Wednesday, January 6, 2010

What, me wordy?

Sometimes patience gives way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


* Women’s rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union yesterday took the first step toward appealing a ruling that overturned a landmark law denying city liquor licenses to private clubs that discriminate.

Crash blossoms, y'all, and Jan Freeman

While I was paying attention to other matters, things developed:

Crash blossoms blossom

Last summer the Testy Copy Editors weighed in on a common problem in headline writing: the headline that appears to proceed in one direction but turns out to have a completely different meaning, or, because of ambiguity in the words, a completely opaque meaning. The example, “Violinist linked to JAL crash blossoms,” led commenters to embrace “crash blossom” as the generic term for such botched headlines.

The term was quickly taken up on Language Log and other sites, and “crash blossom” has become a candidate for the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year. The society, which opens its annual meeting in Baltimore tomorrow, will vote on the Word of the Year late Friday afternoon.

Whether or not it wins, copy editors have added a fresh and needed term to the technical vocabulary of journalism. See the original Testy Copy Editors post and the subsequent examples here.

What do y’all think?

You might want to look in on the debate at Language Log over whether y’all can ever be or has even been used legitimately as a singular. Many Southerners claim never to have heard such a usage from a native Southern speaker. Suspecting Yankee ignorance or even dark plots, they bristle as Georgians would at the mention of General Sherman.

For my part, I have known native Southerners, and I have been addressed, solitarily, by them as “y’all.” However, should I be called up before HUAC (the House Committee on Un-American Conversation), I will refuse to name names.

Jan Freeman’s back

The Boston Globe’s estimable language columnist, having recovered from the labor of producing her book on Ambrose Bierce’s idiosyncratic diktats on language (the book having been noted in these precincts), has launched a fresh blog, Throw Grammar from the Train.

You will want to bookmark it.


Sometime within the past few weeks, made a software adjustment that renders the 700-plus posts on the previous version of You Don’t Say inaccessible. If you click on the old address, you will be transferred to the current one.

I regret that, because the old site continued for most of 2009 to have regular traffic, drawing readers who found the old posts of continuing value. As time permits, I may revisit those previous topics — all the original texts are in my possession — to update and repurpose the information. If there are any such topics that you would like for me to address, please send me a note.

Good searches

And finally, because I know you are good people, I commend to you again a simple action that will serve your purposes and do good at no cost to you.

Go to, and choose as your designated cause the American Copy Editors Society Education Fund. Then, whenever you would use Yahoo’s search engine, use the GoodSearch version of it; each time you do so, a small amount, about a penny, will be designated for the education fund. That brought in more than $70 in 2009, and we should be able to do much better this year.