Sunday, February 28, 2010

Directing your attention elsewhere

If you found snowpocalypse, smowmageddon, and other neologisms more tiresome even than the recent winter storms, take heart from Bryan Garner’s “On Language” column in The New York Times. Such portmanteau words come into the language frequently. Some stick, but many don’t. Spring is near, and by then there will be other linguistic excesses to annoy you. (Just turn on local TV news.)

By coincidence, the Dallas Morning News has just run a feature on Mr. Garner, the Reasonable Prescriptivist, whose work has frequently been praised in these quarters. (Take that, AP Stylebook; I’ll split a verb phrase whenever I damn please.)

Another able writer, Craig Silverman, who maintains the Regret the Error site, has an article in the Columbia Journalism Review on plagiarism and how to forestall it and detect it. Worth keeping a copy on hand.

I am particularly happy to report that, according to Stan Carey, there is no reason for prescriptivists and descriptivists to be at war, since, properly considered, each camp partakes of qualities of the other.

 Today is the last day to take advantage of the early-bird registration for the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference in Philadelphia this April. If you’re serious about editing, you ought to make an effort to be there. And if do, I will be happy to see you there.

National Grammar Day is coming up this week. Check out the Web site, and be sure to check out You Don’t Say on the day itself for the thrilling conclusion to “Pulp Diction,” this year’s grammar noir serial. 

Friday, February 26, 2010

What you meant to say

Renee Petrina, who professes journalism at Ball State, is “developing a workshop on euphemisms for communications students (not just journalism majors).”

“My goal,” she says in a Facebook post, “is to point out words and phrases that students hear a lot but don't think twice about.

“I also want to discuss sins of omission: The message media outlets send when they fail to talk about certain groups.”

She givs these examples:

urban - used to imply black, inner city, with a negative connotation
blue-collar - used to imply rednecks, uneducated, poor
effeminate - stop trying to out people already
downsizing - just say you're firing people even though they work hard
family values - other than people in prison for patricide, does anyone NOT have family values?

I replied initially:

“Flamboyant” is also a traditional code word for “gay.”

“Leafy” and “tree-shaded” neighborhoods are affluent and white. “Gritty” is another code for “urban/black,” though it may sometimes refer to blue-collar white neighborhoods.

Private Eye developed a whole set of euphemisms to get around Britain's stringent libel laws. My favorite is “tired and emotional” for “drunk in public.”

I have since been adding examples, which you may wish to comment on or supplement:

harsh interrogation techniques = torture
enhanced interrogation techniques = torture
collateral damage = dead women and children
strategic withdrawal = retreat
ethnic cleansing = genocide
adult entertainment = porn
exotic dancer = stripper
escort = hooker
replacement worker = scab
restructuring = panic firing of the staff
rightsizing = panic firing of the staff
voluntary separation agreements = panic firing of the staff
pre-owned = used
sanitary landfill = dump
person of interest = suspect, but we won’t say so
correctional facility = jail, prison, Big House
stately home = overpriced McMansion
full-figured = fat
Rubensesque = fat
husky = fat
waiflike [for model] = anorexic/bulimic
television personality = person famous for no identifiable talent
gadfly = crank
outspoken = rude, won’t shut up
loquacious = tiresome, won’t shut up
misspoke = (a) lied, (b) doesn’t know what he’s talking about, or (c) was drunk
matriarch = bossy older African-American woman
elderly statesman = senile
venerable = old, probably senile
veteran lawmaker = party hack
entrepreneur = huckster
blockbuster movie = best scenes already shown in the trailers
laugh riot = guys being hit in the crotch, flatulence
rehab = drying out
contrition = simulated regret after being caught
principled opposition = obstructionism
reform proposal = what the lobbyists paid for
town hall meeting [non-New England] = freak show
tea party rally = freak show

I could go on like this all day, but perhaps you would like to take a turn.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pulp Diction 3: The wider web

“What happened to this place?”

I whirled around. “Fogarty! I told you to stay out.”

The Old Copy Editor said, “Fogarty? Mignon Fogarty? Great Fowler’s Ghost, is this Grammar Girl herself?”

“Yeah,” I said, “minus the cape and the winged boots.”

“Could I have your autograph, Ms. Fogarty? On my copy of The Grammar Devotional?”

“We’ve got more important things to do,” I said. She didn’t listen. She never listens.

“Why, certainly,” she said, whipping out a pen faster than the Earp boys slapped leather at the O.K. Corral. “But tell me, what happened to this place?”

“Well,” the Old Copy Editor said, “with nobody going into print journalism anymore, they ran out of unpaid interns, and then they couldn’t generate enough copy to fill as much as six pages. They tried to sell the building, but even the state penitentiary system turned them down. Plan to turn the printing plant into luxury waterfront condos went bust, too. They offered up the computer equipment, but it was so old and broken down from lack of maintenance that even the Third World wouldn’t touch it.

“But the worst was, they lost the Web. They cheesed off the funeral directors — tried  to jack up the prices for the death notices on the Web, and the funeral directors set up their own obituary Web site. Turns out the obits were the only things of ours anyone still read. Web traffic dropped to a couple of dozen hits a day, and the Scavenger Group abandoned the whole shebang. One day, everybody just left.”

“Fogarty!” I yelled. “Enough! You have to look at this.” I shoved the VERBS entry at her, and her big brown eyes widened.

“This is big,” she said, “bigger than just the Peevers.”

“Damn straight,” I said.

“Look,” she said, her broad brow furrowing. “Did you see? There are pinpricks under other letters.”

“What? Let me look.”

She was right:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 


“You know what this means?” she asked.

“It means the conspiracy is broader than anyone could have imagined. It’s big, all right. The AP itself. The Peevers. The self-appointed language authorities. The Illuminati. And now the aristocrats of the multiple-choice test. They’re all in on it. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve recruited the Myers-Briggsians, too — they’ll fall for anything. And it’s all coded in the AP Stylebook. You see what we have to do now?”

“You mean ...”

“Yes, sister. We’ve got to break into AP Stylebook Headquarters. Fast.”

Next: The dark tower

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The liar, the cheat, and the thief

I have been asked to make available a previous post on detecting plagiarism and fabrication that is no longer available at

Those of us in the business regularly consult the Regret the Error Web site, which aggregates published corrections, to see what blunders our peers are fessing up to.

Craig Silverman, the proprietor of the site, does an annual year-in-corrections roundup. And, since 2004, he has also provided an annual roundup of reports of plagiarism and fabrication. These are, mind you, reported instances. As teachers and professors will likely concede, what gets caught appears to be a fraction of what is committed.

The range is impressive. Incidents occur at student papers, metropolitan dailies and national magazines. Columnists are well represented — perhaps they imagine that the rules don’t apply to them. People lift material from Wikipedia, from other periodicals, from Web sites, shoving it all under their own bylines.

No one is immune. In recent years, scandals of plagiarism and fabrication have blighted The New York Times, USA Today and The New Republic. Accusations of what was either plagiarism or extremely sloppy research practices have cast shadows on the work of historians Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin. Careers at The Baltimore Sun have been destroyed by evidence of plagiarism and fabrication.

It falls to editors — assigning editors and copy editors — to protect the integrity of the publication. Indeed, the instances of premeditated or accidental plagiarism that have been identified in-house at The Sun have been caught on the copy desk. This, by the way, is one good reason that the copy desk should have the staff and the time to edit, rather than merely process, the copy.

For those of you who teach or edit or have some supervisory responsibility over written material, I offer some commonplace tips on what to watch for.

Changes in diction: If the vocabulary of an otherwise amateurish student writer or cliche-ridden hack journalist should abruptly grow sophisticated, lifting is likelier than an infusion from the muse.

Changes in syntax: Same thing. If a writer who struggles to cobble together a noun and a verb suddenly masters the compound-complex sentence, with attendant Ciceronian participial ornaments, it’s time to start looking for the source.

Specialized information: Ask Howard Baker’s question from the Watergate hearings of beloved memory: What did he know, and when did he know it? Sudden access to biographical details, historical information, ecclesiastical terminology or scientific or medical expertise has to have come from somewhere. Insist on an explanation of the source.

Dubious sources: Any article based on a single source is automatically suspect — how can you tell that the source wasn’t lying? Where’s the confirmation? Similarly, anything based on second- or third-hand sources demands scrutiny. In addition, readers are justifiably suspicious of anonymous sources. Even when anonymity has been granted for good reason, such as the source’s reasonable fear of physical or economic injury, the writer should be obliged to reveal the source to the assigning editor, acquire independent supporting information, and give the reader as much information as is prudent about the anonymous source’s credibility.

Improbabilities: When Jack Kelley filed his famous story with USA Today about seeing, in the aftermath of a bombing, human heads rolling down the street, their eyelids still blinking, it would have been a good thing for the paper if an editor had said, “What the hell?” and followed up. In journalism, as in investment offers, if it looks too good to be true ...

Your job as an editor is to be skeptical, not gullible. Any writer’s work ought to stand up to questioning, particularly about sourcing. So ask the questions.

As it happens, the very ease of theft that the Internet provides also offers ease of detection. Use Lexis-Nexis or Google to find information on the subject that the suspect article covers. Do searches on distinctive and anomalous phrases. (Some colleges and universities employ specialized software and run term papers through it.) Check it out.

Follow up. The first question that must always be asked when a plagiarism is detected is this: Has he/she done this before? This has to be checked out, but it won’t be unless you, who have detected the misdeed, report it to someone in authority.

Don’t agonize over fear of appearing to be an informer. If the instance you identify is a first-time mistake made out of ignorance, you may save a colleague’s career. If it turns out to be one in a pattern of lies, then the career wasn’t worth saving.

How I get myself in trouble

I was simply taking a break from an editing project to check Facebook when I saw a post from one of my Facebook friends/acquaintances about an opinion by Maryland’s attorney general that it may be legal for Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. “What do you think of this?” the friend asked.

So I wrote: “It's plainly a civil rights issue, and lining up with the precedent of the states that refused to recognize interracial marriages would not be something to look back on with pride.”

A little later someone else posted this response: “Marriage is Biblically defined as between one man and one woman. Gay marriage should not be compared to interracial marriage for many reasons. Homosexuality is a crime and should be punishable. It is not a civil right. One clearly cannot control his ethnicity unless one chooses to surgically alter his skin like the late pervert Michael Jackon. Homosexuality is learned behavior and it is not genetic.”

So I said further, along these lines:

The kind of marriage under discussion is civil marriage — secular, not religious. No church is compelled to recognize gay unions, though some do. Marriage has always been about more than the sexual activity of the participants. It is, for one, about property (read Jane Austen), and it is about the state’s concern with property and insurance and the protection of minor children and other matters.

The point at issue is whether one state should honor what is legal in other states, which is why the Constitution has a “full faith and credit clause,” so that we don’t wind up a bunch of minor duchies and princedoms with conflicting laws, like Germany before unification.

The other issues the commenter raises ignore what you might call facts. Homosexuality is not illegal. It is not, psychiatry has formally determined, a mental illness. Specific behavior, yes, is learned, but there is an increasing body of scientific research that indicates that homosexuality is an inborn trait.

Moreover, it should be obvious to everyone by now that arguing from Leviticus makes more problems than it solves. Both the Old Testament and the New condone slavery — as Maryland once did. The Old Testament permits divorce, but the New Testament forbids it; how should our lawmakers be guided? Should the General Assembly ban the harvesting of crabs because the dietary code of the Old Testament forbids shellfish?

I mentioned the interracial marriage issue because at one time, in living memory, states that denied black people full civil rights were allowed to refuse to recognize marriages between black and white people performed in other states. It was not something of which to be proud today, and to allow an analogous prejudice to copy that pattern will not be something to boast about to our descendants.

Happy days will be here again

In the second act of Annie, after hearing Little Orphan Annie sing “Tomorrow” to his Cabinet, Franklin Roosevelt says that he has decided that “if my administration’s going to be anything, it’s going to be optimistic about the future of this country.”

That is the characteristic American tone. We don’t want to levy confiscatory taxes on the super-rich, because we know that we ourselves are on the brink of winning PowerBall or Mega Millions. Or we’re going to star in a hugely successful reality show or win on American Idol or play for the NBA.

Optimism is the winning tactic in American politics. FDR understood this, mainly. When he tried to punish his enemies, as in the court-packing effort, it backfired. When he conveyed buoyancy and optimism, he prevailed. The most successful Republican presidents of the past half-century, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan, radiated genial optimism.

While it would be presumptuous of me to offer advice to Ms. Palin or Senator McConnell or the other worthies opposed to the incumbent administration, I would point out that anger and resentment go only so far in America. Lord knows there are ample reasons for the public to be angry. (Hey, I’ve been out of a job for the past ten months. You think I leap out of bed every morning with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart?) But harnessing that anger is not necessarily a winning proposition.

In recent years, Ross Perot tapped into populist sentiment, but got only so far. (OK, people, on where I put only this time? Sheesh.) Perhaps more resonantly, George Wallace campaigned on the politics of resentment against bureaucrats and plutocrats and people with expensive private educations. He rode a swell of anger, but it ebbed. And, of course, the godfather of the politics of resentment, Richard Nixon, may not be the best example to emulate.

Channeling Pollyanna won’t work — as Hubert Humphrey’s sad “politics of joy” campaign in 1968 showed — but if you want to reach the top in American politics, the best bet is to foster encouragement and hopefulness among the citizenry.

For an example of that native optimism, you can mark your calendars for the Memorial Players’ production of Annie at Memorial Episcopal Church, Bolton Street and Lafayette Avenue in Baltimore’s Bolton Hill neighborhood. Performances will be offered on Friday evenings, April 23 and April 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday evenings, April 24 and May 1, at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday matinees, April 25 and May 2, at 3:00 p.m. (Lost among the more impressive members of the cast, you will find me in the role of FDR.)

There are no tickets. Admission is free, but you will almost surely be moved to make a generous contribution toward the costs of the production.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fulsome is as fulsome does

Commenting on this morning’s post, “Be careful out there,” Marisa Birns wrote:

I remember when fulsome was not the best word to use with “praise”.

So do I.

I remember attending a conference some years back at which an Episcopal priest repeatedly used fulsome to mean lavish. Ever generous with advice, I took him aside privately and apprised him of the traditional meaning, “disgustingly excessive.” Apparently in the laying-on of hands in the Apostolic Succession the reverend clergy are granted some tincture of the divine omniscience, because he did not utter another word to me for the rest of the conference.

(Reminder to editors: Don’t expect gratitude.)

Of course, if you were to dig around in the history of the language, you would discover that in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the word meant abundant or full, later plump or well-fed. It was in the seventeenth century that the word took on the sense of excessiveness and offensiveness, and now turning full circle to its earliest sense.

Bryan Garner describes its current status as a “skunked” term, one best to avoid because someone will think you in error no matter which meaning you intend.   


Be careful out there

People’s insecurity about the use of their own language is deep-seated and sad, and it leaves them defensive. (For God’s sake, never tell someone you are meeting for the first time that you are a copy editor; say that you sell crack to schoolchildren.) They hold on to misinformation taught in elementary school, or they go looking for advice. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of bad advice out there.

A gentleman named Sam Greenspan operates a Web site called 11 Points, at which he posts top-ten lists plus one. Earlier this month he posted “11 Little-Known Grammatical Errors That Will Shock and Horrify You.” Shocked and horrified indeed was I, because a substantial amount of his advice was either misguided or flat wrong.

Item: He insists that hopefully may only be used in the sense of in a hopeful manner, never in the sense of it is hoped that. Sadly, the hopefully wars of the 1970s and 1980s continue like the Korean stalemate, without even an armistice. But many adverbs of emotion are used as sentence adverbs in English (as in the previous sentence), and no one objects. Give it up.

Item: He takes could care less as meaning its literal sense of having some capacity to care rather than couldn’t care less. But English idioms are not necessarily logical, and I have never encountered anyone who mistook could care less for meaning anything other than couldn’t care less. Want to guess how much I care about this issue?

Item: You’ve got mail for you have mail is a construction Mr. Greenspan deplores, even though have got has been well established in English since Chaucer went to grammar school and, Bryan Garner says, “adds emphasis and is perfectly idiomatic.”

Item: I too once insisted that anxious and eager could not be used interchangeably, that the former had to be limited to states of anxiety rather than hopeful expectation. But the language is what its users make it, and anxious for eager, like aggravate for irritate, appears to be well established and not worth a cavil. You can, like Canute, order the tide not to come in, but you will get your feet wet.

Item: Mr. Greenspan, like the Associated Press Stylebook (that repository of outdated and unreliable advice), is under the impression that two objects must be in motion before they can collide. That’s because the Latin root of the verb means “to strike together,” the co, from com, indicating that both are in motion. But while etymology suggests meaning, it does not legislate it, and English, you may have noticed, is not Latin. R.W. Burchfield, the late editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, said in his revision of Fowler that there is no reason that a vehicle cannot collide with a bollard as well as with another moving vehicle.  

Mr. Greenspan means well, and what he says is what you can find in a number of outdated or unreliable sources. When you are in need of advice on language and usage, dear ones, just come back here.  

Monday, February 22, 2010

The sweetest sound

Last week the lighthearted lexicographer Grant Barrett published an essay in The New York Times on the claim, attributed to various writers over the years, that cellar door is the most euphonious phrase in the English language.

(“Huh?” you say? Read the article.)

On Facebook, one of my daughter’s former teachers wrote to ask whether I found the claim reasonable or preposterous, suggesting, for her part, that melancholy is more beautiful.

My suggestion for the most beautiful phrase in the language:

Pay to the order of

And therefore, since I have freelance projects pending and you, dear reader, my dearest friend, do not part with a dime for these posts, You Don’t Say will now shut down for the remainder of the day.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

No moaning over 'only'

An inquiry from a reader about the placement of only in the most recent installment of “Pulp Diction”:

Lovin' the serial. How do you feel about the misplaced “only”? Shouldn't it come after “afford”? I know it's in a quote, but it's a copy editor, for goodness' sake. : )

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

As the reader conceded, the usage was in dialogue, and I will go so far as to say that nearly everyone, copy editors included, is casual about the placement of only in speech, and often in writing, despite the only fetish of some usage mavens.

Jan Freeman of The Boston Globe has addressed this issue repeatedly. Here’s what she had to say in Ambrose Bierce’s Write It Right:*

“Usage writers love to ring the changes on only, comparing ‘Only I want a cup of tea,’ ‘I only want a cup of tea,’ ‘I want only a cup of tea,’ and so on. In the wild, however, only is almost never truly ambiguous. And too-strict observance of the rule creates an unnatural, overemphatic construction: ‘I want only a drink of water.’ In some cases, too, only modifies a phrase or an entire sentence, and shouldn’t be moved: ‘We were only trying to help.’

“Fowler 1926 blamed the only fetish on pedants who wanted to make English ‘an exact science or an automatic machine.’ Yet in 2009, syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick was still writing an annual column on the importance of only. All this is a waste of time, as Fowler said it would be.”

Add this fetish to your list of rules that are not really rules and allow yourself to worry about more substantial issues.

*If you missed my post from last October on Ms. Freeman’s delightful book, here’s a link to it.


If a reader of this blog should order a copy of the book from, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pulp Diction 2: The last copy editor

(Previously: 15 items or trouble)

At the old Sun building on Calvert Street the front door yielded with a rusty creak. Dust lay thick on the guard’s desk, and small birds flew through broken windows. Bundled stacks of the last print edition displayed the headline: SEE US ON THE WEB.

Windows were out on the second floor, too, and scurrying and skittering sounds preceded me as I rounded the corner into the main room. Row on row of cubicles stretched out, each with a computer terminal like a headstone, each with a sad little collection of photos, figurines, long-dead plants. It was like walking the deck of the Mary Celeste.

On a bulletin board near the old copy desk, dangling from a single push pin, a yellowed memo listed a set of banned holiday cliches. The office next to the bulletin board was empty except for a Webster’s New World College Dictionary missing its cover.

A quavering voice asked, “Who’s there?”

A stooped figure, brandishing a red stapler, rose from one of the copy desk work stations where he had been dozing on an improvised pallet of final-edition bundles. His hair was white, his beard untrimmed, his gaze wary. He wore a green eyeshade, and I recognized my quarry: the last copy editor. 

“What do you want?” he asked.

“I used to be a copy editor myself. Tell me how it all ended,” I said, with a sweeping gesture.

“Son, I started here when it was the A.S. Abell Company. Then Times Mirror. Then Tribune. When Tribune went belly-up and the Scavenger Group acquired the place, it was a new editor every six months. Each one came in, did a redesign, announced a new strategy to attract readers, and got bounced before his chair got warm.

“Last one was a fellow named White. Three-barreled name. Allen William White. Lasted a month and a half. They fired him for spending too much on farewell cakes for people leaving the staff.”

“And then?”

“Then they sent in this manager — name of Volponi — who walked into the newsroom, announced that the paper didn’t really need an editor, that editors were just vestiges of an outmoded nineteenth-century industrial model, and fired just about everybody.”

“So why are you still here?”

“See this?” He held up a battered Associated Press Stylebook. “At the end, they could only afford one copy. Kept it locked in the editor’s office. You had to file a form to look at it. When they were all gone, I snagged it. Now it’s mine.”

“So what?”

“See here?” He pointed to a table with a roll of leftover newsprint stretched across the surface. It was covered with writing in a small, crabbed hand. “Now that I’ve got it, I’m revising it, making it right. I’m fixing all the stuff those arrogant fools got wrong for years.”

He was a loony, but I had to humor him. “May I see the book?”

”You have to give it back.” But he handed it over, reluctantly.

It fell open to the VERBS entry. Someone had put a dot under certain letters with a red grease pencil:

“The abbreviation v. is used in this book to identify the spelling of the verb forms of words frequently misspelled.

“SPLIT FORMS: In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb. ...” 


Next: The wider web

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Utah House is in session; get popcorn

It is a shame and a loss to the country that newspapers’ cost-cutting has sometimes included their statehouse bureau staffs, for it is in this great republic’s state governments that our native buffoonery comes into gorgeous flower.

I offer this specimen: The House of Representatives in Utah has adopted a resolution that current science about climate change represents “a well organized and ongoing effort to manipulate global temperature data in order to produce a global warming outcome.”

The word conspiracy was removed by amendment from the resolution, presumably by members hoping to retain some shred of reputation for their chamber, but I think you get the drift.

Yesterday on Diane Rehm’s show on National Public Radio, a representative of what I took to be a business-funded nonprofit said that concern about climate change and global warning had been grossly exaggerated by the “alarmist community.” He also talk about scientific “scandals” and used so many other loaded terms that I came to suspect that he might have ties to an alarmist community himself.  

Science over time is self-correcting, when left to scientists. Hypotheses get tested and mistaken ones identified, consensus on theory gives way to revised consensus, and frauds and misconduct ultimately come to light. The worthies of the Utah House might recollect from the Roman Catholic Church’s embarrassing experience with Galileo that it is ill-advised for non-scientists to decree what science says. 

On the other hand, a wealth of free entertainment is there to be had. I look forward to the exposure by the Beehive State’s lawmakers of the Darwinian conspiracy and the Copernican conspiracy, and others I cannot yet imagine. 

Monday, February 15, 2010

Images from the Nopocalypse

Amid the storm, a family dinner last Wednesday evening to celebrate my fifty-ninth birthday. (I am wearing my Baltimore Sun Blizzard of' '93 commemorative sweat shirt from a preprandial bout of shoveling.)  

The young gentlemen from Trinity Episcopal, Towson, whose youthful musculature, assisted by the decrepitude of several elders, cleared half of Roselawn on Sunday afternoon, from the garage in the background to the intersection with Plymouth Road. (Note the flung clump of snow, upper left.)

Happy birthday, Mr. President

Today is a federal holiday, Washington’s Birthday. You may know it as President’s Day, Presidents Day, or Presidents’ Day, but that is a popular title, or the title of some state observances of the day. The federal legislation of 1968 calls it Washington’s Birthday.

George Washington’s birthday is actually February 22, but federal law makes the holiday the third Monday in February. For the first few years of his life, Washington marked birthday was February 11, because in 1732 Britain had not yet adopted the popish Gregorian calendar.

Since the intention of the holiday is to honor the presidency and all presidents, President’s Day looks like a bad choice. You can choose between Presidents Day, which the Associated Press Stylebook prefers, for what that’s worth, or Presidents’ Day.

Today is also Snow day 11 in my reckoning of the Baltimore Nopocalypse, and I can report with pleasure that mobility has been restored at 5516 Plymouth.

Yesterday Kathleen recruited three teenage youths from Trinity Church to help clear Roselawn from our garage to the intersection with Plymouth Road.

J.P. had been out in the morning, making calculations. He measured the distance from the garage to Plymouth Road, the width of our Malibu, and the depth of the snow. He filled a cardboard box with a cubic foot of snow and weighed it — eleven pounds. His determination was that we would have to shift 18,000 pounds of snow, nine tons, to clear the street, and I am in no position to challenge the mathematics of a St. John’s College graduate.

Fortunately, no one had told the three teenagers that the task was impossible, and they went to work with a will. Kathleen, J.P. and I picked up our shovels and were joined by two neighbors, Robin and Harry. In a little over two hours, the eight of us had cleared one lane of the street down to pavement.

Maneuvering the Malibu out of the garage for the first time in nine days, I drove Kathleen and J.P. to the Hamilton Tavern for a celebratory dinner. Try the jalapeno-cheese fritters.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Off with their heads

A reader was momentarily puzzled by a Baltimore Sun headline —

Structure collapses dot city, region

— until he realized that collapses is a noun and dot a verb in this context.

Far more reprehensible, however, is today’s

Purrr-sonal finance

about the costs of owning a pet.

Were I still wielding the rubber chicken of authority, someone would smart for this: an ancient, labored pun requiring punctuation to nudge the reader in the ribs.

Of course, there is also CNN’s Ceremony marks Hariri’s 2005 death. Someone in Atlanta apparently missed English class on the day that “Cowards die many times before their deaths; / The valiant never taste of death but once” was taught.

On Friday, HeadsUp saw a Fox News headline, Iowa High School Football Coach Murder Trial Starts, and asked, reasonably, “Who did what to whom?”

The newspaper convention of using a comma in place of and comes a cropper in a Dayton Daily News headline noted at Man shot in chest, leg knocks on door for help.

None of these, however, rise to the level of embarrassment last Monday in Norfolk when the Virginian-Pilot reversed the score of the Superbowl on the front page of the sports section. AOL News quoted the paper’s managing editor, Maria Carrillo, as saying, “It’s just one of those things. We went over every aspect of that story a dozen times. Everything but the score.”

Not that AOL News has a lot to brag about with its own sports headlines, having given us Bledsoe Breathes Life Into Kentucky. I thought that chest compressions were now the preferred method of resuscitation.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Snow day 9

Yeah, I said earlier today I wasn’t going to do another of these. Sue me.

A neighbor says that a city salt truck rolled down Plymouth Road this morning. The main result of that — and I’m sorry to sound like an ingrate — is to have turned the snow at the intersection of Plymouth and Roselawn into mush. Soft and treacherous, but not melted, and with nowhere to go.

I know for sure that there was a salt truck, because the spinning wheels of the SUV I helped to push out of the intersection tonight deposited some salty slush in my mouth.

Kathleen’s latest ambition is that she, J.P., and I will clear Roselawn ourselves in the half block from our garage to the mushy intersections. That would give us Sunday and Monday to accomplish the task before Tuesday’s snow drops what? — another half-foot or so — on top of our efforts.

Of course, it’s possible that a city plow will materialize on Monday and make everything good, especially in light of the two unanswered messages I have sent to Councilman Curran’s office. Then again, it’s possible that most of you will be carried up in the Rapture on Monday and I will have a different set of problems to address. (What? You imagine that Anglicans are going to be in that happy number? Wake up and smell the coffins.)

Back in the mundane world, I have to clean up the dinner dishes. I made linguine with clam sauce, one of my favorites. No one else praised it, but it was consumed. Kathleen baked an excellent focaccia.

After that, the rest of the week’s laundry, in case any of us will require clean clothes past Monday.

Snowbound still, with a side of spleen

Get me out of here: I am discontinuing the Nopocalypse snow day journal, which has become tediously repetitive. Just say to yourself, “The city has not cleared McIntyre’s street,” once a day until I inform you otherwise.

The progress of imbecility: Scripps Howard, which once pretended to publish newspapers, but allowed the newspaper in its corporate headquarters, The Cincinnati Post, to suffer a morbid decline and death, is now transferring copy editing operations from the Ventura County Star in California and the Redding Record Searchlight and Kitsap Sun in Washington state to — wait for it — Corpus Christi, Texas.

That is, in a climate in which corporate figures in the newspaper industry have been chattering merrily about the importance of local news as their key franchise and their hope for the future, they are increasingly ensuring that decisions about the local news you read in your paper will be made by people who are not even in the same state.

Meanwhile, Newsweek has published an article suggesting that the monkey-see-monkey-do pattern of corporate layoffs ends up harming the companies more than helping them.

Attempted suicide: One cannot, however, overstate the damage that newspapers are doing to themselves with slipshod reporting and writing, such as this, that leaves readers in slack-jawed disbelief that people are paid to write like that:

The nightmare of 9/11 will live forever in our minds and memories.

Fast forward eight years later and last Friday, Sept. 11 is a night the Sun Prairie High School football team, coaching staff and Cardinal fans hope can soon be forgotten. Dealt a 22-0 halftime deficit by Madison Memorial in a Big Eight Conference football game at Ashley Field, the Cardinals made an inspiring comeback in the second half but never fully recovered, falling to the Spartans, 22-14.

You Don’t Say will consider nominations for even more egregious prose, while piously hoping that no worse can possibly exist.

It was ever so: Brendan Wolfe, who is working on a book on Bix Beiderbecke, has written to say:

[T]he only newspaper interview he gave in his lifetime, published by his hometown newspaper on Feb. 10, 1929 -- was almost completely plagiarized. The main source was an NEA Service wire story published five months earlier. The 1929 article was unsigned.

I'm curious to know if such plagiarism was common then or viewed any differently from how it is today. I'm also curious to know what significance bylines had in those days. The story appeared on the front of the arts section. Of the several stories on that page, only one had a byline.

Unfortunately, plagiarism has been endemic to journalism from its beginning. Newspapers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century regularly reprinted articles from one another without credit. The nineteenth century was also notable for the pirating of books, in the absence of international copyright law.

The development of industry-wide standards of ethics, as opposed to the dictates of individual proprietors, is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, associated with the rise and proliferation of journalism schools and professional organizations. That these efforts have been somewhat less than successful is seen in the regular explosion of plagiarism scandals among both the mighty and the petty. Consulting Craig Silverman’s annual roundups of plagiarism and fabrication (2009’s is here) will offer melancholy proof.

In an age when undergraduates beyond number think that copying and pasting from the Internet constitutes writing, this should not come as a shock.

Bylines were not routinely awarded to reporters for much of the history of newspapers. They were conferred as a mark of particular achievement. Over the pasty thirty or forty years, however, they have become routine, so much so that a reporter can expect, and get, a byline for rewriting, or perhaps merely transcribing a press release. Think Gresham’s law.

I took a sardonic amusement on the copy desk whenever a story came over with the names of a dozen reporters to be appended in a “shirttail” as contributors to the heroic effort, because I knew that in order to get the names in — the most important element of the story — the copy desk would have to excise the information the contributors supplied.

Are we to be spared nothing? Oh God, now the Olympics.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Snow day 8

Now we get the How come? What do you mean? questions. How come you say you’re still stranded at home? What do you mean, you can’t get off your street?

For those of you who live in places that enjoy services, let me explain. Once again, the block of Roselawn onto which our garage opens has the accumulation of two major snowfalls. At this point, it is doubtful that anything less than a halftrack could drive on it. Yes, we should have thought to park at least one car on the street where it could have been dug out, but we didn’t think of that. Both cars are immobilized.

My request to the city, made Monday morning, for a plow on Roselawn languishes in Baltimore’s vast archive of unmet requests.

Plymouth Road is little better. The only places where pavement shows are those that the residents have cleared by hand, assisted by the sun. The middle of the street has a double-rut of compacted snow made by various SUVs and pickup trucks. That hardened snow melts a little in the sun during the day and refreezes in the night. In the absence of a salt truck, we should have a nice treacherous little glare of ice in another day or so.

A little stir-crazy, I ventured over to Harford Road this morning for a reconnoiter. Hamilton Avenue on the far side of McClean/Laurelton/Woodbourne — that is, on the other side of the street from our neighborhood — has two clear lanes. That is a good thing, because no more than half the houses on Hamilton have cleared the sidewalks, forcing pedestrians to resort to the street and dodge oncoming traffic. (Not everyone has a copy editor’s brute strength to shovel his weight in water several dozen times.)

I took a cane on this walk, in part for balance in the slippery patches, but also because even in this society motorists are reluctant to run down a gray-haired cripple.

Harford Road appears to be largely clear and well-trafficked. The #19 bus is running again. So on Tuesday morning, assuming that classes resume at Loyola, I should be able to travel by bus from Harford Road to Charles Street, allowing a couple of hours or more for the walk, the wait, and the transfer. Assuming that Baltimore will shrug off the snowfall projected for Monday. I can hardly wait.

Kathleen and J.P. got a ride this morning with a friend who was able to drive within three blocks of our house, so she is catching up with work at Trinity Episcopal in Towson and he is serving soup at the Atwater’s at Kenilworth. I have custody of the cats, who are dozing.

I may follow their example.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pulp Diction: 15 items or trouble

You get ’em in the checkout at Safeway — harried mothers with kids clamoring for candy, bleary-eyed old guys pushing a cartload into the fifteen-items line, kids with green hair buying exotic produce. Some chat with the cashier, but nobody talks to the bag boy. Fine with me. I liked anonymity when I was a copy editor. I like it better now.

I was pushing a train of carts back toward the store when she grabbed my arm. I turned. “You,” I said. It wasn’t friendly.

“Mr. McIntyre, I really need to talk with you,” she said. Mostly, she was a pert little thing, but this time her voice trembled.

“I don’t have anything to say to you, Fogarty.” That’s Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Dame, Grammar Girl, something like that. Big-time blogger, raking in big bucks from rubes who couldn’t tell the present from the preterite if it jabbed them in the keister.

“Please, it’s urgent. I’ve heard from Martha Brockenbrough.”

More female trouble. The last time I saw the Brockenbrough skirt, I was in the witness stand, and she was at the defense table, trying — not convincingly — to look innocent. I’d turned her in for a homicide. I didn’t stay for the rest of the trial, but I’d heard she copped a plea to manslaughter while the jury was still out. Now she’s in the Big House for a good long while. You know the story.

“Sister, I’ve still got nothing to say to you. How the hell did you know to look for me here, anyhow?”

“I asked about you at the Intelligencer-Argus, and they said you’d been let go. Somebody said you might be here.”

“Let go? Let go? Toots, I was unceremoniously dumped, made redundant, sacked, eighty-sixed, kicked to the curb, reduced in force, right-sized. A year ago I was a minor-league copy desk tsar, and today I’m wearing a cardboard belt. The big boys got this idea that editors were interposing too many touches between the writer and the reader, and they sacked the lot of us. Just as well. They were talking about touching more than the staff at a day care center that’s hired a pedophile. I’m well rid of ’em.”

“I’m really sorry about that. I know you were well thought of. But I’m in trouble, and I really need your help.”

“Why? Caught with counterfeit gerunds again?”

“It’s not like that. Ever since I heard from Martha, I’ve been followed. I think my phone is tapped. My mail is being tampered with. My car is making a funny noise. I think it needs an oil change.”

She was getting rattled. Nothing new there. “So who cares about you?” I asked. “You’re just some two-bit grammar fancier who made it big on the Internet. There’re dozens like you — scores.”

“It’s not over,” she said, her voice breaking. “That plot you stopped last time, the one to sabotage National Grammar Day, that’s not over. They just got some of the little fish.”

“And now that you’ve been seen talking to me, they’ll come after me. Thanks a heap, lady.”

“I know where to go to find out more, but I can’t go myself. I thought you might.”

“Where is it that you can’t go that you want me to?”

She looked at me. Something cold enveloped my whole body.

“Calvert Street.”

NEXT: The last copy editor

Snow day 7

At seven o’clock yesterday morning the snow had stopped briefly, with about three inches or so of new snow topping the old accumulation. By eight the storm had resumed, and it kept going for another eleven hours. Heavy snow, whipped horizontally by high winds.

At times during the day I just sat, looking out the window and marveling. We are used to the idea of making plans and taking action; there is, we think, always something we can do. Not yesterday. Most of the state simply shut down. Travel on the roads was forbidden, you couldn’t get anywhere, and there was nothing much to go to anyhow. Noting to do but wait until the storm had spent itself.

J.P. did go out in the morning to clear the walks, and I did a turn in late afternoon. Today we’ll finish up the walks and see what, if anything, can be done about the street. But no plow ever appeared on Plymouth or Roselawn, and there are places where the snow has drifted three feet deep on the street. Our cars are not leaving the garage for some time, and we’ll have to see what kind of bus service will be restored. And when.

Fortunately, the power did not fail, so I was able to pass the first day of my sixtieth year — sounds worse than fifty-nine, doesn’t it? — comfortably.

I blogged a bit and got a good start on David Nokes’s biography of Jonathan Swift. I indulged in a wee dram or two of the good bourbon.

I tinkered some with this year’s grammarnoir series, “Pulp Diction.” The first installment will go up later today, followed by weekly installments and concluding on March 4, National Grammar Day.

I spent some time on Facebook, reading a steady stream of birthday greetings and good wishes from far-flung friends and fans, for which I am touched and deeply grateful.

Kathleen and J.P. collaborated on the birthday dinner. J.P. put together a casserole from available materials: ham, rice, peas, asparagus, cheddar cheese, and an improvised sauce tinged with horseradish. Kathleen labored over an apple-cranberry pie, a remnant of which I am about to tuck into for breakfast. We toasted the day with prosecco and afterward settled down to a quiet evening, grateful that the snow had finally come to a halt.

Today, the digging out begins again.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Sometimes they just make it up

When some university finds a donor with more cash than sense to underwrite a Jayson Blair Chair of Journalism, qualified candidates will not be hard to find, but Renee Petrina, who teaches journalism at Ball State, has found a student whose career shows real promise:

Student whining today that my class is hard also points out that “I just make up my sources for my other classes and no one cares” and that she wants to keep her GPA up. Other students note to her that it's probably not the best plan to tell the prof that you cheat.

The student in question, she says, is a 21-year-old junior or senior.

A previous note illustrated Ms. Petrina’s standards of classroom decorum:

Answered a student's cell phone that rang in my class today. Next time I will offer to text their friends.

Not entirely surprising that some students are less than enthusiastic:

Got student evaluations of my teaching back (from last semester). A lot were good. The best, though, said I needed therapy and that all my assignments come from “a dark place.”

I wish I got evaluations like that.

Ms. Petrina was a Penn Stater who got away before I could get a chance to try to hire her at The Sun — which would have been a decidedly mixed blessing for her. As it was, there was a certain bumpiness in her career before her arrival in Muncie:

The person who laid me off from my old job just saw my nice, big office. With my name on the window.

Living well remains the most satisfactory revenge.

Getting the range

Angela Hopp has written on Twitter to inquire about false ranges, a gimmick to which journalists are unfortunately addicted.

To have a proper range, you must have some scale of comparable things with an upper and lower limit, or a set of individual things of the same type. True ranges are all around us:

In Baltimore today, with a blizzard in progress, the range of temperatures is predicted to be 23 degrees Fahrenheit to 29 degrees Fahrenheit.

The stock expression for a dinner with a full set of courses is from soup to nuts, appetizer to the last nibbles.

Samuel Johnson opens The Vanity of Human Wishes with this couplet: Let observation with extensive view, / Survey mankind, from China to Peru. ... That is, there is a geographic range of — to English eyes — exotic lands, the whole world encompassed.

The cruise ship you wish you were on instead of snowbound in Baltimore offers a range of amusements: gambling, overeating, faux-Vegas shows, shopping for overpriced items, overeating, swimming, and on. All of them are part of a limited set of similar activities.

Dorothy Parker commented on the emotional range in a performance by Katharine Hepburn, saying that the actress had “run the whole gamut from A to B.”

A journalist who merely wants to indicate a collection of miscellaneous things will often express that as a false range.

From USA Today: A pair of teenagers downloading songs by artists ranging from OutKast to Billy Joel through an Internet file-sharing service could cost their bewildered parents up to $4,000. Identify, please, the fixed points of songwriting on which OutKast and Billy Joel are parts of a continuum. The writer means as diverse as.

More of the same “as diverse as” false ranges from diverse publications: Products made with nanotechnology -- ranging from sunscreens to socks -- are being sold to consumers without adequate scientific research or regulation, British scientists warned.

A federal judge rebuffed an effort by media organizations, ranging from the Associated Press to Wired News, to unseal whistleblower documents in a civil rights group’s case against AT&T for allegedly helping the government’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans.

The Tisch family, known for making bets on out-of-favor assets ranging from oil tankers to cigarette makers, acquired a $63 million stake in the New York Times Co.

The changing geography of poverty here reflects a national trend, and argues for a more regional strategies on issues ranging from social safety nets to mass transit. (A pity that the superfluous a was not deleted from this Baltimore Sun article.)

The uncompromising Bill Walsh has written on this subject, pointing out that the false range is a crutch for lazy writers. And, he rightly says, even if you are not a purist about the meaning of range, you must concede that this is a tired device.

Snow day 6

When I woke at six o’clock, the snow had stopped, having deposited three inches or so overnight, but now it has resumed, and we are apparently to feel the brunt of the storm through the day. So far, the power has not failed.

Some events to date:

Item: Yesterday afternoon, with Diana in the cat carrier, Alice and Kathleen close behind, I made my way past the Value City furniture van stuck in the snow at the end of the block, and over to Laurelton, where Alice’s ride back to Garrison Forest School waited. Both daughter and cat are warm and secure in the dormitory.

Item: Elizabeth Large announced her impending retirement as restaurant critic and blogger at The Baltimore Sun. Dining@Large, which will cease publication, has been a remarkable success, on some days outdrawing the paper’s sports blogs, and establishing a rare community of articulate and entertaining readers. They are called the Sandbox, which did not please everyone, but you go with the nickname you have, not the nickname you want.

Elizabeth was one of my favorite colleagues at The Sun, someone with whom it was a pleasure to talk about food or blogging or the personalities in the newsroom and or the essential looniness of the newspaper business in its last days. Her good humor was unfailing, even when she was hard pressed. No one better deserves the ease of retirement, and no one will be more missed.

Item: Of course, amid the outpouring of affection and regard in the comments on her announcement, there was one jarring note. Someone writing as “Sadie” commented:

Happy for you but frankly i'm not sad. It was clear that you weren't happy with your job - it was increasingly rare for you to treat us to an actual review rather than asking your readership to do your job for you by writing about our own experiences. The point of a professional reviewer is to share with us your vast knowledge of cuisine etc. I don't care what Joe down the street thinks - You are paid to use your expertise and review restaurants. Maybe the Sun will be able to find a reviewer who will enjoy their job, actually review restaurants and possibly come close to what the Post has in Tom Sietsema.

Those who have actually read the newspaper are aware that Elizabeth has maintained her standard schedule of reviews without faltering. The blogging, including posts on her days off and during vacations, was in addition to her reviews and articles for the print edition. Further, Sadie appears not to understand what a blog is and how it works.

Thus she illustrates that characteristic feature of the Internet, the combination of ignorance with effrontery.

Happily, some Sandbox regulars, in the self-policing that has been a notable feature of Dining@Large, called Sadie to account. Shut up, they explained.

Item: As I walked back to the house after seeing Alice off, I got a telephone call informing me that I had been passed over for another job. After nine and a half months out of work, this no longer strikes me as a momentous event.

Item: Today, as several people have discovered on Facebook, is my fifty-ninth birthday. A bottle of prosecco is chilling in the refrigerator, and we will open it at dinner to toast the years past and the years ahead. Unemployment and THE WHITE DEATH FROM THE SKY have not done me in.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Snow day 5

Now it begins to get interesting.

After two days of sunshine, the sky has clouded over, and Baltimore braces for the impending storm, which is forecast to bring another foot to foot and a half of snow by the end of the day tomorrow.*

J.P. and I hoofed it to the nearest grocery, three-quarters of a mile, to get milk and other supplies yesterday afternoon. Hamilton Avenue was in indifferent shape, with about a lane and a half partially cleared, and people and vehicles sharing the street.

We came upon a commercial van that had lodged in a snow bank, which a 70-year-old neighborhood resident was helping to get clear. J.P. and I and another pedestrian put our shoulders to it but were unable to move it either backward or forward. We trudged on as the older gentleman went for a shovel.

He was there when we returned, and the van was gone. When the van was clear, he said, he told the woman driving it that he would get it out. He accelerated out of the snow bank, and the van wouldn’t stop, so he threw it into reverse and stopped it. “Lady,” he said, “you don’t have any brakes!”

“I know,” she answered. “That’s why I’m trying to get home.”

As we returned to Plymouth Road, we saw a crowd of neighbors shoveling away at the Plymouth-Roselawn intersection. The neighborhood requests for a city plow have still produced no results, so residents’ only recourse is to come out and try to clear the street manually, like a bunch of babushkas clearing Red Square with twig brooms.

It should be superfluous to say that another foot of snow or more will isolate this neighborhood even further. The block of Roselawn between Plymouth and Pioneer, onto which our garage opens, still has the original two feet of unplowed snow. Anyone on the premises today is likely to be here until sometime next week.

That is why Kathleen has made arrangements with a friend to drive by the nearest open street and pick up Alice to ferry her back to Garrison Forest School. The school is closed today, but Alice is a dorm parent and will be needed to help keep the resident students occupied. Moreover, she will need to be there whenever the school reopens.

So we are charging up the cell phones and the laptops against the hazard of a power failure and making sure that the shovels are at the back door. (Some teens walked through the neighborhood the other day stealing shovels from people’s porches.)

In the middle of all this, a telephone call came for Kathleen yesterday afternoon: Elizabeth Kahl, the senior warden at Trinity Church, had been found dead in her home by neighbors alarmed at not having heard from her. She had apparently expired while sitting up reading.

Dispatches will resume tomorrow, provided there is no blackout.

*New Yorkers and Michiganders, hold your scorn. I was an undergraduate at Michigan State, and in one of my six winters in Syracuse we had more than 160 inches of snow for the season. But Baltimore lacks the equipment to deal with storms of this magnitude, and the way the citizenry drives in snow is terrifying — either 10 mph with the flashers on or 50 mph as if an SUV conferred immortality. If you were here, you would be as apprehensive as I am.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Snow day 4

The situation: Many of the neighbors were out in the sunlight yesterday afternoon, beginning to dig out their cars and clear sidewalks. But Plymouth Road remains largely impassable. Trucks and SUVs have shouldered through a rough path, but last night a smaller, lighter, lower car got stuck half a dozen times and had to be dug out before it could bounce down to the end of the street.

I cleared the drive between the garage and the street — Roselawn — yesterday morning, but Roselawn is entirely untouched. There is no hope of getting a car from the garage to one of the main streets. Neighbors have called 311 requesting plow service from the city, and I have filed an electronic request, but it’s doubtful that any city truck will get here anytime soon.

Meanwhile, another storm is headed this way, with significant accumulation possible Tuesday night and Wednesday. We may have to slog through the drifts to the grocery today or tomorrow to replenish supplies, assuming that the grocery has itself been replenished.

Historical note: It was on February 8, 1980 that I reported to the newsroom of The Cincinnati Enquirer at its old offices in the Enquirer Building on Vine Street, the one with the medallion of the naked printer set into the lobby floor, to begin a three-week tryout on the copy desk. Jim Schottelkotte, the managing editor, had decided to take a chance on me.

Bill Trutner, a sweet man, was the slotman, and Bob Johnson was the old-school news editor. Phil Fisher sat on the rim, as did two recent hires, Jan Cordaro, now Jan Leach of Kent State’s journalism school, and John Bryan, now retired from the Los Angeles Times. It was exhilarating, and it was the start of nearly thirty fun-filled years of copy desk work.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Snow day 3

Reports are trickling in of the existence of readers who profess to enjoy this Snowpocalypse journal and want more of it. Perhaps they are having me on, as the Brits say.

Speaking of the Brits, You Don’t Say notes with sadness the death last week at age 89 of Ian Carmichael, the gifted British comedy actor who, in a long career on stage, in films, and on television, notably portrayed Bertie Wooster in adaptations of P.G. Wodehouse novels and Lord Peter Wimsey in adaptations of Dorothy Sayers’s mysteries. To have given innocent pleasure to so many for so long is one of the happiest of epitaphs.

In local entertainment news, we at 5516 Plymouth Road have been working through the complete Freaks and Geeks, which Kathleen bought at Barnes and Noble on the eve of the storm after she saw more than fifty people in line at one of the few remaining Blockbusters. I commend it to you as a salutary reminder not to grow nostalgic about high school.

The snow ceased about four o’clock yesterday afternoon, leaving us with an accumulation of twenty-four to twenty-six inches. We have cleared and kept clear the walk from the front door to the street and the front sidewalk, and also a path from the rear door to the garage. Shortly, instead of plunging into the fun of explaining paregmenon,* I will shoulder shovel and begin the work of clearing the snow between the garage and the street.

Mayor Rawlings-Blake has tweeted this morning that the city plows will begin clearing the secondary streets by midday. That does not leave me optimistic, because we have not seen a plow on Plymouth Road more than two or three times in the past twenty-two years. I will be surprised if we can get to a clear street by Tuesday.

Supplies are holding out. Potato-leek soup and tuna melt for lunch yesterday, chicken with white sauce and broccoli with farfalle at dinner. The goal, since eating is one of our principal activities, appears to be to create tasty meals while dirtying every pot and utensil in the kitchen. I leave it to you to guess who has scullery duty.

At Trinity Episcopal in Towson and Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill, a few sturdy parishioners are trudging through the drifts to read Morning Prayer in the absence of the clergy. Here, the family is sleeping in, the cats are dozing still, and all are warm and secure.

*Paregmenon is a figure of speech in which a word or its cognates are repeated in a short sentence: Youth is wasted on the young. Now you know.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Snow day 2

Woke in the middle of the night to the sound of thunder amid the snowfall. No trace at 7.a.m. of the three shovelings from the night before. Easily two feet of snow on the ground — likely more, though drifting makes measurement difficult. Some permanent damage evident on the holly tree in the yard. Snow wet and dense, flung by periodic wind gusts. Second low system moving out of Kentucky and headed this way.

Cleared a path from the front door to the street, and K. and I tunneled from the back door to the garage. Not that either car could proceed in snow this deep, and the prospects of seeing a city plow on Plymouth and Roselawn are nil. Will wake J.P. later to put him to work on the sidewalk. Two neighbors wielding shovels but no one else on the street.

Started the dishwasher and the laundry to get as much done as possible in case the power goes out. K.’s banana-nut muffins warm from the oven. TV news interspersing warnings — do not attempt to drive anywhere except in an emergency — and the comical — reporter standing out in the snow picks up a handful to show us what it’s like. Bless his heart, everybody within his viewing area knows what it looks like. Mayor tweeting that there are 137 trucks on the road plowing and salting. Shout-out to my former Sun colleagues housed in a hotel up the hill from Calvert Street so they can continue to put out the news.

Coffee and bourbon holding out. J.P.’s chilis last night — one beef, one veg — highly satisfactory. Today perhaps a good day to bake bread. Salmon for dinner tonight. Morale remains good. Cats dozing.

No rehearsal of the Cabinet scene from Annie today, likely no church tomorrow. Seventeen more damn articles on usage issues and figures of speech to write and a book manuscript to finish editing.

Holding steady.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow day

We have coffee and bourbon. The snow shovels are propped by the door, and J.P. is poised to spell me with them. I have picked up Alice and her cat, Diana, from Garrison Forest School. Scout and Graymalkin are dozing as the barometer falls. Kathleen is out picking up whatever last-minute things are on her list as we await THE WHITE DEATH FROM THE SKY. When she returns, the whole family will be here to ride out the storm.

Snow hysteria is evident. As I was driving to pick up Alice and Diana, I saw a multi-car pileup on the inner loop of the Beltway at Perring Parkway — a multi-car pileup in daylight on a dry road. So the people who are rushing to escape the storm or make the last-minute trip to strip the grocery stores are getting edgy.

The predicted twenty to twenty-eight inches could maroon us on Plymouth Road for days. So be assured, you clients who are expecting me to complete freelance projects for you, I will have little else to do.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

No man's land

Alexandra D’Arcy, a sociolinguist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, takes a hearty swipe at prescriptivists ⎯ her grandmother among them ⎯ in the first installment of a monthly column at Oxford University Press’s OUPblog.

Her grandmother was old-school old school:

In the proud tradition of language purists, Grandmother found anything other than ‘the standard’ objectionable. But it was not only ‘bad’ grammar that bothered her. Slang, jargon, and meanings with which she was unfamiliar were also irksome. This is because, true to her prescriptivist heart, she firmly believed that any linguistic change was a bad thing. When my History of the English Language professor observed that the distinction between lay and lie was being lost among younger speakers (good luck asking a twenty-year-old to run the paradigms), I had the poor enough judgment to share this insight with Grandmother. Since I could never keep straight what was laying and who was lying, this was a lesson that resonated with me. I might as well have told her that going out in public without a bra had become the vogue. She was outraged. She demanded the name of my professor and vowed to phone the head of the department to extract an explanation: How could such as esteemed establishment, her own alma mater no less, employ such a reckless (and feckless) individual? Surely this professor was no academic!

Professor D’Arcy, though, is the very model of a modern sociolinguist:

I describe language as actually used and I revel in the differences and variations of language in practice. Despite my proud ancestry, there is no place for prescription in my world. The notion of should does not apply. … Grandmother taught me to revere the spoken word. I do. She taught me to heed not only the content but also the form. I do. She also taught me that not everybody speaks the same way. And it is this fundamental truth that makes me excited to go to work every day.

So please don’t watch your words. To quote a friend, ‘I like the way you talk.

I enjoy a false dichotomy as much as the next man ⎯ you may remember a few posts back when I criticized an overly ingenious Washington Post headline, one reader complained I was advocating dull, flat-footed headlines, as if that were the only possible alternative. So I am happy to tuck in to Professor D’Arcy’s.

No doubt her grandmother, that starchy peever, would level a charge of heresy against me for some of my posts and demand that I be turned over to the secular arm. No doubt her granddaughter would turn her gimlet eye on me for my presuming to advise people on how to write. Here I am, neither fish nor fowl.

I, like Professor D’Arcy, like the way you talk. And write. Generally. As I have told you before, I don’t care how you talk in conversation, or how you write in e-mail, how you tweet on Twitter, or how you text friends and family. Not my business. Should you contribute to the richness of the English language, I salute you.

Should you write for publication, I, like Professor D’Arcy’s grandmother, have some standards in mind, though much more flexible ones. I’ve written about the rules of standard written English, conventions of American standard written English that are not actually rules, guidelines for writing effectively in that dialect, and superstitions that get in the way of clarity and directness of expression. I am, as I have repeatedly asserted, a moderate and reasonable prescriptivist, with the milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein, and I do not hesitate to give you my best advice about what you should do within that limited range of the language.

When you visit here, that is what you get.

Welcome to the middle ground.

A NOTE: Not that you have been counting, but this is my 1,000th post since beginning this blog in December 2005. Though the first 704 of them are no longer accessible at, I will continue to resurrect and revise some of that material here, so long as the repetition does not bore you utterly.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

First things first

When I spoke last month to the McMurry audio conference on “Things Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You,” I mentioned a hierarchy of editing values: accuracy, clarity, and precision. A listener eager to “convert the unbelievers” in her shop has asked if I would enlarge a little on that hierarchy.

Gladly. This text is revised from a post published on the old blog on November 15, 2007 (now no longer accessible at that site).

Accuracy comes first. If what you publish is not factually correct, you will look stupid, and your credibility will evaporate. You have to get people’s names right. You have to get place names right. You have to get the details right. If the reader sees that you have allowed factual errors, it won’t matter how elegantly you write or how fascinating your subject is. You may even be held up to contempt and ridicule.

Clarity comes next. If your writing isn’t clear, it won’t matter that it is correct. When you publish, you are imposing on the reader’s time, and the easiest thing any reader can do is to stop reading. It doesn’t take much, either. Don’t give the reader an excuse. Use conversational language instead of jargon. Cut padding ruthlessly. Read your text out loud to yourself; hearing what you have written will expose awkward spots.

Be precise. If you are a writer, words are your material, grammar and syntax your tools, and you must learn the technical details of the craft. You should handle your tools as expertly as a carpenter wields a hammer or a sculptor a chisel. You must choose your words with exactitude, not approximation. Get a couple of reliable manuals of usage and a serious dictionary. The difference between the right word and the almost right word, Mark Twain advised, is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. You do not want to be an insect.

Get to the point. Steve Young, one of my former colleagues on The Sun’s copy desk, says that the most useful advice he ever got in college came from a professor who told him, “Say one thing.” Your article, however many subsidiary elements or subtopics it may carry, has to be about one main thing. Establish what that is, and tell the reader as soon as you can manage. Directly. Up front.

Be honest. Plagiarism and fabrication have embarrassed the small and the mighty, campus papers to the big time. You must indicate to your reader where your information comes from, how you know things; the reader has a right to see that. And you must do your own work. Remember what you were taught in elementary school: Don’t copy. Don’t tell lies.

Everybody needs an editor. H.L. Mencken wrote, “No man, I argued, could be expected to read his own copy; it was a psychological impossibility. Someone should be told off to go through it, and that someone should be responsible for undetected slips.” You are not a better writer than Henry Mencken. Get somebody you trust to look over your stuff and tell you honestly what works and what doesn’t.

The little things that count

My eminent colleague David Sullivan of the Philadelphia Inquirer writes on his blog, That’s the Press, Baby, that as the “reader-feedback editor for corrections and clarifications” he hears what the readers dislike, and what they dislike most of all is small errors of fact.

He politely disagrees with my contention that lack of editing leading to slack, ill-organized writing is an equal turn-off to readers. The difference, I think, is that readers who notice the little errors of fact are apt to complain, while readers who are baffled or bored simply stop reading. And subscribing. Perhaps we can argue the point over a pint at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference in Philadelphia in April.*

Nevertheless, let no one underestimate my own irritation at small errors.

Item: You’ve seen the television ad for Bertolli pasta products in which Italian chefs sing a mock aria protesting the popularity of their competitor? Perhaps you noticed that their mock aria is set to music from Carmen, a French opera.

Item: Last night in the opening moments of The Good Wife, Julianna Margulies referred to “opening arguments” in a trial. Lawyers present opening statements at the beginning of a trial, closing arguments at the conclusion. One would think that a drama about lawyers could master that distinction.

Item: This one is about irritations sure to come. In an election year journalists feverishly publish the results of opinion polls, with little regard to reliability and little skill in interpretation. They write about a candidate who is “leading” when the “lead” is a couple of points, well within the margin of error. They quote results without looking too closely into who sponsored the poll, or what the sample was, or what the questions were, or any of the other elements that might call the conclusions into question. Think I exaggerate? Look at Stinky Journalism’s awards for the top ten dubious polls of the previous year, and brace yourselves for the dubious ones this year. (Thanks to Phillip Blanchard of Testy Copy Editors for pointing this article out.)

Item: A point Mr. Sullivan didn’t go into is that while the customer may always be right, the reader may not. Edward Schumacher-Matos, the ombudsman at the Miami Herald, sent a copy of his newspaper to a veteran teacher, Elaine Kenzel, for inspection. She returned it with 133 errors marked. That should be “errors,” because some of the things she marked as wrong were not. She faulted sentences beginning with and or but. (If that is how she teaches, she is doing her students a disservice.) She dislikes the journalistic convention of putting attribution — “so-and-so said — at the end of a sentence rather than the beginning. Insisting that minor stylistic variations are errors of grammar and usage places her in the ranks of the Legion of Peevers.

Item: Ron Ramsey, the lieutenant governor of Tennessee, said this week, “I don't know whether President Obama is a citizen of the United States or not” — this in the course of explaining why he thinks that the president’s citizenship should not be a campaign issue. While it is not surprising to find a candidate for public office planting himself squarely on both sides of an issue, it continues to astonish that candidates of a major party continue to utter this canard. Surely the president has provided enough grounds for disagreement on policies and proposals to make it unnecessary to resort to the birthers’ fantasies.

One does wonder why people strain at small factual errors in journalism when they are prepared to swallow whoppers.

*By the way, have you registered yet for the ACES conference? And if not, why not?