Thursday, July 30, 2009

The joys of failure

It’s a pity that discussion in comments of the substance of my interview with On the Media has been sidetracked by Robert Knilands, who barged in to vent his spite and resentment about other editors.* But one of his remarks has been productive of thought:

Maybe someday it will dawn on you that John McIntyre is no longer on the copy desk, and that he walked out a failure, with his section a smoldering ruin. All his years of blathering, parsing words, wearing bow ties, and generally acting like a pompous ass were wasted.

Actually, though I am unemployed and looking for ways to do useful work again, I can’t share Mr. Knilands’s perception that I am a failure.

After all, I put in nearly thirty years of good work; though I didn’t catch every error or fix every shortcoming in the stories I edited, on the whole, the papers I worked on were better for my having been there.

Though the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun is drastically diminished, it still functions, and several of the editors I hired continue to work there in other positions, struggling heroically to move the operation into whatever new form it must take to survive.

Beyond that, several of the editors I hired have moved on to work at The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Several of my students from Loyola College have also gone on to established positions in journalism. I have every reason to take pride in them.

This blog, the continuation of the one I started at The Sun, has had more than 12,000 visitors since May 1, and many of them have returned repeatedly.

Yes, it was a deep disappointment that I did not get to serve out my professional career at The Sun, with a voice in charting its new course and maintaining its standards, but on the day that I walked out of that newsroom, I did so with the affection and esteem of my colleagues. Call that failure if you will.

As for the bow ties and the pompous assery, that’s just for fun.

*Explanatory note for readers unacquainted with Mr. Knilands’s behavior: I have not, to my knowledge, ever met him, and he has not, to my knowledge, attended any of my workshops on editing. Though public information about him is sketchy, he appears to have worked for a number of newspapers in the Midwest. What is certain is that he has been formally banned from several journalistic discussion boards for his intemperate remarks. He is particularly abusive toward those who turned down his application for employment or who presumed to disagree with him or who are more prominently known in the business than he is. It is possible to entertain the opinion that he is not wired to code.


Jesse Sheidlower, the formidable lexicographer and Editor at Large of the Oxford English Dictionary, is bringing out a new edition, the third (!), of The F Word, a revised and expanded treatment of one of English’s most popular words.

For an amuse-bouche, he is offering an F Word of the Day. Here is today’s.

If your scholarship in bad words has not been updated since Ashley Montagu’s The Anatomy of Swearing (1967), here is your chance to expand your learning.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

After the storm

Despite the distresses of the day, I have not lost hope that journalism will return to the importance of editing.

Much of my attention and energy over the past three decades have been devoted to upholding the importance of editing: first in developing my own mastery of the craft, in both micro- and macro-editing; in establishing and upholding high standards for my colleagues as a manager, then in hiring and training promising candidates; in spreading the word about the importance of editing to individual publications through workshops and to the industry at large as a president of the American Copy Editors Society.

It was, you may imagine, a sad occasion to post yesterday that much of that effort appears to have been futile. Editing at newspapers and magazines and publishing houses and Internet sites is much diminished, and the argument for quality has succumbed to the brutal realities of the marketplace.

Here is what one reader, “Captain Nemo,” had to say about yesterday’s post:

I think the whole quality issue is overblown. Each morning I quickly check about half dozen sources: Huffington (liberal) Drudge (conservative), NYT headlines, AOL breaking news, facebook feeds, and maybe the Post. I don't "read" these sources, I skim them rapidly to get an idea of what's going on in the world. If I see an article I like or am interested in, I bookmark it and read it later. I don't analyze the "quality." I'm moving fast. I have no time to worry about how crafty a headline is or how well the lede pulls me in. It's like going to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. When I'm satisfied, I stop eating. I don't think I am alone in this information consumption habit, as current print circulation data vs. Internet hit rates attest. Accuracy is now a process of simple accretion of various sources. Were 17 or 19 people shot in Baltimore over last weekend? Does that matter to the basic human guts of the story that a pregnant woman an a2-year-old girl were shot?

I suspect that the captain’s reading practices are quite common, and I doubt that they arose with the Internet age. Newspaper readers have always been notorious for scanning and skimming, and anyone who has had to deal with readers’ complaints knows how frequently those complaints came about when a reader reached a conclusion from a headline without looking at the story.

I further suspect that the captain’s indifference to errors in the details is also fairly common. The New York Times had to publish a lengthy correction about errors in Alessandra Stanley’s article on Walter Cronkite’s career — the latest examples of a pattern of sloppiness in the writer’s work that Craig Silverman examines for the Columbia Journalism Review. But most readers would almost surely slide over the errors — and shrug at seeing them pointed out. They are embarrassing to The Times, particularly to its copy desk, but not of much moment to the ordinary reader.

So, if the publisher can’t afford to spend money on editing, and if the reader doesn’t really care that the articles are as stuffed with errors of fact as Strasbourg geese are with grain, why worry?

One reason is that errors and low-grade writing have cumulative effects that readers begin to notice. As Gary Kirchherr commented on Facebook about yesterday’s post on quality, “Readers may not be willing to pay more for quality writing, but they also will abandon the publication that goes too far in the opposite direction. Rock, hard place.”
They will notice errors in articles about subjects that touch them, and they will be quickly bored with unfocused, slipshod writing.

Let me suggest a parallel. When General Motors emerged from bankruptcy this month, its CEO, Fritz Henderson, proclaimed that GM would be committed to producing “high-quality” automobiles for consumers. He didn’t say that GM had previously been manufacturing crappy products — he didn’t have to; the emphasis on “quality” spoke for itself. Degrading the product is not a sound long-term strategy.

Once journalism, print and electronic, has stabilized in a business model that no longer requires the ceaseless cuts in staff and reductions of product that have marked the past few years, it will begin to reconstruct itself. As it does so, some publishers will once again aspire to credibility and quality. Some, as always, will happily churn out junk so long as money can be made off it, but a few will seek more dignity. Some always do.

Those who so aspire will come to see that editing is indispensable and will begin to employ more editors as revenues permit. Those editors will not likely work in the structure that newspapers favored for more than a century, but whatever structure develops will take cognizance of unchanging principles:

Credibility rises from accuracy; accuracy requires checking.

Readers want clarity; clarity and focus come from editing.

Writers, who are not necessarily the best judges of their own work, benefit from a dispassionate analysis of their prose before publication.

The best writers benefit from editing; the less-accomplished require it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Have they no decency?

My former colleague Claire Abt tells me that there were so many things wrong with this that she had to share it:

New Jim Beam Red Stag black cherry-flavored bourbon

Kentucky apple martini — a unique cherry-apple flavor:
Jim Beam Red Stag bourbon, DeKuyper red apple liquor and sweet & sour, topped with squeezes of fresh lemon

[A brief pause to permit you to shudder]

This is still the land of the free, and it ill becomes anyone to disparage another man’s tipple, but, great Caesar’s ghost, this is monstrous.

My first alcoholic drink was bourbon and Coke, but when I became a man, I put away childish things. You can mix vodka with what you will, and you’re free to imagine that you can distinguish one kind from another. Gin as well can be mixed with many things, though tonic water is one of the better and gin achieves its apotheosis when combined with a little dry vermouth. Rum seems designed to mingle with fruit juices.

But whisky and whiskey — Scotch, Irish, and bourbon — with which only brandy can compare as supreme achievements of the distiller’s craft — should be granted their dignity.

If you like your bourbon with a little something sweet, mix it with a little sweet vermouth and enjoy a Manhattan.

But bourbon flavored with black cherry and mixed with red apple liquor and sweet and sour mix? [You may shudder once more.] Good Lord, it’s enough to drive a man to drink.

The quality of quality is strained

The remark from my interview with On The Media most frequently quoted, by Romenesko’s media news site at Poynter and others, is that “one of the things on the minds of publishers of online enterprises is a sense that readers on the Internet don't expect things to be accurate or very well done and, therefore, they are used to tolerating a much higher level of shoddy work, a much greater volume of errors and, therefore, you can sacrifice the quality on the web and it doesn't mean that much.”

I feel honor-bound to go beyond that to tell you that, to my deep regret, it looks doubtful that quality pays anywhere.

Professor Philip Meyer concluded, as well as he could from fragmentary data, in The Vanishing Newspaper that on balance, high quality in newspapers increased profitability.

But a year ago Professor Doug Fisher argued — persuasively, I now realize — that the quality of journalism that is enhanced by thoroughgoing editing costs too much and returns too little. Yes, you prefer articles that are factually accurate, grammatical, focused, and organized. You complain about articles that aren’t.

But you are not willing to pay what it costs to produce better stuff.*

Don’t take it personally. You never were. For more than a century newspapers have been a delivery vehicle for advertising, and the news, figuratively as well as literally, rode on top of the ads. The tributes to the late Walter Cronkite mourned the passing of his standard of journalism as well, but CBS gave us that gilt-edged news operation because it was raking in money from ads for deodorant and toothpaste and automobiles. Advertising subsidized news.

The financial situation for journalism has become so desperate with the collapse of the advertising model that some established publications are toying with proposals to set up subscriber fees. My former colleague David Simon argued forcefully for this in “Build the Wall,” a Columbia Journalism Review article urging the publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post to erect a pay wall as a bulwark to preserve high-quality journalism.

Steve Buttry’s sardonic tweet in response to this article: “David Simon's next gritty HBO series will dramatize the deaths of newspapers who followed his advice.”

The likeliest consequences of erecting a pay wall are the departure of most of the readers and a further drop in revenue: The advertisers want to know that their ads are being seen by readers, who will vanish, and the remaining readers are unlikely to pony up enough to compensate for the lost advertising.

Newspapers are trapped between the accelerating collapse of revenue from print, though print is still where they make most of their money, and the failure to arrive at a sufficiently profitable business model for the Internet. In their desperation to keep going, they have had to sacrifice staff, coverage, scope, and quality. When the house is burning down, you get out with what you can.

Once journalism reconstructs itself on some new model that will produce enough income to support whatever level of reporting and writing and editing remains, there will surely be some publications, print or electronic, that are superior to others. But what quality exists will have to be subsidized, because you and I are not willing to pay for it on our own.

*Dearly as I love you all and grateful as I am for your praise and comments for this blog, I’m perfectly aware that if I asked you to pay to read it, you would melt away like Napoleon’s Grande Armee on the march back from Moscow.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Lazy day

Driving more than a thousand miles over the weekend proved to be a little more taxing than I had expected, and a necessary trip this morning with Kathleen to Sam’s Club (don’t ask; just don’t ask) failed, oddly, to energize me.

So today’s offering is a link to a transcript of the weekend’s interview on NPR’s On the Media, in case you missed it. You can also download the audio if you’re pining to hear my dulcet tones.

And — a real bonus — the comments include a billet-doux from the ineffable Robert Knilands. Don’t miss it.*

*I’ve resumed comment moderation here, so you will have to look elsewhere for his gnomic remarks.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Forty years afterward

Thunderstorms could not dampen the enthusiasm this weekend of members of the Fleming County High School Class of 1969 at their reunion parties. *

Before you continue, you should now have been tipped off that this post is even less of general interest than the usual ones. Carping about grammar and usage will resume tomorrow. I don’t want to spoil the account of the reunion by pointing out that The Baltimore Sun has referred in an article to two parties reaching “an agreement in principal.”

I arrived in Elizaville on Friday evening in time to sit outside with a wee dram (or two) of Woodford Reserve and watch the sun go don over the hills. The old Early place is at the crest of a hill just outside metropolitan Elizaville. It was on the road at the crest of that hill that a minor skirmish of the Civil War occurred, when a Confederate recruiting party marching in from Johnson Junction met a Federal patrol marching up from Nepton. Musket fire was exchanged, with no apparent injury to either party.**

That would have been about 1862, when my great-grandfather acquired the property. The farmhouse was built by my great-grandfather about 120 years ago, and my mother, the last of the Earlys, lived there until her death in 2001.

The first of the reunion parties on Saturday was at the house in Flemingsburg that my classmate Larry Johnson has been restoring and filling with antiques. We posed on the front porch for photos that are likely to show up in this week’s Flemingsburg Gazette — if a little hastily, because a thunderstorm was running through.

There were the usual exchanges: “Why, John Early, you haven’t changed a bit.”*** That was, of course, the polite lie that people exchange in these operations, and I reciprocated as often as I could do so convincingly.

In the evening, we repaired to the McCartney cottage, thanks to Sidney McCartney Day and Marsha McNeill McCartney, at Park Lake, a private resort, and sat through another thunderstorm while relaxing on the screened-in porch and waiting for the burgers to mature on the grill. People kept repeating remarks, many of them ill-natured, attributed to me. Fortunately, I was in possession of the formulaic response from my first news editor, the late Bob Johnson: “Did I say that? [beat] That sounds like something I would have said.”

The reason for attending a reunion is to see how time has marked one’s old companions, and to see how one measures up against them. Well, those of us who still have hair have gone gray, and some of us are still working and some of us are not, but the personalities previously in evidence are still recognizably there.

It was enormously moving to be greeted with affection and enthusiasm after this long lapse of years. Feeling the evening breeze rise over the hill at the farm, where I spent so many childhood years reading and watching the play of the shadows of clouds over the fields and hills, felt like home.

Seeing my old classmates was like the return of the prodigal, known and welcomed.

*Lord forgive me.

**I was not there.

***These are the only people who still know what my name is. I haven’t been called “John Early” this often for decades.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One more thing

Before I venture west to examine the marks of time on my classmates from 1969, a reminder:

I was mistaken about the broadcast of my interview about the state of copy editing on National Public Radio’s On the Media. It is scheduled for this weekend, running at 2:00 p.m. Sunday on WYPR-FM in Baltimore. (Listings may vary in your area.) You can also download the program from the On the Media Web site.

Off to the Dark and Bloody

Even the unemployed need to take a little time off.

A week ago a letter arrived announcing that fellow graduates of the Class of 1969 at Fleming County High School have planned parties for this weekend. I will be heading west tomorrow morning and won’t be back in Baltimore until early next week. You’re left to your own devices until then.

Since I won’t be monitoring this site, I’ve decided, with misgivings, to cancel comment moderation before I hit the road. You’ll be able to comment at will over the weekend, but I don’t want to get back to discover that you’ve been misbehaving.

To tide you over, some brief items:

X is not alone

Mild-mannered copy editor John McIntyre, sometime chief of the desk at The Baltimore Sun, has campaigned for years against the stale devices of journalism.

McIntyre is not alone.

Fellow copy editor and former ACES president Pam Robinson has published on her blog, Words at Work, an eye-popping collection of the hack “not alone” transition from publications that ought to have editors who know better.

Grammar for chimps

Somebody had to do it, and, sighing at the necessity, Geoffrey Pullum has demolished the latest example of “Stupid Animal Communication Stories,” this time the BBC’s report on a study that supposedly says that chimpanzees can recognize bad grammar. They can’t.**

Before you complain about the headline

A tweeted observation by Bill Walsh should give reporters and editors cause to pause before they storm over to what is left of the copy desk to complain about a headline that misses what they thought was the mark:

I side with reporters more often than you'd think when such disputes arise, but I'd say misguided headlines tend to reflect muddled stories.

Tell it, Brother Walsh.

*For readers unacquainted with the lore of the Commonwealth of Kentucky — quick, name the other three states that are technically commonwealths — the area was a battleground for Indians before European-descended settlers took over, and it was the Native Americans who called it “the dark and bloody ground.”

**If they could, reporters then could presumably be trained to make the same distinctions, and the nation’s dozen or so remaining copy editors could join me in collecting unemployment benefits.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Deferring to the godly

In yesterday’s post on regrettable news leads, I said that one reason not to affect bogus King James English was to avoid giving offense to the godly. One reader commented: “I don't think the danger of offending th godly, or anyone else for that matter, is a good reason not to write something, or do anything really.”

On the contrary, when one is writing for publication, there are excellent reasons not to *** READER ALERT: VULGAR LANGUAGE PENDING *** piss off the readers.

In some articles, on some occasions, for some audiences, one avoids certain references or certain kinds of language — profanity, for example, or ethnic slurs. Among the things to take care with are religious references, because people’s religious beliefs and associations are held profoundly. (I myself, as by adult profession a high-church Anglican, understand all too clearly the danger of hinting that other people’s beliefs and practices are silly.)

If you are going to give offense to the godly, you had better do so for a good reason — to assert, for example, that, contrary to Scripture, the earth revolves around the sun, that it came into being much earlier than an October morning in 4004 B.C., and that its human inhabitants descended from more primitive forms of life, are points of established scientific fact, rather than to adapt the language of their sacred texts merely for some cheap and transient effect.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Don't do this again

All right, I’m just a copy editor — and a cashiered copy editor at that — so you may wonder where I come off with attitude about how real writers write. (Several reporters have in the past.) In part, it’s because I was a reader first, and as a reader I identified stale devices with which writers, journalists in particular, imagine that they bring freshness and imagination to their work.

For fuller discussion, you should look at a compilation of cliche leads that Dick Thien offered to the American Copy Editors Society and a similar analysis at Bob Baker’s Newsthinking.

For some that I myself find particularly irritating:

Webster’s defines ...

First off, there is no Webster’s, or rather, no one Webster’s. Merriam-Webster is only one of a number of publishers using that name in the title. Second, giving a dictionary definition of a term as a starting point is such a fixture of low-grade sermons that a first-year seminarian, not to say a professional journalist, ought to blush at being caught resorting to it.

It’s official

It’s official means that some piece of information has been confirmed — meaning that you are telling the reader something already widely known. Usually readers expect a story to tell them things they don’t already know.

The conventional wisdom

The conventional wisdom is also something that the reader has already heard. When a writer starts by saying what the conventional wisdom is, it’s usually to move to some fresh take on the situation. Maybe the writer could just start with that fresh take.

The pathetic fallacy

If I ever catch you writing that storm clouds couldn’t dampen the spirits of any person or group at an event, or in any other manner attributing emotion to meteorology, I’ll see to it that you are locked in a room listening to recordings of Wordsworth’s later poetry until you scream for mercy.

Christmas came early

Unless a holiday has some direct connection with the subject of the article, it’s as relevant as the weather. Particularly to be shunned are cheap and obvious efforts at irony: Just on the eve of Labor Day, Joe Sixpack got the word that his factory was closing and his job was gone.

The rhetorical question

Have you ever wondered where reporters get their ideas?

No I haven’t, and since I have no intention of proceeding to a second paragraph, I guess I never will.

The clumsy misdirection

Laura Snapdragon eats turtles by the dozen.

The chocolate, caramel and peanut candies, that is.

The that is serves to say, “Looky here: I made a play on words.”


Foom! Foom! Foom!

That was the sound of the rockets as they were launched into the night sky to burst into sprays of color to celebrate America’s birthday.

It’s recommended practice to avoid sound effects in the rest of the story, too.

The Jacobean gambit

For the love of Fowler, please do not ever attempt to imitate the language of the Authorized Version of the Bible (popularly the King James). You are apt to get the grammar wrong (the –eth suffix being grammatically proper only the with singular third-person form of the verb), or you will cloak some mundane secular phenomenon in the language of religion, giving offense to the godly.

The outdated allusion

As Jimmy Durante used to say, everybody’s trying to get into the act.

The reader doesn’t know what “the act” is, and, unless you have confirmed that your audience is geriatric, the reader is probably clueless about the Great Durante, who climbed that golden staircase in 1980 and whose last appearances on television dated to the early 1970s.

It’s a good idea to write for readers who are alive today.

The disproportionate comparison

Though 1968 is best known for domestic turmoil and the war in Vietnam, it also has a local distinction. That year Baltimore County began trying to rewrite its regulations governing outdoor signs.

One of these things is not like the other. ...

Monday, July 20, 2009

Things I wish I hadn't seen

On Twitter: “What I will drink for my (first) 39th birthday: Candied bacon martini.”

In addition to bacon baked with brown sugar, it includes vodka, applejack, amaretto and — brace yourselves — maple syrup.

In The Baltimore Sun: An article with an inane “They’re not alone” transition from the opening example to the body of the story.

It’s such a hackneyed device that it can always — and should — be deleted without any ill effect on the story whatsoever.

On Facebook: A newspaper copy editor saying that he doesn’t look at his own paper on his day off, because he’s not going to let his employer impose on his free time.

There’s not a lot that can leave me gasping in my chair, but for an editor to announce publicly that he chooses not to see what is in his own publication, as if laziness and unprofessionalism were a matter of principle, undercuts the effort of years to establish that copy editors should be taken seriously.

At You Don’t Say: Posts last week announcing that I had taped a recording for the weekend’s On the Media program on National Public Radio.

Evidently the producers of the show decided that I was not particularly interesting, a judgment that should not stun readers of this blog, and chose not to air the interview.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How could this have happened?

There’s only one explanation: Mistakes were made:


Microsoft Vista

Jon and Kate Plus 8

Fanny packs: Perhaps the last thing that broad-of-beam Americans needed was an accessory that emphasized their girth.

Abstinence-only sex education

The Apprentice: And any other television program, contemplated or actual, featuring Donald Trump.

McDonald’s McRib


The Atkins diet: And the Metabalife diet, the South Beach diet ...


Knight Rider: All versions.

Jell-O shooters

Gladiator flip-flops: Actually, any flip-flops worn anywhere but to the shower or the pool.

Sport utility vehicles

Chocolate martinis: Actually any cocktail labeled as a martini containing anything other than gin or vodka and vermouth.


Friday, July 17, 2009

Two warnings

Be careful about what you write: Mike Memoli, one of my former students, now covering the White House for Real Clear Politics, sent out a tweet this week warning journalists to be careful what they say in e-mail, because that correspondence can be subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act.

The State in South Carolina got hold of e-mails to Gov. Mark Sanford’s staff by that means, and some of what came to light was not pretty.

Be careful about what you listen to: Unless the program directors have turned up someone more interesting in the past three days, a short interview with me on the parlous state of copy editing is to be broadcast on this week’s On the Media at National Public Radio.

The program’s Web site will help you find when the program is being broadcast in your area, and you can download the program from the Web site if it’s not possible or convenient to listen to the broadcast.

C'mon, AP, tell us about the Olden Times

It’s the little touches that make newspaper/wire service journalism look as if it was written exclusively for people who remember the Eisenhower administration. For your inspection, this Associated Press headline:

Senate saw carbon copy of courthouse Sotomayor

Feel free to mention in comments the last time you used carbon paper or saw someone use carbon paper. Full marks if you have had to explain to a child what a carbon copy is. Extra credit if you have had to explain to an adult what a carbon copy is. And please name any newspaper that was lazy enough to use the AP headline in the print edition.

And now I have a busy day of writing ahead and have to sharpen my quills.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Is nonlife threatened?

From The Baltimore Sun: The woman was being treated at the station for nonlife-threatening injuries and was expected to be taken to a local hospital, according to an MTA spokeswoman [emphasis added].

The woman, this sentence tells me, has injuries that are threatening nonlife. That, of course, is nonsense, and a reader would have to be thicker than a plank to understand the phrase as other than non-life-threatening injuries, with non modifying life-threatening. Still, it’s an awkward-looking construction, and I think I know where it comes from.

The Associated Press Stylebook says that the prefix non is generally attached without a hyphen. So a copy editor who applies “rules” without thinking will make sure that the reader gets nonlife-threatening.

But the AP says also to use a hyphen to avoid “awkward constructions.”

That would require judgment.

The substitution error

Yesterday I quoted Jan Freeman’s caution that errors involving homonyms are often merely errors of spelling, rather than the result of ignorance or defective education. A writer certainly knows the difference of meaning between then and than, she says, and the substitution of one for the other is a mistake in spelling.

Responding on Facebook to that post, Mike Pope called attention to a post on his blog about the categories of typos, which he lists as mechanical, language mastery, hard words, creative, and due diligence. I encourage you to follow the link to the post for his explanation of them.

Apart from the purely mechanical errors — I am a vile typist — a particularly vexatious typographical error to which I am prone is one that Mr. Pope does not specifically address. Writing earlier this week at Regret the Error about plagiarism, I got Chris Anderson’s name right on first reference and subsequently transformed it to Curt Anderson. A sharp-eyed reader who noticed the errors suggested that Curt Anderson’s name may have been lurking in my head because he is a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

This substitution error, to give it a name, results when the wrong synapse fires and inserts in the text a more familiar name or common noun — not necessarily a homonym. Early in my career, for reasons I myself could not explain, I wrote mayor in a headline that should have said sheriff. The slot editor didn’t catch it either, and the paper had to run a correction the next day.* Such an error is particularly treacherous because the wrong word, being familiar, will look right and will not, usually, be flagged in spell-check.

When I tell you that everyone needs an editor, I mean everyone. I am just as fallible as you are, and, like other bloggers, I am working without a net here. The only thing you can do is to educate yourself in the kinds of error to which you are prone, or which the writers whose work you edit are prone, and to remain vigilant.

*That was in 1980. These are things that copy editors reflect on lying awake at four o’clock in the morning.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

It's just spelling

The estimable Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe, whose column and blog I heartily endorse, keeps encountering some kind of obstacle in posting comments here. This comment on misused words came in an e-mail, which I am pleased to publish:

I'm on a mini-campaign to get people to remember that "confusions" like there/there and then/than are not actually semantic confusions, like infer for imply or flaunt for flout, but simply misspellings. Of course I care about spelling, but the people who think a mistake like "bigger then me" means the writer doesn't know "then" from "than" are truly confused. I wrote about it (briefly) in January (with itals in original, of course):

True, then for than is a fairly common spelling error, and one that spellcheckers don't catch. Then and (unstressed) than sound almost the same, and like other homophone pairs, they can be hard to keep straight. But then for than, like principle for principal, is not a confusion of sense -- it's just a spelling error.

For some reason, though, the Confusable Words industry -- dozens of websites use that label -- wants to scare us into thinking of spelling mixups as serious misunderstandings. "Check your dictionary," they intone. "Use than to make a comparison. Use then when referring to time."

But this is ludicrous. The person who types "he's bigger then me" isn't accidentally using then, the word that refers to time; he's just spelling than the way it sounds. In fact, than was often spelled then until the 18th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. "I had rather be a doore keeper in the house of my God, then to dwell in the tents of wickednesse," reads the psalm in the 1611 King James Bible.

Should students (and journalists) learn to spell correctly? Of course. But there's no need to overreact. The writer who mixes up hanger and hangar needs a spelling tip, not a brain transplant. ...

Further distinctions

We’ll start out with some additions to the “Making distinctions” post and then proceed to odds and ends.

I meant to add there, their, they’re to the list of distinctions to be preserved. But the really interesting ones are the distinctions in transition. Please be clear about this: You’re perfectly free to observe these distinctions in your own writing — as I often do. But in editing, you should be aware that the ground is shifting under your feet and you don’t get to legislate from personal preferences.

Distinctions that are dissolving

enormity I’m trying to hold on to enormity in the sense of “a great evil.” It seems to me that once you have used it in the context of the Holocaust or the millions killed by Stalin and Mao, you trivialize the word by using it to mean merely something large. I also resist the “task of daunting dimensions” sense — the enormity of health care reform. But it’s almost certainly a losing battle.

hanged/hung Restricting hanged to execution by rope is another lost cause. (A wag, commenting on Facebook about the distinctions, said that there’s a cable TV show that explains it.)

lend/loan Loan as a verb is out there. It has been out there for centuries.

who/whom Whom is not dead yet, but it is increasingly feeble. Since the language appears to be moving steadily toward using who as both subject and object, the safe course for the skittish writer is to do just that.

Verdict rendered

A reader who has acces to a a listserve of Maryland criminal defense attorneys reports concern about the opening of an article in The Sun about the reporting of a life verdict in a capital case: “A federal jury on Wednesday failed to agree on a death sentence, sparing the lives of two convicted killers and showing them the mercy that they denied their victims.”

The reader asks: “Both the use of the verb “fail” and the last phrase were objected to as being judgmental. I opined that a lead like that wouldn't have gotten through in the “old days.” Was I right?

Fail suggests that the jury attempted to impose the death penalty but was unsuccessful, something that it is doubtful the reporter could have known. Neutral, factual language would have been preferable: A federal jury declined to impose the death penalty or, even better, A federal jury reached a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. ...

The mercy they denied their victims is one of those superfluous flourishes that writers think will juice up their dry reporting. Its effect is to telegraph that the writer thinks that killing people is a Bad Thing, which scarcely needs telling.

And, while I’m piling on, on Wednesday, at least in idiomatic English syntax, belongs after agree. Putting adverbs of time in the wrong place in sentences is an annoying journalistic tic.

Greek to me

This query arrived in an e-mail, and I have no idea what the writer is seeking.

What not to say to greeks?
I was thinking that your advice would be very helpful. I know you must be very busy so any pointers would be very much appreciated. A little advice would go a long way right now.

Maybe not to praise Turks?

On the air

I recorded an interview yesterday on the state of copy editing for National Public Radio’s On the Media. In Baltimore, you can hear it on WYPR-FM at 2:00 p.m. this Sunday. Then you can return to this blog and comment on how fatuous I sounded.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The diaspora of editors

In 1997, when American newspapers were still hugely profitable and it looked as if they might come to grips with this Internet thing, a respect for editing was on the increase.

That was the year that the American Copy Editors Society was founded, with the backing of senior figures in the newspaper industry. Within a few years, a number of major newspapers created the position of assistant managing editor for the copy desk (or an equivalent), to consolidate scattered operations, to achieve uniformity in editing practices, to make clear that editing involves more than formatting for typesetting and running the spell-check, and to give editing a voice within the high command.

You know what happened. The bottom fell out of the newspaper business model and a recession accelerated the decline. Increasingly, desperation and panic led to round after round of buyouts and layoffs. The wolves are closing in, and the children are being tossed from the troika.

Many of those assistant managing editors are gone — Melissa McCoy in Los Angeles, Kay Jarvis in Denver, Leslie Guevarra in San Francisco, Don Podesta in Washington, Merrill Perlman in New York. Kathy Schenck announced last week that she is leaving the Journal Sentinel in Milwaukee. Some of them were replaced after they took buyouts, but the position itself has sometimes been eliminated or restructured.

It is not just the ranking editors who are gone. Copy desks around the country have been decimated, and the practice is repeated in magazine journalism and book publishing. Decades of skill and experience have walked out the door, to teach, to consult, to write, to do public relations — but less and less to edit.

But I did not invite you into this post to sit on the ground and tell sad stories of the death of editing. There is work to be done.

As the economy slowly reconstitutes itself and journalism staggers blindly toward whatever its future will be, it is much more urgent than in 1997 to establish the importance of editing and to give editors a voice.

I see that ACES is working to find its footing again in training and retraining editors for the new environment, and I trust that it will continue reach out to editors and careers beyond newspapering.

The Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications will be meeting in Boston at the beginning of August, and Leslie-Jean Thornton of the Cronkite School at Arizona State has been inviting colleagues on Twitter to suggest ideas for the Future of Editing session. (You can also make suggestions here; I’ll forward them.)

The Poynter Institute is in the middle of a “Big Ideas” conference to sort out what is working in journalism and what avenues look productive. There’s a live blog.

Those of you who teach composition at the secondary or college level have the opportunity to make a substantial difference by showing your students that writing is more than mere self-expression, that accuracy and precision and focus and clarity can be achieved through self-editing, that precision in grammar and usage is an important skill to master.

Those of you who are readers should consider protesting shoddy work rather than shrugging it off. If an article — newspaper, magazine, online — is riddled with silly errors or shoddily constructed, complain. If the book you purchased is similarly sloppy, complain. I’m not giddy with optimism about the outcome, but I do think that over time, customers’ complaints can have an effect.

And those of you who have any authority over hiring, particularly in the growing online enterprises: When you get resumes that show experience in editing, pay attention to those candidates. They know useful things.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Murder and intelligent design

Over the weekend I was delighted to pick up at the library the twenty-fourth Gregor Demarkian murder mystery by Jane Haddam, Living Witness (Minotaur Books, 391 pages, $25.95). *

Living Witness, in which a small town in Pennsylvania is in an uproar over a lawsuit against the school board’s attempt to introduce intelligent design, is evidently inspired by the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District lawsuit in 2005, which resulted in a federal judge’s ruling that intelligent design was not a scientific theory but an attempt to introduce religion into the classroom.

Ms. Haddam has invested considerable time and attention to the debate over intelligent design, and she includes in the novel citations of the major books and Web sites that readers can consult for further information.

Her characters reflect the tensions entwined in this debate: the feeling among some evangelical Protestants that their faith is under attack by a hostile secular society, the apprehension of secularists that they are going to be subjected to theocratic rule, the often-unspoken class conflicts (small-town America against the influx of college-educated suburbanites), and everyone’s willingness to carry the fight into the courts.**

Unfortunately, she appears to have taken the intelligent design debate a little too much to heart. The vehement — indeed, strident — internal monologues of the paranoid Christians and secularists go on at some length and are repeated needlessly throughout the novel. It is only near the end that it seems to occur to her that there is a murder mystery to wrap up, which she does quite satisfactorily. While Living Witness has a great deal of good material in it, it cannot be said to be one of her more successful efforts.

I also note, with professional regret, the numerous typographical errors throughout the book, many of which have been corrected by a previous library patron. Apparently I am not alone in finding them irritating.

*For the uninitiated, Gregor Demarkian, a former FBI agent, lives on Cavanaugh Street, a small Armenian-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and consults with law enforcement agencies on baffling crimes. A running subplot through the series is his involvement with Bennis Hannaford, a member of a Main Line family and author of a series of best-selling fantasy novels.

**Let this stand for a personal comment on the issue, which you should feel free to skip.

I’ve read aloud the account of Creation from the opening of Genesis at Easter Vigil services for more than a quarter-century, but I do not believe that the earth is a flat disk or that there is water above the dome of the sky. Treating Genesis as science serves neither science nor religion well.

Christianity had to accommodate itself to a heliocentric solar system — it took time, and the prosecution of Galileo was ugly, but at least we don’t have lawsuits in federal courts arguing that the Copernican system is “only a theory.” The evidence for evolution has grown steadily more overwhelming for more than a century and a half, and in time believers will have to come to grips with that, too.

Science operates by consensus, subject to change. There was a long-dominant consensus on the Ptolemaic solar system, and the Copernican theory displaced it by argument from evidence. There is a broad scientific consensus on evolution, though there are disagreements about details of the process. If scientists are mistaken, the mistakes get worked out through argument from evidence. Attempts to impose a consensus through lawsuits or other governmental action are good for neither science nor law.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Politics muddles grammar

At Language Log this morning, Mark Liberman comments, “For most intellectuals today, grammar is no longer a tool of rational analysis, but rather a source of incoherent metaphor.”

The instance giving rise to the generalization is an episode of Keith Olbermann’s Countdown in which Margaret Carlson belittles Sarah Palin’s syntax in a statement that is flat wrong about Ms. Palin’s grammar. Professor Liberman suggests that interested readers might compare Ms. Carlson’s syntax and Ms. Palin’s. *

Also today, Headsup characterizes an NPR segment on “Orwellian” political speech as “a burst of semantic weirdness.”

Guest Joe Queenan said, “ ‘War on terror’ is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means.”

To which “fev” replies: “With all due respect, but — are you out of your mind? The great advantage of ‘war on terror’ is that it's anything but ‘very, very specific.’ It's everything from a metaphor to an actual shooting war, and it happens everywhere from the Afghan-Pakistan border to whatever those suspicious neighbors of yours are up to behind the curtains there. It means vastly different things to different members of the audience. That's why — at least partly why — it works so well.”

There should be considerable benefit in a close analysis of the things public officials say and the way they say them — particularly the resort to euphemisms and code words. But to accomplish this requires knowing something about the language beyond casual use of technical terms for effect.

* Language Log also explored the shakiness of commentators’ grasp of grammar when Geoffrey Pullum demonstrated that Charles Krauthammer doesn’t appear to know what the passive voice is.

Summer Saturday catchup

A miscellany.

More pointless distinctions

Having cheerfully bashed The Associated Press Stylebook for its persistence in maintaining obsolete or ill-advised style rules — and I’ll gladly do so again — I am equally happy to point out that the stylebook no longer maintains the archaic distinction between pupil and student. It’s a distinction, that pupils, up to the level of secondary education are being instructed and high school and college students learn independently, I held on to at The Sun long after its usefulness had passed.

One can still receive an occasional complaint from some elderly party about a headline referring to children as kids. (Is that “Mairzy Doats” I hear playing in the background?) “Kids are goats, not children,” the complaint invariably runs. I explained this once to my students at Loyola, and they gaped at me as if I had finally gone around the bend. Kids might still look a little colloquial in the context of a deeply serious story, but a term in universal use by parents and teachers cannot be ignored.

A legacy of Wikipedia

In Canada, a new educational term has popped up: Wikipedia kid. According to Word Spy, a Wikipedia kid is “a student who has poor research skills and lacks the ability to think critically.” Thanks to Lori Kasenter for the citation.

Ask the Times

Time got Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times, to respond to ten questions posed by readers. The tenth question: “Why is the Times so anti-American?”

I assume that if there had been an eleventh question, it would have been this: Has The Times stopped beating its wife?

Restless leg syndrome?

An article in the latest Columbia Journalism Review describes someone as sitting “with legs akimbo.” Akimbo describes a posture with hands on hips and elbows extended. Visualizing “legs akimbo” calls up some kind of yoga posture that is painful to contemplate.

Still could care less

A reader commenting on the “Making distinctions” post takes me to task with a familiar complaint:

You are dead wrong yourself on "could care less" and "couldn't care less." The former is a corruption of the traditional one. When one says "I could care less" he is saying that there are things for which he could care even less than the thing for which he could care less. When he says, "I couldn't care less," he is saying that that thing is the least of his concerns. Many of the things you say are perfectly correct are not in fact correct at all. These disappearing distinctions of language are what make modern speech incomprensible to some people and invite the destruction of the rules of grammar and syntax. I'd say Shame on you, but for the few things you got right. How on earth did you ever teach copyediting at Loyola? Well, then again, I guess it's silly to ask, if one considers the condition of language in print today.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage comments:

The reason why* the negative particle was lost without changing the meaning of the phrase [emphasis added] has been the subject of much speculation, much of it not very convincing. No one seems to have advanced the simple idea that the rhythm of the phrase may be better for purposes of emphatic sarcasm.

Bryan Garner disagrees, finding could care less “sloppy,” and here I have to part company with him. In the hundreds of times I have heard the expression could care less, I have never once understood it in the literal sense, and I’ve never heard anyone express confusion over the speaker’s intent. The objection to could care less is always that it is not logical. That is because it is an idiom, an expression in which the meaning can’t be understood from the literal sense of the component words.

If the commenter remains puzzled, he or she is welcome to sign up for my class at Loyola, CM 361, Copy Editing, Tuesday and Thursday, 9:25 a.m.


A reader solicits a “reaction to the use of the word ‘wannabe,’ as in ‘wannabe gang member,’ in the Metro section of the Wash Post last week. It struck me as a bit too informal, but I wonder if this was an example of careless editing or a perhaps a more formal and accepted use of the word. OED lists its use, of course, in newspapers, but the word seems to be used in sections of the paper less formal than the Metro section.”

There’s no question that the word, originally a colloquialism, is making headway in print. There is a good reason for that; it expresses useful distinctions of meaning. If The Post had referred to “an aspiring gang member,” the phrase would have conveyed the sense of someone who has an ambition that has not been fulfilled. But wannabe carries not only the sense of aspiration but also that of pretense — someone unsuccessfully imitating a role. The more traditional term is would-be, but I don’t think that it carries quite the same intensity of scorn.

A classic comment

Bill Walsh of The Washington Post, in a succinct post on Facebook:

Bill Walsh assures the assignment editor that the 60-inch story he gave us five minutes ago is probably still in the copy editor's hands.

What oft was thought, but ne’er so well express’d

*Oh, good Lord, Merriam Webster’s says the reason why. Obviously worthless as an authority on usage.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Calling all subs

Susan Keith, a professor of journalism at Rutgers and a colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, is at work on a project on the state of copy editing/sub editing in the English-speaking world, and she appeals for help:

I'm attempting to interview several copy editors each from the U.S. and Canada and sub editors in the U.K., Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Locating copy editors in the U.S. hasn't been a problem, of course, and I've made some contacts in Canada and among the gregarious Aussies. But I'm still trying to identify sub editors in the U.K., Ireland and South Africa.

Here is a fuller description of the project:

If anyone from this blog’s international audience would like to assist Professor Keith, here is her e-mail address:

Professor Keith adds that “there's no need for copy/sub editors to be identified by name or newspaper in my study. I understand that many people might not want to speak, for attribution, about conditions at their workplaces, so I can keep identities confidential.”

A personal note

This is the eight-hundredth post of this blog, begun in a burst of optimism and exploration in December 2005. This week Gannett is discharging more than a thousand employees, and word of the fate of colleagues around the country — people I’ve met through conferences and workshops, people whose worth I know and whose work I value — is beginning to trickle in. And the fate of those left behind is hardly to be envied. I hope that Professor Keith’s study will help to illuminate the situation as journalism gropes its way toward a new path, but just today I lack the heart to say anything further.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A new Garner

Thank you, @mbrockenbrough, for word that the new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage is forthcoming.

The third edition, due out this month from Oxford University Press, includes a language change index, which, the publisher says, “registers where each disputed usage in modern English falls on a five-stage continuum from nonacceptability (to the language community as a whole) to acceptability, giving the book a consistent standard throughout.”

Mr. Garner is of the tribe of reasonable prescriptivists. His advice is clear and sensible, though you are, of course, not bound by it. You should, however, pay attention to what he says before you disagree.

This is one of the reference books than any editor serious about the craft should have near at hand.

A disclosure: I was one of people from whom Mr. Garner solicited comments on portions of the new edition.

Making distinctions

Part of the copy editor’s responsibility in achieving clarity and precision of prose is to honor nuances of meaning. The trick is to know which nuances are meaningful and which are not — especially as usage shifts over time. Things that you were taught at the beginning of your career may no longer be valid.

Here is a guide to distinctions of usage that are worth preserving, and some that are not. You disagree with me, you know what comments are for.





between/among Provided that you understand that between can be legitimately applied to more than two parties in some contexts.


criteria Plural only.




imply/infer A writer who does not understand that these are opposite actions should be set straight.

its/it’s Observing the distinction remains a mark of literacy and attention to detail.


phenomena Plural only.

As a conjunction it still sounds colloquial.


raise/rise Former transitive, latter intransitive.


unique For one of a kind, not merely rare.




Since the easiest thing for the author of a usage manual or textbook on copy editing can do is to copy what was in a previous edition, fossilized preferences last a long time. But sometimes it is most prudent to conclude that nothing is to be gained by fighting lost battles.



career/careen Career, for moving recklessly at high speed, has just about vanished.

compare to/compare with

data Increasingly common a singular.

different from/different than

disinterested/uninterested To my profound regret, this one has largely gone away.

due to For because.

everyone/their Prohibition probably best abandoned altogether.


finalize For to complete.

graduate As a transitive, e.g., She graduated high school.


lie/lay Stand firm if you must, but the language is moving away from you.

media Increasingly common as a singular.

shall/will The former is slowly vanishing from both speech and writing.

that/which Could go in the following category. You may well want to use that only for restrictive clauses and which only for nonrestrictive clauses, but that is a personal preference, not a rule of usage.


No one cares that Mrs. Poindexter humiliated you in class in the sixth grade over
using none with a plural verb. She was dead wrong then, and probably dead now.

could care less/couldn’t care less The former is an idiom that no one misunderstands.

hopefully Perfectly idiomatic as a sentence adverb.

however Perfectly acceptable at the beginning of a sentence.

none As a plural. Can be either singular or plural, depending on context.

over/more than

since Acceptable for because. See the comment at the beginning of DISTINCTIONS THAT ARE DISSOLVING. If it didn’t bother you there, it shouldn’t bother you anywhere.

that Can be used in place of who without doing violence to the language.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The AP Stylebook: Repository of extinct rules

A correspondent with a stronger stomach than mine follows the AP Stylebook’s “Ask the Editor” feature, where she found this exchange:

Q. I've found that the online version of the AP Stylebook frequently does not adhere to AP rules regarding "over" and "more than." For example, on your home page for subscribers, there's a reference to "over 450 entries." I've seen this type of error several times in your online stylebook. The printed version always is accurate, however. What gives? – from Salem, OR on Thu, Jul 02, 2009

A. The home page now says: More than 460 pages, updated annually. Thank you for the reminder.

[Sound of steam escaping under pressure]

If the editors of the stylebook choose to waste their time on this, well, I have no authority over them. But their devotion to time-wasting non-rules — I won’t call it obstinacy — has unfortunate effects on the craft.

Somewhere today, one of our last surviving copy editors, a species more endangered than the Javan rhinoceros or the Kemp’s Ridley Turtle, is changing an over to more than and imagining that that constitutes editing. It is not. It is rather an adherence to what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls “a hoary American newspaper tradition” dating back to William Cullen Bryant, despite over and more than having been used interchangeably in English since the fourteen century.

Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “There is no reason why you should avoid this usage.” There is also no reason that the AP should continue to trot put this pointless dictum. And there is absolutely no reason that a hard-pressed copy editor should pay any attention to it.

What comes after plagiarism

The Colorado Springs Gazette has dismissed a student intern, Hailey MacArthur, after determining that she plagiarized material from The New York Times in four articles published by the Gazette. The examples that Jeff Thomas, the editor, quoted in his public apology to readers are blatant and damning.

One has to wonder whether this intern was uncommonly bold or uncommonly stupid. To lift material from any source in the Internet age is risky; to do so from The New York Times virtually invites discovery.

But the questions don’t end there. Hailey MacArthur is a student in the University of Florida’s School of Journalism and Communications. Today, Mindy McAdams, who is on the faculty at Florida, retweeted this question: “Should j-school allow plagiarist to return to school?”

This is both a technical and philosophical question.

The school’s policy on plagiarism resembles the codes at many colleges and universities. It includes this warning: “Failure to uphold the standards of academic honesty will result in a failing grade for the course and, potentially, other serious disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.”

But unless Ms. MacArthur was receiving college credit from the internship, she was working outside the university. Does this policy — can this policy — be applied to a student’s actions off campus?

Apart from whatever disciplinary action the school may or may not see fit to carry out, it is not just Ms. MacArthur who has a problem. So does the School of Journalism and Communications. If it is reluctant to ruin a student’s career, if it does not want to say that youthful mistakes are final, if it finds a promise of contrition and reform persuasive and allows her to continue toward a degree, a shadow will linger over its programs.

Expulsion is the nuclear weapon at a university, and it is always a difficult matter to decide whether to use it. Happily, it’s not my case to adjudicate. Or yours. But you should feel free to express your sentiments on the matter.

*Plagiarism, of course, has been a perennial college problem. In 1978, when I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a professor in a large lecture section of the sophomore survey of British literature, a dubious paper turned up. We didn’t have time to run down sources, so we announced to the class that there would be a delay in returning that set of papers because we were investigating a potential case of plagiarism. By the next class session, five students had dropped the course.

The extent to which theft is commonplace at publications great and small is indicated by Craig Silverman’s annual plagiarism roundups at Regret the Error. Here’s the collection for 2008.

Watching our language

If you have not heard Geoffrey Nunberg’s commentaries on language at NPR’s Fresh Air or read his op-ed essays in various newspapers, you can now catch up: He has collected more than fifty of them in The Years of Talking Dangerously (Public Affairs, 265 pages, $18.95).

Professor Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is a refreshingly direct and clear writer with sensible and straightforward views about the ways we write and talk. His writing is so irresistible that I am resorting to the lazy reviewer’s expedient of simply quoting him extensively.

Much of the book is given to a discussion of political language.* “[M]y guess is that when people look back on the language of the early years of the twenty-first century, the first thing that will come to mind is the political vocabulary—well, that and the language of real estate—just as the sixties evoke the language of rock, drugs, and disaffection; the seventies evoke the language of disco and New Age; the eighties evoke management jargon and Valley Girl slang; and the nineties evoke techno-talk and fit-speak.”

The “collapse of the language of the right” by the time of the 2008 election, he says, resulted from “a kind of structure fatigue, brought on by the strain of spanning the increasing distance between its literal and symbolic meanings.”

Take torture, which Professor Nunberg wrote about in 2004 after the Abu Ghraib revelations: “Torture is torture is torture, as Secretary Powell put it. If you find yourself having to draw fine semantic distinctions here, you’re already way over the line.”

Political commentary has given us a group of stock figures who turn out what Professor Nunberg calls political smut, “malicious aggression that pretends to be mere naughtiness.” “When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter or O’Reilly, or James Carville, there isn’t a one of them who couldn’t be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey—the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.”

But it’s not all about politics:

On spelling bees: “The national Spelling Bee is one of those odd competitions that turn an ordinary activity into a high-performance event, like extreme ironing.”

On blogs: “[T]he blogging world sounds less like a public meeting than the lunchtime chatter in a high-school cafeteria, complete with snarky comments about the kids at the tables across the room.”

On electronic books: “Reading Proust in a browser window, I once observed, is like touring Normandy through a bombsight.”

On Wikipedia: “...what most journalists and scholars regard as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all the time. By ‘rely on,’ I don’t mean just for doing ‘preliminary research,’ which is how academics always say they use Wikipedia, in the same tone they adopt when they cop to glancing at People in the dentist’s waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of information.”

More on Wikipedia: “Reading the entry on the English language, for example, I think of what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said about a paper submitted to a journal: ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.’ ”

On teens and new writing technology: Newspaper articles combine “three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: ‘the language is going to hell in a handbasket’; ‘you’ll never get me into one of those newfangled things’; and ‘kids today, I’m here to tell you. . . .’ ”

On moralistic pronouncements: “If intelligence consists in being able to make fine distinctions, then it stands to reason that moral absolutism tends to make you stupid.”

No fear of stupidity in this book. It is worth your time.

*I do not want to turn this into a political blog, but political discourse is not only widespread, but it also leaks into other areas and cannot be ignored. That much of Professor Nunberg’s commentary is on the language of the right reflects, as he says above, how pervasive conservative speech and thought were during the years these essays were written.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Other voices

Item: If yesterday’s post about the increase in errors attendant on the reduction of copy desk staffs interested you, then you should certainly pay attention to the additional insights at Words at Work and Headsup.

Item: If you were intrigued yesterday that Peter Bronson of The Cincinnati Enquirer posed a bogus photo of Sen. Al Franken and, after being informed that it was a clumsy fake, left it on his blog while saying that it looked like something Franken would have done, you will like today’s report from the Cincinnati Beacon.*

Mr. Bronson has somewhat belatedly issued an apology, and the offending photo and the entire post it accompanied have been deleted from The Enquirer’s Web site. Either publicity of the matter has awakened Mr. Bronson’s latent scruples or someone at The Enquirer is concerned about the publication’s integrity. Either would be a welcome development.

Item: Achievement is all well and good, but it is failure that sticks in the mind. If you want a headline to be memorable, get it spectacularly wrong (“DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN”). If you want to be remembered as a copy editor, insist on something really stupid. Language Log, where there is glee at the excesses of the copy desk, presents a classic case today. Perhaps the story is even true. But even if not, the reputation will stand.

Item: Mighty Red Pen has discovered a generation gap, two spaces wide. If you put two spaces after a period, you almost certainly developed the habit on a typewriter. If you put one, you swim in the current of the electronic era.

Item: The Education Fund of the American Copy Editors Society has linked with GoodSearch, a search engine powered by Yahoo that donates half its advertising revenue to worthy causes, of which the Education Fund is emphatically one. Since you were going to look for things on the Web or shop anyhow, you might as well do so on GoodSearch, identifying the ACES Education Fund as your preferred charity.

*I was not aware of the Beacon until yesterday and have no knowledge of its authors or connection with them. Their irreverence toward The Enquirer is pronounced.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Might be imagined by some people to be true

Peter Bronson, a writer at one of my former employers, The Cincinnati Enquirer, has published on his blog, Bronson Is Always Right, a photo of Al Franken, the new junior senator from Minnesota, in diapers, hugging a teddy bear. This illustrates, Mr. Bronson suggests, what the nation can expect from Mr. Franken on health care.

One problem: The photograph is a fake, clumsily doctored. Another problem: That the photograph is a fake has been documented in Mr. Bronson’s own newspaper. (Thanks to The Cincinnati Beacon and Romenesko for the information.)

Mr. Bronson has responded on his blog:

Yes, the photo of Franken in a diaper was apparently altered. But it’s not exacly a big reach to believe it could have come from one of his SNL skits. It resonates because people find it easy to see Franken that way.

When I was a brown-haired lad first learning the copy editor’s craft at The Enquirer, the paper did have some peculiarities — it once gave its editorial endorsement to a communicable disease — but those of us in its employ were expected to publish things that were, so far as we could determine, true.

Publishing something demonstrably false with the feeble explanation that it’s the sort of thing that some people might well imagine to be true lacks — what do you want to call it? — journalistic integrity.

The bogus photo is still featured on the blog.

Surely it can't be that difficult to discover genuine photos of Mr. Franken looking ridiculous.

We told you so

Andrew Alexander, ombudsman at The Washington Post, conceded ruefully in a column over the weekend that reduction of the number of copy editors has materially increased the number of errors in The Post, some of them really embarrassing. “A story on Arlington County's plans for the old Newseum building misspelled Rosslyn as ‘Rossyln’ four times. ... Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter was described as a ‘ferocious’ (instead of voracious) reader.”

You may recall some of the claptrap leading up to this New Media Age — that employing copy editors for multiple checks of stories was an outmoded industrial process, that without copy editors reporters would become more accurate because they would be more responsible. Now you are beginning to perceive one of the realties of the New Media Age — a proliferation of errors in text, some of them minor, some of them egregious, all of them irritating to readers. (Mr. Alexander takes their calls.)

What may be a less readily apparent is a deeper degradation of quality. With the reduction of the number of “touches” by originating editors and copy editors, articles are not getting the attention they need. Stories that lack clear focus or betray slipshod structure are getting through to the reader because they are not being adequately challenged by editors.

It would not be surprising to register increases throughout the business in plagiarism and fabrication as well, because some of that used to be caught by editors whose functions went beyond mere spell-checking and formatting.

Mr. Alexander’s explanation is commendably candid: The Post, like virtually every other metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States, is suffering financially and has reduced costs by cutting employees. He doesn’t pretend, in the cant spooned out by apologists, that eliminating those “touches” in editing will somehow improve the quality of the product.

He quotes Chris Wienandt, president of the American Copy Editors Society: “If readers can't rely on our accuracy, why should they even pick up the paper?” That is the problem that haunts the industry, which is asking its customers to buy a product with reduced scope and reduced reliability. I have no better idea than the people who still have offices how journalism will proceed, but I don’t think that what comes next will be worth much if it continues to devalue editing.

They're so ignorant they bore me to death

One of my correspondents is irked by the word ignorant as it is used in Baltimore:

People in Baltimore, and perhaps elsewhere, have a habit of using “ignorant” when they mean “mean” or “rude”. I don't know if you have ever addressed this. It drives me crazy.

Example: Monica slapped her in the face. That was just ignorant.

I content that Monica knew what she was doing and ignorance was not a factor.

I can’t speak to the Baltimore version, but I can describe a parallel regional usage.

We expect our pejoratives to carry a good deal of freight on board. They have to work for a living. In Kentucky, when my grandmother, Clara Rhodes Early, remarked in one of her characteristic expressions that someone was “just as ignorant as a hog” — what, you thought I got to be captious apart from family influences? — she did not mean that the person was uneducated or stupid. Or rather, not merely uneducated or stupid. “Ignorant as a hog” came with class connotations as well. It suggested a lack of initiative or responsibility. It suggested lack of respectability. It suggested “not our sort.” It suggested, without quite specifying, “poor white trash.”

Another of my grandmother’s regional expressions in which a pejorative shifted its root meaning was “bored to death.” But “bored me to death” had nothing to do with tedium. It meant public embarrassment: “When Danny Ray let out that belch in the middle of the pastoral prayer, it just bored me to death.”

To round things out, the use of just in such cases as an intensifier of emotion, meaning “certainly,” is also common in the Commonwealth.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

The chattering classes

A holiday weekend bonus post: People need to shut up.

Last night Kathleen and I went to Oregon Ridge Park for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s Fourth of July concert and fireworks display.* No one would expect people sitting on folding chairs or lying on blankets on a hillside to observe the same decorum as in a concert hall, but still. . . .

There was the woman who conducted a conversation on her cell phone throughout the performance of Charles Ives’s variations on “America.” (She also continued to smoke after the announcement requesting the audience not to.)

There was this penetrating exchange directly behind us:

Voice 1: “I didn’t know you liked popcorn.”

Voice 2: “Love it.”

Voice 3: “You didn’t know that?”

I’m not certain, but it seems likely that Voice 3 was also the source of some impressive percussive effects with chewing gum.**

Of course, people are conducting banal conversations in the concert hall, at the movies, loudly, over cell phones, in the street. And at church.

There used to be a convention that people entering a church before a service would sit down quietly, to pray, to listen to an organ prelude, or simply to settle themselves calmly. No more. I’ve attended services in recent years in Episcopal churches that were noisier than hotel lobbies. And it is by no means the heedless young who are chattering away; the heedless young don’t go to church.

The prospect that someday someone in authority will authorize the use of cell phones on airplane flights leaves me sweaty with fear.

The social and cultural changes that have produced this incessant chin-wagging are probably irreversible, and certainly not by the comments of a lone blogger.

But still, you few who read this, give it a rest. Sit quietly. Listen to the music. Follow the progression of your thoughts inside your own head for a while. Declare your independence from the noisy.

*And on Friday night we had dinner with friends. After spending most Friday and Saturday nights since 1980 producing newspapers, I’m becoming a gadabout.

**I’m aware that the musical content of these concerts is negligible. There were some nice touches: a thirteen-year-old delivering a stunning rendition of the national anthem, the Ives, a couple of Sousa marches. Apart from that, a medley from Carousel, a schlocky arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” and the “1812 Overture” — a work despised by its composer that commemorates the defeat of a totalitarian despotism (Napoleonic France) by a monarchical despotism (czarist Russia) and which has become an American holiday favorite simply because it was written to be accompanied by explosions.

Actually, we enjoyed the concert. I even managed the struggle to get off the grassy field where we and thousands of others parked with greater equanimity and less swearing than you would expect.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Shine on

You’d think that these jaded old copy editor eyes would have seen it all, given the monotonous repetition over the years of the set of errors to which journalists are prone. But the inventiveness of writers should not be underestimated.

This morning’s reading of The Baltimore Sun brought a bright new malapropism. In an article on a lightning strike and fire in the steeple of Bethel A.M.E. Church, this sentence was nestled:

City workers picked up stray shingles Thursday morning and that afternoon the sun shown through the damaged steeple to a newly cleaned sidewalk.

Shown for shone may not be original, but it is my first encounter with the error.

(The omission of the comma after morning to indicate a compound sentence, however, comes out of the set of common errors.)

Murder must wait

The editing function does not shut off easily.

Cruising through yesterday’s front-porch reading, Susan Hill’s The Pure in Heart, I stopped short at a reference to a doctor who was to fill in for another doctor about to give birth as a “temporary locum.”

British writers and readers are more enamored of Latinisms than American, and locum tenens, familiarly shortened to locum, is one that crops up regularly. A locum tenens locum, place; tenens, holding — is most commonly a priest or physician who is holding another’s place, filling in, substituting. So being a locum is inherently a short-term arrangement; “temporary locum” is redundant.

And now, back to our story.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Independence of thought, too

On this date in 1776, the Continental Congress effectively chose independence. July 4 as the date on which the assembly formally adopted Jefferson’s great Declaration got to be the holiday. But it was on July 2, which John Adams thought at the time would be the commemorated date, that delegates voted approval of Richard Henry Lee’s resolution:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Not to pull you away from your barbecue and the fireworks, but I have a suggestion for your commemoration of our national independence. Take some steps toward intellectual independence.

Presumably in response to my post “The Republic of Moronia,” Mike Pope has recommended a look at, a Web site that examines the accuracy of statements by officials and other public figures. If you want to check on how well President Obama has kept his many promises, or the peculiar statements to which Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota is given, PolitiFact will provide many moments of satisfaction.

You are not subject to a remote and unsympathetic sovereign, nor to an unrepresentative legislative body (unless you live in the District of Columbia). Neither should you be subject in the formation of your political opinions — indeed, your view of reality — to the half-truths and outright falsehoods with which you are bombarded daily. It is your job as a citizen not to be gulled by the self-serving misrepresentations of elected officials or the distortions and fantasies retailed by charlatans on the air, in print, and over the Internet.

Mr. Madison and Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton, however vigorously they disagreed on other matters, were united on this point: They wanted you to be an informed and independent thinker, because on your ability to make informed and responsible choices rests the fate of the republic they created. As Mr. Franklin said at the close of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, you have a republic — if you can keep it.

Pointing the finger

Please click over to Regret the Error, where you will find a short article, “You Don’t Say: Fixing the Blame,” about the issue of assigning responsibility for errors in articles. It explains why I find a writer’s “It’s not my mistake, but it’s got my byline on it” less than compelling.

Besides, it’s not polite to point.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Possessive pregnancy

A construction keeps turning up in the newspaper that I don’t usually see elsewhere, and it leaves me wondering what the apostrophe has to do with pregnancy. It goes like this: The driver was six months’ pregnant.

What was meant was clear when I was told that my severance package would include five months’ wages — that it would be the pay of five months. But six months pregnant would tell me that a woman has been enceinte for that span of time, and omission of the apostrophe seems just fine. So what degree of meaning is conveyed by making the term possessive?

I’m away from my books at the moment, filling out interminable and maddeningly duplicative electronic job applications, so I leave you this time with a question rather than an answer. Feel free to speculate.