also curiously follows the ten-plus-one pattern, but to no better effect.

Yielding to temptation, I sampled the comments on The Apple’s “11 Grammar Mistakes to Avoid,” and, reader, I tremble for the future of the Republic. Some of the respondents, presumably teachers in our nation’s schools, heartily endorsed the author’s misguided advice. “Great post!”

A few pointed out the questionable nature of the author’s assertions about language, but some of the comments that challenged the article or other commenters did so on equally faulty grounds, as in this gorgeous specimen:

Actually, the comment should read, “The clouds appeared; then, it rained.” The “then” is separating 2 complete sentences and requires a semicolon between them and a comma after the “then”. Shame on you, writer, on national grammer day!

Language snobs were also well represented:

I am such a grammar snob and this is right up my alley. I know it may sound as though I am being arrogant but nothing makes me cringe more than when people use bad grammar. I physically feel the shivers up my spine when either one of my students or colleagues makes a grammatical mistake.

I thought for a moment that it might be the snobs and the peevers the writer was attacking in this comment:

They do serve to divide people and keep the status quo alive and well as well as serving as a very effective hegemonic tool where we police ourselves.

But on reading further I realized that this writer was aligned with the other members of the tribe holding forth at The Apple that teaching the grammar and usage of standard written English inhibits learning, leaving students’ free expression cabined, cribbed, and confined. We’ve seen the attitude before, that students cannot be taught things that they do not already know, but seldom as openly expressed.

This display of ignorance combined with arrogance is at once laughable and deeply saddening: people instructing the young in English who do not and apparently cannot identify actual rules of grammar, or distinguish standard usage from personal stylistic preference, or identify shibboleths that even diehard prescriptivists identify as errors.

It used to distress me that so many of my juniors and seniors in the editing class have trouble with grammar and usage. Now I realize that I should be humbly grateful that any of them can write intelligibly at all.






Monday, March 8, 2010

Curse you, Microsoft Word


A couple of readers have complained that the ¾ symbol is showing up in these blog posts, and one suggests that they are occurring where I use the em dash. That surmise is correct.

The em dash is the one on Microsoft Word’s insert symbol menu -- Word 2007, not the earlier version I had been using -- and apparently the Blogger software does not recognize it. (I realize just now that Microsoft Word has used its symbol for the 3/4 fraction, and God knows how that will appear to you.) So now I am reduced to typing in two hyphens if I want a dash, as if I were still working on a damn typewriter.

It’s hard enough to make these dispatches intelligible without having to wrestle with inconsistencies in software. So I will consult with someone more knowledgeable about the quirks of Microsoft Word and the Blogger software – just about anyone is – to see whether some resolution of the matter is possible without my having to go back to school and earn a degree in programming. (Now I notice that something, probably the damn auto-correct feature that I forgot to shut off is converting some of the double hyphens, but not all, to en dashes. Grrrr.)

In the meantime, I may just stop using dashes altogether, which for many writers and all journalists would not be a bad idea. 

More than one in ten is OK


Etymology can suggest, but it cannot command.

The Latin word decem, “ten,” is the root of decimal and also decimate, which originally identified that fine old Roman custom of disciplining a mutinous legion by executing one man out of every ten.

Some finicky self-appointed guardians of language have insisted that decimate should retain its one-in-ten sense in all contexts, but English has moved on. Decimate is perfectly acceptable standard English in the sense of “to kill or destroy a large part of.” A population can be decimated ¾ substantially reduced, not precisely by a tenth, but not eliminated altogether ¾ in the outbreak of a disease.

That degree of license does not, however, mean that anything goes, as can be seen in the initial paragraph of a recent Baltimore Sun article:

An Anne Arundel County firefighter admitted Wednesday to emptying the bank accounts of a regional firefighter charity when he was its treasurer, a crime that has decimated the organization.

One is left wondering what happened. Has the organization lost a great part of its members? Or is the writer trying to indicate financial hardship? Or what? It seems likely that the word for which the writer was reaching, and missed, is devastate.

Another misuse of decimate is in the sense of “to defeat utterly,” as in the warmongering hyperbole favored by the sports pages.

If you can avoid false precision on one side and sloppiness of expression on the other, decimate is still a perfectly useful word. 

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Why not the worst?


You English majors and lovers of literature (not necessarily identical categories), a while back on the old blog I posed a question: What’s the worst writing you ever read?

Before you spring on us extracts from the poetry of William McGonagall or Julia A. Moore, the Sweet Singer of Michigan, or from your cousin’s child’s fifth-grade book report or the latest memo on benefits from your human resources department, or the latest winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, observe a couple of rules.

(1) It must be published writing.

(2)It must be of some literary standing, not the work of a misguided amateur but rather that of a misguided professional, a writer of some reputation.

(3)It must be limited to a single, discrete passage.

(4)It must be from literature, broadly defined, rather than from criticism or (save us) from newspaper journalism.  

(5) Dan Brown doesn’t count.

Some of my favorites:

Item:  From Richard Crashaw’s “Saint Mary Magdalene or The Weeper” (referring to Magdalene’s eyes):

And now wher’er he strays,
Among the Galilean mountains,
Or more unwelcome ways,
He’s followed by two faithful fountains;
Two walking baths, two weeping motions;
Portable and compendious oceans.

Item: From Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature”:

“Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball¾I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me¾I am part or particle of God.”

Item: From Pecy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor, or The Spirit of Solitude:

At length upon the lone Chorasmian shore
He paused, a wide and melancholy waste
Of putrid marshes.

Item:  From Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited:

So at sunset I took formal possession of her as her lover. It was no time for the sweets of luxury; they would come, in their season, with the swallow and the lime flowers. Now on the rough water, as I was made free of her narrow loins and, it seemed now, in assuaging that fierce appetite, cast a burden which I had borne all my life, toiled under, not knowing its nature ¾ now, while the waves still broke and thundered on the prow, the act of possession was a symbol, a rite of ancient origin and solemn meaning.

(Whew.) Have at it.







Saturday, March 6, 2010

A caution about St. Patrick's Day


Though the Irish in my genome  is probably the deplorable Scotch-Irish Presbyterian form rather than the genuine article,* I do know this: Do not refer casually to St. Patrick’s Day as St. Patty’s Day, or you will betray ignorance.

The diminutive form of Patrick, from the Irish Padraig, is Paddy. If you want to be cute about March 17, call it St. Paddy’s Day.

Paddy is also a slang term for an Irishman, one that can give offense because of condescending, stereotypical associations.

A police van, for example, is sometimes called a paddy wagon. The New Oxford American Dictionary speculates that that came about in the 1930s or so because many police officers in major Eastern cities were of Irish descent. I suspect that the term may be associated with the stereotype of an Irishman as someone who drinks up his weekly wages, becomes violent, and has to be carted away to jail to sleep it off. Your sense of the etymology of paddy wagon will depend on whether you think the term refers to the driver or the cargo. In any case, steer clear of it; you don’t want to get anyone’s Irish up.



*St. Patrick himself was a Brit. So no harm and no foul if you choose to be honorary Irish on the grand day as you lift a pint of Guinness to your lips. Slainte. 

Friday, March 5, 2010

Counting heads


This is a year for midterm elections, some primaries having already been conducted, so you can be confident of being battered with polling results from now till November. Like Satchel the dog playing “food, not food” in Get Fuzzy, you’ll want to be careful about what you taste.

Advice for reporters:

That 140-character tweet isn’t going to allow for much nuance, so plan on being more thorough in the full story. Keep in mind that your readers do not have the time, and often not the expertise, to evaluate opinion polls, so you are responsible for reporting them accurately. Ask the necessary questions.

1. Who sponsored the poll? If it is a genuinely nonpartisan organization, fine. But if it is a business or labor union or party/advocacy organization, you need to be cautious about the results, and so does the reader. Unless a turncoat slips you a copy, no campaign organization is going to reveal that its candidate is less popular than registered sex offenders.

2. Who conducted the poll? Was it an organization known to be reputable, with a history of reliable results? Or not?

3. How big was the sample, and who was in it? Too small a sample, or too narrow a choice of groups within the population, and the results will be highly questionable. Make sure that the respondents were randomly selected rather than a self-selected population like the people who participate in those worthless online or call-in surveys. 

4. How were the questions worded? Changes in the wording of questions can produce opposite responses from the same people. Loaded language will skew results. 

5. What’s the margin of error? The confidence level? Responsible polls report both these elements. If Candidate A has 42 percent and Candidate B has 40 percent and the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percent, Candidate A might in fact be leading, but you can’t say that for sure. Confidence level for results in the overall sample will almost certainly be very different from the confidence level for subgroups.

6. When was it taken? Attitudes can fluctuate widely during a campaign. A poll more than a few days old may represent views that have since shifted. And, generally, the more distant from Election Day, the less reliable the data will be in predicting the outcome.

7. Why aren’t you asking these questions?  There is nothing novel about these questions about opinion polls. Multiple sources tell you how to deal with polls ¾ much of the information in this post, for example, can also be found in the Associated Press Stylebook. So why are Associated Press articles and journalism in general so careless about repeating just about anything any pollster says?


Advice for readers:

You may not have the background to evaluate polling data, but you know enough to evaluate the articles about the polls. Be skeptical. If the article describing poll results doesn’t give you indications that the writer has done the homework described above, then you have no reason to trust the claims being made. And if the article makes exaggerated claims for the significance of the poll, you’d be well advised to be even more suspicious.

Written sources — newspapers, magazines, online publications — obviously have more scope to do the necessary level of reporting than broadcast television, though cable news operations will often describe polling data in some detail.

In the 2008 election season you could find people publishing averages of polls ¾ different surveys conducted by different organizations at different times for different populations with different questions, under the highly questionable assumption that mashing inconsistent data into a single lump provides a nugget of reliable information.

The word poll, originally meaning head, is very old; the OED records a citation from the late thirteenth century. So an opinion poll is a counting of heads. Just make sure that you don’t allow your noggin to be stuffed with dubious information. 

Pulp Diction: The complete serial


1. 15 items or trouble

You get ’em in the checkout at Safeway — harried mothers with kids clamoring for candy, bleary-eyed old guys pushing a cartload into the fifteen-items line, kids with green hair buying exotic produce. Some chat with the cashier, but nobody talks to the bag boy. Fine with me. I liked anonymity when I was a copy editor. I like it better now.

I was pushing a train of carts back toward the store when she grabbed my arm. I turned. “You,” I said. It wasn’t friendly.

“Mr. McIntyre, I really need to talk with you,” she said. Mostly, she was a pert little thing, but this time her voice trembled.

“I don’t have anything to say to you, Fogarty.” That’s Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Dame, Grammar Girl, something like that. Big-time blogger, raking in big bucks from rubes who couldn’t tell the present from the preterite if it jabbed them in the keister.

“Please, it’s urgent. I’ve heard from Martha Brockenbrough.”

More female trouble. The last time I saw the Brockenbrough skirt, I was in the witness stand, and she was at the defense table, trying — not convincingly — to look innocent. I’d turned her in for a homicide. I didn’t stay for the rest of the trial, but I’d heard she copped a plea to manslaughter while the jury was still out. Now she’s in the Big House for a good long while. You know the story.

“Sister, I’ve still got nothing to say to you. How the hell did you know to look for me here, anyhow?”

“I asked about you at the Intelligencer-Argus, and they said you’d been let go. Somebody said you might be here.”

“Let go? Let go? Toots, I was unceremoniously dumped, made redundant, sacked, eighty-sixed, kicked to the curb, reduced in force, right-sized. A year ago I was a minor-league copy desk tsar, and today I’m wearing a cardboard belt. The big boys got this idea that editors were interposing too many touches between the writer and the reader, and they sacked the lot of us. Just as well. They were talking about touching more than the staff at a day care center that’s hired a pedophile. I’m well rid of ’em.”

“I’m really sorry about that. I know you were well thought of. But I’m in trouble, and I really need your help.”

“Why? Caught with counterfeit gerunds again?”

“It’s not like that. Ever since I heard from Martha, I’ve been followed. I think my phone is tapped. My mail is being tampered with. My car is making a funny noise. I think it needs an oil change.”

She was getting rattled. Nothing new there. “So who cares about you?” I asked. “You’re just some two-bit grammar fancier who made it big on the Internet. There’re dozens like you — scores.”

“It’s not over,” she said, her voice breaking. “That plot you stopped last time, the one to sabotage National Grammar Day, that’s not over. They just got some of the little fish.”

“And now that you’ve been seen talking to me, they’ll come after me. Thanks a heap, lady.”

“I know where to go to find out more, but I can’t go myself. I thought you might.”

“Where is it that you can’t go that you want me to?”

She looked at me. Something cold enveloped my whole body.

“Calvert Street.”


NEXT: The last copy editor






2. The last copy editor

At the old Sun building on Calvert Street the front door yielded with a rusty creak. Dust lay thick on the guard’s desk, and small birds flew through broken windows. Bundled stacks of the last print edition displayed the headline: SEE US ON THE WEB.

Windows were out on the second floor, too, and scurrying and skittering sounds preceded me as I rounded the corner into the main room. Row on row of cubicles stretched out, each with a computer terminal like a headstone, each with a sad little collection of photos, figurines, long-dead plants. It was like walking the deck of the Mary Celeste.

On a bulletin board near the old copy desk, dangling from a single push pin, a yellowed memo listed a set of banned holiday cliches. The office next to the bulletin board was empty except for a Webster’s New World College Dictionary missing its cover.

A quavering voice asked, “Who’s there?”

A stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler, rose from one of the copy desk work stations where he had been dozing on an improvised pallet of final-edition bundles. His hair was white, his beard untrimmed, his gaze wary. He wore a green eyeshade, and I recognized my quarry: the last copy editor. 

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I used to be a copy editor myself. Tell me how it all ended,” I said, with a sweeping gesture.

“Son, I started here when it was the A.S. Abell Company. Then Times Mirror. Then Tribune. When Tribune went belly-up and the Scavenger Group acquired the place, it was a new editor every six months. Each one came in, did a redesign, announced a new strategy to attract readers, and got bounced before his chair got warm.

“Last one was a fellow named White. Three-barreled name. Allen William White. Lasted a month and a half. They fired him for spending too much on farewell cakes for people leaving the staff.”

“And then?”

“Then they sent in this manager — name of Volponi — who walked into the newsroom, announced that the paper didn’t really need an editor, that editors were just vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial model, and fired just about everybody.”

“So why are you still here?”

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

“So what?”

“See here?” He pointed to a table with a roll of leftover newsprint stretched across the surface. It was covered with writing in a small, crabbed hand. “Now that I’ve got it, I’m revising it, making it right. I’m fixing all the stuff those arrogant fools got wrong for years.”

He was a loony, but I had to humor him. “May I see the book?”

”You have to give it back.” But he handed it over, reluctantly.

It fell open to the VERBS entry. Someone had put a dot under certain letters with a red grease pencil:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 

illuminati


Next: The wider web




3. The wider web

“What happened to this place?”

I whirled around. “Fogarty! I told you to stay out.”

The Old Copy Editor said, “Fogarty? Mignon Fogarty? Great Fowler’s Ghost, is this Grammar Girl herself?”

“Yeah,” I said, “minus the cape and the winged boots.”

“Could I have your autograph, Ms. Fogarty? On my copy of The Grammar Devotional?”

“We’ve got more important things to do,” I said. She didn’t listen. She never listens.

“Why, certainly,” she said, whipping out a pen faster than the Earp boys slapped leather at the O.K. Corral. “But tell me, what happened to this place?”

“Well,” the Old Copy Editor said, “with nobody going into print journalism anymore, they ran out of unpaid interns, and then they couldn’t generate enough copy to fill as much as six pages. They tried to sell the building, but even the state penitentiary system turned them down. Plan to turn the printing plant into luxury waterfront condos went bust, too. They offered up the computer equipment, but it was so old and broken down from lack of maintenance that even the Third World wouldn’t touch it.

“But the worst was, they lost the Web. They cheesed off the funeral directors — tried  to jack up the prices for the death notices on the Web, and the funeral directors set up their own obituary Web site. Turns out the obits were the only things of ours anyone still read. Web traffic dropped to a couple of dozen hits a day, and the Scavenger Group abandoned the whole shebang. One day, everybody just left.”

“Fogarty!” I yelled. “Enough! You have to look at this.” I shoved the VERBS entry at her, and her big brown eyes widened.

“This is big,” she said, “bigger than just the Peevers.”

“Damn straight,” I said.

“Look,” she said, her broad brow furrowing. “Did you see? There are pinpricks under other letters.”

“What? Let me look.”

She was right:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 

mensa

“You know what this means?” she asked.

“It means the conspiracy is broader than anyone could have imagined. It’s big, all right. The AP itself. The Peevers. The self-appointed language authorities. The Illuminati. And now the aristocrats of the multiple-choice test. They’re all in on it. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve recruited the Myers-Briggsians, too — they’ll fall for anything. And it’s all coded in the AP Stylebook. You see what we have to do now?”

“You mean ...”

“Yes, sister. We’ve got to break into AP Stylebook Headquarters. Fast.”


Next: The dark tower




4. The dark tower

The Amtrak from Baltimore to New York was only ninety minutes late to Penn Station, and the sun was setting as Fogarty and I crept up on AP Stylebook Headquarters.

“We’re in luck,” I whispered. “They haven’t lowered the portcullis yet.”

“But there’s a guard,” she said.

“Maybe you could distract that slab of brawn while I slip past.”

“Leave it to me.” She loosened two buttons on her blouse and walked up to the muscle. His head turned; I slipped past. A minute later, after a dull thud and a splash, Fogarty was beside me.

“This place is a damn labyrinth,” I swore. Corridors, dimly lit by flaring torches, stretched in all directions, and there was no sound but the dripping of water on the stone floors.

A rumbling came behind us. “Quick, in here,” I hissed, and we ducked through a doorway.

A cart rolled by, just an intern delivering a hamper of inconsistencies to the Numbers department.

“Safe,” I breathed, and then noticed that we were in a stairway leading upward. “Come this way.”

A door at the top opened into a turret room. As we stepped inside, the door slammed behind us, and a dry, thin voice said, “I’ve been expecting you, McIntyre, but I didn’t realize that the Grammar Magnate would be with you.”

“Wane Waly,” I said. He stood behind a desk, a wizened figure radiating malice like a corporate vice president purging people who actually work.

“Who?” Fogarty whispered.

“A failed copy editor who turned against the craft. I should have guessed he would be the cat’s paw for this conspiracy.”

“And you, McIntyre,” he said, “you were never more than a caricature, a fossil who needed to be swept out of the newsroom. Whereas I am one with the future.”

“What future are you talking about?” Fogarty asked.

“Anyone who reads Swift’s Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue can see how effectively language can be an instrument of social control. But the lexicographers and linguists went descriptive and democratic and frittered away their opportunity. Now, with the Peevers and the Mensans puffed up in their imagined superior intellects and on our side, and the AP Stylebook binding and distracting editors with trivia and idiotic restrictions, we can strike.”

“You’re mad,” Fogarty said.

“Cliche,” I murmured. 

“By sunset today, National Grammar Day,” he snickered, “all those smutty lexicographers — that McKean wretch with her crossword dress, and that radio blowhard Grant Barrett, and that upstart Ben Zimmer — they’ll all be clapped in irons. Along with that popinjay Sheidlower. Then,” his voice rising to a shriek, “the Illuminati will decree what people speak and write and thus how they think —”

With the thunder of many boots, a battering ram burst open the door. In strode Mark Liberman of Penn at the head of Language Log’s Modal Auxiliary Corps. Quickly seized and bound, Waly was borne away screaming, spittle flying from his contorted lips.

The room fell silent.

“How did you know we were here?” I asked Liberman.

“You’re not hard to tail,” he said.

“Is it all over?” Fogarty asked.

“The language is secure again, ma’am,” Liberman said in the clipped tones of command.

“Good for you,” I said. “I’ve got to get back to Baltimore. Safeway has a big coupon sale starting tomorrow, and all the bag boys have been called in.”


The End