Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Here comes the judge

Sharon Eliza Nichols boasts that she has more than 300,000 members on her Facebook group, I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar, and these valiant battlers against the forces of darkness have submitted more than 7,000 photos in judgment.

Now the two or three dozen of you in the English-speaking world who have yet to sign up for Facebook can have a limited access to this trove of photographic evidence of subliteracy by buying I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar: A Collection of Egregious Errors, Disconcerting Bloopers, and Other Linguistic Slip-ups (St. Martin’s Griffin, 146 pages, $9.99).

I myself have passed up the opportunity to sign up for the Facebook group. Having gone gray in more than thirty years of struggle against entrenched ignorance and slipshod writing, I have withdrawn to the last redoubt. No more flailing against the grocer’s apostrophe (MELON’S) or defective signage, e-mails and text messages, I huddle behind a few crumbling ravelins and revetments to defend what is left of published prose attempted in standard written English. No doubt Ms. Nichols and her sidekicks are younger and more agile.

What they have discovered is the abiding difficulty that people who write in English have with contractions, possessives, pronouns, and homonyms.

The it’s/its confusion crops up repeatedly. So does the your/you’re issue, as in this Highland Park Junior High School Sign:


(No doubt the ageless wisdom counterbalances the grammatical issue.)

Or this:


Some of the confusions are homonyms are deeply regrettable, as at a nursery that presumably had peonies for sale:


Or the bakery:


Or the restaurant:


Sometimes it is just tangled syntax:


But for my money, the most regrettable lapses occur with people who are attempting to be superior, as in this sign from the Village of Crestwood, Chester Stranczek, Mayor:


A lesson apparently yet to be learned by a protester carrying a handmade sign:


There is little doubt that we speakers of English are a judgmental bunch, quick to calculate our relative superiority or inferiority against everyone else who speaks or writes the language, and this book will give you a sense of that quiet, buoyant sense of superiority that is so much to be desired.

Good for you.

When you think you know something, come to me.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How dumb can you get?

Stupidity used to be defined, at least in Baltimore, by the guys who decided to rob a gun store on Harford Road in Parkville. They attached a chain to the barred window of the store, the other end to the bumper of their pickup truck. They intended to floor the accelerator and pull the bars out, smash into the store, and make off with a couple of armloads of guns before police arrived. But the bars held; the bumper gave way. In a panic, they sped off, leaving the bumper, with the license plate, attached to the chain. They were arrested the next day.

So it would take a lot to be dumber than that. But perhaps you have nominees.

Such anyone who refuses to drop the knife or gun when confronted by an armed police officer.

Or the dolt who published a “Should Obama be killed?” poll on Facebook — who can expect a visit from the Secret Service momentarily.

There’s the gentleman who posted his views on Facebook opposing Maryland’s new no-texting-while-driving law:

Not sure why I have to follow a law like this. I know how to text and drive at the same time and have not had any accidents as a result.

I feel so left out of the law making process in this state, so why should I follow laws that I didn't even have a hand in creating? Just sets up a funny social system...that's all. I guess people will follow the law because they are scared of the police and the legal system.

There’s a potential Darwin Award winner (as well as someone who apparently dozed during civics class).

Can you top these? Go ahead; try. Please, no nominations of people whose political views merely conflict with your own; I’ll delete those. It has to be something really, really stupid, and this great Republic surely boasts inexhaustible reserves of imbecility.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Your votes and patronage appreciated

Word arrived Friday that I have been nominated for a Mobbie, one of The Baltimore Sun’s awards for outstanding Maryland blogs. Voting begins today, and embarrassing as it is to engage in self-promotion, I am soliciting your support.

You Don’t Say is listed at the end of the Misfits catagory (natch), with a link allowing you to vote. There is also a link at the top of the site to allow votes for best overall blog. For reasons that I do not understand but which surely lie deep in Maryland’s electoral traditions, you can cast more than one vote — once a day until the polls close at 5 p.m. on Friday, October 9.

Should you not care to participate in this poll, offering me a job would be an acceptable alternative.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Purging the books

Every few years, it seems, some necessity demands removal of superfluous books from the shelves — or books that can be perceived as superfluous, if there are such things. When I was dealt a hand of aces and eights at The Sun in April, I had two cartons of books to remove from the premises. I can smuggle an occasional volume past Kathleen, but an additional bookcase would not escape her vigilant eye. Something has to go.

I am fifty-eight years old, and chances seem remote that I will ever make another run at Finnegans Wake. Off to the used-book sale at the Festival-on-the-Hill in Bolton Hill. Back editions of the Associated Press Stylebook are an easy choice.

But sentiment is hard to eliminate from these operations. I still regret having sacrificed the paperback edition of Philip Larkin’s High Windows that I bought in 1985 at Louie’s Bookstore Cafe while interviewing at The Sun, even though I have the contents in his Collected Poems. And despite the wreckage of my ambition to be an eighteenth-century man, I will not let go of Arthur Hoffman’s book on Dryden’s imagery or his late monograph on the plays of Congreve until I have to pack my bindle for the Old Editors’ Home. Professor Hoffman was a witty and engaging teacher of the old school, and he was kind to me. And I am not giving up Gibbon; one has to have something in reserve for retirement.

Discarding The Structuralist Controversy, however, leaves no pang.

Jane Austen and Barbara Pym stay, but perhaps it’s time to give up on Byron’s Don Juan. Nobody’s touching John McPhee or my ratty but complete paperback set of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries. But Gravity’s Rainbow, which I have started four times without ever making appreciable progress, gets the boot. Boswell and Johnson, you may have guessed, are secure. So are Edmund Wilson and John Cheever. And the poets: Roethke, Jarrell, Lowell, Wilbur, Hecht, Kumin, Van Duyn.

But a shadow looms over numerous others.

Some of these books I have carted from premises to premises since the 1970s, with good intentions, but it is in the nature of things that the Long Parliament sooner or later gives way to the Rump. Farewell, my lovelies.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Zombie editing

Once again this morning, The Sun published an article about someone who suffered nonlife-threatening injuries.* Life-threatening is bad enough, but something severe enough to threaten nonlife — zombies, please take care — must be extraordinary.

Applying the Associated Press Stylebook’s rule — that the prefix non is not hyphenated, except when it is** — requires a little thought, a little attention, a little judgment. Supplies of those qualities appear to be running short.

*Yes, I wrote about the same construction in July. They don’t listen.

**Thank you, AP.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Are you a closet Socialist?

Amid all the cries of “Socialism!” as the Congress has grappled with the problems of reshaping the nation’s health care system, I thought that it would be helpful to get a clearer idea of what the nation is up against. This would be particularly useful in identifying what used to be called “creeping socialism,” the insidious practices catching the citizenry unaware.

Accordingly, I took a look at the Socialist Party platform for 1912, the year Woodrow Wilson, nominated in sweaty Baltimore, defeated William Howard Taft. Amid a lot of boilerplate about workers and collective ownership, there were these platform planks:

[S]ecuring for every worker a rest period of not less than a day and a half in each week.

[F]orbidding the employment of children under sixteen years of age.

[A]bolishing official charity and substituting a non-contributary system of old age pensions, a general system of insurance by the State of all its members against unemployment and invalidism and a system of compulsory insurance by employers of their workers, without cost to the latter, against industrial diseases, accidents and death.

The adoption of a graduated income tax and the extension of inheritance taxes, graduated in proportion to the value of the estate and to nearness of kin-the proceeds of these taxes to be employed in the socialization of industry.

Unrestricted and equal suffrage for men and women.

The adoption of the initiative, referendum and recall and of proportional representation, nationally as well as locally.

The granting of the right of suffrage in the District of Columbia with representation in Congress and a democratic form of municipal government for purely local affairs.

The enactment of further measures for general education and particularly for vocational education in useful pursuits. The Bureau of Education to be made a department.

Citizens, be alert!

Today's word: egregious

Egregious (adj.) From the Latin egregius (surpassing, illustrious). Formerly excellent, outstanding, or distinguished. Now used almost exclusively to mean excessive, flagrant, or repellent.

It is always helpful to illustrate the use of a word. Yesterday, several sources (my spies are everywhere) brought to my attention the most egregious allusion to the September 11 attacks that I have ever seen in print.

An article by Karl Raymond, the sports editor of the Sun Prairie Star of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, was published with these opening paragraphs:

The nightmare of 9/11 will live forever in our minds and memories.

Fast forward eight years later and last Friday, Sept. 11 is a night the Sun Prairie High School football team, coaching staff and Cardinal fans hope can soon be forgotten. Dealt a 22-0 halftime deficit by Madison Memorial in a Big Eight Conference football game at Ashley Field, the Cardinals made an inspiring comeback in the second half but never fully recovered, falling to the Spartans, 22-14.

Please note the elements: the platitudinous opening sentence, the fast forward to cliche, the two clotted sentences that delay to the very end the magnitude (22-14) of this colossal defeat, and the utter, grotesque disproportion of the two events.

Bonus word of the day:

Execrable (adj.) From the French exécrable, ultimately from the Latin verb execrari (to curse). Of wretched quality, bad beyond description,

That someone would attempt such a comparison is monstrous enough, but presumably someone else displayed the execrable judgment to allow it to be published.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The downward spiral

Yesterday the Lexington Herald-Leader laid off Brian Throckmorton, who oversaw the copy desk. Mr. Throckmorton, an amiable colleague, is an energetic editor with good ideas and high standards. I have watched him conduct workshops on editing in mute admiration.

His departure is one more depressing instance of the purge of talent and ability taking place at the nation’s newspapers, and the consequences for those papers will not be good.

For an example of those consequences: The City/Region section of today’s Herald-Leader proclaims that it is published on Thurday, Septmeber 24.

No doubt many other marks of excellence can be discovered therein.

Punctuation without fear

Today is National Punctuation Day, one of those gimmicky holidays on which one can be jocular or sober or both. Last year I posted a sentence that incorporated the standard punctuation marks. This year, some practical advice.

The comma

By now you should have figured out where the comma is required, such as setting off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses, and where it is discretionary to mimic the rhythms of speech.

What some of you have not grasped, and I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room now, is the difference between a compound sentence and a compound predicate, because a lot of you habitually omit the comma in the former and wantonly insert it in the latter.

Attend, please:

When two independent clauses are joined by and, but, or or, separate them with a comma. The trumpet sounded, and the marchers set forth.

When a subject has two verbs, it is not necessary to separate the verbs with a comma. The trumpet sounded and propelled the marchers forward.

The semicolon

No one has written more vividly about punctuation than Nicholson Baker, whose 1993 essay, “The History of Punctuation,”* is reprinted in The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber.

The semicolon, he writes, the latest-arriving of the standard punctuation marks, is “even now subject to episodes of neglect and derision. Joyce preferred the more Attic colon, at least in Ulysses, and Beckett, as well, gradually rid his prose of what must have seemed to him an emblem of vulgar, high-Victorian applied ornament, a cast-iron flower of mass-produced Ciceronianism; instead of semi-colons, he spliced the phrases of Malone Dies and Molloy together with one-size-fits-all commas, as commonplace as stones on a beach, to achieve that dejected sort of murmured ecphonesis so characteristic of his narrative voice—all part of the general urge, perhaps, that led him to ditch English in favor of French, ‘pour m’appauvrir’: to impoverish himself.

“Donald Barthelme, too, who said that the example of Beckett was what first ‘allowed [him] to write,’ thought that the semi-colon was ‘ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’—but he allowed that others might feel differently. And still the semi-colon survives, far too subtle and useful, it turns out, to be a casualty of modernism. It even participates in those newer forms of emotional punctuation called ‘smileys’ or ‘emoticons’—vaguely irritating attempts to supply a sideways facial expression at the close of an E-mail paragraph—e.g., :-) and >%-(. The semi-colon collaborates in the ‘wink’ or ‘smirk,’ thus—;-).”

The dash* and the hyphen

Hyphens join; dashes separate.

When you make use of compound modifiers, as in Mr. Baker’s “one-size-fits-all commas,” make sure that each part of the compound is linked with a hyphen.

When you make use of a dash to indicate some discontinuity, some branching off from the main line of the sentence, make sure that you have a dash, not a hyphen. Take the trouble to learn how to make a dash in your word-processing software. (Those of you bold enough to embark on the subtleties differentiating the use of the en-dash and em-dash can resort to the Chicago Manual of Style. Should you not return by sundown, we’ll send out a search-and-rescue party.)

And, I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room again — sit up and pay attention — stop using all those dashes for mere parenthetical elements that could just as well be set off with commas.

The period

When you have said all you have to say, come to a stop.

*The essay is a review of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes.

**Mr. Baker devotes considerable space in his essay to his admiration of the nineteenth-century fondness for the dash combined with the comma, semicolon, or colon in the works of Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman, though, regrettably, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, “dash-hybrids are currently illegal in the U.S.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Take off your hat, sir

I was on the stand, testifying* in Baltimore County Circuit Court, when a man in a dark suit and a hat came into the courtroom and sat down. The judge stopped me and addressed the newcomer: “This is a courtroom. Take off your hat.” The man said, “Your Honor, may I approach?”

It turned out that the man in the hat was a lawyer scheduled to appear in a pending case. He explained that he had just completed a course of chemotherapy. “That’s all right,” the judge said; we don’t care how you look.”

“It’s not pretty, Your Honor,” the lawyer said.

“I’d prefer for you to take it off.”

”Are you threatening me with contempt?” the lawyer asked.

The judge backed off. If the lawyer had been Jewish and Orthodox, a head covering would not have been objectionable. And I assume that the judge preferred not to appear to bully a cancer survivor. The hat stayed on.

It was, however, a white hat worn after Labor Day, and a contempt citation on that ground alone could have been justified.

Gentlemen: I wear a hat, usually a fedora from September to May, a Panama from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You, too, may wear headgear, perhaps, despite your having attained adult years, a baseball cap. Let me give you some advice.

You may recall the song from Hello, Dolly: “I stand for motherhood, America and a hot lunch for orphans, / Take off your hat, sir, Betsy Ross’s flag is passing. ...” Uncover your head in church, at the library, at the opera, at table,** or at any other sacred place, unless you are Jewish and Orthodox, or Quaker. Take your hat off at the singing of the national anthem, or when a lady enters an elevator. You were not brought up in a barn.

Flannery O’Connor, asked repeatedly why the Misfit in “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” wears a black hat, finally snapped, “To cover his head.” That, indeed, is the function of the hat, to cover the head against the heat of the sun in summer and the chill of winter (because so much heat is radiated from the head in cold). Taking the hat off is a mark of respect in those circumstances where respect is advisable.

*My daughter, Alice, had taken her former landlady to Small Claims Court in a dispute over refunding of the bulk of her security deposit. Alice prevailed in Small Claims Court, and again on the landlady’s appeal to Circuit Court, because her heart is pure and her cause was just.

**It should tell you something that James Thurber once described the members of the Ohio Legislature as “the sort of men who fanned their soup with their hats.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Papers, please

In a jocular post the other day, I connected — and one reader cried “non sequitur”— high school students’ ignorance of basic information about U.S. civics and the uproar over illegal immigration. One reader commented:

"Illegal" should mean you don't qualify for anything to which legal American citizens are entitled. Why is this so difficult to absorb? The idea of anyone just showing up in another country and demanding what those citizens have is, to me, anathema.

The principle is simple and clear. It’s the reality that is not.

For one thing, many illegal immigrants are doing work that Americans prefer not to do, and doing it cheaply. I don’t hear anyone saying that illegal immigration is a good thing, but rather that it has become deeply intertwined with our economy. (Like the underground economy in which people, including citizens, get money on which they don’t pay taxes. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that, would you?) Disentangling it poses complications.

Assume that illegal immigrants could be expelled and further illegal immigration could be blocked. How much extra, then, are you willing to pay for produce at the grocery? For clean dishes in a restaurant? For clean sheets in a hotel?

That assumption in the previous paragraph that illegal immigration can be reversed and curbed, how far are you willing to go to accomplish that? We have already been paying a fantastic sum to build a wall across our southern border. But that is plainly not enough. How far are you willing to go in enforcement? How many businesses are you willing to shut down and employers to lock up over employment of illegal immigrants? How many additional federal immigration enforcement officers are you willing to pay for?

Or this: Are you willing to require every American citizen to carry an ID card containing a memory chip with personal data? That would make it simple to identify the undocumented. But with people screaming in the streets that the country will go Stalinist if everybody has medical insurance, I doubt that there would be much enthusiasm about being stopped regularly by police officers asking, “May I see your papers, please?”

What journalism — honest-to-God journalism, not the back-and-forth shouting on radio and cable television that passes for it — is supposed to do is to reveal and explain the complexity of the world, so that we can understand it and make intelligent and informed decisions.

That, incidentally, is also why it would be a good thing for high school students to learn how the country operates, so that they can recognize and understand actual journalism when they stumble across it, and perhaps even be a little less vulnerable to demagogy of all flavors.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Saturday morning

Saturday turns out to be a day to catch up.

Item: James Wolcott makes a graceful tribute to Samuel Johnson on his Vanity Fair blog, bringing a blush to my pallid cheeks in the process.

Item: Language Log linked to a Daily Telegraph article that attempts to identify the twenty worst sentences in Dan Brown’s oeuvre. It couldn't have been an easy task.

Item: If you were wondering just how America’s newspapers came to the brink of destruction, and what they might yet do in an attempt to pull back from that brink, have a look at Part 1 and Part 2 of Bill Wyman’s analysis. It was published a month ago, and I have only just gotten to it. It all rings depressingly true.

Item: Time follows its cover story on Glenn Beck with an article, “The secrets inside your dog’s mind.”

Sorry. Too easy. Moving on.

Item: Elizabeth Large asks readers of Dining@Large what people 35 and older look for in a bar’s happy hour. “A clean glass for my Metamucil,” one reader suggested. Having gone with Kathleen to the Best of Baltimore reception* on Wednesday, for a few bursts of shouted conversation amid the ear-splitting music and a lengthy period of meditation waiting — vainly — to see if a bartender would arrive within fifteen feet of me, I find resonance in her topic. If you do, too, go over there and add your comments.

Item: That’s how the day goes; I didn’t get this finished until Saturday afternoon.

*Thanks, guys, for the award. I was touched. And that missing hyphen in the headline — no biggie.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A copy editor's job description

My son, J.P., recounts that one of his high school classmates said of me that “he was the most intimidating of my friends’ parents, because his job was to know as much as possible.”

That is it: An effective editor can never know too much, and will never know enough.

To the books, citizens!

In the clamor over revamping the health care system, the term illegal immigrants is surfacing again. But before our good native-born fellow citizens hit the streets with their pitchforks and torches, they might consider the following set of questions.

These ten questions — all taken from the test that an immigrant must pass to acquire U.S. citizenship — were administered to a thousand Oklahoma public high school students. About three percent of them got enough correct answers to pass the citizenship test.* I entertain deep suspicions that those thousand Oklahoma high school students are not anomalous.

But I also doubt that raising this point will bring any measure of humility or restraint to the discussion of immigration.

What is the supreme law of the land?

What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?

What are the two parts of the U.S. Congress?

How many justices are there on the Supreme Court?

Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?

What ocean is on the east coast of the United States?

What are the two major political parties in the United States?

We elect a U.S. senator for how many years?

Who was the first President of the United States?

Who is in charge of the executive branch?

No, dammit, I am not going to give you the answers.

*The article about this experiment can be found here. Thanks, @Fritinancy, for the tip.

A personal note at the Johnson tercentenary

“Greek, sir, is like lace,” said Samuel Johnson; “every man gets as much of it as he can.” Fashions in men’s clothing and, sadly, learning have changed since the eighteenth century, and not all of Johnson’s advice remains applicable. But the great lexicographer, critic, essayist, and poet, born three hundred years ago today, has much to say that we would do well to hear.

One caricature of Johnson that has come down to us is the roaring Tory. He did “talk for victory,” and, in a sublime understatement in James Boswell’s Life of Johnson, he was “sometimes a little actuated by the spirit of contradiction.” But he was a complex personality, and deeply humane.

He knew what it was to be poor without a place to spend the night. He knew the grind of turning out hackwork for small pay. He knew the horror of depression and breakdown, and the fear of its return. He knew himself to be ugly, even physically repulsive. His struggles with his own disabilities and disadvantages gave him an insight into and sympathy with the struggles of other human beings.

In No. 14 of the Rambler he wrote:

Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues, which he neglects to practise; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself.

In No. 60, the great essay on the writing of biography, he summed up:

We are all prompted by the same motives, all deceived by the same fallacies, all animated by hope, obstructed by danger, entangled by desire, and seduced by pleasure.

Human life, he saw, was a struggle “in which much is to be endured, and little to be enjoyed.” His own career is mirrored in the famous line from his poem London:


And yet, all this granted, he had a genius for friendship, a relish of conversation, and — despite his self-condemnations for indolence and procrastination — an energy to take on and complete huge and complex tasks. One of the things that ring most true in Boswell’s grand biography is his image of Johnson as a gladiator in the amphitheater of his own mind, heroically combating the apprehensions that beset him.

Twenty years ago, in a vacation in London, I made a pilgrimage to the garret in Gough Square where, sitting in a defective chair propped against a wall, Johnson labored for nearly nine years to produce the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language, and I stood, my head bowed, for a moment at his grave in Westminster Abbey.

His work and his example merit our attention and respect.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The house across the street sits within a grove of trees. Two of the most prominent, a sweet gum and a tulip poplar, are beginning to change color, the former to scarlet, the latter to gold. Another neighbor has a yard of mature oaks. He harvests a hundred or more bags of leaves every fall, in addition to what the wind generously deposits on our property. But until yesterday I did not think that we were leafy.

Yesterday’s Sun ran an article about a man who was shot as he tried to rob an off-duty police officer in the “leafy Glenham-Belford neighborhood.” Now I know from long experience that the leafy neighborhoods (sometimes tree-shaded) in Baltimore are Guilford, Roland Park, and Homeland.* Leafy is a code word in journalism for well-off and respectable, often paired with suburban. It provides a contrast to the gritty neighborhoods where the shabby people shoot one another to no one’s surprise.**

I’d have to go down to Calvert Street and be shepherded through the tight security to the newsroom to look at the city map of neighborhoods with names that no one who lives in them uses, but I’m fairly sure that Glenham-Belford, wherever it is, is a humble middle-class neighborhood much like mine. And if I’m leafy now, does that mean that the city is going to raise my property tax assessment?

Perhaps applying leafy to Glenham-Belford was simply a mistake, a writing or editing error. After all, yesterday was also the day that The Sun published this headline: Vote comes / on heals / of ACORN / scandals.

One additional item: In the current Best of Baltimore issue, the City Paper has named me “Best Laid Off Sun Staffer.” Too kind.

(It would be ungenerous to point out the omitted hyphen in the compound adjective.)

*For non-Baltimoreans readers, those are the neighborhoods where the quality live.

**I’m not quite sure where the grit in those neighborhoods comes from, now that there is no longer any industry in Baltimore.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Last week the editor of the Maryland Gazette published a justification for using the construction may have laid down in the road on purpose. He published the sentence in that form because it was, he thought, clearer to his readers than have lain would have been. I referred briefly to authorities on the tangled history of lie and lay and said it was a defensible decision.

It turns out that I have turned my coat, betrayed the faith, gone over to the dark side. This from a reader:

John, this is too much.

First you said it's really OK to say "hopefully," and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said it's really OK to say "none were," and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said the AP Stylebook is not a very good guide, and I didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

Then you said Strunk & White is a poor guide, and I really didn't like that, but I accepted it, because I respected your knowledge.

But now an editor writes "have laid" instead of "have lain," and you say it's a defensible decision?

No. I'm sorry. I can't accept that. Stop retreating. Defend the goddamn language already. It's your job.

--A former copy editor

Hopefully was used as a sentence adverb for generations until, about thirty years ago, it flared up as a vogue usage and drew the misplaced scorn of people who object reflexively to anything that comes into vogue. None has been used in both singular and plural sentences as long as there has been English, as the Oxford English Dictionary, any reputable language authority, and even the Associated Press Stylebook (!) will tell you. AP style is useful for regularizing capitalizations and abbreviations, but its advice on language is erratic and occasionally downright erroneous. Strunk and White is dated and inadequate; any serious student or writer would be better advised to buy and ponder Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

Now, as to lie and lay: I maintain the distinction between the two verbs in my own writing, I teach that distinction to my students each semester, and I would not have made the decision that the editor of the Maryland Gazette did. But when one takes the trouble to examine actual usage, discovering that even the über-prescriptivist Bryan Garner holds that the battle is almost certainly lost, and noting that Mr. Hutzell of the Gazette sought language that would be familiar and comfortable to his readers, one can reasonably conclude that the decision was defensible, without endorsing it.

If you would turn your attention for a moment to the text of the story, consider these points:

That opening sentence of thirty-five words — An alcoholic homeless man who was run over and killed Tuesday night in Glen Burnie may have laid down in the road on purpose, an advocate for the homeless who knew him said this week — could have been rendered less wordy by omitting who knew him, which is established two paragraphs later in direct quotation, and this week, which, given the publication date of the paper, should be obvious.

The second sentence states that the homeless man was hit by an Ocean City man driving a van filled with his family members, but the detail about passengers, which would seem significant because of its placement high is the story, is not referred to subsequently. And the sentence says that the homeless man was killed after the van ran over him; I suspect that he may have died when the van ran over him.

The middle of the article is given over to a digression about homeless people hanging around a liquor store near the site of the accident, delaying further details of the accident for six paragraphs.

And the owner of the liquor store is granted anonymity for his comments. Why?

Letting have laid stet, along with She said she and several other homeless people in the area saw him lay in the road for several minutes before being hit, can certainly be challenged, but other elements in the story ought not be ignored. Editing should be more than quarreling about a disputable usage. It should involve curbing wordiness and inaccuracy, and organizing articles in a structure that makes sense to the reader. This article is not particularly bad; a reader can extract the information from it. But it is shoddier than it could be, and that shoddiness is representative of the decay of editing that I have been carrying on about for most of the span of this blog.

Saturday, September 12, 2009


On this date in 1880, Henry Louis Mencken was born. By the time of the stroke in 1948 that robbed him of the ability to read and write, he had produced an imposing oeuvre of reportage, essays, criticism, memoir, and linguistic research, and he had bestowed upon The Baltimore Sun a fame whose afterglow has not completely faded.

Quoting him is irresistible: “An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.”

Writing on Warren Harding’s inaugural address, he said that the president “writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up to the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”

He denounced chiropractic as quackery and then affected to worry that it might actually work, failing to “suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal.” Ever the stout libertarian, he continued: “If a man, being ill of a pus appendix, resorts to a shaved and fumigated longshoreman to have it disposed of, and submits willingly to a treatment involving balancing him on McBurney’s spot and playing on his vertebrae as on a concertina, then I am willing, for one, to believe that he is badly wanted in Heaven.”

In a letter to William Saroyan, he wrote: “I note what you say about your aspiration to edit a magazine. I am sending you by this mail a six-chambered revolver. Load it and fire every one into your head. You will thank me after you get to Hell and learn from other editors how dreadful their job was on earth.”

In Newspaper Days, his memoir of the no-holds-barred journalism in Baltimore in the early years of the 20th century, he describes how he and two other reporters, assigned to cover the docks of South Baltimore, increased their efficiency by repairing to a saloon and agreeing on invented details for the stories they would file. Their managing editors, monitoring the competition closely, noted the correspondences and praised the three for their accuracy. Thus, he said, he “took in the massive fact that journalism is not an exact science.”

It still isn’t.

Today is his birthday, and if you get a chance, lift a glass of pilsner to his shade.

Friday, September 11, 2009

A catholic taste

The mark of a mature taste is the ability to appreciate excellence in different forms — Carolina barbecue as well as steak au poivre. Thus, in proper appreciation of writing, one should be able to appreciate a writer who adheres to the most formal conventions of usage as well as one who writes colloquially with flair.

Here’s a parallel. I admire and appreciate the work that has been done in music with period instruments and period technique. I love the recordings that Nikolaus Harnoncourt and other musicians have done with the music of Bach, for example.

But once, more than thirty years ago, the formidable Lili Kraus came out on stage at one of the Mostly Mozrt concerts at Lincoln Center to play as an encore the Rondo Alla Turca from Mozart’s A-major piano sonata. She didn’t play it on some tinkly little reconstructed pianoforte; she banged out the bejeezus on a Steinway grand, and I can hear that glorious sound in my head to this day.

You have to be able to appreciate both.

Congress has a lot to learn

There was a brief brouhaha this week after the gentleman from South Carolina blurted, “You lie!” during the president’s address to Congress, with much pious commentary about decorum. Defenders of the gentleman from South Carolina reminded us that Democrats had booed President George W. Bush on more than one occasion — a defense rather like “those other kids did it first.”

What has been lost in this largely pointless exchange — and distraction from the national issue of health care ostensibly under discussion — is the pathetic feebleness of Congressional invective. “Boo!” and “You lie!” in the legislative body where the puissant John Randolph of Roanoke once commented that a prominent figure “shines and stinks like a rotten mackerel by moonlight.” (It is thought that Mr. Randolph was referring to Henry Clay.)

At Language Log, they are celebrating the invective of Paul Keating, the former prime minister of Australia whose comments in Parliament identified his opponents as, among other things, harlots, blackguards, brain-damaged, dullards, fools and incompetents, perfumed gigolos, unrepresentative swill, and stunned mullets. A commenter added this picturesque item:

One of Paul Keating's best insults came when he was berating the leader of the Country Party, who came from a family of undertakers. He described him as a man who had ‘accrued his wealth by stealing the pennies from the eyes of the dead.’*

When will the Republic elect legislators who can meet this lofty standard?

*Iambic hexameter. Classy.

You lie, you lay, you have lain

Thanks to a dispatch from a reader of this blog, I learned that a reader of the Maryland Gazette complained about the grammar of the opening sentence in a recent article:

An alcoholic homeless man who was run over and killed Tuesday night in Glen Burnie may have laid down in the road on purpose, an advocate for the homeless who knew him said this week.

The complaint, that laid should have been lain, prompted a defense from Rick Hutzell, the editor and, he says, “the ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling for the newspaper.”* In his defense, Mr. Hutzell wrote:

“... I made a conscious decision to use laid in the lead, or opening paragraph, and headline instead of the grammatically correct lain.

“While the transitive verb was called for, Strunk and White note in ‘The Elements of Style’ that laid can be used in colloquial or slang speech. Because lain is almost never used in common conversation, I felt its presence in the lead paragraph and headline would have been a stopper for most readers. I ran this by another editor, who agreed.”

Permit me to express regret that a fellow ultimate aribiter should use Strunk and White as a prop for his authority and, even more regrettably, confuse transitive and intransitive.

Perhaps if the revenues of the Maryland Gazette hold up, Mr. Hutzell could lay out $45 for the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage,** which would help him sort out transitive and intransitive and give him a little more support for his decision on laid and lain.

Bryan Garner explains that the nonstandard use of forms of lay in place of lie is very common in speech and that some commentators insist that it is not even an error. “But make no mistake,” he says, “using these verbs correctly is a mark of refinement.”***

On his new “language-change index” feature, Mr. Garner rates laid for a past tense of lie as “virtually universal” but “opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”

There you go, Mr. Hutzell, a defensible decision but a faulty explanation. It is never easy being an ultimate arbiter of grammar and spelling.

And catching up ...

Did you miss me during the past week? Preoccupied with new class preps and a series of freelance editing gigs, I lacked the time to post.**** So:

Item: Jesse Sheidlower’s The F Word is formally published. Maybe you say, “DILLIGAF,” a term you will find therein.

Item: On Twitter, @henryhitchings is marking the run-up to the tercentenary of Samuel Johnson’s birth (September 18) with a tweet-a-day quote. The first was Johnson’s decisive riposte to the hoary artists’ complaint that non-artists aren’t qualified to criticize their work:

“You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”

And subsequently, a salutary reminder to those of us who quibble over words:

“No word is ... intrinsically meaner than another; our opinion therefore of words ... depends wholly upon accident and custom.”

Item: Look at Headsup: The Blog for some prime examples of tortured journalistic syntax. Then ask yourself whether sheer bad writing might have something to do with the plight of newspapers.

Item: Belatedly but appropriately, the British government, in the person of the prime minister, has apologized for the unconscionable persecution of Alan Turing, which drove him to suicide. As a bonus, as Language Log notes, it is an illustration of a proper apology.

*I, too, was once such a tinpot authority. Ah, the bygone palmy days.

**About which, more in a future post.

***I am not a reader of the Maryland Gazette and so cannot comment on its degree of refinement or that of its readers.

****Dearly as I love you all, the freelance clients pay me, and you do not.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

A qualified endorsement of the press

George Chandler-Powell is a character, a surgeon, in P.D. James’s most recent novel, The Private Patient. At one point Mr. Chandler-Powell (British surgeons do not call themselves “doctor”) expresses views about the press:

“[F]rankly, I wouldn’t lift a finger to muzzle the popular press. When you consider the machinations and deviousness of governments, we need some organisation strong enough to shout occasionally. I used to believe that I lived in a free country. Now I have to accept that I don’t. But at least we have a free press, and I’m willing to put up with a certain amount of vulgarity, popularisation, sentimentality and even misrepresentation to ensure it remains free.”

Friday, September 4, 2009

No easy pun here about The Sun setting

Too preoccupied with various editing projects to blog much this week, I still got around to reading the Baltimore Magazine article by Evan Serpick about the parlous state of The Baltimore Sun, my former employer. I wish it had been better.

There is factual matter in the article about the precipitous drop in revenue over the past few years and the consequent reduction of the size and scope of the paper and of the staff — and the electronic version of the article corrects the blunder about the Seattle newspaper scene from the print edition of the magazine.

But I wish that Mr. Serpick had made more of an effort to put the newspaper’s plight in a broader context.

Yes, Tribune Company officials made decisions they came to rue in acquiring Times Mirror, and Sam Zell’s purchase of Tribune saddled the company with even greater debt and brought it into bankruptcy. But Tribune does not stand alone, as Mr. Serpick mentions casually but does not explore. The McClatchy Company, which bought Knight Ridder, may be at risk of bankruptcy, and Freedom Communications, the parent company of the Orange County Register, once a fabulously profitable newspaper, filed for Chapter 11 this week. Lots of colossi are teetering.

Similarly, Monty Cook’s efforts as editor of The Sun to develop “platform-neutral” articles for both electronic and print publication are hardly an eccentricity. Most other newspapers, watching their aging readership steadily decline, are struggling to find new readers and new advertising revenue on the Internet. What The Sun is attempting may not work, but no one else has come up with a better approach for a metropolitan daily.

But it is a series of remarks that I find most regrettable. The most regrettable is Mr. Serpick’s statement, “Many Sun staffers groan about Cook's incompetence and complain that he has tried to solve the paper's problems with endless redesigns.” You’ll note that Mr. Cook’s supposed incompetence is presented as a settled fact, for which the article does not provide substantiation. And two of most the recent redesigns were conducted before he became editor.

Then there are the anonymous comments, some bashing the editor, some scornful of the younger employees, some indignant about the older employees — exactly the sort of backbiting one would expect in a situation in which people are angry and fearful. But once again, they are assertions for which no support is offered. In my time at The Sun, the paper’s guidelines on anonymous quotations held that they could be justified only when they contributed substantially to the meaning of the story. These don’t.

Toward the end of the article, there is a perfunctory effort to look ahead, at such possible remedies as local ownership, about which I have previously expressed doubts, and David Simon’s proposal to erect a pay wall around newspapers — which has been greeted with widespread skepticism, one observer having suggested that Mr. Simon might make an HBO series about the failure of newspapers that take his advice.

Mr. Serpick is quite correct about the diminished state of a proud newspaper, suffering like many others from demographic, technological, and economic circumstances beyond any single paper’s control. He is correct that the remaining staff is struggling to weather the storm and navigate to calmer waters. But his article does not add much to what was already known.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Say 'Arrrrrrrr'

With International Talk Like a Pirate Day (September 19) just a couple of weeks off, here is an important reminder:

A pirate’s rhotic growl is rendered thus: Arrrrrrr, with the number of consonants at your discretion.

Arrrrrrgh is an expression of disappointment, distress, anguish. It is thus not appropriate for pirate talk and should not be confused with Arrrrrrr.

Please note this particularly for headline and caption purposes.

Peevologist psychology

The peevologist, a self-proclaimed expert on language, can be readily identified by certain key characteristics: a belief, stated or implicit, that the English language is in decline and being corrupted; much moaning about falling standards, often violated by identifiable groups, particularly the young; repeated brandishing of fetishes unsupported by linguistics, history, or practice (think of the split infinitive).

A post last week, “Musée des Peevologies,” offered some exhibits of peevology, and this week, as promised, we undertake a look at the psychological elements that contribute to full-blown peevology.

The teacher’s pet: The student who actually does the assignment and gives the correct answer earns the teacher’s praise. That praise being especially valuable if the student is a bookworm and inept at sports, coming up with the right answer every time becomes a powerful motivator. And when the teacher is a former teacher’s pet, grown up in the belief that there is always a right answer that the student can and should supply, the loop is closed.

The English major: The teacher’s pet who goes on to be an English major is ripe for seduction by High Modernism, with its doctrine that the greatest literary texts can be understood only by an embattled minority sensitive to nuance and allusion, and surrounded by the herd. That the prestige of majoring in English is close to nil (though still a notch or two higher than going into the School of Education) makes it necessary to hold even more firmly to that sense of being among an elect.

The copy editor: Once succumbing to journalism, job prospects for English majors being what they are and always have been, the developing peevologist likely fetches up on the copy desk. Copy editors (a dwindling species) focus on the minutiae of language, and the former English major is expected to be an expert on grammar and usage (though chances are excellent that he has never studied linguistics*). In this environment, the peevologist’s bent is reinforced by the copy editor’s conviction, echoing the lesson of the teacher’s pet, that there is always a right answer. Everything in editing is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong, as specified by the Associated Press Stylebook or some tortured exegesis of it.

The cranky old white guy:** As the arteries harden, so do the attitudes. There was, it seems, a golden age, usually dating from the peevologist’s youth or just before his time, when there were Standards. Those Standards are always being undermined, and the greatest danger comes from people who are younger than the peevologist, or of a different ethnic, cultural, or class background. The peevologist stands bravely on the ramparts, menaced by the barbarian hordes, and he will not capitulate. In plain fact, he is merely a snob.

H.L. Mencken, a gifted amateur student of the English language in its American version, was rightly skeptical of snobs and self-anointed authorities, writing in his monumental work, The American Language:

The error of ... viewers with alarm is in assuming that there is enough magic in pedagogy to teach ‘correct’ English to the plain people. There is, in fact, too little; even the fearsome abracadabra of Teachers College, Columbia, will never suffice for the purpose. The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and often without much insight. Their lives would be more comfortable if they ceased to repine over it, and instead gave it some hard study. It is very amusing, and not a little instructive.

We have English because some exceedingly plain people, a rabble of illiterate peasants, abandoned the standards of Anglo-Saxon, and English remains, like all other languages, what its speakers and writers collectively make of it. Linguists understand this, and they explore the mechanisms and richnesses of the language, as it is actually spoken and actually written. Reasonable prescriptivists, among whom I number myself,*** who aim to advise people how to write more clearly, more effectively, more elegantly, acknowledge this and labor to offer advice that is better informed than the misguided strictures of the peevologists.

*Actually, English majors and journalists (the latter group often with a less reliable education even than the English major’s) may never have studied grammar much in any form. Thus we can find people railing against the split infinitive who do not know what an infinitive is, or condemning passive voice in constructions that are not passive.

**Not to stereotype, but you must surely have noticed how frequently the peevologist is white, male, and middle-aged or older.

***The ready reader of this blog will have recognized how many dangerous personal traits I have struggled with to move toward such reasonableness.