Sunday, January 31, 2010

Five sentences

A paragraph, students are being taught, should have five sentences. The first sentence, the topic sentence, announces the subject of the paragraph. The three sentences that follow provide information to support the topic sentence. A concluding sentence summarizes what has been said in the previous four sentences, for the benefit of a reader with an extremely short attention span. Thus students learn how to construct a proper paragraph in five sentences.

Barbara Phillips Long, a devoted reader of this blog, has little patience with this mechanical approach to writing. She pointed out the prevalence of the five-sentence model in a comment on yesterday’s post. She followed up with a private e-mail listing such sources for the practice. They included, A Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) prep site, and Mrs. Hicks’s Powerpoint on the paragraph.
Ms. Long doubts that this highly artificial five-paragraph structure appears anywhere outside textbooks.

This Procrustean pedagogy appears to be widespread, with little apparent benefit for students. During the two grisly semesters that I taught freshman composition at Syracuse University in the 1970s, we were hobbled by the requirement to use Sheridan Baker’s Practical Stylist. The “Baker essay” also had a fivefold structure, with a paragraph stating an assertion, three paragraphs of support, and a paragraph of conclusion. The products of this exercise were entirely mechanical and lifeless. Looking at the papers of undergraduates I taught in other classes, I saw little evidence that their schooling in the “Baker essay” had done much to enlarge their powers of argument and organization.

As I have said before, mastery of the craft of writing has always been limited to a very small minority. The system of public education that we inherited from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and which has largely broken down) merely aimed to provide the majority of students with enough basic literacy and numeracy to function in an industrial society. Many of my students at Syracuse were less interested in learning, as such, than in acquiring a veneer of private-university status to fit them for the upper middle class. Don’t, pray, tell me that it’s all the fault of the Sixties, because you should remember perfectly well that the Fifties were the era of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” articles. There was no golden age when everyone who got a diploma could write clearly, forcefully, and grammatically.

In the face of an educational system that shortchanges its students, both the well-off and the poor, we do what we can. In blogs like this one we try to undermine ill-informed dogmatism about grammar and usage. In our classrooms we try to nudge students beyond the silly mechanical formulas that they have been burdened with. In our own writing we try to model an informed and flexible literacy. We know every day as we push the boulder up the hill that it will roll back down again, but we persevere.

For the benefit of those who haven’t noticed, the preceding is a five-paragraph essay in which each paragraph has the five-sentence structure. This is what you want for your children?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The uses of subliteracy

I do carry on some about the defects of people’s education in writing. But I have support, as in this week’s New Yorker profile of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan:

Duncan often says “screwed” or “lied to” when he describes what American students face—low standards, chronically underperforming schools, inequities in spending and opportunity. He also repeats the claim, sometimes several times a day, that American schooling is stuck in old ruts while that of other nations has improved.

Amen, Brother Duncan.

But all the same, subliterate writing has its uses, as I was reminded by this message that came to my Gmail account this afternoon, purportedly from “Google Team”:

Gmail is built on the idea that email can be intuitive, efficient, and useful. And maybe even fun.

Now we are experience congestion and a very slow red, so we need you to verify your account by clicking the reply button and send your account domain below.
Google Team will be eliminating all unused/unwanted account causing red Congestion. Gmail is sorry for any inconveniency for all our regular Users. Send us your Domain Login below for verification.

Even without the fishy demand for account information — Google certainly knows what accounts are in Gmail — you would have to be thick as a plank not to recognize from the substandard English of the second and third paragraphs that this message is a fraud.

Tell me that it’s “just spelling.” Hmpf.

Saturday ruminations

Saturday, particularly a Saturday with snow starting to fall, offers a chance to catch up with miscellaneous items that accumulated over the week. Not that this post will be much read, because most of you are not goofing off at work by trolling the ’Net, and the headline isn’t one to draw a crowd, either.

When crashes blossom

The amiable Ben Zimmer of Visual Thesaurus has an article in Sunday’s “On Language” column in The New York Times about the headline term crash blossom, which has soared to popularity in the paragraph game over the past several months. A crash blossom is a headline that appears to lead in one direction but turns out to mean something else entirely. It results from the elliptical nature of headlines and the ambiguities endemic to English.

Mr. Zimmer observes that “English is especially prone to such ambiguities. Since English is weakly inflected (meaning that words are seldom explicitly modified to indicate their grammatical roles), many words can easily function as either noun or verb. And it just so happens that plural nouns and third-person-singular present-tense verbs are marked with the exact same suffix, ‘-s.’ In everyday spoken and written language, we can usually handle this sort of grammatical uncertainty because we have enough additional clues to make the right choices of interpretation. But headlines sweep away those little words — particularly articles, auxiliary verbs and forms of ‘to be’ — robbing the reader of crucial context.”

I supplied him with the classic Evening Sun headline from an article on home canning and preserving, “You can put pickles up yourself,” but, sadly, he lacked the space for it.

A better life of Johnson

Last August, I wrote about a disappointing biography of Samuel Johnson by Jeffrey Meyers — about which I will say no more, lest you be tempted to read it.

Since then, I have come across a much more satisfactory effort, David Nokes’s Samuel Johnson: A Life (Henry Holt, 419 pages, $32). After the largely unrelieved gloom of the Meyers book, it was refreshing to find Nokes saying, “Johnson’s sense of fun was eager and boisterous, often striving for a kind of rivalry with men younger than himself.”

There are many perceptive comments about Johnson: “The role of the ‘common man’ ... was one Johnson greatly affected; first, because, being poor, he was not much above them; second, because being angry, he could understand their resentment; and third because being human he reached out to their sufferings.”

His evaluation of the biographies written by Boswell and Mrs. Thrale is balanced and perceptive, and he sketches Johnson’s milieu without losing momentum in his account of the life. If you are at all interested in Johnson, you owe it to yourself to look into Mr. Nokes’s book.

I’ve ordered his life of Jonathan Swift and am waiting impatiently for it.

Suspicions confirmed

I may have mentioned that there are twenty-two suffering souls in my editing class this semester. I polled them on Thursday as I was carrying on about the superstitions people are taught about grammar. Nearly all of them had been told, or had been given to understand, that they should never use the passive voice. Nearly all had been told that it is sinful to end a sentence with a preposition. Nearly all of them had been instructed not to split infinitives. So, as usual, the first few weeks of the course go to the correction of nonsensical or inadequate instruction.

In the second half of the semester, when we shift from mechanical to analytical editing, I expect to find, as I have found in each of twenty-eight previous semesters, that they have little or no experience in examining the structure and organization of articles.

And these are students who have attended well-thought-of suburban public schools or whose parents have been at some expense to have them privately educated. The teaching of English and writing in this glorious Republic appears to be almost as defective as the teaching of mathematics, and increasingly looks analogous to our health care system: Much is expended for disappointing results.


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

Friday, January 29, 2010

Steam escaping under pressure

Some of the people who commented on this week’s posts “Keeping up with the Joneses” and “English, the slut language” acted as if they were apprehensive that I had gone off my medication. To reassure them, some responses.

It’s only spelling: Yes, I know that using it’s for its is just a spelling error and not a capital offense. It’s just a spelling error when people make nouns plural by adding ’s. Seeing that does not raise my blood pressure. The people who are sacking three-fifths of the copy desk at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis — there you’ve got a felony offense. It wouldn’t be disproportionate for the people responsible to spend a day or two in the stocks, subject to verbal and physical abuse from passers-by.

But there are people who will think less of you if your writing is littered with spelling errors and typos, and those people will begin to think more about your trivial errors than they do about what you are saying. (Public speaking in analogous; the same people will notice that you have spinach between your incisors and that your fly is open.) I am not saying that these people are right to be so distracted, only that you should be aware of the likelihood.

That damn apostrophe: Yeah, yeah, we didn’t always use it to show possession, and we might not have to, and why not let it go away altogether except to make plurals at the produce section of the supermarket, where it will be found forever. You know, I don’t legislate for the language; I’m just explaining the conventions of formal written English as they exist today. The apostrophe may go by the time the state has withered away, and take whom with it, but this is today.

Chill, bro’: (There’s that damn apostrophe again.) I am not a peevologist. I do not maintain a kennel of pet peeves. I try to express an informed prescriptivism and give my reasons rather than resort to mere dogmatism.

I also teach editing, a complex and subtle craft that takes a great deal of time to master. That is why I begrudge the necessity of spending the first few weeks of every semester TEACHING UPPER-CLASS UNDERGRADUATES THE MECHANICS OF GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION THAT I LEARNED IN THE SIXTH AND SEVENTH GRADES IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS IN — OF ALL PLACES — EASTERN KENTUCKY* NEARLY HALF A CENTURY AGO.

Sorry. Sorry. Perhaps it is time for me to take my medication.

The Hamilton Tavern opens in half an hour.

*A region not famed, then or now, for book-learning.


As you make your own plans to celebrate National Grammar Day on March 4, this account from the archives, published the day after the first National Grammar Day in 2008, may guide you.

One day past, the exhilaration of National Grammar Day has yet to fade. The cheers of the crowds lining the streets at the parade still echo in one’s ears. It was a swirl of events, the hourly cannon fire salute from the Citadel, the Te Deum sung at the Cathedral, the torchlight procession and laying of a wreath at the Cenotaph of the Unknown Copy Editor*, the fireworks display, the Semicolon Ball at the Ducal Palace, the governor’s generous clemency in releasing the detainees from the stockade at midnight. A glorious day.

*Hell, pretty much all copy editors are unknown.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

English, the slut language

Yesterday’s post on plurals and possessives stirred up some comments worth addressing.

This one, from The Ridger:

You know you can't tell them apart when you say them. Dogs, dog's, dogs'

Is it any wonder people make spelling errors? Lighten up on them. 

And please don't attack me; I did say they were errors. I just don't think they're harbingers of doom. Show a person who confuses "it is" with "its" (not "it's", "it is") and I will concede that he "doesn't know the difference" as opposed to "can't spell well".

And these two, from mike:

I would argue (and have) that it's a melancholy state of orthographical protocol that seems to require repeated tutorials to master these rules. The fact is, the system we have for when and when not to use the apostrophe is ridiculously complicated, and gets in the way every single day of what the ultimate purpose of writing is: to get information down on paper, real or virtual. If it seems that a majority (let's assume) of people who write English cannot seem to master these rules, where's the problem, with the people or with the rules? In my business (computers), if people can't seem to figure out how to use a program, you blame poor program design, not ill-educated users.

FWIW, apostrophes have been used "incorrectly" throughout the history of English to mark plurals. Dryden did it consistently, for example.* (Have a look at handwritten manuscripts from days of yore. You might be surprised at what you find for spelling and punctation.) 

As I say, it's just too confusing. More and earlier education is _not the answer_. A more logical system is the real answer. Writing ordinary English should not require a decade of study.

The root of the matter is that writing is not natural. Speech is. A child who is not impaired or kept in isolation will learn language ⎯ vocabulary and grammar both ⎯ in just a few years because the capacity for that feat is evolutionarily hard-wired into the species.

But writing has been among us for a comparatively short time, and it must be learned laboriously through schooling.

That is why, as The Ridger points out, that we generally know exactly what a speaker means, because we mastered spoken English in infancy and early childhood. But our grasp of written English, even after much schooling, is tenuous.

Add to that the kind of language that English is. For all its richness and flexibility, and its grand literature, it is just a slut, picking up vocabulary and grammar promiscuously from other languages. It started out as Anglo-Saxon, a Germanic language, and then slept with Norman French and Latin.

This is part of the reason that English orthography is a nightmare, some of it from Anglo-Saxon patterns and some of it from the classical languages that English shamelessly plundered. Standardization of spelling dates pretty much from the nineteenth century, so we haven’t even been at that for very long.

The hope for “a more logical system,” is, I fear, a chimera. Noah Webster wanted to reform the spelling of American English, and he had a limited degree of success (color and honor instead of colour and honour, for example. Big whoop). George Bernard Shaw campaigned tirelessly for a simplified spelling. He failed. And even the formidable Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick of the Chicago Tribune must see with chagrin from his celestial tower that the World’s Greatest Newspaper has long since abandoned his pet spellings.

No, English is, as she always has been, a wayward wanton, and we have to accept her as we find her, not as we would wish her to be.

Maddening and irregular as they are, the conventions of spelling, the conventions of punctuation, and the inconsistencies of plurals and possessives remain there to be learned by anyone who has any pretension to mastering the craft of writing.

*Be careful, mike. You will probably want to use Dryden as a bad example for his insistence that English sentences should not end with prepositions. In any event, persons writing before the publication of reliable English dictionaries or standardized orthography are not the best examples to cite in this connection.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Coming attractions

Where to Turn: Resources for Editors

I will be conducting another audio conference for McMurry, publisher of Copyediting, on Thursday, February 18. Details at the link.

National Grammar Day

For the run-up to National Grammar Day on March 4, I am in the middle of writing another grammarnoir serial, “Pulp Diction,” which will appear at this blog.

ACES national conference

The fourteenth national conference of the American Copy Editors Society will take place April 15-17 in Philadelphia. If you have not signed up, there is still time to register.


The Memorial Players production of the musical Annie will be presented on the evenings of April 23-24 and April 30-May 1, and on the afternoons of April 25 and May 2, at Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill Neighborhood.

Details are at the link, but one detail not mentioned there is that I have been cast as Franklin Roosevelt in this production.

Keeping up with the Joneses

Yes, Joneses. That’s how it’s done. Today we’re going to have a little refresher tutorial on plurals and possessives. If you’ve already got that down, or think you do, you may go to the library and find a book to read until the next post.



Singular possessive

Snopes’s or Snopes’



Plural possessive


Be careful

No matter how many times you have seen it done, do not make nouns plural by adding ’s. The Smith’s is not a proper plural. Neither is the Jones'. The apostrophe can, however, be used to make individual letters — all A’s in the editing class — or numerals — aces and 8’s — plural.

Either Jones’s or Jones’ may be used for the singular possessive. Both usages are current; which one you choose will depend on the style your publication prefers.

Watch out for words that form plurals without adding s or es. If you write childrens’ — and people do — your literacy will be called into question.

Such is the melancholy state of education in this proud republic that I must conduct this elementary review every semester for juniors and seniors at a private university. It would therefore not come as a great shock if some of you would benefit from it, too.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Mumpsimus redux

Mumpsimus is an obstinate determination to hold on to a belief or practice even after it has been demonstrated to be faulty ⎯ a mulish resistance to being informed.

Michael B. Quinion described the origin of the word at World Wide Words in 2001. A medieval priest, either out of deficient literacy or reading from a corrupt text, garbled a phrase in the Latin Mass. Instead of saying quod in ore sumpsimus, “we have taken,” he said quod in ore mumpsimus, which is nonsense.

Corrected by a younger priest, the elder got his back up and, pointing out that he had been saying Mass that way for forty years, declared, “I will not change my old ‘mumpsimus’ for your new ‘sumpsimus.’”

This story, which may have been a scholarly joke of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, came to mind as I read the comments on yesterday’s post about the bogus doctrine of the split infinitive in English. These whippersnapper linguists, the outrage goes, are trying to upset all the rules of grammar that have been in place since God handed them down to an eighth-grade schoolteacher. You know, the “new sumpsimus” that says that the split infinitive is perfectly natural in English. They are not going to give up their “old mumpsimus” until it is pried from their cold, dead hands.

But the plain fact, as anyone who troubles to read the entry in Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Garner’s Modern American Usage or any other reputable source, for Fowler’s sake, will find that the split infinitive has always been used in English, including by the best writers, and that the prohibition against it was instituted by eighteenth-century grammarians who thought that English ought to resemble Latin. It is not a rule but a superstition, a dogma without foundation.

Significantly, instead of addressing the scholarship, which is upheld by descriptivists and prescriptivists alike, the defenders of this faux rule merely state, over and over, that it is a rule and that anyone who questions it is undermining the standards and purity of the language and opening the gates to the barbarian hordes.

Here is a sample of that line from a comment on yesterday’s post:

I will also recognize that I have been too dependent upon my trust in my teachers and professors who required me to adhere to the aforementioned canon. (Even when I completed my doctorate I received a written form which listed unacceptable language variations, including the split infinitive) in my dissertation.

It is regrettable, deeply regrettable, that the standards of teaching, in elementary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities, have been so deficient that it falls to me to break the news that possession of a doctorate, or the authority to approve a dissertation, does not convey infallibility in questions of faith, morals, and grammar.

Henry David Thoreau said, “Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.” Somewhat more elegantly, H.W. Fowler deplored “the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

Some of those people up on the battlements braced for the barbarian blitzkrieg are defending the wrong side.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The battle rejoined

I understand that there was some kind of football extravaganza over the weekend, which may have distracted some of you from the back-and-forth in Facebook over that exploded doctrine, the split infinitive.

Mignon Fogarty drew fire on her Grammar Girl page on Facebook for pointing out, yet again, that there is no legitimate foundation for the bogus rule against splitting infinitives, A couple of those comments:

A good writer/speaker does not use them. Man, no wonder my students find professional writing so hard!

I respectfully disagree with Grammar Girl on the issue of split infinitives. There is indeed a 'rule' or 'convention' which 'prohibits' them. It is certainly no myth.

You can see more of the same in her 2006 post on the same subject at her Web site, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing:

I have been studying (American) English since 1956, Latin since 1965, and Spanish since 1969.

I agree with those who have said that infinitives should never be split. Sorry, Grammar Girl, but your laxness on this matter is surprising and disappointing. Please change your mind, thus correcting yourself. [Contrary to what our modern world mistakenly thinks, there really are "right" and "wrong" actions in life.]

And this:

Most grammar texts still consider split infinitives incorrect. The English language has been butchered enough without resorting to putting everything into the vernacular. You might as well teach Ebonics or Sponics or whatever.

Either stick to the rules or shut up is my answer.

Some constructions that split infinitives can indeed be ungainly, but that does not mean that all such constructions are wrong. Many writers come up with maladroit metaphors, but no one concludes that all metaphors should therefore be banned. (Except maybe for Plato, who wants to have no truck with poetry in his nasty little Republic.)

What is on display in the comments — and it is profoundly discouraging that some appear to come from teachers — is an uninformed and dogmatic attitude toward language: “I don’t care about the history of the language or what linguists say or even what informed prescriptivists say. I was taught a rule, and that is the law, and anyone who disagrees with me is a barbarian who is tearing down all the standards of civilization. Shut up.”

It is rather the attachment to the split-infinitive superstition that stands in opposition to learning.

Écrasez l’infâme.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

We'll always have Paris

As regular readers know, one of the enduring pleasures of my twilight years is slapping around the Associated Press Stylebook at any opportunity. A couple of days ago I posted this snark on Facebook:

AP Stylebook pronounces Port-au-Prince, port-oh-PRIHNS', for monoglots who think it effeminate to pronounce French words as the French do.

Almost immediately, one Elizabeth Herrington posted this comment:

How do you pronounce Paris?

I pronounce it after the manner of the inhabitants of Paris, Kentucky.

We’ve covered this ground before. When the Olympics went to Turin, there was agitation in the sports department over whether to use Turin, the traditional anglicized version of the name, or the Italian Torino, which the Olympics Committee was using. I asked if they intended to use Roma and Firenze or refer to the Shroud of Torino.

English has many foreign place names that have been anglicized, and which are pronounced as English words. We say Munich, not München, and that’s fine. Other languages do the same thing, and we don’t object when the French refer to us as les États-Unis.

But if a less-familiar foreign place name has not been anglicized, there is no objection to pronouncing it as it sounds in the original language, provided one avoids the finicky hyperpronunciation beloved of announcers on classical music stations.

It seems to me that

1. If you order café-au-lait as cafay-oh-lay and not cafay-oh-late, then you might want to pronounce the Prince in Port-au-Prince to rhyme (roughly) with prance.

2. If you are running the AP Stylebook, to the degree that its apparently random directives have any guidance, then you might indicate that both the French and anglicized pronunciations are acceptable. It’s not as if any hearers are likely to be confused.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Out of the archives, endlessly mocking

I feel a little embarrassed to be repurposing material from past posts, but a crowd of new readers has arrived this week, some of them drawn by David Hobby’s kind remarks at the Strobist blog. And there is a wealth of material from the older You Don’t Say at that is now inaccessible.

So, with no further apology, I present Linnaean classifications of copy editors, writers, and managers. These are three previous posts strung together; if you’ve seen them before, you’re under no obligation to look at them again.


A partial catalogue of the denizens of the copy desk.

The Pouncer

The Pouncer takes his motto from Gore Vidal: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” When the Pouncer discovers an error in a story, he brandishes it aloft and proclaims it. The error is like the dead bird your cat deposits on your doorstep to show how hunting is done.

Because the Pouncer is smart, he is usually right. Unfortunately, he has to establish his own worth every night by showing the defects of others. So if nothing substantial presents itself, he will take a story and worry it like a terrier with a rat until he can make an issue of something.

He is beloved by reporters and assigning editors alike.

By the Book

You can predict all the changes By the Book makes in copy. Since always becomes because, half an acre becomes a half-acre, and attorney becomes lawyer (or maybe the reverse). No sentence ends with a preposition, and neither does any line of a headline. Everything for By the Book is a 1 or a 0, right or wrong; there is always a correct way to do everything, and everything must be made correct. By the Book’s copy of the AP Stylebook (copyright 1982) has been annotated more comprehensively than the Talmud.

Thanks for Sharing

“Hey, this obituary has a funny line in it.”
“Did you see what Wall Street said about the company stock on Romenesko today?”
“Here’s a real cute picture of a cat wearing a bonnet.” (Why, on edition deadline, is she looking at Internet images of cats?)

The big-hearted Thanks for Sharing can’t keep anything to herself. If it’s unusual, or amusing, or heart-wrenching, she has to let you know about it because you might otherwise miss it. Never mind that you are — what do we call it? — working.

Mote Man

The devil is in the details, and Mote Man is on the lookout for the devil. He, like Gilbert’s Major-General Stanley “knows the kings of England, and he quotes the fights historical, from Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical.” If the story says that the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, Mote Man knows that Constantine established a toleration of Christianity. If the story says that John F. Kennedy was the youngest man to become president of the United States, he knows that Theodore Roosevelt was younger when McKinley was assassinated. Kennedy was the youngest man to be elected president.

But since Mote Man’s attention is devoted entirely to recondite distinctions, he is capable of sending through a story about Iran bearing a 48-point headline that says Iraq.

Speed Demon

Speed Demon can turn a story around faster than anyone else on the desk. If you hand Speed Demon a page proof, it will be returned to you marked “OK” before you have been able to sit down again. Speed Demon handles twice as much copy as any other editor on the desk, and is quite proud of that.

Speed Demon also lets through twice as many errors as anyone else on the desk.

Stuck in First

Sitting near Speed Demon is Stuck in First. As one colleague once said of another, “He only has one gear.” (And don’t write in to tell me that that should read “has only one gear.” Sometimes it doesn’t matter all that much, and besides, IT’S A DIRECT QUOTE.) Every story that passes through Stuck in First’s hands is meticulously edited, clean and correct. And if you can pry two or three stories out of those slow-moving fingers by edition close, it is a good night.

The Correspondent

If you sit near the Correspondent, you hear her busy fingers on the keyboard, tappity-tappity-tappity-TAP. And you think, that’s good. Busy at work. Should be able to close the edition early tonight. Then you notice that the Correspondent has been working for 45 minutes on a routine 12-column-inch wire service article on the discovery that it gets hot in the Midwest in the summertime. That’s when you realize that all that music of the keyboard has been Instant Messaging to friends, some of them probably also on the copy desk.

Team Player

Team Player designs dynamic pages, writes crisp headlines, and sets priorities under deadline pressure. A self-starter, Team Player acts proactively to take action, communicates effectively with stakeholders, and displays a positive attitude. Team Player has broad editing experience, excellent news judgment and leadership skills and a desire to innovate. Team Player understands and embraces the company’s core mission, values and goals.



I am Pouncer, Speed Demon, Mote Man, Thanks for Sharing, Correspondent, By the Book and, sometimes, Stuck in First. I have at one time or another displayed all these behaviors. Learning humility is easy on a copy desk, because in identifying the faults and failings of others, one holds up a mirror to oneself.


A short guide to the zoology of newspaper writers.

The Crown Prince and/or The Princess Royal

The prize bull and prize heifer of the sacred cattle have typically won prizes — real prizes, sometimes with money attached, not the stuff that state press associations hand out like candy corn at Halloween. Consequently, they have been exempted from routine work. Production of a story, once or twice a year, is an event in the newsroom.

Mute Inglorious Milton

Mute Inglorious Milton has the misfortune to work on a beat or a section largely ignored by the rest of the paper. He/she may be diligent and accurate, may even be able to write clearly, but there is no chance that he/she will ever be summoned from the suburbs to work downtown, much less ever become The Crown Prince or The Princess Royal.

The Supreme Pontificator

As a writer of analyses or reviews and a master of the Authoritative Tone, The Supreme Pontificator has no peer. He/she has never been wrong. Or at least has never acknowledged a misjudgment. Moreover, he/she speaks ex cathedra on any subject in any article. Read his/her articles to learn what God would think if God had the inside information.

The Supreme Pontificator is destined to become a distinguished member of the Columntern (See below).

Who Touched My Story

Who Touched My Story will demand an accounting of every keystroke during the editing of his/her story, often calling the copy desk on edition deadline with this inquiry. Who Touched will contest every attempt to untangle syntax or regularize a mixed metaphor. Corrections of errors of fact will not be met with gratitude.

Who Touched has become such a nuisance that assigning editors have given up the struggle. His/her copy is subjected to peristalsis rather than editing, and when a copy editor has the temerity to raise a question, Who Touched will answer, “My editor thought that this story was fine. Why are you questioning it?”

Mirror, Mirror

“Did you read my story? What did you think of my story? Did you like it better than yesterday’s story? What was your favorite passage? What’s the headline on my story going to say? Is it on Page One? Why isn’t it on Page One?”

Mirror, Mirror is apparently unaware that anyone else is writing or that the paper and its editors have any concerns apart from the burnishing of his/her article.

By the Word

By the Word believes that a 1,500-word story is, by definition, twice as good as a 750-word story. Accordingly, an article on some continuing story with three paragraphs of incremental developments will be padded out with a couple of dozen paragraphs taken from the archive. By the Word is particularly deadly when covering crime and courts, because a story on the third day of jury selection will require a recapitulation of the complete circumstances of the original crime, with context taking the reader back to the time Cain smacked Abel.

The Duckbilled Platitude

The Duckbilled Platitude never met a cliche he/she didn’t like. But he/she is as busy as a one-armed paperhanger. At the end of the day, racing against the clock, he gives 110 percent trying to find the smoking gun. And the next day he is back in the saddle again. Trying to get Duckbilled to give up cliches is like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.

Columnist Party Apparatchik

The members of the Columntern write about their children, their pets, their interminable waits queuing up with the rabble at the motor vehicle bureau. When whimsical, they write columns that Dave Barry might have been able to make funny. When channeling Walter Winchell, they produce little apercus and apothegms about life, held together with ellipses and spit.

When one Apparatchik achieves the status of Supreme Pontificator and takes one of his/her extended vacations, the paper reprints past columns.

The Columntern is not subject to editing, because, as Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.” Or more simply, as Don Hebb put it, “What’s not worth doing is not worth doing well.”

High Camp

High Camp has learned from colleagues, taking the Authoritative Tone from The Supreme Pontificator, adopting the self-absorption of Mirror, Mirror, appropriating the gift of unoriginality from The Duckbilled Platitude, and experimenting with the risible pretensions of Goodbye English Prose (See below), he/she confects a rococo prose unlike anything else on land or sea. Many writers talk about developing a voice; High Camp has Voice. The effect is very much like what P.G. Wodehouse or S.J. Perlman might have accomplished if they had taken no account of the actual meanings of words.

High Camp flowers in features sections.

Plain But Earnest

Plain But Earnest is diligent, so diligent that if he/she were any more productive it would sink the whole operation. Plain But files every day, sometimes more than once. Everything in Plain But’s notes goes into the story — stray details of no particular moment, meaningless quotes (“But he said it”). Plain But has no literary aspirations. In fact, the only structural principle Plain But has mastered in constructing an article is randomness.

Goodbye English Prose

Goodbye English Prose is all literary, all flair, all the time, operating under the misapprehension that he/she is creating for the newspaper what H.L. Mencken called “beautiful letters.” Goodbye English loves metaphors, no matter how strained or grotesquely inappropriate to the subject. Goodbye English will drag in the most obvious allusions or quotations from English literature to demonstrate that he/she is an educated/cultivated/sophisticated/sensitive artist.

An editor who questions Goodbye English’s fulsome effects will witness an instant metamorphosis into Who Touched My Story.

Disclosures and disclaimers

“Duckbilled platitude” is borrowed from a poem by E.E. Cummings (NOT e.e. cummings, dammit). “Goodbye English prose” was the headline suggested by an Australian journalist during a workshop featuring a particularly overripe specimen. And “mute inglorious Milton” is, of course, taken from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” a poem once familiar to just about anyone who had made it all the way through high school, but now, sadly, no longer so.

Reporters/writers reading this posting should be aware that the archetypes described here were developed out of more than a quarter-century’s experience as a newspaper copy editor and should not necessarily be identified with any specific person working within striking distance of my office.


The reader should understand that most of these types are male. And white. Despite more than three decades of affirmative action, most newspapers are still run by white guys. I regret that I cannot recall the name of the writer who, being told some years ago of a proposed support group for white males, said that there is already a support group for white men: it’s called the United States of America.

The Fonctionnaire

The French understand the nature of the inevitable gray civil servant who will endure until the universe winds down in entropy. Stars burst into novas and burn out, corporate owners come and go, and management fads succeed fads, but The Fonctionnaire endures. Cunningly, The Functionnaire, unobserved, occupies some obscure office with a nebulous title and obscure duties, biding his time until the more talented colleagues flame out, and then occupies the chair of authority because no one else is left. To sit in a meeting with him is to perceive the processes of a wasting disease.

Great Is Caesar

Great Is is an empire builder. He knows exactly the splendid things he wants to accomplish, and he is ruthless in their pursuit, though not openly so. Superficially magnanimous and agreeable to those who can be useful to accomplish his aims, he sets his face against those who obstruct him — and they wither and perish. He does, in fact, accomplish great things, and his empire expands. But, like Julius and Augustus, he leaves no worthy successor. He will be followed in time by The Fonctionnaire.


Pharaoh, like Great Is Caesar, has grand designs. Unlike Great Is, he is clueless about how to accomplish them. So instead he is dictatorial. He hardens his heart. His voice is the only voice that booms out in meetings, and lesser folk are misguided if they imagine that his invitations to discussion are open invitations; they are opportunities to agree with him. When the plagues rain down, he will not know what to do about them, except to bluster.

The Regular Guy

He’d like to drink a beer with you (domestic, light). He might bestow a nickname on you. He wants to be your pal. He won’t ask that much of you. He has, like Richard Nixon, read the manual on how to be a Regular Fellow, and he follows its specifications to the letter. Anything you do is fine with him, just fine. Keep in mind that when your interests get in the way of his, you will find yourself out at the curb.

I Know Better

I Know exists to demonstrate his superiority over his subordinates. (He therefore prefers and promotes subordinates over whom superiority can easily be demonstrated.) When any story or proposal is put before him, he instantly identifies its defects, and he orders it to be worked over again. I Know’s criticisms are typically delivered before an audience, the better for the common people to experience a proper awe of his acuity. I Know’s advantage over Pharaoh is that he actually has some judgment, not that that will endear him to his frazzled subordinates.

Out Of His Depth

Out Of got promoted because there is no possibility in the known universe that he would ever be a threat to anyone above him. Understanding at some dim, reptilian level that the job is beyond his limited abilities, he is fiercely loyal to his protector, his only hope. Out Of would inspire pathos if it were not for his unaccountable vanity about his position; his feeble pronouncements, like Pharaoh’s and I Know’s, are not to be challenged.*

Eager Beaver

Eager, out to prove himself to the High Command, will put in fourteen-hour days. Sixteen-hour days. Eager will take on any assignment, absorb any feckless twit into the staff, meet any deadline, bear any burden. Eager will produce the story dictated to him at ten o’clock in the morning, learn three o’clock that it is not what was wanted, reassign it as the shadows of evening gather, and edit and rewrite it himself to meet the most recent diktat. He will show up early the next morning to repeat the process.

Tee Time

Tee Time doesn’t really have any interest in the operation. He would rather be on the golf course, or playing darts in a saloon, or intriguing for a position higher up in the corporation than overseeing the paper. So he leaves Out Of His Depth in charge. When he has collected enough coupons, he will move on to a higher sphere of endeavor.


OCD cannot let go of anything. The story needs to have corrections and updates and refinements and tweeks — oh, and the photographs don’t match the story, and the graphics have to be redone. Maybe this should have been seen to a couple of weeks ago, but there was all this stuff in the story that had to be recast and reorganized and — no, it has to be taken back from the copy desk now because the writer wants to make some changes; you’ll have it back in five minutes. Maybe ten. And are those the headlines you put on it? They’re all wrong; here are some suggestions. How soon do you have to have it for tomorrow? There are fixes and changes in it that you have to make? Can I have it back for just a minute?

The Graduate

Ever so smarter than you, he has read more books than you, uses bigger words than you, and loses no opportunity to parade his learning before you. You will be expected to nod in silent assent as he unfolds his endless anecdotes and observations, all of which you have heard at least twice, as you beg for merciful death to overtake you. But once you have acceded to his superior learning and sophistication, and endured his endless anecdotes, he is generally content to leave you alone. Because learning is not held in any particular regard in journalism, his prospects for advancement are extremely limited.**

*Out Of is one of the many managing editors under whom I have served. At one prolonged hearing on legal issues, I observed Out Of at a table with a little folder containing a miniature legal pad. For the entire afternoon he wrote nothing in it. Then, as the hearing officer brought the proceedings to a close, I watched with intent interest as he opened the portfolio and tore off a sheet of paper.

He spat out a wad of chewing gum into the paper and crumpled it up, then left the hearing room.

**The copy desk is the logical repository for this one.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Someone had blunder'd

One night some years ago, as I was reviewing the stories for the front page of The Sun, I saw on edition deadline that the deck head — the secondary headline — on the lead story wasn’t quite right. But, experienced copy editor and headline writer as I was, I also saw instantly how it could be improved. And, fumbling typist that I am, I introduced a typo into the revised deck before typesetting it.

Such a mistake would have been embarrassing any day. It was particularly regrettable on that occasion, because the next morning the American Society of Newspaper Editors opened its national convention in Baltimore. The managing editor was, predictably, furious, but — here is the advantage of working nights — by the time I reported to work in late afternoon, she had already savaged several persons and was no longer interested in me.

That memory came flooding back this morning after I read the deck head on the lead story in this morning’s Sun. The main head was fine: Ethics / changes / outlined / for city. But the deck:

Rawlings-Blake says
her bill will seek to
heighte public trus’

It would be pleasant to boast that nothing like that would have happened on my watch — you see, Tribune Co., you shoulda kept me. But, as I just wrote, something very like that did happen on my watch, at my hand. Working as a copy editor stimulates humility. We come to see that all of us are prone to error and that the only way to keep errors to an irreducible minimum is to check and support one another.

This is what the corporate executives who blather about reducing the “touches” between writer and reader fail to grasp. But that is understandable, because most of the people making those decisions have never worked the hours when the product is actually produced, or troubled to find out how it is done.* They have instead hired consultants to arrive at previously decided conclusions.

I don’t know who wrote today’s defective headline, how it came about, or why it wasn’t caught before the presses rolled. I suspect that his or her chagrin is immense. But the responsibility is not limited to a single editor or even the bare-bones copy desk staff last evening. Responsibility for errors like this at The Sun and other publications must also be laid at the door of the people who decided that the work could be done just as well by a drastically diminished and demoralized corps of harried editors.**

Put it in the simplest terms: When you eliminate the quality control, you also eliminate the quality.

*Early in his tenure as editor of The Sun, John S. Carroll took the trouble to spend a few nights at the copy desk, observing how the work was done, and he returned to his normal working hours with an enhanced sense of the importance of maintaining a top-drawer copy desk. In nearly twenty-three years at the paper, I never saw another editor or managing editor make that effort.

**Think that this is special pleading from me? Look at what Tim McGuire, former editor of the Star Tribune in Minneapolis and now a professor at the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State, wrote yesterday about the importance of copy editors. Here’s a taste:

I think just whacking a bunch of copy editing positions out of the system and expecting spell check to pick up the slack is a terribly ill-advised path. Copy editing is a subtle, nuanced art that goes way beyond spotting typos.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

With malice toward 'none'

Not to carp and cavil and kvetch, but I have been telling you repeatedly that none is a Janus pronoun. It swings both ways. It is either singular or plural, depending on context. It has done no one any harm. Yet journalists have been brainwashed to disrespect it by treating it always as a singular, as in this awkward sentence from this morning’s Baltimore Sun:

None of the omissions, additions or minor errors on the bids affects the price, quantity, quality or delivery of the project, Huddles said.

Yes, you can reason that the intent is to stress that not one omission, addition, or error affects any aspect of the project. But a reader maneuvering through that cloud of plurals is likelier to think that not any is the sense, which would call for a plural verb.

If being hectored by an unemployed copy editor sitting in his basement at eight o’clock in the morning is less than persuasive, there are other authorities to heed.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage points out that none derives from the Old English nan, which was “inflected for both singular and plural” and “has never existed in the singular only.”

Lindley Murray — Lindley Murray!, the eighteenth-century prescriptivist grammarian who saddled us with the notion that they must not be used with everyone* — wrote, “None is used in both numbers,” though the plural sense troubled him. H.W. Fowler of blessed memory wrote of none in 1926, “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c; the OED explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner.” Bryan Garner says that none is “is the less common way, particularly in educated speech, and it therefore sounds somewhat stilted.”

Even the Associated Press Stylebook grudgingly concedes, in a rare burst of intelligence, that it is permissible to use none in a plural sense.

On this point the prescriptivists and the descriptivists are united, and yet the erroneous notion persists. If you were taught to use none only as a singular, perhaps you could write to your old journalism school and demand a refund of your tuition.

*For an enlightening discussion of singular they, consult this Language Log post. We’ll return to this battle another day.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

O ye of little faith

Last week The Baltimore Sun ran an article by Tracy Wilkinson of Tribune Newspapers about relief efforts in Haiti that contained this questionable sentence:

Haiti is, officially, predominantly Catholic, with some Protestant faiths.

For officially, the reporter probably intended nominally, in name only. Officially would suggest the existence of an established state church, like the Church of England. Haiti is about 80 percent professedly Roman Catholic, though estimates are that half the population practices forms of voodoo. (This might help to explain, though not excuse, some of the Rev. Pat Robertson’s peculiar pronouncements.)

More seriously, the reference to Protestant faiths betrays an ignorance of religion. Christianity is a faith, as is Islam, as is Hinduism. The Protestant churches are branches of Christianity not separate faiths. They are denominations, or, somewhat less favorably, sects.

Here endeth the lesson.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The bliss of ignorance

Writing about Sarah Palin in The New York Review of Books, Jonathan Raban characterized Going Rogue as a “paean to virtuous ignorance,” a term that looks like something that could stand further examination.

***Just a minute, boys, let me be clear from the outset that I am not writing about Sarah Palin but about the concept of “virtuous ignorance.” No need to douse me with that adolescent vitriol you splashed on Mr. Raban at Free Republic. (Apparently, anyone who is not enchanted with Ms. Palin is a homosexual given to using big words, and that counts as refutation, at least on that site.)***

For a pure example of virtuous ignorance, it is hard to surpass Jenny McCarthy, the actress-turned-autism-advocate. Diane Sawyer invited her onto ABC News to denounce a study in Pediatrics, a medical journal, that determined that the special diets Ms. McCarthy advocates are ineffective. Her response was that it’s time that doctors “start listening to our anecdotal evidence.”

Ms. McCarthy, who has an autistic son, Evan, was previously granted a platform by Oprah Winfrey to discuss growing scientific evidence that there is no link between vaccines and autism. Ms. McCarthy rebutted it thus: ‘My science is Evan, and he's at home. That's my science.”

It is a puzzlement: In a technologically advanced society, in which lifespan and standards of living have been improved by more than two centuries of post-Enlightenment scientific research, a Jenny McCarthy can become an influential figure in public health. Increasingly, people believe what they wish to believe, against all evidence, especially if someone with whom they can identify, whom they see as a sincere person, agrees with them.

The Columbia Journalism Review has an article on the high proportion of television meteorologists who are skeptical about the scientific evidence for global warming. Never mind that meteorology and climatology, though related, are distinct disciplines. Never mind that TV weather forecasters may have negligible training in climatology. They are the people seen every day as representatives of science, and their word carries weight.

Ms. McCarthy and the climate skeptics are quick to claim that there is a scientific establishment with a sinister agenda, falsifying research, operating on behalf of hidden interests. Indeed, there is malpractice in science, as you can read in Horace Freeland Judson’s 2004 book, The Great Betrayal: Fraud in Science. People rush to publish, people lie, peer review can fail.

But it’s dangerous to generalize from single cases. Piltdown Man was a fraud for decades, but its exposure did not mean that we had to discard anthropology. Science still has self-correcting mechanisms. The reason that proponents of creationism and intelligent design have turned to the secular arm to undermine by legislative means the teaching of evolution is that they have not been able to make a persuasive case scientifically.*

Do not imagine that paranoia and self-righteous fantasy are limited to the right, even though contemporary conservatives have vouchsafed us some of the more lurid examples. In Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens examines how Gore Vidal, a distinguished novelist (his Lincoln is exceptional) and formidable essayist, has given himself over in advancing age to uttering crackpot statements, among them the assertion that George W. Bush connived at the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This is vile, and it is painful to see a man of letters fall so low.

Vaccines for credulity appear to be a long way off.

*I fear the day when the bigots discover that we got algebra from the Arabs (al-Kwarizmi’s book ’ilm al-jabr wa’l-mukabala, “the science of restoring what is missing and equating like with like”) and mobilize to eliminate the teaching of mathematics in public schools. Then all that will remain for us to do is ask what accommodations our Chinese overlords require.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

You can always blame the customer

Andrew Alexander, the ombudsman for The Washington Post, once more takes on the thankless task of explaining to readers why the number of irritating errors has increased:

When it comes to typos and syntax, retired English teachers and armchair grammarians delight in playing "Gotcha!" with The Post. They are regular (and often good-natured) correspondents, pointing out everything from misplaced modifiers to homonym errors.

In recent months, they've been joined by less genial readers who complain that increased copy-editing errors have become annoying and are damaging The Post's credibility.

Everything would be swell if it weren’t for those damn readers.

Here are some of the things the armchair grammarians and their recent recruits are whingeing about:

The errors are typically small but unremitting. A story about an Arlington National Cemetery burial described a soldier wearing “shiny black boats” (instead of boots). An item about an auto accident involving NBC newsman Tom Brokaw said he had “slammed on the beaks” (brakes). A listing of unemployment rates in foreign countries included “Cypress” (Cyprus). In a Sports story, the “principles” (principals) attended a dinner celebrating the hiring of Redskins coach Mike Shanahan.

Reasons, Mr. Alexander concedes, include the reduction in the number of copy editors at the paper, from seventy-five to forty-three over a three-year span, and the requirement for the remnant to concentrate on “search-engine optimization.” The latter is formatting and tailoring articles to attract the attention of Google and thus additional readers.

Mr. Alexander has more faith than I do about the possibility that new grammar-check software will help ⎯ that Cypress for Cyprus looks like a spell-check-induced error, or Cupertino, to me.*

The increase in errors that make the writer, and the publication, look stupid comes in part from the current belief that getting it fast counts more than getting it right, and the corollary that you can eliminate copy editors, or assign them more and more non-editing duties, because nobody cares about quality, except maybe a few cranky retired English teachers.

Just refer the fusspots to the ombudsman and let the search-engine optimization roll.

*Or maybe, as at the Star Tribune, the writers will spontaneously start using the spell-checker and learn to distinguish homonyms.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Blast from the past

It is probably not too soon to steel yourself for National Grammar Day on March 4. By way of preparation, and to respond to readers disappointed that the You Don’t Say posts at are no longer accessible, I am reproducing here all four installments of last year’s Grammarnoir serial. (I’m undecided about what to do this year.)


I. Down those mean sentences I walk alone

I was sitting at my desk in the old Intelligencer-Argus building the day she walked in. It was late afternoon on a rainy day, and my hand had strayed more than once toward the dictionary in the bottom desk drawer. I heard footsteps approaching, and when I looked up, there she was. She was — lissome.

“Mr. McIntyre?” she said.

“Take a load off, lady,” I said pushing a chair, the one with the loose armrest, toward her. Cheapskate publishers. “What can I do for you?”

“Mr. McIntyre, my name is Martha Brockenbrough, and I need your help.”

“What’s the problem, sis?”

“Well, a dear friend of mine is married to a man — he’s a hard worker and a good provider, I don’t mean to say anything against him — but he’s so rigid.”

“What’s his game?” I asked, with a suspicion dawning like the morning sun over the penitentiary down the street.

“He’s a writer.”

“I know the type.”

“No, you don’t,” she said, lifting her stubborn little chin. “He’s a good writer. Well, most of the time, anyway. It’s just that he’s fallen into some bad ways.”

“Tell me about them, doll,” I said.

“He positively insists that none can be used only as a singular.“


“And once he threatened to strike a grocery clerk in the ‘10 items or less’ aisle.”


“He got so angry once over my … my friend’s placement of only in a sentence that she was afraid she would have to call the police.”

“Baby, I’ve met a million of ’em. This place used to crawl with ’em before the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. But why are you coming to me about this bozo?”

“Well, I heard, Mr. McIntyre, that you’re a highly professional copy editor.”

“I’ve nailed the errant adverb in my time.”

“I thought you could talk him, work with him, help him somehow.”

“Toots, I’ve got it soft here. Twenty an hour, and I don’t have to furnish my own pencil. I don’t need the aggravation.”

“But Mr. McIntyre, National Grammar Day is almost here. It’s March 4, and I’m so afraid for him, and for my friend, that if he isn’t turned around by then, something terrible might happen.” She sobbed softly into a dainty little lace thing she’d plucked from her purse.

It was the tears that got to me, against my better judgment. I should’ve known better. I did know better. Always a sucker for any sweet dame.

“All right, Ms. Brockenbrough, you’ve got yourself a green eyeshade. Let’s have his name and address.”

“Oh,” she said. “There’s a problem.”

To be continued …

II. “What are we going to do now?” she asked

Martha zipped off in some little Italian two-seater that she’d bought with the proceeds of Things That Make Us [Sic], and I lumbered along in my wheezing General Motors product. Maybe I should write a book.

Her house — yeah, she was the “friend” with the problem, to your astonishment and mine, I’m sure — was a modest bungalow. Guess the royalties hadn’t spread wide enough to upgrade the house, too. Even the rain couldn’t disguise that it could have used coat of paint.

She shivered a little at the front door, and her hand was unsteady as she tried to get the key into the lock.

I grabbed her by the elbow. “You going to tell me what your problem is?” I asked.

“Soon enough.” And she went in.

There wasn’t a light on in the place. It was as cold as a publisher’s heart, and nearly as black. She switched on a lamp. It had one of those little fluorescent bulbs, so the light just limped out a couple of feet and died.

“Well?” I said.

“Mr. McIntyre, I’m afraid that I didn’t tell you everything back at your office.”

“Sugar, I’m a copy editor. Nobody ever tells me the whole story.”

“All right, would you please just follow me.”

She walked across the room to a closed door and paused with her hand on the knob.

“It’s in here.”

I stepped through the door as she switched on an overhead light.

There he was. A man of middle years, slumped over a desk. There was a flier for National Grammar Day on March 4 clutched in his fist.

I walked over and touched the cold dead flesh of his neck. No pulse, of course. There was a small bruise at his right temple. I reached for his collar and pulled him upright in his chair.

An Eberhard Faber Col-erase number 1277 pencil, carmine red, protruded from his chest, just over the heart.

“Did that kill him?” she asked. Her voice quavered.

“Sweetheart, that’s for the M.E. to say, but I’d bet a first-edition Fowler’s that that pencil has been recently sharpened.”

“What are we going to do now?”

You, my lovely, are going to call the police and sit here waiting for them.”

“And what will you do?”

“I’m going to see the Fat Man.”

To be continued ...

III. The Fat Man chuckles

I stood in front of the Fat Man’s house and waited. Our reporters would have called it a manse, but it was grander than anything the Presbyterian clergy ever set foot inside. One light was on — the ground floor, the library.

I knew he would be there.

Only seconds after I rang the bell, the door opened a crack as narrow as a consultant’s brainpan. The Fat Man’s houseboy took my name, let me in and offered to take my battered fedora. “Just tell your boss I’m here,” I said.

“Very well, Mr. McIntyre,” he said. He was back almost immediately. “This way,” he said, and led me down the hall to the library.

“Ah, McIntyre, delighted to see you again,” the Fat Man wheezed as he heaved himself out of his armchair to greet me. “Come take a pew, while I try to do something about this vile chill,” he said, throwing another copy of Strunk and White onto the fire.

I’d known him for years. We’d been honor students together — teacher’s pets — and then he started his slide. It began innocently enough, with a little amateur lexicography. But then he fell in with that hard set at Language Log. He was pals with both the Geoffs — Pullum and Nunberg — Arnold Zwicky, the lot. Before you could say lexeme, he was too deep into descriptivism to ever come back. But, maybe because of our old school ties, we had always managed a gingerly balance.

“So, dear boy,” he said, “what brings you out in the rain and the dark?”

“I just came from the Brockenbrough house.”

“Nothing amiss with the charming Martha, I hope.”

“She’s OK. A little white around the gills. Somebody did in the Mister.”

“Oh. How?”

“Col-erase straight through the ticker.”

“Ah. Oddly appropriate, nil nisi bonum and all. That puts paid to his grand scheme, I suppose.”


“You really ought to get out of the newsroom more often, dear boy. Yes, a scheme, a cabal, a conspiracy, a plot as loony as Booth’s plan to decapitate the Union government in ’65. And the Mister was in the thick of it.”

I settled back in my chair. “Perhaps you can enlighten me.”

“You must have known that the Mister, despite dear little Martha’s charm, was as hard-edged a proponent of prescriptivist poppycock as any pedant who has ever bemoaned the decline of his language. I once saw him throw a hard roll at a waitress who had merely told him that hopefully his entree would be ready in a few minutes.”

“Go on.”

“Like Cassius, he insinuated himself into a company of like-minded mavens — John Simon, William Safire, James J. Kilpatrick, that lot — and inveigled them into a planning a crack-brained putsch. They were going to kidnap Jesse Sheidlower and storm the offices of the Oxford English Dictionary to ‘purify’ the language by force majeure. And they were going to pull this off —“

“On National Grammar Day. March 4,” I said. “So who would have wanted to snuff him?”

“You could assemble a cast of thousands for that task.” He paused. “But I wonder…”


“It’s just, dear boy,” he said with an evil little chuckle, “that I wouldn’t imagine that he alone could be stirred to wrath over the little niceties and false commandments of usage, or that he alone may have had plans for National Grammar Day.”

I saw then what I had to do.

To be continued …

IV. The rule you don’t break

The cold rain was coming down as hard and fast as layoff notices in a newsroom. As I hurried down the front walk of the Fat Man’s house, I caught a flicker of movement out of the corner of my eye. Ducking around a corner, I stood behind a tree and waited. A figure in a dark raincoat came around, and I grabbed an arm and twisted.

“Hey! Take it easy, buster. Do you know who I am?”

A woman’s voice. I pulled her over to a streetlight for a look.

“Well, well, a little far from home, Ms. Freeman.” Jan Freeman, copy-editor-turned-moll for Language Log’s Boston family. First non-linguist to be named a consigliere. I let go.

Rubbing her arm, she said, “You’re out of your depth here, McIntyre. Go home.”

“No chance, sister. I’m not going to walk away and let you do Steven Pinker’s dirty work here. I know about the putsch, and what’s more, I figured out who killed the Mister.”

Her shoulders slumped. She shook her head and turned. She stopped and hissed at me: “You're just a two-bit grifter, and that's all you'll ever be.” Then she was gone.

I was pensive on the drive back to the Brockenbrough bungalow. Editing’s a mug’s game. The words strain and crack; sometimes they break under the burden, the tension. They slip and slide and perish — won’t stay still. You go out on a raid on the inarticulate, and not everybody comes back. The public doesn’t like to see it but wants it done. That leaves it to me.

Martha was sitting in the living room. The scientists had gone, taking the body.

“What did he say?” she asked.

“What I needed to know.”


“Let me ask you a question. Your book, Things That Make Us [Sic], doesn’t it have an entry on what Bryan Garner lists under ‘Superstitions’ and H.W. Fowler under ‘Fetishes,”?

“Yes. Sure. I called them “false commandments.’”

“Uh-huh. Got a copy handy?”

“There’s one in the study.”

“Come on.”

She led the way through the door to the library and over to the desk. There was a little blood on the blotter, and next to it, on top of a clipping of James J. Kilpatrick’s annual column on the placement of only — it figures — was Martha’s book. I picked it up and turned to page 223, “THE TEN FALSE COMMANDMENTS OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE.”

“Was this what you and he were arguing about?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t play games with me. I made a phone call on my way back, and the boys will be back. Once they match this dent in the buckram cover to that bruise on the Mister’s temple, it’s all over.”

Her face crumpled. “National Grammar Day was mine, mine, and he and his pack of cranks wanted to take it over. There were going to be uprisings of English teachers in all the major cities. He laughed at Chapter 10, ‘Rules That Never Were, Are No More, and Should Be Broken.’ He said that when the cabal made English the official language, all those rules would be written into the United States Code. He was mad and out of control, and I picked up my book and struck him.”

“And then?”

“He swore, said the cabal would have me locked up in Leavenworth. I reached for that red pencil and struck at him, and he groaned and slumped over the desk and was still.”

“It’s over. Oxford University Press has moved Jesse Sheidlower to a secure, undisclosed location. The flatfoots are rounding up the members of the cabal. The threat to National Grammar Day is over. I just want to know one thing.”


“Why’d you call me in?”

“You’re a professional copy editor. You fix things.”

“All but this. Sweetheart, you’re taking the fall. National Grammar Day will go on, but you’ll be spending it in a cell.”

Outside, a siren was growing louder.

The end

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Must be important; it's on Facebook

One of my readers, a former University of Maryland at Baltimore County student, noticed a couple of articles at that cited Facebook numbers. His comments:

Both stories cite the membership of a Facebook group related to the story as a substantial fact (the first in the seventh paragraph, the second in the 18th. Both figures are between 1,000 and 2,000, but neither provide any context such as how quickly that figure was reached or even e.g. how many people there are in total on Facebook in the County or the City, or what constitutes a significant number for a group of this sort.

It wasn't so long ago that I was a college student, and I don't recall the joining of a Facebook group as a particularly meaningful act (compared to, say, writing a letter or attending a demonstration). I'm sure checking Facebook is now an early step in the first pass on reporting any story, but it doesn't seem to me either of these numbers _mean anything_. Would this give you pause as a copy editor?

Oh yes. Nearly anything will stimulate suspicion in a copy editor, especially an article that cites numbers.

Nothing is easier than clicking on a link to join a Facebook group. I have joined a few, and some I have not gone back to look at in months. I can see raw numbers of membership in these groups, but, apart from comments by a fraction of the members, I have no idea how often or how much anyone participates in them.

What, as a copy editor, I suspect, is that these citations of Facebook numbers are analogous to those bogus Internet polls that Web sites love to set up and then quote.* Any poll, the ready reader understands, that depends on self-selected responses is statistically invalid. Dubious. Suspect. Worthless.

Trying to gauge involvement with an issue by a raw count of Facebook members in a group, without the availability of a metric to measure the degree of involvement, is just one more largely meaningless number.

*You may have seen some of these ludicrous polls that show the percentages, for and against, in large type, and then reveal in the small type beneath that the poll drew no more than two or three dozen responses.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Made you look.

When I first worked at The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, the newspaper used the Hendrix publishing system, on which the slug, or working title, of a story was limited to six letters. Rawsex was a popular slug, and dropping a story with that slug on the copy desk was like dropping a calf into a stream full of piranha.

About ninety percent of the time, RAWSEX would be about ORSANCO, the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation Commission, or some equally gripping topic, and about ten percent of the time it would be about sex, but it always got picked up fast, which was the city desk’s intention.

I mention this in connection with yesterday’s post, “You call that a great headline?”

I wrote the post to take exception with Howard Owens’s tweet about a three-year-old headline, “Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo," as being a great one that any copy editor would envy.

Mr. Owens subsequently took exception to my exception, commenting (and you’ll want to be sure to look at the comments, which came in a burst after Romenesko linked to the post):

I think the fact that the headline has gotten so much attention speaks for itself.

The headline did its job -- got attention to the story.

End of story.

Great headline. One of the best ever.

By that standard, one, by the way, echoed by other commenters, ‘RAWSEX” would be an even greater one. Maybe add an exclamation point.

When he was in charge of the copy editors at the Free Press in Detroit, Alex Cruden conducted a series of headline workshops at American Copy Editor Society conferences, the American Press Institute, and other venues, in which he empaneled civilians — actual readers — to comment on a variety of headlines while muzzled copy editors looked on.

The results were startling to many of the copy editors. Even veteran readers of newspapers did not always pick up on all the headline conventions. And one thing came up repeatedly, in panel after panel across the country: Readers were much less impressed with clever headlines and wordplay than the editors who wrote them. What the readers wanted was clarity.

Not to mention that many clever headlines in newspapers are hardly more than obvious puns, suggesting that copy editors as a group share one of the characteristics that Samuel Johnson found in Shakespeare: “A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

It remains only to make a couple of points about the alternative headline I mentioned yesterday, my old friend Paul Clark’s “Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose.”

If memory serves, I was the slot editor who approved it for Page One, and I did — pace, commenters — not to allude to Janis Joplin. Without going into the philosophical underpinning of “Me and Bobby McGee,” I thought the headline suggested that the signature line of the song had a parallel to this eagle that had twice been injured.

I’m afraid that nearly all of you who commented on it missed a salient point. Over or the past several years, when I have used this headline in my editing class at Loyola, I have gotten blank looks from every student. If you caught the allusion, then you are probably a fogy like me who still reads things in print. If you drew a blank, you’re probably under forty. If I were in a position to approve that headline today, I’d probably have to kick it back to the editor, much as I like it. Allusion is slippery.

One last thing, commenting on Twitter, Steve Buttry, a classy guy, wrote, “We disagree, but I call attention to John's argument.” Contrast that with a comment by someone named Ray, who wrote, “It's a good headline. It only took a look at the accompanying picture to know what the story was about. This is just a case of sour grapes on McIntyre's part.”

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

You call that a great headline?

On Twitter, I came across a tweet from @howardowens: “A copy editor could work a lifetime and never get a chance to write such a great headline.” Intrigued, I clicked on the link and found this Washington Post headline:

Skywalkers in Korea Cross Han Solo

I’m sorry. I can’t endorse this one.

I’ll grant you that it’s cute, and I’m sure it brought a round of chuckles at what remains of the Post’s copy desk. But it’s just arbitrary.

A play on words in a headline, particularly one combined with an allusion, should work both ways. It should give a sense of the content of the story, and the allusion should have some connection with the story. There is no Star Wars angle in the story, so the headline is just standing there, saying, “Look how clever I am.”

I’ll give you an example from the archives of one that works.

Some years back, Bill Clinton visited Maryland’s Eastern Shore, and to commemorate the president’s visit, a bald eagle that had injured a wing and been nursed back to health was released into the wild. They called the eagle “Freedom.” Unfortunately, Freedom promptly got into a scrap with a couple of ospreys, was injured, and was returned to veterinary care.

The irrepressible Paul Clark, then working on The Sun’s copy desk, wrote the headline:

Freedom’s just another bird with nothing left to lose

Watch and learn.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bungling at the top

Tempting as it is to associate imbecility mainly with the publishing executives who have hollowed out America’s newspapers, there is plenty of that quality to go around, and not just for bankers.

David Zurawik’s article in today’s Baltimore Sun about the ignominious retreat of NBC over its disaster with Jay Leno’s 10 p.m. show after a mere four months illustrates some of the parallels between broadcast television and the newspaper industry.

Broadcast TV, like newspapers, faces a crisis. The programming is expensive to produce (hence the proliferation of cheap-to-make but tacky reality shows), the viewers are drifting away to more appealing offerings on cable, and advertising revenue is sharply down.

People in a panic are liable to arrive at bad decisions, and the broadcast executives, like their newspaper counterparts, chose something self-destructive. They moved Mr. Leno into the earlier time slot because his show is cheaper than a series to produce. Their contempt for their viewers is comparable to newspaper executives’ contempt for readers: just give them something cheap while pretending that it’s good.*

Unfortunately, NBC also contrived to damage the affiliate stations, whose screaming over lost revenue could be heard throughout the long winter nights even with the windows closed. It was the affiliates’ threat of outright rebellion that prompted NBC’s hasty retreat.

At this point, the principal difference between the broadcast executives and newspaper executives appears to be that the broadcasters conceded publicly that they had made a bad decision.

*I have no particular disregard for Mr. Leno, who appears to be an amiable fellow who can be amusing on the days that his writers give him something to work with.

Monday, bloody Monday

Not an auspicious start to the week: woke at 3:00 a.m. yesterday, feverish, then chilled, congested, with a sore throat. Had to back out, shamefully, of a couple of obligations to spend the day swallowing ibuprofen and swilling tea. Today? Too soon to tell.

Before embarking on the week’s activities, some reminders and loose ends.

Still time to sign up

You still have a day or two to sign up for McMurry’s Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You audioconference on Thursday. Be assured that I will have pulled back from the edge of the grave by then, not only to alert you to some things about language that it is important to keep in mind, but also to hear what you have to offer. Questions will be taken. Form some.

More than spell-checking

That deeply embarrassing Star Tribune memo last week, the one that implied that the paper could get along without copy editors so long as the reporters ran spell-check on their stories, betrays a widespread ignorance about editing.

There are two levels of editing. Running the spell-check is part of mechanical editing: looking for errors in spelling, grammar, usage, points of fact. These are the errors that readers usually pick up on, and this is what people who are ignorant of the craft — many of them, sadly, corporate executives in the publishing industry — think is all there is to it.

The deeper level, analytical editing, is much more difficult. It involves the things that make articles readable, such as focus, structure, organization within the structure, tone, and the legal and ethical issues that get people into trouble. Readers who spot errors in grammar or street names are unlikely to think about the text in these terms, but they can tell very quickly when a story is hard going.

This kind of editing falls to the copy editor when the writer and the assigning editor get so bound up in their own preoccupations with the story that they are unable to step back and look at it as the reader would. Now that crucial step is missing or suppressed at many publications, which may be one reason that newspaper readership is dropping like a stone.

When I step into my classroom at Loyola tomorrow morning, I will be telling my students in the editing course that they are going to be responsible for editing at both levels. We’ll see how many are still there on Thursday.

President Thursday

Now that has made the older You Don’t Say posts inaccessible, I have no compunction about repeating points that I’ve made before. (Not, as my former colleagues can testify, that I have ever been particularly reluctant to repeat myself.)

The opening sentence of a front-page story in Friday’s Sun began thus:

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake Thursday ordered a

That was the first line, in enlarged type.

Let’s consider first an aesthetic question, whether a writer ought to string together a long series of capitalized words before ever getting to a verb. Probably not.

Let’s also consider the damnable practice of inserting the day of an event between the subject and the verb, which in this case makes Thursday appear to be Ms. Rawlings-Blake’s last name. This is a non-idiomatic bit of journalese that I campaigned against throughout my tenure as head of The Sun’s copy desk and language noodge. Apparently without effect.

Former Assistant Managing Editor for the Copy Desk John E. McIntyre Monday announced that he has not given up the fight against this detestable practice.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

I tweet, you tweet, we all tweet

Because the American Dialect Society is meeting in Baltimore this week, along with the Linguistics Society of America, I drove down to the Hilton and paid its extortionate garage fee to attend the cutthroat Word of the Year event.

The linguists were out in force* and had a grand time. Not to keep you in suspense, as you can see from Ben Zimmer’s account in Visual Thesaurus, tweet (v., to post an update on Twitter; n., such an update) won as Word of the Year, and in the exciting additional contest, google was voted Word of the Decade.

It was, however, the secondary contests that captured my interest. I was delighted to be in the majority — yes, they let the rabble in and allowed us to vote — for fail in the Most Useful category. Noun, verb, and interjection, it is, as someone mentioned, the apt word for the recent past. When the votes for the runner-up, the suffix –er, were announced, a glad shout of “FAIL!” went up.

Sea kittens, the inane substitute for fish proposed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, was the Most Unnecessary winner, and was enthusiastically proposed from the floor in other categories.

Hiking the Appalachian trail coasted to victory in the Most Euphemistic category, and death panel commanded a similar majority among the Most Outrageous nominees.

And, fortunately, Naughties, Aughties, and the other terms proposed for naming the first decade of the current century were the logical choices for Least Likely to Succeed. As someone pointed out during the discussion, people struggled to come up with a suitable term in advance of the decade and debated it during the decade; if there is no consensus now, there is unlikely ever to be one. My view: let’s just be glad it’s over.

It was a damn fine bunch of people crammed into a room much too small. In addition to Mr. Zimmer, I got to meet Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large for the Oxford English Dictionary and author of the F Word**; Grant Barrett of Wordnik and the Double-Tongued Dictionary; Mark Liberman of the University of Pennsylvania and Language Log; and Arika Okrent, whose In the Land of Invented Languages I reviewed here in May. It was a rare treat to meet people I hold in high esteem but had previously encountered only electronically.

And not just people previously known. I got to meet Richard W. Bailey of the University of Michigan, who is delivering an address later today on “H.L. Mencken and the American Language.” Mencken was a gifted and diligent amateur student of American English, and The American Language, though dated, has much interesting matter, vigorously expressed.

Professor Bailey also mentioned that the Library of America is bringing out Mencken’s Prejudices collections. Pray don’t allow yourself to be trampled in the rush to the bookstores.

*To the disappointment of my stereotypes, there was no crowd of older gentlemen with bow ties in evidence. Alas.

**Mr. Sheidlower’s tweet on the article in The Washington Post about the Word of the Year event: “WaPo article on #woty gets title of my book wrong, misquotes me, mistakes OED for Oxford UP. Damn MSM.” That’s why you should read Mr. Zimmer’s account instead.

I believe that The Baltimore Sun was not represented at the event. I'd check, but my search at has been hung up for more than ten minutes.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Pick up after yourself

Responding to yesterday’s “Turn out the lights” post, Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism commented thus:

Most interesting from the Strib editor's memo, of course, is this:

“This will also require more individual responsibility: Reporters cannot turn in stories without running a basic spell check. Editors should have reporters read over every story they have edited. Photographers must turn in accurate cutlines that adhere to AP style. More staffers will need to be flexible about the work they do, meaning some reporters might serve a shift as a copy editor or line editor in any given week.”

I hope they sell tickets. Promises to be great entertainment.

The civilians among you may find this difficult to credit, but there are indeed professional journalists at major newspapers who do not routinely spell-check their own work before submitting it for publication. They are under time pressure, poor dears, and besides, they have been accustomed to the idea that some anonymous drudge on the copy desk will clean up after them. (Incidentally, any number of assigning editors don’t bother to run a spell-check either.)

It’s not just spell-checking — though that would tend to catch when they spell proper names inconsistently — but a host of other matters usually left to the copy desk: Fact-checking. Establishing conventional grammar and syntax. Locating the focus, if any, in the article. Cutting padding and irrelevant material. Restraining ill-advised self-indulgence.

It doesn’t matter. The people at the higher levels making these decisions to eliminate copy editors don’t understand what copy editors do. They think they can just tell reporters to pick up the slack. It is as if a teenager whose entire wardrobe lies in heaps on the floor, who has never carried a dirty plate or glass from the living room to the kitchen without prodding, and who leaves the bathroom in a shape not fit to be described here, will instantaneously — at a mere word — make everything shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Thus Mr. Fisher’s well-founded expectation of amusement to come.

I do feel a pang for the people at working level, the supervisors whose task is to carry out imbecilic directives. They must feel as General von Paulus did on his promotion to field marshal.

(Hitler’s thinking, with the Sixth Army collapsing under the Soviet counterattack at Stalingrad, was that no German field marshal had ever surrendered. Von Paulus surrendered the day after his promotion. Examples of wishful thinking are not limited to the Nazi high command. )

The new era arrives and will not be denied. So. Let the corrections column expand. Let the crash blossoms flower. Let even more readers seek their information elsewhere.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Turn out the lights

When a notable actor expires, they dim the lights on Broadway in a brief tribute.

It was confirmed yesterday that Media General will consolidate the copy editing of its newspapers in Tampa, Richmond, and Winston-Salem — the chain’s three largest papers. You may be sure that this does not mean an enlargement of the copy editing staff, but a reduction in both the staff and the quality of editing.

To his credit, Ken Otterbourg, the managing editor at Winston-Salem, resigned. One reason was his disagreement over this measure.

Also yesterday, the Star Tribune in Minneapolis announced that it is reducing the news staff by thirty positions, more than half of them from the ranks of copy editors. The memo says that the paper will not sacrifice quality. Uh-huh.

These are the false economies by which publishers are steadily degrading the quality of what they offer readers, by destroying a craft.

In sympathy with colleagues incontinently turned out of their jobs, and in sorrow over the devastation of the craft of editing, You Don’t Say will go dark for twenty-four hours.

Posting and approval of comments will resume tomorrow.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What, me wordy?

Sometimes patience gives way.

There is a commenter — I can’t say who, since the s.o.b. writes anonymously — who has come to this blog repeatedly to advise me to cut the posts by thirty to forty percent.

Such advice is not helpful. First off, these posts tend to run plus or minus 350 words, a length that does not suggest logorrhea. And second, the question is always which words should be cut, and the Anonymous One has never troubled himself to offer specifics about his objections.

I have suggested that Twitter might be a better fit for his capacity, and most recently he responded:

Length is not at issue. It's word choice, usage, and diction.
The text can be pared by 30%. Try it. Think less like a panjandrum and more like someone I'd want to talk to over a beer.

Damn, he wants a chum, and I disappoint him. But I’m disappointed, too, because now that it’s apparently tone and diction that he objects to, I still don’t have any details. Usage? Usage? So, patience snapped, and I have cut him off.

For the rest of you, if you find my digressions tedious, or my diction florid and affected, your comments will be welcome and approved, so long as there is any substance to them. You know, the sort of comment an editor or an informed reader would make.

Along the same line, Michael Kinsley has come in for a bit of smirking over his recent article in The Atlantic arguing that newspaper stories are too long: his essay runs to 1,800 words.

I have read multi-page articles in The Baltimore Sun that were like cruising down an interstate highway — no stoplights. And I have read stories with single paragraphs that would make Job curse God.* It’s worth looking at what Mr. Kinsley has to say about the latter category, the solid-mahogany paragraph that buries the focus under non-idiomatic newspaperese lumber.

For I have known them all already, known them all:— not just the hopelessly clotted opening paragraph, but also the introduction that runs for a dozen paragraphs before the writer bothers to indicate what the story is actually about, the article whose only organizing principle is randomness, the article that rehashes background information interminably, the article that thinks that the writer is more interesting than the subject.

Perhaps you, like America’s publishing executives, think that these deficiencies will be remedied by reducing the number of editors.


* 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.