Sunday, May 21, 2023

Things The Baltimore Sun says are iconic

Charles Grayson Gilbert, subject of iconic newspaper photo ...

Iconic ‘Caddyshack’ yacht is for sale.

Berger cookies run low on shelves around Baltimore as iconic baker waits for repair.

Westminster officials approve new contract for repairs to city’s iconic clock tower.

C.P. Crane power plant demolished, toppling iconic stacks.

Bye, Hon: Iconic Baltimore cafe closing after 30 years.

Rutschman and other Orioles players hung out with the kids in attendance, even sliding down the iconic hill at Lamade Stadium.

National Treasure won an enthralling finish as tens of thousands of racing and concert fans flocked and reveled at Baltimore’s most iconic annual event.

To celebrate Preakness week, the McCormick & Co. iconic seasoning is offering Old Bay lovers a chance to spice things up with a free tattoo. 

Today, racing remains historic and entertaining and, perhaps most notably in Maryland, brings the state its most iconic annual event, the Preakness.

The red scrapings, which pose a threat to public health, especially for children, were found at a day care, a playground and homes within a half-mile radius of the iconic tower.

Cowser was faster, completing his metaphorical Kessel Run in fewer parsecs by finishing off Han Solo’s iconic ship in September. 

Turning around the beleaguered Harborplace — considered an iconic part of the Inner Harbor ...

The special edition brew “represents the pairing of two iconic brands coming together to celebrate Baltimore."

The renowned Italian vocalist, who is blind, is one of the most iconic and recognizable classical voices in music worldwide. 

Warner said the musical’s songs are iconic, and anyone who remembers the decade is almost certain to find themselves singing along to the title track.

Attman’s Delicatessen, the iconic Baltimore deli that got its start on “Corned Beef Row” more than a century ago, will open a new location in Harbor Point.

The trio of iconic R&B performers with a slate of hits and harmonies dating back to the 90s will perform at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on July 29.

 The zipper wig is one of four iconic hairpieces she designed for Kim and then recreated for “The Culture: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century.” ... She created iconic ‘dos worn by hip-hop royalty Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill — looks still copied today.

Instead, it narrowly cleared the iconic wall, leaving the Orioles with a stunning 9-8 loss on the walk-off home run.

Enough, already? 

Monday, May 15, 2023

Fixing the blame

 Thirty years ago, under John S. Carroll, The Baltimore Sun refined its policy on corrections. Because production of the paper was a collective effort, The Sun took collective responsibility when errors of fact made it into print, not assigning individual responsibility. The Sun regretted the error, and that was that. 

The one exception: A correction assigned responsibility when The Sun had been given erroneous information. 

Reporters disliked this policy and regularly groused about it. Their complaint, and it was reasonable, went like this: "It's my byline on the story, and when a reader sees a correction that doesn't include 'because of an editing error,' the reader thinks I made a mistake, and it reflects badly on me."

The response to that complaint was that the reader is more concerned with the accuracy of the story than with naming and shaming in the newsroom. If there were to be a "because of an editor's error" correction or a "because of a copy editor's error" correction, why not a "because of reporter's error" correction? Guess which category would be most numerous. 

My own perspective after forty years of editing reporters' copy is that the correction policy left them with undeserved blame for mistakes they did not make. At the same time, my work and the desk's work left them with undeserved merit for more accurate and more literate writing than they in fact produced. 

Consider it a wash. 

Monday, May 8, 2023

Weep no more

Someone has suggested on Twitter that it is time for the Kentucky Derby to dump "My Old Kentucky Home," and as an expatriate Kentuckian, I want to object. The very things that make the song objectionable are the very reasons to keep it.  

The author, Stephen Foster, wrote it and other songs for minstrel shows. Minstrel shows, you will recall, were nineteenth-century entertainments in which white people donned blackface and performed songs and dances that were cartoonish parodies of Black culture, for the amusement of white audiences. In the plaintive song itself, a black family of enslaved people who have been sold down the river recall with nostalgia and grief their happier life back in Kentucky, before hard times came knocking at the door. 

You cannot ask for a better illustration of woke history than the spectacle at the Derby of pudgy men in their ice-cream suits and before-Memorial Day seersucker and their ladies in elaborate millinery singing this song. Recognizing the casual racism pervasive in the past and its unexamined survivals today explains much about the double nature of the Republic. 

My own old Kentucky home, the farm my grandfather inherited from his father, where I roamed the fields as a child, is gone, sold to people better qualified to work the land than I am. It, too, has a double history, illustrated by a property tax receipt from in 1850s showing that my great-great grandfather owned two hundred acres, four horses or mules, and four human beings. If you are a thinking person, you learn to recognize and live with both sides of your history. 

So when the band strikes up on Derby Day, I too will stand and sing of the old Kentucky home, far away, for good and for ill. 


After three decades in Baltimore, a digression.

From time to time some yahoo will suggest replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, usually with "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." 

It's true that Francis Scott Key's text objects to British encouragement of slave rebellions during the War of 1812, but that's in a verse we never sing, and he brings in God in the last verse, which we also never sing. The reason to keep the national anthem is that the only part we actually sing does not go in for triumphalism but asks us a question: Have we lived up to the ideals we proclaimed at the founding? That is a question worth asking every day.

As to the others, "America the Beautiful," with its insipid melody, keeps dragging God in, and "God Bless America," though Irving Berlin could write a catchier tune, does the same. God has many nations to look after, and it would be selfish of us to monopolize the Deity.

Saturday, May 6, 2023

Uneasy lies the head that is coronated

As far as I can tell from online comments, both monarchists and republicans appear to be spluttering over people saying that Charles III has been "coronated." 

"The word is 'crowned,' not 'coronated.' " " 'Coronated' is not a word." " 'Coronated' is a bastard back-formation from 'coronation.' " Someone quotes Paul Brians saying that it only means "crown-shaped" and is legitimately used only in biology. 

I hardly ever recommend that people switch to decaf, but this might be the occasion. 

Coronate has been a word in English since the early 17th century, with a citation from 1626. 

It derives from the Latin coronatus, past participle of coronare, "to crown." 

The Oxford English Dictionary lists it, saying that it is a relatively rare word. Merriam-Webster includes it, defining it as "to crown." Its rarity might be attributed to the lack of a major coronation to cover over the past seventy years.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes The Wall Street Journal of February 9, 1952: "Queen Elizabeth II will probably be coronated sometime between August and the spring of 1953."

So it is a word, an English word in use. 

You do not much like it; you do not like it at all; you despise it and the people who use it. 

Your futile protest has been noted.


Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Don't take subjects, take people

Fifty years ago this June, I had to take my transcript to my academic advisor to be approved for graduation from Michigan State University. 

He ran a practiced eye down the page, stopped, looked at me, went down the page again, more slowly, looked at me, and said, "You appear to have gotten yourself a liberal education. How did you do that here?"

"I sneaked around," I said. 

One of my instructors in the first term of freshman year, the late Jean Nicholas, gave me the best advice I received in college. "Don't take subjects," she said. "If you want to learn subjects, go to the library and read about them. Take people instead. Find out who the most interesting teachers are and sit in their classes. One of the things you are here for is to learn different approaches to life, different senses of humor." 

As an English major, I took most of my courses in English, but I embarked on courses on anthropology, religion, philosophy, art history, and more, while continuing to read broadly and avidly. On campus there were free screenings of films by Bergman and Fellini. The Chicago Symphony came around on tour every year. 

Michigan State gave me a broad framework of general knowledge and the ability to analyze texts and reason about them. This, I think, is what education is properly meant to do. 

But we see colleges and universities cutting back on offerings in the humanities, because we appear to think of education in a cramped and crabbed vocational perspective. Any course that does not immediately contribute to subsequent gainful employment is a waste of a student's time and all that expensive tuition. 

This has been going on for some time now, as evidenced, for example, by the hordes of diploma-holding middle-class adults who fall victim to crank anti-vaccine theories, because they were never encouraged to develop critical thinking. The national survey of U.S. book reading statistics in 2022 found that about half of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. STEM is important, but the humanities help make us human. 

I was fortunate to have parents who allowed me to chart my own course in college, teachers who offered unfailing encouragement, and an education (yes, a degree in English, of all things) that prepared me for a forty-year professional career and many satisfactions in life. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stick it to sticklers

To start. My name is John, and I am a recovering stickler. As a bookworm and teacher's pet, I absorbed the schoolroom grammar to the last jot and tittle, and I was obnoxious about it. When you lack physical beauty, wealth, or distinguished lineage, you make use of whatever you can, and grammar enabled me to be an insufferable snob well into adulthood. 

This is my first count against people who identify as sticklers: their weaponization of language to assert dominance. Telltale indications are remarks about "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. But, as I have said before, snobbery about language is not more noble than any other form of snobbery; it's just a shabby little stratagem to gain advantage over others. Not just shabby, but a pathetic assertion of superiority, as when someone sports an "I am silently correcting your grammar" mug or T-shirt. 

My second count against sticklers is that they are frequently WRONG. They will fume about split infinitives or none used as a plural or other bogus rules enumerated in my little book Bad Advice. They will complain that irregardless is not a word. They will carry on about terminal prepositions. And all that H.W. Fowler, the editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Bryan A. Garner, and Benjamin Dreyer demonstrate to the contrary is pointless because Somebody Told Them Once and they will hold on to it until the universe enters its final entropy. 

My third count is that sticklers refuse to acknowledge register, usually under the mistaken belief that formal written English is the only "correct" English, all other dialects and variants being defective and used only by "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. All the Englishes, formal and colloquial, allow speakers within their respective communities of usage engage with one another. None is inherently more correct than the others, but more appropriate to the situation.

This is not to say that "anything goes," one of those ill-informed retorts sticklers are fond of, though I tend to endorse Flannery O'Connor's remark that "You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much." I have been a professional editor for more than forty years and a blogger about language for eighteen, during which time I have learned many things and have found it necessary, helped by colleagues, linguists, and lexicographers, to unlearn several. 

A person who did not leave a name commented on one of my recent posts, sneering about "those bogus rules that provided you a profession, but that you sanctimoniously deprecate." Yes, I enforced many bogus rules until I learned better, liberating myself and the texts I worked on from the stickler straitjacket. It turns out to be possible to produce effective language by paying attention to it and avoiding sticklers' faulty precision. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Copy editors see things many readers don't notice

We of the obscure craft see many things, large and small. Here is a recent sampling. 

Item: A flag flying half-mast. Uh-uh. A flag is only flying at half-mast if it is on a boat or ship. If it's on a flagpole on land, it is flying at half-staff.

Item: A reference to a city and a state lacking the second comma. When one writes about Baltimore, Maryland, the state name is treated as an appositive and is conventionally set off with commas. There is a parallel case with dates; a post written on March 9, 2023, needs that second comma after the year.

Item: Hyphens are cropping up in compounds with -ly adverbs. Adjective-noun compounds are hyphenated: free-range chicken. Compounds with an -ly adverb and a participial adjective are not: a fully fledged fowl

Item: At wit's end. No. You are at the end of your wits, so it should be the plural possessive, wits' end. A wit's end would be the death of Dorothy Parker. 

Item: A passage in a book: When Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1901, "the Supreme Court met in the old Senate Chamber in the Longworth House Office Building. That building was also infamously known for being the location where, in 1856, Preston Smith Brooks, a South Carolina planter, nearly beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death." The Supreme Court met from 1810 to 1860 in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol. From 1860 to 1935, when it moved into its own building, the Court met in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol (which is where Brooks assaulted Sumner). The Longworth House Office Building was completed in 1933. I gave up on the book 89 pages in. 

Item: An article about an an organization that receives public funds in which the organization quotes studies indicating that its work is effective, without a single citation of a critic questioning those claims. I doubt that there is a publicly funded organization anywhere in the United States that has escaped criticism. 

Item: I note that the impulse to identify any and every thing as iconic has not been suppressed, most recently "the iconic sign for The Baltimore Sun" above the scoreboard at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

Plainly, not all of these items are of equal importance, but I'm here, and I'm noticing.  

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Reminders for National Grammar Day

There are many Englishes, and each of its dialects is valid for communication among its users. 

Standard written English is not the One True English; it is a dialect that is useful in some, but not all, contexts. 

Language snobbery is not more noble than other forms of snobbery. When someone writing about grammar and usage begins to use terms like “illiterate,” “hoi polloi,” “the masses,” just stop reading. 

It is not your fault that you were taught bogus rules of usage. You can unlearn them.

Use or do not use the Oxford comma, as your taste or house style determines. And don’t make a fuss about it. 

To determine a point of standard usage, consult Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (fifth edition), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield), and Benjamin Dreyer’s  Dreyer’s English. Preferably all four. When they don’t agree, you get to make up your own mind. 

Five books that can enlarge your sense of the language:

Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak

Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet

Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

David Shariatmadari, Don’t Believe a Word

Language is the most democratic thing we have. You get one vote. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Grammar Noir: The Old Editor grilled

I was at the bar sipping an afternoon boulevardier when some rando came in and asked, “Are you the Old Editor?” When I owned the soft impeachment, he handed me a piece of paper and said, “You have been served.” 

The paper was a summons to testify before the House Subcommittee on Governmental Travesties, chaired by one Representative Browbeat, with regard to challenges to my book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing. 

My attorneys at Dewey, Cheatam & Howe assured me that there was no option but to appear, so I selected a dark suit, a somber bow tie, and a humble demeanor, taking my seat in the chamber. 

The inquisitors glowered at me like reporters who have been assigned weekend shifts.

The first question was from Congressman Gorgon: “It says here, on the third page of this disgraceful book, that there is no harm in ending a sentence with a preposition, despite what all of us have been taught since elementary school. I’m appalled. If not teaching correct grammar, what do you think schooling is for?”

“Well, Congressman, since your question ended with a preposition without your noticing it, we may have to entertain the idea that terminal prepositions are just naturally used by native speakers of English.”

The chairwoman’s gavel cut off a ripple of laughter from the spectators. 

Congresswoman Preen followed up: “You also write that there is no harm in split infinitives, and you have the gall to advise that splitting the infinitive is often preferable. This is the worst kind of woke editing to even pretend to be legitimate.”

“Um, Congresswoman, I think you can see that you your remarks allowed the adverb even to fall into a comfortable spot in the infinitive to pretend.”

The look on the congresswoman’s face was like the expression at someone’s first sip of newsroom coffee, which, like the newsroom itself, is weak but bitter. 

Chairwoman Browbeat interrupted: “It is bad enough that you want to tear down the rules of grammar, but it’s even worse that you want to deny people’s humanity by allowing that to refer to human beings. This is more of the Critical Grammar Theory that has been gaining ground because of you people with your degrees from elite universities, and we cannot allow CGT to be taught.”

“Well, Congresswoman, I wouldn’t say elite. I have a master’s degree from Syracuse …” 

“And CGT is exactly why we must urgently pass legislation to make English the official language of the United States, and criminalize the subversive and woke teaching of CGT.” 

“I would have thought, Congresswoman, that your party’s principles of free speech and limited government might get in the way of a law to make the way people talk a criminal offense. But to respond directly to your proposal to make English the official language of the nation, I’d like to quote a maxim from my other book, The Old Editor Says.” 


“You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass.”

“Security! Eject this man!”  

Monday, February 27, 2023

The question

Gather around, children, and let the Old Editor tell you a story from the Before Times about how copy editing is more than messing with commas. 

It was a Friday night at The Baltimore Sun, and the copy desk had finished with the daily edition and turned its attention to the Sunday sections for the advance press run. 

Two copy editors came to the Old Editor to announce a problem with a story scheduled for a Sunday section front, a story written by a reporter with more than two decades' experience at the paper, moved to the copy desk by the department head. 

Actually, more than one problem. The structure, if anything so chaotically organized could be said to have a structure, deposited the summary sentence identifying the focus of the story in the eleventh paragraph, after which the story proceeded in a completely different direction. 

But the touchy point was that one source accused four persons, by name, of actions that appeared to be criminal conduct, without any supporting evidence. And the accuser, the story said, had been called, by anonymous sources (!), senile.

 "What do you want to do?" the copy editor asked. The reporter and assigning editor were unavailable, deadline was looming, and there was nothing on hand to replace the dubious story on the Sunday section front. 

"Cut everything that is libelous and publish the rest," the Old Editor said. "It won't make much sense, but our readers are used to that."

If we had published that thing as sent to us in Sunday's editions, on Monday the principal concern in the publisher's mind would have been how many zeros to put to the left of the decimal on the settlement check. Instead on Monday, the Old Editor took the story as submitted into the editor's office and said, as they say on Law and Order, "Please read the highlighted portions." 

The two copy editors who raised the alarm were given citations by the publisher, and the reporter and assigning editor were invited into the editor's office for a little chat. 

(I used that story, with substitutions for all the proper nouns, for years in my editing class and workshops. Many jaws dropped.)

Mike Waller, The Sun's former publisher, came up through the ranks, including the copy desk at the Louisville Courier-Journal in its glory days. He used to say that copy editors are there to ask questions, and the most valuable question a copy editor can ask is "Are you sure you want to do that? Are you really sure?" 

Today at publications that determined copy editing to be an expensive frill, there's no one to ask that question.