Thursday, December 31, 2009

O brave new world

You can read in the Philadelphia Inquirer about words and catchphrases of the year, but for me and many of my colleagues, there is one statement that fitly epitomizes the year that is gasping its last today:

“Our market-based, forward-looking plan is both a response to the recessionary economy, continued downward financial pressures on the news industry and our transition into a 21st-century multimedia enterprise.”

Thus Jonathan Slevin, publisher of the Washington Times, in a statement redolent of the rancid corporate-speak so familiar during the past twelve months, announces that he is sacking forty percent of the newsroom staff.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jobs not to be touched with a bargepole

You might think that, eight months out of work and two and a half months past the end of severance pay, I would snap at just about any possible job. You would be wrong. Here is some of what is out there, served up on listings I’ve signed up for.

Video Game Tester - Xbox Wii Playstation PC - Needed Immediately - Make Up To $30/Hour!

I played one game of Space Invaders one night in a bar, maybe in 1980. I’m out of the demographic.

Writers wanted for academic writing
We are interested in writers with prior experience in academic writing (essays, term papers, research papers, etc.).

College kids should write their own damn term papers.

WORK WITH BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY. Make $5000/Mo. Online...Part Time. Proven System, Huge Company

$5,000 a month for just typing some things into the Internet for a couple of hours a day. Older readers may recall classified ads in the back of magazines telling readers they could make big bucks stuffing envelopes at home; this appears to be the contemporary version.

FREE GOVERNMENT MONEY. Make 5k/Month Working From Home. Limited Positions

Uh-huh. This one looks to be a variation on the previous one.

The money-laundering scheme

The offer, deleted pretty much as soon as it landed in my computer, told me that all I needed to do was sit at home for a couple hours a day to receive foreign money transfers in my bank account and ship them to another one.

I suppose that becoming a guest of the state would solve the problem of my upkeep, but I hear that the food is terrible.


That was the title anyhow.

Requirement: a high school diploma.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Trying too hard

The art of writing a headline is to encapsulate the central element and tone of the article in a way that a reader can take in at a glance.

It took more than a glance for me to decipher this headline on the front page of this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Flags down
over Block
award to
Eagles’ Vick

This is one of those headlines that make sense only after you read the story: That the annual Ed Block Courage Award is being given to Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles — the man who ran a dog-fighting operation — has caused local outrage.

There are two ways in which this headline tries too hard and defeats its own purposes. The first is to jam all those proper nouns, Block, Eagles, Vick. Michael Vick is notorious enough locally that Eagles could have been sacrificed. The second mistake was to try to be clever while jamming all that information in with wordplay on flag down on play. You know, football.

The result is a headline that has too much — information — and too little — context for the wordplay. It is only in the secondary headline, Animal advocates outraged / over teammates’ choice, that the penny drops.

Simplify, simplify.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Our inbred universities

One of my informants sends this specimen from the Daily Local News of Chester County, Pennsylvania. It is the second sentence in an article about the demolition of a log cabin at Eastern University:

School officials say the long-abandoned structure was unsafe, the logs were incest-infested and the price of renovation too high for the institution to afford.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You don't want your editor to be your chum

Your editor is your friend, but not your pal.

Your friend knows your strengths and your weaknesses, and is able to tell you a few home truths.

When I first took on the authorship of The Sun’s monthly copy desk newsletter, I inherited the title “Sgt. Friday’s Report.” The gimmick was that it came out on the last Friday of the month and led with a short narrative in which Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon discussed various writing and editing misdemeanors.

I thought that I handled the device adroitly, with some very droll passages. But when I took it to Dudley Clendinen — then an assistant managing editor — he shook his head. A little puzzled by it. Not sure how it worked or was meant to work. Maybe try something a little different.

I went away, and as I looked at my text, a terrible light dawned. It was not droll. It was labored. And, worst of all, not funny. I realized that Dudley had done me a great service. He had, in the friendliest way, told me something that I badly needed to hear.

Often when editors fail, it is because they misunderstand the relationship with the writers and want to be pals rather than friends. “Hey, buddy, anything you do is A-OK with me. Everything is jake.”

This does not do the writer any good. Buddy-editing lets just anything slide through, and the writer is not held to any particular standard. A colleague on the copy desk once marveled at the low-grade writing of a veteran Sun reporter: “Why, he’s had twenty-five years’ experience!” I muttered, “No, he’s had one year’s experience twenty-five times.” Not one in a succession of editors had held him to any higher standard.

There’s a degree of moral cowardice in slack editing, too. Editing done properly is hard work, but it is even harder to confront people with things they don’t care to hear. If the writer is inept or temperamental, it’s easier just to pass the stuff along — what on a different occasion I referred to as peristalsis rather than editing.

A friend expects the best of you, and you exert yourself to do your best to honor that friendship. When you need an editor — and all of you do — look for a friend. If you want a buddy, go to a bar.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

How dumb do they think we are?

Once a television news operation gets a technology, it’s obliged to use it, regardless whether it makes any sense.

When I lived in Cincinnati, WCPO acquired a helicopter. Once the station had sprung for that kind of cash, there was some kind of chopper report every night. Likewise, once a station has the capability to report from a location other than the studio, reporters and camera operators must be dispatched daily to remote locations, however improbable.

One sees at the eleven o’clock news, for example, a reporter standing outside the darkened City Hall to discuss events earlier in the day involving people who are no longer on the site. What this report from a scene where no one else is present should convey to the viewer is elusive.

Tonight, though, I noticed a further refinement on Baltimore’s WJZ.* The story was the melancholy discovery of the body of a missing child on the Eastern Shore. The events were narrated by a reporter “reporting live,” standing outdoors in the dark. Somewhere. But the substitute anchor, who twice identified the reporter as “reporting live,” never mentioned “from” anywhere. This gave rise to a reasonable supposition that the reporter might have been no nearer the Eastern Shore than, say, a parking lot behind the television studio.

If you think that newspaper journalism has become superficial and trivial, you may not have been watching enough television.**

*Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t usually watch local television news, because my shouted objections make the rest of the family nervous. Tonight, however, stunned by overeating at Christmas dinner, we were too lazy to change the channel.

**Out of deference to Christmas goodwill toward all, I have waited until past midnight to make this post.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another damn word of the year

Every maven and his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons by the dozens, is pushing a word-of-the-year article or word-of-the-decade article (for that decade that we don’t have a word for, haven’t cared enough about to settle on a word for, and frankly just want to be over).

Even I am not immune to the temptation. So, herewith, my Word of the Year, Word of the Decade:


A portmanteau word, blending crap and fantastic, not in a favorable connotation, it was particularly beloved among some people whom I know in their descriptions of the work of a particular major media concern. (This description, I realize, will make it impossible for you to narrow the field.)

As a description of the level of public discourse to which we have descended in this waning decade, and particularly as a description of the degeneration of the established news media into drivel, gossip, and irrelevance, it does appear to be the signature word.

Merry Christmas.

Writing made bad on purpose

It must puzzle lay people — it has certainly puzzled me for years — that professional journalists write so clumsily. I’m going to lead you through a couple of examples before attempting an explanation.

Someone on Calvert Street, it appears, reads this blog. Yesterday’s post identified a misplaced adverb in this sentence:

Kevin P. Callahan was charged with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device last week after a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County.

Gratifyingly, this morning’s print edition has last week nestled cozily after was charged.

But there is always more to be said, as Cliff Tyllick pointed out in a comment on that post:

Another problem is the writer's positioning of the adverbial prepositional phrase, “after a two-month investigation ... .” Specifically, it was not after a two-month investigation that Callahan drove negligently, failed to stop, and failed to obey; it was after a two-month investigation that he was charged.

Moving the whole bit to the front of the sentence not only makes that clearer but also makes the sentence easier to read and understand:

After a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County, Kevin P. Callahan was charged last week with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device.

And a 41-word sentence needs every readability improvement the editor can muster.

On Facebook, Pat Myers had this to say:

But DON'T go all the other way around and put the time BEFORE the verb, in that weird newspaperese “He yesterday was charged ...” I tomorrow am going to puke if I see it in the paper then. They even say it out loud on NPR.

I’m afraid that Ms. Myers might suffer gastric distress to read this lead sentence from a Page One article in this morning’s Sun:

The Anne Arundel County Council Monday night approved zoning to allow the state's largest slots parlor to be built at Arundel Mills, both a major victory for Baltimore-based developer David Cordish and a decision that opponents promise to continue fighting.

And it’s another lumbering 40-word sentence.

Let’s think about how such sentences come to be written.

The difficulty with adverbial placement must originate in journalism schools. Putting the day of the action first in the sentence — Yesterday the council approved — is verboten because you want something stronger than a mere adverb of time at the beginning of a sentence. But you also want it early in the sentence to convey “freshness.” Thus the journalistic preference for placing the adverb in a non-idiomatic location between the subject and the verb. Reporters cannot, apparently, be broken of this habit. And once you have lost your bearings about where adverbs should go, they can go anywhere.

Similarly, those thirty- and forty- and fifty-word monstrosities rise from the j-school instruction to cram as much of the story as possible into a single summary paragraph. The slots paragraph might easily have been broken into two, the first recounting the action, the second pointing to the consequences, and the reader would have sailed straight through both of them.*

My favorite example of this tendency — the champion — is a sentence I have lovingly brought out in workshops and editing classes for more than a dozen years:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

Journalism being a craft learned by apprenticeship, it is inevitable that a tyro will look at published sentences and paragraphs like these and think, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done.” Thus turgidity perpetuates itself.

*Or the consequences could have begun the sentence. One problem with an opening like this is that the reader can’t tell what the focus of the story is going to be — how the vote came about, or what comes next. Unfortunately, the story bounces back and forth between the two, suggesting that no one involved was able to decide which was more important.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Watch your adverbs

In English, word order counts for a great deal, as this sentence from illustrates:

Kevin P. Callahan was charged with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device last week after a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County.

The accident, as the second half of the sentence points out, occurred two months ago. That was when the negligent driving, failure to stop, and failure to obey happened. Last week was when the driver was charged, and so last week fits — or should fit — neatly into a little syntactic niche immediately after was charged.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just want it to be over

One of my readers suggests that I address the naming of the decade that is passing away, since no one seems to have agreed on a term. Fortunately, Christopher Beam has written on the subject at, with capable assistance from Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer.

The aughts has had a certain popularity, the noughts has done well in Britain, and there are the inevitable cute coinages, such as Slate’s the Uh-Ohs. I rather like that last one, but basically, I just don’t care.

This naming of decades fosters shallow thinking. The Fifties? Ike and men wearing hats. But if you read David Halberstam’s excellent book on the decade, you discover that it was much more complex. The Sixties? The Sixties has become a code word in the culture wars, and the way you speak of it identifies which side you’re on. The Seventies were more than cocaine and regrettable fashions, hard as it is to get past the latter.

And then there’s this: Mr. Beam opens his article by writing, “Less than two weeks remain in the first decade of the new millennium. ...” Oh dear. The tiresome thing about writing on language and usage is that you have to plow the same field over and over and over.

Remember Y2K?

The current millennium began on January 1, 2001. Those were nice parties you had in 2000, but you were a year early. There having been no Year Zero, the first millennium of the common era began in A.D. 1 and did not exhaust its thousand years until the end of A.D. 1000. The second began on January 1, 1001, and ended in 2000. The current decade, similarly, began on January 1, 2001, and will not end until midnight on December 31, 2010.

I’m sorry if this spoils your sense of fitness in the way numbers are grouped, but a decade has ten years, a century a hundred, a millennium a thousand — and you have been giving short weight.

An additional calendrical note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of You Don’t Say. From its debut on on December 20, 2005, to the present I’ve had the satisfaction of writing for a growing corps of readers. You have applauded me, you have argued with me, and — bless your hearts — you have corrected me. Thank you all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That man in the White House

Hell of a story: Popular Democrat comes into office succeeding a highly unpopular Republican administration, hits the ground running to deal with an economic crisis, experiments with measures, reduces conservatives to howling rage, and leaves the left grumbling that he has betrayed their hopes by compromising with corporate interests.

H.W. Brands tells his story in Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday, 888 pages, $35 in hardcover), and he tells it very well. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas, hits all the major themes:

The personality: Child of a wealthy old family, he was indulged and dominated by his mother. He sailed easily, a golden boy, through prep school, college, and an early political career. Felled by polio, he struggled to recover autonomy and put iron in his character. His marriage, scarred permanently by an infidelity, devolved into something more like a law partnership, Franklin and Eleanor dividing up the political field between them. Though he was ebullient and apparently extroverted, his interior life, his inner self, seems to have been oddly closed off from nearly everyone. He was, instead, onstage nearly every waking moment.*

The culture: Today is not 1933, and Barack Obama, despite intriguing parallels, is no Franklin Roosevelt, but American characteristics endure. The twentieth century marked a shift from an economy of scarcity to an economy of surplus — a consumer culture motivated by advertising in which consumer confidence is crucial to maintaining economic momentum. The excesses of that culture, particularly in banking and investment, lead to periodic disasters and calls for reform. And “the reformist temperament in American life has always hidden a coercive streak: if people won’t shape up voluntarily, they should be encouraged, even compelled, to do so.” Think of the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, and their heirs today.

The politics: The accusations that Roosevelt was manipulative and duplicitous are hard to challenge. He mastered the technique of leaving the people he talked with under the impression that he had agreed with their proposals, and he played factions and personalities and even his own assistants against each other. He foresaw that the war between the Fascists and the democracies would inevitably draw the United States into the conflict, and he prepared the American public for it by degrees.

This line that the Roosevelt character speaks in Annie is a fair summary:” I’ve just decided that if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.” Franklin Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing optimist. He was optimistic that he could overcome polio. He was optimistic that the federal government could act to mitigate the distresses of the Depression. He was optimistic that democracy would prevail over Hitler. And, having seen Woodrow Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations fail, he was optimistic that a new international order could be established to forestall war and promote human freedom.

Professor Brands, who writes lucidly, has done an admirable job of portraying the man and his times for those interested in discovering what the past can tell us.

*To speak of being onstage: I have been cast as Franklin Roosevelt in the Memorial Players’ production of Annie to be staged at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill on April 23, 24, 25, and 30, and May 1. Further details will be forthcoming in the spring.


If a reader should order the book from by clicking on this link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, December 18, 2009

In case you missed it ...

A recent comment on the post “Christmas is coming. Save yourselves” said:

I can't wait until all copy editors are out of work. You people are the pathetic parasites of the newspaper industry. What do you actually create?

Had I been inclined to bandy words with such a fellow, I could have pointed out that on this blog alone and its predecessor at, there are hundreds of examples of sound advice from a copy editor — not to speak of the posts and articles from fellow copy editors that I have cited over the past four years.

I might also have mentioned, had I thought the commenter susceptible to rational discussion, my experience that the most professional and accomplished writers I have worked with over the past three decades have been the ones most appreciative of copy editors, and that the writers most hostile to the copy desk have typically been those most in need of editing.

Instead, I contented myself with giving an answer to his rhetorical question about what copy editors actually create:


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What do you want to hear about?

I told you yesterday that I am scheduled to conduct two audioconferences on editing for McMurry, one in January, “Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You,” and one in February, “Where to Turn: Resources for Editors.” Today I’d like to give you a chance to influence what is said on them.

If you have been reading this blog regularly, you should have a pretty clear idea of what I am likely to say about superstitions of usage, “rules” that aren’t really rules, and peevers’ shibboleths. But we can’t discount the possibility that I may have overlooked some particularly ripe examples. So please, if there is some point of usage that you think I should address — even if you are not able to take part in the audioconference — please suggest it in a comment.

Similarly, I have written in the past about print and electronic references that I consult and recommend, but the posts have hardly been exhaustive. If there is a source that you have found to be particularly reliable and useful, your suggestion of it in a comment would be welcome. I’ll pass it along.

On to other matters

Item: Writing about the Oxford University Press reissue of H.W. Fowler’s original Dictionary of Modern English Usage, I remarked in passing, “Six and a half columns on shall are of little purpose in an age and a country in which the word has largely fallen out of use.” A couple of commenters disputed that. For example: “As a shall-user, I detect that many non-users employ it in questions. Shall I get you some more coffee? Shall we dance? Even if they wouldn't say I shall get you some coffee, or We shall dance.”

Yes, stock phrases like “Shall we dance?” and the use of shall as an imperative in legal documents persist. But I think that “Would you like to dance?” and “Can I get you another cup of coffee?” may be more commonplace. The grammatical insistence on shall with the first person, which I was taught in elementary school, was well on the way out then and now seems as quaintly archaic as thou and thee with the second person.

Item: ran an article yesterday about a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University who “has become the Washington press corps’ independent fact checker, copy editor and link distributor extraordinaire. His e-mails almost always lead off with a soup├žon of praise, such as “In your excellent article today,” followed by a link to the story and polite notification of a mistake, anything from a broken hyperlink to a misspelled name.”

You Don’t Say applauds Daniel Lippman — Lord, we would like to see more like him — for his persistence and tact in pointing out the lapses of the great and the mighty. And it will be interesting to see what career he pursues upon graduation.

It is, however, a little melancholy to reflect that it now takes an unpaid undergraduate to do after publication what professional copy editors — before the War on Editing decimated their ranks — used to do before publication.

Item: If you were impressed by David Hobby’s photograph of me — he did the best he could with the available material — you can check out some additional examples of his work on Flickr.

Monday, December 14, 2009



I have been engaged by McMurry, which also publishes the Copyediting newsletter, to conduct two audio conferences on editing. Click on the links for details.

Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Where to Turn: Resources for Editors

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Meep me, daddy, eight to the bar

The principal of a high school in Massachusetts recently banned the word meep in his school, threatening any student who used it, spoken or written, with expulsion. His rationale is that the students were using the word in a disruptive manner.

Of course they were. That is what adolescents do. Few teen pleasures are keener than getting under the skin of officious adults. And the principal, one Thomas Murray, lost composure sufficiently to forward e-mails containing meep to the local police.

Erin McKean, writing in The Boston Globe from a lexicographer’s perspective, points out that meep is the gulp of stifled panic that Beaker, the assistant in Muppet Labs, chirps as something is about to explode. Moreover, she points out: “The very sound of meep is cheering: The long-e sound forces the face into a smile (like saying cheese for a photograph), and research has shown that even a forced smile can result in an improvement in mood.”

Joy among the students must have been unconfined when word of the meep ban spread through Facebook and the news media, prompting additional lexical invention.*

Erin McKean again:

Combine a blank slate like meep and the natural tendency of English to produce new words with suffixes and affixes (and then throw in a little paronomasia, or punning) and you have plenty of scope for meep-related fun. The students (meepsters or meepers) were supposedly planning a mass-meeping, at which people might get meeped, which of course would cause meep-ruption. Meep proved to be an excellent word for expressing disapproval of the ban − “Oh, for meep’s sake,” “Read it and meep,” − although one commenter at the popular discussion site MetaFilter felt the story merited the stronger “Jesus mept,” and another picked up on a popular conspiracy-theory trope with a rousing “WAKE UP MEEPLE!”

Indulgence in meepery, it seems to me, is the kind of harmless minor anarchism that can help students endure the institutional imbecilities of the educational system, and if they can rattle some representative of tinpot authority into going meep-mad, then they have struck a blow for freedom, both lexical and personal.

*Apparently meepists outside the school began bombarding the principal with e-mails containing the odious word − not that I would give any encouragement myself to petty harassment.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Don't make me no nevermind

I can’t hardly think why so many people get all bent out of shape over minor variations in language. Myself, I could care less how people talk or what they write in text messages and e-mails or anything else casual they’re writing at. Though I might could get upset in some circumstances. To blatantly violate all kinds of actual rules and all those shibboleths some people think of as rules — none of the latter are worth a bucket of warm spit — might come from ignorance, which could be instructed, or defiance, which can be fun when it sets the peevers’ teeth on edge. And really, who gets hurt? Woman asked me the other day — I was buying a hat to replace the fedora that got stolen at church last Sunday — whether stupider was a word. I told her that if somebody used it, since she could understand it, it was a word. Whether anybody ought to have used it in all situations is a different question. Formal writing’s different from just talk, and I have frequently said so. Told her to talk like she wanted to. (She and her husband remembered me, bless their hearts, from that affectionate column, “Last seen in bow tie and fedora, the dictionary has gone missing,” when I was sacked by The Sun. Nothing wrong with gone missing, even if it was British first. You want a first-rate hat, you go to Hippodrome Hatters on Baltimore Street, they’ll fix you up.) Anyhow, just passing time here waiting for another job interview, the thing is, you gonna write for publication, you gotta consider your audience and what level of diction and syntax fits your subject and your publication and your audience. That’s what matters there. But let people talk the way they want. Like you could stop them anyhow.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On board at the Press Foundation

I have been elected a trustee of the Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Foundation. The foundation, an offshoot of the MDDC Press Association, supports training of journalists, advocates open government, and proclaims to the public the importance of the First Amendment.

The foundation’s announcement describes me as the retired copy desk chief of The Baltimore Sun, which is not strictly accurate but more decorous than “sacked.” At any rate, I am happy to have an opportunity in my post-Sun career to perform some useful service to journalism.

Does 'foodie' make you cringe?

Normally, I would shun reality shows as I would the fetid corpse of a raccoon at the roadside,* but my wife and son are addicted to Top Chef and have gradually drawn me into following this kitchen soap opera. But while I think that the producers manipulated the show to ensure a final contest between the Voltaggio brothers (and Jen and Kevin got a raw deal), I must make this clear: I am not a foodie.

I’m not sure that you want to be, either.

Foodie has been around for almost thirty years, and many people use it, without irony, to describe themselves. But the widespread use of the word has also provoked resistance. Let’s see where it falls on the range of terms for eaters.

A gourmet is a knowledgeable diner with refined tastes, at the highest level an epicure. A gastronome is also a connoisseur, perhaps more knowledgeable about the history and techniques of cookery than a gourmet, though the terms are often used interchangeably. A gourmand — frequently confused with gourmet — is someone who tucks in to food and drink enthusiastically, a trencherman, even a glutton at the extreme end of the range.

And now we have to fit foodie in, by examining connotations. Gourmet, gastronome, and epicure, all venerable words, suggest a diner who is thoroughly acquainted with traditional cuisines. As such, the words hint at pretentiousness or class-consciousness. A foodie appears to be an enthusiast for novelty, willing to try new things and aware of what is currently fashionable; he or she may well be pretentious, not in the traditional manner, but in the manner of one who is and must be au courant. The foodie may or may not have specialized knowledge — I am gathering this from blog comments by self-described foodies — but may simply be someone who likes to talk about cooking and dining out. The term is too loose to be terribly helpful.

That –ie suffix is also a problem with the word. In English, it often represents a diminutive, and to call oneself a foodie is to suggest fandom, perhaps to a risible degree. Think Trekkie.

Like it or not, use it or not, we appear to be stuck with it. As we are with reality shows.

*Sorry, Sarah Kelber.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I don't really look this good

The photo added to the blog today was taken by David Hobby, an accomplished former Baltimore Sun photographer.* If you have any interest in his craft, you should be following his blog, Strobist. If you are a civilian, you may still admire his work.

He has been generous enough to open his studio to me for a set of photos, of which this is the first. If he can make me look this good, imagine what he might do for you.

*I have the highest regard for all the photographers and former photographers at The Sun whose work was an ornament to the paper and a credit to the profession. I never had any difficulty in dealing with them when posing annoying questions from the copy desk. That their ranks have been decimated is yet one more instance of the crisis that has diminished newspaper journalism.

Henry Fowler's divided legacy

My copy of Fowler is the 1965 edition, lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, but now it is possible to lay hands on a reprint of the original 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, 784 pages, $29.95), with an introduction by the distinguished linguist David Crystal.

Why, you may ask, bother? Did not R.W. Burchfield say in his third edition of Fowler in 1996 that the original is a “schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book” and “an enduring monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century”?*

One reason is that there is a fair amount of good sense in the original — and good sense written entertainingly.

Take, for example, his description of those who want to insist that the placement of only in a sentence is crucial to meaning: “those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved ... the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion.” Their goal is “to force us all, whenever we use the adverb only, to spend time in considering which is the precise part of the sentence strictly qualified by it, & then put it there—this whether there is any danger or none of the meaning’s being false or ambiguous.” A current linguist writing at Language Log would say much the same.

The entry on superstitions (the enduring belief that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) reminds us of “the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

Professor Crystal takes a more generous view of Fowler’s accomplishment than the late Mr. Burchfield, pointing out that Fowler made extensive use of the available linguistic information in the Oxford English Dictionary and his own extensive observations. He places Fowler in historic context, in an age when prescriptivism was beginning to lose its dominance in education and linguists were developing and analyzing findings about how people – both the uneducated and the educated — actually use the language. “His solid educational background in English grammar, Latin, and Greek was pulling him in one direction; his considerable observational linguistic alertness was pulling him in another, urging him to recognize the huge changes in usage that were taking place. ...”

Thus, “although the book is full of his personal likes and dislikes, his prescriptivism — unlike that practised by many of his disciples — is usually intelligent and reasoned. He readily condemns rules which he considers to be absurdly artificial — something which later pedants tend to ignore.”

But, Professor Crystal points out, “the trouble with private judgement, as opposed to judgement based on sound linguistic principles, is that it leads inevitably to a lack of consistency.” Thus “[d]ifferent entries give different answers,” and “the difficulty of using his book in a principled and systematic way led to his influence on subsequent usage and attitudes being very mixed.”

Someone approaching Modern English Usage as a guide to standard written English, with advice to be measured against one’s own sense of the direction of the language — that is, a reasonable prescriptivist — can find it highly useful within its limits. And the author’s occasional crankiness can be a source of mild amusement.

But there are two serious hazards.

The first is the attractiveness of Fowler’s private judgments trenchantly expressed. They seem to give leave to the great tribe of peevologists and the tinpot grammarians found throughout journalism to similarly trumpet their private preferences.

The second lies in the psychological need among some people — some of whom, unfortunately, are copy editors — for The Rules. Everything must be right or wrong, and any recommendation or guideline can be warped into a Rule.

Both hazards lead inevitably to “unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

First Fowler is at once a** historic document, an expression of an engagingly quirky personality, and a source of still-useful advice — if you use it cautiously. But then, you should use any manual of usage cautiously.

*To be sure, there is a good deal of dated material in a book of usage more than eighty years old. Six and a half columns on shall are of little purpose in an age and a country in which the word has largely fallen out of use. The entries on received pronunciation are likewise of small utility to an American reader of this century. It is no longer necessary to address the “lingering hyphen” in today, tomorrow, and tonight. Neither does it help us to differentiate between tricky (playful) and tricksy (dishonest).

**The first entry says: “A is used before all consonants except the silent h (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic. ...”


I received a review copy of Fowler from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Save money: Cut back on editing

A correction from The Washington Post:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

From the Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania:

Judge nixes please for man, who's accused of hosting racy underage drinking party, and sneds him to prison for stalking.

From the lead paragraph of a New York Times article:

It is the breakfast hour, the day before Thanksgiving and the lobby is busy with clean-looking families who are up and Adam, ready to set off in their varsity-letter jackets and Rockports for some holiday shopping, maybe a show.

From the Associated Press:

Energy shortages and rationing could be exacerbated by Colombia's decision last week to reduce exports of electricity to Venezuela, Lopez added. Colombia's energy minister, Hernan Martiez sidth douhtha frcd olmba o to sppyig Veezela with 70 to 80 megawatts a day.

Tell me more about how much better it is to get copy from the writer to the reader with “fewer touches.”

A prelate from Baltimore

Mary Glasspool, who was elected bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles yesterday, is canon to the bishops in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. She is properly referred to as the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool.

Her election was of more than common interest, because she is the second openly gay person to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson having been elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The Associated Press article on her election called her merely the Rev. Mary Glasspool and also said that she had been elected an assistant bishop. No. Both assistant bishops and suffragan bishops are auxiliaries to diocesan bishops, but an assistant bishop is appointed to serve in a diocese, and a suffragan bishop is elected to the post. The latter is harder to dislodge.

The article on her election in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun was apparently an unedited or lightly edited AP version. There was, regrettably, no staff contribution, though Canon Glasspool’s election had been pending over the weekend and was completed in the early evening.

Friday, December 4, 2009

You can't jolly humorless

I have a guest post today, “The with-it need the without-it,” at Dining@Large, responding to a series of exchanges over a one-line joke about the prevalence of hipsters at a couple of Baltimore restaurants. The subject may be trivial, but I think you will recognize the personalities illuminated by it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Somebody loves copy editors

At last, somebody understands us.

Of course, it would be The Intern.

The Intern got her manuscript back from the copy editor, and, well, it didn’t look good:

The copy editor had caught so many silly mistakes, pointed out places where a topic mentioned in an introduction was never addressed in the chapter, and even raised questions about the political correctness of some of INTERN's word choices. “Oh man!” thought INTERN. “Copy Editor must think INTERN is a fool! Copy Editor must be wondering what Publisher was thinking when they offered to publish such a cretinous and unworthy INTERN!”

The following passage from The Intern’s blog shows why The Unpaid Intern is not yet a Seasoned Wordsmith. Instead of railing against Copy Editor’s obsession with minutiae and failure to honor Her Writer’s Voice, she offers a short panegyric to our whole tribe:

Copy editing is not for sissies. A good copy editor does not humor you. A good copy editor does not chuckle warmly at your tendency to misspell the names of foreign dignitaries or diseases and let it stand ’cause it’s cute. A good copy editor will kindly but firmly tell you that your phrasing is unclear, your language offensive, and your punctuation laughable. These people are frighteningly smart and thorough and have your manuscript’s best interests at heart and deserve all the love and respect in the universe.

Well, The Intern gets the copy desk’s love and respect, however fleetingly, and its encouragement to potential employers to have a look at her Web site and think about offering her a job. Someone who recognizes and accepts correction is probably the kind of employee you need.

Thank you, @EditorMark, for the citation.

Dork, dork, geek

The terms dweeb, dork, geek, and nerd tend to be flung about carelessly, with very little discrimination about shades of meaning. Happily, an attempt has been made to settle this nice point of taxonomy by classifying the four types by combinations of three variables: intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude.

Geek: intelligence + obsession
Dork: obsession + social ineptitude
Dweeb: intelligence + social ineptitude
Nerd: all three

The distinctions can be displayed visually in a Venn diagram posted by Scott Beale in September, from which I have gratefully derived this post.

I leave it to you to determine which category is most appropriate for grammarians and usage mavens.

Three volleys and a bugle call

With an additional 30,000 U.S. troops heading for Afghanistan, reporters should school themselves to write more passages like this one from today’s Baltimore Sun:

The perfect rows of marble headstones stretching as far as the eye could see. The three rifle volleys followed by a somber rendition of "Taps." The flags, folded tight and handed with care to the parents and sister. ...

Full marks to the writer for saying “three rifle volleys.” The three-volley salute with rifles is a feature of military funerals. The “21-gun salute,” with which it is frequently confused in news reports, is performed with artillery, not rifles, and is typically reserved for heads of state.

Unfortunately, taps is not a song but a bugle call, like reveille, and therefore is not capitalized or italicized or written with quotation marks. Not to be picky — too late? — but calling it “somber” is more than is required. When was it not?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surprising -- surprisingly weak, that is

She started out so promisingly, too. Jill Lepore in the current New Yorker:

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is.

The journalistic device of leading you in one direction and then bringing you up short with an additional amplifying detail can be effective. But adding the feeble that is merely dilutes the effect with cliche. If the fragment after the opening sentence had simply read, “Of 1916,” the reader would have felt the impact of the nation’s long failure to deal with the issue. Instead, the reader gets the impact of the writer’s elbow nudging him in the ribs. Didja get that, huh, didja?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Busy week

You may have been traveling last week, or stunned by Thanksgiving food and drink, and were too distracted to follow this blog. But my hands were busy at the keyboard, and here is a summary of what you may have missed.

Only another copy editor would understand
It is an obscure craft, but there are those who love it.

The Times leads a sheltered life
Don’t show us the money shot.

Just one word: plastic
Once more, with feeling: Foam plastic plates and cups are not made of Styrofoam. You should know this.

These are the rules
Precepts to guide your behavior.

Not news
You can run this stuff — many do — but it’s still shallow and stupid.

Don’t you ever talk about what’s RIGHT with America?
This just in: Copy editors tell you what is wrong with writing.

You may still have time to decide against running that inane story about how much the gifts of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” would cost today. ABC and Today, I’m told, have already done so. But if you paid any attention to the strained banter during the broadcast of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, you know that broadcast television has no shame.


Item: Oxford University Press is republishing H.W. Fowler’s original Modern English Usage, which should stimulate discussion of descriptivism, prescriptivism, and peevology.

Item: A comment by Tom Gara — “Aren't readers flocking in droves to online news sources that have no copy editing and drip with average grammar, inconsistent spelling etc?” — has me wondering whether people are posing a false dichotomy between thorough editing and no editing.

Item: College names and upward academic mobility.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


A colleague in an unnamed state has just sent me an alarming bulletin:

"FYI: AP is running on the wire Sunday the annual nonstory on the cost for the 12 Days of Christmas."

If you have any influence at all at your publication, spike this story, which is — and I know how much territory this claim takes in — perhaps the dumbest single story the Associated Press ever runs. It is an annual exercise in banality. It is factually questionable and devoid of originality. It is worse than a weather story. It is worse than the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey. It is worse than a story quoting Miss America. It is a zombie story that refuses to die, and the person assigned to do this annual dirty task must have done something really, really dreadful in a previous life that you do not want to know about.

If you are monitoring the wire services, tell no one about it. If you are an assigning editor, shun it. If it has been scheduled and you are on the copy desk, take this appeal up to the Supreme Court (or find some way for the system to delete it beyond recovery — you should know how). Interpose yourself between this monstrosity and the reader, at all costs. You are the last line of defense.

Don't you ever talk about what's RIGHT with America?

Before I undertake the heavy lifting myself, does anyone else want to address the character who made — anonymously — the captious comment scorning copy editors on the “Not news” post?

Item: you can still count on the copy desk for indefatigable negativism. There is plenty of good journalism out there, even if there are fewer people producing it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Not news

Though no foe of innocent amusement — speculate as you will about the private life of Tiger Woods — it wearies me to see how much text in print and online is taken up with subjects that are not news and cannot convincingly be made to look like news. Some examples, to which you may feel at liberty to add your own:

Item: Phillip Blanchard, testiest of the Testy Copy Editors, advises us, as he does (futilely) every year, to pay no attention to the “Person of the Year” hoo-hah from Time: “Please remember that ‘Person of the Year’ is a magazine promotion, and as such is not news.”

Item: Time is also running an article calling the current decade the “decade from hell.” No doubt the 1960s, with the assassinations and riots; or the 1940s, with the Second World War, or the 1930s, with a worldwide depression and the rise of facism, pale in comparison with, say, “the record number of corporate bankruptcies, many of them household names: Kmart, United Airlines, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler.” Sometimes a writer should just breathe into a paper bag until he calms down.

Item: Though Nicole Stockdale of the Dallas Morning News pointed out several years ago that “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is not the biggest shopping day of the season, journalists continue to copy and paste that phrase.

That journalists should be writing about Black Friday at all is suspect. Yes, some people make it a ritual to rise well before dawn to stand in line in parking lots to get the first shot at brummagem merchandise.* And yes, newspapers are solicitous of their advertisers, who are cowering in fear that this season’s shopping will be so feeble that they will go under. But really, when a mob tramples someone to death to get at the mark-downs, that is news; that people shop a lot in November and December is not.

Item: When a couple of gate-crashers elbow their way to the side of the president of the United States, that is a security item, and news. Going into the details that they aspire to participate in yet another tacky reality show winds up giving tacky reality shows free advertising that they do not appear to need.

Item: Did the journalism outlet(s) you follow run something about the president’s “pardoning” the Thanksgiving turkey? Do you wonder if something important was omitted to make room for that?

Item: On the first, fifth, tenth, or twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a child, soldier, or other young adult by accident, disease, or homicide, it is not news that the family continues to mourn the loss. In fact, nearly any article about the anniversary of an event will be little more than a copy-and-paste job from the files, running because it was an easy way to fill up space.

Item: Any story about the weather that mainly informs you that it gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. If you can find out the same information by opening the front door, you don’t need a journalist to tell you about it.

Point to ponder: I invite you, as you consider these articles and others like them, to pose a question once memorably uttered by Ursula Liu, a former Sun colleague: “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”

*You don’t know brummagem? The adjective means cheap, showy, and possibly counterfeit. The word is a dialect version of Birmingham, the English city once known for the counterfeit coins and plated goods manufactured there. (Thank you, New Oxford American Dictionary.)

These are the rules

In Good as Gold, Joseph Heller summarizes the basic rules of behavior:

Don’t make personal remarks, never tell a hostess you enjoyed yourself, don’t force anything mechanical, never kick an inanimate object, and don’t fart around with the inevitable.

Heller’s rules of behavior owe something to a set of principles articulated by Nelson Algren:

Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.

You may have seen the rules of civility that the young George Washington painstakingly copied out — and observed through a life of tremendous dignity. Among them:

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.

Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.

And, though I have quoted this passage before, Leander Wapshot’s posthumous advice to his sons in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle always repays attention:

Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.


If a reader should order books from by clicking on the links below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Just one word: plastic

An opening paragraph in this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Sitting at a table of strangers in a steamy gymnasium, Michael Brisco poked at turkey on his Styrofoam plate and reflected on the reversals that had buffeted his life these past few months.

Styrofoam is a trademark for a kind of polystyrene manufactured by Dow Chemical for use in insulation and boat construction. Disposable cups and dishes made of plastic foam are not made of Styrofoam.

The carelessness of journalists — admonitions against using Styrofoam for foam plastic plates and cups have been in The Associated Press Stylebook, other stylebooks, and in-house style manuals for decades — has surely reinforced public carelessness with this word. Editors can, and should, rap the knuckles of writers who disregard such niceties, but Styrofoam may be well on its way toward joining kleenex and xerox and the other trade names that the public has transformed into generic words.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Times leads a sheltered life

In the New York Times article on Michaele and Tarek Salahi. the would-be reality show participants who wormed their way, uninvited, into a state dinner at the White House, you will find this sentence:

And the two money shots: Mrs. Salahi, her red and gold sari glittering, snaked around a grinning Mr. Biden, her hand resting on his chest, his arm wrapped around her waist; and both Salahis, with a smiling Mr. Emanuel, described on Mrs. Salahi’s Facebook page as “Chief of Staff of the United States White House.”

It’s not my place to tell Helene Cooper, Janie Lorber, Brian Stelter, or their editors at The Times what a “money shot” is or where the term originated, but really, someone should.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Only another copy editor would understand

Reacting to my mordant “Horoscope for editors” post (sample: The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough), one reader commented:

... and yet he wistfully longs for his days on the copy desk.

God, I miss them. What you must understand is that even in the best of times, copy editors fought a daily desperate rear-guard action, clawing their way to some increase in clarity and precision against unforgiving deadlines, obtuse colleagues who never troubled to understand the details of production (or, often, syntax), balky equipment, and asinine directives from on high. Every victory, however minor, was a hard-won triumph to be savored, every defeat a spur to greater effort.

To you, you writer, we were impediments to the full flowering of your “voice.” To you, you civilian, if you had heard of us at all, we were a bunch of nerds, certifiable obsessive-compulsives who cared about things that you would not even notice. To you, you sharp-penciled bean counter, we were, and are, disposable “non-core” staff.

But among ourselves, we were comrades who took to the field on Saint Crispin’s Day, and when we gather to nurse our beers and talk about lost glory, we few, we happy few, will strip our sleeves and show our scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”

A pity you weren’t there.

Unstable core

I am not persuaded that the Internet reduces our attention spans or that the 140-word bursts on Twitter make our thinking superficial, but you see things that make you wonder.

This morning I came across a retweet from one Tom Gara in Abu Dhabi opining, “Outsourcing copy editors and other non-core jobs is inevitable and a good thing for newspapers.” Mr. Gara was referring to a decision by the management of the Toronto Star to eliminate seventy-eight editing positions and outsource its copy editing to Pagemasters North America.

The asininity of proclaiming that editing is not a core function takes one’s breath away.

No one disputes that newspapers, struggling to stay afloat in stormy waters, have to make difficult decisions. Any business that does not manage to keep its costs within its revenues is going to sink, but that does not mean that just anything can be thrown over the side.

We have heard the “non-core” talk even in relatively prosperous times. Of course you can eliminate the library staff. Reporters can just add routine research to their daily workload. Of course you can sack the editorial assistants. The editors can answer the phones all day; and if the reporters are busy, the editors can keyboard datebook copy.

Now, of course, you can jettison the editors and copy editors in favor of some distant corps of editing units who do not know your staff or your area. You will merely multiply embarrassing errors of fact, publish slack writing, and alienate your most loyal customers. Evidence of the first two phenomena will be evident each day on your pages, evidence of the third in the accelerating decline of your circulation.

Unfortunately, difficult decisions are not necessarily good decisions.

*The editor responsible for the Star’s decision is Michael Cooke, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that has not been a byword for excellence in management.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And yet, it moves

By coincidence, the weekend brought the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the publication of an Associated Press article, deservedly mocked at HeadsUp: The Blog, on claims that an analysis of letters on the Shroud of Turin establishes that it dates from the first century and is not a medieval forgery.

A century and a half of science have confirmed the integrity of the Darwinian explanation, despite disagreement over details. Oddly, it remains controversial, and some who espouse the Christian doctrine of creation have turned to the secular arm, provoking disputes on school boards and lawsuits determining whether and how evolution may be taught in public schools. A scientific analysis of the cloth of the Shroud performed twenty years ago determined that it dated from the 13th or 14th centuries.

I have no business ridiculing other people’s religious beliefs and customs, and the devout are free to revere the Shroud of Turin and to take the opening chapter of Genesis as, however improbably, a recounting of historical fact. But I would urge those who continue to resist Darwin to consider the example of Galileo. When the Church decides to oppose and suppress science, it damages itself.

I watched my son work out a diagram of celestial mechanics in his freshman year at St. John’s College in Annapolis. St. John’s teaches both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, as a means of showing how the mathematics can explain observed phenomena. But no one (I hope) thinks that the Ptolemaic system should be taught in the public schools as an equivalent explanation. Galileo may or may not have muttered, “Eppur, si muove” (nonetheless, it moves), but no one disputes today that the earth moves around the sun, though it was once thought to be fatal to religion to think so. We can read a writer’s conjectures about the Shroud of Turin, but there, too, sooner or later, we face facts.

At Headsup, “fev” finds the Shroud story, as presented in his local newspaper, symptomatic of the credulity and shallowness of our journalism and our public discourse. Since I cannot say it better myself, I’ll close with his remarks:

This isn't just a stupid, credulous story. At the metropolitan daily that still deigns to show up in driveways three days a week here, the teaser above [to the Shroud of Turin story] is the only international presence on today's front page, and the story itself is far and away the largest bit of news (700-plus words, to some 330 for the runner-up) from outside our little corner of the world. The looming Senate vote on health care is a four-graf brief. I don't see a word about either of the shooting wars the country is still involved in.

And that's the cherry-picking stuff. If you think California's higher-ed debacle might hold some lessons for the rather dire situation that looms up here, too bad for you. Are Iran or Honduras or any of the other 190-odd countries out there entering the sort of low boil that tends to spill all over the front page in a few weeks? You're just going to have to wait and see, aren't you?

No clueless wire story is going to bring the republic down by itself. But each blunder of this scale represents a missed chance to make people incrementally smarter, rather than incrementally stupider. The gasbags of the pundosphere excel at turning fictions into conventional wisdom. If you have a steady, reliable supply of actual news, it isn't hard to catch them out. If you don't, well — lots of luck with that representative democracy stuff.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Luke Skywalker, call your service

Hyperbole of the day, from The New York Times:

A fight of galactic proportions over health care looms.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Horoscope for editors

Aries (March 21-April 19) — A writer whose childish excesses you challenge will accuse you of interfering with his “voice.” His editor will back him, not you. Duck and cover.

Taurus (April 20-May 20) — The project that has been in the works for eight weeks will land on your desk three hours before deadline. You do not have the photos, and the graphic is not finished. Brew another pot of coffee.

Gemini (May 21-June 21) — The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough.

Cancer (June 22-July 22) — You will become “platform-neutral.” Brace yourself to do two jobs at once.

Leo (July 23-Aug. 22) — The benefits of your employer-provided health insurance will be reduced. But your deductible and your premium will increase.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sept. 22) — In an article you edit, you will correct the spelling of the subject’s name, give him the accurate title, straighten out the chronology, and delete an unsupported assertion that is potentially libelous. But you will overlook a misplaced decimal point, for which you, not the writer, will receive a disciplinary note.

Libra (Sept. 23-Oct. 22) — The person who sits next to you will heat fish in the office microwave. Don’t forget to take a handkerchief to work.

Scorpio (Oct. 23--Nov. 21) — An upgrade in the office computer system will leave you dead in the water for four hours.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 21) — You will edit a company announcement explaining that reductions in content, coverage, and staff will improve the reader’s experience. Control your gag reflex.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 19) — The human resources staff at the company where you have applied for a job will reject your application. Next time you submit a resume, leave off the dates of your college graduation and employment.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18) — The company’s holiday party, in the break room, will feature food that you will prepare and bring in at your own expense. You will have to clean up the break room afterward.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — Your boss will beckon you into his office. Before you go, make sure that you have enough cartons at your desk to hold your personal effects.

The good student

At the library, leafing through A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart’s jeremiad about the incompetent teaching of math in our schools, I was stopped by this sentence:

Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told that they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following instructions.

Though never particularly adept at math myself, I was always a good student, an “A” student, an honor roll student. I was a teacher’s pet, because I wanted to please my teachers. Most of my fellow students thought me odd — probably still do — and some of them bullied me. I was a bookworm and uninterested in sports.* My teachers were more my friends than my fellow students, and I wanted to please them. The way to please them was to give the right answer.

That was the pedagogy I grew up under: There is always one right answer to be discovered, and the purpose of education is to produce students who get the right answers. It works for things that are susceptible to rote learning. Spelling, for example. You can teach phonics and instruct students in the general principles of spelling, but English is such a promiscuous, mongrel language that its numerous maddening exceptions simply have to be memorized, like Chinese characters.

Rote learning is not, however, of much use in teaching students how to think. If you keep giving the right answers long enough, you get to college, and you can skate a long time there on right answers. But I got as far as graduate school without fully understanding that scholarship is more about framing the right questions.

One day in my second or third year of graduate school in English at Syracuse, Professor Peter Mortenson — almost as an aside — described to my class that scholarship is a conversation. Trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of a text, you look at what previous scholars and critics have said about it. You notice something that has been overlooked, or you see something that is mistaken that you can try to refute; thus you enter into the continuing conversation on that text or that issue. Another student said afterward that it was the first time that any of his teachers had explained so lucidly what the enterprise of criticism was.

In retrospect, I see that that was the beginning of my discovery that, as much as I liked books and talking about them, I was not cut out to be a literary scholar. I had gotten to be pretty good at sussing out the answers the teachers wanted to hear, but without much talent for forming those questions myself.**

Fortunately, I found a career an editor, where what analytical ability I do have is put to use. And I try in my classes on editing to train my students to frame questions. But analytical thinking is hard to start with, and many students appear to come to college after a dozen years of conditioning to guess what answer the teacher expects to hear. That is why my students discover every semester that if they just look blankly at me long enough, I will break down and tell them what I see in the text. I hold out as long as I can.

I invite you to write in comments on this post about your own experiences in school, and to speculate on the reasons for the inadequacies. Does get-the-right-answer pedagogy persist simply because it is easy? Or are there deeper reasons for it — perhaps that we don’t want to train the young to be analytical thinkers because they will question us and grow up to be troublemakers rather than docile employees? Do we value learning, or do we merely admire credentials? Over to you.

*I still loathe all known forms of sport.

**To suss (largely a British usage, is to realize something or figure it out. It derives from to suspect.)


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of the book listed below from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Real or Onion?

It is not an easy matter to determine the point at which the United States of America transcended satire, but it is a simple matter to identify phenomena that should have the editors of the Onion reaching for a consolatory bottle of gin.


Item: Texans eager to forestall any possibility of the legalization of marriage or civil unions between gay people, adopted in 2005 a constitutional amendment so sloppily drafted that it appears to make all forms of marriage illegal:

This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

Language Log has a full account.

Item: You can buy T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming “Pray for Obama Psalm 109.8” The verse cited reads (in the Authorized Version): “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”

Some apologists are saying that it merely calls for limit to his tenure in office rather than his death. Of course, those familiar with Scripture are aware that the next verse reads: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

See how these Christians love one another?

Item: Fox News, skewered by Jon Stewart for using wrong crowd footage on Hannity to exaggerate size of protest, now gets caught using wrong crowd footage to exaggerate response to publication of Sarah Palin’s book.

Item: A Minnesota man speaks Klingon exclusively to his son during the child’s first three years of life: “I was interested in the question of whether my son, going through his first language acquisition process, would acquire it like any human language.”

Item: Veteran editor/writer/blogger/teacher/administrator/trainer John E. McIntyre remains unemployed.

Is this a great country, or what?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Devoted to grammar

Let’s suppose you are an aspirant to the Priesthood of All Grammarians. You will, of course, have the sacred texts, MWDEU, Garner on Usage, perhaps First Fowler and Second Fowler (also known as the Revised Standard Fowler). But you will also be in need of a breviary for your daily devotions.

Now there is one. Mignon Fogarty, whom you may already know as Grammar Girl, has just published The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (Henry Holt, 234 pages, $15).

Like her previous book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, the Devotional is more a collection of tapas dishes than entrees: whether you should use a comma or not with too (OK for particular emphasis, otherwise not), short quizzes (peak, peek, or pique?), word search games (find the paired British and American spellings). All good fun. (Not as fond, myself, of the whimsical cartoon illustrations of Squiggly and Aardvark, her examplars in illustrative sentences, but you could have guessed that from my congenital crankiness.)

On some points, Ms. Fogarty is standing firm. She holds the line on distinguishing between due to and because of. She wants enormity understood as a great evil rather than just a big thing. If you are dangling at the end of a rope, she says, you have been hanged.

But she is not rigid, and she describes available options, depending on how fastidious you want to be. On lend and loan, for example, she points out that in American English, “most language experts consider the words interchangeable,” but “some sticklers disagree.”

There is a lot of fine miscellaneous information: a short history of sentence diagramming, tributes to Samuel Johnson and James Murray and other “language rock stars,” a list of the order of adjectives in English (opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose).

It is all, as she says forthrightly, “quick and dirty.” For further explanation, you will have to turn to the sacred texts. But if you are, for example, an English teacher, The Grammar Devotional would be a handy book to have in the classroom for those occasions on which you have to summon up a quick response. And, since Ms. Fogarty is admirably clear and direct for a non-specialist reader, The Grammar Devotional would be an apt choice at Christmas for the student or aspiring writer in your house.


I received a review copy of The Grammar Devotional from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy of it or the other books listed below from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mock the AP Stylebook

This is fishing with dynamite.

On Twitter, @APStylebook, which previously solicited adoration for its latest edition, rather as if buying it compared to getting free Springsteen tickets, now wants its users to tweet about why they are thankful for it.

I am not making this up: Tell us why you are thankful for your AP Stylebook by Thanksgiving and you will have a chance to win a subscription to Stylebook Online.*

This is just sad. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have to make pathetic public appeals for admiration. Sadder still, people are beginning to respond to @APStylebook’s invitation, describing the brilliance that this flawed reference book brings into their drab little lives.

Someone should draw the curtain on this painful scene.

*My retweet, Because it lends itself so beautifully to mockery, will not, I think, win the prize.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Christmas is coming. Save yourselves

Another holiday season looms menacingly over us, and some merchants, desperate to flog their inventory, have even resorted to taking out advertisements in newspapers. As the annual burst of synthetic cheer* overtakes us, a few measures are available to minimize the horror. One of the best is to resolve to shun holiday cliches.

Versions of this list, compiled with the assistance of fellow Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, have been published annually as a public service on this blog.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must mention Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage — and dignity — than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And, typically, they do not scan.**

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality is a comfort to them. It is for such people that television exists.

*Apprehension knows its fellows. Some of you may recall lines from Tom Lehrer’s Christmas carol: “Kill the turkeys, ducks, and chickens, / Mix the punch; drag out the Dickens; / Even though the prospect sickens, / Brother, here we go again.”

**If you are under the misapprehension that the twelve days of Christmas are a countdown to December 25, be advised that Christmas is a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The hermeneutic comma

The Rev. Avery Dulles, a Jesuit priest and son of the arch-Presbyterian John Foster Dulles, once spoke at a church that had one of those trendy velvet banners on display, proclaiming:

God is other people.

Taking a marker, Father Dulles altered the banner to read thus:

God is other, people.**

If you cannot simultaneously hold both views, you have no business in theology.

*Swell headline for search engine optimization, don’t you think?

For the benefit of those of you who were out sick during theology class, hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation of texts. Originally applied to Scripture, it has more recently been adopted in the rarefied atmosphere of academic literary criticism in an attempt to increase the dignity of the enterprise.

**I had this story from a member of the clergy, so its veracity cannot be established.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Michigan State, how could you even think of it?

An urgent e-mail from my daughter says that the provost at Michigan State University, my alma mater, has proposed eliminating the major in classical studies as an economy move. Alice provided this link to a petition opposing the measure, which I have signed and which I commend to your attention.

When I presented my transcript to my advisor in 1973 to get his approval for my graduation, he looked over it with a practiced eye, looked at it again, and looked up at me and said, “You appear to have gotten a liberal education. How did you do that here?”

“I sneaked around,” I told him.

Whether or not you have studied Latin and Greek, the opportunity to pursue classical studies remains an indispensable component of a liberal education, and it was once thought that universities exist to uphold, at least in theory, the values of a liberal education. That the provost of Michigan State should even propose eliminating the major in classics is reprehensible. If the university should approve this measure, it would be a scandal. Perhaps the provost could then submit a proposal to change the name to Michigan State Trade School.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Hawthorne's caution

I wonder whether some of us in the paragraph game, finding ourselves abruptly deposited on the street after long tenure with a publication, may suffer from the psychology that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in the “Custom-House” section of The Scarlet Letter. Here is how Hawthorne describes the fate of the long-tenured officeholder turned out after a change in administration:

He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possesses an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer [read journalist] — fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world — may return to himself, and become all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as best he may. Conscious of his own infirmity, — that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost, — he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope — a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death — is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to office [read employment in journalism]. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.*

You need not be alarmed, gentle reader; for my part, I am far from tottering after my own unkindly shove last April, and I retain possession of a fair quantity of my original tempered steel and elasticity, as any employer who has the wit to engage my services will quickly discern.

*This excerpt constitutes about half of a paragraph. No doubt we can expect to hear some discourse on Hawthorne’s defects as a writer from the anonymous commenter who called me “verbose” and urged me to cut my posts by a third.

The Founders' dilemmas

Name a text — other than the Bible — that is more revered and less understood than the Constitution of the United States.

Can’t? I’m not surprised. But if you were inclined to enlarge your understanding, you could do worse than to turn to Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 514 pages, $30). Professor Beeman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a highly readable, thoughtful account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

It is an account that may trouble contemporary liberals and conservatives alike.

Liberals, because the Founders as a group thought that we ought to be governed by educated white male property owners. They were not democratically minded; indeed, they were highly suspicious of the public. The tension that troubled them throughout their deliberations that summer rose from the attitude of the “archetypal old republican — intensely fearful of concentration of power in the hands of just a few but at the same time convinced that ordinary citizens lacked either the intelligence or the virtue to govern themselves.” Thus, for example, they repeated voted down proposals to have the president elected directly by the people and constructed the creaky machinery of the Electoral College.

Conservatives, because Professor Beeman’s account offers no comfort to the legal Originalists who argue that our understanding of the Constitution should be limited to the intentions of those fifty-five men in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to a common understanding at the time of the convention about some of the basic language of the document, and some delegates strongly attacked its provisions during the debates on ratification. Moreover, James Madison, revered as “Father of the Constitution,” went to Philadelphia advocating a stronger central government and subsequently opposed many of the consequences. Which Madisonian “intent” should prevail?

What is impressive in Professor Beeman’s book is how earnestly these fifty-five men addressed themselves to the issues of self-government, how they struggled amid the summer heat in confined quarters to rise above narrow interests, how they gradually moved to an understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances, how they framed a document with enough flexibility to endure for more than two centuries with comparatively few amendments, and how they provided better than they knew for an expansion of liberty and political autonomy.

The tragic element is their fatal compromise on slavery. It was in part a purely political measure; the delegates had every reason to expect that without some protection of slavery, South Carolina and Georgia would not come into the Union. But in larger part it was a failure of imagination: Even those delegates who saw slavery as a great evil could not comprehend how to untangle the economics of it or conceive how white and black Americans could live together in freedom and equality.

It is refreshing, in a time when ignorant and ahistorical people say that we should disregard Washington and Jefferson and Madison because they were slaveholders, to see Professor Beeman explore how these well-meaning men were limited by the culture and perspective of their times. It might help us to develop a little humility to consider the ways in which we, too, grapple ineffectively with our gravest problems because of our failure to see beyond our cultural blinkers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Note to copy editors everywhere

Anal-retentive takes a hyphen.

Words to watch out for: Accused

This headline appears at this morning:

Charges dropped against / accused city brothel operator

The intention is to identify a person who has been accused of operating a brothel. But the construction can also be understood to mean that someone who in fact operates a brothel has been accused of the crime. The headline probably suggests to the reader that even though the charges were dropped, the person is guilty. But even if that is the case, it is not the job of the newspaper to supplant the functions of the courts.

This is why careful copy editors (if any remain in our depleted newsrooms) resist the constructions accused killer and accused murderer, because they effectively say that the person is a killer.

Here’s a distinction: When a member of the clergy is charged with abuse, the construction accused priest does not mean that he is accused of having been ordained.

You may object that this is one of those fine distinctions that obsessive-compulsive editors insist on. But given the importance of the presumption of innocence in the legal system, it seems defensible to be fastidious about this.

To disagree, comment below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fading Star

I hadn’t planned to write on the The Toronto Star memo that was marked up by a copy editor, given its wide currency on the Internet, but so many readers have mentioned it, apparently expecting my wholehearted approval, that I am sharing my misgivings.

The thing that immediately strikes the reader about the memo from the publisher, John Cruickshank, is its imbecility. Look at the cant: “structuring around the core capabilities that drive the business, and leveraging these core capabilities across new and emerging platforms.” In common understanding, “we are going to save money by cutting staff and neglecting our moribund print product while hoping that something else — we don’t know what — will turn up that will make money.”

The memo goes on to talk about outsourcing the copy editing. Again in common understanding, “we are sacking the people who know how to do the work and sloughing it off onto people who may be less skilled and may not know the area or the audience but who will work for less. Our goal is to cheapen the product and hope that readers will be slow on the uptake so we can harvest a little more profit before the roof falls in.”

This memo is an epitome of the dumb decisions that the newspaper industry has been making for the past several years. Keep in mind that when these measures — cutting the physical size of the paper, reducing the staff, limiting the coverage, degrading the quality — fail to produce improvement, the next action is to repeat the failed efforts. Thus: imbecility.

Unfortunately, the copy editors being heaved over the side have not been the most effective advocates for their cause, which leads to my second set of misgivings.

The comments on Mr. Cruickshank’s memo are a rhetorical gesture rather than serious editing, but still: Instead of marshaling objections in an orderly form, it is a scattershot markup of everything that the copy editor can imagine to be objectionable. Some of them are inconsequential, particularly the objection to a split infinitive, which is not even an error.

It would be heartening to look at this markup as a doughty defense of truth and beauty and accuracy and clarity and the copy editor’s indispensable role. But, unfortunately, it is also possible to look at it as representing the copy desk’s tendency to quibble endlessly, without perspective.

I want to make it clear, though, that my sympathies are entirely with my fellow writers and editors at The Star whose careers are being cruelly cut short by an industry that has lost its way and lacks a vision for preserving the craft.