John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

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 soupçon 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.


  1. My observation reveals that SHALL is used in a subjunctive mood in all three persons in American usage, and WILL in the indicative. Those not hampered by monolingualism may perceive this more readily.

    In any case, I cannot select a profile to comment as, so I remain your faithful reader,

    MichiganCityDDS (twitter ID)

  2. In your excellent blog post today, you solicited ideas for your upcoming audioconference. I have no specific suggestions. I would, however, like to respectfully suggest that that you strive mightily to not let the event be dragged into -- as tends to happen when one opens the doors to a discussion of usage -- a complaint-fest of "You know what I hate? I hate it when people say ..." Many a promising discussion about usage seems to get hijacked and turned into a forum for decrying what those kids are doing to our precious language these days.

    But you already know this. :-)

    As for "shall" and "will," this trilingual speaker hasn't heard an actual user of actual American English burp forth a spontaneous "shall" for the subjunctive in his approximate half-century of exposure to the language.

  3. John, as a technical editor I too often must deal with the legalistic "shall." The best minds in this field concur: It has become a strange word to nearly all, so much so that it is far better to replace it with the more familiar "must."

    Lawyers quibble about the distinction, but our goal is for people to get the right message, not for us to spout the purist's correct lingo. "Must" works. "Shall" fails.

    Off the topic, you might enjoy this bit I just read in an article advising how to make a website more usable: "Stay away from marketing jargon and get straight to the valued proposition."


  4. Editing: Why It Matters?

    That is the title for your PBS series.

    A gift from MichiganCityDDS of twitter

  5. I spent half my childhood in France, attending French schools in which, for a couple years, I took English as a foreign language. They taught that 'shall' was to be used with the first person and 'will' with all others. I was 12 at the time, I think, and up to then I had been using the two terms interchangeably.

    The discussion does remind me somewhat of a George Ade line I saw quoted somewhere: "'Whom,' he said, for he had been to night school."

  6. A point you might want to make in passing is that words on the Internet probably have greater lifespans than words in print and are more likely to be copied. Thus it makes sense to take at least the same care in writing and editing for the Internet as in writing and editing for publication on paper. Unfortunately, Internet publications take the opposite approach, figuring that they need fewer editors than print publications require (or used to require).

    The best thing a writer can do is to choose grammatically speaking parents, so what sounds familiar and comfortable is right. I grew up saying "every since" and was in my 50s before my error was pointed out to me. Today I have to pause, think, then say "ever since." The right way still sounds wrong.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. You need a comment spam filter, John (that remark from 'motorycle battery' is total spam if ever I saw it). Akismet is the standard for blogs. One thing is encouraging free speech, another letting your blog traffic suffer (Google calls it 'bad neighbourhood' when you let spam in, and marks you down for it). This is just a friendly tip, by the way, you can delete this paragraph if you decide to allow the rest of this comment through.

    Will people actually be buying the re-published Fowler to use as a how-to guide to contemporary English, do you think, rather than as a curio? When there are more up-to-date usage guides available, including editions of 'Modern English Usage' itself? Though there is nothing wrong with being reminded of the mechanics of more formal language than we are accustomed to using these days. In fact, on the 'shall' front, being a) British and b) a translator, I come across its subjunctive use all the time, as well as its conversational first person indicative. English is much more than conversation or e-mails or even newspaper articles, it's also contracts, engineering specifications, medical protocols, etc. Sometimes, "shall" is just the only efficient way to express that idea of "will [verb] because of a binding agreement or other external obligation or power." And what does the fairy godmother say to Cinderella in American English? "You must/can/will go to the ball" lacks umph.

  9. In the Standard English use of shall and will of Fowler's day, a degenerate version of which I use, "I shall" is for the plain future, and other parts of that verb - including interrogative first person - are coloured with some sense of permission or instruction or similar doubtfulness.

    In BrE, plain future shall is heading gravewards, following the course of AmE, but interrogative first person "shall" clings on, and not just in stock phrases. Of course, "Shall I get you some more coffee?" is hardly a stock phrase but live English.

    In BrE you can also hear "Shall I get that?" (answer a telephone call); "Shall I ring you back?"; "Shall I take your bag?" and other cases where there is a polite fiction of seeking permission, but not quite polite enough to justify the use of "may" (or "can", I suppose).

    It seems from some comments that the same lingering of the old "shall" lives on even in AmE.

  10. I shall continue to use shall. Shall you object?

  11. How about taking apart that old S&W nugget about avoiding passive voice? Along with that goes the discussion (I believe you once pointed us to a relevant Language Log article) about how a lot of people don't really understand what "passive voice" really is.

    This misunderstanding came up in my writer's group when one writer told another a work contained "too much passive voice" when what she really meant was it lacked active verbs. Some writers (although probably few of them work in news) don't seem understand this kind of writing is sometimes best (e.g. "The mayor was indicted").

    Another topic: the prejudice against adverbs. It seems some writers have been taught every adverb should be excised. I think they don't believe me when I say adverbs are OK, as long as they're used appropriately.

  12. This isn't relevant to the discussion, but I want to share this with you. I had to look up the cost of a subscription to AP Stylebook online. Splashed across the page, with a little graphic of a gift-wrapped package, is the slogan "An AP Stylebook ... would make a great gift!" With mock enthusiasm, I read this to my colleague in the next cubicle, who said, "Yeah, if you need kindling."