Saturday, October 31, 2009

Before the urchins come clamoring for candy

Item: Wishydig’s recent post, “The English language in America is not threatened,” a point frequently made on these premises, quotes the text of a 1987 resolution adopted by the Linguistic Society of America saying that efforts to make English an official language are misguided and potentially harmful. It will repay your attention.

Item: At Language Log, Arnold Zwicky goes into the peculiar hostility to quotative inversion. At his own site, he examines the peevish hostility to the word blog. For the record, no objection to it here; You Don’t Say appreciates useful monosyllables.

Item: In a weak moment, I succumbed to the temptation to set up a Twitter site, @FakeWardCleaver. Thoughts?

Item: The article on Halloween mentioned in the earlier post “Is that a demon at the door?” has generated a vast number of comments, many of them amusing and some of them intentionally so. The ensuing uproar has moved the editors of Charisma to post a second article defending a Christian’s celebration of Halloween. The comments on the anodyne article are predictably less amusing.

Item: A well-wisher’s anonymous letter today — the one calling me “a thief and a liar” — celebrates the belated discovery of my having been laid off by The Sun six months ago and kindly suggests that as an alternative to eating canned dog food, I might buy a gun and kill myself. Actually, and thanks for thinking of me, I have other plans.

Item: Remember that you can use the GoodSearch engine to find things on the Internet while, if you make the ACES Education Fund your designated cause, funneling pennies to that worthy endeavor.

Is that a demon at the door?

Thanks to @word_czar on Twitter, I have had the opportunity to read what the Rev. Kimberly Daniels of Jacksonville, Florida, has to say about the dangers of Halloween. It is, she asserts, a pagan witch festival, a day devoted to Lucifer. Halloween candy has been prayed over by witches. Opening the door to trick-or-treaters invites demons into your house. There are things going on tonight beneath your awareness:

Sex with demons
Orgies between humans and animals
Animal and human sacrifices
Sacrificing babies to shed innocent blood
Rape and molestation of adults, children and babies
Revel nights
Conjuring of demons and casting of spells
Release of “time-released” curses against the innocent and the ignorant

(Revel nights? Revelry?)

Though you might have expected this to be the work of those scamps at The Onion, the Charisma Web site on which this article appears does not seem to be a satirical production. We are evidently meant to take this straight.

Therefore I will have to check back in a couple of months to see the Rev. Mrs. Daniels expose the Luciferian nature of Christmas.

Baby Jesus almost certainly did not enter the world on December 25 (or at Bethlehem, but that’s a different argument); the early Church appropriated the pagan solstice festival of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus) for itself. And everyone knows, or should be warned, that the Christmas tree, popularized in the English-speaking world by Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s German consort, is a relic of Teutonic tree-worship. You know that nasty things went on in those forests.

The Old One has his snares everywhere. (Could it be that Beelzebub planted this very article to make Christianity look ridiculous?) Watch your step.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Hungry for brains

My son has been inspired to trick himself out for Halloween this year as the title character from Shaun of the Dead, a 2004 zombie comedy whose charm has entirely eluded me. J.P. has acquired a cheap white short-sleeved shirt and a garish polyester necktie. He has lovingly reproduced the red ink stain on the shirt pocket and manufactured a prop cricket bat. A home hair dye job has been accomplished. He’s good to go.

It seems entirely apt, amid this seasonal enthusiasm for the undead, that the Audit Bureau of Circulations should have just released the latest depressing figures for the circulation of American newspapers. San Francisco Chronicle down a staggering 25 percent. The Baltimore Sun down about 15 percent from something that could not be described as a peak. Many others in bad shape. Our metropolitan newspapers increasingly look like our native zombie class, lurching down the street, searching — vainly — for brains.

Some of the drop may be temporary. Newspapers have always labored to manage a huge churn of subscribers, wooing readers with short-term, reduced-rate deals in hopes of retaining them. It would not be surprising that in the middle of a severe recession, with multitudes newly unemployed, customers trying to manage their finances would give up newspaper subscriptions.

But I fear that the decline represents something far more dangerous. As newspapers have frantically cut back on space and coverage and decimated their staffs to achieve savings, they have offered their readers less and less. And as they have also intentionally compromised standards of editing, what they do offer is often shoddy — slackly written and riddled with errors of fact. Manic efforts to redesign and repackage print editions appear in many cases to have alienated traditional readers without attracting new ones.

It has long been clear that demographics are running against newspapers: As readers of the older generations that still have the print habit relocate to celestial addresses, the rising generations won’t touch a daily paper with a bargepole. But the acceleration of the decline just recorded by the ABC suggests that newspaper management has contrived to cheese off many of the dwindling loyalists.

Whistling past the graveyard — also seasonally appropriate — some newspaper executives point proudly to increases in readership of their electronic editions. But Web advertising brings in only a fraction of what print advertising does, and it is far from clear that multitudes of hits on Web stories lead to the kind of return visits and reader loyalty that advertisers would find compelling.

Moreover, I’ve looked at a number of newspaper Web sites, wondering whom the management imagines they attract. Newspaper Web sites often look cluttered. Many are baffling to navigate if the reader is looking for a particular story, and on some I’ve given up even attempting to use the inadequate search function. You might think, with all their cant about forging closer ties with their communities, that they would make it easy to get in touch with members of the staff by providing both e-mail addresses and telephone numbers — but that would be naive.

I would not advise you to be concerned about any danger of attack by zombie newspapers this Halloween. They are mainly a danger to themselves. Though their need for brains is compelling and obvious, they don’t appear to recognize when you have any.

What they ought not to have done

A headline in this morning’s editions of my former paper, The Baltimore Sun:

Conversions don’t worry Episocopal bishop

Lord, have mercy.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mr. Bierce's pronouncements

I met a reader of antique texts,
Who said—A brittle and well-foxed usage tome
is catalogued ... its yellowed pages stamped
With shattered rules and empty strictures,
And haughty tone, and sneers of cold command,
Telling how well its maker those prejudices
Expressed, now stamped on these lifeless things;
Every page proclaims its attitude:
My commandments reign supreme;
Heed my decrees, ye writers, or despair!
It lies dusty, untouched. Round the lapse
Of these disregarded edicts, boundless and full
The level shelves stretch far away.

Consider well, you mavens and self-appointed usage authorities, you who seek to remedy the lack of an Académie anglaise, with power over the English language to bind and loose, that the fate of an Ozymandias awaits you. Such a one was Ambrose Bierce.

Bierce, still known for his Devil’s Dictionary and the haunting short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” was a journalist and self-appointed usage authority who published in 1909 a little manual of blacklisted usages. Now the formidable Jan Freeman gives us Ambrose Bierce’s Write it Right: The Celebrated Cynic’s Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers (Walker & Company, 229 pages, $24).

Ms. Freeman, language columnist for The Boston Globe and one of the best-informed and most sensible popular writers on language and usage we have, has done her research, examining not only Bierce’s little book of prejudices, but also eighteenth- and nineteenth-century manuals by Robert Lowth, Richard Chenevix Trench, Henry Alford, and J. Lesslie Hall, among others. One of Bierce’s predecessors was William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, author of “Thanatopsis” (inflicted on generations of schoolchildren), and, apparently, in his Index Expurgatorius, responsible for the enduring superstition among journalists that over cannot be used in the sense of more than.

Some of the sources of nineteenth-century peevology she describes no longer trouble us. Now that so few students learn Latin and Greek, we tend not to be troubled when English does not match the classical languages (“etymological literalism,” she calls it). Thanks to H.L. Mencken and many linguists, we no longer feel abashed that American English differs from British (“status anxiety”). But some sources persist, particularly the suspicion of commercial language as vulgar and trendy. And the enduring but futile impulse to make English idioms and usage logical recurs in every generation.

Write It Right abounds in the distinctions, largely bogus, that continue to clutter manuals of usage and journalists’ stylebooks: anxious/eager, compare to/compare with, entitled/titled, hanged/hung, healthy/healthful, loan/lend, verbal/oral. People cannot be substituted for persons; no one can sustain an injury; transpire is not synonymous with occur. If you have been bothering yourself over these matters, I urge you to consult Ms. Freeman’s commentary on these entries for a succinct account of how you have been wasting valuable time.

Ambrose Bierce, however, is in a class by himself. Over and over, Ms. Freeman reports, his entries describe distinctions that only he can see. He appears to have been driven to prune the luxuriance of English so that its words could be limited to single, narrowly restricted meanings, as he says in his preface: “Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and conditions of men, with which to bloat their absurd and misleading dictionaries.” It cannot be done, and is not worth doing.

There is much to admire in this little book: the thoroughness of Ms. Freeman’s research, her level-headed analysis of Bierce’s strictures, and — perhaps the enduring lesson — her insight into the foibles of usagists. If you as an editor or manager have the authority to set yourself up as a tinpot despot on usage (as I was for many years), put this book before you and learn humility.

Monday, October 26, 2009


Somewhere early in my career I came across a rule — probably in the Associated Press Stylebook, that fossil record of unsound usage advice — that entitled must not be used in the sense of giving a title to a book, but only in the sense of having a right to something. At some other point, I remember vaguely, I came across advice not to use titled in the sense of a book’s having been given a title, because titled means holding a title of nobility.

One of the glories of the usage game, or mavenry, or whatever you will call it, is that it is entirely possible to be given diametrically opposite “rules,” both of which are wrong.

I haven’t unearthed the source of the objection to titled to determine whether the author was either ignorant or, as the British say, having me on, but the vacuity of the AP rule has been abundantly documented.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage calls entitled for giving a title to a “well-established usage ... common for over 500 years* and ... the older of the two senses.” The third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage concurs without reservation, so we’ve covered both sides of the street. Saying that a book, a play, a short story, or a monograph is entitled so-and-so is not wrong and has never been wrong.

Of course, once you have put the title of the book within quotation marks (AP) or written it in italics (everybody else), even your slowest-witted reader can tell that you are referring to a title, without the need of either verb.

*The current AP Stylebook continues to limit over to spatial relationships. Need I repeat that that, too, is bogus?


I received a review copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy of it or Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Can you tell 'live' from 'news'? Facebook can't

Motoring along the highway or creeping down a city street, I cringe at the sight of a “PROGRESS AHEAD” sign, knowing full well that it means that the roadway has been torn up and I will be jockeying for position with lunatics.

Yesterday, it appears, Facebook put into effect a redesigned home page for members, with a “live feed” and a “news feed.” It seems to be the case that the “news feed” will include items that Facebook has concluded would be of interest to me, while the “live feed” will list all my friends’ activities.

How do I know this? From an article on the changeover in, which Jack Mulkey thoughtfully put up on his news feed. Facebook gave me no information. Or perhaps Facebook did publish some announcement to readers; but it was not anywhere that I saw, and Facebook is so chaotically organized and its search function so pathetically useless that I probably could not have found the announcement had I known to look for it.

These are the consequences of the double feed. I have to look in two places to make sure that I haven’t missed anything. And since the “live” and “news” categories have some obvious overlap, I get to see some of the same posts in two different places. Oh yeah, and the chronology is all gummed up, with my news feeds listed in this order: an hour ago, 6:27 p.m. yesterday, 11:37 p.m. yesterday, 11 hours ago, 4 hours ago [emphasis added].

When I see Internet enthusiasts scorn newspapers for their arbitrary redesigns that disconcert readers, for their lack of transparency in informing their audience what they are doing, or for their ineptly designed Web sites that make navigation troublesome, I think of Facebook and curl my lip in bitter scorn.

Weekends are for catching up

Item: While the actual Associated Press Stylebook is unintentionally hilarious, FakeAPStylebook on Twitter is a hoot and a half. Some examples:

The numbers one through ten should be spelled out while numbers greater than ten are products of the Illuminati and should be avoided.

Do not change weight of gorilla in phrase, “800-lb gorilla in the room.” Correct weight is 800 lbs. DO NOT CHANGE GORILLA'S WEIGHT!

There is no such thing as an “Oxford comma.” The other guys in the newsroom are pranking you.

While it's tempting to call them “baristi” because of the Italian roots, the plural of “barista” is “journalism majors.”

Item: If you are concerned about potential dangers of vaccines, Steve Silberman of Wired has provides a link to a useful, fact-based article on the subject, with copious references to the science. The comments on an article in Wired by Amy Wallace on fear and panic over vaccines demonstrate how quickly public discussion devolves into shouting and personal abuse.

As with the AP Stylebook, many of these comments career into unintended hilarity.

Item: has forwarded a link to its list of the top ten plagiarism scandals. It says “of all time” but is in fact limited to those, mainly in journalism, of recent history.

For a longer view, take, for example, the passage in Tristram Shandy denouncing plagiarism: “Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another? Are we forever to be twisting and untwisting the same rope?” This passage, your eighteenth-century professor would have pointed out with a dry, donnish chuckle, Sterne lifted from Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. Thus we see the difference between the amateur cut-and-paster and an inspired pro.

Thomas Mallon’s Stolen Words is a fine study of plagiarism, mainly the literary kind.

Item: I should have been reminding you about GoodSearch, a search engine powered by Yahoo that pays a small sum to the good cause of your choice for each search you make there. My GoodSearch is set to the American Copy Editors Society Education Fund, which provides scholarships to promising students who seek a career as editors. Every search I perform there brings a penny to the fund, and if you, my beloved readers, would also participate, we could over time aggregate a tidy sum. I urge you to try it.


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of Stolen Words from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Further dispatches in the War on Editing

Having watched battalions of my comrades fall over the past several years, and having become a casualty myself, I began to hope that the War on Editing* might have spent its fury, allowing a few fugitive survivors to regroup. Now comes word that a new front may be opening.

Martha Brockenbrough at SPOGG has published an appeal from Bryan Garner, who reports that he has been told that the major bookstore chains are not stocking the new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (reviewed here) because usage guides are a “defunct category.” If this be the case — and one can only hope that Mr. Garner has been misinformed by some low-level functionary of diminished intelligence — you can be excused if you feel like the British at Isandlwana when the ammunition ran out.

Mr. Garner’s note:

I have a favor to ask of you as a loyal reader: In the next few hours or days, would you please go to or and buy one or more copies of the new third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage as holiday presents? In fact, keep this gift possibility in mind through the end of the year, won't you?

I need your help in sending a message to the major bookstore chains: they’re not stocking the book because they’ve told Oxford University Press that they consider usage guides a “defunct category.” It’s maddeningly unbelievable. Please help me show them that they’re stupendously wrong.

Meanwhile, in the coming months you might ask about the book when you’re in a bookstore: ask the managers why they don’t stock copies, and encourage them to do so.

If you’re curious to see what effect you’re having, watch the rankings on or in coming days and weeks. We’ll be alerting the major chains to those numbers, and we want to get as close to the top 50 as we can. If you're trying to order and see that the book is labeled "out of stock," order anyway: the effort is also to ensure that the online booksellers keep adequate stocks.

In return for this favor – it’s a grassroots effort – I’ll be happy to inscribe copies that you send to LawProse for that purpose, if you (1) include a filled-out FedEx airbill for returning them to you, and (2) suggest an appropriate inscription.

Those of you still struggling to hold the isolated parapet, turret, or ravelin might well heed this appeal. I don’t agree with Mr. Garner in every particular, nor would I expect you to follow his advice slavishly. I don’t care whether you buy his book through the link below or even decide that your money might be better spent on Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. (Actually, you ought to own both, each as a corrective for the other.) Ours is a commercial society, and the way you spend your money is one of the few means in your hands to show that editing and precision and clarity matter.

*I believe that Phillip Blanchard was the source of this term for the campaign by newspaper, magazine, book, and electronic publishers to pursue a short-sighted and ultimately self-destructive campaign of reducing — or even eliminating — editing to achieve short-term savings.


I received a review copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Said who?

Is this a new tic of New Yorker style, or have I just begun noticing it?

“Horton, you’re one of the few people New York seems to agree with,” Tennessee Williams, another regional Young Turk who dreamed of changing the shape of commercial theatre, said.

I know that there is a longstanding journalistic resistance to inverting subject and verb in attribution, and indeed the “said he” construction would quickly grow tedious. But still, in a quotation followed by an attribution succeeded by an appositive phrase, do you really want to end the sentence with an anticlimactic said? Would it kill you to write, said Tennessee Williams and allow the sentence to end with a little more weight? Can’t you see that you are driving me into a series of rhetorical questions? Will you please stop?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The second pronunciation video

The second pronunciation video

The copy-editor's temperament video

The judging-a-book-by-its-cover video

The pronunciation video

The bow tie video

The martini video

The You Don't Say instructional videos

For technical reasons that I do not fully understand and wouldn’t pretend to explain, you are likely to draw a blank if you look for one of the You Don’t Say instructional videos on the old site.

I am about to experiment with reposting them on this site.

The prescriptivist's prescriptivist

Never mind the dilettantes with their misplaced reverence for The Elements of Style. For the past few weeks I have been rummaging about in the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 942 pages, $45), and, as Dryden said of Chaucer, there is God’s plenty here.

Bryan A. Garner’s previous edition in 2003 ran to 879 pages. A major component of the additional heft in the current volume is the addition of a new feature, called (a little portentously) the “Language-Change Index,” in which Mr. Garner gives the reader an opportunity to gauge the weight of questionable or disputed usages.

The index is scaled one to five on level of acceptability. Stage 1 is “Rejected,” a usage universally condemned. Stage 2 is “Widely shunned; Stage 3, “Widespread but ...”; Stage 4, “Ubiquitous but ...”; and Stage 5 is “Fully accepted.”* Rejected and shunned by whom, apart from Mr. Garner? In addition to the printed and electronic references he has explored and consultants with whom he has worked, Mr. Garner invited 129 people to be surveyed on usage as a Panel of Critical Readers.**

Some examples of where this leads:

could care less/couldn’t care less Peeve-mongers feel a rush of blood to the head on hearing the former usage because of their demands that language should be logical. Mr. Garner argues, “Although some apologists argue [count me among them] that *could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally, a more plausible explanation is that the –n’t of couldn’t care less has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing.” He gives could care less an asterisk to represent poor usage and rates the acceptability of could care less as Stage 3.

disinterested, uninterested The erosion of disinterested in the sense of impartial, not having an interest in the issue or outcome, leaves disinterested for uninterested at Stage 4 — on the brink of full acceptability.

mutual Mr. Garner holds fast to the distinction that mutual is understood to mean reciprocal, not common. By this distinction, he and I have mutual respect for each other’s views but have not reached a mutual understanding on this usage. He rates mutual for common at Stage 4, and I think that the battle is over.

none In the sense of not any combined with a plural verb, none is at Stage 5, fully acceptable, as it has been in English for lo, these many centuries, despite the barking from ill-informed prescriptivists who imagine that it exists only as a singular. Same stage with a number of and a plural verb.

On no account, of course, should you surrender your own judgment. As the writer or editor, you know who is in your audience and what level of diction is appropriate to both audience and occasion. Similarly, the Language-Change Index is suggestive but not definitive; you will have your own sense of where a particular usage lies on that continuum.

I was pleased to see familiar entries retained, such as the invaluable set of superstitions. And, since I occasionally hear that readers of this blog are sent fumbling for the nearest dictionary, I’m minded to quote a couple of sentences drawn from the wholesome advice of the entry on sesquipedality, or the resort to big words:

[T]here seem to be three legitimate stances for the writer. The first is that if you truly want to communicate with a wide readership, you have to build your core of small, familiar words. The second is that if one of your purposes is to edify, use challenging words while allowing the context to reveal their meanings. ... The third stance is that if you know you’re writing for a specific audience with a prodigious, specialized vocabulary — whether one particular reader or the intelligentsia generally — then use hard words that are truly unsimplifiable. But question your motives: are you doing it to express yourself well, or are you just showing off?

Bryan Garner is an unapologetic prescriptivist. His aim is to show you what is necessary to write and speak as a literate adult for other literate adults in the American version of the dialect known as Standard English. If that is also your ambition, you should have this book in your hands. Not that you are obliged to agree with him in every particular.
Not that you should disregard the opposing views of descriptivists, particularly the linguists whose work intellectual honesty demands that you consider. Not that this book ought to become a fetish. But, for Fowler’s sake, you have the opportunity to lay hands on 900 pages of thoughtful advice. Don’t pass it up.

*The man has a welcome taste for whimsy. He has a page of ten analogies to the stages under different categories.

The “moral” equivalents:
1 Mortal sin
2 Capital sin
3, Venial sin
4 Peccadillo
5 Virtue

The equivalents under “etiquette”:
1 Audible farting
2 Audible belching
3 Overloud talking
4 Elbows on table
5 Refined

**Disclosure: My name is on that list.


I received a review copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, October 16, 2009


They tell you, and they are right, that it is not wholesome to write a bad review. That it is impossible to do so without sounding snotty. That you had better not even attempt it unless you can match the mastery of a Dorothy Parker (“The House Beautiful is the play lousy”). That you would spend your time, and the reader’s, more profitably by praising good work.

And yet, sometimes you are put in front of a target so gorgeous that every scruple falls before the temptation.

An early tipoff of misplaced enthusiasm in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (Touchstone/Simon and Schuster, 209 pages. $22.99) is Mark Garvey’s boast of the number of copies of The Elements of Style he owns, as if he harbored in the basement a cache of Gutenberg Bibles.

Later, he compares the Little Book (so called by its enthusiasts) in its simplicity, directness, and authority to the Decalogue and the Rule of St. Benedict. Still later, he compares gazing at the manuscript of the first edition to viewing Magna Carta in the British Museum.

In apparent disregard of Rule 9 (“Do not affect a breezy manner”) he writes that Harold Ross’s prospectus for The New Yorker “reads like a sort of literary bat signal that must surely have twiddled the antennae of E.B. White as he worked over his desk in the Frank Seaman agency.” And I think that Mr. White, if present, would sigh over Mr. Garvey’s preference for gauntlet over gantlet on three occasions.

In short, Mr. Garvey’s little book on the Little Book illustrates the terrible, terrible fate of the writer that Auden identified in his elegy on Yeats: “he became his admirers.”

It will profit me nothing to criticize the Little Book myself. Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, like Jupiter Optimus Maximus, has been hurling thunderbolts at it from the summit of Olympus for years, to no discernible effect. *

But if you can nerve yourself against the gush, there is some interesting matter between these covers. The account of the writing of the book and its early reception is a plainly told piece of literary history, as are the respective accounts of the lives of William Strunk and E.B. White — who knew that Professor Strunk had a brief career as a Hollywood consultant?

There is also considerable advice on writing from the people Mr. Garvey consulted.

Some of them edge themselves discreetly away from worshipfulness: Will Blythe says: “Yes, but there’s still something really Waspy about that notion of style. ... And with many writers, the ideal of simplicity can sometimes be limiting.”
Keith Hjortshoj at Cornell says, “It’s a wonderful myth that applies not just to writing, but to all kinds of endeavors: that there’s a simple way to do this, and that amazingly talented, brilliant practitioners demonstrate that you can reduce it to a little compendium of rules or procedures. ... If I’m skeptical about the book, it’s because of the way it’s used—by teachers who think they can just assign this book to students and it will refine their prose. ...”

Adam Gopnik says, “One of my reasons for ambivalence is that there are many kinds of wonderful writing that don’t conform to the rules in The Elements of Style. Dr. Johnson’s writing is full of ten-cent words and very complicated Latinate constructions, and Dr. Johnson is a better writer than Strunk ever was—maybe even a better writer than White. Herman Melville doesn’t write that way. James Joyce doesn’t write that way. Wallace Stevens doesn’t write that way.”

One of the blurbs for Mr. Garvey’s book admires the author’s “infectious enthusiasm.” Gowns, gloves, and masks, everyone.

*Mr. Garvey presents Professor Pullum briefly as a bellicose academic without actually describing his arguments about the defects of the Little Book and its misguided adherents. He goes on to stack this particular deck by juxtaposing Professor Pullum with a couple of genuine academic zanies. For a serious look at the criticisms, you will need to consult the various Language Log entries on the subject.


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

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Drunk and Tight: A Sot's Guide to the Elements of Style

“Before I start to write,” said E.B.White, “I always treat myself to a nice dry Martini. Just one, to give me the courage to get started. After that, I'm on my own.”

As I read a book about White and The Elements of Style — of which much more anon — my mind turns to the principles of drink as they relate to the principles of writing and editing.

Rule 1: If you write when tight, you must edit when sober.

Rule 2: It is always five o’clock in the afternoon somewhere.

Rule 3: Do not approach the keyboard after the third bourbon.

Rule 4: Throw away that notebook at the bedside. Nothing written there will make any sense in the morning.

Rule 5: Wine with spouse, beer with fellow writers, sherry with clergy, gin with editors, whisky with publishers. Bourbon solus.

Rule 6: The publisher always pays for the drinks.

Rule 7: Omit needless ice.

I'd like to thank the Academy ...

It was announced yesterday in The Baltimore Sun’s first Mobbies awards that You Don’t Say won first place in the Misfits (miscellaneous) category.

There was no opportunity (or desire) for me to speak last night as I accepted the handsome certificate and tchotchkes, so I will express gratitude here.

Profound thanks to Pam Robinson of Words at Work, who, upon hearing of my departure from The Sun in April, rushed to set up this site so that You Don’t Say could continue with the briefest of interruptions.

But my profoundest thanks must go to the readers of this blog, whose comments and corrections and disagreements and praise have sustained me through a frustrating period of unemployment. Writing for you has brightened my days, and I am touched that so many of you find something of interest or amusement here.

The Prince of Misfits salutes you.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Edit twice, publish once

Back when I used to be somebody, spreading fear and terror while winning glory and wealth as the head of a newspaper copy desk, I harangued people about the importance of editing. They didn’t listen then, either.

But if you need persuasion, consider this example.

Today the Web site Inside Higher Ed reports the embarrassing developments with the sixth edition of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which is used by professionals and students as the guidebook for their papers. The corrections that have come out since the first printing include “four pages of ‘nonsignificant typographical errors’ and five pages correcting errors in content and problems with sample papers” (emphasis added).

The APA is bringing out a corrected second printing of the manual but is making buyers of the defective first printing pay for the corrected version, which looks churlish.

Addressing the error-riddled edition, Mary Lynn Skutley, editorial director for APA books, explained that the manual was “very complicated to put together.” Indeed. So are newspapers, and magazines, and Web sites, and other books. Complicated, and liable to contain errors.

That is why you might want to engage a competent copy editor for your project before publication, and allow him or her the time and resources to get the job done right the first time.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A sweet moment

On Friday evening, I was driving my son home for the weekend from his cooking job. As we listened to the radio, a sports commentary came on the air. After a minute or two of this palaver, J.P. muttered:

“I hate sports.”

A warm glow suffusing my body, I realized that my duty as a parent had been discharged.

More ready, fire, aim

Paul Carr posts at TechCrunch about the hazards of rushing to publication with unverified information. A key passage:

I offered some lessons that professional blogs might want to carry over from old media. Stop allowing bloggers to post their own stories without passing them first through an editor. Don’t publish a story accusing a company of malpractice without first giving them a chance to deny it. That kind of thing.

The entire post, “WITN?: Yahoo didn’t sentence 200,000 Iranians to death, and other misadventures in online journalism,” is worth your time and attention.

Thank you, @GregMitch and @yelvington, for the alerting tweet.

Any grownups out there?

One of the cannier readers of the post “Papers, please” noticed that I took no position on measures to deal with illegal immigration. That is because — this is not a political blog, remember? — my point was that the complexity of the issue deserves serious journalistic attention. Now that illegal immigrants, like the “guest workers” who do the dirty jobs for Western Europe, are established in the economy, disentangling them will be neither simple nor easy.

Similarly, the post quoting the Socialist Party platform of 1912 was not a proposal to turn America socialist, but rather a reminder that (a) the United States has been operating as a mixed economy for more than seventy years* and (b) brandishing labels is not discourse. Shouting “Socialist!” (like the shouts of “Fascist!” by my fellow undergraduates forty years ago) is the adult version of playground name-calling.

Naturally, I have been labeled a sappy liberal by readers who weren’t paying attention.

As it happens, I am a Democrat — it’s a matter of public record. But Alexander Ackley, who was in my expository writing class at Syracuse and who is now an editor of The Reactionary, has kept in touch for thirty years, even though we deplore each other’s politics. When I worked for Lowell and Jean Denton at The Flemingsburg Gazette, Jean was a fervent — some would have said rabid — supporter of Richard Nixon, and I wore an “Impeach with honor” button. We not only respected each other; we held each other in affection.

It should be a mark of a civil society that people can disagree without demeaning one another. We should be able to disagree with argument, with humor, with passion, and we should be able to do so without insult. We should be able to give complex and difficult issues the serious attention they deserve.

I started this blog to write about language in a particular way: to explore how a reasonable and informed prescriptivism could show people how to write clearly, precisely, and even elegantly for publication without resorting to peeves and prejudices. As it expanded, I included subjects to which I thought my fellow journalists could bring a similar clarity and precision.

It has been disturbing this year to see so many of my fellow editors drummed out of the business, to the detriment of the factual accuracy and clarity of the publications that sacked us. It has been discouraging to witness the resort to empty sloganeering and name-calling on both the right and the left. It has been dispiriting to see journalistic coverage of serious issues zero in unerringly on the trivial, and to see so little evidence of public willingness to give close attention to any issue more serious than the breakup of the Jon and Kate Gosselin marriage.

But we soldier on. And you, dear readers, civil, sophisticated, and discerning audience that you are, make good company. Keep in touch.

*I wonder if it occurred to Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, when he said earlier this year that Franklin Roosevelt’s policies were a failure, that running against the New Deal has never been sound strategy for Republicans.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The rusty iron core

Alex S. Jones, bless his heart, is a newspaperman through and through,* and it is from the perspective of a newspaperman that he views the recent disturbing developments in journalism and explores where it is headed in Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy (Oxford University Press, 234 pages, $24.95).

Mr. Jones offers seven chapters on how we got here, two on where we appear to be headed. If you are not familiar with the development of American journalism (and you would join some journalists in that unfamiliarity), the chapters on the development of First Amendment law and media ethics will be instructive.

But his main concern is the fate of what he calls (with mildly irritating repetition) the “iron core” of journalism: the information that is crucial in a democratic society if the citizenry is to make informed decisions. It is what he calls “accountability news,” because it holds “government and those with power” accountable for their actions. It is not opinion or advocacy, but factual, reported, verified information, journalism subject to “the discipline of verification.”

It is also objective journalism, in this sense: “a genuine effort to be an honest broker ... playing it straight without favoring one side when the facts are in dispute.” It also means “not trying to create the illusion of fairness by letting advocates pretend in your journalism that there is a debate about the facts when the weight of truth is clear.”

This kind of ethical accountability journalism, which developed over the past century and a half, is, he sees, imperiled: “In the old model of near media monopolies, the American population was privy to what was essentially the same news. In the future, high-quality news will be mostly consumed by elites, with headlines and articles tailored to the short attention spans of people who get their news on the Web.” Or, again, “a well-informed class at the top and a broad populace awash in opinion, spin and propaganda.” (I told you he was an old-line newspaperman.)

(Actually, in a telling remark, he speculates that hard news, accountability news, serious journalism never attracted more than about fifteen percent of newspapers’ readership. Most people, it seems, have always been more interested in celebrities, comics, crosswords, and coupons.)

The past is gone and will not be recovered. Unfortunately, the future is blurry. Mr. Jones looks at some of the possibilities for the survival of serious, accountability journalism, and he finds it chancy.

Citizen journalism, he thinks, will be too scattered and spotty, without the resources to conduct sustained reporting and to resist pressure from the powerful through threats of withholding advertising or filing expensive lawsuits.

It is far from clear that local electronic news startups can make enough money from advertising to replace newspapers.

Ownership by a nonprofit (Hey, we’ve got the nonprofit thing down, one wag at Overheard in the Newsroom said) is similarly chancy: “Founders can change their minds, lose their money, get mad, get bored, or simply want to do something different.”

Breaking up corporate chains of journalism and restoring local ownership sounds attractive to him, but, as we saw from the Binghams and others, local ownership can be at the mercy of changing local personalities.

Mr. Jones’s “nightmare scenario”: “bankrupt newspapers, news by press release that is thinly disguised advocacy, scattered an ineffective bands of former journalists and sincere amateurs whose work is left in obscurity, and a small cadre of high-priced newsletters that serve as an intelligence service for the rich and powerful.”

We are already more than halfway there.

*Mr. Jones got the inside story of the tensions and misunderstandings within the Bingham family that led to the sale of the Louisville Courier-Journal and Times to Gannett in 1986. Writing with Susan E. Tifft, he produced a notable book on the subject, The Patriarch: The Rise and Fall of the Bingham Dynasty. The couple also wrote The Trust: The Private and Powerful Family Behind The New York Times. Both books merit your attention.

An irrelevant personal note: In 1986, restless at the badly managed Cincinnati Enquirer, I was casting about for employment elsewhere. The Courier-Journal expressed interest, and I went down to Louisville for interviews and a tryout on the copy desk. It happened that the morning of that tryout was also the morning that Barry Bingham handed over the keys to Al Neuharth. On to Baltimore.


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

Thursday, October 8, 2009

No Nazis need apply

A gentleman in London named James Nicholls has given a backhanded endorsement to You Don’t Say at his blog:

For those of you who feel the need to express your superior knowledge of English grammar, this is the place for you to stroke your ego and the ego of the similarly anal. As for me I read trangressive fiction and can’t be bothered with the whole affair, safe in the knowledge that message is more important than presentation.

A couple of things seem apparent.

One is that Mr. Nicholls appears to have been so engrossed in his self-described pursuit of “sex, drugs and, if at all possible, an early night” that he may not yet have encountered the critical commonplace that content and form cannot be so easily separated. Another likelihood is that he has not read enough posts here to understand that I am not of the tribe of grammar Nazis — rigid, unthinking, nagging prescriptivists — but am rather a moderate, indulgent, reasonable prescriptivist and all-around fine fellow.

(Perhaps, too, it is time to stop flinging about that word Nazi in a casual manner that trivializes what it represents.)

Adam Pagnucco, writing at Maryland Politics Watch, does not call me a Nazi, merely suggesting that I am a whore.

He dismisses the bloggers participating in The Sun’s Mobbies competition as saps and suckers, abjectly begging for an empty distinction. Among the “trollops, street-walkers, flesh-flashers or tramps” in this competition he spies — well — me. He quotes this passage from my blog post about the competition: “Embarrassing as it is to engage in self-promotion, I am soliciting your support… Should you not care to participate in this poll, offering me a job would be an acceptable alternative.”

Someday, I hope, Mr. Pagnucco will allow me to stand him to a pint and endeavor to describe to him what irony is.

In the meantime, those of you who wish to endorse You Don’t Say in this largely meaningless competition can make use of the link at the upper-right corner of this page. Voting continues today and ends tomorrow. You can vote once each day for this blog in the Misfits category and in the overall best-blog category.

On a somewhat more positive note, the Online Schools Web site has included You Don’t Say among the “100 Best Blogs for Your Liberal Arts Education.”* You’ll also find our friends Pam Robinson and Andy Bechtel listed there. I commend those hundred blogs to your attention.

*That’s not liberal in the wicked people-who-look-at-dirty-pictures, government-death-panel, gays-are-human-too, you-have-to-pay-taxes-if-you-want-services sense, but in the largely archaic favoring-the-increase-of-knowledge sense, which, to some people, is nearly as wicked.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

You may fire when ready

From an advertisement for an opening for an editor at a Christian publishing concern:

Knowledge of cannon law, Church history, & world history req'd.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Why newspapers fail

I was well along in Alex S. Jones’s Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy,* nodding at what have become commonplaces in describing the plight of traditional journalism, when a short passage about “citizen journalism” and “reader-generated content” brought me up short:

To my dismay, such material often has more credibility and is of greater interest to readers than what is produced by professionals. My frustration is not based on scorn for nonprofessionals but on the unhappy fact that the professionals often can’t find a way to produce something as interesting, readable, and credible.

My entire career as a newspaper copy editor flashed before my eyes in column after column of gray stodge. And I realized that while the major problem with newspapers has been the collapse of the advertising-supported business model, newspapers have sacrificed their audience by the uncritical production of low-grade prose.

The vanishing generation of newspaper readers formed the habit when you had to read a newspaper when you wanted something more than the thin gruel of information offered by the radio or television. But the rising generations had more choices and did not form the newspaper habit. My children and my undergraduate students do not do much more than occasionally glance at a newspaper, if that. Why do you think? Perhaps because so much newspaper writing is appallingly, relentlessly, unapologetically DULL.

And journalists are trained to write that way.

Look at the standard, straight-news summary lead paragraph. The writer has been told to cram all the essential information into a single sentence, leading prose such as this, of a type that could be called The Clot:

Completion of a tower that will give Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport controllers technology and visibility to monitor air traffic for the foreseeable future, settling a contract that will keep the controllers on the job and redefining air space corridors, are keys to the Valley airport’s future, Robert Sturgell, FAA deputy administrator, said Thursday.

[It doesn’t help, either, that an error of grammar makes this fifty-four-word monstrosity even more difficult to follow.]

The alternative to the summary lead paragraph is the stock anecdotal lead, in which utterly banal details about some person or persons with whom the reader is expected to identify are piled up until the writer finally gets around to telling what the story is about. I think of this device as the Day Like Any Other opening:

It was a day like any other for Wendy Whitebread.

Shutting off the alarm clock as the sun was beginning to rise, she pulled on her jogging clothes and shoes and took the dog for a quick walk around the neighborhood.

Returning home, she woke her children, Axel and Amy, fed them breakfast, signed the permission slips for a field trip and sent them off to school.

Heading down to the basement, she started a load of laundry and then returned to the kitchen to sit down with the morning paper and a second cup of coffee.

It was just then that the booster stage from a failed NASA satellite launch fell from the sky and demolished her house.

Or perhaps the writer will produce a snappier opening by rubbing the moss off some hoary cliché and attempting to pass it off as something fresh: the If You Write It, They Will Read device:

’Tis the season, spirits weren’t dampened by bad weather, the dream that turned into a nightmare.

It is when you are intrepid (or foolish) enough to continue past the lead that you discover more clichés, more slapdash syntax, and a dialect called journalese which is not like any English ever spoken. You will recognize it in the opening of a famous exercise by Paula LaRocque:

Hack: How were things in your vacation facility?

Frack: We had wide-ranging weather all season. One storm dumped more than seven inches of rain on our densely wooded lot, spawning hurricane-force winds and golfball-sized hail. Plus an unprecedented number of visitors arrived amid the facility restoration. …

I doubt that newspapers could have driven readers away more effectively with cattle prods.

*Of which more in a subsequent post.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Other stuff you ought to read

Item: The estimable Jesse Sheidlower, whose The F Word deserves your close attention, has an essay at about the difficulties of including and properly defining sexual terms in the dictionary.

If you like vulgar words — and who among us is afraid to admit it? — he offers plenty. (Though nothing quite as graphic as the bovine flatulence that Language Log is celebrating.)

Item: It is probably even more difficult to determine what should go into a book of quotations. The Oxford University Press blog (Caution, reader: this is a promotional article) recently commented on the inclusion in the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations of a remark by Paris Hilton: “Dress cute wherever you go. Life is too short to blend in.”

I have not solicited her views on the bow tie.

Item: Jag Bhalla, an amateur idiomologist and author of I’m Not Hanging Noodles on Your Ears, a collection of idioms from ten languages, writes at the National Post of Canada about his addiction to language and his search for exotic idioms.

The title of his book is a translation of a Russian expression equivalent to the English idiom I’m not pulling your leg. Presumably the English would sound comically exotic to a Russian.

Item: Adrienne Carlson has sent me a link to “75 Awesome Games, Tools, and Links for Word Lovers” at the Accredited Online Degrees site. I can’t vouch for the awesomeness of all 75 entries, but several of them look as if they might assist you in wasting time at work.

Item: There is still time to for you to put a handful of votes in the ballot box for this blog at The Sun’s Mobbies competition. (See link at upper right corner.)