Saturday, May 30, 2009

Weekend miscellany

Item: Tomorrow is the two-hundredth anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn, and as I crouch over the computer in the basement, I’m listening to the Opus 77 string quartets. Listen to the sublime second movement of Opus 72, No. 2 in F major, this weekend if you have a chance; if you are not moved to admiration, you have a heart of stone.

Item: Earlier this week I attended my first tweet-up, in which people linked to The Baltimore Sun by Twitter gathered at The Windup Space, a gallery/bar in the Station North Arts district (with a vacant building on one side and a demolished one on the other, suggesting that Station North remains a work in progress).

I met @MinistryOfBacon and @SpamSpam, among others. The former was impressed by my evaluation of the superiority of bacon over sausage: with bacon, you know what you’re eating. There was also a subsequent mention on Facebook that Owl Meat,* the indefatigable commenter on Elizabeth Large’s Dining@Large blog, had encountered me there. I myself was unaware of the honor, not recognizing any of his many personae. Or perhaps he was just having me on at Facebook. Owl Meat, Internet Man of Mystery.**

Item: Snark cropped up this week on Ms. Large’s blog when regular contributor John Lindner unveiled his lack of enthusiasm for the cuisine — if that’s the word we want — at Looney’s bar. Someone appropriated Michael Gray’s name to post a patently false comment. When Mr. Gray objected, someone signing as “Ellen” responded:

For someone who prides himself on his writing style and likes to lob scuds at other's writing ("prattle"), your last post was an English teacher's nightmare.

"Just because of a few obnoxious, childish buffoons" shouldn't be it's own sentence.

Everyone is a legend in their own mind.

Anyone who has leapt with delight on my typos and solecisms will recognize the hazard people run when they set themselves up to comment on other people’s grammar and usage. Others’ writing and its own sentence would surely have been preferable, and while I have loosened up considerably on everyone ... their constructions, I’m not sure that “Ellen” and those English teachers twitching in their sleep would grant the same latitude.

I am sure, however, that legend in his own mind is a damnable cliche.

The snarker snarked is a recurring theme on the Internet.

Item: Among the events of the week to come is something less than a tweet-up but nonetheless promising: the 2009 Abell Symposium, "The End of Local News? If Communities Lose Newspapers, Who Will Fill the Void?," sponsored by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. This will take place on Tuesday, June 2, 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in Westminster Hall (519 West Fayette Street, Baltimore) on the University of Maryland Baltimore campus. Among the luminaries on the panel will be Monty Cook, editor of The Sun, and Tim Franklin, his immediate predecessor. I plan to show up, and I hope that you will, too.

*Owl Meat Gravy in full reference, though the cognomen varies depending on the subject he addresses.

**Yes, another pop culture allusion.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Know your U.S. Presidents

A correction today from the Times Observer of Warren, Pa.:

An errant classified "personal" ad which appeared in Thursday's Times Observer has drawn the attention of law enforcement officials.

A person from Warren placed the ad, which apparently alludes to the wish that President Obama meet an untimely end by linking him with four assassinated presidents. The ad representative didn't make the connection among the four other presidents mentioned [emphasis added] and mistakenly allowed the ad to run.

Upon realizing the mistake early Thursday morning, the ad was immediately discontinued and the identity of the person who placed the ad was turned over to Warren City Police as per newspaper policy. The local police department forwarded the information to federal authorities, as per department policy.

The Times Observer apologizes for the oversight.

The ad — thank you, Mr. Romenesko — read: “May Obama follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy!"

The grit in the oyster

I can’t help myself; I’ve been a copy editor for too long. When I read for amusement, I notice things that go awry, and they stick in my mind.

I recently read, and mainly enjoyed, Susan Cheever’s American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Hendry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work. It was a refreshing, somewhat novelistic survey of the writers of the Concord circle.

But Martin Van Buren was not the incumbent president in the election of 1852, and Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, not April 19, and noticing these slips in the text leaves me wondering how many other, unnoticed errors it might harbor.

This week’s book was Daniel Mark Epstein’s Lincoln’s Men: The President and His Private Secretaries. Looking at Lincoln and his administration through the perspective of John Nicolay and John Hay (and William Osborn Stoddard, about whom I had previously been unaware) was informative both about Lincoln’s character and his management of his administration. Mr. Epstein’s book is also gracefully written and insightful.

Still, I doubt that Hay was the bridegroom at Nicolay’s wedding and suspect that he was instead the best man.

I sat with my son in the October sunlight last year at the Festival-on-the-Hill in Bolton Hill, with a glass of McHenry beer and a plate of oysters on the half shell. That is nearly as good as life gets. The oysters were a little gritty, which did not erase the joy of the day, but it would have been a keener pleasure without the grit.

I admire and enjoy the work of Ms. Cheever and Mr. Epstein, but my pleasure would have been uncorrupted if someone — say a copy editor — had gone through their texts on the alert for the mishaps that befall even the best writers.

'White' is also an ethnicity

The nomination to the Supreme Court of Judge Sonia Sotomayor has generated a quantity of chatter about race, little of it edifying.

Tom Tancredo, a Republican and former congressman from Colorado, has been widely quoted: “If you belong to an organization called La Raza, in this case ... which is from my point of of view anyway ... nothing more than a ... Latino KKK without the hoods or the nooses. If you belong to something like that in a way that's going to convince me and a lot of other people that it's got nothing to do with race. Even though the logo of La Raza is ‘All for the race. Nothing for the rest.’ What does that tell you?”*

It tells me something about Mr. Tancredo, but not much about the issue of race.

Let’s refresh the perspective: George W. Bush appointed two middle-aged white men to the Supreme Court.* White is as much an ethnic marker as black or Hispanic — particularly since demographic trends point to a future in which all three groups will be minorities in the U.S. population.

Given that that future is near at hand, it would be a good idea to abandon the practice of saying that ethnicity is an issue only when African-Americans and Latinos are involved. White is also an ethnicity, even if the news media and the commentators are not used to thinking in those terms.

*The quoted material is taken from It is possible that it’s a little garbled, but it is also plausible that Mr. Tancredo sometimes gets his feet tangled in his own syntax.

**It would be odious to identify middle-aged white men with a particular political party.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Things not to give a fig for

Not to care a fig, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, refers to the fruit as “something of little or no value.” Or perhaps it suggests the Spanish fico, which was the popular term in Shakespeare’s time “for an obscene gesture of contempt made by thrusting the thumb (representing the male sex organ) between the first and second fingers (representing the female).” Choose the sense you prefer.

Item: Archie is marrying Veronica

I’m sorry, but does anyone born since the Truman administration care? And aren’t those two collecting Social Security by now and living in a facility that prepares food that does not require chewing?

Item: The Scripps National Spelling Bee

Somehow it does not surprise that our national competition celebrating literacy is devoted to rote memorization rather than reading or thinking.

Item: Jon and Kate’s marriage is in trouble

A couple with eight children who have allowed themselves to be presented to the public in a reality TV show are starting to show some strain. Who’d’a thunk?

Item: Chris Brown is in trouble again

Don’t know his music, don’t care to know it. Didn’t watch his YouTube defense of the accusation the he beat up his girlfriend. Not edified by his latest contretemps. The world of celebrity news coverage appears to consist largely of annoying people who just won’t go away.

Item: Fox News

Comment would be superfluous.

Readers: For your part: Suggestions would be welcome on (a) expressions comparable to not give a fig for or (b) additional items not to give a fig for.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Lure a reader, get a book

A limited-time offer for fans of You Don’t Say:

Introduce five friends to this blog, and I will send you a free book.

The catches:

I want the names of the new readers, your attestation that they have not previously read You Don’t Say, and the titles of at least two posts they have read all the way through.

Four books are up for grabs. The first person to meet the goal gets to choose which. After that, the range of choice narrows progressively.

Offer ends June 6.

These are the prize books:

Mardy Grothe, i never metaphor i didn’t like: a comprehensive compilation of history’s greatest analogies, metaphors, and similes

Ralph Keyes, I Love It When You Talk Retro

Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

David Wolman, Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

You Don’t Say will bear the expenses of postage and handling only for locations in the United States and Canada. Offer not valid to employees of You Don’t Say or relatives of employees of You Don’t Say. Cannot be combined with any other offer.

Do you know where Puerto Rico is?

Blame the McKinley administration.

Coming to imperialism just as it was passing its high-water mark, the United States, which had previously grabbed the Hawaiian Islands, picked a fight over Cuba with the ever-decaying Spanish Empire. Cuba got independence, and the United States got Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico.

That was during a few months in 1898. We granted independence to the Philippines after the Second World War, but we held on to Guam and Puerto Rico.

Since 1917, by statute, people born in Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States. That is why an anonymous comment earlier today is — in part — spot on:

Another tidbit: Where's the Baltimore Sun copy desk when you need it?

From Alternet this morning:

A google search for "Sotomayor" and "immigrant parents" brings up 10 pages of results (including over 2,000 news pieces like this one, from the Baltimore Sun, which describes Obama's pick to replace retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter as having been "raised in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project by her Puerto Rican immigrant parents...")

Fun fact: Puerto Rico is part of the United States!

Two things:

(1) The error of calling people immigrants if they have come to the mainland from Puerto Rico is stubbornly persistent and likely represents the limited education and cultural understanding of some journalists.

(2) I think that the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun may in fact have been on duty last night, because the text I read in this morning’s print edition, in the article by Peter Wallsten and Richard Simon of the Tribune Washington Bureau, refers to Sotomayor’s “personal background — raised in a Bronx, N.Y., housing project by Puerto Rican parents.”

Apologies to the Klingons

Some time back, I made a snarky remark about Star Trek fans who had undertaken to translate the Bible into Klingon. Now, thanks to a new book by Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (Spiegel & Grau, 342 pages, $26), I see that I, not they, was misguided.

Ms. Okrent became fascinated with the visionaries — and cranks — who grew frustrated with the irregularities and illogicalities of the natural languages and sought to develop a pure, precise, regular, logical, international tongue. Most of them failed, as a look at the 500 artificial languages in her appendix will readily illustrate. And the 500 are only a partial listing.

You will want to travel with her to that strange crossroad where science and art and ambition and the quirky human personality collide.

The effort she describes is fascinating. An early example is a 17th-century member of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, whose Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language attempts in its six hundred pages “a hierarchical categorization of everything in the universe.” Because to have exact meanings, one must be able to classify meanings. Wilkins’s language came to nothing, but his exhaustive taxonomy prefigured the thesaurus of Peter Roget.

Another effort at logic was mounted in the 20th century by James Cooke Brown, the inventor of Loglan, which attempts to give each word a single, unambiguous meaning. Like Wilkins’s classifications, Brown’s language is exhaustive, as is its schismatic offshoot Lojban. The problem is that the attempt to arrive at single, unambiguous statements requires such extensive qualification, that it is virtually impossible, Ms. Okrent found, even for adepts to conduct a conversation in the language.

Perhaps the most successful artificial language is Esperanto, the creation of Ludwick Zamenhof, which is a kind of stripped-down generic Romance language whose devotees aspire to achieve international understanding and peace through its use. Though it has fallen short of its ambitious goal, there are large groups of people who use Esperanto, and even, Ms. Okrent found, people for whom it is a native tongue. One of those she encountered is Kim Henriksen, an accordion-playing Esperanto rock musician.

But even Esperanto, she finds, develops colloquialisms and minor irregularities, just like the natural languages, as people use it. The dream of a pure, regular, logical language is ever elusive.

Oh yes, Klingon, the creation of the linguist Marc Okrand. The little band of fans or hobbyists — call them what you will — who speak and write Klingon, who translated Hamlet into that language and who are working on the Bible won Ms. Okrent’s surprised respect. She attended a conference of speakers and passed the beginner’s exam in the language. And then there was this scene at the hotel:

“I looked around and saw, near the reception desk, a group of glossy-toothed ‘mundanes’ checking in to the hotel. They appeared to be in town for a sales meeting, or maybe just the wedding of an old fraternity brother. They looked at us, immediately noticing, of course, a costumed member of our group. One of these so-called normal people walked right up to him and, without asking for permission, took out his cell phone to take a picture, saying to no one in particular, and certainly not to the Klingon in question, ‘If I don’t get a picture of this, no one will believe me.’ The Klingon stood tall and posed like a true warrior. At that moment, I knew whose side I was on. The world of Klingon may be based on fiction, but living in it takes real guts.”

I apologize for my previous lack of honor.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Tapped out

In multiple articles you will see or will have seen that Judge Sonia Sotomayor has been tapped for the Supreme Court by President Obama. As a short verb, it is hard for headline writers to resist its use.

But I’ve always disliked the use of that word because of its association with fraternity initiations. Naming a Cabinet officer or federal judge ought to involve more dignity that being invited to join Rho Rho Rho.

Now — thank you, Bill Walsh, for your tweet crediting @edzaf — I have an additional reason to dislike this “unfortunate headline verb in reference to a female nominee, given the prevalent slang meaning.”

No prizes for guessing what that “prevalent slang meaning” is.

It's summer, already

As regularly as the swallows return to Capistrano or the buzzards to Hinckley, journalists reach for seasonal cliches. If you read a newspaper or watched television news over the Memorial Day weekend, you inevitably encountered the phrase unofficial start of summer.

The phrase might lead you to think that there is an official start of summer. There isn’t. June 21 or 22, when the ill-informed may tell you that summer begins, is the summer solstice. Summer, by the third week of June, is well advanced everywhere, except perhaps Minnesota. (A friend in Minnesota tells me that if summer there falls on the Fourth of July, they have a picnic.)

Similarly, December 21 or 22 is not the beginning of winter but the winter solstice. The vernal equinox in March is not the first day of spring, and the autumnal equinox in September is not the first day of fall. But journalists will use these handy dates as a peg for their annual commemorations of the obvious.

Thirty years in the paragraph game, and I never figured out the point of stories, often on the front page, about things that everyone already knows: When the temperature hits a hundred degrees or more, the paper is sure to tell you that it is hot outside; when there is a foot of snow on the ground, count on the paper to inform you that it is winter.

Perhaps such stories are the journalistic equivalent of phatic speech — small talk or chatter that instead of conveying substantial information expresses feelings or establishes sociability. Talk about the weather is a classic example. For my part, I much prefer gossip.

Anyhow, as I was spreading mulch around the azaleas yesterday, with temperatures in the eighties and the humidity rising in advance of the afternoon thunderstorm, I did not require a reporter or news anchor to let me in on the arrival of summer. No doubt you, my readers, in your far-flung locations, observe your own seasonal markers. If you’d like to tell me what marks the start of spring, summer, fall, and winter in Arizona or Colorado or Upstate New York or any of your other venues, feel free to comment.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A free book

Proceed with all deliberate speed to The Lexicographer’s Rules, the blog where Grant Barrett is making available an electronic version of his book, The Official Dictionary of Unofficial English, at no cost.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Meanwhile, back in the kitchen

Eat Drink Man Weblog, my son’s food blog, returns with a post on grilled vegetable salad. It’s summertime. Enjoy.

Things you know that are wrong

Two points from Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman that you ought to keep in mind if you are serious about writing and editing:

It is better to be understood than to be correct.

As the language changes, no one has more than one vote.

These are salutary cautions for anyone tempted to pedantry about language and usage. Not that Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are of the anything-goes school, but they want you to know what is reliable about language and what is not. To that end, they present in Origin of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language (Random House, 267 pages, $22) a catalogue of shibboleths and superstitions.

Predictably, they include the nonsense that both linguists and sensible prescriptivists have been attacking for generations: the bogus rules against splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, using none with a plural verb, and the like.

But there is a lot of error to be cleared away. Rule of thumb comes from a workman’s using his thumb as a rough measuring tool, not from a legal right of a husband to beat his wife with a stick no thicker than his thumb. No room to swing a cat has nothing to do with flogging with a cat-o’-nine-tails. Xmas includes an abbreviation of Christ using the Greek letter from Christos; there is no atheistical war on Christmas involved.

They advise that it’s time to give up the struggle over gauntlet and gantlet, data as a singular, decimate as strictly meaning a tenth (though not as equivalent of destroyed), beg the question as solely a term of logic, hopefully as a sentence adverb, bemused as meaning only muddled or confused. I share their regret over the last count, but, you know, it is more important to be understood than to be correct.

There is a great deal of information in this book, and the tone is relaxed rather than formal. (I did occasionally think that the authors might have occasionally suppressed the impulse to end nearly every section with a piece of wordplay.) You may already be familiar with the work of Ms. O’Conner from her previous books, Woe Is I and Words Fail Me, as well as the popular language blog Grammarphobia. Her advice should be taken seriously.

Friday, May 22, 2009

That thing I say about baseball

A very kind note arrived today from Andy Knobel, a veteran sports copy editor who wound up under my purported authority for the past two years. Andy is very generous about me as an editor and a manager, and he leaves me feeling guilty.

The thing is, I loathe sports. (This has not been my best-kept secret.) I was a nearsighted, bookish child, bullied by non-bookish types who were, invariably, enthusiastic about sports and dim in the classroom. I have remained determinedly ignorant into my sixth decade about the basic rules of baseball, basketball, and football, to say nothing of the multitude of teams and players. I skipped my graduation exercises at Michigan State, in part to keep my record clean of never having set foot inside Spartan Stadium, and in six years in Syracuse I steered clear of Archbold Stadium as well. Were I there now, I would be keeping my distance from the repulsive Carrier Dome, which squats above the city.

That thing I say about baseball (it’s a verb), I also say about basketball, football, hockey, soccer, tennis, yachting, and all other forms of sport, known and potential. I would sooner be waterboarded than watch the Olympics. (I tolerate croquet a little, because my son’s alma mater humiliates the Naval Academy in a match every spring.) I am immune to Orioles madness and Ravens fever. The main consolation of my having been sacked by The Baltimore Sun is that I no longer have to dutifully go through the sports pages each morning.

This, if course, is nothing against Andy Knobel, for whom I have the deepest respect. I respect him for his detailed knowledge of the subject, as I would respect a scholar of Sumerian or any other arcane subject of which I am ignorant. And I admire his passion for accuracy and his unflagging determination to make things right. If I had any gift as a manager, it was the sense to let Andy do what needed to be done without my uninformed meddling.

I’m proud that one of my former students, Peter Blair, is a sports copy editor at The New York Times. He, too, knows his onions.

I wish them well. I wish all sports copy editors well in their struggle to provide fresh and accurate information to readers who crave it. I just don’t have that craving — never had it, never wanted it, and am delighted to be free of it.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Words for the times

Bought out: Having taken a buyout, an agreement to leave voluntarily in exchange for a substantial payment, often the equivalent of one or two weeks’ wages for each year of employment.

Fired: Dismissed for cause, such as incompetence or misconduct. It is a term of American origin, which the Online Etymology Dictionary attributes to the double meaning of discharge: to dismiss from work and to fire a gun.

Let go: Informal and noncommittal equivalent of laid off.

Laid off: Dismissed for economic reasons rather than employee performance or conduct. Layoffs used to be considered mainly in the context of union contracts, particularly those that provided for the employee’s return once business conditions improved. In the current climate, layoffs are frequently occurring when positions are being eliminated permanently.

Resigned: Left voluntarily. When coupled with a pious expression of desire to spend more time with one’s family, it is commonly supposed that the employee was given a good substantial nudge.

Retired: Took retirement, more or less voluntarily.

: Colloquial. Dismissed for any reason. Originally 19 th-century British, to give the sack, later to get the sack. The term perhaps referred originally to a workman’s leaving with his tools in a bag.

Terminated: A favorite of corporate-speak. This is the bureaucratic version of sacked. It carries overtones of the employee, his or her pathetic personal belongings in a cardboard box, being escorted to the curb by a security guard.

More empty ritual

My wife, Kathleen, was once in a class with a fellow Episcopalian, a woman whose firm pronouncement on Anglican worship was “No empty ritual.” My impulse, as the title of this post suggests, is to get as much of it as I can. Incense, yes, of course, and Anglican chant and vestments and processions and organ music you can feel through the soles of your feet.

Human beings are prone to ritual, and it turns up everywhere, including low-church congregations that shrink from the flourishes I like as being suspiciously popish. In the Presbyterian church where I played the organ as a lad, I was expected to provide soft music during the pastoral prayer, a supposedly extemporaneous effort by the minister. The pastoral prayer was so formulaic that I seldom had any difficulty making the music come out even with the “Amen.”

I come to this topic out of my continuing irritation with the classics professor at Dickinson College who advocates doing away with Latin in college diplomas. The Latin in diplomas is of a piece with the rest of academic ceremony.

On my son’s first day at St. John’s College, the gowned faculty entered the auditorium for a convocation, led by the college marshal carrying the mace. The mace used in academic processions is a symbol of authority; it is a lineal descendant of the mace of medieval weaponry. The entering freshmen, also gowned, brought up the rear. Each freshman was called to the stage to formally sign the college register, shake hands with the president of the college, and receive a copy of the Liddell-Hart Greek-English Lexicon.

At the defense of his senior essay earlier this year, John Paul, himself in cap and gown, followed three gowned faculty members into the college’s King William room to sit at a table and respond to questions about his essay for an hour, a pattern set by the defenses of theses in the medieval universities.

Ritual is what gives dignity to these occasions, marking them as set off from ordinary occasions.

And despite our firm American democratic sneering at the trappings of aristocracy, we love the stuff. Why else did multitudes get up well before dawn to watch on television the wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer? Why else do hordes of American tourists (I was once one of them) stand on the street in London to watch the sovereign ride by in a carriage to open Parliament?

Here at home, we fire an artillery salute at the inauguration of a president. And I will hear in my head to the end of my days those muffled drums from John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession.

No doubt you are aware of long-surviving ritual patterns from your workplace.

At newspapers it was long the custom in the composing room to “bang out” departing printers on their last day of work. To bang out, one takes a pica pole, the printer’s metal rule, and pounds it vigorously on the nearest metal surface until the printer has left the room. There is no longer a composing room at The Sun, and there are no longer printers, but in the newsroom the custom has survived and has been observed in successive rounds of buyouts. Last summer, as Andy Faith, my mentor, colleague, and friend for more than twenty years, turned to leave the newsroom for the last time, we banged him out.

The purpose of the Latin in the diploma, the mace in the procession, the artillery fire, the incense, and the pica pole striking the cubicle divider may have no meaning in themselves, or may have lost much of their original meaning (Incense was carried through the streets of Rome before senators and other public officials).

But they do carry this meaning: We were not born yesterday. Whatever prodigies and novelties we may accomplish, we live in continuity with those who have gone before us. We use those ceremonies and rituals from the past to mark who we are and where we come from, to set off times and occasions as not being of common stuff.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Mr. Sullivan's challenge

David Sullivan, following the lead of Craig Lancaster, raises the issue of what copy editors’ duties should be at our remaining newspapers. He points out, rightly, that those duties have long been defined as (a) things that no one else at the paper wants to do, (b) things that no one else knows how to do, and (c) things that no one else wants to know how to do. And he thinks it’s time copy editors asked for a job description.

You civilians out there for whom copy editing is a mystery, you should know that the high command at most newspapers shares your mystification. Nearly all of them used to be reporters — getting into top management from the copy desk is like winning the Mega Millions lottery: It happens to a few people, but don’t count on its happening to you — and virtually none of them have any practical knowledge of how to produce a printed page. Or, for that matter, a Web page.

So follow Mr. Suullivan’s advice. The top brass is uttering all that cant about reinventing the newspaper, to disguise that many of them haven’t a clue how to accomplish that and are so terrified as to be on the verge of losing sphincter control. If they are reinventing the paper, they should face what that reinvention means for the copy desk. Otherwise, they’ll redefine beat structures for reporters and talk about reporters as bloggers and photographers and videographers, and they’ll ignore the copy desk except to assume that it will take on anything that is left over.

Approach them. Ask what exactly they want. How much fact-checking are you expected to do? What level of errors is acceptable? (Everyone knows that reducing the editing means more errors, and readers have already twigged to that.) How much time for formatting for print and how much for formatting for the Web? What skills are you expected to master, and what training for them is being offered? Just what, with a reduced staff, are they willing to sacrifice? What cooperation can be expected from the other departments? You ought not to be rude, but you have to be persistent.

Cheap advice from me, you may say; I’m out of the fray. But if I still held responsibility for copy editing at The Sun, I would be in the editor’s office trying to clarify the expectations and nail down the details.

If you don’t stand up for yourselves, it’s unlikely that anyone else will stand up for you.

Some catching up to do

The past week has been a little hectic, what with my son’s graduation from college, my wife’s family in town for the great event, and a one-day stay in St. Joseph’s Hospital.* So there’s a little catching up to do.

Item: At Fritinancy, Nancy Friedman devoted a series of posts last week to seriously ill-judged brand names: Blellow, ngmoco:) [yes, with a damn emoticon], Infegy, and Shiva [shoes, if you can believe it]. The Recent Posts menu on the right side of her main page has the links.

Item: I saw in this morning’s Sun that the venerable David Herbert Donald has died. His biography of Abraham Lincoln is one of the books that you ought to have read. Gore Vidal consulted him in writing the novel Lincoln.

Item: Language Log has offered up a series of great posts over the past week: Geoffrey Pullum’s noticing an apparatus labeled INERT REACTANT on the Enterprise in the latest Star Trek movie, Mark Liberman and Benjamin Zimmer commenting on words that people find appealing and words that people find disgusting, the peculiarities of British tabloid headlines. See for yourself.

Item: If you have the time, the comments on Elizabeth Large’s post, “The top 10 most controversial restaurants in Baltimore,” are a hoot and a half.

Item: Some readers have found themselves unable to post comments on this blog. One, Adrian Morgan, posted about the problem on his own blog. He has since discovered that he can post comments if he comes to this blog through Internet Explorer, but not through Firefox.

Though the comments here are moderated, apart from that, I’ve made the blog as open to comments as Blogspot software permits. Should you have trouble posting comments, send me you comment by e-mail, and I’ll post it myself.

*Mild chest pain Monday morning. Doctor could find no cause, recommended that a gentleman of my age should take no chances. Spent Monday night for observation at St. Joseph’s and underwent a stress test Tuesday morning. No problems found. Back to Plymouth Road at noontime, just as J.P. was completing work on a tangy rice salad.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hire someone to look things up

On The Mentalist tonight, they’re looking for someone going by the name of Taliferro.

They are pronouncing it Tal-i-a-fer-r0. The name is conventionally pronounced as Tolliver.

Go, Annie, go

I recall enjoying Michael Malone’s First Lady very much and was pleased to have the chance to read his latest novel, The Four Corners of the Sky (Sourcebooks Landmark, 544 pages, $24.99). It did not disappoint.

Annie Peregrine Goode, a pilot in the U.S. Navy, returns to Emerald, N.C., for her twenty-sixth birthday and hears from her father, a con man who abandoned her in Emerald on her seventh birthday. He has a dying wish to see her again. He wants her to fly to him in the Piper Warrior airplane he left for her as a child, the King of the Sky.

Well, Annie hates her father for abandoning her and for being a lifelong liar. She has her own problems, including her pending divorce from a dim but handsome Navy pilot, and her confidants in Emerald, the people who raised her, her lesbian aunt Sam (Samantha) and Sam’s lifelong friend, Dr. Clark Goode, are skeptical of her taking to the air in an old plane during tornado weather.

But Annie is a risk-taker and a fast-mover, and soon she’s off into a web of intrigue involving her father and his multitudinous lies; a religious statue, La Reina Coronado del Mar, of incalculable value; a stubborn Miami police officer; a Cuban exile who makes a living by faking being hit by old ladies’ automobiles; and other characters on both sides of the law.

There are intrigues within intrigues, mysteries and family secrets, and the whole improbable set of twists and turns is, as in so many novels, a voyage of self-discovery for the heroine.

Mr. Malone has a gift for comic writing. Annie tells her childhood friend Georgette about a man who “could be your type,” and Georgette responds, “He’s my type if he’s got a combined total of at least three arms and legs and he weighs less than four times his IQ. Can he spell his last name? Has he been convicted of any capital crimes—I don’t mean just charged, but actually convicted?”

And the chapter on the funeral of Coach Ronny Buchstabe — a triumph of American make-it-up-as-you-go-along commemorations in which, among other things, “three young fat girls clambered up the steps and sang harmonies in a medley of ‘Amazing Grace’ and ‘Rambling Wreck from Georgia Tech’” — must not be missed.

Along the way there are a few maxims about life that are worth considering: that people who have style just might not have brains and that “you can’t stop enjoying things just because you’re bad at them.”

And this: “It was true that despite their blessings, the Peregrines had always been a sad family. Most of them were American enough to believe they had a right not to be sad, an inalienable right not only to the pursuit of happiness, but to its capture. So, while a few had skidded down the shale of life without digging in their heels, most Peregrines had died scrabbling at every outcropping they passed along the way—a new job, a new marriage, a drink or a sport or a church or a chance—determined to grab the American dream before they landed at the bottom. Wasn’t it the national story that failure was the fault of those who failed?”

I confess that there were some longueurs in those five hundred pages as Mr. Malone wound up his plot, but he proceeded to spring it in a highly satisfactory series of comic climaxes.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

A toast for my son

John Paul Lucien McIntyre, Bachelor of Arts, St. John's College, Annapolis, Maryland, May 17. 2009.

His senior essay was on the salute to God, the treatment of divinity, in Newton's Principia and Darwin's Origin of Species. This was the toast at the celebratory luncheon:

Charles Darwin wrote at the end of On the Origin of Species, "There is grandeur in this view of life ... [that] from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved." On a smaller scale, John Paul Lucien McIntyre, from the study of the great books of Western civilization, and from the hard school of experience, has been, and will continue to be, evolving.

To J.P.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The treason of the clerks

Alice, shut your eyes.*

Christopher Francese, a professor of classics at Dickinson College, has published a well-reasoned and traitorous essay in The New York Times advocating the abandonment of Latin in college diplomas.

I don’t much care that graduates cannot read their own diplomas. The Universitas Syracusana, which conferred on me the degree Artium Magistri thirty-four years ago, has as its motto SUOS CULTORES SCIENTIA CORONAT, generally rendered as “Knowledge crowns those who seek her.” I doubt, judging from the noise level in the library during my time there, that Syracuse undergraduates paid much more attention to the English version. But I believe it still.

Diploma Latin, artificial and obscure as it is, is a link to the past, however tenuous. And you, graduate, you with your major in whatever was easiest for a passing grade, you see in the Latin on that piece of paper you will never look at again a link between your own feckless pursuit of knowledge and Bologna in the twelfth century, where the first university in Europe began the laborious recovery of learning for the West.

Frame the thing and put it on the wall. The Latin will do you no harm.

*My daughter, Alice Elizabeth Marian McIntyre, who holds an honors degree in Latin and Greek from Swarthmore, teaches Latin at the Garrison Forest School in Owings Mills and will teach a unit of Latin this summer for a Center for Talented Youth class at Dickinson College.

You get what you pay for

Pam Robinson’s Words at Work blog has a recent post about the mixup at The Washington Times in which an article about murdered Chicago schoolchildren was accompanied by a photo of President Obama’s children. The editor gave this explanation:

“The theme engine, through automation, grabbed a photo it thought was relevant, and attached it to the story,” Solomon said, acknowledging that the photo had gone up without a person seeing it. “There was no editorial decision to run it. As soon as it was brought to our attention, we pulled it down.”

“The theme engine,” some kind of robotic search-and-attach mechanism, operating without human oversight. Perhaps the other sense of oversight is apt here.

And over at That’s the Press, Baby, David Sullivan takes on Steve Yelvington’s quaint belief that copy editors can safely be dispensed with because, because, because reporters will write better. They’ll just have to. And the lion will beat the sword into a plowshare, and the lamb a spear into a pruning hook, everybody’ll get together, try to love one another, and Wikipedia entries will be trustworthy.

Getting things right is not easy, and publication, either in print or electronically, involves managing a multitude of details, any of which can go badly wrong. Making prose clear is not easy, either, and the most effective way to accomplish that is for writers to work with editors. You can take shortcuts, but the results will be less accurate and less clear, and sometimes downright embarrassing.

This is not sour grapes because I was turned out of the paragraph factory a couple of weeks ago. I’m a reader — a customer, if you will — and I want better stuff.

Follow-up: Yesterday I wrote about sloppy science reporting. Click over to Headsup for a couple of examples of corrupt science reporting.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Who's your daddy?

Say it three times: Correlation does not equal causation.

A headline at read, “No More ‘I dos’? Unwed births spike.”

The second half of the headline is what the article appears to be mainly about, an increase in births to unmarried women, especially to women beyond their teens.

The first half of the headline tries to get in a second angle from the article, that unspecified sociologists see “a lackadaisical attitude toward the tradition of marriage in Europe and the U.S.” Unfortunately, as the article also points out, the report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “didn't look at cohabitation rates, so it's impossible to tell how many of these unwed mothers in 2007 were actually living with the fathers of their children.”

This is the kind of journalism that ought to be driving people nuts. It is a superficial attempt to address two complex issues that are intertwined, and the headline, as is often the case, reflects the confusion of the article.

If fewer and fewer people are getting married but are still procreating, then the number of births to unmarried women will increase. At that level, the headline is simple-minded and obvious. No news here, folks. Move along.

If the story were trying to tell us something about marriage, that more and more people are living together without getting married, that’s not much of a shocker, either.

The correlation would be more useful if the article could supply the cohabitation statistics that the study did not gather. If more and more people are engaging in long-term cohabitation — what we used to call common-law marriage — and are raising children together, then the impact on children of unwed mothers is quite different and the decline in marriages less significant.

This article and its headline would have been stronger if they had stuck to the subject about which they have information rather than mere theorizing.

(I was tempted to use as my headline Edmund’s Line from Lear, “Now gods, stand up for bastards,” but discretion prevailed. You might not like the substitute any better.)

A small gap in the language

Jeff McMahon’s Scorched Earth blog, in a link forwarded by one of my readers, is looking for a single word to identify the opposite of environmentalist.

We can identify people who call themselves environmentalists by a cluster of values and positions on public policy. And we can identify pejorative terms — tree-hugger, for example — used by people who do not share their values and oppose their positions.

But Mr. McMahon is right: We do not have a single, neutral term to describe people with an opposing point of view. He comments: “A colleague of mine in the education/slash/journalism field, Monica Westin, suggested “depletist” or “depletionist,” which might function as an opposite to conservationist, but doesn’t work as well when opposed to environmentalist. The problem with depletist, it seems to me, is that it should have its own opposite that means something like filler-upper.”

If you have any suggestions — keeping in mind that we’re looking for a term as neutral as environmentalist, not a pejorative — I’d be happy to forward them to Mr. McMahon.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Sons, take heed

The Library of America, may it go from strength to strength, has released editions of the short stories and novels of John Cheever; and if you don’t have them in your possession, you should be lusting after them.

Much on my mind this week, as my son prepares to graduate from St. John’s College in Annapolis, is the glorious passage of advice to sons that rounds out The Wapshot Chronicle. It is a sheet of maxims from old New Englander Leander Wapshot discovered after his death:

Never put whiskey into hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whiskey, very risky. Whiskey on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whiskey 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 premature 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.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An unbearable scene

It was one of the editors I hired who, a while back, made sure that you did not read a description of a homicide as a grizzly scene.

A grizzly is North American brown bear (Ursa arctos) so called because its brown fur has white tips. The word derives from grizzle — gray hair. Thus you would describe the author of this blog as a grizzled editor, among other terms. The etymology of grizzle is uncertain, the Oxford English Dictionary says.

The word the writer was reaching for is grisly — terrifying, horrible, ghastly. It derives from the Old English grislic, allied to agrisan, to terrify.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The world didn't end in 1970

Many of you will have recognized the title of yesterday’s post, “Teach your children well,” as an allusion to the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song of that name. That song is about the most recent piece of popular music to which I can refer.

You see, in the spring of 1970, my freshman year at Michigan State, one of my roommates, Michael Hyatte, suggested that the end of the world was imminent (Kent State, Nixon, etc.), that human beings were about to be divided between the freaks and the straights, and that I had better get my act together if I didn’t want to spend eternity with Lawrence Welk and Arthur Godfrey.

So I did due diligence. I acquired and listened to some albums. I sat for much of a day in a muddy field outside Lansing listening to Jefferson Airplane and a series of other bands. It was stupefyingly dull, perhaps because I was the only person in the audience not stoned. And then the world did not come to an end, which I understood to amount to a divine mandate to be as stuffy as I liked. I have not consciously attended to popular music since.

This attitude was reinforced a year later when Patricia Nedeau, whose advice was not to be disregarded, told me, “John, you are not a denim person; you are a tweeds and woolens person.” I have been faithful to her counsel.

Dr. Johnson said, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures,” and I have been listening contentedly to Bach and Handel and Haydn and Mozart ever since. (With occasional indulgence in 1920s jazz recorded by Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks Orchestra.) You may prefer Jimmy Buffett or Madonna or Nine Inch Nails or New Kids on the Block or any of those other performers of whose existence I am dimly aware; I don’t begrudge you your innocent pleasures, unfathomable as they are.

For my part, a wee dram and a Haydn string quartet make life as sweet as it gets.

Dammit, Jim, I'm a journalist, not a Trekkie

Regret the Error is, for a journalist, a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I site. Craig Silverman collects corrections from print and Web sources, and today’s harvest of corrections on articles about the new Star Trek movie reminds us that journalism is full of traps.

The Star Trek franchise has, over more than forty years, attracted legions of fans, many of whom apparently have encyclopedic recall of details from the television shows and movies. Once you have identified a Romulan as a Klingon, scorn will be heaped on you up to the eyebrows.

The journalist who approaches any specialized topic strides into a minefield, and the details are triggers. Religion is treacherous because of the distinctive language in different denominations or branches of faith. (I used to have to remind Sun copy editors that orthodox has to be capitalized in writing about Judaism or the Eastern branches of Christianity. Never mind the occasional references to “massive Christian burial.”) Science and medicine abound in technical detail — remember the column that said you could stop hiccups with carbon monoxide?

Popular culture is just the same sort of specialized area: Star Trek, the Harry Potter books and films, Doonesbury. No matter how much you may think you know, the chances are excellent that there are readers who know the subject better than you do, and they are waiting for you to stumble.

Not that you should transform yourself into a Trekkie or Potterite, but you should make sure that you know people who are in appropriate fan groups. Show them what you’re working on, and allow their robust interest to spare you the horselaughs.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Teach your children well

Mem Fox, teacher and writer of children’s books, says this about her twin vocations in Radical Reflections:

Those who write well have more power and therefore have more control over their lives. ... [T]he granting of this power to our children is politically and socially essential. In the end they must be able to spell and punctuate; they’re powerless without these skills. Their power won’t come about without practice, and the practice can’t come about without purpose.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Talk retro to me

This one is for the Young People, if any such lurk among my readers. Are you mystified by the peculiar turns of speech when Baby Boomers talk? Do you feel ashamed that at your unfamiliarity with the TV series of the late 1950s and early 1960s? Are you disinclined to watch hours of TV Land to catch up?

Help is available.

Ralph Keyes has published a book, I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech (St. Martin’s Press, 310 pages, $25.95), that will help you caulk the gaps in your cultural education.

I was particularly touched to find his entries on newspaper lingo, particularly piquant now in the twilight of print journalism.

Deadline, for example, the appointed time by which copy is due or an edition is to be completed, derives from the line in a prison that an inmate could not cross without being shot. (I would very much have liked to recover the original penalty in the newsroom, but I could never persuade my betters even to issue sidearms to the copy editors.)

The spindle on which stories written on copy paper were impaled when editors decided not to run them was called a spike, and to this day a story that is killed is said to have been spiked.

Theodore Roosevelt, alluding in 1906 to “The Man with the Muck Rake” in Pilgrim’s Progress, said that journalists exposing scandals were “raking the muck,” and muckraking has been a badge of honor in investigative journalism ever since.

Let Mr. Keyes help you. With a perusal of his book and a little practice, you could contrive to sound almost as antique as I do.

The other place and this one

Now that You Don’t Say is no longer a working blog at, it is not listed at that site’s main page. But it will continue to reside there for an indeterminate time. Feel free to rummage around in it while you still can. The Grammarnoir serial, for example, remains.

A couple of readers have inquired about videos, such as the bow tie, the martini, and the first and second pronunciation videos, as well as the weekly video jokes.*

The appearance of video at this site will have to wait until (a) I acquire a video camera, (b) learn how to operate it or coerce someone into operating, (c) learn how to edit the resulting video, and (d) figure out how to post it here. Although I have acquired an unanticipated fund of free time, this may take a while.

*The titles of the video jokes all begin with “Surely you jest,” which makes them easily searchable.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Watch where you sit

A recent Baltimore Sun article contained a sentence saying that federal proceedings supercede local judgments. So they do, but the word is supersede.

Supersede derives from the Latin supersedere: super (above) sedere (to sit). To supersede is, from the literal roots of the word, to be superior to, to sit above.

Merriam-Webster says that the spelling supercede has turned up regularly since the 17th century (so much for any expectation that it would have been rare when everyone studied Latin) but is widely considered an error. It is probably a matter of time until it is widely listed in dictionaries as an acceptable variant.

While we are thinking about Latin, a reminder that this is graduation season. You who cross the platform to receive the diploma and the handshake will be an alumnus or an alumna, collectively alumni or, in some cases, alumnae. Arnold Zwicky, having come across a Web site in which a man describes himself as “a Distinguished Alumnae,” will sort out the terms for you.

If you want to appear edumacated, you will not say, “I am an alumni,” and you will not spell supersede with a c.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Look over at

By invitation, I offered a list of my top ten blogs on language and editing — a selection that should not astonish anyone who has been grazing in this pasture.

But I am just one of a number of people who have been invited to submit such lists on various topics. The Internet is such a wilderness — some tall trees but a great deal of scrub intermixed with patches of poison ivy — that a guide is always welcome. Rummage around over there to see what sites you may find useful. There’s a link to the Top 10 Lists in the menu bar at the top of the page.

Make sure you come back here.

Puzzling possessives

A few days ago a reader wondered about the construction pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting to. Why apostrophes?

The use of a possessive with a gerund (the present participle of a verb functioning as a noun) is common in English. So is the use of a non-possessive noun. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage finds that both forms have been examined and faulted or endorsed over a long span — and that it is quite common for an author to switch from one to the other. So of these two possibilities —

I can’t stand his creeping up behind me while I’m working

I can’t stand him creeping up behind me while I’m working

you get to use whichever you like. Another step to reduce usage anxiety!

If the possessive with a gerund makes you step back, you may also be put off momentarily by the double possessive, or double genitive. That is a construction in which possession is indicated twice, by a possessive form and the word of. One refers to a friend of mine rather than a friend of me. (You can also say a friend to me, though it will probably sound stilted to many listeners or readers.)

The construction has an ancient pedigree in English, and Merriam-Webster’s explains its function in reducing ambiguity by distinguishing between an objective genitive and a possessive genitive. Here’s how: Jane’s picture can mean a picture belonging to Jane or a picture of Jane. Saying a picture of Jane’s — the double genitive — distinguishes the former sense from the latter.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Presented without comment

An Irish student inserts a bogus quotation in the Wikipedia entry for a recently deceased French composer —“to show how journalists use the internet as a primary source” — and discovers that newspaper and blogs around the world pick it up and use it without making any effort to verify its authenticity.

Wikipedia’s editing does not effectively remove the bogus item, and the fraud is disclosed when the student himself writes to newspapers after a lapse of weeks to inform them.

15 books

Bill Walsh has challenged me on Facebook to do the 15 books thing — but why shold I drive traffic to Facebook, which doesn’t need it, instead of this blog, which does?

The 15 books thing, if you are not familiar with facebook, invites you to list in 15 minutes 15 books important to you. In my case, I’ve construed it to be books that I’ve looked into repeateduly, or the 15 books I would want to pack up when the severance runs out and the sheriff shows up to turn me out of the house. Listed alphabetically by author, so that I don’t have to make further rankings.

Austen, Jane. Emma. Everyone loves Pride and Prejudice, as do I, but I think that this one is more penetrating about personality as well as witty.

Boswell, James, Life of Samuel Johnson. Boswell, though drunken and sometimes loutish, was not some stenographic booby. The Life is a careful assemblage of details and scenes. And I accept Boswell’s governing image of Johnson as a kind of gladiator, battling poverty, ill health, and obscurity to achieve by force of will and intellect the first great English dictionary, a milestone in literary criticism with his commentary on Shakespeare, and the foundation of modern English biography: heroism in the literary life. Great quotes, too.

Cheever, John, Collected Stories. God, I hate to leave out the Wapshot novels, but these stories are extraordinary.

Didion, Joan, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live. I encountered Didion’s work when she and John Gregory Dunne were writing for the doomed Saturday Evening Post. Nearly all of her nonfiction is collected here, and Slouching Toward Bethlehem still resonates.

Faulkner, William. The Snopes trilogy. OK, this is cheating. But The Hamlet, The Town, and The Mansion have to be read together.

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage. So I’m a nerd.

Harris, Marvin. Our Kind. The late anthropologist summed up a career’s worth of insight into human societies in this compilation of concise essays on varied topics. But maybe I should have included Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches instead.

Johnson, Samuel. Lives of the English Poets. I said he was a foundation of modern English biography. Read the essays on Milton (of Paradise Lost, Johnson observed that “no man ever wished it longer”), Dryden, and Pope.

Larkin, Philip, Collected Poems. Even since I bought a copy of High Windows while interviewing for The Sun in 1985, I have been an admirer of Larkin’s quiet, precise, wry poetry.

Nabokox, Vladimir, Pnin. A perfect comic novel, both hilarious and humane.

Trillin, Calvin. The Tummy Trilogy. Another cheat. Alice, Let’s Eat and Tillin’s other books as a happy eater are included in one volume. Enjoy.

Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers. I can’t recall how many times I’ve read this novel of life among Anglican clergy in a 19th-century British cathedral town, but it has never failed to give pleasure.

Vidal, Gore. Lincoln. Yes, a novel, but one well informed by current historical scholarship. An absorbing study of the main character, with deliciously malicious takes on the secondary ones.

Waugh, Evelyn. Scoop. Funniest. Novel. About. Newspapering. Ever.

Wilbur, Richard. New and Collected Poems. One of our most literate, polished, and hunorous poets. Oh, the patter song for the syphilitic Dr. Pangloss he wrote for the original Broadway production of Candide: “Columbus and his men, they say, / Conveyed the virus hither, / By which my features rot away / And vital powers wither. / But had they not traversed the seas / And come infected back, / Just think of all the luxuries / That modern life would lack. / All bitter things conduce to sweet, / As this example shows: / Without the little spirochete / We’d have no chocolate to eat, / Nor would tobacco’s frgance greet / The European nose.”*

Fifteen — that’s not nearly enough. I’ve left out Theodore Roethke and Robert Lowell. And Lucky Jim. All of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. Conan Doyle! The Prophet Isaiah. H.L. Mencken’s Days memoirs. Mark Twain. Gatsby! Stupid Facebook meme.

* Forgive me any slips; I’m working from memory.

Monday, May 4, 2009

All right, back to business

Item: A Washington Post article on runoff from power plants contained this sentence:

Plants in Florida, Pennsylvania and several other states have flushed wastewater with levels of selenium and other toxins that far exceed the EPA's freshwater and saltwater standards aimed at protecting aquatic life, according to data the agency has collected over the past few years.

Selenium, like lead and mercury, is an element that is toxic — poisonous. But not all toxic things are toxins. A toxin is a biological poison, like snake venom. The public may well use the terms interchangeably, but a journalist writing on scientific/medical subjects has an obligation to observe such distinctions.

Item: On National Public Radio this morning, a correspondent reported that in the collapse of the dome of the Dallas Cowboys’ practice facility, a coach had injured “a vertebrae.” You may think it absurd that English has retained plural forms of words from Latin. But we go into action with the language we have, not the language we want. Vertebrae, in the Anglicized pronunciation “ver-te-bray,” is a plural, vertebra the singular.

Item: CNN is running a headline, Accused Craigslist killer faces charges in R.I. One of the niceties of professional journalism involves taking care not to convict defendants in advance of trial. Accused killer is a construction that says that we know he is a killer and he has been accused. If it helps to clarify the point for you, recall that during the scandal over sexual abuse of children by the Roman Catholic clergy, the recurring phrase accused priest did not mean accused of being a priest.

Item: If you can come up with anything sillier than the pork producers’ and Israelis’ objecting, out of their several interests, to the term swine flu, You Don’t Say would welcome the contribution.

Item: Whether to describe the euphemism waterboarding (itself a descendant of a previous euphemism, the water cure) as torture has political implications, and one understands a journalistic reluctance to appear to take sides. But at the same time, it is difficult to dodge the conclusion that it is only torture when someone else does it. At the end of the Second World War, the United States convicted Japanese soliders of torturing American prisoners of war with that technique. Let’s be honest.

Yeah, people still read books

Manning the pumps on the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun these last several months did not leave a great deal of leisure for reading. But now, temporarily adrift in a lifeboat, I’m looking forward to three books publishers have sent me:

Michael Malone’s new novel, The Four Corners of the Sky
Patricia T. O’Conner’s Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language
Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

Watch for comments on them in subsequent posts.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

A motto for the Internet age

Foreseen in the 18th century by Lord Chesterfield:

Let blockheads read what blockheads write.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Many kindnesses

My fellow bloggers Androcass, John Gordon Ross, and Wishydig have all posted kind comments during this week’s upheaval as I departed abruptly from The Baltimore Sun and set up shop at this location. Mr. Ross commented that “his affability, intelligence, humour and tolerance of other viewpoints made that blog exemplary.”* The interesting thing, to my mind, is that I have disagreed with these gentlemen, sometimes sharply.

These aren’t isolated cases. One of my best students from my time as a teaching assistant at Syracuse, Alexander Ackley Recouso, writes for an Internet journal, The Reactionary. The political views he holds aren’t much of a match for the old-line McGovern Democrat who was once his teacher, but we have been in friendly contact for thirty years. I’m proud of him. He has a strong point of view, which he expresses vigorously.

The thing that makes a secular, liberal democracy practicable — and tolerable — is willingness to respect contrary religious, political, and aesthetic views, and to discuss differences in those views with civility. The lack of that respect and civility is what makes the Olberman/O’Reilly bellowing, to take a representative specimen, so tedious and unrewarding. Or to take another, the childish name-calling and abuse that frequently masquerades as discussion on the Internet.

As we proceed on this blog, we will operate on the same principles as in the previous one. If you disagree with anything here, please say so. I do not fear criticism, and I welcome correction. I won’t approve comments that are personal attacks on other people, but you are welcome to attack positions and ideas as vigorously as you like. Also, no one will be faulted for typographical errors or minor lapses in grammar or usage; you shouldn’t be shy about writing.

Before we proceed with further posts, I want to thank many people for many kindnesses during a difficult time. Monty Cook, my editor, to whom fell the duty of discharging me, did so with tact and consideration, and visible reluctance. The many expressions of affection and regard from my former colleagues at The Sun, even as they confronted their own difficulties, were deeply moving. And the comments from my readers, on the old blog and here, many from people who had never posted a comment before, gave me to understand that my work over the years has not been in vain.

So, as we move on, with a photo that Jerry Jackson took as I carted my belongings out of the old building on Calvert Street, I salute you all.

*Don’t think, Mr. Ross, that I failed to notice that all the links in your post were to Wikipedia. Harumph.

**I, too, was a manager, and I understand that when you take the King’s shilling, you have to be prepared to perform disagreeable tasks.

Friday, May 1, 2009

That little band of heroes

I’ve been a little distracted over the past few days, and it’s only now that I can get around to reminding you that the American Copy Editors Society is in the middle of its national conference, this year in Minneapolis.

Far from a bunch of creaky old grammar carpers in green eyeshades and sleeve garters, the members are increasingly savvy about electronics. Anyone unable to attend can follow the conference on a Web page or through Twitter.

They are a doughty bunch. About 250 of them showed up this year, I suspect mostly at their own expense, for a comprehensive and concentrated training in the craft. You cannot match the range of expertise anywhere else. And they are doing this in the middle of a recession, with the faltering newspaper industry discarding their members like desperate mariners heaving the cargo overboard.

Twelve years ago, I was at the first national conference, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Copy editors at that time were, in addition to being anonymous, frequently disregarded and often scorned in their workplaces. Thanks to the founders, Pam Robinson and Hank Glamann, and to the support of some influential figures among the nation’s editors, copy editors found a voice and a platform.

The collegiality, the training, and the morale-building provided by this organization have helped to improve the level of editing at newspapers, magazines, and electronic sites.* It is a bitter irony that just as copy editing was beginning to come into its own, larger forces have questioned the utility and value of editing at all.

I know from thirty years of experience that writers, even the best ones, benefit from editing — need the perspective of that independent set of eyes on their work. And they are getting less and less of that benefit every day, to their cost and to yours, readers.

Newspapers organizations — print-electronic hybrids — are struggling to find a model that will sustain them. Electronic-only journalism is in flux. Organizations like ACES will have to find the means to sustain their mission, and nothing is certain for them. It is not a hospitable landscape.

But for today, and tomorrow, in Minneapolis, two hundred and fifty editors, among them people I have known and respected over the years, are fighting the good fight. I invite you to read what my colleague and friend David Sullivan has to say about this gathering.

And, from a distance, I urge them: Keep the faith.

*As the observant may have noticed in this paragraph, now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.