Friday, April 30, 2010

Q and A

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

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

A. You exaggerate my transformative powers.

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

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

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

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

This blog will continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 29, 2010

New frontiers in peevology

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

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

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

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

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

*This nonce word annoy you? Hard cheddar.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Leave English out of it

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loosen up. Stop fretting.

*Well, yeah, after a fashion.

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

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

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

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

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

Pronouncing mischievous as mischeevious

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Happy days are here again

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

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

I have accepted the offer of a position with – 

wait for it –

The Baltimore Sun.

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

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

Monday, April 26, 2010

Attention must be paid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Get a grip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Tagged as a descriptivist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 23, 2010

For whom, the bell tolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Rules are rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain showed us ourselves

Samuel Clemens died a hundred years ago today, and Mark Twain with him. He was a newspaper reporter (“I hated to do it, but there wasn’t any honest work available”) before he became a novelist, and he wrote what both H.L. Mencken and Ernest Hemingway thought was the American novel, Huckleberry Finn.

That novel has everything in it that is central to the American character and experience: the impatience with convention, the impulse to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,” the colloquial voice, the ribald humor, the deadpan humor, and the eternal, complex, heartbreakingly vexatious issue of race. We look into it, and we see who we are. If you haven’t yet read it, put it at the top of your list; and if you read it a while back, pick it up again.

Twain is easily the most quotable of American writers (“When angry, count four; when very angry, swear”) because he saw us so clearly, without illusions: “Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest” and “Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of the other person.”

Trolling the Web, I came across a site with quotations of Twain’s remarks on writing: “God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God's adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by.”

Listen to the master, and husband your own weather.

When do you stop?

No doubt it is psychologically necessary for writers to believe that someone will read their work, but our experience as readers tells us otherwise.

There was a telling newsroom moment some years back when a senior editor, offering drive-by praise to a reporter about a story, said, “I read it all the way through.” If he is not routinely reading stories to the end in his own paper, why would he or the writer expect that readers do?

In newspapers, in magazines, and online, we scan and skim, and it does not take much for us to decide to move on. It would surely benefit us as writers and editors to understand what readers identify as stopping points in our work. I have a few ideas, but I welcome your comments and contributions. So:

Throat-clearing:  Some writers, particularly inexperienced ones, think that they need to take the reader by the hand and lead him or her along a winding path of background information before establishing what the starting point of the article is. I suspect that if you do not make clear to the reader within a mere handful of sentences, a couple of paragraphs, what the focus of your article is, you are at high risk that the reader will never proceed long enough to discover it.

This holds true as well for the hackneyed convention of the anecdotal lead. If  the writer spends paragraphs describing people whose circumstances are as commonplace and banal as our own, that is supposed to seize our attention?

Obstacles:  Writers tend to go native: Police reporters start to write like cops; people writing about government mimic bureaucrats; business reporters echo management cant. All of this jargon can throw up impediments to the reader.

Writers who have spent a long time developing a major article become immersed in the subject, particularly if they have revised an article so frequently that they can no longer hear how it would sound. I once edited a longish article that had, high up, a paragraph of stunning impenetrability. Because the writer was one of our stars, I couldn’t touch it; I had to make my case in a meeting with the writer and a clutch of other editors. The writer glared at me across the conference table as I explained my misgivings and then said that the paragraph should remain as written. And it was so. The next day I asked three or four people what they had thought of the article, and all of them had dropped it on encountering that paragraph.*

Errors: If in reading an article on a subject about which you are informed, you discover an error of fact, I think that that may be enough to make you move on, because such errors diminish the credibility of the writer and the publication.

Some people stop reading out of irritation when they come across errors of grammar and usage, because such errors tell them that the writer is not really a professional. And yes, some of them may be, you know, English majors, or retired schoolteachers with a lot of free time, or peevers, but it’s not in the writer’s interest to sacrifice any readers unnecessarily.

The headline: As Hank Glamann used to tell us at ACES, if they don’t read the big type, they won’t look at the little stuff underneath. Now, especially since writers online, and increasingly in print, are expected to write their own headlines, keep in mind that if the headline is obscure, or tries too hard to be clever, or just looks dull, few readers will even get as far as the gripping opening sentences.

Over to you: Assuming, rashly, that you have gotten this far, no doubt there is more to be said. The comments are open.

*When your editor tells you that he has a problem in your text, dammit, pay attention.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The $18,000 typo

Penguin Group Australia is pulping 7,000 copies of The Pasta Bible cookbook because the recipe for tagliatelle with sardines and prosciutto called for sprinkling the dish with “salt and freshly ground black people.”

How people came to be substituted for pepper was not announced. It is not at all uncommon for the wrong synapse to fire in a writer’s brain, particularly when concentration is momentarily relaxed, substituting the wrong word for the correct word. Some errors are the result of a category called a cupertino, in which the electronic spell-check function does not recognize a typed word and substitutes the one most nearly resembling it in its dictionary file.

Then, of course, comes the embarrassment of the proofreader, who let this mistake slip through his or her hands. Once again, if attention flags even momentarily, the brain is given to pass quickly over words it recognizes. The wrong word correctly spelled is one of the great hazards that editors and proofreaders encounter.

You may snicker, but you too could have committed this error, or overlooked it. So could I. So could anyone. And this inborn propensity to get things wrong, dear ones, is why old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy, stick-in-the-mud, nineteenth-century-industrial-era-production-model editors suspect that the current enthusiasm among cheese-paring corporate types for fewer-touches, sack-editors-and-save-bucks, direct-to-the-reader, nobody-cares-about-accuracy-anyhow publishing may encounter some unanticipated expenses.

Uncle John says, I want YOU

John McIntyre
for the American Copy Editors Society.

Last week, after a five-year absence, I was able to return to a national ACES conference. In Philadelphia I was able to greet old friends, Bill Connolly, Beryl Adcock, and Alex Cruden, whom I have known since the first ACES conference at Chapel Hill in 1997, along with many others; to meet Renee Petrina, Brian White, and Emily Ingram, whom I had only known through blogs and

Twitter; and to introduce my wife, Kathleen Capcara, she of the famed “Except in Hell” remark, to them all. 

Personal gratifications aside, the conference offered considerable substance. Kathy Schenck, who is leaving editing for the business world, presented her workshop on skeptical editing for the last time. Susan Keith of Rutgers described the research she is doing on the global “seismic shift” in how editing is being done. Josh Benton gamely defended his statement “Sometimes the path between the writer and the reader will not have an editor” before a room full of skeptics. Bill Walsh, with whom I have modest but friendly differences on some points of usage, displayed in his “Rules That Aren’t” session how his views have been evolving since I last checked in on him. Doug Ward of Kansas, describing essential skills for editors in the new era, reminded us not to get so involved in technology as to neglect our traditional skills: grammar, usage, spelling, style, fact-checking, curiosity,
vocabulary, attention to detail, ability to negotiate, focusing on the writing

If you thought that the previous paragraph was dense, it merely skimmed a few of the workshops offered. There is no event anywhere, offered by anyone, that offers editors more substance and more useful advice, than the national ACES conference. Moreover, it was deeply heartening to be there.

And people know that. More than three hundred people showed up, many of them, like me, at personal expense. They are the veterans of the War on Editing, determined in the most difficult of times to uphold the worth of the craft, the practice it, to get better at it. They have not surrendered. 

Neither should you. ACES has more than seven hundred members. If you are not one of them, why not? Sign up. The society’s Education Fund offers scholarships to students pursuing a career in editing. The find is now self-sustaining, with contributions to date of $150,000, but it could use more, and your contributions are tax-deductible. On a modest level, you can contribute to the education fund by using GoodSearch for your Internet research, specifying the American Copy Editors Society Education Fund as the beneficiary of the cent or two contributed for each search you perform on the site. 

I have known, worked with, and respected these people for thirteen years. Many of them have stood loyally by me during the vicissitudes of personal and professional life, and their friendship has been a joy. They merit your support. 

Photo credit: Phillip Blanchard

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

You'd rather be in Philadelphia

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because I’m going to tell it anyway.

At the first national conference of the American Copy Editors Society in 1997, someone said that the three hundred of us gathered in Chapel Hill constituted perhaps the largest group of copy editors ever assembled in human history.

When I got back to Baltimore, I repeated that to my wife, at which Kathleen muttered, “Except in Hell.”

Later today I will risk life, limb, and sanity by taking Interstate 95 to Philadelphia for the fourteenth national conference, the first I have been able to attend since 2005.

Though diminished by the recent casualties in the War on Editing, the stalwarts at ACES Philadelphia represent the people who are, against heavy odds, laboring to ensure that what you read in newspapers, magazines, books, and even some Web sites is as accurate and intelligible as they can make it. You cannot imagine how much in their debt you are.

They will be gathering to attend workshops on how they can become more effective practitioners of the craft, they will honor achievements of colleagues, and they will gather in the bar in the evening to lift a cheerful glass and share stories. Nothing could be better, and it is disappointing that I will have to miss the third day because of the technical rehearsal for Annie on Saturday.

I’m unlikely to do much or any blogging while at the conference, but you can take part in it vicariously by following the ACES conference blog. Or, since this is the 381st post at this site since May of last year, you could always rummage around in the archives if you miss me.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Written at random

Talking with an admirer of the poetry of James Thomson, Samuel Johnson, who found Thomson deplorably wordy, took down a volume of Thomson’s verse and read aloud a lengthy passage. “Is not this fine?” he asked. After the listener expressed admiration, Johnson said, “Well, sir, I have omitted every other line.”
I sometimes think that much journalism could be approached that way, by omitting alternate paragraphs, without much damage to the fabric. (I actually tried that once with a Sun columnist’s work, and no one could detect the difference, though we were obliged to print the full text anyhow.)
For your inspection, an item from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel  forwarded by one of my many spies, with commentary following:
An off-duty Miami firefighter who recently returned from a rescue mission to Haiti died Thursday night after his motorcycle collided with a car, police said.
Leslie Luma, an eight-year veteran with City of Miami Fire-Rescue, celebrated his anniversary with the fire department Thursday. He was married and had three children.
"He was well-loved by a lot of his co-workers and his family," Fire-Rescue spokesman Ignatius Carroll told WPLG-Ch. 10.
The firefighter's motorcycle collided with a 2001 Ford Mustang near the intersection of North State Road 7 and West Park Road just before 9 p.m., said Police Lt. Manny Marino.
The Mustang's driver, Sherry Lynn Marks, 19, suffered minor injuries.
Luma, 37, was a member of the Urban Search and Rescue Team Task Force 2 and recently returned from rescue efforts in Haiti.
Preliminary investigation indicates that the crash occurred when the Mustang traveling southbound on North State Road 7 veered into the northbound lanes and collided with the northbound 2005 American Suzuki motorcycle, Marino said.
The crash is under investigation.


I suggest to the students in my editing class that jotting down a rough outline of the elements of an article is one way to get at structural issues. Look at the paragraph structure of this exercise:

(1) Firefighter killed in motorcycle accident.

(2) Anniversary of employment, details of family.

(3) Eulogistic quote.

(4) Detail of accident.

(5) Other motorist.

(6) Firefighter’s trip to Haiti.

(7) More details of accident.

(8) Investigation continues.

So the details of the fatal accident, which are what news this article has to offer, are broken up into four paragraphs, separated paragraphs containing other material. And the order of the paragraphs is apparently generated, like the winning Mega Millions numbers, at random.

It is then topped off with a headline written evidently by someone with a tenuous grasp of conventional English syntax. If it is necessary to pad out the headline by reference to the firefighter’s activities in Haiti (of which no significant details are given), then “Miami firefighter just back from Haiti is killed in Hollywood motorcycle crash” would have been less likely to puzzle the reader.


Once you eliminate most of the editors and copy editors, and overburden the remnant, this article and headline are the kind of dog’s breakfast that the reader can expect to find.

*Since this is becoming a stock observation at this blog, I thought I’d label it for you.

Santayana on the copy desk

Those who do not learn from the headline mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.

A reader forwards this Denver Post headline:

Bar as a noun meaning a saloon is widely recognized. But it is also a verb much favored in headlinese meaning “prohibit.”

The same ambiguity crops up in a classic headline collected in one of the Columbia Journalism Review’s features of defective headlines:

Minneapolis bars putting leaves in street

The errors of the past repay study.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Once more unto the breach

I regret having to point out to you this sentence from an article in The New York Times about the recent Republican gathering in Louisiana:

At a cocktail reception on the banks of the Mississippi River, people in yellow Tea Party shirts barely mingled with Republican stalwarts, many of whom wore neckties or broaches decorated with elephants, the proud symbol of the party.

Broach, of course, is not a noun but a verb meaning “to break open.” Its earliest sense in English was to pierce something with a sharp object, but, the English always having been great drinkers, was more commonly used to mean opening a cask or barrel to draw out the liquor. It also means to open up in a figurative sense; to broach a painful subject is to introduce it for discussion.

The word the writer was groping for is the homophone brooch, an ornament pinned to clothing. It is an etymological variant of broach, which as a noun meant “skewer” or “bodkin” in Middle English, thus suggesting the pin that fastens the ornament.

Broach the verb is sometimes confused with breach, which means to break through a barrier – as when the Turks breached the mighty walls of Constantinople in 1453 and brought down what little remained of the Byzantine Empire. Figuratively, it means to break an agreement. As a noun, breach is the gap that has been broken in a wall or the violation of the agreement, as in “breach of contract.”  

Breach in turn is confused with breech, which used to mean the buttocks. That is what breeches or britches are meant to cover. It survives in modern English as the name for the back part of a rifle or gun barrel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sweetheart, get me Ettlin

I wrote briefly yesterday (“Editors? We don’t need no stinking editors”) about an inept little news article from the Charlotte Observer that is sadly representative of the shoddy work proliferating in print and online. Thinking about it yesterday, I realized the problem: It had not been Ettlinized.

David Michael Ettlin was The Baltimore Sun’s veteran rewrite man, and by veteran I mean that it sometimes felt as if he had revised A.S. Abell’s copy. The rewrite man’s job – now largely vanished – existed to deal with certain realities of which the public may be unaware and which many journalists are reluctant to acknowledge:

1. Many journalists are not very good writers. The skill of reporting, of ferreting out information, is very different from the skill of composition, and few reporters are equally good at both. The rewrite man took raw copy and Englished it.

2. Journalism is done in haste, which makes for mistakes. The rewrite man was a first line of defense, cleaning up a multitude of errors before shipping stories to the copy desk. (When you read corporatespeak about reducing “layers” of editing, you are to understand that every layer that is eliminated to save money increases the likelihood that what you read with be less and less reliable.)

3. Journalism is a craft, learned by apprenticeship. It was glorious to watch the incomparable Ettlin take a crew of tyros with journalism degrees and patiently instruct them how to construct an obituary, how to write a police story without convicting a suspect in advance of trial, how to get to the point in the first paragraph instead of the tenth.

4. They don’t know the territory. Tyros come in from out of town, along with other reporters migrating for (they think) better jobs. They didn’t grow up here; they don’t know the local geography, history, folkways, and people. So, over time, Ettlin would patiently point out when they made parallel streets intersect or got people’s names wrong (if R Adams Cowley of Shock Trauma saw his name in the paper with a period after the R, the newsroom would hear about it). He would also, in the palmy days, get the keys to the publisher’s Cadillac and drive the newcomers around town for the day for an instructed tour of echt Baltimore.

It would not shock me to hear a reporter say that he or she learned more from Ettlin about the practicalities of reporting and writing than from a major in journalism.

David Michael Ettlin retired from The Sun after four decades on the job and still posts occasionally on a blog, The Real Muck. The qualities he brought to the work – skepticism, irreverence about Important People, humor, an unerring news judgment, and, above all, a determination to make every text factually accurate and clear for the reader – still exist among the attenuated staffs of our newspapers and online publications. How much these qualities are valued, or even recognized, by the people making decisions is a question yet to be answered.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Editors? We don't need no stinking editors

Now that everything is all immediate and direct between writer and reader, since all those superfluous editors and copy editors were dismissed like barnacles scraped off the hull, journalism has entered an era of smooth sailing, right?

Take a look at what HeadsUp: The Blog has to say about a minor masterpiece of modern journalism out of Charlotte, North Carolina. We are treated to the work of a journalist who cannot write a twelve-paragraph article about a tree falling on a house without making a hash of it.

Adding to the overall sense of incompetence unencumbered by editorial expertise, there is the crash blossom headline:

Home crushed by tree with dog inside

 An isolated example, I grant you, but an increasingly typical one.

From over the pond

The estimable Jan Freeman, writing in The Boston Globe about British-American linguistic cross-pollination, endorses my previous suggestion that there are a number of Britishisms that we could profit from adopting:

Surely, among all these offerings, everyone can find a Britishism to cherish. How about Thursday week, meaning “a week from Thursday,” which would instantly cure our chronic confusion about whether a meeting or dinner is scheduled for “this Thursday” or “next Thursday”? I’ve always been fond of fortnight, too — I suppose it doesn’t catch on here because our vacations (their holidays) are rarely two weeks at a stretch. And surely sell-by date is sleeker and more precise than expiration date.

I’d add snog for “to make out,” top up (a drink) for “refill,” gormless for “clueless” or “stupid,” and dodgy for “unsound,” “questionable,” or “suspicious.” (Your suggestions have not exactly been arriving in a torrent; am I supposed to do all the work here?)

Ms. Freeman also drew attention to Separated by a Common Language, a blog by Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in Britain, who has written extensively about these transatlantic exchanges. (She is also on Twitter, @lynneguist, a pun I reluctantly endorse). I was particularly happy to discover her post from last December in which she provides some details on the increasing popularity of go missing on these shores, despite the unaccountably vehement and irrational resistance to it. As she explains, along lines that I too have suggested:

Go missing is beautifully meaningful--giving us some nuances not available in other words. It's not the same as vanish or disappear--and that's what makes it so useful. When something is said to go missing, it makes it seem like a less mysterious event than 'disappearing' or 'vanishing' which have a whiff of the supernatural about them. One can use it as a way to avoid blame--including self-blame: My phone went missing rather than I lost my phone. If a person 'goes missing', then there's a sense that although we don't know where they are, they do.

These exchanges often prompt spasms of crankiness. The British tend to bridle at Americanisms, even when they turn out to have a long history in British English as well, and Americans are liable to see the adoption of any British turn of phrase as a laughable affectation. (And I have encountered enough Episcopal clergy with synthetic British accents to understand the latter reaction.)

But I suggest that we can leave the peeving aside. If a word or expression offers a nuance that we did not previously enjoy, or simply adds to our variety of expression, go for it. That last phrase is an Americanism; I offer it to the British in a spirit of linguistic cousinhood.