Monday, September 14, 2020


In a fit of frustration I recently posted an injudicious statement, "I try to say that the people where I come from aren't all a bunch of gullible yokels, and then, dammit, they go online," and have since been reproached that I was not raised to speak of people that way. 

I have explained elsewhere how I was raised, and by whom, and I understand how the larger world views the Commonwealth. Only last week I got another "You're from Kentucky?"

But, as they say, let's look at the record of how some of my former classmates disport themselves online. 

The New York Times, of course, gets immediately rejected as a source of information. I've even seen the Associated Press—the dear, gray, drab AP—discounted as utterly corrupted by liberal bias. Some go so far as to dismiss all journalism as unreliable. (One gentleman said journalists just publish things to make money, revealing a hitherto unexpected anti-capitalist streak.) 

Absent journalism, I wonder where they get information, short of divine inspiration. 

Oh, at least one gets it from Breitbart, and others chime in on the comments. Say no more. 

Some believe that Christians are being persecuted in the United States and as an act of bold defiance post pictures of Jesus, the cross, the American flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance on Facebook. (There appears to be some difficulty in differentiating Jesus from the American flag, but we don't have time for theology today.) 

They are given to posting nostalgic reminders of the Fifties, when white men were in charge of everything, women were in the kitchen, Blacks were in the back of the bus, and gays were in the closet. (I was there in the Fifties, in a segregated public school in poverty-stricken Appalachia, and I have no interest in going back.) 

I see people posting dumbass memes (sample: "It's been six months. Shouldn't all the people who don't wear masks be dead by now?") denying the reality of a pandemic that has claimed probably more than 200,000 lives in this country and devastated the economy, while nations that took it seriously are  regaining their footing. 

Any attempt to engage in a discussion is quickly met by whataboutism, straw men, and defensive complaints that I'm trying to make them look dumb by using big words. 

And there's the gentleman who appears to think that calling me a libtard is a sockdolager of a counter-argument. 

So, you tell me. How far off the mark was I? 


Sunday, August 30, 2020

Embattled whiteness

 I occasionally sample the wackadoodle political opinions of former classmates at Fleming County High School in Kentucky. 

One of them, after months of reportage about the efforts of Republican governors and legislators to limit access to voting, after the president's unsupported claims that voting by mail is susceptible to fraud (for God's sake, Utah votes by mail), and the ham-handed attempts of the administration to cripple the Postal Service in an election year, insists that Democrats are trying to steal the election. 

Another has not gained a vocabulary beyond libtard to respond to argument and evidence. 

It baffles me. We had the same teachers: Jimmy Johnson for American history in my junior year, who invited us to challenge received views; Lloyd Story, a science teacher who believed in science; Lynda McKee, who taught us how to construct arguments based on evidence. Yeah, I read a lot of books and moved away from Appalachia, but we all had teachers who did not discount external reality. 

True, Kentucky has always been a conservative state, apart from Louisville and, to some degree, Lexington, but it once elected Republican senators like Thruston Morton and John Sherman Cooper, people of integrity and purpose. 

Some of my former classmates flinch at the implication that there is a layer of racism in their views. That's because they understand racism to be individual, that racists, like those spittle-flowing crowds screaming at little Black girls going to an all-white school, are bad people; and if you're a good person, you can't be racist. They don't own slaves; they're not bad people. 

I have the tax receipt showing that my great-great grandfather, John Early, paid $12.30 in property taxes in 1852 on 200 acres, four mules and horses, and four slaves. My grandfather, who inherited the farm a century ago, owned no slaves; neither did my mother, who inherited it in turn, nor my sisters and I. But all of us benefited from the wealth (a modest wealth) built in part by the labor of unpaid Black people. 

We attended the Presbyterian church in Elizaville. It was part of the Southern Presbyterian Church, which split from the Northern denomination in the 1850s over the slavery issue. It took more than a century after the Civil War for the two denominations to conclude that slavery was maybe no longer a live issue. 

This is what systemic racism is about. If you grow up white in Appalachia, as I did, whiteness is the template, the norm by which everything is measured. It is supported by the history textbooks, which shy away from the unsavory aspects of the country's past, by the de facto segregation of churches, by all the customs of the time and place. 

Now that the white template is slowly being dismantled by demographics and other social changes. I understand how upsetting that can be to people among whom I grew up, who feel threatened, who feel that the world as it was meant to be is being taken from them. I understand how fear leaves them susceptible to believing nonsense from dishonest sources, to posting dumbass right-wing memes online in a feeble show of resistance. 

But the tide is against them. Oh, it might be possible to set up an apartheid regime in some states or even the country, after the South African model, to keep the white minority in charge, but over time it could not last in South Africa either. 

So I feel sorry for them, in part for the disappointment in store for them, and in part for the damage they unwittingly do. 

Monday, August 24, 2020

No more chalk dust on the suit

Today I notified Sara Magee, chair of the Communication Department at Loyola University Maryland, that I am giving up the editing class I have taught for twenty-five years.

 I will turn seventy in February, and the pleasure of yelling at undergraduates no longer compensates fully for the effort.


On the first day of class every semester, my efforts to Mirandize the students (see the video here) included this quotation from a student evaluation: “He is a horrible teacher. DO NOT TAKE HIM! The course is interesting but this guy is a stiff who thinks he knows it all. You will leave this class so confused and end up with a grade that definitely deserves to be better than what you actually get. Don't get me wrong, he's a funny guy but not worth it.”


Some of my more than 750 students, though, have managed rather well. Among them:

Kevin Atticks, one of my early victims, teaches at Loyola, overseeing the Apprentice House student publishing operation.


Mike Memoli, who as a member of Tribune’s Washington bureau was, to my knowledge, the only one of my former students to have flown on Air Force One with the president of the United States, is now a correspondent at NBC news.


Jon Meoli is a sports reporter at The Baltimore Sun.

Peter Blair heads the flexible editing desk at The New York Times


Eve Strilacci is an acquisitions editor at Callisto Media.


Christina Santucci is a former night photo editor at the New York Post.


Andrew Zaleski, to be found at, is building a solid career as a freelance writer.


Jenn Ladd is a food writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer.


Katie Krzaczck is an editor at Business Insider.


Lindsay VanAsdalan is a reporter at the York Dispatch.


Anyone I have overlooked is welcome to weigh in with a comment.


In time, I came to leave them on the last day of class with Chaucer’s rueful line, “The lyf so short, the craft so long to lerne.”


Now it will be someone else’s job.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Maybe you could stop congratulating yourself on your grammar

People who preen online about their command of English grammar often assert that they see a general cultural and educational decline, most frequently calling it a "dumbing-down."

In a forty-year career as an editor at newspapers, I have edited the work of people twenty and thirty years older who received, as I did, the traditional instruction in grammar at school, and of people twenty and thirty and forty years younger who received little or none of the traditional instruction.

And every day for forty years, I have sat down at my desk to deal with the same things. The same damn things: subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, incorrect homonyms. All of it, mind you, the work of college-educated journalists whose profession is writing in standard English.

For that matter, my classmates in the public schools of Fleming County, Kentucky, in the 1960s do not necessarily do any better, despite their exposure to the traditional teaching of English grammar.

The traditional method was not particularly effective, and it left a bad taste in the mouth. Some did learn from it, as some will learn something in almost any pedagogical circumstances—Dr. Johnson believed that boys could not learn the classical languages unless they were beaten.

The British linguist David Crystal writes in Making Sense that "the negative associations that surround grammar are the result of unhappy learning experiences, in which complex sentences, artificial examples, pedantic rules, mechanical analyses, and poor explanations have combined to produce a penitential mindset: 'Grammar is good for me, and if it causes mental anguish, then so be it,' "

That people could develop a solid grasp of formal English grammar under such unpromising circumstances is a real accomplishment, even though, as you can read in Bad Advice, a great deal of what they remember is unreliable.

So let's not make proficiency in grammar, the grammar of formal English, which was badly taught for decades, and then not taught at all, a measure of individual or national intelligence.

Speech comes naturally, but writing has to be learned, and most people never get very good at it, particularly in the dialect known as formal written English. We can see that online, where anyone with a computer can become a published writer. As Gretchen McCullough writes in Because Internet, we can look beyond edited publications to see how people actually write.

From there we can surmise that people in general are about as dumb, or intelligent, as they have always been. We can further surmise, from internal evidence, that the "dumbing-down" trope is trotted out when the writer merely wishes to establish a superior social class standing. That is when the reader will recognize that it is time to move on.

There's a difference between cache and cachet, but knowing that does not confer cachet.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

No apologies necessary

Someone shared a white-people-whining post on Facebook that I thought to examine.


Not that anyone has actually asked you to do that. What you have been asked to do is acknowledge that, even if you are not prosperous, the color of your skin has given you some unearned advantages in our society. For example, if a police officer stops you for a defective taillight and you do not worry that you might wind up in jail, or perhaps be shot, then you enjoy white privilege.

But extra credit for using Caucasian, even though it is a made-up racial identifier. It at least shows that you have learned not to shout "White power!" in public.


It doesn't require strenuous effort to approve of people who do their jobs properly. The question is what you're prepared to do about the number of police officers increasingly demonstrated to be abusing their powers and killing unarmed people who have committed little or no offense.


This is a refreshing twist on the "Some of my best friends are ..." cliche, even though the original was never convincing either.


Did anyone ask you to?


There are lots of media, not just one. Which are you watching? The ones that present facts or the ones that just tell you things you would like to hear?


I'm not sure how this one became more important than all the others. The 21st is nice.

Oh wait, this is the one that says you have to have guns for when the Black people and the brown people swarm out of the cities into the suburbs and countryside to rape and pillage.

Had you heard that the Supreme Court has affirmed that the states can legitimately impose restrictions on the acquisition and use of classes of firearms?


Left the hyphen out of that one.

But you've discovered that there's another amendment to the Constitution, the First, which is still in force, giving you freedom to worship as it suits you. But not, you understand, to use the power of the state to compel other people to conform to your beliefs.

There you go. Take your imagined grievances with you and shut the door behind you.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

The good apples and the barrel

Six years ago I was the copy editor for "UNDUE FORCE," Mark Puente's account of how the city of Baltimore paid $5.7 million over three years to settle lawsuits brought by people who said police officers beat them up.

Mr. Puente assembled the information through his own research, because the city government kept no account of how much it was spending to settle these lawsuits. He further discovered that some officers had been involved in repeated settlements but that the police department kept no account of officers charged with brutality.

Inferences are inescapable: Baltimore's city officials and police department operated under a tacit policy that officers could beat people up, particularly African Americans, at will, and paying an occasional settlement was simply the cost of doing business to maintain order in the city.

The Sun's reporting was one element that contributed to a Department of Justice's finding that police officers in the city were repeatedly and freely violating citizens' rights, often brutally, and the police department is attempting to implement reforms under a consent decree overseen by a federal judge.

Subsequent reporting in The Sun on the department's elite Gun Trace Task Force detailed a disturbing pattern of lawbreaking: wanton attacks on individuals, robberies of drug trade suspects, involvement in selling drugs, lying in reports, falsifying overtime, and more. Members of the unit and some who were involved with them have been tried and sentenced to prison, and the unit has been disbanded.

Inferences are inescapable: It seems unlikely that all their fellow officers were unaware that something shady was going on for months. And the department, under a series of chiefs and a revolving roster of upper-level commanders, seems to have been disinclined to exercise even modest supervision.

Now there is a nationwide protest about police misconduct, fueled by the ubiquity of cellphone cameras and images of police officers beating people up and shooting unarmed people. These aren't accusations to be buried in internal investigation files; these are actions that everyone can see. Moreover, we see some officers, evidently unhappy that their actions are being recorded, attacking news photographers.

In reaction to the protests I see people posting on Facebook and Twitter that we should stand by and support the police, that there are many good police officers, that people are personally acquainted with some of those good police officers.

That's not the point. I, too, have known honest and responsible police officers. The point is that the good officers are not the officers establishing police culture. It's nice to know that there are good apples, but they are not defining the barrel. The point of the protests is to find a way to maintain order and protect people in our towns and cities without promiscuously beating people up and shooting the unarmed.

If your "Support the police" meme amounts to no more than "Let them do anything," then your personal acquaintance with a few good guys on the force is pretty much meaningless.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Up to here, I'm telling you, up to here

I've been a working editor at newspapers for more than forty years, working every day to make sure that the copy passing through my hands was as accurate as I could establish, and also in, you know, English.

Throughout those forty years I've listened to a drumbeat of complaints about media bias, most of it coming from people who dislike factual reporting that doesn't suit their preferences.

(Media bias, though, is real. You want to know where it exists? Most journalism reflects the viewpoint of middle-class white people, because that's who most journalists have been, and that's who most of the subscribers have been.)

But I've listened to four decades of this codswallop, and I'm sixty-nine years old and tired of it.

Just today, in a Facebook exchange with people Back Home in Kentucky, some person I don't (fortunately) know commented, "Documented evidence? Since when does a reporter care about documented evidence? Only when it suits their ideology."

I responded, "If what you know about journalism is no more than this ignorant remark, I can’t see that there’s any reason to pay any attention to you ever again."

I'm tried of coddling these people. Try to reason with them and offer actual evidence, and they simply resort to calling you a "libtard" or some other schoolyard insult. You never, ever get a response that addresses the merits.

So, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Thank you so much, Apprentice House Press

As Bad Advice approaches formal publication May 1, I want to show gratitude to Apprentice House Press, my publisher at Loyola University Maryland. Apprentice House Press comes out of Loyola's Communication Department, which offers courses for students interested in book publishing. It is, I believe, the only student-operated publishing house in the country.

Two of those students, Annabelle Finagin and Dominika Ortonowski, worked on bringing the book to publication during the academic year, even in the tumultuous current semester. My gratitude to them is profound, and I hope that Apprentice House Press helps propel them into careers.

I am also deeply grateful to Kevin Atticks, the faculty member who oversees Apprentice House, and who has now consented to publish me twice, despite having endured the trauma of being a student in my first editing class at Loyola.

And now for a brief and crass commercial announcement: Both Bad Advice and my previous book, The Old Editor Says, are available online from Amazon and Barnes and Noble, in print and electronic forms. They are short, but cheap.


Wednesday, April 15, 2020

You weren't just misled, you were had

There are two stages in becoming a writer. First comes the learning. Then comes the unlearning.

I spent years coming up through the ranks as an editor mastering grammar and usage, conventions and arcane style rules. Reading and encounters with fellow editors enlarged my understanding to recognize that my colleagues and I had wasted considerable time on mistaken or outdated strictures.

For the past couple of decades I have been campaigning against shibboleths and superstitions, even having modest success in getting editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to scrape some of the barnacles off its hull.

It’s not just schoolrooms and stylebooks tendering nonsense to the impressionable. Look at the internet. Pick a random post advising against using the passive voice and you are apt to encounter appalling ignorance—people who can’t tell the difference between the passive and the intransitive, or who simply say never to use any form of to be.

Readers of my blog posts started sending links about writing in general as well as grammar and usage, and there was another realm of unsound admonitions to discover with a wild surmise, like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.

Emboldened by the success of The Old Editor Says: Maxims for Writing and Editing, which since its publication seven years ago has sold dozens of copies, I set out to expose arrant nonsense, oversimplification, and crackpot edicts.

The result, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing, is being published May 1 by Apprentice House at Loyola University Maryland.

It will be available for a modest sum at and in both print and online versions. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

In the shadow of mortality

Over the years, I have worked nights, weekends, and holidays at the newspaper, and Kathleen has worked days and weekends at the church. In recent years, on the few days off we have in common, we have taken to sharing a bottle of prosecco or a couple of Manhattans on the front porch, talking quietly about the day and watching the sun go down.

Now, as we are isolated by the coronavirus pandemic, those late afternoons have taken on a new flavor.

Our children are isolated and our constant concern. Kathleen's parents are isolated at their retirement home and also our concern. Our other relatives are our concern. And though we take precautions, staying at home generally and going out with the masks Kathleen has sewn for us, we know the hazards. it's quite possible that either of us will contract the ccoronavirus. It's possible that we will not display any symptoms and it will all be over. It's possible that one of us will develop symptoms and be dead within five days with lungs full of fluid.

We know how many have suffered already.

That makes those evenings on the porch, which I mark with posts and photos on Facebook and Twitter, not a display of our indulgences, but a gesture of defiance.

In the face of this terrible threat, we will celebrate our time together, enjoy our company with the marks of domestic routines and the celebration of commonplace shared pleasures, shared with our community of friends and acquaintances.

This is what we have. This is what we can do.

Monday, March 16, 2020

First day under the new dispensation

After lingering over coffee and scrutiny of the Web, off to the grocery and the liquor store, where there were still crowds. We now have enough coffee and whiskey to see us through for a reasonable span.

Then off for a walk in the sun with Kathleen to pick up her car at the repair shop. Daffodils and blooms all around. Spring has arrived without our having had winter. I put the snow shovel in the garage. 

The mundane tasks, laundry and bill paying, resume.

Online, the clamor that the coronavirus is some Democratic plot has died down, and some participants even appear to have been schooled in the mathematics of exponential increase. Still, though, the occasional slur about George Soros, indicating that blaming the Jews is a sturdy response in the West. I ponder unfriending and blocking acquaintances who bombard me with dumbass right-wing memes. Life now seems too short to endure all that.

Instructed by my daughter in the technicalities of Zoom, I am more or less prepared to participate in tonight's meeting of Memorial Episcopal Church's vestry, our first disembodied session.

Quiet dinner to come with Kathleen, since Maryland's bars and restaurants have shut down. (Unknown when we will be able to resume taking the healing waters with our little coterie.)

Two days off to come and a day of work from home before I return to The Sun, where my colleagues still labor under difficult circumstances to bring you clear and verified information, despite jackass nonsense about "the media."

Like you, we watch the numbers of cases rise, worrying if we are unknowingly harboring the coronavirus, waiting to hear if it has taken people we know. Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year begins to sound eerily like what we are experiencing, and we hope that our efforts to separate ourselves, and others' efforts, will blunt the impact of the disease, and decrease the losses.

I listen as I write to a recording of symphonies by Dr. Arne, which echo a world of grace, balance, and order, to which I hope we can return.