Saturday, November 25, 2023

You can still make corn pudding for Christmas

On Thanksgiving I posted that Kathleen had made my mother's corn pudding as one of the side dishes at dinner, and a couple of people asked for the recipe. Here it is. 

Marian Early McIntyre's corn pudding


3 cups corn

4 eggs

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt 


Mix corn with flour, salt, sugar, and butter. 

Add well-beaten eggs and milk.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, stirring three times while baking. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Let unlearning be unconfined

 A couple of weeks ago I posted "Give up the ship," in which I argued to abandon, or at least consider abandoning, a handful of long-established usage rules. One reader commented, "My teaching career has been in vain."

Well, mine too. There are points of usage that I taught during a quarter-century at Loyola University Maryland before I came to understand that they were invalid or dangerously dated.* Several of them had been in the Associated Press Stylebook since Joseph Pulitzer was in short pants, which I also enforced on the copy desk until I learned better and nagged the stylebook editors relentlessly to eliminate them. 

When we read about some fresh development in biology or physics, we don't fume and resist and insist that what we were taught in sophomore year of high school is true and eternally valid. We expect that we are going to learn new things, and in the course of learning those new things discovering things we previously learned have to be abandoned. It has been during my lifetime, for example, that the theory of continental drift has become established science after a long period of being ridiculed.

But with language, with grammar and usage, there is stubborn resistance to learning new things and abandoning old ones. (Does gender-neutral third-person singular they spring to mind?) I suspect I know why.

I was, after all, an English major in college, and my mastery of what I had been taught was proper English was not only central to my academic career but also to my identity. As I have remarked elsewhere, without high birth, wealth, and physical beauty, mastery of English grammar was all I had going for me. So sticklers, who insist on precision in English usage even when they are misguided, do so because it is a prop to their identity, a means of differentiating themselves from Those People.**

We can talk about the structure of grammar and examine historic patterns of usage, but language is social and therefore messy. The way we talk and write is how we present ourselves to other people and expect to be perceived by them, just as we make judgments about them on the basis of how they speak and write. Language is as good a means as any to draw a sharp line between ourselves and whoever we label as Those People. 

Working as an editor, trying to make texts clear and appropriate for various audiences, I find it wholesome not to make a fetish of grammar and usage. You can see from this post and others that I deal in the register of standard formal English and that dropping shibboleths over the side does not mean that Anything Goes. After more than forty years as a professional editor, I am still learning and putting that learning to use. 

* I was receptive to the idea early on, having read Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins in graduate school. It was one of the inspirations for [cough] my own Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

** We see the same phenomenon with history, which people also internalize as part of their identity. I was still in high school when I knew, because of wide reading, that the patriotic sanitized history in our textbooks was pap, that what actually happened was far more complicated and often darker. The people who think that Confederate statues are history rather than propaganda, for example, have identifiable reasons for wanting to believe that.  

Monday, November 13, 2023

Where things go

That monosyllable go turns out to contribute to highly expressive phrases. 

It can mean to cooperate, as when one goes along or goes with the flow. That is, to use another idiom, to follow the herd. To go in with is the agree to share expenses. To champion a person or cause is to go to bat for

Or it can mean the mere appearance of cooperation, as when one goes through the motions, makes a pretense of doing something. 

It can mean success, as in to go great guns or go one better. Of course, there is always a risk that success may go to one's head

It can mean to oppose, to go after someone, or to go out, go on strike. 

All-out efforts can be indicated by go to the matgo for broke, or go to town. But if you don't want someone to make such an all-out effort, you can go easy on them. 

Some in the U.S. dislike the British go missing, but it is helpful neutral term when someone is not where they are expected to be, covering the range from merely wandering away to kidnapping. 

Bad behavior has a wealth of expressions. To go ape is to lose self-control. To go ballistic is to fly into a rage. To go round the bend, go off the rails, or go to pieces is to behave abnormally. To go off the deep end is to get unnecessarily angry. When bad behavior annoys, the party responsible can be dismissed by being told to go fly a kite.

Of course it gets into sex, to go steadygo all the way, go to bed with, and go down on

Things often go bad. To go belly up is to become bankrupt. When things do not proceed according to plan they can go southgo sideways, or go pear-shaped. (This last, a British idiom, is thought to have arisen from the difficulties airplane pilots can encounter in doing loops.) 

And to go west, where the sun sets, is to die.  

Monday, November 6, 2023

Baltimore: The Greatest City in America

 In 1986, when we moved to Baltimore so that I could begin work on The Sun's copy desk, we rented an apartment in Towson while we looked for a house in the city. 

A couple in a nearby apartment had a daughter the same age as our twins, and the children played together and swam in the pool. In conversation with the parents we discovered that though they had lived in Towson for several years, they had never set foot inside Baltimore's city limits. 

Their daughter had never been to the National Aquarium, the Science Center, the Maryland Zoo. Or the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Museum. Had never strolled around the Inner Harbor or seen the Constellation. Her parents were content with the turn-ons of Towson (which was not in 1986 the cosmopolitan happening place it has become today).*

In that they resemble many people in the counties surrounding Baltimore who decline to come into the city or, if they happen to work in the city, prefer to drive in at 40 mph or more and exit at the same speed at the earliest possible moment. They regularly write letters to The Sun to inform us that we in the city are living in a cesspit. 

That is not to say that the bleak picture of a crime-ridden decaying city that Sinclair's Fox 45 television station exerts itself to broadcast to the surrounding area can be wished away. 

Too many people, especially impetuous young men, carry guns and use them. Some years ago the driver of an unlicensed cab was fatally shot across the street from my house at 9 p.m. That was when I discovered that one task for the Fire Department is to show up the next day and hose the blood and brain matter from the pavement. 

There is no denying the consequences of living in a one-party city with too many Democratic hacks in government. Two mayors have left office amid charges of corruption. We spend more than $600 million a year on a police department that seems unable to reduce homicides or even manage traffic enforcement, and for which we have spent an additional $22 million in settlements to the victims of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. Our Department of PublicWorks can't manage water billing or operate the sewage treatment plants. 

We have schools that have to send children home on days that are intolerably hot or intolerably cold. 

A third of city residents do not own an automobile, and public transit is laughable. 

So you may be wondering why I am still in the modest house my wife and I bought nearly thirty-six years ago, or why I call Baltimore The Greatest City in America.**

Our house is in a racially mixed neighborhood in the northeastern quadrant of the city, and we like our neighbors. There's a creek nearby that I pass on my daily walks, occasionally seeing a heron take flight or a hawk circle overhead. 

Despite the city's reputation for danger, for more than thirty years I drove through the city after work at the newspaper at midnight, one o'clock, or three o'clock in the morning, without incident. 

There's a very nice bookstore in the neighborhood, one of several in the city. (You see that, Towson?) There's also a very nice Italian restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Abruzzo; my wife and I had a leisurely lunch there with a friend yesterday. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has a branch here and is diligent about providing books I request. 

We have a group of friends who meet at a bar near Belvedere Square at three o'clock in the afternoon several days a week for beer and badinage. 

My parish, Memorial Episcopal Church, has a progressive history: rejecting its segregationist past, hiring the first woman priest in the diocese and the first openly gay male priest, working to form alliances with the surrounding Black neighborhoods.***

We've been to the museums, the symphony, the zoo, the opera, and the Inner Harbor. We've visited the one-of-a-kind Visionary Arts Museum and drunk in the view of the city from the summit of Federal Hill. 

And yet, when I say any of this online, some jabroni in the county tells me that I'm living in a shithole and am a hopeless liberal who can't listen to reason (as if some feckless echo of Donald Trump constituted the voice of reason). Let me tell you, I have seen what some call the lovely suburban life, York Road from Towson to Cockeysville, Ritchie Highway from Annapolis to Baltimore, and I'm having none of it.

My wife and I have had a happy life here for three decades, and now that we are retired we feel no impulse to leave what for us has been The Greatest City in America for anywhere else. 

*I joke. Towson, a county seat of 5,000 people adjacent to a state university with more than 20,000 students, cannot support a bookstore.

**"Baltimore: The Greatest City In America" is the slogan then-Mayor Martin O'Malley affixed to benches around the city, a morale booster for a battered urban populace. It got some attention recently when a resident used it on an an NPR radio show

***And indulging me in smoking up the joint with incense a couple of times a year. 

Thursday, November 2, 2023

Don't dispute refute

I grumped this morning about that article that used refuted in a context plainly indicating that the sense was "disputed" or "rebutted," and someone reminded me that those senses of refute have become widespread enough to be included in dictionaries. 

One colleague, alluding to yesterday's post, said, "You can’t blog about how 'literally' is a perfectly acceptable substitute for 'figuratively' and then split this hair."

I answered: Watch me. 

Are you watching?

The non-literal use of literally is not some linguistic innovation for which we can blame Millennials. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that what it calls the "hyperbolic use" of the word was common in the nineteenth century and can even be traced to Pope. A use so well-attested for so long hardly seems worth fuming and fretting over today. 

Had I been editing that article that ran this morning, I would have changed refuted to either disputed or rebutted, as has been my practice. Since the earlier sense of refute, "to disprove conclusively," survives though blurred, I prefer to retain it for contexts that plainly indicate that sense. 

An example: Sixty court cases have refuted Donald Trump's assertion that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. 

As far as I am concerned, the hair has been split. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Give up the ship

 During more than forty years as a copy editor, part of my job was to make copy clean and correct. Another part of the job was to determine when things previously thought correct no longer applied. 

I give you the example of the over/more than distinction drummed into journalists, that over may only be used to indicate spatial relationships, a rule so willfully ignorant of standard English usage that even the Associated Press Stylebook finally abandoned it. There are more. 

You may have held bravely to the distinction that literally cannot mean figuratively; that an enormity is a great evil, not a Really Big Thing; that a dilemma involves a choice between two unpleasant options, rather than a mere perplexity. It falls to me to tell you that those ships have sailed; they are not even visible on the horizon. 

No doubt you understand that podium derives from the Greek word for foot and thus indicates an object one stands on, not behind. The thing one stands behind to read from a book or other text is a lectern, from the Latin word for reading. That thing the clerk stands behind at the airport gate is a desk, but so many hundreds of thousands of travelers have now been summoned to the podium that the original sense has been rubbed away. The Greek etymology is instructive, but not definitive. 

I once made a spirited argument that one could distinguish between convince and persuade, the former being a stronger term, because people can be persuaded to do things even when they are not convinced it is right to do so. I long ago gave up on it, and assume you have too. 

Probably you know that to beg the question is to make a logical fallacy, to assume the validity of what you are purportedly trying to prove, not to prompt or pose a question. And if you are writing for The New York Review of Books, more power to you. If you are writing for nearly anyone else, your accusation of question begging is apt to produce furrowed brows. 

Well-brought-up writers and editors know that comprise means to contain, to encompass. The whole comprises the parts, which compose the whole. Well-brought-up writers and editors were taught to shudder at is comprised of, and Bryan A. Garner cites the heroic labors of Bryan Henderson, who single-handedly changed 18,000 Wikipedia instances of  is comprised of to is composed of. The example of Canute comes to mind. 

I learned as a lad that the due in due to must be an adjective following a linking verb. "The error was due to ignorance of standard usage." See: due is the predicate adjective, and to is just a preposition. But to write due to ignorance of standard usage would make due to a PREPOSITION and scare the horses in the streets. If you escaped that particular lesson, count yourself lucky. 

Perhaps in a subsequent post I may mention traditional distinctions of usage that still matter. 

Friday, September 22, 2023

The printed word

 I have been a subscriber to The Baltimore Sun, a seven-day-a-week print subscriber, for thirty-seven years, since I began working on its copy desk, and I have begun to wonder what the point is. 

Since The Sun publishes online first, I have already seen its stories the day before, sometimes several days before, they appear in the print edition. And I will also have seen the Associated Press and New York Times articles The Sun picks up as well. So I am essentially paying for a print newspaper to read the "Ask Amy" column and the comic strips. (Yes, they're in the online edition as well, but there is something just wrong about reading a comic strip on an iPad.)

Beyond that, the quality of the print edition, since Alden Global Capital shut down The Sun's printing plant and transferred print production to the Gannett organ in Wilmington, Delaware, has been abysmal. Light inking is the least of the problems. 

The cost, however, has been rising. I believe it was Al Neuharth of Gannett who experienced the illumination that a decline in advertising revenue could be offset by jacking up the circulation prices, since newspaper readers were dependent on their habit. Unfortunately, neither Neuharth nor the other corporate illuminati ever figured out a way to attract new readers, and my generation with the newspaper habit is steadily proceeding to a location to which the circulation department cannot deliver. 

Dammit, I want my morning ritual, in my chair with a cup of strong coffee and my newspaper. The main pleasure that has survived is the grumbling. Tribune eliminated copy editing even before the company was acquired by Alden Global, and the daily procession of subject-verb disagreements, misplaced modifiers, and other offenses against English usage does not pass unremarked on at these premises. There is also a grim satisfaction in noticing when the online text has been incorporated intact without altering references, a clear indication of the lack of an editor's eye on the page. Carp, carp, carp, that's the life. 

I could call circulation to cancel print, converting the savings to bourbon money. But I might just ride it out until one of the sharp-pencil people at Alden Global determines that the cost of print production, even with Gannett, is greater than the mingy returns from print advertising and subscriptions, turning my seven-day-a-week newspaper into a three-day-a-week newspaper, or simply online only. 

In forty years at newspapers I only twice heard an editor call the pressroom to say, "Stop the presses." I think it will be a good deal less than forty until all of them are stopped. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

What he said

 Journalists, ever citing people's speech and documents, are rightfully fond of the word said. It is plain, straightforward, unobtrusive. It gets the job done without resort to the thesaurus and pretension. 

But journalists are unaccountably unwilling to invert subject and verb in these citations. Perhaps they feel the construction arch and dated, something one would find in Gilbert and Sullivan, as one indeed can in one of my favorite passages in Trial by Jury, the judge's recommendation of his daughter in marriage: "You'll soon get used to her looks," said he, / "And a very nice girl you'll find her! / She may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with the light behind her!"

But this aversion can lead to strained and awkward constructions, of a kind I see daily. Here's a synthetic example (so as not to embarrass anyone publicly): "Said suffices," John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun, said. 

You see the problem. The delay between the subject and the verb creates a suspensive effect, dropping you at the end of the sentence at the prosaic and anticlimactic said. Much better to render it said John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun. 

That keeps the subject and verb nestled close together, where they are happy, while also maintaining the connection between the noun and the appositive phrase.  

Go, and sin no more. 


Sunday, September 3, 2023

On-the-job learning

 I have allowed a significant date to pass unremarked. On August 17, fifty years ago, I worked my last day at the Flemingsburg Gazette before leaving for graduate school at Syracuse.

Lowell and Jean Denton, the proprietors, had hired me in the summer of 1968, after my junior year in high school, to allow Jean to take the summer off. The six years I worked at the Gazette, a weekly in Fleming County, Kentucky, with about 3,000 circulation, were a practical education, an apprenticeship, in newspaper journalism. 

I attended meetings of the fiscal court (the county council in Kentucky) and interviewed the superintendent of schools about plans for the coming school year. I profiled local worthies. I covered the beautiful baby competition at the Ewing Fair. (I did not determine whether it was accident or design that Mr. Pierce Million, who rented the public address system for the occasion, played a recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies crossed to the infield.) I Englished the social notes from the outlying communities. I did copy editing and proofreading. I took classified ads over the telephone. On Wednesdays I drove the pasted-up pages to the newspaper in Cynthiana that printed us, drove the printed copies back, helped with the Addressograph, bundled copies for mailing, and delivered the bundles to the post office. On Fridays I swept out the office and dusted the counters. Photography and page makeup were pretty much the only things I didn't do. 

I was reporter, columnist, copy editor, proofreader, clerk, and dogsbody. 

It was grand. Lowell and Jean were generous and indulgent in allowing me to make mistakes and recover from them, and the income from the job was a welcome help with my college expenses. Lowell was the practical partner in the enterprise; he did all the photography and dealt with all the advertisers. Jean was the literary partner, particularly fond of the work of Joan Didion. I was once assigned to profile a worthy and "lay it on thick." I attempted that, and Jean looked at it, told me, "We don't publish satire," and rewrote it herself. 

And I owe them my life's career. When, after abandoning the Ph.D. program in English at Syracuse, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for a post on the copy desk, the Flemingsburg Gazette was my only significant journalistic credential. (As an undergraduate and graduate student, I [cough] never took any classes in journalism.)

Lowell and Jean are gone, and I honor their memory, grateful that they were willing to take me, a skinny kid, a bookworm, into their business and allow me to learn it. Yes, I spent six summers at the Gazette, and they became the prelude to forty years in newspaper journalism. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

We used to read the stuff before publication

When I retired two years ago from The Baltimore Sun after more than three decades of service as an editor, I swore a mighty oath that I would not become one of those former Sun employees who splutter that the place went straight to hell once they left. 

But damme, there's a limit. 

A Sun reporter filed a story that began, "Nearly 60 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared he had a dream. ..." It was published online two days ago. 

It appeared this morning on Page One of The Sun, above the fold, with the identical opening sentence, the day AFTER the 60th anniversary. Paired with the story was a refer to the wire service story inside on commemoration of the anniversary. 

So it seems that the print edition has become of so little consequence that there is no editor on hand paying sufficient attention to protect a reporter from looking like a fool. 

This is precisely the sort of thing that used to be caught before publication on the copy desk, when newspapers still had copy desks. 


A fellow copy editor reminds me that tomorrow, Aug. 28, is the 60th anniversary of the King speech. as we see, I do not have an editor to keep me from looking like a fool.