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 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.