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, May 5, 2010

More stuff

Will “lifting luggage” become a catchphrase to match “hiking the Appalachian Trail”?

Go to Language Log for the linguistics; stay for the snickering over hypocrisy.


Roger Ebert tweets:

“Reason.com discusses my Newsweek attack on 3D. Some comments debate my status as an old fart. I'm an old fart who's right”

I feel a kinship.


We told you you needed editors

At nbclosangeles.com, a report that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s name has been misspelled in her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as “Julia Luis Dreyfus.”

You may also recall that the director of Chile’s mint was recently fired, in part because the mint issued 50-peso coins spelling the nation’s name as “Chiie.”

A message from Patrick Lackey on a Washington Post story “about the Virginia attorney general seeking documents by a former U of Va. prof named Michael Mann, who did research on global warming. The story quotes the attorney general: ‘There is no scientific consensus on global warming or Mann's influence on global warning.’ I think the attorney general meant ‘man's influence on global warning,’ not Mann's. So how is a newspaper like an off-short oil rig? What can go wrong will.”


Just how big a geek are you?

We learn from Copyediting that Mary Beth Protomastro has set up a website that will allow you to search more than forty online stylebooks at once. This should help you to learn how to live with inconsistency.


Our impoverished profanity

When Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan repeatedly used a word rendered in newspapers as “sh—y” while questioning executives of Goldman Sachs, a thrill went through journalistic circles because he had used a Bad Word in public. That was followed by much brow-furrowing over how to report the expression, given the delicate sensibilities of the American public. The crossword-puzzle solution, a combination of letters and hyphens to get thisclose to the word without actually rendering it, was the usual resort.

I will, of course, in my new capacity as a tinpot authority in The Sun’s newsroom, enforce the puerilities demanded by newspaper style, but as you reflect on naughty expressions, I invite you to consider a short passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (shield your eyes, sensitive readers):

“Of the non-profane pejoratives in common American use, son of a bitch is the hardest-worked, and by far. ... But son of a bitch seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or Latin as fudge does to us. The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks up a dozen better ones between breakfast and the noon whistle. ... In Standard Italian there are no less than forty congeners of son of a bitch, and each and every one of them is more opprobrious, more brilliant, more effective. In the Neapolitan dialect there are thousands.”


Let the nagging resume

It was all quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles when I returned to The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom yesterday.

We’ll see how long that honeymoon lasts. For example, this sentence from yesterday’s Sun:

The force of the crash ejected Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck that struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

If I were a bookmaker, I would give you highly favorable odds that anyone you ever heard say that someone was ejected, rather than thrown or flung, from a car or truck was either in law enforcement or journalism. Ejected is pure cop jargon, so common in police reports that it infects reporters’ writing.

A subtler point is that dependent clause. A that clause most commonly singles out one person, object, situation from a number of possibilities. It is called variously a restrictive or limiting or essential clause. Which clauses can also be restrictive,* but when they merely add additional or parenthetical information, they are set off with commas.

There was one truck; we don’t need to distinguish it from the other trucks on the road that did not strike the stone pillars. The dependant clause merely adds information about that particular truck. In more conversational English, the sentence would have run thus:

The force of the crash threw Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck, which struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

Sticking in ages as appositives is another journalistic tic, but there are limits even to my carping.



*Yes, they can. The Sainted Fowler suggested using that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive, and many usage books have followed his lead. But that has never been any more than advice. Which clauses can be restrictive or non-restrictive, but that clauses are always properly restrictive.