Friday, October 22, 2021

Get to the point already

Imagine that your reader is a middle-aged man sitting in a recliner. He has a beer in one hand and the TV remote in the other. The amount of time he spends looking at one channel before clicking to another is the interval in which you can get and hold his attention. 

That means, in your article, your memo, your report, your release, your email, that you have to say up front and concisely what will interest the reader enough to engage a commitment to go beyond the first two or three sentences. You cannot take the reader by the hand and lead them gently toward the import of what you have to say. Putting the main thing in the sixth paragraph is putting it in a place most readers will never see. 

You know this is true because this is exactly how you read. You do not read every article to the end; sometimes you do not read beyond the headline. (Your editor will read to the end because they have to, and maybe your mother.) You have a limited amount of time and attention to bestow, and so does your potential reader, which makes snap choices inevitable. 

That does not mean that you have to wad your entire content into an unwieldy opening sentence or sixty-word paragraph. You have to identify a single central element that will be meaningful to the reader and focus on it. As they sometimes tell you, if you can't say what you have to say in a single sentence, you don't know what you have to say. 

Accomplishing this will require you to be a ruthless self-editor. The first paragraph in the first draft of this post no longer exists, and nearly all the sentences have undergone some revision. That's how you get to where you need to go. 

If you have read this far, my strategy worked; if you have not, it didn't.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

For what

I see this opening sentence in an article published by CNN: "GOP Rep. Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who was recently indicted for concealing information and lying to the FBI regarding an investigation into illegal campaign contributions, has officially resigned from his committee assignments." 

Anyone care to guess what in that sentence has triggered my boundless scorn? 


In the Former Times, when journalism organizations employed copy editors, we were all schooled that that preposition for suggests certainty, established fact. And because people accused of criminal acts receive a presumption of innocence in our legal system, we never allowed indicted for to get into print, substituting indicted on a charge of. 

Curious whether standards have shifted during my senescence, I plucked my Associated Press Stylebook from its place of repose and found: "To avoid any suggestion that someone is being judged before a trial, do not use phrases such as indicted for killing or indicted for bribery. Instead use indicted on a charge of killing or indicted on a charge of bribery."

It may be a little thing, but following that guideline observes the fundamental principle that journalists are not to put their fingers on the scales. 

It is similar to the guideline of not using murder as a synonym for homicide or killing until after a verdict, because sometimes people accused of a homicide are acquitted, or convicted of manslaughter instead. Again, the AP Stylebook still says, "Do not say murdered until someone has been convicted in court." Use murder only as part of a formal charge, AP advises, adding that writers should say that a person was killed or slain

(If I were still engaged in slapping the AP Stylebook around, I'd be prodding them to drop slain, because every time I see slain in text or slaying in a headline, I want to remind the publication that the 1940s are over.)

When you see that journalists are punctilious in details like these, you can begin to hope that they are careful and accurate in the bigger things as well. When they are not ... 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Take the cache and let the edit go

 I am going to go over this ONE MORE TIME because some of you were not listening. 

The word cachet means "prestige" or "a characteristic feature or quality conferring prestige." We lifted the word and its pronunciation, "cash-AY," directly from the French, because the French are so much better at prestige than the English. 

The word cache also has a French root, but we pronounce it as "cash," because it's our language and we do as we damn please. Cache has nothing to do with prestige. As a noun it means a hiding place for provisions or tools, or the materials being stored in a secure place. As a verb, it means to put things in a secure place. And more recently it became a word for material stored in computer memory. 

We sometimes see cachet spelled caché, the likely reason being that people have a memory of a chain of shopping mall stores selling overpriced vulgar women's clothing that included an accent aigu in its name, Caché, among its affectations. DO NOT DO THIS. 

Don't make me come over here again. 

Friday, October 8, 2021

Go, little text, along your way

 Yesterday on Facebook and Twitter I posted a sneer dismissing the fashionable term curation as merely the equivalent of frottage. 

And yes, I meant the sexual sense, not the artistic one. 

On another occasion, I sneered that what usually goes on in newsrooms is not editing but peristalsis.

I have seen this coming for a long time. 

When I sat down at a newspaper copy desk as a tyro in 1980, computers were in the early stages of their introduction in the paragraph game. Reporters filed texts on computers, and copy editors edited the texts, wrote headlines, and did some rudimentary formatting. 

The process had already begun to save money by eliminating the craft, along with the good-paying union jobs, of the composing room. The Linotypes and their operators were already gone. As the software of the content management systems grew more sophisticated, the page designers, photographers, and copy editors slowly took on more and more of the tasks once performed by compositors and engravers. In time the composing room was gone altogether. 

The task for the copy editors I once oversaw was to become so adept at the formatting that time remained for actual editing of texts. By editing I mean more than the stereotype that copy editors were drones obsessed with trivia, comma jockeys. One of my people identified passages in an article that the writer had plagiarized from online sources, and we got the story spiked. One of my people challenged a story with metaphors so excessive as to be unintentionally ludicrous and got it revised. One of my people identified libel in a story so egregious that I used it as an example for twenty years in my editing class (after changing all the proper nouns to avoid perpetrating a libel myself). 

As the operators of newspapers chose to siphon the cash flow rather than invest in the content and the staff, copy desks were decimated, sometimes eliminated altogether. 

What remained, instead of editing, was processing, now gussied up as curation. Don't mistake me; the processing is necessary. Texts and visual elements must be formatted for online and print publication. Getting the content in front of an audience means promoting it on social media. It is actual work. But editors burdened with these necessary but time-consuming tasks have less time than ever for actual careful editing, and the people who determine the resources have determined that careful editing is expensive and unnecessary, a frill.  

You see the results. You see stories with the subject's name misspelled in the headline and text. You see a sentence in the third paragraph repeated verbatim in the fifth. You see stories so thin and flimsy that there is no there there. You see arrant clickbait. You see shallow rumor-mongering and oversimplification. You read paragraph after paragraph of a text that leaves you thinking Why the hell did they decide to publish THAT? 

You see work that was processed, not edited, and processing is what remains. 

Peristalsis, if you didn't know it or look it up, is the involuntary muscular movement of food through the stomach and intestines, and you already knew what the output is. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Inveighing against changes in language is like inveighing against continental drift

When you get exercised about things you don't care for in English vocabulary or usage, you might keep in mind this passage from Robertson Davies's The Rebel Angels:

"Funny how languages break down and turn into something else. Latin was rubbed away until it degenerated into dreadful lingos like French and Spanish and Italian, and lo! people found out that quite new things could be said in those degenerate languages -- things nobody had ever thought of in Latin. English is breaking down now in the same way -- becoming a world language that every Tom Dick and Harry must learn, and speak in a way that would give Doctor Johnson the jim-jams." 


Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Back to the books

 It was a grand feeling to walk out of the Hamilton branch of the Pratt Library this morning with a selection of books under my arm. 

During the apprehensions and tensions of the pandemic, along with stresses at the job that I do not plan to describe, my reading dropped off sharply. Oh, I read articles in The New Yorker and The Atlantic and other publications online, but the appetite to devour books dwindled to next to nothing. 

Happily, release into retirement over the past three months or so saw appetite return. 

Penguin is bringing out Georges Simenon's Maigret novels in fresh translations, and I sampled ten or so of them. They're a quick read. I got through Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life without learning much that I hadn't already read elsewhere. Hillary Mantel's The Mirror and the Light, the last volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, was a delight on every page, as was Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex

Isabel Wilkerson's Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents paralleled and illuminated much of the discussion about critical race theory, and Baynard Woods and Brandon Soderberg's I Got a Monster: The Rise and Fall of America's Most Corrupt Police Squad added considerably to what I already knew about the Gun Trace Task Force scandal. One of Our Own brought to an end the late Jane Haddam's Gregor Demarkian detective series, and rereading John Le Carré's Smiley's People was as enjoyable as the first time. 

Jane Gardam's Old Filth, John Williams's historical epistolary novel Augustus, and the late Thomas Vinciguerra's Cast of Characters: Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White and the Golden Age of The New Yorker had been on my to-read list for years. I went back to Eudora Welty's A Curtain of Green and Other Stories and Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn. 

Now, thanks to the Pratt, I can look forward to Jack Lynch's You Could Look It Up: The Reference Shelf from Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia. I haven't read anything by John O'Hara in forty years, so now I have a book of short stories to investigate, and I picked up Phillip Lopate's Portrait Inside My Head to reacquaint myself with his essays. 

The bookworm returns. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Just don't do this

 All those years I listened to reporters bitching that the copy desk was crushing their creativity I also  marveled at their fondness for hackneyed devices. It may be that they think, as one reporter once told me, "It's not a cliche when I use it," but readers are undeceived. 

If you feel tempted to use any of these, reach for the nearest book and bring it down smartly on your hand. (Readers should feel free to add items in the comments.) 

Something and something and something, oh my!

Meet Firstname Lastname. 

It's not your grandfathers'/father's X. 

Webster's defines X as ...

Welcome to ... 

Yes, Virginia ...

Ah, X. 

It was an X seasonal, X weathery day ...

Any opening that asks a question, to which the reader's likely response is "Who cares?"

The good news is, the bad news is ... 

A sentence that some situation is "still" the case, tipping the reader that the story offers nothing new. 

The "X is not alone," "X is not the only" transition from an anecdotal opening.  Just get on with it. The reader knows how this convention works. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Chances are excellent that you are mistaken about English grammar

 One way to get the morning off to a strong start is to open an online discussion of grammar and growl,  realizing that many people hold strong opinions that are wrong. So rather than wear out my wrists responding to them, I am writing an omnibus response to uninformed opinions so that I can simply post a link and move on. 

No one knows how to use proper grammar these days.

I edited the work of professional journalists at daily newspapers for forty years and taught editing at a liberal arts college for twenty-five, and I can assure you that just about no one got the grammar straight. Every shift, every class involved making subjects and verbs agree, putting modifiers in their proper place, sorting out homonyms. Writing formal standard English is a skill that not many people master, and not many ever have. 

The English language is in decline.

English is a living language and has been going strong for centuries. There are, in fact, many Englishes, and the various dialects are not inferior to standard English, just used for different purposes. Usually  fuming about decline comes down to some nonstandard usage or dialect or particular word that the commenter has taken a dislike to. 

I regret to inform you that English does not care what you like or dislike. 

What you see is that the internet permits anyone who has a keyboard and a link to display their skill or lack of skill in writing to the world. Most of the gatekeepers to publication are gone, like the editors on vanished copy desks, and for the first time, as Gretchen McCulloch explains in Because Internet, the whole range of literacy in the populace is visible. 

No one is teaching grammar.

This one boils down to a belief that the traditional schoolroom grammar, relentlessly hammered in, is the only proper method of instruction. 

In elementary school in rural Kentucky, I was instructed in that schoolroom grammar by the formidable Mrs. Jessie Perkins and the equally formidable Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, and I mastered it. Evidence suggests that not many of my classmates did. The method is only effective with a minority of students, like sentence diagramming: Students who already have an understanding of syntax love it; students who do not learn little or nothing from it.

The further problem with the schoolroom grammar of elementary and secondary schools is that it is grossly oversimplified, and not many students advance to a more sophisticated understanding. It is also riddled with obsolete dicta and superstitions. This is why, a century after the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler exploded the prohibition about split infinitives, you can still find people carrying on about this imaginary error. 

Some schools, recognizing the ineffectiveness of the traditional method, have tried others. One approach is to say that since many subjects require writing, all the teachers in those subjects are effectively instructing their students in grammar and usage. But we know that what is everyone's job is actually no one's job. 

I found in teaching that many students came to me with little or no instruction in grammar and usage, and that those who had been instructed had often been taught rubbish. 

It was acquaintance with linguists and lexicographers that helped me to finally unlearn the defective or inadequate learning I had so painstakingly acquired. 

Maybe think before you post.

You think it's incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition? Use literally in the nonliteral sense or use hopefully to mean "it is hoped that"?  Seeing or hearing some particular word is "like fingernails on a chalkboard"? (Not the most original simile you could have laid hands on.) 

I remind you that Garner's Modern English Usage by Bryan A. Garner (for reasonably informed prescriptivism), Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (for historical perspective and range of choices), and Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer (for bracing advice) are in the stores. You could look it up. There's a lot in English, and even standard English has more choices than you may be aware of. 

A final note

I included a split infinitive and a singular their in this post. If you read past them, then you can see that they are imaginary errors. If you did notice them and were inclined to remark on them, get a life. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

 The Census Bureau's 2020 count shows a continuation of the trend noticed a century ago when Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor were singing "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?" after the end of the First World War.  

Many rural counties lost population over the past decade while the population of metro areas (cities and suburbs) increased. It's notable what happened within specific segments of the population. White people, who made up 63% of the population ten years ago now amount to 57.3%, continuing a demographic trend that will make white people a minority. The percentage of people identifying as Latino, Asian, or multiracial increased, while the percentage of Black people remained constant.

Strikingly, the actual number of white people decreased in the count by 5 million, which can be accounted for by the deaths of older white people and a reduced birthrate among younger white people unable to afford having children in the current economy. 

We can expect these numbers to add to the fears and resentments of older white people, already apprehensive about the diminution of their political and cultural influence, and they will surely stimulate efforts to exploit that fear and resentment. The efforts by some Republicans to maintain white political power by making voting more difficult for minorities would, if successful, amount to an American version of apartheid. And the weight given in the Senate by members from what H.L. Mencken called "the cow states" could contribute to the success of that project. 

White panic, the dark mutterings of white supremacists, and the desire to reconstruct some nostalgic version of the 1950s--Blacks at the back of the bus, women in the kitchen, gays in the closet--are political realities of the day, but there is no reason to think that they will prevail, despite making a great deal of noise. Demographic trends are in motion that are not likely to be reversed. Even South African eventually had to give up apartheid. 

Better to make the most of an increasingly diverse nation, which will also be a more interesting one. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Here for the asking

 The academic year is cranking up, and though it has been two years since I last taught editing at Loyola University Maryland, an impulse to harangue the young remains.

So if you teach a class in the Baltimore area and think your students might benefit from my making a guest appearance to talk about grammar and usage or journalism, write to me at, and we'll discuss the possibilities.