You Don't Say
John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/, at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/, and now at https://www.baltimoresun.com/opinion/columnists/mcintyre/
Sunday, April 25, 2021
Monday, September 14, 2020
In a fit of frustration I recently posted an injudicious statement, "I try to say that the people where I come from aren't all a bunch of gullible yokels, and then, dammit, they go online," and have since been reproached that I was not raised to speak of people that way.
I have explained elsewhere how I was raised, and by whom, and I understand how the larger world views the Commonwealth. Only last week I got another "You're from Kentucky?"
But, as they say, let's look at the record of how some of my former classmates disport themselves online.
The New York Times, of course, gets immediately rejected as a source of information. I've even seen the Associated Press—the dear, gray, drab AP—discounted as utterly corrupted by liberal bias. Some go so far as to dismiss all journalism as unreliable. (One gentleman said journalists just publish things to make money, revealing a hitherto unexpected anti-capitalist streak.)
Absent journalism, I wonder where they get information, short of divine inspiration.
Oh, at least one gets it from Breitbart, and others chime in on the comments. Say no more.
Some believe that Christians are being persecuted in the United States and as an act of bold defiance post pictures of Jesus, the cross, the American flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance on Facebook. (There appears to be some difficulty in differentiating Jesus from the American flag, but we don't have time for theology today.)
They are given to posting nostalgic reminders of the Fifties, when white men were in charge of everything, women were in the kitchen, Blacks were in the back of the bus, and gays were in the closet. (I was there in the Fifties, in a segregated public school in poverty-stricken Appalachia, and I have no interest in going back.)
I see people posting dumbass memes (sample: "It's been six months. Shouldn't all the people who don't wear masks be dead by now?") denying the reality of a pandemic that has claimed probably more than 200,000 lives in this country and devastated the economy, while nations that took it seriously are regaining their footing.
Any attempt to engage in a discussion is quickly met by whataboutism, straw men, and defensive complaints that I'm trying to make them look dumb by using big words.
And there's the gentleman who appears to think that calling me a libtard is a sockdolager of a counter-argument.
So, you tell me. How far off the mark was I?
Sunday, August 30, 2020
I occasionally sample the wackadoodle political opinions of former classmates at Fleming County High School in Kentucky.
One of them, after months of reportage about the efforts of Republican governors and legislators to limit access to voting, after the president's unsupported claims that voting by mail is susceptible to fraud (for God's sake, Utah votes by mail), and the ham-handed attempts of the administration to cripple the Postal Service in an election year, insists that Democrats are trying to steal the election.
Another has not gained a vocabulary beyond libtard to respond to argument and evidence.
It baffles me. We had the same teachers: Jimmy Johnson for American history in my junior year, who invited us to challenge received views; Lloyd Story, a science teacher who believed in science; Lynda McKee, who taught us how to construct arguments based on evidence. Yeah, I read a lot of books and moved away from Appalachia, but we all had teachers who did not discount external reality.
True, Kentucky has always been a conservative state, apart from Louisville and, to some degree, Lexington, but it once elected Republican senators like Thruston Morton and John Sherman Cooper, people of integrity and purpose.
Some of my former classmates flinch at the implication that there is a layer of racism in their views. That's because they understand racism to be individual, that racists, like those spittle-flowing crowds screaming at little Black girls going to an all-white school, are bad people; and if you're a good person, you can't be racist. They don't own slaves; they're not bad people.
I have the tax receipt showing that my great-great grandfather, John Early, paid $12.30 in property taxes in 1852 on 200 acres, four mules and horses, and four slaves. My grandfather, who inherited the farm a century ago, owned no slaves; neither did my mother, who inherited it in turn, nor my sisters and I. But all of us benefited from the wealth (a modest wealth) built in part by the labor of unpaid Black people.
We attended the Presbyterian church in Elizaville. It was part of the Southern Presbyterian Church, which split from the Northern denomination in the 1850s over the slavery issue. It took more than a century after the Civil War for the two denominations to conclude that slavery was maybe no longer a live issue.
This is what systemic racism is about. If you grow up white in Appalachia, as I did, whiteness is the template, the norm by which everything is measured. It is supported by the history textbooks, which shy away from the unsavory aspects of the country's past, by the de facto segregation of churches, by all the customs of the time and place.
Now that the white template is slowly being dismantled by demographics and other social changes. I understand how upsetting that can be to people among whom I grew up, who feel threatened, who feel that the world as it was meant to be is being taken from them. I understand how fear leaves them susceptible to believing nonsense from dishonest sources, to posting dumbass right-wing memes online in a feeble show of resistance.
But the tide is against them. Oh, it might be possible to set up an apartheid regime in some states or even the country, after the South African model, to keep the white minority in charge, but over time it could not last in South Africa either.
So I feel sorry for them, in part for the disappointment in store for them, and in part for the damage they unwittingly do.
Monday, August 24, 2020
Today I notified Sara Magee, chair of the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, that I am giving up the editing class I have taught for twenty-five years.
On the first day of class every semester, my efforts to Mirandize the students (see the video here) included this quotation from a student evaluation: “He is a horrible teacher. DO NOT TAKE HIM! The course is interesting but this guy is a stiff who thinks he knows it all. You will leave this class so confused and end up with a grade that definitely deserves to be better than what you actually get. Don't get me wrong, he's a funny guy but not worth it.”
Some of my more than 750 students, though, have managed rather well. Among them:
Kevin Atticks, one of my early victims, teaches at Loyola, overseeing the Apprentice House student publishing operation.
Mike Memoli, who as a member of Tribune’s Washington bureau was, to my knowledge, the only one of my former students to have flown on Air Force One with the president of the United States, is now a correspondent at NBC news.
Jon Meoli is a sports reporter at The Baltimore Sun.
Peter Blair heads the flexible editing desk at The New York Times.
Eve Strilacci is an acquisitions editor at Callisto Media.
Christina Santucci is a former night photo editor at the New York Post.
Andrew Zaleski, to be found at https://www.andrewzaleski.com/, is building a solid career as a freelance writer.
Jenn Ladd is a food writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Katie Krzaczck is an editor at Business Insider.
Lindsay VanAsdalan is a reporter at the York Dispatch.
Anyone I have overlooked is welcome to weigh in with a comment.
In time, I came to leave them on the last day of class with Chaucer’s rueful line, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”
Now it will be someone else’s job.
Friday, July 17, 2020
In a forty-year career as an editor at newspapers, I have edited the work of people twenty and thirty years older who received, as I did, the traditional instruction in grammar at school, and of people twenty and thirty and forty years younger who received little or none of the traditional instruction.
And every day for forty years, I have sat down at my desk to deal with the same things. The same damn things: subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, incorrect homonyms. All of it, mind you, the work of college-educated journalists whose profession is writing in standard English.
For that matter, my classmates in the public schools of Fleming County, Kentucky, in the 1960s do not necessarily do any better, despite their exposure to the traditional teaching of English grammar.
The traditional method was not particularly effective, and it left a bad taste in the mouth. Some did learn from it, as some will learn something in almost any pedagogical circumstances—Dr. Johnson believed that boys could not learn the classical languages unless they were beaten.
The British linguist David Crystal writes in Making Sense that "the negative associations that surround grammar are the result of unhappy learning experiences, in which complex sentences, artificial examples, pedantic rules, mechanical analyses, and poor explanations have combined to produce a penitential mindset: 'Grammar is good for me, and if it causes mental anguish, then so be it,' "
That people could develop a solid grasp of formal English grammar under such unpromising circumstances is a real accomplishment, even though, as you can read in Bad Advice, a great deal of what they remember is unreliable.
So let's not make proficiency in grammar, the grammar of formal English, which was badly taught for decades, and then not taught at all, a measure of individual or national intelligence.
Speech comes naturally, but writing has to be learned, and most people never get very good at it, particularly in the dialect known as formal written English. We can see that online, where anyone with a computer can become a published writer. As Gretchen McCullough writes in Because Internet, we can look beyond edited publications to see how people actually write.
From there we can surmise that people in general are about as dumb, or intelligent, as they have always been. We can further surmise, from internal evidence, that the "dumbing-down" trope is trotted out when the writer merely wishes to establish a superior social class standing. That is when the reader will recognize that it is time to move on.
There's a difference between cache and cachet, but knowing that does not confer cachet.
Tuesday, July 7, 2020
I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BEING CAUCASIAN
Not that anyone has actually asked you to do that. What you have been asked to do is acknowledge that, even if you are not prosperous, the color of your skin has given you some unearned advantages in our society. For example, if a police officer stops you for a defective taillight and you do not worry that you might wind up in jail, or perhaps be shot, then you enjoy white privilege.
But extra credit for using Caucasian, even though it is a made-up racial identifier. It at least shows that you have learned not to shout "White power!" in public.
I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR SUPPORTING GOOD COPS
It doesn't require strenuous effort to approve of people who do their jobs properly. The question is what you're prepared to do about the number of police officers increasingly demonstrated to be abusing their powers and killing unarmed people who have committed little or no offense.
I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR LOVING MY ASIAN, NATIVE AMERICAN, BLACK AMERICAN & HISPANIC FRIENDS
This is a refreshing twist on the "Some of my best friends are ..." cliche, even though the original was never convincing either.
I WILL NOT BEND MY KNEE FOR ANYONE BUT THE LORD
Did anyone ask you to?
I WILL NOT BE BRAINWASHED BY THE MEDIA
There are lots of media, not just one. Which are you watching? The ones that present facts or the ones that just tell you things you would like to hear?
I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BELIEVING IN THE SECOND AMENDMENT
I'm not sure how this one became more important than all the others. The 21st is nice.
Oh wait, this is the one that says you have to have guns for when the Black people and the brown people swarm out of the cities into the suburbs and countryside to rape and pillage.
Had you heard that the Supreme Court has affirmed that the states can legitimately impose restrictions on the acquisition and use of classes of firearms?
I WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR BEING A GOD FEARING AMERICAN
Left the hyphen out of that one.
But you've discovered that there's another amendment to the Constitution, the First, which is still in force, giving you freedom to worship as it suits you. But not, you understand, to use the power of the state to compel other people to conform to your beliefs.
There you go. Take your imagined grievances with you and shut the door behind you.
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Mr. Puente assembled the information through his own research, because the city government kept no account of how much it was spending to settle these lawsuits. He further discovered that some officers had been involved in repeated settlements but that the police department kept no account of officers charged with brutality.
Inferences are inescapable: Baltimore's city officials and police department operated under a tacit policy that officers could beat people up, particularly African Americans, at will, and paying an occasional settlement was simply the cost of doing business to maintain order in the city.
The Sun's reporting was one element that contributed to a Department of Justice's finding that police officers in the city were repeatedly and freely violating citizens' rights, often brutally, and the police department is attempting to implement reforms under a consent decree overseen by a federal judge.
Subsequent reporting in The Sun on the department's elite Gun Trace Task Force detailed a disturbing pattern of lawbreaking: wanton attacks on individuals, robberies of drug trade suspects, involvement in selling drugs, lying in reports, falsifying overtime, and more. Members of the unit and some who were involved with them have been tried and sentenced to prison, and the unit has been disbanded.
Inferences are inescapable: It seems unlikely that all their fellow officers were unaware that something shady was going on for months. And the department, under a series of chiefs and a revolving roster of upper-level commanders, seems to have been disinclined to exercise even modest supervision.
Now there is a nationwide protest about police misconduct, fueled by the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and images of police officers beating people up and shooting unarmed people. These aren't accusations to be buried in internal investigation files; these are actions that everyone can see. Moreover, we see some officers, evidently unhappy that their actions are being recorded, attacking news photographers.
In reaction to the protests I see people posting on Facebook and Twitter that we should stand by and support the police, that there are many good police officers, that people are personally acquainted with some of those good police officers.
That's not the point. I, too, have known honest and responsible police officers. The point is that the good officers are not the officers establishing police culture. It's nice to know that there are good apples, but they are not defining the barrel. The point of the protests is to find a way to maintain order and protect people in our towns and cities without promiscuously beating people up and shooting the unarmed.
If your "Support the police" meme amounts to no more than "Let them do anything," then your personal acquaintance with a few good guys on the force is pretty much meaningless.
Friday, May 8, 2020
Throughout those forty years I've listened to a drumbeat of complaints about media bias, most of it coming from people who dislike factual reporting that doesn't suit their preferences.
(Media bias, though, is real. You want to know where it exists? Most journalism reflects the viewpoint of middle-class white people, because that's who most journalists have been, and that's who most of the subscribers have been.)
But I've listened to four decades of this codswallop, and I'm sixty-nine years old and tired of it.
Just today, in a Facebook exchange with people Back Home in Kentucky, some person I don't (fortunately) know commented, "Documented evidence? Since when does a reporter care about documented evidence? Only when it suits their ideology."
I responded, "If what you know about journalism is no more than this ignorant remark, I can’t see that there’s any reason to pay any attention to you ever again."
I'm tried of coddling these people. Try to reason with them and offer actual evidence, and they simply resort to calling you a "libtard" or some other schoolyard insult. You never, ever get a response that addresses the merits.
So, no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Two of those students, Annabelle Finagin and Dominika Ortonowski, worked on bringing the book to publication during the academic year, even in the tumultuous current semester. My gratitude to them is profound, and I hope that Apprentice House Press helps propel them into careers.
I am also deeply grateful to Kevin Atticks, the faculty member who oversees Apprentice House, and who has now consented to publish me twice, despite having endured the trauma of being a student in my first editing class at Loyola.
And now for a brief and crass commercial announcement: Both Bad Advice and my previous book, The Old Editor Says, are available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in print and electronic forms. They are short, but cheap.