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, February 10, 2010

Sometimes they just make it up

When some university finds a donor with more cash than sense to underwrite a Jayson Blair Chair of Journalism, qualified candidates will not be hard to find, but Renee Petrina, who teaches journalism at Ball State, has found a student whose career shows real promise:

Student whining today that my class is hard also points out that “I just make up my sources for my other classes and no one cares” and that she wants to keep her GPA up. Other students note to her that it's probably not the best plan to tell the prof that you cheat.

The student in question, she says, is a 21-year-old junior or senior.

A previous note illustrated Ms. Petrina’s standards of classroom decorum:

Answered a student's cell phone that rang in my class today. Next time I will offer to text their friends.

Not entirely surprising that some students are less than enthusiastic:

Got student evaluations of my teaching back (from last semester). A lot were good. The best, though, said I needed therapy and that all my assignments come from “a dark place.”

I wish I got evaluations like that.

Ms. Petrina was a Penn Stater who got away before I could get a chance to try to hire her at The Sun — which would have been a decidedly mixed blessing for her. As it was, there was a certain bumpiness in her career before her arrival in Muncie:

The person who laid me off from my old job just saw my nice, big office. With my name on the window.

Living well remains the most satisfactory revenge.

Getting the range

Angela Hopp has written on Twitter to inquire about false ranges, a gimmick to which journalists are unfortunately addicted.

To have a proper range, you must have some scale of comparable things with an upper and lower limit, or a set of individual things of the same type. True ranges are all around us:

In Baltimore today, with a blizzard in progress, the range of temperatures is predicted to be 23 degrees Fahrenheit to 29 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stock expression for a dinner with a full set of courses is from soup to nuts, appetizer to the last nibbles.

Samuel Johnson opens The Vanity of Human Wishes with this couplet: Let observation with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru. ... That is, there is a geographic range of — to English eyes — exotic lands, the whole world encompassed.

The cruise ship you wish you were on instead of snowbound in Baltimore offers a range of amusements: gambling, overeating, faux-Vegas shows, shopping for overpriced items, overeating, swimming, and on. All of them are part of a limited set of similar activities.

Dorothy Parker commented on the emotional range in a performance by Katharine Hepburn, saying that the actress had “run the whole gamut from A to B.”

A journalist who merely wants to indicate a collection of miscellaneous things will often express that as a false range.

From USA Today: A pair of teenagers downloading songs by artists ranging from OutKast to Billy Joel through an Internet file-sharing service could cost their bewildered parents up to $4,000. Identify, please, the fixed points of songwriting on which OutKast and Billy Joel are parts of a continuum. The writer means as diverse as.

More of the same “as diverse as” false ranges from diverse publications: Products made with nanotechnology -- ranging from sunscreens to socks -- are being sold to consumers without adequate scientific research or regulation, British scientists warned.

A federal judge rebuffed an effort by media organizations, ranging from the Associated Press to Wired News, to unseal whistleblower documents in a civil rights group’s case against AT&T for allegedly helping the government’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

The Tisch family, known for making bets on out-of-favor assets ranging from oil tankers to cigarette makers, acquired a $63 million stake in the New York Times Co.

The changing geography of poverty here reflects a national trend, and argues for a more regional strategies on issues ranging from social safety nets to mass transit. (A pity that the superfluous a was not deleted from this Baltimore Sun article.)

The uncompromising Bill Walsh has written on this subject, pointing out that the false range is a crutch for lazy writers. And, he rightly says, even if you are not a purist about the meaning of range, you must concede that this is a tired device.

Snow day 6

When I woke at six o’clock, the snow had stopped, having deposited three inches or so overnight, but now it has resumed, and we are apparently to feel the brunt of the storm through the day. So far, the power has not failed.

Some events to date:

Item: Yesterday afternoon, with Diana in the cat carrier, Alice and Kathleen close behind, I made my way past the Value City furniture van stuck in the snow at the end of the block, and over to Laurelton, where Alice’s ride back to Garrison Forest School waited. Both daughter and cat are warm and secure in the dormitory.

Item: Elizabeth Large announced her impending retirement as restaurant critic and blogger at The Baltimore Sun. Dining@Large, which will cease publication, has been a remarkable success, on some days outdrawing the paper’s sports blogs, and establishing a rare community of articulate and entertaining readers. They are called the Sandbox, which did not please everyone, but you go with the nickname you have, not the nickname you want.

Elizabeth was one of my favorite colleagues at The Sun, someone with whom it was a pleasure to talk about food or blogging or the personalities in the newsroom and or the essential looniness of the newspaper business in its last days. Her good humor was unfailing, even when she was hard pressed. No one better deserves the ease of retirement, and no one will be more missed.

Item: Of course, amid the outpouring of affection and regard in the comments on her announcement, there was one jarring note. Someone writing as “Sadie” commented:

Happy for you but frankly i'm not sad. It was clear that you weren't happy with your job - it was increasingly rare for you to treat us to an actual review rather than asking your readership to do your job for you by writing about our own experiences. The point of a professional reviewer is to share with us your vast knowledge of cuisine etc. I don't care what Joe down the street thinks - You are paid to use your expertise and review restaurants. Maybe the Sun will be able to find a reviewer who will enjoy their job, actually review restaurants and possibly come close to what the Post has in Tom Sietsema.

Those who have actually read the newspaper are aware that Elizabeth has maintained her standard schedule of reviews without faltering. The blogging, including posts on her days off and during vacations, was in addition to her reviews and articles for the print edition. Further, Sadie appears not to understand what a blog is and how it works.

Thus she illustrates that characteristic feature of the Internet, the combination of ignorance with effrontery.

Happily, some Sandbox regulars, in the self-policing that has been a notable feature of Dining@Large, called Sadie to account. Shut up, they explained.

Item: As I walked back to the house after seeing Alice off, I got a telephone call informing me that I had been passed over for another job. After nine and a half months out of work, this no longer strikes me as a momentous event.

Item: Today, as several people have discovered on Facebook, is my fifty-ninth birthday. A bottle of prosecco is chilling in the refrigerator, and we will open it at dinner to toast the years past and the years ahead. Unemployment and THE WHITE DEATH FROM THE SKY have not done me in.