Friday, November 12, 2010

... and it keeps on ticking

Just a reminder that You Don't Say continues in its second life at

Also on, you can see the resumption of my video jokes, posted on alternate Mondays.

And a new feature, In a Word, presents a new vocabulary word every Monday. Here is a gallery of entries.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Remember, remember, second September

I posted earlier today on the Sun blog explaining why this date is memorable for more than the Japanese surrender in 1945:

Monday, August 2, 2010

August update

Unfortunately, the Parkside is no more. Kathleen and I happened to eat there the night before it shut down and enjoyed a dish of J.P.'s creation, spicy artichoke poppers. Sad.

Perhaps less sadly, is featuring a "Joke of the Week" every Monday, and I am telling it on alternate weeks. Here is a link to the video for this week's offering, "The Cannibal Reporters":

And if you have not yet been reading this blog in its return to, please come on over:

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Shameless filial promotion

It would not be appropriate for me to shill for a business on my blog at, though you are certainly encouraged to go there for the ruminations on language, journalism, and other weighty and not-so-weighty topics (among the latter, the Joke of the Week). But I have to mention that my son, J.P., has joined the staff at the Parkside on Harford Road as a cook, and your custom there would not be misplaced. Go for the bar; stay for the grub.

Monday, June 21, 2010

As inaugurates a Joke of the Week feature, I throw out the first joke:

Keep up with ostensibly serious posts of You Don't Say now that it has returned to

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Setting up shop at a new location

What can I say? They wanted me back.

When I agreed after the [cough] Interval [cough] to return to The Baltimore Sun, the editors were keen for the return of You Don’t Say to its original home.

As of today, further posts will be found at a new/old address:

Many of you followed me a year ago when I moved from to Blogspot, and I hope that you will be willing to follow me again. I apologize for any inconvenience you encounter in this switch.

You will be able to get access to this blog by RSS feed, and — a bonus — the 704 posts on the old site will once more be accessible.

The 404 posts on this site will be preserved for your continued access. It may be necessary to make a token post here from time to time to keep the site open, but the regular harangues about language, about journalism, about neckwear and strong drink and other minor obsessions will be appearing at

I invite you to follow me there. I want you back, too.

Monday, May 10, 2010

You can't call the trucks back

In what he described as a pre-emptive gesture, Steve Gould of The Sun’s sports desk sent out word on Facebook and Twitter earlier today: “Yes, I realize the first line of the headline on the golf story says, ‘Woods pulls out’ and no, the humor is not lost on me.”

Not that Mr. Gould should beat himself up too much for The Sun’s failure to scotch that one— I did a quick Web search and counted two dozen “Woods pulls out” headlines at various news sites before giving up. Apparently it was irresistible.

One indispensable qualification for a professional copy editor is possession of a filthy mind. English is rich in the possibilities of double entendres, with nouns that are also verbs, verbs that are also nouns, and countless idiomatic expressions that can take on salacious overtones.

The Anchorage Times once ran a headline, “Messiah climaxes in chorus of hallelujahs.” Putting “Messiah” within quotation marks would have helped some, but not enough.

The Miami Herald published a headline about a business takeover, “Textron Inc. makes offer to screw company stockholders.” It was a company that makes screws.

The Chicago Daily News advised, “Petroleum jelly keeps idle tools rust-free.” Noted.

You may also recall the famed Evening Sun­ headline on home canning and preserving, “You can put pickles up yourself.”

And not just in headline type, either: “The impact of the scandal has stretched from Aberdeen’s privates to its top officer.”

Or this lead sentence about a waterman: “Aboard the Becky D, Ren Bowman grins with delight as his rod throbs with the energy of a large rockfish.” One thing you can take to the bank, I tell my students every semester, is that you never want to use rod and throb in the same sentence.

I know, when I sit at the desk among the editors and hear the first muffled snort, or outright cackle of glee, that a dirty mind has registered another ripe one. And I am grateful for the sensibility that sniffs out smut in unlikely places.

Editing is not for the pure in heart.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Just call it a tussle

Now that I am hip-deep in newspaper journalism again, with the level rising, I am reminded of the journalistic fondness for altercation, which turned up four or five times in a short article a little while ago.
The word, Bryan Garner reminds us, used to mean a loud argument that does not quite rise to the pitch of physical violence. Think of the noise in the saloon before the first chair is broken over someone’s head. But American English has extended to include all manner of scuffling and outright fighting, particularly, Mr. Garner notes, in police jargon.

Don’t bother with the barn door; that horse has been gone a long time. Bryan Garner thinks that there is a possibility of limiting altercation to “light roughhousing,” short of the point at which somebody gets killed, but I am not optimistic.

There may, however, be a faint possibility of breaking reporters of the habit. If you can persuade them that altercation sounds pompous, or even prissy, you might just be able to lead them gently to other possibilities, no matter what the cop’s report said.

Two people got into an argument, which heated into a dispute, which grew into a quarrel, which swelled into a fight. And maybe not just a fight, but a scuffle, a set-to, a fracas, a scrap. Who know? Maybe developing into a brawl, a free-for-all, a melee. The language is not short of resources to describe disagreements. Take it out and give it a little exercise.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Turn your head forward

“The word of the day is jeremiad*,” writes Kevin Earl Dayhoff, a resident of Westminster, Maryland, and a fellow Tribunista who writes for Patuxent Publishing newspapers.

His brief statement on Facebook doesn’t indicate why that is his word of the day, but in looking at it I realized that it has been my word of the day for the past year.

With reason. It has been hard to see so many colleagues lose their jobs, to watch the decline in quality in so many publications, to be on the losing side in the War on Editing. But justifiable as jeremiads have been, they must have grown tedious to you, and they no longer serve the best purpose for me.

Today is my fourth day back at work at The Sun — still grappling with NewsGate, the creation of fiendish Danes — and it is time to determine what possibilities remain open. That is: What can I do myself to uphold and even elevate standards of accuracy and clarity in The Sun’s electronic and print publications? How can I uphold and assist my colleagues as they strive to improve accuracy and clarity? We are not editing with the forces we want, but with the forces we have. How can we deploy them more effectively?

We must cope with the realities. Editors throughout print and electronic media are editing less, and with fewer people. Editing operations are being consolidated at central locations or outsourced. More editing is being done by freelancers than by permanent employees. So the choice for an editor is to look for some other line of work or to discover how to function better within these circumstances.

I would like to think that over time, if we are thoughtful and energetic, we will discover how to edit more efficiently — to zero in on the most critical elements in texts rather than be distracted by minutiae, to master available technologies instead of being steamrollered by them. I would also like to think that over time those of us who still edit will demonstrate our worth to the people who decide where to deploy resources. It is not enough to do good work; it is essential to show that we do good work and that it has value.

I have been given a second chance. I intend to make the most of it.

*Like boycott, an eponym, deriving from the name of the prophet Jeremiah, whose bitter laments went largely unheeded.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

That thing I can't say about baseball

It has come to this: I am reading the sports section again.

A year ago, after my [cough] involuntary separation from The Sun, I expressed relief at the freedom from any obligation to read about sports. I never played them, never liked them, know virtually nothing about them.* Having me actually edit sports copy would have been analogous to handing a nail gun to a toddler.

But now I am back, with a professional and ethical obligation to know what is being published, and I will try once again to keep up.

If you have a taste for mildly amusing irony, consider that the same publishing executives who dismiss traditional copy desk procedures as vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial process also treat their remaining copy editors as if they were interchangeable cogs. 

But it is not so.

Accuracy and clarity in editing depend on the expertise of the editor. A copy editor deeply versed in the obscurities of baseball and football may not be the right person to edit copy about science and medicine. The copy editor who is a sharp-eyed observer of politics may be at sea in editing articles about the arts.

Though copy editors at newspapers and magazines are by necessity generalists, even so they tend to specialize along the bent of their personal tastes and backgrounds. It is to the reader’s benefit for an article to be edited by someone familiar with the subject matter.

You will perhaps pardon me for feeling impelled to say something that ought to be obvious to anyone.

It is not, however, obvious to the people who have cut staffs back to catch-as-catch-can “universal” desks, or consolidated the editing of your local stories to editors in another state, or abandoned copy editing altogether. This leaves writers working without a net, and unless you relish witnessing their spills, you are less and less likely to be enthralled with the consequences.

These desperate expedients have been forced on the industry by unfavorable economic conditions—not every executive has some principled but uninformed opposition to editing. But that does not mean that such expedients should be made permanent. You might have to boil your shoes for soup during a famine, but you won’t want to keep the recipe when times get better.

Luckily for me, I am still able to lean on the exceptionally able Andy Knobel and Steve Gould and the other sports editors at The Sun. They know their onions, as the Brits say of expertise, and I know as well as they do the importance of accurate and timely reporting on sports for a multitude of Sun readers. The point in employing and retaining a corps of experienced editors like them is that we collectively compensate for one another’s weak spots, to our benefit — and yours.

*As explained in the post “That thing I say about baseball.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

More stuff

Will “lifting luggage” become a catchphrase to match “hiking the Appalachian Trail”?

Go to Language Log for the linguistics; stay for the snickering over hypocrisy.

Roger Ebert tweets:

“ discusses my Newsweek attack on 3D. Some comments debate my status as an old fart. I'm an old fart who's right”

I feel a kinship.

We told you you needed editors

At, a report that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s name has been misspelled in her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as “Julia Luis Dreyfus.”

You may also recall that the director of Chile’s mint was recently fired, in part because the mint issued 50-peso coins spelling the nation’s name as “Chiie.”

A message from Patrick Lackey on a Washington Post story “about the Virginia attorney general seeking documents by a former U of Va. prof named Michael Mann, who did research on global warming. The story quotes the attorney general: ‘There is no scientific consensus on global warming or Mann's influence on global warning.’ I think the attorney general meant ‘man's influence on global warning,’ not Mann's. So how is a newspaper like an off-short oil rig? What can go wrong will.”

Just how big a geek are you?

We learn from Copyediting that Mary Beth Protomastro has set up a website that will allow you to search more than forty online stylebooks at once. This should help you to learn how to live with inconsistency.

Our impoverished profanity

When Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan repeatedly used a word rendered in newspapers as “sh—y” while questioning executives of Goldman Sachs, a thrill went through journalistic circles because he had used a Bad Word in public. That was followed by much brow-furrowing over how to report the expression, given the delicate sensibilities of the American public. The crossword-puzzle solution, a combination of letters and hyphens to get thisclose to the word without actually rendering it, was the usual resort.

I will, of course, in my new capacity as a tinpot authority in The Sun’s newsroom, enforce the puerilities demanded by newspaper style, but as you reflect on naughty expressions, I invite you to consider a short passage from H.L. Mencken’s The American Language (shield your eyes, sensitive readers):

“Of the non-profane pejoratives in common American use, son of a bitch is the hardest-worked, and by far. ... But son of a bitch seems as pale and ineffectual to a Slav or Latin as fudge does to us. The dumbest policeman in Palermo thinks up a dozen better ones between breakfast and the noon whistle. ... In Standard Italian there are no less than forty congeners of son of a bitch, and each and every one of them is more opprobrious, more brilliant, more effective. In the Neapolitan dialect there are thousands.”

Let the nagging resume

It was all quips and cranks and wanton wiles, nods and becks and wreathed smiles when I returned to The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom yesterday.

We’ll see how long that honeymoon lasts. For example, this sentence from yesterday’s Sun:

The force of the crash ejected Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck that struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

If I were a bookmaker, I would give you highly favorable odds that anyone you ever heard say that someone was ejected, rather than thrown or flung, from a car or truck was either in law enforcement or journalism. Ejected is pure cop jargon, so common in police reports that it infects reporters’ writing.

A subtler point is that dependent clause. A that clause most commonly singles out one person, object, situation from a number of possibilities. It is called variously a restrictive or limiting or essential clause. Which clauses can also be restrictive,* but when they merely add additional or parenthetical information, they are set off with commas.

There was one truck; we don’t need to distinguish it from the other trucks on the road that did not strike the stone pillars. The dependant clause merely adds information about that particular truck. In more conversational English, the sentence would have run thus:

The force of the crash threw Dankos, 17, from the bed of the truck, which struck a set of stone pillars and overturned.

Sticking in ages as appositives is another journalistic tic, but there are limits even to my carping.

*Yes, they can. The Sainted Fowler suggested using that for restrictive clauses and which for non-restrictive, and many usage books have followed his lead. But that has never been any more than advice. Which clauses can be restrictive or non-restrictive, but that clauses are always properly restrictive. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


The fedora is on the coat rack, and the red Razor scooter is propped against the desk, sure indications that I am back in my old office at The Baltimore Sun.

This morning I collected a stack of final examinations and editing projects from my students at Loyola, who will be expecting their grades within the next two days, and this afternoon I attempted to plumb the mysteries of NewsGate, the new editing and production system. It may be a day or two before I regain my footing with the blog.

But make no mistake. Not only am I back on Calvert Street, but I will also be reliably back at You Don’t Say.

Thank you for your many kind remarks since this restoration was announced.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Writing about suicide

More than four dozen people have leapt to their deaths since 1964 from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge in the mountains outside Santa Barbara, California. Mental health advocates and law enforcement officials want to install a nine-and-a-half-foot safety rail to make suicide attempts more difficult. But nothing in America is simple, and preservationists and others oppose the barrier.

Noozhawk, Santa Barbara’s enterprising electronic journalism site, opens a four-day series on the issue today. William Macfadyen, Noozhawk’s publisher and a colleague from the American Copy Editors Society, has asked me to comment on the journalistic issues and standards involved in reporting on suicides and suicide attempts.

I am not an expert on the matter, but I am willing to write what I know and invite informed parties to comment.

(1) Suicide is a private matter — except

Ordinarily, a news publication treats suicides and suicide attempts as private matters, mental and emotional disorders being as inherently private as any other illness or disorder. Not our business.

But in news obituaries, as distinguished from paid obituaries in which the families include only the information they choose to disclose, the publication gives a cause of death. That is part of the news, even if the families and friends are reluctant.

When I started at The Flemingsburg Gazette forty-two years ago, no one died of cancer. Obituaries said that people died “after a long illness,” because having cancer was a stigma, a source of fear. Later, in the 1980s, deaths from AIDS-related illnesses carried a similar stigma. And mental and emotional disorders continue to be things people prefer not to speak about. Journalism, by reporting with common sense and restraint about stigmatized things, airs them for public discussion and understanding.

(2) Suicide is not to be sensationalized

When a person commits suicide publicly, it can no longer be considered a private matter. But common sense and restraint are still necessary.

It is commonly understood now, for example, that a suicide by a teenager can touch off a cluster of similar attempts among other adolescents undergoing emotional upheavals. In these cases in particular, it is important for articles to be factual and dispassionate to avoid stimulating imitations.

Mr. Macfadyen tells me that some media outlets writing about the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge have used headlines or labels including “Bridge of Despair” and “Leap of Faith.” You can publish just about anything in America, but this is cheap and distasteful. Anything that serves to romanticize or dramatize suicide could have the effect of encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to see it as a glamorous act.

(3) A personal note

My son, J.P., fell into a profound depression in college and attempted suicide. It scared the hell out of my wife and me, and we did our best to get him help. He withdrew from college and came home. We found an incomparable therapist in Dr. Roger Harris (previous therapists not having connected effectively with J.P.), who, combining drug therapy and talk therapy, brought J.P. through.

J.P. returned to St. John’s College and graduated a year ago. He has also graduated from therapy and has been off antidepressants for several months. He is alive, and he has a life ahead of him.

I asked him this morning whether he would object to my writing about him in this post, and he encouraged me to do so. Depression is terribly isolating, he said, and the stigma about mental illness reinforces the isolation. The more people can talk openly and factually about it, he said, the better off everyone will be.

(4) Over to you

I encourage you to read the Noozhawk series, which raises issues with an impact well beyond Santa Barbara, and I invite you to comment here on suicide and journalistic standards and practices.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Slice, dice

If you had an English class that actually tried to teach grammar and usage, and I’m probably talking to the over-forties out there, you probably heard many solemn warnings about — the horror, the horror — the comma-splice run-on sentence.*

But though I was trained in the Old Religion, there were always aspects that made me uneasy.

I saw that British writers turned out comma-splice sentences by the yard, with no embarrassment. They no longer own the language — 1776, we speak Amurrican, and all that — but still.

I saw that there is a figure of speech in classical rhetoric, asyndeton, that omits conjunctions between related clauses and thereby implicitly endorses comma splices: I came, I saw, I conquered.

I saw that in American fiction comma-splice sentences represent the loosely connected clauses of colloquial speech in a way that more formal punctuation would make, well, more formal.

And now I have seen, on Stan Carey’s Sentence first blog, a nuanced and sensible account of acceptable uses of the comma splice: “Oh, the Splices You’ll See!”

Commenting on the hard-line prohibition on comma splices that can be found in many texts on grammar and usage, he says:

This kind of advice can be helpful to learners, or writers who want a quick yes–no answer. But it also tends to be simplistic and misleading, failing to reflect the subtlety and complexity with which skilled writers consciously use comma splices. Moreover, when authorities dismiss certain techniques out of hand without mentioning the breadth of their usage in various stylistic and historical contexts, they can perpetuate fear of making mistakes and ignorance of how language works.

Now before anyone can start shouting that the linguists and lexicographers, those insidious descriptivists, have eaten my brain, let me point out that Mr. Carey quotes approvingly one of my fellow moderate prescriptivists:

Bryan Garner, in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, summarises as follows: “Most usage authorities accept comma splices when (1) the clauses are short and closely related, (2) there is no danger of a miscue, and (3) the context is informal.”

Of the uses of the comma splice, Mr. Carey says:

[C]omma splices are often fine, but they create a noticeably casual effect that is widely considered ill-suited to contexts such as essays, reports, and business writing. They are seldom seen in news reporting except for rare appearances in dialogue, where they can serve to convey an informal speaking tone ... [o]r removed altogether, leaving run-on sentences that lend a breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect. ...

Nuance in usage in hard to teach, especially when students come so ill-prepared in formal grammar. I will continue to caution my students about the dangers of a “breathless, stream-of-consciousness effect” in their writing, and about the appearance of sloppiness. But in this matter, as in so many others, I must continue to edge away from flat prohibitions.

*My students at Loyola have no such fears. Though they, like most Americans, shrink from the semicolon as a horse shies from a snake, they pull out the comma-grinder and sprinkle the contents generously over all their texts.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Derby Day

If I had a horse running today in the Kentucky Derby, I’d name it Hapax Legomenon and spend the race chuckling at the announcer’s pronunciations.

But I can’t commemorate the Derby appropriately because I’ll be at Memorial Episcopal Church gussying myself up as Franklin Roosevelt for tonight’s performance of Annie.

Since you’re on your own for the Derby, some advice:

Make yourself a mint julep. A julep, I must caution you, is not some genteel lady’s drink or one of those candied concoctions that the unsophisticated young mistake for cocktails these days. A julep is a drink for serious topers.

Step one: Go outside and cut a handful of mint leaves.

Step two: In a silver cup or a squat glass with a good solid bottom, mix a little sugar — a teaspoon should be plenty — with just enough water to dissolve it.

Step three: Muddle the mint, crushing it in the sugared water. A miniature Louisville Slugger bat is very good for this. I had one from the ACES conference in Lousiville* in 2002, but it has gone astray. You may need to improvise with some other implement.

Step four: Fill the glass with cracked ice. Do not use crushed ice, which will melt too fast, or ice cubes, which will melt too slowly. Cracked ice.

Step five: Cover the ice with good bourbon. Old Forester will do; Maker’s Mark is better. If you’re flush, Woodford Reserve or one of the small batch bourbons will do nicely. On no account should you use any Tennessee whiskey.  Garnish with a mint leaf or two.

Step six: Sip.

Step seven: Shut your mouth and stand respectfully while the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Step eight: Mix another. From this point it’s just a bunch of horses running around.

*That’s LOO-uh-vul.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Q and A

Amid the cascade of congratulations about my return to The Baltimore Sun next week as Night Content Production Manager, there have been a number of questions, and I think it would be useful to clear those, as well as some unrelated ones that have cropped up.

Q. Does that mean that the Sun will, as of May 4th, become as interesting and mind-tickling as your blog?

A. You exaggerate my transformative powers.

A colleague at the paper wrote Tuesday to say that the newsroom was full of smiles and that people were saying my appointment was the best news they had heard in a long time.

I said that they will be sick of me again soon enough, and she answered, “If you’re doing your job, they will.”

Q. Does this mean I have to figger out a way to rejiggle the who-shah-callit on my-watchama-callit to get this blog, again?

A. To answer the most frequent question of the week:

This blog will continue.

I’ve been invited to bring it back to, and the changeover will occur as soon as the appropriate arrangements can be made, probably late next week. You’ll be given information about locating it.

Q. Have you thought much about how this blog may change now that you are heading back into the newsroom?

A. I suspect that the pace may not match the 393 posts since May 1 of last year, but I will be writing regularly.

And, AP style be damned, I’m keeping the Oxford comma.

Q. Can you tell me where the title "content manager" comes from?

A. The title editor appears to be falling out of fashion, and is probably unnecessary, what with nearly all the editors being sacked.

I suspect that as reporters and writers have become responsible for doing more than reporting and writing — taking photos, shooting video, etc. — there is a certain logic in describing them as providing content for publication in various forms, and thus making those who oversee the work content managers.

I don’t object to the title, so long as (a) I get to do useful work and (b) someone pays me for it.

Q. Do you have any misgivings about returning, given the ugly manner in which you and so many of your colleagues were shoved out the door a year ago?

A. Anyone involved with a newspaper, or any publishing concern, lives in apprehension. The Philadelphia Inquirer was sold at auction this week, and the colleagues I know and respect there are waiting to learn what is in store with them. I fear that a number of them will be turned out.

The predictions of the death of newspapers may come true — Sumner Redstone was quoted this week as saying that newspapers will be gone in two years, to which a wag replied that newspapers will outlast Sumner Redstone — but they, like any other business, have to live within their revenue. The prospects are shaky at best.

I accepted the offer from The Sun in full knowledge of the uncertainty of the business, saying to Kathleen, “I’ll ride this horse until they shoot it out from under me.”

As to the “ugly manner,” I responded to an inquiry from Jodi Schneider, formerly of Congressional Quarterly, who offers advice to unemployed writers and editors (content producers and managers, sorry) in her blog DC Works. She has published my reflections in today’s post (beginning about halfway down).

Q. How does this fit into your masterful performance as FDR?

A. Too kind. The Memorial Players’ production of Annie was met with thunderous applause last week, and I will be back onstage tonight for the first of the three final performances. You still have a chance to see it: Memorial Episcopal Church, corner of Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Bolton Hill. Tonight and tomorrow night at 7:30, Sunday afternoon at 3:00.

Q. What do you advise about “beg the question”?

A.  As it happens, Professor Mark Liberman addressed this very question on Language Log, explaining how the shifting understanding of Greek and Latin terms led to the current confusion. You will want to look at his whole explication, but here is a short version.

To beg the question was originally a term in logic identifying circular reasoning in which the original conclusion is assumed. “God is all-powerful because he is God” is such a circular argument; it assumes the very thing it seeks to prove. But the expression has come to mean “to raise or prompt the question” in common discourse.

Beg the question, Professor Liberman concludes (and I agree), is best avoided altogether. The people who know something about logic — not many in this broad republic of narrow education — will look down their noses at you if you use it in the colloquial sense, and nearly all others will develop unflattering furrows in their brows if you use it in the technical sense.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

New frontiers in peevology

The New York Times reported yesterday on the emergence of a vigilante movement on Twitter:
A small but vocal subculture has emerged on Twitter of grammar and taste vigilantes who spend their time policing other people’s tweets — celebrities and nobodies alike. These are people who build their own algorithms to sniff out Twitter messages that are distasteful to them — tweets with typos or flawed grammar, or written in ALLCAPS — and then send scolding notes to the offenders. They see themselves as the guardians of an emerging behavior code: Twetiquette.
If you thought that I, Cranky Old Guy, Once and Future Editor, would endorse this phenomenon, you were mistaken. One of the charms of Twitter, to the extent that it does charm, is the freewheeling informality and colloquial inventiveness. Leave it alone.

More than that, however, I worry about the people who are making these needless corrections, no doubt taking valuable time away from marking up restaurant menus and supermarket signage, or correcting people’s grammar and pronunciation in conversation. (How’s that going for you, anyhow? Are you starting to get invitations to the parties at the Popular Kids’ houses?)

There ought to be higher aspirations than becoming a common scold.

And still more, there is the recurring tendency among peevers to denounce things that are either not wrong or of minuscule significance. Professor Mark Liberman observes at Language Log that “complaints about spelling, grammar, and capitalization are merged ... with a wide range of other individual, cultural, and political criticisms,” which he finds consonant with his post in 2007 about the degree to which published complaints about grammar and usage demonstrate a combination of “social annoyance” and “public griping.” He suggests that someone could get scholarly cred* by demonstrating how frequently these corrections are themselves in error.

If you must whinge, why not direct your attention to publications that are still supposedly edited, such as The Washington Post, which published this passage forwarded by one of my many spies:
His switch comes as former state House Speaker Marco Rubio (R) — once considered the longest of shots to defeat the popular governor — has rode [emphasis added] a wave of adoration from conservatives nationally to not only catch but pass Crist in polling.

*This nonce word annoy you? Hard cheddar.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Leave English out of it

Tim James, a candidate for governor in Alabama, wants all state forms to be available in English only. He says in a campaign ad: “This is Alabama. We speak English.* If you want to live here, learn it.”

I suppose that the pull of the yahoo nativist vote is strong, as it has been in this country from the time of the aptly named Know Nothings to the present. A century ago, for example, Baltimore had a number of public schools that conducted classes in German, but the practice was abandoned in apprehension that this would give aid and comfort to the Kaiser.

And every time this tide rises, the Make-English-Our-Official-Language crowd also bestirs itself.** No doubt some think that it would be a particularly good idea in Arizona, the May I See Your Papers Please State.

It may not be possible to head off this nonsense, but there are some calm statements that you can repeat to yourself amid the noise.

English is a world language, more widespread than Latin ever was. It is not in danger and does not require protection.

English is not in decline, no matter how much young people’s slang irritates you or how much you despise impact used as a verb. (English has been nouning verbs and verbing nouns since Chaucer was in grammar school and does not appear likely to abandon the practice.)

There is no one “official” or standard English, there is no body or authority to enforce standards of English usage, and no English-speaking country has ever wanted one.

English is as purely democratic as anything you will ever see. You can speak and write as you choose, and so can everyone else.

Loosen up. Stop fretting.

*Well, yeah, after a fashion.

**In 2006, when Taneytown, Maryland, a rural municipality of about 5,000 people, first proposed to make English its official language, I offered my services:

I am prepared to move to Taneytown to serve as municipal English magistrate, and I am drafting provisions to put teeth into the ordinance.

Using it’s for its.
            First offense: a godly admonition.
            Second offense: a stern warning.
            Third offense: a tattoo of the letter I on the forehead, for Illiterate.

Sounding the t in often.
            Fine of $5.00 per occurrence.

Pronouncing nuclear as nucular.
            Fine of $10 per occurrence.

Pronouncing mischievous as mischeevious

Failure to make a subject and verb agree, as in the sentence on Taneytown’s Web site saying that “the City and surrounding area is rich in historic landmarks.”
            One hour at noon in the stocks in front of the town hall.

Allowing annoying typos into print, as in the mayor’s State of the City report on the Web site: “He has come to use with some new ideas and some of those have already been put into action” (emphasis added). This is a serious offense because of the presumption that no copy editor has been employed to vet the text.
Dismissal of appointed officials, impeachment of elected officials.

Saying between you and I.
            Forfeiture of driver’s license for 30 days.

Using whom when the pronoun is the subject of a subordinate clause.
            Spend the night in the box.

Saying or writing the obnoxious pleonasm safe haven.
            One week at a re-education camp shoveling pig manure. 

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy days are here again

Having been let go at The Baltimore Sun last April, as I have repeatedly, and no doubt tiresomely, reminded you, I spent eleven months looking for another job.

It would be indelicate to identify the potential employers who passed up the opportunity to engage my services, but today I am pleased to name the one that has ended the long search.

I have accepted the offer of a position with – 

wait for it –

The Baltimore Sun.

A stunned newsroom learns today that, by invitation of the departed Monty Cook, I will be back on May 4 as Night Content Production Manager, overseeing newsroom operations in the evening: the front page, coordination between the newsroom and production, print and Web, and generally holding the bag when anything goes awry after sunset. The sabbatical is over.

It remains only to say that my delight in returning to work alongside my once and future colleagues is unbounded and that my gratitude for your expressions of support this past year is profound.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Attention must be paid?

Perhaps you, like me, have been reading all the head-wagging in editorial and op-ed circles about the turrible, turrible polarization afflicting our great republic. And perhaps you, like me, have grown weary of all this somber frowning. I have a remedy: Stop paying attention.

Our fair republic has always been polarized. The Founders, bless their hearts, hoped that educated white gentlemen of property could sit down and run things without the horror of factionalism, which their reading of history taught them had ruined the Roman Republic. They should have known better.

The Jefferson-Hamilton split developed early in George Washington’s first term and contributed to the viciously contested election of 1800. The slavery issue — and the disproportionate representation in Congress that the three-fifths clause of the Constitution gave the South — fueled the increasingly intemperate debate in the first half of the nineteenth century that ended in civil war. The following century saw numerous divisive issues between rural/agricultural and urban/industrial interests, each side demonizing the other. Do I need to remind you of the cultural divisions from the Sixties that appear to continue troubling the nation until my generation mercifully passes from the scene? Loud disagreement is the national norm.

The mode that this disagreement takes is hyperbole — the more extreme the exaggeration, the better. John Adams was a monarchist at heart, Thomas Jefferson an atheist who would lead a Jacobin massacre of the well-off. The pattern ever since has been one of what H.L. Mencken delighted in calling “stirring up the animals.”  

I saw a mention on Twitter last week about a Rush Limbaugh essay holding that people who support President Obama don’t love the country the way that the tea partiers do, or something to that effect. I was prepared to check out the essay and sit down at the keyboard to point out that I have voted in every election but one (a minor primary) for forty years, that I pay my taxes uncomplainingly, that my wife and I have raised two children to be educated, responsible, tax-paying, voting adults, that I ...

I stopped in mid-tirade, as it occurred to me that I do not have to justify my patriotism to some gasbag.

Mr. Limbaugh, along with Messrs. Beck and Olbermann and Ms. Coulter, among many others, depend on noisy exaggeration to gain and sustain an audience. It’s difficult to tell how much they actually mean and how much is mere shouting for effect, and probably not worth your time to sort it all out. I’m opting out, and so can you.

I don’t mean that you should avoid writers you disagree with. It’s a good thing to read reasonable arguments from the opposite side, because, you know, you could be wrong. I enjoy Garrison Keillor’s column most of the time, but I have come to find Kathleen Parker’s to be thoughtful and well-informed. And there is always the possibility that you may find the clownish antics of the gasbags entertaining.

But if their noise merely irritates you without informing you, turn the page, change the channel, click on a different site. You aren’t obligated to waste your time and give these people an audience.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Get a grip

I was amused, after the Congress enacted the president’s legislation to reform health care, by the overreaction, the screaming that our liberties have been taken from us, that the Constitution is a dead letter — all over enactment of what looks suspiciously like a moderate Republican measure.

Even more comical has been overreaction to the past couple of posts at this site, “For whom, the bell tolls” and “Tagged as a descriptivist.” If you missed the latest, here it is, from “EK”:

I care not one jot if people write or speak poorly. I sleep soundly at night knowing there ARE rules to follow and y'all can dismiss them at your blue- penciled peril. Contrary to the cant of the "moderate prescriptivists" (really? Is that like using 67% birth control?), the spoken argot does NOT determine the standards for correct written English. If that were the case, this world would sound and read like A Clockwork Orange. The descriptivist apoplectics and apologists out there want it both ways. It's like saying: "Well, this sign doesn't really mean 'Stop'--after all, there aren't any cars in the intersection!..." And those double yellow lines in the road? That's just a guideline--no need to really pay atten--SMASH!

The conventions of written English are mutable. We used to put commas between the subject and verb in the eighteenth century, but no longer; the nineteenth century liked to combine the semicolon with the dash, and we now tend to shy away from the semicolon altogether. These conventions are not somehow equivalent to statute, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics. But I, it appears, some witling tool of the descriptivist cabal, am part of the reason that the centre cannot hold and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, and I am not going to take away their whoms until I pry them from their cold, dead hands.

Take a deep cleansing breath, people, and stop passing around those copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Descriptivism.

There is no English Academy. There is no authority to establish and enforce English grammar and usage, and no proposal to set up such an authority has ever, in the entire history of the language, gained traction. English is what its users make it. I have one vote, as does “EK,” as do you.

As anyone who owns a dictionary can see, vocabulary mutates over time, as new words enter the language and old ones drop out and take on new senses. The same thing happens with the conventions of written English; the capitalization and punctuation we use today is not quite the same as the capitalization and punctuation of previous centuries. And, since the language is what its users make it, the same is true of the grammar; we have English after all because a rabble of illiterate peasants from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries eighty-sixed many of the rules of Anglo-Saxon grammar. (Thank them for that.)

That is not the same thing as saying that there are no rules and everything goes. In “Rules are rules” I cited the thoroughgoing descriptivist Geoffrey Pullum on that point. There are indeed rules of English grammar that writers must follow to appear educated and literate. But rules are not the same thing as stylistic conventions, and there is even give in some of the rules. That is why, in the more than a thousand posts since I began this blog in 2005, I have loosened up considerably as I have become better informed — but still a moderate prescriptivist.

Or, to ram home the point by citing H.L. Mencken in The American Language once more:

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tagged as a descriptivist

If you missed yesterday’s post, “For whom, the bell tolls,” or read it yesterday, you have missed a recent comment by a reader signing in as Eastabrook Kefauver who invites me to bend over for a dozen of the best:

To Whom it May Concern:
If whom is useless, then "between you and I" is OK, right? Wny not let's all just be consistently sloppy, all around? I'm constantly amazed that descriptivist editors weep over their profession's demise, while they simultaneously decry the same rules that make their very existence such a necessity. You can't have it both ways: if you want gatekeepers, you have to put them in charge of the keys. They can't drop the keys down the well and go drinking in the sun, hoping their jobs will still be there when they sober up.

This, I suppose, is what comes of my lollygagging with those louche characters at Language Log. But since some of you newcomers may not have encountered my protestations and professions, let me repeat them:

I am a moderate presciptivist. I do not endorse sloppy writing, but I try to recognize how the language is actually being used and how it can be most effectively wielded to reach an audience. I distinguish between actual rules, stylistic guidelines, and superstitions about English grammar and usage.

Let’s invite Mr. Kefauver to have a look at enforcement of rules. I was taught, for example, to use shall with first-person singular and plural pronouns, will with second- and third-person singular and plural pronouns. Is Mr. Kefauver in danger of an apoplexy* if he hears someone say, “I will look that up”?

How about the subjunctive, which arch-prescriptivist H.W. Fowler said eighty years ago is on its last legs in English? Does Mr. Kefauver wag his finger at every “I wish I was” he encounters?

At the grill cooking the weekend steaks or burgers, does Mr. Kefauver protect his shirt and trousers from spatters with a napron? That’s what the word was originally. It’s apron now because the way people speak influences the written language.

I confess that I sometimes wonder whether some of the people who comment have troubled to read what the posts actually say. I know how to use whom and will continue to use it. But there is no dispute that it has largely fallen out of spoken American English and is often used mistakenly (Mistakenly means wrongly, Mr. Kefauver, however odd that might sound coming from a “descriptivist editor”) in writing, even by professionals.

A reliable editor makes judgments about the language, about what is worth holding onto and what might as well be given up, about what is appropriate to a particular audience. Judgments differ, and authorities differ, so perhaps discussion might be a more effective means of arriving at sound judgments than denunciations.

*Sorry, we don’t call a stroke an apoplexy any longer, because language changes over time.

Friday, April 23, 2010

For whom, the bell tolls

Yesterday’s “Rules are rules” post quoted Professor Geoffrey Pullum on actual, rather than imagined, rules about the comma, but his post also focused on the misuse of whom as the subject of a subordinate clause. Language commentators have been pronouncing the doom of whom for decades; Garner’s Modern American Usage cites Edward Sapir from 1921. The subject is worth a look.

Professor Pullum’s comment that whom is rarely used today except following prepositions stimulated a number of comments:
GKP says "whom" is "rarely used these days except after prepositions". Really?
I don't know how to use the various corpora that could be consulted to determine the point, but I for one use bare "whom" quite readily in relative (but not interrogative) clauses. E.g.
That woman with long red hair whom we saw at the supermarket this morning, I saw her again this afternoon at the beach.
Who did you ask to see, Mr Jones or Miss Smith?

In non-professional writing on the internet the choice between who and whom is made by rolling dice. The distinction is lost except among language aficionados
but I for one use bare "whom" quite readily
And no doubt you will continue to do so while the word drops out of general usage. I know how to use it but generally avoid it so as to not sound excessively posh.
"Whom" won't be missed. And for a large part of the population is already not missed.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage looked into the matter not long ago (I have the 1994 edition) and reached some interesting conclusions.

Item: Whom appears to be dropping out of spoken English but survives stubbornly in written English.

Item: Confusion of who and whom has a long pedigree, with each appearing as both subject and object in Shakespeare’s works (today, St. George’s Day, is conventionally observed as his birthday) and extending into the current era.

Item: Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “Our files show that objective whom is in no danger of extinction, at least in writing.”

If you are interested in some practical advice, here is mine:

(1) Stop fretting over the way people talk. You can’t change it.

(2) There is a problem that even educated writers have with figuring out whether a subordinate clause should begin with who or whom. If you have that difficulty, you can, except in the most formal circumstances, just use who. The most frequent error I see is whom as the subject of a clause that functions as the object of a verb or preposition.

(3) If you want to use whom, no one is going to stop you. This is America. There can be a problem with whom sounding stilted, fussy, or pompous, but that is a judgment call that you have every right to make.

Language is like geology. Novelties periodically erupt, some of which remain a feature of the landscape, but most of which subside. More commonly, language is a collection of tectonic plates that separate or grind together very slowly over a long period as some features of the landscape erode and others metamorphose. Individual efforts to make the crooked straight and the rough places smooth are generally futile, and there are always anomalous crevices and outcrops that must be negotiated with caution.  

Addendum: Many thanks to the readers who offered advice on formatting block quotations. 

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rules are rules

Over at Language Log, Professor Geoffrey Pullum gives the lie to the canard that descriptivists think that there are no rules in English, presenting a compact summary of the punctuation of relative clauses:

There are two major ways in which a relative clause may function. One is that a relative clause may be a fully integrated modifier of the noun in a noun phrase, often providing some sort of semantic restriction on the reference of that noun. Thus person can be used to denote the entire class of human beings, while person who has been unsuccessful denotes only the smaller subset of those who have failed at something. The underlined part is what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls an integrated relative clause. They are often called "restrictive" relative clauses, or "defining" relative clauses.
The other major function for relative clauses is to serve as a parenthetical interruption of the main flow of a sentence, contributing supplementary information about someone or something immediately after it is referred to in the main content. Thus You can talk to John if you like just says that if you want you can talk to John, but You can talk to John, who has more experience, if you like adds some supplementary (and definitely secondary) information about John's experience level. This kind of relative clause is the one that CGEL calls a supplementary relative clause.
There are all sorts of differences between the two, but the one that is crucial here is that supplementary relatives must be separated off with commas and integrated ones must not be.

The erroneous use of whom as a subject also comes in for attention.

The comments on the post are well worth your attention, particularly when they veer off into the mistaken belief that “[u]ltimately, all a comma is is a breath or short pause.”

What some people, many of them my students, have difficulty in grasping is that the comma functions in two ways. In some cases, as in the supplementary relative clauses that Professor Pullum describes, or in appositive clusters, the commas are essential. That is a rule. But there are also commas with which writers try to indicate pauses mimicking the rhythms of spoken English. They are discretionary.  

Note to readers: I have usually tried in this blog to indicate an extended quotation by boldfacing the text to distinguish it from my own comments. But some readers have found the boldface type difficult to read, and in this case the original text contains boldface type. So I am experimenting here with putting a block quotation in a different font to set it off. What do you think?