Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Pedantic, but pragmatic

The Times of London introduces a column on language written by Oliver Kamm.
Mr. Kamm, whose column is called “The Pedant,” announces that he hopes to rescue pedantry, “an obsession with linguistic precision” that “prizes form over style” from its negative connotations. His sense of pedantry is “an insistence on reasonable accuracy,” a pragmatic pedantry.

To do this he is willing to heave over the side such dubious cargo as the prohibitions against splitting infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions. It is a promising start. He will bear watching.

The Republic of Moronia

James Madison believed that a literate, educated populace was indispensable for a representative democracy, that the intrusion of religion into politics produced toxic effects, and that the Constitution he helped design contained enough safety valves to check and correct the excesses of popular enthusiasms. He is the hero of Charles P. Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free (Doubleday, 293 pages, $26).

The brio of his opening denunciation of the imbecilities that mark our public life charmed me in a previous post, but his book is more complex and more serious than those early passages suggest. I want to tease out a few strands.

Item: Mr. Madison, mentioned prominently in each chapter, is the standard, the measure of how far our public life has strayed from what it was intended to be.

Item: Using the 19th-century crackpot Ignatius Donnelly (father of the modern fantasy of the Lost Continent of Atlantis, diligent searcher for cryptograms in the work of Shakespeare proving that Francis Bacon was the author) as his standard, he sets out a theory of the role of the crank in American culture. America, he argues, is particularly hospitable to cranks — which is a good thing, since they explore ideas at or beyond the edge of the mainstream. The problem comes when crank ideas are carelessly incorporated into the mainstream.

Item: The means by which crackpot ideas overwhelm mainstream discourse are his “Three Great Premises”: (1) “Any theory is valid if it moves units.” That is, it is valid if it can be successfully marketed. (2) “Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.” (3) “Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it.”* A consequence is what Mr. Pierce calls “the war on expertise.” Thus talk radio. Thus the scientific “controversy” over evolution and intelligent design. Thus Justice Antonin Scalia saying publicly that the United States should model its anti-terrorism policy on Jack Bauer, the hero of 24 (a show Mr. Pierce characterizes as “torture porn”).**

Item: This corruption of discourse comes about not merely because of the slack standards of talk radio or the willingness of politicians to pander. It comes about because all the news media fail in their responsibilities to the truth and to the public. The news media publish and broadcast questionable statements that they do not question and palpably false statements that they do not challenge — and we, Mr. Madison’s informed public, passively tolerate it.

There is historical continuity between Mr. Pierce’s assessment of the Republic and H.L. Mencken’s view of his native land, which he occasionally referred to as Moronia:

And here [in the United States], more than anywhere else I know of or have heard of, the daily panorama of human existence, of private and communal folly—the unending procession of governmental extortions and chicaneries, of commercial brigandages and throat-slittings, of theological buffooneries, of aesthetic ribaldries, of legal swindles and harlotries, of miscellaneous rogueries, villainies, imbecilities, grotesqueries and extravagances—is so inordinately gross and preposterous, so perfectly brought up to the highest conceivable amperage, so steadily enriched with an almost fabulous daring and originality, that only the man who was born with a petrified diaphragm can fail to laugh himself to sleep every night, and to awake every morning with all the eager, unflagging expectation of a Sunday-school superintendent touring the Paris peep-shows.

*We even have a word for this phenomenon, truthiness, coined by that accomplished satirist Stephen Colbert. Truthiness is what one believes by internal conviction or gut feeling to be true, regardless of available facts or logic.

**The crackpot views Mr. Pierce anatomizes are mainly those of contemporary conservatives. He argues that that is a proper focus because it is conservative positions of dubious validity that have held sway over the country for the past few decades. I think that he could have given space to zanies of the left, such as Cynthia McKinney, the former Democratic congresswoman from Georgia and Green Party presidential candidate, but I take his point.

Monday, June 29, 2009

AP Stylebook celebrates nerdity

There are two stereotypes about copy editors.

The first is that they are a group of burnt-out hacks and office failures who were shipped to internal exile on the copy desk when their incompetence became intolerable everywhere else. (And it takes a goodly load of incompetence to become intolerable at an American newspaper.)

The second, which is hardly any kinder, is that copy editors are a bunch of nerds and dweebs and dorks, obsessive-compulsives preoccupied with minute distinctions invisible to normal human beings. It’s just as well that they work at nights, because no one would invite them to a party.

I’ve spent a fair chunk of my professional career — at two daily newspapers, in workshops around the country, in two terms as president of the American Copy Editors Society — struggling to establish that my colleagues are well-educated, well-informed professional editors whose abilities demand that they be taken seriously.

And now this on Twitter from @APStylebook:

APStylebook Tweet your favorite AP style rule, and why, by Friday. We will give a subscription to Stylebook Online to the best.

Golly. Where to start?

oasis, oases

Delaware Abbreviate Del. In datelines or stories. Postal code: DE
Only Rhode Island is smaller in area. See state names.

rock ’n’ roll But Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

hold up (v.) holdup (n. and adj.)

Entering this competition is like running for mayor of Dorkopolis.

Nothing personal, AP Stylebook, but I have a dear friend and valued colleague who chortles vigorously every time I bash you. You want me to leave you alone, you can drop the idiotic split verb entry.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

A limit to Anglican tolerance

Anglicans, taking one with another, are a broad-minded and tolerant sort — a colleague once congratulated me on our magnanimity in not resenting the pope and his followers for having broken away from the Church of England. But I cringed this morning on my way to church as I heard a news reader on NPR refer to reaction to a previous story about conservative “Episcopals.”

Please, dear people at NPR and journalists elsewhere, keep always in mind that if you report on religion you must master the lingo. And each branch you encounter will have its own distinctive nomenclature, fatally easy to get wrong.

For purposes of the U.S. Episcopal Church, one branch of the Anglican Communion:

Episcopal (adj.)

Episcopalian (n.)

Episcopalians are members of Episcopal congregations, NOT Episcopals are members of Episcopalian congregations. The Episcopal Church — not the Episcopalian Church — is an episcopal polity (with authority given to bishops).

Do say it over to yourselves two or three times.

Then go and sin no more.

Information without knowledge

I’ve just started reading a very promising book, Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles P. Pierce.

From page 8: “The rise of Idiot America today reflects—for profit, mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know best what they’re talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert."

In my own parochial way, I said something similar earlier this year in a post, “Crisis of authority.” But Mr. Pierce makes the point more forcibly and more entertainingly: America “is drowning in information and thirsty for knowledge” and suffering from “lazy, pulpy tolerance for risible ideas.”

If you are curious about these risible ideas, his introduction describes a visit to the Creation Museum in Hebron, Kentucky, where visitors can marvel at a model of a dinosaur wearing an English saddle — since, of course, human beings and dinosaurs were contemporaneous when the world began in 4004 B.C.

Expect a fuller report once I finish the book.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The man who never listened to Michael Jackson

Tell the Charlotte Observer that I’m ready for my interview.

The reason: A mention at Headsup (thanks, fev) of an article in that paper on the late Michael Jackson that included this passage:

Homer had the “Iliad,” Francis Ford Coppola had “The Godfather,” and Michael Jackson had “Thriller” – which is arguably the most influential album of all time and easily the most popular one in history.

It's nearly impossible to find someone over age 35 who didn't own the album at one time [emphasis added]. Since it was released Nov. 30, 1982, more than 50 million copies of “Thriller” have been sold worldwide.

Here I am, well past 35, without ever having owned a single Michael Jackson, song, album, or poster. I suppose I may have inadvertently heard something from Thriller over the years, but I was not conscious of it. I had no interest in his music when he was a cute little kid, and even less when he became a creepy adult. So for the past couple of days I have had to tune out the gush on Facebook, the newspaper, and the television.*

All right, journalists, here is your assignment and your challenge.

A famous person dies, a performer who has, for whatever reason, legions of devoted fans for whom this passing is a moment of intense emotion. You have to write about both the artist’s career and the impact on the fans, giving justice to each.

Your challenge is to do so without sounding like a fan. Skip references to the Iliad, unless you have some substantial reason to think that people will be listening to Thriller three thousand years hence. Turn away from superlatives and improbable assertions. Wildly improbable assertions. Get a grip.

The trick for a professional is to smuggle in the excess by direct quotation of fans’ emotional excess; then you are simply reporting, not endorsing.

*I don’t remember where I was when John Lennon died, either.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Those damn copy editors again

You may have read that a former writer at the student newspaper at the University of Hawaii-Manoa has been accused of fabrication: An examination of his work identified twenty-nine people quoted in fourteen articles whose existence could not be confirmed.

Now, according to an article in the Honolulu Advertiser, the student, Kris DeRego, has come up with a novel explanation: It’s the copy editors’ fault. His articles, he says, were “adulterated” on the copy desk.

The faculty adviser to the paper, Jay Hartwell, found it odd that no other reporters for the paper had complained about such bungling on the copy desk, and he found it additionally odd that other names in the articles, such as faculty members, were correct.

Mark Brislin, the editor of the student paper, Ka Leo O Hawaii, said that DeRego, asked to supply names, telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses for the twenty-nine questionable sources, submitted five. Only one of the five responded.

It would be idle to pretend that copy editors do not make mistakes, even inserting errors into texts — I bear the scars of many such lapses myself. But I have also seen over the years how tempting it is for some reporters to condemn the copy desk before determining the facts. The human reflex to shift blame elsewhere, especially on a target group, is quite strong. Any number of times I have reported to work to take up the day’s fresh complaints, discovering frequently on examination that the reporter actually made the error, or the originating editor made the error, or even, on some occasions, that there was actually no error.

I’m not privy to Mr. DeRego’s work or the work of the Ka Leo copy desk, but the reported information casts a shadow over his explanation, as well as over his work.

English is not in danger

A few days back, Language Log published a sneer at a panel discussion on English-only measures at the “Building the New Majority” conference sponsored by The American Cause, Pat Buchanan’s organization. I am afraid that Mark Liberman, whose headline for the post was “Conferenece of dunces,” may be insufficiently respectful of Mr. Buchanan and his endeavors.*

For my part, I have been bewildered for years at the recurring propositions that (a) the English language is in some kind of danger and (b) some kind of governmental action can protect it.

I once wrote an op-ed piece for The Baltimore Sun on proposition (a). It is no longer available in a public archive, but I can summarize its points. English has become a world language, more widespread than Latin at its high-water mark. It’s hardly like Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, whose dwindling population of speakers gets annual attention in wire service feature stories. People around the world are keen to learn English, and you can make a modest living by teaching it to them.

I suppose that the perceived threat to English is the number of people in the United States whose primary language is Spanish or Chinese or something else that sounds like an outlandish tongue to middle-aged white American monoglots. But I live in a city that as recently as a century ago had public schools in which instruction was conducted in German, and yet somehow the Kaiser did not prevail here.

As to proposition (b), the failure of the French Academy to preserve the purity of French from inroads by English and other languages should be instructive.

If that is not a sufficient example, consider this passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language:

[S]o early as February 15, 1838, the Legislature of Indiana, in an act establishing the State university at Bloomington, provided that it should instruct the youth of the new Commonwealth (which had been admitted to the Union in 1816) “in the American, learned and foreign languages ... and literature.” Nearly a century later, in 1923, there was a violent upsurging of the same patriotic spirit, and bills making the American language official (but never clearly defining it) were introduced in the Legislatures of Illinois, North Dakota, Minnesota and other States.

Further, Mr. Mencken writes, Jay McCormick, a Republican of Montana, introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives proposing “That the national and official language of the Government and people of the United States of America, including Territories and dependencies thereof, is hereby defined as and declared to be the American language.” Mr. McCormick’s bill died quietly and unmourned.
You may be aware, from what you say and hear and read and write every day, that American English, as distinct from the British and other varieties, has done all right for itself, without having to be propped up by the regulatory and military might of the federal government or the constituent sovereign states.

The polar ice caps are melting, hundreds of thousands of people (including your most humble & ob’t. servant) are out of work, and the National Threat Level is an ugly orange. Worry about those things and leave English alone. It has done quite nicely on its own for the past six centuries and more. It does not require assistance.

*When a measure was introduced to make English the official language of Taneytown, Maryland, I had a little innocent fun with the subject myself.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Got prestige?

A sentence in The New Yorker’s profile of Angelo Mozilo refers to the head of Countrywide Financial as having delivered “the prestigious Dunlop Lecture for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.”

Like dramatic, prestigious is one of those adjectives you should probably shy away from. If circumstances are inherently dramatic, giving the details suffices. If an award or a lecture carries genuine prestige, you shouldn’t have to say so; writing about “the prestigious Nobel Prize” would make you look like an idiot.

“The prestigious Dunlop Lecture for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.,” tells the reader that this lecture, which he has probably never heard of (which is why the writer needs to add “for Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies in Washington, D.C.”), is important for a limited audience of which the reader is not a member.

It would have been better for the writer, rather than resort to the prestigious shortcut, to explain what the audience is and why the lecture is important to it.

I possess a certain small stock of prestige among copy editors, as the comments on my farewell post at Baltimoresun.com attest.* It is an exceedingly dim flicker of glory among a very small populace, and attaching the term prestige to anything I have ever been or done would strike most readers as, at best, peculiar — hell, would look ludicrous even to copy editors.

Writers who are tempted to pump up the importance of a subject by adjectival shortcuts — dramatic, prestigious, prominent, significant, premier, momentous, outstanding, renowned, storied — would be better advised to heed the venerable show-don’t-tell maxim.

*I don’t expect that I will ever be able to express my full appreciation for those comments and the regard of those readers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

C'mon, AP Stylebook, fix it

That nagging little Jiminy Cricket voice of conscience in my head was asking the other day, “John, why can’t you help the AP instead of bashing the AP? Do you always have to be so critical?”

All right, all right. The current edition of the stylebook retains the asinine “no split verbs” bogus rule, but that need not be perpetual. To save the editors trouble, I’ve drafted some language they can consider for next year’s edition:

verbs The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of verb forms of words frequently misspelled.
SPLIT FORMS: The belief that it is an error to “split” infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.) is unfounded and contrary to idiomatic English syntax. The Star Trek formula to boldly go is perfectly acceptable English. Do not resort to awkward constructions to avoid this imagined error.
Awkward: The candidate always has released the names of contributors.
Preferred: The candidate has always released the names of contributors.

And, for good measure, they can have this one:

none It means either “not one” or “not any.” In the former sense, it takes a singular verb, in the latter sense a plural. Both of these sentences are acceptable: Of the dozen entries, none was rejected by the judges. None of the entries were rejected by the judges.
If you cannot determine which nuance of meaning the writer intended, let the writer’s words stand.

Now for your part, dear readers:

The editors of the stylebook are Darrell Christian, Sally Jacobsen, and David Minthorn. You can write to them to suggest that they adopt these sensible revisions:

The Associated Press
450 W. 33rd Street
New York, NY 10001

And if you have subscribed electronically to the stylebook, you can go to “Ask the Editor” and inquire why they have retained the bogus “split-verb” rule and when they plan to abandon it. (We old-fashioned book-buying types aren’t privileged to ask snotty questions of the editors online.)

If you have been giddy with excitement about receiving the 2009 edition, as some have proclaimed themselves to be on Twitter,* imagine your feverish ecstasy when these changes appear in the 2010 edition.

*I am not making this up.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The pipes, the pipes are callin'

Barbara Phillips Long forwards this morsel from The Wrap in which Ray Richmond considers the effect of the News Fuse application for the iPhone on newspapers:

Would I pay 20 bucks a month for News Fuse? Maybe. Would anybody else? I doubt it. We are, after all, now living in the simultaneously having-and-eating our cake world of entitlement where we expect everything to happen instantly, flawlessly and without cost – the Magic Media! But logic naturally tells us there will invariably be a pauper to pay.

Ms. Long comments: “I guess the pauper that may have to be paid is a journalist, but some people might prefer to pay the piper.”

O my people

Mark Liberman, writing with his usual clarity at Language Log, examines examples of what people appear to think that “passive voice” means.

Some of us learned long ago that it is a syntactical construction in which the subject of the sentence is not the agent of the action, as in the classic “Mistakes were made.” But people, including professional writers and editors and teachers, are identifying “passive voice” as simply not identifying the agent of action, or not taking sides, or merely being dull.

There is nothing unusual, Professor Liberman points out, for a technical term to take on a broader, popular sense. But he finds it distinctly odd that people who pretend to expertise in language and criticize the work of other writers cannot get the technical terms right. But he says it better:

It is common that “one of a word's senses is a term of art in some well-established field whose scope overlaps in everyday life with the word's ordinary-language uses. This applies to many legal terms and to some physical, chemical, and biomedical ones. But in the case of grammatical terms, something additional and unusual has happened: a large class of professionals, who act like maintainers of a body of technical knowledge, have actually lost the thread.

“It's as if nurses, as a class, had never learned that fever is a technical term for abnormally high measurements of body temperature, and instead used it variously to mean "A state of intense nervous excitement" or "Contagious but transient social enthusiasm", while still acting as if these were well-defined medical conditions, subject to exact measurement and treatment.”

The fault here lies increasingly with my fellow prescriptivists, bloggers and columnists and language commentators and viewers-with-alarm and — yes, to my sorrow — even copy editors. It is depressing to see how many writers professing to uphold the purity of the language simply get things wrong.* Or, as a recent post at Arrant Pedantry, “Linguists and Straw Men,” says, “There’s still an awful lot of absolute bloody nonsense coming from the prescriptivists of the world.

Some of that bloody nonsense can be attributed to mumpsimus,** the stubborn human persistence in a long-held error. Many wrong-headed prescriptivist pronouncements can be traced back to bad advice from an English teacher or journalism professor or managing editor. Arnold Zwicky has traced the means by which bad advice becomes embedded, and the main factor appears to be sheer laziness: “[T]he bad advice has the advantage of simplicity and clarity (never do X; do Y or Z instead), while the good advice allows for alternatives and requires people to make judgments about what they want to say or write in particular contexts.”

I’m frankly at a loss. I give my students and colleagues my best advice. I exhort. I explain. I point to reputable authorities whose work is available in books and on the Internet. I link to linguists and to fellow reasonable prescriptivists, like Bill Walsh and Jan Freeman, all of whom have manned these ramparts longer than I have. And the problem is not barbarians at the gates — kids texting in their peculiar argot or adults succumbing to Twitter. The language is not degenerating. English is not going down the tubes. The enemy is at our side, fighting the wrong battles with the wrong weapons.

*I’m going to spare you citations of previous posts on the superstitions about the split infinitive, the split verb, none as a plural, and the like. You should know what I think by now.

**Unlike nearly everyone else who ever uses this word, I’m not going to detail its etymology. You can look it up yourself.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Fancy a pint?

Instead of posting on journalism and other ills of the Republic, I am heading out to the Hamilton Tavern with my son for a pint. You come too, as Mr. Frost used to suggest. What is the benefit of unemployment if you wind up spending all day at a computer keyboard?

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The president's grammar

After the administration of President George W. Bush, whose syntax frequently looped around is own feet and tripped itself, it hadn’t occurred to me expect fault-finding about President Barack Obama’s discourse. But today I have this inquiry from a retired classics professor:

Our president is a talented orator, but he makes lots of grammatical mistakes. Do you know if anyone has made a collection of his solecisms and written about them?

Well, writing in City Journal in February, Benjamin Plotinsky expanded a disagreement with Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman over the acceptability of using I as a subject — as in Mr. Obama’s “a very personal decision for Michelle and I” — into a sour complaint about the press’s “adulation” of the president.

The blurring of subject and object in pronouns is quite common in speech, and it often displays a class component. I once talked regularly with a janitor whose account of what he and his wife had done invariably began Her and I. The construction between he and I is often a misguided hypercorrection among education people who fear that the objective pronouns sound a little too downmarket.

Ms. O’Conner and Mr. Kellerman are quite knowledgeable about grammar and the history of usage, and I would not be quick to dismiss their findings. Besides, the “for Michelle and I” solecism — a minor one at most — should be more excusable in speech than in formal writing. I give this one a nol-pros.

V.R. Narayanaswami addressed some of Mr. Obama’s supposed lapses in an article at Livemint.com in February, discovering more of the shopworn shibboleths that have come to characterize an unthinking prescriptivism.

One example was Mr. Obama’s description of Sen. Joe Biden as “one of the finest public servants that has served this country.” The ill-advised complaint was that that must be reserved for inanimate objects or nonhuman beings, and that who must always be used for persons. And yet, earlier today at divine service, I heard Bishop Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer language — a fetish for many language purists — repeated thus: “Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord [emphasis added].”

There have also been complaints that Mr. Obama’s use of first-person pronouns has been excessive. Mark Liberman looked into this at Language Log, discovering by making an actual count of pronouns in specimen texts, that Mr. Obama has used first-person pronouns less frequently than either George W. Bush or Bill Clinton on comparable occasions. His follow-ups do not fill one with confidence that writers of columns and op-ed pieces take much trouble to confirm their assertions.

One the plus side, The Grammar Vandal diagrams one of the president’s extended sentences and finds it sound.

I am not an apologist for Mr. Obama. We have had presidents who could speak intelligibly, such as John F. Kennedy, and write exemplary English prose, such as Ulysses S. Grant. And we have had presidents who could not, such as the egregious Warren G. Harding. It seems to me that it would be better for the Republic if we focused our attention a little more on how presidents govern than on how they speak.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Today in history

Early in the morning on this date in 1984, I began making telephone calls to get the word out about the arrival on the scene of two persons subsequently christened Alice Elizabeth Marian McIntyre and John Paul Lucien McIntyre.*

Today, a quarter-century later, Alice teaches Latin at the Garrison Forest School, and J.P., an aspiring food writer, publishes the blog Eat Drink Man Weblog.**

No man has been more fortunate in his children.

And I, dear reader, will be neglecting you today as I mark this momentous date with my family. You’re welcome to look in at Craig Silverman’s Regret the Error site, where he has published a short article of mine on how publications make corrections. It is the first of a series of contributions to that Web site.

*My colleagues at The Cincinnati Enquirer, learning that Kathleen was expecting twins, helpfully put together a list of a hundred or so paired names, among them Minneapolis and St. Paul.

**I commend to you his excellent pot roast and kale.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ease up on the academic

The doctor is IN.

An inquiry from a reader who wonders about criticism that his writing may be excessively academic.

[F]or the past year I have been working part-time as an editor and researcher on book manuscripts for a media personality. My duties often include re-writing some parts of a manuscript and adding whole new sections and chapters. My employer seems to like the work I have done, but other folks who have read the finished manuscripts have remarked that they tend to be "too academic."

My background is in academia, but I am puzzled by the criticism. Does it refer to content (too much focus on minutiae), style (too dry and abstract), form (given too much like a lecture and not like a story), or something else?

I suspect that it's some combination of all of the above, which would mean I either need to learn to write differently, and soon, or find another way to supplement my income.

From your blog, I respect your opinion a lot. Do you or your other readers have any practical advice on how an academic writer can create more accessible prose? My first thought is to imagine my six-year-old daughter as my audience, which would help me keep things simple and maybe a little colorful.

It might not hurt to start out by asking these readers what they mean by “too academic,” but I would not be optimistic about it. Readers can say what they like or don’t like, but few of them are equipped to explain their reactions analytically. So let’s look into the possibilities.

Vocabulary: Being fond of Big Words myself, I enjoy parading them.* When a reader of this blog thanks me for the gift of a previously unknown word, I break into one of my unaccustomed smiles. But some people find it painful to have their vocabularies stretched, and you should therefore make sure that your diction is not too abstract or elevated. I’m not sure that your six-year-old daughter would be the best source of advice on vocabulary, but if you know a twelve-year-old to consult, you would fall into the range of most adults. (Don’t, for God’s sake, imitate me.)

Syntax and paragraphs: I’m not saying that you should break everything down to a series of simple declarative sentences in the manner of the Hemingway parodists (among whom the first and greatest was Ernest Hemingway). But many of my undergraduate students at Loyola will identify any sentence longer than a dozen words as a “run-on,” especially if it has two or more clauses. Academic writing tends to boast longer, clause-clustered sentences, and you might want to stick to more abbreviated versions. Similarly, academic paragraphs tend to be longer. One-sentence paragraphs are fine, and three or four sentences are probably as many as you want to pack into a single paragraph. Look at a daily newspaper or popular magazine for models. Or Web sites.

Content: Not having seen any examples of the work you do, I can’t comment knowledgeably about it. In general terms, journalistic writing tends to look for and showcase the significant detail rather than flatten the text with a barrage of details. It focuses more on people than on objects or procedures, and it tends to explain objects or procedures through the relationship of identifiable people to them — thus the “anecdotal lead,” which presents a person whose situation is representative before describing the forces and events that created the situation.

Style: Written American English has been growing increasingly informal, even colloquial, over the past century. Newspaper journalism from the 1930s and 1940s, for example, looks much more formal, even stodgy, than what is currently published. What the contemporary reader looks for is the sense of the writer speaking directly to him or her. Read aloud what you have written. Anything that sounds false or strained when you read it aloud is probably something you ought to revise to make more conversational.

The writer: To an editor (well, to some editors), the writer is an annoying inconvenience that nevertheless makes editing possible — the chicken that must be plucked, cleaned, and butchered before it can be turned into a delightful coq au vin. But you do have some obligation to make the text resemble the work of the author, perhaps dusted off and perfumed a little, but still recognizably the author more than you. The text should be not what you would have written, but what the author would have written had he been a better writer.

More?: You out there reading this, are you going to help this guy or not?

*You may know Dr. Johnson’s remark about learning among the Scots, “like bread in a besieged town, to every man a mouthful, to no man a bellyful.” Learning was a lot like that in the part of eastern Kentucky where I grew up, and I formed the habit early on of letting it be known when I had had a decent meal.

Voices from the choir

A serendipitous discovery and a boon to time-wasters goofing off at work across the land:

The King’s Singers’ famous weather report for the British Isles performed in Anglican chant is available on Youtube:



Addendum: Please note the corrected attribution in the comment below that this recording is by a group called the Mastersingers, not the estimable King's Sinmgers.

I'll write what I like, said he

Responding to the post “This is not a passive construction,” Bruce Holtgren posed these questions on my Facebook page:*

Regarding this topic, I'd appreciate you weighing in on this example:

1. "Let's go to the movies," John said.
2. "Let's go to the movies," said John.

Is the latter passive? If so, does it matter enough to fix it? (I once had an editor who insisted that the answers were yes and yes.)

The latter example is not a passive sonstruction but a simple inversion of normal word order. There are many journalists who get peevish about the Inverted Said. Perhaps they find it too literary.

Generally speaking, in ordinary journalism, the normal word order is preferable; the reader glides over it without distraction. But making a fetish of this point, as many writers and editors appear to do, leads to the occasional maladroit construction. Here’s an example:

“That will not do,” McIntyre, the language blogger and currently unemployed three-decade veteran of daily newspaper copy desk, said.**

That long, suspensive appositive (which, incidentally, I would also deplore) suggests that the reader is moving through a periodic sentence, with an emphasis coming down at the end. Arriving at the homely said creates a minor anticlimax.

If the attribution following direct quotation includes an appositive, the inverted veb/subject construction is both apt and natural.

*I feel a little uncomfortable about these comments on Facebook, which exclude from the discussion readers of this blog who are not members. Would you like for me to start copying Facebook comments to this site?

**In my seventh week of joblessness, it occurs to me to be grateful at my liberation from journalists (some of them, alas, copy editors) who dress up their idiosyncratic and uninformed preferences with ill-understood technical terms (split infinitive, split verb, passive voice) or mere buzzwords (flow, voice).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

You get one vote

Language is perhaps the ultimate expression of democracy.

In her Boston Globe column on language last Sunday, Jan Freeman wrote about the shift in meaning of chauvinism in American English from mindless nationalism to male sexism:

People who object to such language changes sometimes say, “Just because everyone does it, that doesn't make it right.” But what's true about speeding or tax fiddling does not apply to language change; if everyone does it, that does, eventually, make it right.

To shift to the obverse, from the many to the one, keep in mind what Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman point out in Origin of the Specious:

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

It is true that, as in a democracy, someone occasionally has disproportionate influence. But even that is limited. Noah Webster’s A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806 changed colour and honour to color and honor in American spelling. But tung for tongue and soop for soup didn’t take. Generations of English teachers have flailed away at ain’t, achieving no better than a draw; the word remains lodged in the language, though discouraged in formal usage.

Language becomes what its users collectively make of it. That is how Anglo-Saxon was transformed into English, mainly by a rabble of illiterate peasants, and no one should be sorry about that.

But this is a hard truth for the class of people whom the linguists at Language Log call peevologists — the teachers and editors and columnists and bloggers who trumpet their disdain for this word or that usage. (People who insist on flaunting their “pet peeves” might keep in mind that peevish — querulously fretful, like old Mr. Woodhouse in Emma worrying whether the carriage will get him home through a light fall of snow — is not an adjective to inspire admiration.)

The linguist Arnold Zwicky has remarked in his personal blog on his reaction to people who think that their individual tastes and preferences should have the force of law:

People send me e-mail saying that they dislike some usage in my writing, and people insert comments in other people’s blogs objecting to the bloggers’ usages. That is, they say, I don’t like this.

At which point, I ask: why are these people telling me what they don’t like, and doing that in my e-mail and blogs? Perhaps they just want to demonstrate their superiority, but the message I get is: Don’t offend me; stop doing this. And I resent this imposition, bridle at it. Where do you get off, telling me to write and talk the way you’d like?

I, like you, have one vote in English, and the reason I write this blog is not to attempt the bootless task of legislating for the language. Instead, if you merely wish to write a little more clearly, more precisely, and even, God save the mark, more elegantly, I will give you my best advice, along with the reasoning behind that advice. Take it or leave it. It’s your language as much as mine.

Monday, June 15, 2009

There, there

When editors and writers and teachers who don’t know what they are talking about inveigh against “passive voice,” one of the things they commonly misidentify as passive is the there is/there are construction.

There in this context is what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls a “dummy subject.” The actual subject of the verb is found in the noun or nouns following the verb. Some writers use are to make the verb agree with a compound subject, and some don’t, and that’s just the way it is. (It is also a dummy subject in such constructions as It’s raining.)

Though there is/there are is not technically a passive construction, it is frequently identified by teachers of composition as a weak construction to be shunned. Merriam-Webster’s is instructive on this point:

In an article appearing in Written Communication for July 1988, Thomas N. Huckin and Linda Hutz Pesante investigate the use of there as dummy subject, calling it “existential there.” They decided to test the common handbook warning not to begin sentences with there against a 100,000-word sample of good writing by what they call “expert” writers. Their survey found the construction very common; the expert writers obviously paid no attention to the handbook prohibition. They found there sentences used for four chief purposes: to assert existence, to present new information, to introduce topics, and to summarize. Clearly, then, there sentences are often highly useful, and they seem to occur with the same frequency at all levels of discourse.

To give an example of the utility of the there is construction in a statement of assertion, what sane writer would want to change There is a balm in Gilead to A balm exists in Gilead?

The only sensible advice about there is/there are constructions is not to rely on them too heavily and risk monotony in the prose.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Want to buy a used newspaper?

A few days ago, Baltimore Brew posted a short article on the possibility that a federal bankruptcy court might take management of the Tribune Company away from Sam Zell, concluding with an assertion, presented without evidence, that anyone but Zell would be an improvement.

This exercise in speculation also talked about the possibility of a return of The Baltimore Sun to local ownership.

Few of the discussions in Baltimore in recent years about a breakup of Tribune that would lead to transfer of The Sun to local ownership have gone into detail about the realities. While I have no specialized knowledge about the inner financial workings of Tribune or The Sun, and would sooner attempt to manage a professional baseball team than undertake ownership of a daily newspaper, I have questions about the feasibility of such a change. Have you looked under the hood?

The Tribune Company, like the other media conglomerates, has pursued cost savings through economies of scale, such as negotiation for lower newsprint prices than an individual paper could get. It has also consolidated a number of operations, such as payroll, human resources, and information technology, sharply reducing the number of employees at the constituent newspapers. Would a new owner find it necessary to hire additional staff to conduct these operations, or contract them out at some expense?

Moreover, the individual Tribune papers’ computer systems are linked to centralized servers. Would a new owner have the capital to invest in computer equipment? For that matter, would a new owner have the capital to invest in any technological improvements?

A new owner would have to buy the name, the physical property, and the goodwill, probably with borrowed money, paying off the debt through revenues. But the sickening drop in revenues is the main reason for the substantial reductions of staff, in the newsroom and elsewhere. Would the revenues be enough to pay off the debt, or would a new owner have to make ever further cost-cutting reductions in product and staff?

It is hard for me to shed the apprehension that any group of banks taking over the Tribune Company from Mr. Zell, or any local owner buying The Sun from a dismembered Tribune Company, could well wind up presiding over an even more drastic diminution of the operation.

The problem is not a lack of readers but a lack of revenue. The panelists and audience attending the Abell Symposium earlier this month on the survival of local news had lots of ideas about what newspapers could and should do.

But nobody could suggest where any substantial amount of money would come from.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

This is not a passive construction

Once more, with feeling.

My arm has not wearied from hacking away at the weedy growth of bad advice on grammar, whether it is the superstition about split infinitives, the nonsense about not splitting verb forms (Do you hear me, Associated Press Stylebook? It’s. Not. Over), or misguided attempts to avoid passive constructions.

What has become depressingly clear is that bad advice has been coming from people who are unable to identify what a split infinitive is or even what the passive voice in English is. And before you start rending your garments and covering your head with ashes because of the deplorable ignorance of the young, I have to tell you that this level of ignorance obtains among senior newspaper columnists, teachers of composition, graduate teaching assistants, and others whose certainty of opinions can be matched only by the shakiness of their information.

If you are of the stamp-out-the-passive-voice camp, pull your hand back before you strike all the forms of to be in a sentence. Some of them are merely copulatives (Easy there, big fella, that doesn’t mean what you think it does) linking a subject with a predicate complement. A sentence beginning There is may not be exciting, but it is not a passive construction. And it is possible to have a passive construction that lacks any form of to be.

The tireless Arnold Zwicky has put together a succinct summary of issues involving the passive voices and the mistakes people make about it, accompanied by links to postings at Language Log. If you have any serious intention about being informed before you start marking up those student papers or criticizing your subordinates’ memos, you owe it to yourself to have a look.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Friday roundup

Item: A reader* inquired whether I used sex in the headline for a post just to lure readers. Of course I did. The point of a headline is to lure readers. You think I’m going to draw throngs to this site with “Friday roundup” or “Jay Hancock”? (Sorry, Jay, but you’re no Ashton Kutcher. Perhaps you should be grateful for that.)

Item: A reader wonders what was meant by stentorian in this overripe passage from The New York Observer: For the past 19 months, since Mr. Murdoch got his hands on The Journal, he has been slowly, deliberately turning it into his newspaper. The Journal, until so recently the quiet, stentorian creation of Barney Kilgore, reported in a newsroom with the hush of the library about it by gentleman commuters generally more interested in making it home for dinner than making it to Michael’s for lunch, worried over by editors with a literary bee buzzing around in their fedoras, has been his for a year. None of the doomsday scenarios have played out.

Stentorian, the classicists among you will remember, derives from the eponymous Stentor, a herald in the Iliad famed for his loud, carrying voice. The word means “very loud,” so the writer, pairing it with quiet is either straining for the effect of oxymoron or mistaken about the meaning of the word. Feel free to suggest a substitute in the comment field below.

Alternatively, suggest how this passage might be pruned into something offering more meaning and less affectation.

Item: As I have been plodding through Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World this week (up to the Peloponnesian War), I came across a construction that I recognize from the newspaper copy that it used to fall to my lot to untangle: [I]n 449 the new temples did start to be built on Athens’ Acropolis. ... Ah, so many programs I’ve seen started to be carried out. This combination of active voice and passive voice — inanimate object does something while being acted on — may not be an error of grammar, but it is certainly maladroit. An editor would probably smooth this out into In 449 Athens did begin building new temples on the Acropolis.

No charge, Professor Fox.

Item: In case you missed the hoo-hah over the putative millionth word in English, watch here as Geoffrey K. Pullum and commenters at Language Log explode this stunt for one more time.

Item: On June 4, Twitter carried this tweet from @APStylebook to its thousands of followers: @johnemcintyre disagrees with Stylebook on our split verb guidance. What do you think? (Find it under "verbs.") I saw two tweets in agreement with my post attacking the “split-verb” non-rule that has been repeatedly denounced by linguists and prescriptivists alike. How about it, AP?

*My practice when I use material from readers’ messages is not to name the reader unless I’m given specific permission to do so.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Newspapers have no sex

A reader, apparently mistaking me for the Answer Man, has written to ask my views on personification, saying that she has been challenged on her preference to avoid it in business writing. “The World’s Largest News-Gathering Organization told us ...” is the example she supplied.

The Associated Press has long been wary of personifications, ruling specifically in its stylebook that hurricanes and ships are neuter, not female.

The Chicago Manual of Style says simply, "The poetic device of giving abstractions the attributes of persons, and hence capitalizing them, is rare in today's writing." (We’ve lost something there, as in Samuel Johnson’s lament that teaching involves such demands of patience “to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.”)

It is more common today in American English to write that a committee has issued its report than to write their report, even though committees comprise purportedly human beings. I am dubious about personifying nations, governments, universities, corporations, organizations, clubs, committees, or other groups, as if they possessed discrete identities.

At the same time, it is commonplace to write that a report, which has no voice, says something. Told, in the example cited, is something that I would shy away from on the ground that a news organization does not speak with a single voice, while recognizing that most readers would take the word in stride.

You clicked on this post just because of sex in the title, didn’t you? Grow up.

The Greeks started it

As with so much else in Western culture, the cult of the celebrity — its degenerate state deplored in yesterday’s post, “Who cares about Ashton Kutcher?” — had its origins in ancient Greece.

Robin Lane Fox, writing in The Classical World, says that the spirit of competition that led to the creation of multiple festivals in the sixth century B.C. also produced “a culture of the ‘celebrity,’ ... not a culture of great warriors but one of great sportsmen, poets and musicians. By contrast, there are no ‘celebrities’ in the world described in the Old Testament or in the Near Eastern monarchies.” Cities honored their champions with victory parades and celebrated their careers in stories. That tradition, too, lives on in what the 20th century called boosterism.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

That Jay Hancock can write up a storm

Unaccustomed as I am to praise of writers’ work — hey, I was a copy editor, a fault-finder; they didn’t pay me a princely sum to coo over the prose — Jay Hancock’s Baltimore Sun column stands out on the arid, featureless plain of business journalism.

Today’s column on why Maryland should not be thought of as a Southern state any longer, linked to legislative leaders’ desire to affiliate with the Eastern rather than the Southern division of a trade group, shows some of his typical touches.

His opening sentence plays with the South’s historic flirtations with secession: Isn't it time Maryland seceded from the South?

He emphasizes his basic contrast by seizing on a telling statistic:

In a South characterized by social conservatism, only 41 percent of Marylanders reported attending weekly church or temple services in a recent Gallup Poll. That was slightly below the national average and far under the upper-50s percentages for the Deep South.

He never passes up a chance to take a shot at unsound policy and witless behavior:

Maryland is the home of smart growth and Columbia, one of the first planned communities. Should Columbia share a regional designation with Houston, home of stupid growth?

Beyond statistics and public policy, there are social conventions and mores to take note of:

Virginia is still reliably Southern, despite analysts who say it's being transformed by yuppies and carpetbaggers in Arlington and McLean. The analysts were saying the same thing two decades ago.

Order an iced tea in Tysons Corner (no smart growth there!) and you'll get it sweetened whether or not you ask for it.

And yet he acknowledges that the separation from the South is far from absolute — he observes that Maryland is still, if vestigially, a tobacco-growing state.

Though I particularly enjoyed today’s effort, his work is regularly gratifying.

When the all-taxes-are-evil crowd started moaning that a drop in the number of millionaires in Maryland must certainly be a result of a recent income tax surcharge, Mr. Hancock pointed out that “[t]hey're bugging out because of Maryland's estate tax, which applies to a bigger portion of a dead person's hoard than the federal estate tax or those in other states.”

It was a delight to watch him play with the political labels — conservative, liberal, socialist, pinko, right-winger — in a column, “Let’s cut spending and raise taxes,” that put forward intelligible and sensible points of view that spread across the entire spectrum.

And if you, like I, have a recent college graduate in the family, share his column, “Advice to grads: Strap yourselves in for the long ride ahead.” It will be more valuable than any number of banal graduation addresses by notables the graduates will cease to remember in a fortnight.

Who cares about Ashton Kutcher?

Not to pick particularly on Mr. Kutcher, who portrayed a dolt on a television series and later became the incumbent husband of Demi Moore, but he appears to be representative of that group of people we call celebrities, whose activities are followed avidly by the news media. They draw legions of followers on Twitter, and yet their appeal remains obscure.

The appetite for this sort of thing used to be sated by supermarket tabloids and People, but now Baltimoresun.com has a “Celebrity News” category on its main page, and CNN.com goes in for such breathless bulletins as “Britney Spears dating her agent.” (Media commentator Steve Yelvington tweeted today: “CNN Headline News has devolved into a video National Enquirer. Beware: The next level is alien abductions.”) One of my dearest former colleagues is responsible for editing celebrity coverage at a publication that I think I will not name. This cannot be wholesome.

Please, please do not think that I am scorning gossip. Gossip, which I think an anthropologist would attest is virtually universal in human societies, serves an invaluable function in establishing and solidifying communal values, all the while brightening our drab, dreary, featureless, forgettable little lives. My mother, the late Marian Early McIntyre, for a quarter-century the postmaster of Elizaville, Kentucky, spent a goodly portion of the workday monitoring the comings and goings of the citizenry and reporting on her findings. And in large organizations, such as newspapers, run by managers comically incapable of communicating effectively, gossip is just about the only means to find out what is going on.

Moreover, when we’re able to talk about a governor of New York carrying on in extravagant assignations with hookers, or the governor of New Jersey conducting a homosexual liaison with a subordinate, we can witness a wholesome leveling-down of the great and the mighty.

But Angelina and Brad and Jen?* Paris Hilton? The aforementioned Mr. Kutcher? It cannot say something very pleasant to contemplate about ourselves that we should devote so much attention to figures of such slender substance. We lack the gossip worthy of a great nation.

*Actually, Angelina Jolie, whatever her manifold personal eccentricities, is an actress of some power, and Brad Pitt has had some agreeable roles. But I have never fathomed the appeal of Jennifer Aniston, who came to notice in a TV series that a friend described one night at dinner as “you know, that show with half a dozen people living together, with each one dumber than the last.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Omnium gatherum

The title is mock-Latin for a miscellany — omnium, all, combined with gather them — and a tipoff that this post is not devoted to a single subject.

Item: Grant Barrett, the lexicographer, has launched a Web reference on words, an online dictionary called Wordnik. It aggregates meanings from various dictionaries, perovdes etymologies and illustrative sentences, gives readers the opportunity to contribute material, and offers a number of other interesting features. Give it a try. You may well want to bookmark it.

Item: We told you that skimping on the editing would wind up embarrassing publications. A former Sun colleague observes on Facebook: “Headline at the top of washingtonpost.com says that ‘Sonia Mayor's’ confirmation hearings will begin July 13.”

Item: I complained in a tweet this morning (Feel free to follow me, @johnemcintyre on Twitter): “Ticker on WBAL describes a fire as having been ‘intentionally set.’ So ‘set’ is not enough for them to indicate intention?” Since then, a couple of respondents have questioned whether set always indicates intention to start a fire. What say you?

Item: At Headsup, "fev" shows us once again why sports headlines should not make childish plays on players’ names.

Item: Yesterday, in a narrow vote of 277 to 263, members of the Newspaper Guild at The Boston Globe rejected concessions demanded by the parent New York Times Company. An article in The Times quotes Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University as saying that both sides contributed to an ugly outcome, the company by appearing remote and arrogant, the union by giving in to anger and resentment.

I have no stake in this, but I would like to suggest to my fellow journalists at The Globe that, based on recent experience, any employee of a daily newspaper who imagines that he or she is indispensible and enjoys job security may soon be carrying personal possessions to the curb in a cardboard box.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My good friends

A colleague who is considering signing up on Facebook wonders whether there might be a journalistic conflict of interest. Once in, as I am, one will be writing about fellow bloggers and other writers who are also Facebook friends. Would this involve any compromise of integrity?

I suspect not, but I hadn’t considered the issue.

Keep in mind the elasticity of that word friend in the context of Facebook. It very nearly encompasses as many categories and individuals as John McCain’s ritual vocative “my friends” during last year’s presidential campaign.

Some of the 400-plus people I'm linked to on Facebook are, in fact, what one would call personal friends. Some are professional colleagues from The Sun, the American Copy Editors Society, and other newspapers; some are fellow teachers; some are my former students; some are fellow bloggers; and some are readers of my blog — the word fan sounds odd, I know — with whom I have scarcely any acquaintance but who asked to be "friended." So it would be a mistake to identify Facebook association with any particular degree of intimacy.

From my perspective, Facebook membership can indicate an association akin to the kind of praise and recommendation other bloggers and I already engage in by pointing out one another's work. Or to put it this way: If I were reviewing a book by an acquaintance, I would disclose that in the review and let the reader make appropriate judgments. I'm not sure that a Facebook association would be any more compromising. If you disagree, please comment.

Whether anyone would want to put up with the inane quizzes and other crap that Facebook throws at its members is a separate issue, as is toleration of friend as a verb.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The philosopher's mummy

On this date in 1832, the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham died at the age of 44. Pursuant to his instructions, his body was preserved; it now sits, dressed, in a glass case in University College London. (Image.)

If your interest extends beyond the sensational — the drive-by stare — to the historico-socio-politico-medico-theologico elements of the philosopher’s mummy, an essay by James E. Crimmins on Bentham’s will and the pamphlet “Auto-Icon” offers a considerable fund of information.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The old order

Thirty years ago, David Halberstam published The Powers That Be, a book on Time magazine, CBS, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. It was a look at “the kingdom of the media,” a realm that may not yet be one with Nineveh and Tyre, but which is certainly much diminished in wealth and power.

I have been thinking about the dwindling of that cozy world of the mass-market giants — the metropolitan dailies, the television broadcasters, the news magazines — since Tuesday night’s Abell symposium on the future of local news, sponsored by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park. Here’s an account of the proceedings by Joan Jacobson, a former Baltimore Sun reporter.

The audience contained a majority of Sun people, and Sun alumni considerably outnumbered current Sun employees in attendance. Among Sun alumni there was a fair contingent older than I am. Because of the demographic — and I know that it is not seemly for someone of my age and propensities to mock cootdom — I suspect that audience responded to the panelists with a mindset informed by the world Halberstam described, not the world in which journalism now functions.

Two members of that panel earned my sympathy. The first was Monty Cook, the incumbent editor of The Sun, partly for just showing up. Many in that audience were clearly bitter about the successive reductions in the paper’s staff and scope, particularly the layoffs that occurred at the end of April. Their questions showed a profound skepticism about the company’s current attempt to straddle the print and electronic platforms, but he made his case gamely. I’m skeptical myself, because no one knows whether the new strategy will work; but I also know that no previous strategy has succeeded.

The other was Mark Potts, the blogger at Recovering Journalist. (If you read Ms. Jacobson’s article, you had better also read Mr. Potts’s account.) It fell to him to demonstrate, to even greater skepticism than Mr. Cook faced, that local electronic journalism is already beginning to take over the tasks that daily newspapers used to see as their monopoly.

There was a good deal of shaking of heads that displayed gray hair and male-pattern baldness. But I noticed from some of the subsequent Twitter traffic that that small-under-forty demographic in the audience found Mr. Potts to have made the most compelling points.

The old powers that be are being shouldered aside. They might yet adapt to a new and less hospitable environment, and they might be supplanted by newcomers, some of which have not yet even emerged. Looking backward, I think, will not serve those struggling to survive.

Antique writing equipment

This is a “Who cares?” post on a gloomy, wet weekday, so you might be well advised to skip it.

Despite all the writing with Microsoft Word on the computer — blog posts, job applications, e-mail, the manuscript of my long-gestating book on editing — the computer has not entirely effaced previous technology. I should show my children my Bud’s Research Paper Typing Guide.

It is a laminated second sheet to put behind a blank sheet in a typewriter. What shows through on the blank sheet are a black border indicating the top, bottom, and side margins; a vertical dotted line indicating the center of the page, and a set of numbers, 1-51, on the left to help calculate how much space to allow for footnotes. It bears many indentations from a Remington manual typewriter.

And it is about as useful as a shaker of sand to blot ink on the page.

The Remington is long gone, and there is a Brother electronic typewriter on a shelf that I haven’t used in years.

I have a Waterman fountain pen, fine nib, that I use for personal correspondence. Before I was laicized by The Sun, I used it to sign formal documents, such as performance reviews and pardons.

Pilot’s liquid-gel pens, both blue and black, have become a favorite, especially the 05 fine points, which are close to ideal for my cramped, precise handwriting. For paper grading: red for condemnation and green for advice.

I own a couple of Cross ballpoints, but their ink tends to blot irritatingly and get on my hands.

For making notes in books, Paper Mate Sharpwriter, Dixon SenseMatic, and Pentel mechanical pencils, which can be found all over the house, are handy.

While I make notes and sketchy outlines by hand, I almost never draft anything except by keyboard. Lowell Denton told me when I first worked at The Flemingsburg Gazette in the summer of 1968, “John Early, you’ve got to learn to write on the typewriter, because you’re never going to have the time to write it out by hand and then type it.”

I told you that this was a “Who cares?” post. If you’re still reading, you’ve only yourself to blame.

But if you’re keen to waste more time, you can comment on your own tastes in writing equipment.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Damn you, AP Stylebook

An editor asked me yesterday what I thought about the old “split verb” rule, and I managed to cut short the rant before spittle started gathering at the corners of my mouth. But the “split-verb” prohibition is bogus. I have carried on about in workshops, lectured my students, and denounced it in this blog. No reputable authority upholds it, but it does not go away, and I have identified an accessory to this crime against English.

This long-held erroneous belief among journalists is that writers must not place an adverb between an auxiliary verb and the main verb. Here is the entry under verbs from The Associated Press Stylebook, the latest edition of which coincidentally arrived at my house yesterday:

SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.)

Awkward: She was ordered to immediately leave on an assignment.

Preferred: She was ordered to leave immediately on an assignment.

Awkward: There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn.

Preferred: There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn.

Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning:

He wanted to really help his mother.

Those who lie are often found out.

How has your health been?

The budget was tentatively approved.

The “exceptions,” notice, are all idiomatic English, and I think that just about any editor would have identified There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn as awkward without any assistance from the Associated Press.

Yet year after year the AP Stylebook and its slavish adherents persist in maintaining this erroneous rule.

If you don’t believe me, check the Never split a verb phrase entry under Superstitions in Garner’s Modern American Usage:

“Because of their misconception as to what a split infinitive really is, some have reached the erroneous conclusion that an adverbial modifier must never be placed between parts of a compound phrase, with the result that they write in such an eccentric style as ‘I greatly have been disappointed’ instead of writing naturally ‘I have been greatly disappointed.’ R.W. Pence & D.W. Emery, A Grammar of Present-Day English 329 n.,69 (1963).

[You noticed I suppose, the never in that sentence. Did you flinch?]

“With a compound verb—that is, one made with an auxiliary and a main verb—the adverb comes between auxiliary and main verb (He will probably telephone before starting / I have often had that thought myself / The clock is consistently losing five minutes a day).” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 53 (1966).

Or have a look at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage:

Copperud 1970 1980 talks about an erroneous idea widespread among newspaper journalists that adverbs should not separate auxiliaries from their main verbs (as in “you can easily see” or “they must be heartily congratulated”). This bugaboo, commentators agree, seems to have sprung from fear of the dread split infinitive. ... Copperud cites five commentators on the subject, all of whom see no harm in placing an adverb between the parts of a verb, and one of whom (Fowler 1965) prescribes such placement. Fowler (under placement of adverbs) has a long and detailed discussion, complete with numerous examples in which the adverb has been improperly (to his mind) shifted so as to avoid the split. Since dividing the auxiliary from the verb with an adverb has been approved at least since Lindley Murray 1795, it would seem that Fowler is justified in calling the avoidance a superstition.

Do I need to hit you over the head with those numerous examples from Fowler? Or will you, dammit, cave in and begin to write English instead of journalese?

And you, AP Stylebook, shame, shame for perpetuating a non-rule that has been exploded for decades.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Why this is Wordville

The regulars at Elizabeth Large’s restaurant blog, Dining @ Large, refer to themselves collectively as the Sandbox. Not everyone is happy with the term, and Ms. Large opened up a discussion of the subject today.

The responses so far overwhelmingly endorse the name, in part because it was first applied to the group by the late Robert (the Single One), whose memory the group honors in deep affection.

But the compelling reason to accept the name is that it is in the nature of nicknames to arise spontaneously and stick. Contrived names just don’t seem to work A couple of years ago, the expenditure of half a million dollars on a project to generate a new municipal slogan for Baltimore yielded this: Baltimore: Get in on it! (The public’s responses to current statistics about the murder rate and articles about muggings by bands of unruly youths suggest that a more resonant slogan would be Baltimore: Give up on It.) Like a previous slogan, The City that Reads, Baltimore: Get in on It! was subjected to widespread ridicule before dropping out of active memory.

Last year, when this blog was still as Baltimoresun.com, I shamelessly attempted to mimic Ms. Large’s blog by soliciting nicknames for You Don’t Say. Something shy of a flood of suggestions yielded a mild plurality in favor of the Parlor or Parlour, reflecting the refined (i.e., stuffy) discourse here. It never caught on. Then one day a Sandboxer mentioned having been over at Wordville, and the name seemed exactly right and has been current ever since.

You would be well advised to be suspicious of campaigns to name zoo animals or come up with slogans or anything of the sort.

A final note: As Sandboxers have comments Robert (the Single One)’s coinage came as a reminder to behave well in the sandbox. The word fits because the community of readers that has developed in Ms. Large’s blog is self-policing. People who are abusive or unpleasant are met immediately with gentle but firm reproof from the Sandboxers, and, finding the place inhospitable to venom, they go away and do not return. Names stick when they fit.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Wake up and smell the coffins

David Sullivan wrote a typically thoughtful and moving account last week of what the daily newspaper has meant to its community. This is the core of it:

[E]ven in its damaged state, people still have certain expectations of a newspaper — expectations that they do not have for other media. The newspaper is supposed to reflect and stand for what is right, whether it be linguistically correct or morally correct. The newspaper is supposed to seek the truth and not be complicit in coverups, lies, and the general human search for entropy. The newspaper is supposed to be one of the institutions that hold the community to a higher standard.

So far, we have not discovered a media replacement for that role, which is largely based upon print's combination of near-universal access to a product with a high cost of entry for producing similar products, which makes it both ubiquitous and singular.

My son has been challenging me recently about my mention of community institutions. When you look at the changes in society, the 1950s vs. now; the more roles, options, choices people have; the continuing rise of social justice; the limits that were placed on people in an era when everyone had to read the World-Herald and shop at Brandeis or Kilpatrick's to see an informed and representative choice of what was available, in news or merchandise — exactly how did these slow-moving, bureaucratic, closed-minded, often racist and sexist institutions (including mainstream churches, and schools in the era of rote learning) make things better than they are now? It's a good question, and part of the answer has to be — they didn't.

But community institutions such as newspapers — which are in some ways the last community institutions — still stand for the community's desire to be better than it is.

Unfortunately, that view appears to be held mainly by a couple of generations that are passing away. It is a view that would seem bizarre, even ludicrous, to people under the age of thirty, and perhaps under the age of forty. Newspapers have failed those potential readers by publishing stories that were overlong, appallingly dull, and monumentally self-indulgent. Do you know why multi-part series have so often been published in November and December, during holiday seasons when people have less time to read? So publication would fall within the calendar year and makes those series eligible for consideration by prize juries.

Publishing newspapers for other journalists rather than for readers should have looked iffy — and I have a fairly good idea of how many of my former colleagues over the years did not even read their own newspaper regularly or thoroughly.

But even at the most self-indulgent and obtuse moments, newspapers still aspired to the role that Mr. Sullivan describes, and sometimes actually rose to it.

The great failure of metropolitan daily newspapers has not been in the newsroom but in the boardroom.

Newspapers still have a huge body of readers, in print and online, but the advertising to support the operation has gone away, a trend that the recession has accelerated. Alan Mutters Reflections of a Newsosaur reported yesterday that newspaper advertising fell a sickening 28.3 percent in the first quarter of this year. That is a loss of $2.6 billion. And that number is down from 2008, which itself was no banner year. If you don’t understand why your newspaper is wafer-thin, think about these numbers.

The failure in the boardroom has been a failure to adjust to radically changing business conditions — that is, inability to acquire new sources of revenue — complicated by enormous debt taken on during more prosperous times. That failure likely means the end of the metropolitan daily as readers have known it.

In 1986, when I came to work at The Sun, the paper had eight foreign bureaus, a Washington bureau, reporters in New York and California, suburban bureaus in the core counties, and reporters in Western Maryland and on the Eastern Shore. It was a serious paper. When the Nobel Prize in literature was awarded, The Sun put the story on the front page, accompanied inside by an excerpt of the author’s work. The Sun was the paper in which David Simon anatomized the drug trade in Baltimore. The Sun was a paper that won the Pulitzer. People I met were proud that their city could boast such a paper, and I was damn proud to work for it.

That paper is gone (as am I), and it is not coming back. Nostalgia is a poor substitute for income.

What will survive, in print and online, remains to be seen. Steve Buttry’s “Blueprint for the Complete Community Connection” points to one approach. There is also renewed talk about charging for online content — an idea about which I remain deeply skeptical. Not even in print’s palmy days were readers willing to pony up the cash required to support a metropolitan daily, and it will be hard for publications with diminished staffs to produce the kind of quality, unique content that people might be willing to pay for. And even then, would it be enough?

I don’t subscribe to the overheated talk that the decline of the metropolitan daily, or even its extinction, would destroy democracy. There are lots of voices being published, in print and electronically. I do worry about where to find verified information of the kind that newspapers strived to produce. I do worry about journalists being able to make a living at the craft. And I wait to see what comes next.

Bringing Dickens into focus

One of the problems with Charles Dickens is that there is so much stuff. All those novels. The compelling biographical details. The Victorian background. Where to start?

Happily, Brian Murray, a professor in the writing department at Loyola College, has written a short, readable introduction, the Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Dickens (Continuum, 184 pages, $19.95, due out on July 1). Just the thing for the reader in the foothills of this mountain of prose.

The ethics of disclosure compel me to state that Professor Murray engaged me to go over the proofs of the book. Should you discover any errors in it, you should feel free to blame the copy editor.

Monday, June 1, 2009

To err is human

Imagine, if you can, a book a copy editor would find more inviting than Joseph T. Hallinan’s Why We Make Mistakes (Broadway Books, 283 pages, $24.95). Mr. Hallinan, who formerly wrote for The Wall Street Journal, offers a catalogue of our predispositions to fallibility.

Because we — that’s us as a species — are impatient and have a misplaced confidence in our ability to figure things out, we don’t read the instructions. Subaru, for example, determined in study of customer complaints that one in five questions to the company’s call center involved a point explained in the owner’s manual.

We are too easily distracted and dangerously prone to the illusion of multitasking. Talking on cell phones while driving, or worse, texting, divides our attention dangerously. So do all the gadgets with which automobiles come equipped. An Eastern Airlines jet crashed in the Everglades because the flight crew got so distracted over determining why the landing gear indicator light hadn’t come on that they forgot to operate the airplane. The industry has a term, “Controlled Flight into Terrain,” CFIT, to describe just such occurrences.

We are overly reliant on our perceptions, which are partial, and our memories, which reconstruct rather than record. This is why eyewitness testimony in trials so regularly contributes to the conviction of innocent people.

And, copy editors should take particular note here, we defer too much to experts, who are in turn overconfident in their expertise. The medical industry, in an effort to reduce anesthesiologists’ errors in the operating room, has taken a number of measures, among them “attitude adjustment.” Pay close attention: “They began discouraging the idea of doctor as know-it-all, and encouraged nurses and others to speak up if they saw someone—especially the anesthesiologist—do something wrong. In error-speak, this is known as ‘flattening the authority gradient,’ and it has been shown as an effective way to reduce errors.”

Some of the scandals in the newspaper industry — the plagiarisms and fabrications, the articles based on shaky information — can be attributed to too steep an authority gradient. The copy editors and lower-level editors were either not encouraged to question the work of stars or decisions of the high command, or were ignored when they did.

One way to avoid error is to develop systematic defenses, like the checklists used in the airplane cockpit and the operating theater. The sorts of questions that copy editors ask are like those checklists: Is this right? How do we know this? Who says so? Do we have independent confirmation? Does this make sense?