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

Saturday, January 30, 2010

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.


  1. John:

    I couldn't agree more about the teaching of English and writing. I teach PR writing and other courses at undergrad level and spend lots of time doing as you have. The Republic is indeed in jeopardy.

  2. You might ask your students if they were taught that a "paragraph" has five sentences with specific functions. My children received this particular lesson, and after one fruitless argument with a teacher, I gave up and told my children to just do the lesson, even though such five-sentence paragraphs don't seem to exist outside textbooks.

    In college, my recollection is that my son was once assigned a 500-word "paragraph."

    When a paragraph is seen as a sentence count or a word count, is it any wonder students do not focus on the meaning and content of the text they encounter when learning to edit?

    Barbara Phillips Long

  3. Hey! I read it. And I wasn't goofing off at work, either.

  4. Virginia MerchánJanuary 30, 2010 at 3:11 PM

    "Suspicions confirmed"

    I think that "teaching" is a matter of individual conscience and responsibility: teachers must (secretly, though) know of their own weaknesses but, instead of trying to improve their knowledge or to undertake some research on those key issues... they choose not to change course.

    I'm a teacher, too... but I do read John's blog. "The others", don't. ;)

  5. I once worked for an editor who was so obsessed with ridding his magazine of the passive voice that he forbade, as much as he could, any use of the verb 'to be,' in any inflection, just in case. So writers would resort to phrases such as "the book got published," as if that solved some sort of problem.

    I think this is why journalists seem to have settled on the construction "Mr Smith received a diagnosis of dropsy" instead of "was diagnosed with" -- a cheap dodge that to my mind sounds worse than the passive it replaces.

  6. As to Mr. Smith's dropsy, the journalists in that case may be trying to hold the line on the convention that diseases are diagnosed but that people are not.

  7. I'm neither a math teacher nor an English teacher, but I would guess that English teaching is in worse shape. At least in math there are clear right and wrong answers. If you don't know how to figure it out yourself, it's usually not too hard to find someone who can do it for you.

    But in the teaching of the English language most people—including English teachers—haven't a clue how to find out what the real answers are.