Thursday, December 31, 2009

O brave new world

You can read in the Philadelphia Inquirer about words and catchphrases of the year, but for me and many of my colleagues, there is one statement that fitly epitomizes the year that is gasping its last today:

“Our market-based, forward-looking plan is both a response to the recessionary economy, continued downward financial pressures on the news industry and our transition into a 21st-century multimedia enterprise.”

Thus Jonathan Slevin, publisher of the Washington Times, in a statement redolent of the rancid corporate-speak so familiar during the past twelve months, announces that he is sacking forty percent of the newsroom staff.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jobs not to be touched with a bargepole

You might think that, eight months out of work and two and a half months past the end of severance pay, I would snap at just about any possible job. You would be wrong. Here is some of what is out there, served up on listings I’ve signed up for.

Video Game Tester - Xbox Wii Playstation PC - Needed Immediately - Make Up To $30/Hour!

I played one game of Space Invaders one night in a bar, maybe in 1980. I’m out of the demographic.

Writers wanted for academic writing
We are interested in writers with prior experience in academic writing (essays, term papers, research papers, etc.).

College kids should write their own damn term papers.

WORK WITH BILLION DOLLAR COMPANY. Make $5000/Mo. Online...Part Time. Proven System, Huge Company

$5,000 a month for just typing some things into the Internet for a couple of hours a day. Older readers may recall classified ads in the back of magazines telling readers they could make big bucks stuffing envelopes at home; this appears to be the contemporary version.

FREE GOVERNMENT MONEY. Make 5k/Month Working From Home. Limited Positions

Uh-huh. This one looks to be a variation on the previous one.

The money-laundering scheme

The offer, deleted pretty much as soon as it landed in my computer, told me that all I needed to do was sit at home for a couple hours a day to receive foreign money transfers in my bank account and ship them to another one.

I suppose that becoming a guest of the state would solve the problem of my upkeep, but I hear that the food is terrible.


That was the title anyhow.

Requirement: a high school diploma.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Trying too hard

The art of writing a headline is to encapsulate the central element and tone of the article in a way that a reader can take in at a glance.

It took more than a glance for me to decipher this headline on the front page of this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

Flags down
over Block
award to
Eagles’ Vick

This is one of those headlines that make sense only after you read the story: That the annual Ed Block Courage Award is being given to Michael Vick of the Philadelphia Eagles — the man who ran a dog-fighting operation — has caused local outrage.

There are two ways in which this headline tries too hard and defeats its own purposes. The first is to jam all those proper nouns, Block, Eagles, Vick. Michael Vick is notorious enough locally that Eagles could have been sacrificed. The second mistake was to try to be clever while jamming all that information in with wordplay on flag down on play. You know, football.

The result is a headline that has too much — information — and too little — context for the wordplay. It is only in the secondary headline, Animal advocates outraged / over teammates’ choice, that the penny drops.

Simplify, simplify.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Our inbred universities

One of my informants sends this specimen from the Daily Local News of Chester County, Pennsylvania. It is the second sentence in an article about the demolition of a log cabin at Eastern University:

School officials say the long-abandoned structure was unsafe, the logs were incest-infested and the price of renovation too high for the institution to afford.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

You don't want your editor to be your chum

Your editor is your friend, but not your pal.

Your friend knows your strengths and your weaknesses, and is able to tell you a few home truths.

When I first took on the authorship of The Sun’s monthly copy desk newsletter, I inherited the title “Sgt. Friday’s Report.” The gimmick was that it came out on the last Friday of the month and led with a short narrative in which Sergeant Friday and Officer Gannon discussed various writing and editing misdemeanors.

I thought that I handled the device adroitly, with some very droll passages. But when I took it to Dudley Clendinen — then an assistant managing editor — he shook his head. A little puzzled by it. Not sure how it worked or was meant to work. Maybe try something a little different.

I went away, and as I looked at my text, a terrible light dawned. It was not droll. It was labored. And, worst of all, not funny. I realized that Dudley had done me a great service. He had, in the friendliest way, told me something that I badly needed to hear.

Often when editors fail, it is because they misunderstand the relationship with the writers and want to be pals rather than friends. “Hey, buddy, anything you do is A-OK with me. Everything is jake.”

This does not do the writer any good. Buddy-editing lets just anything slide through, and the writer is not held to any particular standard. A colleague on the copy desk once marveled at the low-grade writing of a veteran Sun reporter: “Why, he’s had twenty-five years’ experience!” I muttered, “No, he’s had one year’s experience twenty-five times.” Not one in a succession of editors had held him to any higher standard.

There’s a degree of moral cowardice in slack editing, too. Editing done properly is hard work, but it is even harder to confront people with things they don’t care to hear. If the writer is inept or temperamental, it’s easier just to pass the stuff along — what on a different occasion I referred to as peristalsis rather than editing.

A friend expects the best of you, and you exert yourself to do your best to honor that friendship. When you need an editor — and all of you do — look for a friend. If you want a buddy, go to a bar.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

How dumb do they think we are?

Once a television news operation gets a technology, it’s obliged to use it, regardless whether it makes any sense.

When I lived in Cincinnati, WCPO acquired a helicopter. Once the station had sprung for that kind of cash, there was some kind of chopper report every night. Likewise, once a station has the capability to report from a location other than the studio, reporters and camera operators must be dispatched daily to remote locations, however improbable.

One sees at the eleven o’clock news, for example, a reporter standing outside the darkened City Hall to discuss events earlier in the day involving people who are no longer on the site. What this report from a scene where no one else is present should convey to the viewer is elusive.

Tonight, though, I noticed a further refinement on Baltimore’s WJZ.* The story was the melancholy discovery of the body of a missing child on the Eastern Shore. The events were narrated by a reporter “reporting live,” standing outdoors in the dark. Somewhere. But the substitute anchor, who twice identified the reporter as “reporting live,” never mentioned “from” anywhere. This gave rise to a reasonable supposition that the reporter might have been no nearer the Eastern Shore than, say, a parking lot behind the television studio.

If you think that newspaper journalism has become superficial and trivial, you may not have been watching enough television.**

*Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t usually watch local television news, because my shouted objections make the rest of the family nervous. Tonight, however, stunned by overeating at Christmas dinner, we were too lazy to change the channel.

**Out of deference to Christmas goodwill toward all, I have waited until past midnight to make this post.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Another damn word of the year

Every maven and his sisters and his cousins, whom he reckons by the dozens, is pushing a word-of-the-year article or word-of-the-decade article (for that decade that we don’t have a word for, haven’t cared enough about to settle on a word for, and frankly just want to be over).

Even I am not immune to the temptation. So, herewith, my Word of the Year, Word of the Decade:


A portmanteau word, blending crap and fantastic, not in a favorable connotation, it was particularly beloved among some people whom I know in their descriptions of the work of a particular major media concern. (This description, I realize, will make it impossible for you to narrow the field.)

As a description of the level of public discourse to which we have descended in this waning decade, and particularly as a description of the degeneration of the established news media into drivel, gossip, and irrelevance, it does appear to be the signature word.

Merry Christmas.

Writing made bad on purpose

It must puzzle lay people — it has certainly puzzled me for years — that professional journalists write so clumsily. I’m going to lead you through a couple of examples before attempting an explanation.

Someone on Calvert Street, it appears, reads this blog. Yesterday’s post identified a misplaced adverb in this sentence:

Kevin P. Callahan was charged with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device last week after a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County.

Gratifyingly, this morning’s print edition has last week nestled cozily after was charged.

But there is always more to be said, as Cliff Tyllick pointed out in a comment on that post:

Another problem is the writer's positioning of the adverbial prepositional phrase, “after a two-month investigation ... .” Specifically, it was not after a two-month investigation that Callahan drove negligently, failed to stop, and failed to obey; it was after a two-month investigation that he was charged.

Moving the whole bit to the front of the sentence not only makes that clearer but also makes the sentence easier to read and understand:

After a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County, Kevin P. Callahan was charged last week with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device.

And a 41-word sentence needs every readability improvement the editor can muster.

On Facebook, Pat Myers had this to say:

But DON'T go all the other way around and put the time BEFORE the verb, in that weird newspaperese “He yesterday was charged ...” I tomorrow am going to puke if I see it in the paper then. They even say it out loud on NPR.

I’m afraid that Ms. Myers might suffer gastric distress to read this lead sentence from a Page One article in this morning’s Sun:

The Anne Arundel County Council Monday night approved zoning to allow the state's largest slots parlor to be built at Arundel Mills, both a major victory for Baltimore-based developer David Cordish and a decision that opponents promise to continue fighting.

And it’s another lumbering 40-word sentence.

Let’s think about how such sentences come to be written.

The difficulty with adverbial placement must originate in journalism schools. Putting the day of the action first in the sentence — Yesterday the council approved — is verboten because you want something stronger than a mere adverb of time at the beginning of a sentence. But you also want it early in the sentence to convey “freshness.” Thus the journalistic preference for placing the adverb in a non-idiomatic location between the subject and the verb. Reporters cannot, apparently, be broken of this habit. And once you have lost your bearings about where adverbs should go, they can go anywhere.

Similarly, those thirty- and forty- and fifty-word monstrosities rise from the j-school instruction to cram as much of the story as possible into a single summary paragraph. The slots paragraph might easily have been broken into two, the first recounting the action, the second pointing to the consequences, and the reader would have sailed straight through both of them.*

My favorite example of this tendency — the champion — is a sentence I have lovingly brought out in workshops and editing classes for more than a dozen years:

Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

Journalism being a craft learned by apprenticeship, it is inevitable that a tyro will look at published sentences and paragraphs like these and think, “Oh, so that’s how it’s done.” Thus turgidity perpetuates itself.

*Or the consequences could have begun the sentence. One problem with an opening like this is that the reader can’t tell what the focus of the story is going to be — how the vote came about, or what comes next. Unfortunately, the story bounces back and forth between the two, suggesting that no one involved was able to decide which was more important.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Watch your adverbs

In English, word order counts for a great deal, as this sentence from illustrates:

Kevin P. Callahan was charged with negligent driving, failure to stop at a red signal, and failure to obey a traffic device last week after a two-month investigation of the crash at York and Corbett roads in northern Baltimore County.

The accident, as the second half of the sentence points out, occurred two months ago. That was when the negligent driving, failure to stop, and failure to obey happened. Last week was when the driver was charged, and so last week fits — or should fit — neatly into a little syntactic niche immediately after was charged.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Just want it to be over

One of my readers suggests that I address the naming of the decade that is passing away, since no one seems to have agreed on a term. Fortunately, Christopher Beam has written on the subject at, with capable assistance from Jesse Sheidlower and Ben Zimmer.

The aughts has had a certain popularity, the noughts has done well in Britain, and there are the inevitable cute coinages, such as Slate’s the Uh-Ohs. I rather like that last one, but basically, I just don’t care.

This naming of decades fosters shallow thinking. The Fifties? Ike and men wearing hats. But if you read David Halberstam’s excellent book on the decade, you discover that it was much more complex. The Sixties? The Sixties has become a code word in the culture wars, and the way you speak of it identifies which side you’re on. The Seventies were more than cocaine and regrettable fashions, hard as it is to get past the latter.

And then there’s this: Mr. Beam opens his article by writing, “Less than two weeks remain in the first decade of the new millennium. ...” Oh dear. The tiresome thing about writing on language and usage is that you have to plow the same field over and over and over.

Remember Y2K?

The current millennium began on January 1, 2001. Those were nice parties you had in 2000, but you were a year early. There having been no Year Zero, the first millennium of the common era began in A.D. 1 and did not exhaust its thousand years until the end of A.D. 1000. The second began on January 1, 1001, and ended in 2000. The current decade, similarly, began on January 1, 2001, and will not end until midnight on December 31, 2010.

I’m sorry if this spoils your sense of fitness in the way numbers are grouped, but a decade has ten years, a century a hundred, a millennium a thousand — and you have been giving short weight.

An additional calendrical note: Today marks the fourth anniversary of You Don’t Say. From its debut on on December 20, 2005, to the present I’ve had the satisfaction of writing for a growing corps of readers. You have applauded me, you have argued with me, and — bless your hearts — you have corrected me. Thank you all.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

That man in the White House

Hell of a story: Popular Democrat comes into office succeeding a highly unpopular Republican administration, hits the ground running to deal with an economic crisis, experiments with measures, reduces conservatives to howling rage, and leaves the left grumbling that he has betrayed their hopes by compromising with corporate interests.

H.W. Brands tells his story in Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Doubleday, 888 pages, $35 in hardcover), and he tells it very well. Brands, a professor of history at the University of Texas, hits all the major themes:

The personality: Child of a wealthy old family, he was indulged and dominated by his mother. He sailed easily, a golden boy, through prep school, college, and an early political career. Felled by polio, he struggled to recover autonomy and put iron in his character. His marriage, scarred permanently by an infidelity, devolved into something more like a law partnership, Franklin and Eleanor dividing up the political field between them. Though he was ebullient and apparently extroverted, his interior life, his inner self, seems to have been oddly closed off from nearly everyone. He was, instead, onstage nearly every waking moment.*

The culture: Today is not 1933, and Barack Obama, despite intriguing parallels, is no Franklin Roosevelt, but American characteristics endure. The twentieth century marked a shift from an economy of scarcity to an economy of surplus — a consumer culture motivated by advertising in which consumer confidence is crucial to maintaining economic momentum. The excesses of that culture, particularly in banking and investment, lead to periodic disasters and calls for reform. And “the reformist temperament in American life has always hidden a coercive streak: if people won’t shape up voluntarily, they should be encouraged, even compelled, to do so.” Think of the abolitionists, the prohibitionists, and their heirs today.

The politics: The accusations that Roosevelt was manipulative and duplicitous are hard to challenge. He mastered the technique of leaving the people he talked with under the impression that he had agreed with their proposals, and he played factions and personalities and even his own assistants against each other. He foresaw that the war between the Fascists and the democracies would inevitably draw the United States into the conflict, and he prepared the American public for it by degrees.

This line that the Roosevelt character speaks in Annie is a fair summary:” I’ve just decided that if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.” Franklin Roosevelt was a thoroughgoing optimist. He was optimistic that he could overcome polio. He was optimistic that the federal government could act to mitigate the distresses of the Depression. He was optimistic that democracy would prevail over Hitler. And, having seen Woodrow Wilson’s dream of the League of Nations fail, he was optimistic that a new international order could be established to forestall war and promote human freedom.

Professor Brands, who writes lucidly, has done an admirable job of portraying the man and his times for those interested in discovering what the past can tell us.

*To speak of being onstage: I have been cast as Franklin Roosevelt in the Memorial Players’ production of Annie to be staged at Memorial Episcopal Church in Bolton Hill on April 23, 24, 25, and 30, and May 1. Further details will be forthcoming in the spring.


If a reader should order the book from by clicking on this link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Friday, December 18, 2009

In case you missed it ...

A recent comment on the post “Christmas is coming. Save yourselves” said:

I can't wait until all copy editors are out of work. You people are the pathetic parasites of the newspaper industry. What do you actually create?

Had I been inclined to bandy words with such a fellow, I could have pointed out that on this blog alone and its predecessor at, there are hundreds of examples of sound advice from a copy editor — not to speak of the posts and articles from fellow copy editors that I have cited over the past four years.

I might also have mentioned, had I thought the commenter susceptible to rational discussion, my experience that the most professional and accomplished writers I have worked with over the past three decades have been the ones most appreciative of copy editors, and that the writers most hostile to the copy desk have typically been those most in need of editing.

Instead, I contented myself with giving an answer to his rhetorical question about what copy editors actually create:


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What do you want to hear about?

I told you yesterday that I am scheduled to conduct two audioconferences on editing for McMurry, one in January, “Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You,” and one in February, “Where to Turn: Resources for Editors.” Today I’d like to give you a chance to influence what is said on them.

If you have been reading this blog regularly, you should have a pretty clear idea of what I am likely to say about superstitions of usage, “rules” that aren’t really rules, and peevers’ shibboleths. But we can’t discount the possibility that I may have overlooked some particularly ripe examples. So please, if there is some point of usage that you think I should address — even if you are not able to take part in the audioconference — please suggest it in a comment.

Similarly, I have written in the past about print and electronic references that I consult and recommend, but the posts have hardly been exhaustive. If there is a source that you have found to be particularly reliable and useful, your suggestion of it in a comment would be welcome. I’ll pass it along.

On to other matters

Item: Writing about the Oxford University Press reissue of H.W. Fowler’s original Dictionary of Modern English Usage, I remarked in passing, “Six and a half columns on shall are of little purpose in an age and a country in which the word has largely fallen out of use.” A couple of commenters disputed that. For example: “As a shall-user, I detect that many non-users employ it in questions. Shall I get you some more coffee? Shall we dance? Even if they wouldn't say I shall get you some coffee, or We shall dance.”

Yes, stock phrases like “Shall we dance?” and the use of shall as an imperative in legal documents persist. But I think that “Would you like to dance?” and “Can I get you another cup of coffee?” may be more commonplace. The grammatical insistence on shall with the first person, which I was taught in elementary school, was well on the way out then and now seems as quaintly archaic as thou and thee with the second person.

Item: ran an article yesterday about a 19-year-old sophomore at George Washington University who “has become the Washington press corps’ independent fact checker, copy editor and link distributor extraordinaire. His e-mails almost always lead off with a soup├žon of praise, such as “In your excellent article today,” followed by a link to the story and polite notification of a mistake, anything from a broken hyperlink to a misspelled name.”

You Don’t Say applauds Daniel Lippman — Lord, we would like to see more like him — for his persistence and tact in pointing out the lapses of the great and the mighty. And it will be interesting to see what career he pursues upon graduation.

It is, however, a little melancholy to reflect that it now takes an unpaid undergraduate to do after publication what professional copy editors — before the War on Editing decimated their ranks — used to do before publication.

Item: If you were impressed by David Hobby’s photograph of me — he did the best he could with the available material — you can check out some additional examples of his work on Flickr.

Monday, December 14, 2009



I have been engaged by McMurry, which also publishes the Copyediting newsletter, to conduct two audio conferences on editing. Click on the links for details.

Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Where to Turn: Resources for Editors

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Meep me, daddy, eight to the bar

The principal of a high school in Massachusetts recently banned the word meep in his school, threatening any student who used it, spoken or written, with expulsion. His rationale is that the students were using the word in a disruptive manner.

Of course they were. That is what adolescents do. Few teen pleasures are keener than getting under the skin of officious adults. And the principal, one Thomas Murray, lost composure sufficiently to forward e-mails containing meep to the local police.

Erin McKean, writing in The Boston Globe from a lexicographer’s perspective, points out that meep is the gulp of stifled panic that Beaker, the assistant in Muppet Labs, chirps as something is about to explode. Moreover, she points out: “The very sound of meep is cheering: The long-e sound forces the face into a smile (like saying cheese for a photograph), and research has shown that even a forced smile can result in an improvement in mood.”

Joy among the students must have been unconfined when word of the meep ban spread through Facebook and the news media, prompting additional lexical invention.*

Erin McKean again:

Combine a blank slate like meep and the natural tendency of English to produce new words with suffixes and affixes (and then throw in a little paronomasia, or punning) and you have plenty of scope for meep-related fun. The students (meepsters or meepers) were supposedly planning a mass-meeping, at which people might get meeped, which of course would cause meep-ruption. Meep proved to be an excellent word for expressing disapproval of the ban − “Oh, for meep’s sake,” “Read it and meep,” − although one commenter at the popular discussion site MetaFilter felt the story merited the stronger “Jesus mept,” and another picked up on a popular conspiracy-theory trope with a rousing “WAKE UP MEEPLE!”

Indulgence in meepery, it seems to me, is the kind of harmless minor anarchism that can help students endure the institutional imbecilities of the educational system, and if they can rattle some representative of tinpot authority into going meep-mad, then they have struck a blow for freedom, both lexical and personal.

*Apparently meepists outside the school began bombarding the principal with e-mails containing the odious word − not that I would give any encouragement myself to petty harassment.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Don't make me no nevermind

I can’t hardly think why so many people get all bent out of shape over minor variations in language. Myself, I could care less how people talk or what they write in text messages and e-mails or anything else casual they’re writing at. Though I might could get upset in some circumstances. To blatantly violate all kinds of actual rules and all those shibboleths some people think of as rules — none of the latter are worth a bucket of warm spit — might come from ignorance, which could be instructed, or defiance, which can be fun when it sets the peevers’ teeth on edge. And really, who gets hurt? Woman asked me the other day — I was buying a hat to replace the fedora that got stolen at church last Sunday — whether stupider was a word. I told her that if somebody used it, since she could understand it, it was a word. Whether anybody ought to have used it in all situations is a different question. Formal writing’s different from just talk, and I have frequently said so. Told her to talk like she wanted to. (She and her husband remembered me, bless their hearts, from that affectionate column, “Last seen in bow tie and fedora, the dictionary has gone missing,” when I was sacked by The Sun. Nothing wrong with gone missing, even if it was British first. You want a first-rate hat, you go to Hippodrome Hatters on Baltimore Street, they’ll fix you up.) Anyhow, just passing time here waiting for another job interview, the thing is, you gonna write for publication, you gotta consider your audience and what level of diction and syntax fits your subject and your publication and your audience. That’s what matters there. But let people talk the way they want. Like you could stop them anyhow.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

On board at the Press Foundation

I have been elected a trustee of the Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Foundation. The foundation, an offshoot of the MDDC Press Association, supports training of journalists, advocates open government, and proclaims to the public the importance of the First Amendment.

The foundation’s announcement describes me as the retired copy desk chief of The Baltimore Sun, which is not strictly accurate but more decorous than “sacked.” At any rate, I am happy to have an opportunity in my post-Sun career to perform some useful service to journalism.

Does 'foodie' make you cringe?

Normally, I would shun reality shows as I would the fetid corpse of a raccoon at the roadside,* but my wife and son are addicted to Top Chef and have gradually drawn me into following this kitchen soap opera. But while I think that the producers manipulated the show to ensure a final contest between the Voltaggio brothers (and Jen and Kevin got a raw deal), I must make this clear: I am not a foodie.

I’m not sure that you want to be, either.

Foodie has been around for almost thirty years, and many people use it, without irony, to describe themselves. But the widespread use of the word has also provoked resistance. Let’s see where it falls on the range of terms for eaters.

A gourmet is a knowledgeable diner with refined tastes, at the highest level an epicure. A gastronome is also a connoisseur, perhaps more knowledgeable about the history and techniques of cookery than a gourmet, though the terms are often used interchangeably. A gourmand — frequently confused with gourmet — is someone who tucks in to food and drink enthusiastically, a trencherman, even a glutton at the extreme end of the range.

And now we have to fit foodie in, by examining connotations. Gourmet, gastronome, and epicure, all venerable words, suggest a diner who is thoroughly acquainted with traditional cuisines. As such, the words hint at pretentiousness or class-consciousness. A foodie appears to be an enthusiast for novelty, willing to try new things and aware of what is currently fashionable; he or she may well be pretentious, not in the traditional manner, but in the manner of one who is and must be au courant. The foodie may or may not have specialized knowledge — I am gathering this from blog comments by self-described foodies — but may simply be someone who likes to talk about cooking and dining out. The term is too loose to be terribly helpful.

That –ie suffix is also a problem with the word. In English, it often represents a diminutive, and to call oneself a foodie is to suggest fandom, perhaps to a risible degree. Think Trekkie.

Like it or not, use it or not, we appear to be stuck with it. As we are with reality shows.

*Sorry, Sarah Kelber.

Monday, December 7, 2009

I don't really look this good

The photo added to the blog today was taken by David Hobby, an accomplished former Baltimore Sun photographer.* If you have any interest in his craft, you should be following his blog, Strobist. If you are a civilian, you may still admire his work.

He has been generous enough to open his studio to me for a set of photos, of which this is the first. If he can make me look this good, imagine what he might do for you.

*I have the highest regard for all the photographers and former photographers at The Sun whose work was an ornament to the paper and a credit to the profession. I never had any difficulty in dealing with them when posing annoying questions from the copy desk. That their ranks have been decimated is yet one more instance of the crisis that has diminished newspaper journalism.

Henry Fowler's divided legacy

My copy of Fowler is the 1965 edition, lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, but now it is possible to lay hands on a reprint of the original 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, 784 pages, $29.95), with an introduction by the distinguished linguist David Crystal.

Why, you may ask, bother? Did not R.W. Burchfield say in his third edition of Fowler in 1996 that the original is a “schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book” and “an enduring monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century”?*

One reason is that there is a fair amount of good sense in the original — and good sense written entertainingly.

Take, for example, his description of those who want to insist that the placement of only in a sentence is crucial to meaning: “those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved ... the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion.” Their goal is “to force us all, whenever we use the adverb only, to spend time in considering which is the precise part of the sentence strictly qualified by it, & then put it there—this whether there is any danger or none of the meaning’s being false or ambiguous.” A current linguist writing at Language Log would say much the same.

The entry on superstitions (the enduring belief that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) reminds us of “the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

Professor Crystal takes a more generous view of Fowler’s accomplishment than the late Mr. Burchfield, pointing out that Fowler made extensive use of the available linguistic information in the Oxford English Dictionary and his own extensive observations. He places Fowler in historic context, in an age when prescriptivism was beginning to lose its dominance in education and linguists were developing and analyzing findings about how people – both the uneducated and the educated — actually use the language. “His solid educational background in English grammar, Latin, and Greek was pulling him in one direction; his considerable observational linguistic alertness was pulling him in another, urging him to recognize the huge changes in usage that were taking place. ...”

Thus, “although the book is full of his personal likes and dislikes, his prescriptivism — unlike that practised by many of his disciples — is usually intelligent and reasoned. He readily condemns rules which he considers to be absurdly artificial — something which later pedants tend to ignore.”

But, Professor Crystal points out, “the trouble with private judgement, as opposed to judgement based on sound linguistic principles, is that it leads inevitably to a lack of consistency.” Thus “[d]ifferent entries give different answers,” and “the difficulty of using his book in a principled and systematic way led to his influence on subsequent usage and attitudes being very mixed.”

Someone approaching Modern English Usage as a guide to standard written English, with advice to be measured against one’s own sense of the direction of the language — that is, a reasonable prescriptivist — can find it highly useful within its limits. And the author’s occasional crankiness can be a source of mild amusement.

But there are two serious hazards.

The first is the attractiveness of Fowler’s private judgments trenchantly expressed. They seem to give leave to the great tribe of peevologists and the tinpot grammarians found throughout journalism to similarly trumpet their private preferences.

The second lies in the psychological need among some people — some of whom, unfortunately, are copy editors — for The Rules. Everything must be right or wrong, and any recommendation or guideline can be warped into a Rule.

Both hazards lead inevitably to “unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

First Fowler is at once a** historic document, an expression of an engagingly quirky personality, and a source of still-useful advice — if you use it cautiously. But then, you should use any manual of usage cautiously.

*To be sure, there is a good deal of dated material in a book of usage more than eighty years old. Six and a half columns on shall are of little purpose in an age and a country in which the word has largely fallen out of use. The entries on received pronunciation are likewise of small utility to an American reader of this century. It is no longer necessary to address the “lingering hyphen” in today, tomorrow, and tonight. Neither does it help us to differentiate between tricky (playful) and tricksy (dishonest).

**The first entry says: “A is used before all consonants except the silent h (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic. ...”


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

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Save money: Cut back on editing

A correction from The Washington Post:

A Nov. 26 article in the District edition of Local Living incorrectly said a Public Enemy song declared 9/11 a joke. The song refers to 911, the emergency phone number.

From the Morning Call, Allentown, Pennsylvania:

Judge nixes please for man, who's accused of hosting racy underage drinking party, and sneds him to prison for stalking.

From the lead paragraph of a New York Times article:

It is the breakfast hour, the day before Thanksgiving and the lobby is busy with clean-looking families who are up and Adam, ready to set off in their varsity-letter jackets and Rockports for some holiday shopping, maybe a show.

From the Associated Press:

Energy shortages and rationing could be exacerbated by Colombia's decision last week to reduce exports of electricity to Venezuela, Lopez added. Colombia's energy minister, Hernan Martiez sidth douhtha frcd olmba o to sppyig Veezela with 70 to 80 megawatts a day.

Tell me more about how much better it is to get copy from the writer to the reader with “fewer touches.”

A prelate from Baltimore

Mary Glasspool, who was elected bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles yesterday, is canon to the bishops in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. She is properly referred to as the Rev. Canon Mary Glasspool.

Her election was of more than common interest, because she is the second openly gay person to be elected a bishop in the Episcopal Church, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson having been elected bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.

The Associated Press article on her election called her merely the Rev. Mary Glasspool and also said that she had been elected an assistant bishop. No. Both assistant bishops and suffragan bishops are auxiliaries to diocesan bishops, but an assistant bishop is appointed to serve in a diocese, and a suffragan bishop is elected to the post. The latter is harder to dislodge.

The article on her election in yesterday’s Baltimore Sun was apparently an unedited or lightly edited AP version. There was, regrettably, no staff contribution, though Canon Glasspool’s election had been pending over the weekend and was completed in the early evening.

Friday, December 4, 2009

You can't jolly humorless

I have a guest post today, “The with-it need the without-it,” at Dining@Large, responding to a series of exchanges over a one-line joke about the prevalence of hipsters at a couple of Baltimore restaurants. The subject may be trivial, but I think you will recognize the personalities illuminated by it.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Somebody loves copy editors

At last, somebody understands us.

Of course, it would be The Intern.

The Intern got her manuscript back from the copy editor, and, well, it didn’t look good:

The copy editor had caught so many silly mistakes, pointed out places where a topic mentioned in an introduction was never addressed in the chapter, and even raised questions about the political correctness of some of INTERN's word choices. “Oh man!” thought INTERN. “Copy Editor must think INTERN is a fool! Copy Editor must be wondering what Publisher was thinking when they offered to publish such a cretinous and unworthy INTERN!”

The following passage from The Intern’s blog shows why The Unpaid Intern is not yet a Seasoned Wordsmith. Instead of railing against Copy Editor’s obsession with minutiae and failure to honor Her Writer’s Voice, she offers a short panegyric to our whole tribe:

Copy editing is not for sissies. A good copy editor does not humor you. A good copy editor does not chuckle warmly at your tendency to misspell the names of foreign dignitaries or diseases and let it stand ’cause it’s cute. A good copy editor will kindly but firmly tell you that your phrasing is unclear, your language offensive, and your punctuation laughable. These people are frighteningly smart and thorough and have your manuscript’s best interests at heart and deserve all the love and respect in the universe.

Well, The Intern gets the copy desk’s love and respect, however fleetingly, and its encouragement to potential employers to have a look at her Web site and think about offering her a job. Someone who recognizes and accepts correction is probably the kind of employee you need.

Thank you, @EditorMark, for the citation.

Dork, dork, geek

The terms dweeb, dork, geek, and nerd tend to be flung about carelessly, with very little discrimination about shades of meaning. Happily, an attempt has been made to settle this nice point of taxonomy by classifying the four types by combinations of three variables: intelligence, obsession, and social ineptitude.

Geek: intelligence + obsession
Dork: obsession + social ineptitude
Dweeb: intelligence + social ineptitude
Nerd: all three

The distinctions can be displayed visually in a Venn diagram posted by Scott Beale in September, from which I have gratefully derived this post.

I leave it to you to determine which category is most appropriate for grammarians and usage mavens.

Three volleys and a bugle call

With an additional 30,000 U.S. troops heading for Afghanistan, reporters should school themselves to write more passages like this one from today’s Baltimore Sun:

The perfect rows of marble headstones stretching as far as the eye could see. The three rifle volleys followed by a somber rendition of "Taps." The flags, folded tight and handed with care to the parents and sister. ...

Full marks to the writer for saying “three rifle volleys.” The three-volley salute with rifles is a feature of military funerals. The “21-gun salute,” with which it is frequently confused in news reports, is performed with artillery, not rifles, and is typically reserved for heads of state.

Unfortunately, taps is not a song but a bugle call, like reveille, and therefore is not capitalized or italicized or written with quotation marks. Not to be picky — too late? — but calling it “somber” is more than is required. When was it not?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Surprising -- surprisingly weak, that is

She started out so promisingly, too. Jill Lepore in the current New Yorker:

“At present the United States has the unenviable distinction of being the only great industrial nation without compulsory health insurance,” the Yale economist Irving Fisher said in a speech in December. December of 1916, that is.

The journalistic device of leading you in one direction and then bringing you up short with an additional amplifying detail can be effective. But adding the feeble that is merely dilutes the effect with cliche. If the fragment after the opening sentence had simply read, “Of 1916,” the reader would have felt the impact of the nation’s long failure to deal with the issue. Instead, the reader gets the impact of the writer’s elbow nudging him in the ribs. Didja get that, huh, didja?