Monday, November 30, 2009

Busy week

You may have been traveling last week, or stunned by Thanksgiving food and drink, and were too distracted to follow this blog. But my hands were busy at the keyboard, and here is a summary of what you may have missed.

Only another copy editor would understand
It is an obscure craft, but there are those who love it.

The Times leads a sheltered life
Don’t show us the money shot.

Just one word: plastic
Once more, with feeling: Foam plastic plates and cups are not made of Styrofoam. You should know this.

These are the rules
Precepts to guide your behavior.

Not news
You can run this stuff — many do — but it’s still shallow and stupid.

Don’t you ever talk about what’s RIGHT with America?
This just in: Copy editors tell you what is wrong with writing.

You may still have time to decide against running that inane story about how much the gifts of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” would cost today. ABC and Today, I’m told, have already done so. But if you paid any attention to the strained banter during the broadcast of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, you know that broadcast television has no shame.


Item: Oxford University Press is republishing H.W. Fowler’s original Modern English Usage, which should stimulate discussion of descriptivism, prescriptivism, and peevology.

Item: A comment by Tom Gara — “Aren't readers flocking in droves to online news sources that have no copy editing and drip with average grammar, inconsistent spelling etc?” — has me wondering whether people are posing a false dichotomy between thorough editing and no editing.

Item: College names and upward academic mobility.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


A colleague in an unnamed state has just sent me an alarming bulletin:

"FYI: AP is running on the wire Sunday the annual nonstory on the cost for the 12 Days of Christmas."

If you have any influence at all at your publication, spike this story, which is — and I know how much territory this claim takes in — perhaps the dumbest single story the Associated Press ever runs. It is an annual exercise in banality. It is factually questionable and devoid of originality. It is worse than a weather story. It is worse than the presidential pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey. It is worse than a story quoting Miss America. It is a zombie story that refuses to die, and the person assigned to do this annual dirty task must have done something really, really dreadful in a previous life that you do not want to know about.

If you are monitoring the wire services, tell no one about it. If you are an assigning editor, shun it. If it has been scheduled and you are on the copy desk, take this appeal up to the Supreme Court (or find some way for the system to delete it beyond recovery — you should know how). Interpose yourself between this monstrosity and the reader, at all costs. You are the last line of defense.

Don't you ever talk about what's RIGHT with America?

Before I undertake the heavy lifting myself, does anyone else want to address the character who made — anonymously — the captious comment scorning copy editors on the “Not news” post?

Item: you can still count on the copy desk for indefatigable negativism. There is plenty of good journalism out there, even if there are fewer people producing it.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Not news

Though no foe of innocent amusement — speculate as you will about the private life of Tiger Woods — it wearies me to see how much text in print and online is taken up with subjects that are not news and cannot convincingly be made to look like news. Some examples, to which you may feel at liberty to add your own:

Item: Phillip Blanchard, testiest of the Testy Copy Editors, advises us, as he does (futilely) every year, to pay no attention to the “Person of the Year” hoo-hah from Time: “Please remember that ‘Person of the Year’ is a magazine promotion, and as such is not news.”

Item: Time is also running an article calling the current decade the “decade from hell.” No doubt the 1960s, with the assassinations and riots; or the 1940s, with the Second World War, or the 1930s, with a worldwide depression and the rise of facism, pale in comparison with, say, “the record number of corporate bankruptcies, many of them household names: Kmart, United Airlines, Circuit City, Lehman Brothers, GM and Chrysler.” Sometimes a writer should just breathe into a paper bag until he calms down.

Item: Though Nicole Stockdale of the Dallas Morning News pointed out several years ago that “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, is not the biggest shopping day of the season, journalists continue to copy and paste that phrase.

That journalists should be writing about Black Friday at all is suspect. Yes, some people make it a ritual to rise well before dawn to stand in line in parking lots to get the first shot at brummagem merchandise.* And yes, newspapers are solicitous of their advertisers, who are cowering in fear that this season’s shopping will be so feeble that they will go under. But really, when a mob tramples someone to death to get at the mark-downs, that is news; that people shop a lot in November and December is not.

Item: When a couple of gate-crashers elbow their way to the side of the president of the United States, that is a security item, and news. Going into the details that they aspire to participate in yet another tacky reality show winds up giving tacky reality shows free advertising that they do not appear to need.

Item: Did the journalism outlet(s) you follow run something about the president’s “pardoning” the Thanksgiving turkey? Do you wonder if something important was omitted to make room for that?

Item: On the first, fifth, tenth, or twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of a child, soldier, or other young adult by accident, disease, or homicide, it is not news that the family continues to mourn the loss. In fact, nearly any article about the anniversary of an event will be little more than a copy-and-paste job from the files, running because it was an easy way to fill up space.

Item: Any story about the weather that mainly informs you that it gets hot in the summertime and cold in the winter. If you can find out the same information by opening the front door, you don’t need a journalist to tell you about it.

Point to ponder: I invite you, as you consider these articles and others like them, to pose a question once memorably uttered by Ursula Liu, a former Sun colleague: “Do I have a tattoo on my forehead that says, ‘Waste my time’?”

*You don’t know brummagem? The adjective means cheap, showy, and possibly counterfeit. The word is a dialect version of Birmingham, the English city once known for the counterfeit coins and plated goods manufactured there. (Thank you, New Oxford American Dictionary.)

These are the rules

In Good as Gold, Joseph Heller summarizes the basic rules of behavior:

Don’t make personal remarks, never tell a hostess you enjoyed yourself, don’t force anything mechanical, never kick an inanimate object, and don’t fart around with the inevitable.

Heller’s rules of behavior owe something to a set of principles articulated by Nelson Algren:

Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man named Doc. And never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own.

You may have seen the rules of civility that the young George Washington painstakingly copied out — and observed through a life of tremendous dignity. Among them:

When in Company, put not your Hands to any Part of the Body, not usualy Discovered.

Kill no Vermin as Fleas, lice ticks &c in the Sight of Others, if you See any filth or thick Spittle put your foot Dexteriously upon it if it be upon the Cloths of your Companions, Put it off privately, and if it be upon your own Cloths return Thanks to him who puts it off.

Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance break no Jest that are Sharp Biting and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasent abstain from Laughing there at yourself.

Be not Tedious in Discourse or in reading unless you find the Company pleased therewith.

And, though I have quoted this passage before, Leander Wapshot’s posthumous advice to his sons in John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle always repays attention:

Never put whisky in hot water bottle crossing borders of dry states or countries. Rubber will spoil taste. Never make love with pants on. Beer on whisky, very risky. Whisky on beer, never fear. Never eat apples, peaches, pears, etc. while drinking whisky except long French-style dinners, terminating with fruit. Other viands have mollifying effect. Never sleep in moonlight. Known by scientists to induce madness. Should bed stand beside window on clear night draw shades before retiring. Never hold cigar at right-angles to fingers. Hayseed. Hold cigar at diagonal. Remove band or not as you prefer. Never wear red necktie. Provide light snorts for ladies if entertaining. Effects of harder stuff on frail sex sometimes disastrous. Bathe in cold water every morning. Painful but exhilarating. Also reduces horniness. Have haircut once a week. Wear dark clothes after 6 P.M. Eat fresh fish for breakfast when available. Avoid kneeling in unheated stone churches. Ecclesiastical dampness causes prematurely gray hair. Fear tastes like a rusty knife and do not let her into your house. Courage tastes of blood. Stand up straight. Admire the world. Relish the love of a gentle woman. Trust in the Lord.


If a reader should order books from by clicking on the links below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Just one word: plastic

An opening paragraph in this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Sitting at a table of strangers in a steamy gymnasium, Michael Brisco poked at turkey on his Styrofoam plate and reflected on the reversals that had buffeted his life these past few months.

Styrofoam is a trademark for a kind of polystyrene manufactured by Dow Chemical for use in insulation and boat construction. Disposable cups and dishes made of plastic foam are not made of Styrofoam.

The carelessness of journalists — admonitions against using Styrofoam for foam plastic plates and cups have been in The Associated Press Stylebook, other stylebooks, and in-house style manuals for decades — has surely reinforced public carelessness with this word. Editors can, and should, rap the knuckles of writers who disregard such niceties, but Styrofoam may be well on its way toward joining kleenex and xerox and the other trade names that the public has transformed into generic words.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Times leads a sheltered life

In the New York Times article on Michaele and Tarek Salahi. the would-be reality show participants who wormed their way, uninvited, into a state dinner at the White House, you will find this sentence:

And the two money shots: Mrs. Salahi, her red and gold sari glittering, snaked around a grinning Mr. Biden, her hand resting on his chest, his arm wrapped around her waist; and both Salahis, with a smiling Mr. Emanuel, described on Mrs. Salahi’s Facebook page as “Chief of Staff of the United States White House.”

It’s not my place to tell Helene Cooper, Janie Lorber, Brian Stelter, or their editors at The Times what a “money shot” is or where the term originated, but really, someone should.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Only another copy editor would understand

Reacting to my mordant “Horoscope for editors” post (sample: The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough), one reader commented:

... and yet he wistfully longs for his days on the copy desk.

God, I miss them. What you must understand is that even in the best of times, copy editors fought a daily desperate rear-guard action, clawing their way to some increase in clarity and precision against unforgiving deadlines, obtuse colleagues who never troubled to understand the details of production (or, often, syntax), balky equipment, and asinine directives from on high. Every victory, however minor, was a hard-won triumph to be savored, every defeat a spur to greater effort.

To you, you writer, we were impediments to the full flowering of your “voice.” To you, you civilian, if you had heard of us at all, we were a bunch of nerds, certifiable obsessive-compulsives who cared about things that you would not even notice. To you, you sharp-penciled bean counter, we were, and are, disposable “non-core” staff.

But among ourselves, we were comrades who took to the field on Saint Crispin’s Day, and when we gather to nurse our beers and talk about lost glory, we few, we happy few, will strip our sleeves and show our scars, saying, “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”

A pity you weren’t there.

Unstable core

I am not persuaded that the Internet reduces our attention spans or that the 140-word bursts on Twitter make our thinking superficial, but you see things that make you wonder.

This morning I came across a retweet from one Tom Gara in Abu Dhabi opining, “Outsourcing copy editors and other non-core jobs is inevitable and a good thing for newspapers.” Mr. Gara was referring to a decision by the management of the Toronto Star to eliminate seventy-eight editing positions and outsource its copy editing to Pagemasters North America.

The asininity of proclaiming that editing is not a core function takes one’s breath away.

No one disputes that newspapers, struggling to stay afloat in stormy waters, have to make difficult decisions. Any business that does not manage to keep its costs within its revenues is going to sink, but that does not mean that just anything can be thrown over the side.

We have heard the “non-core” talk even in relatively prosperous times. Of course you can eliminate the library staff. Reporters can just add routine research to their daily workload. Of course you can sack the editorial assistants. The editors can answer the phones all day; and if the reporters are busy, the editors can keyboard datebook copy.

Now, of course, you can jettison the editors and copy editors in favor of some distant corps of editing units who do not know your staff or your area. You will merely multiply embarrassing errors of fact, publish slack writing, and alienate your most loyal customers. Evidence of the first two phenomena will be evident each day on your pages, evidence of the third in the accelerating decline of your circulation.

Unfortunately, difficult decisions are not necessarily good decisions.

*The editor responsible for the Star’s decision is Michael Cooke, former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper that has not been a byword for excellence in management.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And yet, it moves

By coincidence, the weekend brought the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the publication of an Associated Press article, deservedly mocked at HeadsUp: The Blog, on claims that an analysis of letters on the Shroud of Turin establishes that it dates from the first century and is not a medieval forgery.

A century and a half of science have confirmed the integrity of the Darwinian explanation, despite disagreement over details. Oddly, it remains controversial, and some who espouse the Christian doctrine of creation have turned to the secular arm, provoking disputes on school boards and lawsuits determining whether and how evolution may be taught in public schools. A scientific analysis of the cloth of the Shroud performed twenty years ago determined that it dated from the 13th or 14th centuries.

I have no business ridiculing other people’s religious beliefs and customs, and the devout are free to revere the Shroud of Turin and to take the opening chapter of Genesis as, however improbably, a recounting of historical fact. But I would urge those who continue to resist Darwin to consider the example of Galileo. When the Church decides to oppose and suppress science, it damages itself.

I watched my son work out a diagram of celestial mechanics in his freshman year at St. John’s College in Annapolis. St. John’s teaches both the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems, as a means of showing how the mathematics can explain observed phenomena. But no one (I hope) thinks that the Ptolemaic system should be taught in the public schools as an equivalent explanation. Galileo may or may not have muttered, “Eppur, si muove” (nonetheless, it moves), but no one disputes today that the earth moves around the sun, though it was once thought to be fatal to religion to think so. We can read a writer’s conjectures about the Shroud of Turin, but there, too, sooner or later, we face facts.

At Headsup, “fev” finds the Shroud story, as presented in his local newspaper, symptomatic of the credulity and shallowness of our journalism and our public discourse. Since I cannot say it better myself, I’ll close with his remarks:

This isn't just a stupid, credulous story. At the metropolitan daily that still deigns to show up in driveways three days a week here, the teaser above [to the Shroud of Turin story] is the only international presence on today's front page, and the story itself is far and away the largest bit of news (700-plus words, to some 330 for the runner-up) from outside our little corner of the world. The looming Senate vote on health care is a four-graf brief. I don't see a word about either of the shooting wars the country is still involved in.

And that's the cherry-picking stuff. If you think California's higher-ed debacle might hold some lessons for the rather dire situation that looms up here, too bad for you. Are Iran or Honduras or any of the other 190-odd countries out there entering the sort of low boil that tends to spill all over the front page in a few weeks? You're just going to have to wait and see, aren't you?

No clueless wire story is going to bring the republic down by itself. But each blunder of this scale represents a missed chance to make people incrementally smarter, rather than incrementally stupider. The gasbags of the pundosphere excel at turning fictions into conventional wisdom. If you have a steady, reliable supply of actual news, it isn't hard to catch them out. If you don't, well — lots of luck with that representative democracy stuff.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Luke Skywalker, call your service

Hyperbole of the day, from The New York Times:

A fight of galactic proportions over health care looms.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Horoscope for editors

Aries (March 21-April 19) — A writer whose childish excesses you challenge will accuse you of interfering with his “voice.” His editor will back him, not you. Duck and cover.

Taurus (April 20-May 20) — The project that has been in the works for eight weeks will land on your desk three hours before deadline. You do not have the photos, and the graphic is not finished. Brew another pot of coffee.

Gemini (May 21-June 21) — The people who carried your company into bankruptcy will be given bonuses. You will be told to take a five-day furlough.

Cancer (June 22-July 22) — You will become “platform-neutral.” Brace yourself to do two jobs at once.

Leo (July 23-Aug. 22) — The benefits of your employer-provided health insurance will be reduced. But your deductible and your premium will increase.

Virgo (Aug. 23-Sept. 22) — In an article you edit, you will correct the spelling of the subject’s name, give him the accurate title, straighten out the chronology, and delete an unsupported assertion that is potentially libelous. But you will overlook a misplaced decimal point, for which you, not the writer, will receive a disciplinary note.

Libra (Sept. 23-Oct. 22) — The person who sits next to you will heat fish in the office microwave. Don’t forget to take a handkerchief to work.

Scorpio (Oct. 23--Nov. 21) — An upgrade in the office computer system will leave you dead in the water for four hours.

Sagittarius (Nov. 22-Dec. 21) — You will edit a company announcement explaining that reductions in content, coverage, and staff will improve the reader’s experience. Control your gag reflex.

Capricorn (Dec. 22-Jan. 19) — The human resources staff at the company where you have applied for a job will reject your application. Next time you submit a resume, leave off the dates of your college graduation and employment.

Aquarius (Jan. 20-Feb. 18) — The company’s holiday party, in the break room, will feature food that you will prepare and bring in at your own expense. You will have to clean up the break room afterward.

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20) — Your boss will beckon you into his office. Before you go, make sure that you have enough cartons at your desk to hold your personal effects.

The good student

At the library, leafing through A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart’s jeremiad about the incompetent teaching of math in our schools, I was stopped by this sentence:

Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told that they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following instructions.

Though never particularly adept at math myself, I was always a good student, an “A” student, an honor roll student. I was a teacher’s pet, because I wanted to please my teachers. Most of my fellow students thought me odd — probably still do — and some of them bullied me. I was a bookworm and uninterested in sports.* My teachers were more my friends than my fellow students, and I wanted to please them. The way to please them was to give the right answer.

That was the pedagogy I grew up under: There is always one right answer to be discovered, and the purpose of education is to produce students who get the right answers. It works for things that are susceptible to rote learning. Spelling, for example. You can teach phonics and instruct students in the general principles of spelling, but English is such a promiscuous, mongrel language that its numerous maddening exceptions simply have to be memorized, like Chinese characters.

Rote learning is not, however, of much use in teaching students how to think. If you keep giving the right answers long enough, you get to college, and you can skate a long time there on right answers. But I got as far as graduate school without fully understanding that scholarship is more about framing the right questions.

One day in my second or third year of graduate school in English at Syracuse, Professor Peter Mortenson — almost as an aside — described to my class that scholarship is a conversation. Trying to arrive at a deeper understanding of a text, you look at what previous scholars and critics have said about it. You notice something that has been overlooked, or you see something that is mistaken that you can try to refute; thus you enter into the continuing conversation on that text or that issue. Another student said afterward that it was the first time that any of his teachers had explained so lucidly what the enterprise of criticism was.

In retrospect, I see that that was the beginning of my discovery that, as much as I liked books and talking about them, I was not cut out to be a literary scholar. I had gotten to be pretty good at sussing out the answers the teachers wanted to hear, but without much talent for forming those questions myself.**

Fortunately, I found a career an editor, where what analytical ability I do have is put to use. And I try in my classes on editing to train my students to frame questions. But analytical thinking is hard to start with, and many students appear to come to college after a dozen years of conditioning to guess what answer the teacher expects to hear. That is why my students discover every semester that if they just look blankly at me long enough, I will break down and tell them what I see in the text. I hold out as long as I can.

I invite you to write in comments on this post about your own experiences in school, and to speculate on the reasons for the inadequacies. Does get-the-right-answer pedagogy persist simply because it is easy? Or are there deeper reasons for it — perhaps that we don’t want to train the young to be analytical thinkers because they will question us and grow up to be troublemakers rather than docile employees? Do we value learning, or do we merely admire credentials? Over to you.

*I still loathe all known forms of sport.

**To suss (largely a British usage, is to realize something or figure it out. It derives from to suspect.)


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of the book listed below from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Real or Onion?

It is not an easy matter to determine the point at which the United States of America transcended satire, but it is a simple matter to identify phenomena that should have the editors of the Onion reaching for a consolatory bottle of gin.


Item: Texans eager to forestall any possibility of the legalization of marriage or civil unions between gay people, adopted in 2005 a constitutional amendment so sloppily drafted that it appears to make all forms of marriage illegal:

This state or a political subdivision of this state may not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage.

Language Log has a full account.

Item: You can buy T-shirts and bumper stickers proclaiming “Pray for Obama Psalm 109.8” The verse cited reads (in the Authorized Version): “Let his days be few; and let another take his office.”

Some apologists are saying that it merely calls for limit to his tenure in office rather than his death. Of course, those familiar with Scripture are aware that the next verse reads: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow.”

See how these Christians love one another?

Item: Fox News, skewered by Jon Stewart for using wrong crowd footage on Hannity to exaggerate size of protest, now gets caught using wrong crowd footage to exaggerate response to publication of Sarah Palin’s book.

Item: A Minnesota man speaks Klingon exclusively to his son during the child’s first three years of life: “I was interested in the question of whether my son, going through his first language acquisition process, would acquire it like any human language.”

Item: Veteran editor/writer/blogger/teacher/administrator/trainer John E. McIntyre remains unemployed.

Is this a great country, or what?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Devoted to grammar

Let’s suppose you are an aspirant to the Priesthood of All Grammarians. You will, of course, have the sacred texts, MWDEU, Garner on Usage, perhaps First Fowler and Second Fowler (also known as the Revised Standard Fowler). But you will also be in need of a breviary for your daily devotions.

Now there is one. Mignon Fogarty, whom you may already know as Grammar Girl, has just published The Grammar Devotional: Daily Tips for Successful Writing from Grammar Girl (Henry Holt, 234 pages, $15).

Like her previous book, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, the Devotional is more a collection of tapas dishes than entrees: whether you should use a comma or not with too (OK for particular emphasis, otherwise not), short quizzes (peak, peek, or pique?), word search games (find the paired British and American spellings). All good fun. (Not as fond, myself, of the whimsical cartoon illustrations of Squiggly and Aardvark, her examplars in illustrative sentences, but you could have guessed that from my congenital crankiness.)

On some points, Ms. Fogarty is standing firm. She holds the line on distinguishing between due to and because of. She wants enormity understood as a great evil rather than just a big thing. If you are dangling at the end of a rope, she says, you have been hanged.

But she is not rigid, and she describes available options, depending on how fastidious you want to be. On lend and loan, for example, she points out that in American English, “most language experts consider the words interchangeable,” but “some sticklers disagree.”

There is a lot of fine miscellaneous information: a short history of sentence diagramming, tributes to Samuel Johnson and James Murray and other “language rock stars,” a list of the order of adjectives in English (opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose).

It is all, as she says forthrightly, “quick and dirty.” For further explanation, you will have to turn to the sacred texts. But if you are, for example, an English teacher, The Grammar Devotional would be a handy book to have in the classroom for those occasions on which you have to summon up a quick response. And, since Ms. Fogarty is admirably clear and direct for a non-specialist reader, The Grammar Devotional would be an apt choice at Christmas for the student or aspiring writer in your house.


I received a review copy of The Grammar Devotional from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy of it or the other books listed below from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mock the AP Stylebook

This is fishing with dynamite.

On Twitter, @APStylebook, which previously solicited adoration for its latest edition, rather as if buying it compared to getting free Springsteen tickets, now wants its users to tweet about why they are thankful for it.

I am not making this up: Tell us why you are thankful for your AP Stylebook by Thanksgiving and you will have a chance to win a subscription to Stylebook Online.*

This is just sad. The Chicago Manual of Style doesn’t have to make pathetic public appeals for admiration. Sadder still, people are beginning to respond to @APStylebook’s invitation, describing the brilliance that this flawed reference book brings into their drab little lives.

Someone should draw the curtain on this painful scene.

*My retweet, Because it lends itself so beautifully to mockery, will not, I think, win the prize.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Christmas is coming. Save yourselves

Another holiday season looms menacingly over us, and some merchants, desperate to flog their inventory, have even resorted to taking out advertisements in newspapers. As the annual burst of synthetic cheer* overtakes us, a few measures are available to minimize the horror. One of the best is to resolve to shun holiday cliches.

Versions of this list, compiled with the assistance of fellow Sun copy editors and colleagues in the American Copy Editors Society, have been published annually as a public service on this blog.

“’Tis the season”: Not in copy, not in headlines, not at all. Never, never, never, never, never. You cannot make this fresh. Do not attempt it.

“’Twas the night before” anything: 'Twasing is no more defensible than ’tising. And if you must refer to the Rev. Mr. Moore's poem, if indeed he wrote it, the proper title is “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

“Jolly old elf”: Please, no. And if you must mention Kriss Kringle, remember the double s.

Any “Christmas came early” construction

“Yes, Virginia” allusions: No.

“Grinch steals”: When someone vandalizes holiday decorations, steals a child's toys from under the tree, or otherwise dampens holiday cheer, this construction may be almost irresistible. Resist it.

Give Dickens a rest. No ghosts of anything past, present or future. Delete bah and humbug from your working vocabulary. Treat Scrooge as you would the Grinch, by ignoring him. Leave little Tiny Tim alone, too.

“Turkey and all the trimmings”: If you can't define trimmings without looking up the word, you shouldn't be using it.

“White stuff” for snow: We should have higher standards of usage — and dignity — than do television weather forecasters. Also avoid the tautologies favored by these types: winter season, weather conditions, winter weather conditions, snow event and snow precipitation. And the tautologies favored in advertising: free gift, extra bonus and extra added bonus.

Old Man Winter, Jack Frost and other moldy personifications can safely be omitted.

If the spirit of ecumenism and inclusion requires mention of Hanukkah in holiday articles, these points should be kept in mind. Hanukkah is a holiday more like Independence Day than Christmas, and it is only the coincidence of the calendar dates in a gentile culture that has caused the holiday to mimic Christian and secular elements. The holidays are coincidental; they are not twins.

Pray do not ring out or ring in an old year, a new year, or anything else.

Parodies of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are, if possible, even more tedious than the original. And, typically, they do not scan.**

Some readers (and, sadly, some writers) lap up this swill. It is familiar, and the complete lack of originality is a comfort to them. It is for such people that television exists.

*Apprehension knows its fellows. Some of you may recall lines from Tom Lehrer’s Christmas carol: “Kill the turkeys, ducks, and chickens, / Mix the punch; drag out the Dickens; / Even though the prospect sickens, / Brother, here we go again.”

**If you are under the misapprehension that the twelve days of Christmas are a countdown to December 25, be advised that Christmas is a twelve-day liturgical season, running from December 25 to the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The hermeneutic comma

The Rev. Avery Dulles, a Jesuit priest and son of the arch-Presbyterian John Foster Dulles, once spoke at a church that had one of those trendy velvet banners on display, proclaiming:

God is other people.

Taking a marker, Father Dulles altered the banner to read thus:

God is other, people.**

If you cannot simultaneously hold both views, you have no business in theology.

*Swell headline for search engine optimization, don’t you think?

For the benefit of those of you who were out sick during theology class, hermeneutics is the theory and methodology of interpretation of texts. Originally applied to Scripture, it has more recently been adopted in the rarefied atmosphere of academic literary criticism in an attempt to increase the dignity of the enterprise.

**I had this story from a member of the clergy, so its veracity cannot be established.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Michigan State, how could you even think of it?

An urgent e-mail from my daughter says that the provost at Michigan State University, my alma mater, has proposed eliminating the major in classical studies as an economy move. Alice provided this link to a petition opposing the measure, which I have signed and which I commend to your attention.

When I presented my transcript to my advisor in 1973 to get his approval for my graduation, he looked over it with a practiced eye, looked at it again, and looked up at me and said, “You appear to have gotten a liberal education. How did you do that here?”

“I sneaked around,” I told him.

Whether or not you have studied Latin and Greek, the opportunity to pursue classical studies remains an indispensable component of a liberal education, and it was once thought that universities exist to uphold, at least in theory, the values of a liberal education. That the provost of Michigan State should even propose eliminating the major in classics is reprehensible. If the university should approve this measure, it would be a scandal. Perhaps the provost could then submit a proposal to change the name to Michigan State Trade School.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mr. Hawthorne's caution

I wonder whether some of us in the paragraph game, finding ourselves abruptly deposited on the street after long tenure with a publication, may suffer from the psychology that Nathaniel Hawthorne describes in the “Custom-House” section of The Scarlet Letter. Here is how Hawthorne describes the fate of the long-tenured officeholder turned out after a change in administration:

He loses, in an extent proportioned to the weakness or force of his original nature, the capability of self-support. If he possesses an unusual share of native energy, or the enervating magic of place do not operate too long upon him, his forfeited powers may be redeemable. The ejected officer [read journalist] — fortunate in the unkindly shove that sends him forth betimes, to struggle amid a struggling world — may return to himself, and become all that he has ever been. But this seldom happens. He usually keeps his ground just long enough for his own ruin, and is then thrust out, with sinews all unstrung, to totter along the difficult footpath of life as best he may. Conscious of his own infirmity, — that his tempered steel and elasticity are lost, — he for ever afterwards looks wistfully about him in quest of support external to himself. His pervading and continual hope — a hallucination, which, in the face of all discouragement, and making light of impossibilities, haunts him while he lives, and, I fancy, like the convulsive throes of the cholera, torments him for a brief space after death — is, that, finally, and in no long time, by some happy coincidence of circumstances, he shall be restored to office [read employment in journalism]. This faith, more than any thing else, steals the pith and availability out of whatever enterprise he may dream of undertaking.*

You need not be alarmed, gentle reader; for my part, I am far from tottering after my own unkindly shove last April, and I retain possession of a fair quantity of my original tempered steel and elasticity, as any employer who has the wit to engage my services will quickly discern.

*This excerpt constitutes about half of a paragraph. No doubt we can expect to hear some discourse on Hawthorne’s defects as a writer from the anonymous commenter who called me “verbose” and urged me to cut my posts by a third.

The Founders' dilemmas

Name a text — other than the Bible — that is more revered and less understood than the Constitution of the United States.

Can’t? I’m not surprised. But if you were inclined to enlarge your understanding, you could do worse than to turn to Richard Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (Random House, 514 pages, $30). Professor Beeman, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, has produced a highly readable, thoughtful account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

It is an account that may trouble contemporary liberals and conservatives alike.

Liberals, because the Founders as a group thought that we ought to be governed by educated white male property owners. They were not democratically minded; indeed, they were highly suspicious of the public. The tension that troubled them throughout their deliberations that summer rose from the attitude of the “archetypal old republican — intensely fearful of concentration of power in the hands of just a few but at the same time convinced that ordinary citizens lacked either the intelligence or the virtue to govern themselves.” Thus, for example, they repeated voted down proposals to have the president elected directly by the people and constructed the creaky machinery of the Electoral College.

Conservatives, because Professor Beeman’s account offers no comfort to the legal Originalists who argue that our understanding of the Constitution should be limited to the intentions of those fifty-five men in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, they were unable to come to a common understanding at the time of the convention about some of the basic language of the document, and some delegates strongly attacked its provisions during the debates on ratification. Moreover, James Madison, revered as “Father of the Constitution,” went to Philadelphia advocating a stronger central government and subsequently opposed many of the consequences. Which Madisonian “intent” should prevail?

What is impressive in Professor Beeman’s book is how earnestly these fifty-five men addressed themselves to the issues of self-government, how they struggled amid the summer heat in confined quarters to rise above narrow interests, how they gradually moved to an understanding of separation of powers and checks and balances, how they framed a document with enough flexibility to endure for more than two centuries with comparatively few amendments, and how they provided better than they knew for an expansion of liberty and political autonomy.

The tragic element is their fatal compromise on slavery. It was in part a purely political measure; the delegates had every reason to expect that without some protection of slavery, South Carolina and Georgia would not come into the Union. But in larger part it was a failure of imagination: Even those delegates who saw slavery as a great evil could not comprehend how to untangle the economics of it or conceive how white and black Americans could live together in freedom and equality.

It is refreshing, in a time when ignorant and ahistorical people say that we should disregard Washington and Jefferson and Madison because they were slaveholders, to see Professor Beeman explore how these well-meaning men were limited by the culture and perspective of their times. It might help us to develop a little humility to consider the ways in which we, too, grapple ineffectively with our gravest problems because of our failure to see beyond our cultural blinkers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Note to copy editors everywhere

Anal-retentive takes a hyphen.

Words to watch out for: Accused

This headline appears at this morning:

Charges dropped against / accused city brothel operator

The intention is to identify a person who has been accused of operating a brothel. But the construction can also be understood to mean that someone who in fact operates a brothel has been accused of the crime. The headline probably suggests to the reader that even though the charges were dropped, the person is guilty. But even if that is the case, it is not the job of the newspaper to supplant the functions of the courts.

This is why careful copy editors (if any remain in our depleted newsrooms) resist the constructions accused killer and accused murderer, because they effectively say that the person is a killer.

Here’s a distinction: When a member of the clergy is charged with abuse, the construction accused priest does not mean that he is accused of having been ordained.

You may object that this is one of those fine distinctions that obsessive-compulsive editors insist on. But given the importance of the presumption of innocence in the legal system, it seems defensible to be fastidious about this.

To disagree, comment below.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fading Star

I hadn’t planned to write on the The Toronto Star memo that was marked up by a copy editor, given its wide currency on the Internet, but so many readers have mentioned it, apparently expecting my wholehearted approval, that I am sharing my misgivings.

The thing that immediately strikes the reader about the memo from the publisher, John Cruickshank, is its imbecility. Look at the cant: “structuring around the core capabilities that drive the business, and leveraging these core capabilities across new and emerging platforms.” In common understanding, “we are going to save money by cutting staff and neglecting our moribund print product while hoping that something else — we don’t know what — will turn up that will make money.”

The memo goes on to talk about outsourcing the copy editing. Again in common understanding, “we are sacking the people who know how to do the work and sloughing it off onto people who may be less skilled and may not know the area or the audience but who will work for less. Our goal is to cheapen the product and hope that readers will be slow on the uptake so we can harvest a little more profit before the roof falls in.”

This memo is an epitome of the dumb decisions that the newspaper industry has been making for the past several years. Keep in mind that when these measures — cutting the physical size of the paper, reducing the staff, limiting the coverage, degrading the quality — fail to produce improvement, the next action is to repeat the failed efforts. Thus: imbecility.

Unfortunately, the copy editors being heaved over the side have not been the most effective advocates for their cause, which leads to my second set of misgivings.

The comments on Mr. Cruickshank’s memo are a rhetorical gesture rather than serious editing, but still: Instead of marshaling objections in an orderly form, it is a scattershot markup of everything that the copy editor can imagine to be objectionable. Some of them are inconsequential, particularly the objection to a split infinitive, which is not even an error.

It would be heartening to look at this markup as a doughty defense of truth and beauty and accuracy and clarity and the copy editor’s indispensable role. But, unfortunately, it is also possible to look at it as representing the copy desk’s tendency to quibble endlessly, without perspective.

I want to make it clear, though, that my sympathies are entirely with my fellow writers and editors at The Star whose careers are being cruelly cut short by an industry that has lost its way and lacks a vision for preserving the craft.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wasted words: New initiative

It appears to be lost on many that an initiative is something that is being started, and thus new. The word derives from the Latin initiare, to begin. It is related to initiate, to take the first steps, initiation, and initial, all of which share the sense of a beginning.

New initiative is usually a cant phrase favored by officials trying to dress up some proposed action for the public. It is defensible only in the context of comparison with a previous initiative that went nowhere, as so many do.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Testing, testing

Tonight is Quiz Night at Memorial Episcopal Church, an event for which I prepared a few questions, and the occasion brought up recollections of what I fondly called “our brutal applicant test” at The Baltimore Sun.

The test I took in 1985 when applying to the copy desk* at The Sun was several pages of questions on general knowledge. Later, when I had become a manager, Andy Faith, then chief of the desk, greeted me one afternoon by muttering, “The test has been compromised.” Someone had gotten hold of it and handed out copies at a job fair. Andy invited me to revise it, and I made it mine.

For most of the past fourteen years, copy desk applicants who got past the first stage of scrutiny were invited to come to Calvert Street for a series of interviews and the test, which, in its final version, comprised two sections:

General knowledge: Ten questions each in twelve categories: arts, business and economics, current events, English, geography, history, law, literature, mathematics, religion, science and medicine, and sports.

Editing: A set of ten short passages presenting various problems of grammar, usage, clarity, and taste, followed by two short articles presenting a range of editing issues — all taken, mind you, from in-house copy.

Over the years, the general knowledge portion proved to be a reliable indicator of performance, within limits. That is, applicants who scored low tended not to carry enough furniture upstairs to be effective editors. People who scored well might or might not be successful — only one applicant ever scored above 90 percent on the general knowledge segment, and I subsequently fired her because she was an abrasive know-it-all who alienated her colleagues on the desk.

The general knowledge questions** were a mixture of the reasonably easy and the fairly recondite, but it was the former items that always surprised. There are things you would think that everybody knows. You would be mistaken. Perhaps shocked, particularly by the answers, or lack of them, by recent college graduates. (The eye-opener for the applicant was the editing portion, which revealed just how badly one could write and still be employed by a major newspaper.)

I toyed once with adding a bogus question for fun: “List the pharaohs of Egypt’s XVIIIth Dynasty, according to height,” but decided, especially after a couple of applicants left the building in tears, that the test as it stood was already cruel enough. Besides, Tutankhamun never really got his growth.

So if any of you out there would like to set up a test to torment potential employees, or run a quiz night for fun or to raise funds, it should be clear by now that I’m your man.

*At one time, reporters were also required to take the test, but by the 1980s the management had apparently decided that it was not important for reporters to know things. Now, of course, as newspapers have decided to do without editors, it is no longer important for anyone to know anything.

**I am reluctant to disclose details of the items on the test, even though the prospect that The Sun will ever hire another copy editor seems as remote as the restoration of the Hapsburgs.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Wasted words: Ongoing

In almost all contexts, it is clear when some action, effort, or program is continuing, which renders the word ongoing superfluous.

What I think it is intended to mean is that we are really, really, really trying to do this. But I expect that nearly all readers skim right over it without paying much heed.

That, incidentally, is why you should avoid cliches and stock phrases, not because they offend our fastidious aesthetic sensibilities (though they do), but because they have been worn so smooth through overuse that readers do not even register what they say.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Slow down or pay up

I blame the TV commercials for automobiles.

They all show an individual car — your dream car, your elegant personal machine, your guarantee of synthetic masculinity — roaring along the highway in solitary splendor.

In reality, of course, you will be driving on an interstate at 20 mph, hemmed in by equally frustrated fellow motorists. But the commercial, the dream, tells you that because you own a machine that can do better than 90, you have a right to do so.

So when you do get a chance, you rev up to 60, 70, 80, 90, veering from one lane to another to whiz pass the slowpokes because the machine is yours and so is the road.

I believe that you may be the audience for an article in The Washington Post by Neely Tucker, whom an editor has evidently encouraged to write with Attitude. The article describes, indulgently, your rage at those speed cameras municipalities put up to fine you for driving at 50 mph past a schoolhouse. The impertinence, the gall of these bureaucrats to limit your freedom to treat a city street as an autobahn, and the greediness to make you pay when you do.

For my part, fussy old bourgeois that I am, driving a mere Chevy and pretty much staying within a few of miles of the speed limit, I wouldn’t mind seeing more cameras. I would have liked to see the driver who sailed through a red light at Hamilton and Harford while gabbing on a cell phone, nearly striking my son and me,* pay a fine. I think that the driver in the black Mercedes who sped down Virginia Avenue in Towson and ran the stop sign as I was making a turn one Sunday ought to have to write a check.

The interstate is worse, with all the cowboys and cowgirls whose lives are so much more important than mine going 20 and 30 miles above the speed limit on their urgent errands. There is no chance that the state will ever be able to hire enough police officers to curb them. Better to put up cameras.

Oh, and the objection that municipalities make money off those fines? Don’t you think that maybe people who break the law are an apt source of revenue?

*And I had observed the standard Baltimore pause after my light changed to green to avoid that very hazard.

The march to trivia

Good morning, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. Let’s go to press.

Lessee, now. CNN’s lead items: “Loss of softball teammates called ‘devastating’ ” and “Neda’s mother: ‘She was like an angel.’ ” So we conclude that when people die young and tragically, those left behind grieve. Got it. Looking forward to stories on the tenth anniversary of their deaths to see it confirmed that people are still sad.

Over at MSNBC, “Long-term jobless running on empty.” Not quite fair for me — unemployed for six months — to guess, but I think maybe that things get bad when you’re out of a job and have exhausted your resources.

Also on MSNBC, “Glenn Beck is new Oprah.” Let’s just shudder and move on.

Moving quickly to CBS News — you remember, Walter Cronkite’s old outfit — we find “Cops Find Missing Fla. Baby Under Sitter’s Bed.” You can click on the option to share the story on Facebook.

Maybe there’s something locally. WMAR in Baltimore has “Erase Embarrassing Photos from Facebook.” Can’t argue with that.

Dare I try Fox News? Ah, there’s that infant from under the bed. And some stuff about how the Democrats are all wrong about health care.

Yesterday the Associated Press discovered a man in Tennessee who says an image of Jesus keeps reappearing on the window of his pickup truck. This led “fev” at HeadsUp to offer advice that I fear will not be heeded: “No deities on foodstuffs, kitties, load-bearing surfaces, windows, motor vehicles or ancient mysterious medieval cloths. Ever. Period. It isn't news. You can't make it news. Don't try.”

I like Utz potato chips and Five Guys french fries and the beer-battered onion rings at the Hamilton Tavern. But I don’t make an exclusive diet of them. Years ago, when I worked as wire editor at The Sun, I always looked for an offbeat story or two to put on the budget, but I would never have dreamed to make them the lead items.

U.S. troops are coming back from Afghanistan in coffins. Millions of Americans are unemployed. Millions more lack medical insurance. And our political discourse has descended to name-calling while our newspapers, our television news operations, and our Internet news sites feature a steady diet of pap. I don’t know what an anthropologist would make of it, but surveying the offerings of our news media suggests to me that they are playing to an audience that they expect to be easily distracted and not serious.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Dr. Maddow, stick to politics

Over at Wishydig, Michael Coavarrubias catches Rachel Maddow in a false correction that expands the erroneous understanding of the split infinitive. She said of Sen. Joe Lieberman, “[H]e is biting the hand that inexplicably feeds him. Pardon the split infinitive.”

It is not a split infinitive, and it is not even wrong. (Dr. Maddow’s D.Phil. is in political science, not linguistics.)

Dr. Maddow is not alone.*

Over at Language Log, Geoffrey K. Pullum has discovered that Justice Anthony Kennedy “doesn’t know his passive voice from a hole in the ground.”

Professor Pullum has also discovered that the Collins Good Writing Guide, published by HarperCollins, is rife with ludicrous errors about grammar. He quotes the author’s explanation of the grammatical defect in the sentence Ask Tony and I for any further information you need: “To correct this you need to recognise that Ask is the subject and the phrase Tony and I is the direct object, because Tony and I are receiving the action as the result of the verb ask.” Yes, ask is both subject and verb. The author’s explanation of the phrase My word! is that My is the subject and word the predicate.

I think I am beginning to understand the difference between the teaching of English and the teaching of mathematics. Both are done wretchedly, but the outcome varies. Innumerate people are obscurely casual — point out an error in basic computation to a journalist, and you are likely to hear the explanation “Oh, I was never any good at math.” But people who have less grasp of grammar than of quantum mechanics set themselves up as authorities and chide the rest of us for our supposed lapses.

I saw it too

Thanks to the readers who have pointed out the column by Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander about the error-ridden baseball article by Tom Boswell. Sadly, Mr. Alexander’s explanation makes all the sense in the world. Newspapers have not only reduced the size and number of their pages, but have also adopted other cost-cutting measures that result in ever-earlier deadlines. What happened at The Post also happened at The Sun in my time there. The earlier deadlines make it difficult to get any late news into the paper, and readers the next morning wonder why they don’t have the scores of games. Or articles are railroaded into print right on deadline, with regrettable consequences.

What subscribers might also keep in mind as they wonder how shoddy copy gets into print is — c’mon, you knew this was coming — that the evisceration of newspaper copy desks leaves fewer people available to handle late or troublesome stories. With regrettable consequences.

*I have campaigned against this simple-minded and pointless transition for years, but it is harder to eradicate from journalism than Clinton jokes from a Letterman monologue. Fortunately, @FakeAPStylebook, which, to my glee, has more followers on Twitter than @APStylebook, ruled yesterday: “If the second paragraph of your story begins with ‘He/she isn't the only one,’ don't come back to work on Monday.”

Monday, November 2, 2009


According to, which ferreted out the identities of the authors of @FakeAPStylebook* on Twitter, the satirical site has quickly overtaken the straight one, with 35,455 followers for @FakeAPStylebook to 24,022 for @APStylebook. Or, if you prefer, the intentionally funny one is more popular than the unintentionally funny one.

This goes a long way toward restoring my faith in the public’s judgment.

*Ken Lowery of Dallas, Texas, and Mark Hale of Louisville, Kentucky, who are reportedly at work on a book proposal. And thanks to Susan Z. Swan for the tipoff to the article.