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/.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Editors? We don't need no stinking editors


Now that everything is all immediate and direct between writer and reader, since all those superfluous editors and copy editors were dismissed like barnacles scraped off the hull, journalism has entered an era of smooth sailing, right?

Take a look at what HeadsUp: The Blog has to say about a minor masterpiece of modern journalism out of Charlotte, North Carolina. We are treated to the work of a journalist who cannot write a twelve-paragraph article about a tree falling on a house without making a hash of it.

Adding to the overall sense of incompetence unencumbered by editorial expertise, there is the crash blossom headline:

Home crushed by tree with dog inside

 An isolated example, I grant you, but an increasingly typical one.


From over the pond


The estimable Jan Freeman, writing in The Boston Globe about British-American linguistic cross-pollination, endorses my previous suggestion that there are a number of Britishisms that we could profit from adopting:

Surely, among all these offerings, everyone can find a Britishism to cherish. How about Thursday week, meaning “a week from Thursday,” which would instantly cure our chronic confusion about whether a meeting or dinner is scheduled for “this Thursday” or “next Thursday”? I’ve always been fond of fortnight, too — I suppose it doesn’t catch on here because our vacations (their holidays) are rarely two weeks at a stretch. And surely sell-by date is sleeker and more precise than expiration date.

I’d add snog for “to make out,” top up (a drink) for “refill,” gormless for “clueless” or “stupid,” and dodgy for “unsound,” “questionable,” or “suspicious.” (Your suggestions have not exactly been arriving in a torrent; am I supposed to do all the work here?)

Ms. Freeman also drew attention to Separated by a Common Language, a blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in Britain, who has written extensively about these transatlantic exchanges. (She is also on Twitter, @lynneguist, a pun I reluctantly endorse). I was particularly happy to discover her post from last December in which she provides some details on the increasing popularity of go missing on these shores, despite the unaccountably vehement and irrational resistance to it. As she explains, along lines that I too have suggested:

Go missing is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

These exchanges often prompt spasms of crankiness. The British tend to bridle at Americanisms, even when they turn out to have a long history in British English as well, and Americans are liable to see the adoption of any British turn of phrase as a laughable affectation. (And I have encountered enough Episcopal clergy with synthetic British accents to understand the latter reaction.)

But I suggest that we can leave the peeving aside. If a word or expression offers a nuance that we did not previously enjoy, or simply adds to our variety of expression, go for it. That last phrase is an Americanism; I offer it to the British in a spirit of linguistic cousinhood.