Saturday, September 18, 2021

Just don't do this

 All those years I listened to reporters bitching that the copy desk was crushing their creativity I also  marveled at their fondness for hackneyed devices. It may be that they think, as one reporter once told me, "It's not a cliche when I use it," but readers are undeceived. 

If you feel tempted to use any of these, reach for the nearest book and bring it down smartly on your hand. (Readers should feel free to add items in the comments.) 

Something and something and something, oh my!

Meet Firstname Lastname. 

It's not your grandfathers'/father's X. 

Webster's defines X as ...

Welcome to ... 

Yes, Virginia ...

Ah, X. 

It was an X seasonal, X weathery day ...

Any opening that asks a question, to which the reader's likely response is "Who cares?"

The good news is, the bad news is ... 

A sentence that some situation is "still" the case, tipping the reader that the story offers nothing new. 

The "X is not alone," "X is not the only" transition from an anecdotal opening.  Just get on with it. The reader knows how this convention works. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Chances are excellent that you are mistaken about English grammar

 One way to get the morning off to a strong start is to open an online discussion of grammar and growl,  realizing that many people hold strong opinions that are wrong. So rather than wear out my wrists responding to them, I am writing an omnibus response to uninformed opinions so that I can simply post a link and move on. 

No one knows how to use proper grammar these days.

I edited the work of professional journalists at daily newspapers for forty years and taught editing at a liberal arts college for twenty-five, and I can assure you that just about no one got the grammar straight. Every shift, every class involved making subjects and verbs agree, putting modifiers in their proper place, sorting out homonyms. Writing formal standard English is a skill that not many people master, and not many ever have. 

The English language is in decline.

English is a living language and has been going strong for centuries. There are, in fact, many Englishes, and the various dialects are not inferior to standard English, just used for different purposes. Usually  fuming about decline comes down to some nonstandard usage or dialect or particular word that the commenter has taken a dislike to. 

I regret to inform you that English does not care what you like or dislike. 

What you see is that the internet permits anyone who has a keyboard and a link to display their skill or lack of skill in writing to the world. Most of the gatekeepers to publication are gone, like the editors on vanished copy desks, and for the first time, as Gretchen McCulloch explains in Because Internet, the whole range of literacy in the populace is visible. 

No one is teaching grammar.

This one boils down to a belief that the traditional schoolroom grammar, relentlessly hammered in, is the only proper method of instruction. 

In elementary school in rural Kentucky, I was instructed in that schoolroom grammar by the formidable Mrs. Jessie Perkins and the equally formidable Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, and I mastered it. Evidence suggests that not many of my classmates did. The method is only effective with a minority of students, like sentence diagramming: Students who already have an understanding of syntax love it; students who do not learn little or nothing from it.

The further problem with the schoolroom grammar of elementary and secondary schools is that it is grossly oversimplified, and not many students advance to a more sophisticated understanding. It is also riddled with obsolete dicta and superstitions. This is why, a century after the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler exploded the prohibition about split infinitives, you can still find people carrying on about this imaginary error. 

Some schools, recognizing the ineffectiveness of the traditional method, have tried others. One approach is to say that since many subjects require writing, all the teachers in those subjects are effectively instructing their students in grammar and usage. But we know that what is everyone's job is actually no one's job. 

I found in teaching that many students came to me with little or no instruction in grammar and usage, and that those who had been instructed had often been taught rubbish. 

It was acquaintance with linguists and lexicographers that helped me to finally unlearn the defective or inadequate learning I had so painstakingly acquired. 

Maybe think before you post.

You think it's incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition? Use literally in the nonliteral sense or use hopefully to mean "it is hoped that"?  Seeing or hearing some particular word is "like fingernails on a chalkboard"? (Not the most original simile you could have laid hands on.) 

I remind you that Garner's Modern English Usage by Bryan A. Garner (for reasonably informed prescriptivism), Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (for historical perspective and range of choices), and Dreyer's English by Benjamin Dreyer (for bracing advice) are in the stores. You could look it up. There's a lot in English, and even standard English has more choices than you may be aware of. 

A final note

I included a split infinitive and a singular their in this post. If you read past them, then you can see that they are imaginary errors. If you did notice them and were inclined to remark on them, get a life. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?

 The Census Bureau's 2020 count shows a continuation of the trend noticed a century ago when Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor were singing "How Ya Gonna Keep 'em Down on the Farm After They've Seen Paree?" after the end of the First World War.  

Many rural counties lost population over the past decade while the population of metro areas (cities and suburbs) increased. It's notable what happened within specific segments of the population. White people, who made up 63% of the population ten years ago now amount to 57.3%, continuing a demographic trend that will make white people a minority. The percentage of people identifying as Latino, Asian, or multiracial increased, while the percentage of Black people remained constant.

Strikingly, the actual number of white people decreased in the count by 5 million, which can be accounted for by the deaths of older white people and a reduced birthrate among younger white people unable to afford having children in the current economy. 

We can expect these numbers to add to the fears and resentments of older white people, already apprehensive about the diminution of their political and cultural influence, and they will surely stimulate efforts to exploit that fear and resentment. The efforts by some Republicans to maintain white political power by making voting more difficult for minorities would, if successful, amount to an American version of apartheid. And the weight given in the Senate by members from what H.L. Mencken called "the cow states" could contribute to the success of that project. 

White panic, the dark mutterings of white supremacists, and the desire to reconstruct some nostalgic version of the 1950s--Blacks at the back of the bus, women in the kitchen, gays in the closet--are political realities of the day, but there is no reason to think that they will prevail, despite making a great deal of noise. Demographic trends are in motion that are not likely to be reversed. Even South African eventually had to give up apartheid. 

Better to make the most of an increasingly diverse nation, which will also be a more interesting one. 

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Here for the asking

 The academic year is cranking up, and though it has been two years since I last taught editing at Loyola University Maryland, an impulse to harangue the young remains.

So if you teach a class in the Baltimore area and think your students might benefit from my making a guest appearance to talk about grammar and usage or journalism, write to me at, and we'll discuss the possibilities.  

Monday, August 2, 2021

Whose prayer in school?

 People are cluttering Facebook and Twitter with calls to put God, and specifically prayer, in the public schools. I'm old enough to remember compulsory prayer in school: It was Christian, and Protestant at that. 

If some way around 1962's Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision were found, I think the Constitution would still not allow one form of religious belief to be privileged. So how would you devout folks feel about Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, or Native American prayers in the schools? Wiccan? Perhaps not so enthusiastic? 

The Founders knew what life was like in nations with official state religions, and they were determined that the United States would be a secular republic, with freedom to profess any form of religion, or none. True, the early Republic was culturally Christian, and mainly Protestant, but if you look out the window, you may notice that white Protestants have become a minority, and we usually frown on a minority that seeks to dictate to the majority. 

So if are concerned to spread Christian belief and practice, you might do well to emulate the earliest Christians, by the example of your lives rather than by attempts to hijack the state to impose your preferences. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Schooled in dishonesty about the nation's past

 You may have seen an asinine tweet by Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, earlier this month: "If we teach that the founding of the United States of America was somehow flawed. It was corrupt. It was racist. That's really dangerous. It strikes at the very foundations of our country."

Even I, in American history class in my junior year of high school knew about the three-fifths clause: that the slaveholding states would not ratify the Constitution without protection of slavery, and that counting each Black human being as a non-voting three-fifths of a person would give those states a boost in representation in the House of Representatives. 

And I knew, in the sanitized textbook version,* that the fights over admission of new states in the first half of the nineteenth century were over maintaining enough slaveholding states to maintain a bloc of senators able to thwart any antislavery legislation. 

The Civil War, I recall, had something to do with tariffs and was mainly about states' rights. We were not told that slavery was the only state's right the Confederacy cared about, though their own secession legislation said so. Reconstruction was something about "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags." Don't recall that we go to Jim Crow. 

At least we weren't subjected to one of those Southern textbooks saying that enslaved people were well off and grateful to their beneficent masters.**

Everything touchy about the nation's past was minimized. There had been "problems," for sure, and perhaps mistakes were sometimes made, but nothing halted our national triumphal rush to glory. 

My history teacher, Jim Johnson, had impulses to encourage thought. He set up a class debate over the Mexican War and assigned me the contra side. So I pointed out, with evidence, that the United States provoked a conflict with a weaker nation to seize territory for expansion. (Abraham Lincoln opposed the war.) And I was voted down by my classmates, who had swallowed Manifest Destiny whole. 

So it's not surprising that those whose scanty schooling in history amounted to patriotic mythology resist any effort to teach an honest account of our past. 

* To learn why U.S. textbooks reduce the country's history to a kind of anodyne paste, look into Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised: History Schoolbooks in the Twentieth Century (1979). 

** I suspect that Mr. Pompeo may not be as ignorant as he sounds. He doesn't want anyone to think that the United States has a racist past extending into the present, but I expect that he knows that there was once a legal category, octoroon, to identify someone with one black great-grandparent who was therefore Black. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Not worth knowing

You do not have to be on Twitter or Facebook long before you come across some glaring example of pedagogical malfeasance. 

Today some poor devil mentioned a teacher who cut one letter grade from a paper each time the word that occurred, a lesson the poor devil has apparently carried into adult life.* One recalls Jane Austen: "We all love to instruct, though we can teach only what is not worth knowing."

Let's be clear.

That as a relative pronoun introduces dependent clauses, marking the relationship with a main clause. 

It is often omitted in speech, particularly when the main clause and dependent clause are both short, as in the line from O Brother, Where Art Thou?: “We thought you was a toad.” But you do not want to make this a universal practice.

The Associated Press Stylebook, so frequently cited by people unaware of what is in it, offers useful advice. First, that must be used when an adverb of time follows the main verb. "They found out Thursday that their ship had sailed." 

Also, some verbs idiomatically require the use of thatadvocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose, and state

And it must be used before subordinate clauses beginning with after, although, because, before, in addition to, until, and while. "McIntyre said that while he has made this point repeatedly over the years, no one appears to have taken notice."

AP advises, “When in doubt, include that. Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does.” 

For my part, it is depressing to calculate how much time I spent over the past forty years inserting that into awkwardly phrased and unidiomatic newspaper copy.

* I do not know but suspect that the class was in journalism, since journalists as a class appear to get the fantods over that relative pronoun. 

Monday, July 19, 2021

Another futile low growl in the morning

I snarled one morning on reading that someone had refuted another party in a political dispute, deploring the erosion of the word's strict sense of "to prove wrong."  

But it has been a long time since Samuel Johnson could reply to the argument of Bishop Berkeley that the objects of our senses are not actually material objects by dashing his foot against a stone and saying."I refute him thus!" Today, I think thanks mainly to journalists, the sense "to deny the truth or accuracy of" or "to dispute" is prevalent. 

Thus when you read that one bombastic politico has "refuted" another bombastic political, you are to understand that the one merely rebutted the other, proof being in short supply among us these days. 

You may feel, as does Bryan Garner, that refute "doesn't mean merely 'to counter an argument' but 'to disprove beyond doubt; to prove a statement false,' " and that the "rebut" sense is an error. But Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that the "rebut" sense became standard in the twentieth century, and it can be found today in all the dictionaries. 

What then to do. There is always the option of taking to some online platform to whinge that people who use the "rebut" sense are uneducated cattle and that English is rotting away before our eyes. (You know the type.)

But the language goes where it will, even if I do not care for the direction. That leaves me, in practice as a writer and editor, to frame a necessary question: If I want to use refute in the older, strict sense, can I be sure that readers will understand how I mean it? 

If I can't pile up enough context to bolster the "prove wrong" sense, then I am better off abandoning the enterprise. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

It looked so nice they wrote it twice

From The New York Times as published in my morning paper: "Large contingents of Cuban police patrolled the capital of Havana on Monday following rare protests around the island nation against food shortages, high prices and a worrying lack of medicine amid the coronavirus crisis. [Take a breath.] Cuba's president said the demonstrations were stirred up on social media by Cuban Americans in the United States. [Take another breath. Second paragraph] "President Joe Biden on Monday called on the Cuban government to heed the demands of thousands of citizens who took to the streets Sunday to protest power outages, food shortages and a worrying lack of medicine."

Of the two opening paragraphs tacked on to this article, I much prefer the shorter one, the longer one being upholstered with "the capital of Havana" when "Havana" would have been concise and less condescending, and that hoary cliche "the island nation," assuming that I wouldn't be quite sure that Cuba is surrounded by water.

Later in the article, the reader discovers that Cuba is "a country known for quashing dissent." Noted.

This concludes the morning grumble.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Your complaints about English usage are noted and disregarded

 After forty years in the Wilderness, the Israelites arrived at Canaan, the land that had been promised to them,  to discover that there were already people living there.


The Book of Judges describes, among other things, the slaughters that were required to command the Promised Land. Among them there was a battle of Joshua and the Gileadites with a people called the Ephraimites, which the Authorized Version describes:

"And the Gileadites took the passages of the Jordan before the Ephramites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over: that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Efhraimite? If he said, Nay: Then they said unto him, Say now Shibboleth; and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame how to pronounce it right. Then they took him and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand." 

Shibboleth in Hebrew meant "ear of grain." The word was meaningless to the Ephraimites, but their inability to pronounce it identified their ethnicity, and thus their vulnerability. So, in time, the word in English has come to mean variously, Merriam-Webster says, "a word or saying used by adherents of a party, sect, or belief and usually regarded by others as empty of real meaning," "a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group," and "a custom or usage regarded as distinguishing one group from others."

Thus a shibboleth is anything, however intrinsically trivial, that enables us to separate ourselves from people we would prefer to look down on. 

The word popped into my mind as I followed yet another sterile online discussion about the word irregardless, with predictably uninformed comments that it is "not a word"* and a mark of the "uneducated." 

It was the "uneducated" that caught my eye, because I too in my hot-blooded youth was an insufferable prig about language and what I understood to be "correct" usage. It took me a long time to understand that formal standard English is not the only English and that all the other Englishes serve perfectly well in their respective domains. 

Sneering at the "uneducated" who use some nonstandard form of English, I realize, is a pathetic form of linguistic snobbery, no more noble or praiseworthy than any other form of snobbery. It is common among people, like me, who can not claim distinction by birth, wealth, physical beauty, or social status. A defective education about how language works is all we've got, so we have to work it. 

I once thought to respond to such whingeing that no one cares about your language peeves. Now I think that there are indeed other people who care about your language peeves, but they are not worth caring about. 

*Yes it is. It has a spelling, a pronunciation, an etymology, a history, and a widely understood meaning. It has been listed, though as casual or nonstandard, in dictionaries for decades, and if you complain about that, you betray a lack of understanding of how dictionaries work and how language works. 

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Independence Day

 When I was a graduate student at Syracuse University, a chorister at St. Paul's Cathedral described a Memorial Day service at which a military color guard trooped down the central aisle at the opening procession, dipping its service flags at the altar. 

Memorial Day, that year, happened on the commemoration of the Feast of Pentecost, which celebrates the universal presence of the Holy Spirit in the world, regardless of national or cultural identities. It was outrageous. I wrote a sharp little note to the dean of the cathedral, suggesting that attempting to portray the Episcopal Church as a national church was misguided. I received a mealy-mouthed response from one of the canons. (When they tell you your letter was "well-written," it means they have ignored the contents. See Joyce's "Ivy Day in the Committee Room.") 

Later, at another parish, I made use of an occasion to remove items on display in advance of Holy Thursday to spirit the U.S. flag out of the chancel to conceal it in an obscure corner of the undercroft, hoping it would not be discovered. 

I am a native-born American citizen who has paid taxes without complaint for more than half a century and has voted in every election save one (a primary election when I had to be out of town) since coming of age, and I will happily dispute anyone who disputes my patriotism.

But I do not believe that the conflation of Americanism with Christianity is healthy either for the United States or Christianity. We live in what the Founders rightly established as a secular republic (though many of them did give lip service to a Deist deity). 

So mark the Fourth, and mark our hesitant efforts to live up to its ideals, but pray leave the Almighty out of it. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Sound familiar?

"The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule."  

Hiram Wesley Evans, head of the Ku Klux Klan, eighty years ago, quoted in Robert Dallek's Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life 

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Newspapers are so prissy

 A recent Washington Post article said that former Attorney General William Barr "likened Trump’s claims [of voter fraud] to excrement from a male bovine animal." You know, bullshit. A writer ought to be embarrassed over resorting to such coy circumlocutions, but this is what U.S. mainstream newspapers have led us to expect. 

For years at The Sun, house policy on bad words was to provide the initial letter followed by two em-dashes. Writers had previously used the initial letter with a hyphen for all the subsequent letters, but John S. Carroll said he didn't want reading the news to be like working the Jumble. 

Submissive to the policy, I wrote a post on this blog reviewing Jesse Sheidlower's The F Word without once using the word fuck and a similarly seemly review for The Sun of Melissa Mohr's Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing

Such policies survive, of course, because most of the readers of daily newspapers are older people, who we think are used to more decorous language.* When The Sun allowed some profanity or vulgarity to escape into print, letters would come in chastising the editors for putting such words where impressionable young people would see them. (I challenge you: Show me a young person who reads a newspaper.)

I am of that decorous era. When I was a child, the only profanity my grandfather ever uttered was a deep, throaty Hell!, and then only on special occasions. I came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as did many of my newspaper colleagues, and despite our youthful freedom of speech we remained captive to the straitlaced standards we inherited, even though our readers are hearing those very words daily. 

Oh, our weekly free newsstand effort to entrap younger readers once caused a minor stir with DOUCHEBAG as a headline on the cover, but the boldness faded. 

I have slipped The Sun's yoke in retirement, and while I do not plan to write here quite as I used to speak in the newsroom, I embrace the freedom, when something is shitty, to say that it is shitty.

*My former Sun colleague Steve Auerweck once presciently suggested changing the OBITUARIES logo to SUBSCRIBER COUNTDOWN. 

Saturday, June 26, 2021

The spell of spelling

 Many Sunday afternoons when I was in the fifth and sixth grades at Elizaville Elementary were spent copying the week's spelling words, ten times each, to be submitted Monday.

English spelling is a notorious mess, a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon, Norman French, ecclesiastical Latin, and words that Britain and the United States lifted from indigenous peoples. The need to master spelling as a mark of literacy made Noah Webster's Blue Back Speller a bestseller in the United States throughout the nineteenth century. 

(Also in the nineteenth century, misspellings were common fodder for humor, mocking the subliterate. We have the word OK thanks to the jocular spelling oll korrect in a Boston newspaper.)

A friend has lent me a copy of Book One of The Twentieth Century Spellers, Maryland Edition, published in 1912 by Appleton, and it is a window into public education a century ago. 

Each week has a specified set of words, with spelling and syllabification, and a set of example sentences using the week's words. 

But there is more. One finds an abundance of the sententiae adults love to unload on the young: Alice Carey's verses beginning "True worth is in being, not seeming; / In doing each day that goes by / Some little good, not in dreaming. ..." 

There are occasional interpolations of random information: "The Chinese are a curious people and live a great distance from us. They are different from us in many ways. They think that one girl in a family is enough. They prefer to have boys. Their near neighbors are the Japanese." 

And, of course, patriotism: "Admiral Dewey received great honors after his triumph over the Spaniards in the harbor of Manila."

To a modern reader, the example sentences each week read like found poetry:

"The fox is covered with fur.

"Did John peddle the potatoes from house to house?

"The bird flew out of the cage.

"The class can sing the song by rote but not by note.

"The stone was a real diamond

"Did you hear that whispering?"

Did John encounter the fox on his route selling potatoes? The students' singing is faulty, but the diamond is genuine. The bird is free, but the whispering is ominous. 

The appendix of Local Words is a little window into the Maryland of the time: Annapolis, brickyard, bombardment, cotton duck mills, Cecilius Calvert, Mt. Clare Shops, slavery, tonging, Wells and McComas

Did you hear that whispering? It was the past. 

Saturday, June 19, 2021

On the first morning of retirement ...

I picked up the Associated Press Stylebook from my desk and placed it on the shelf. 

Penguin has been bringing out Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret mysteries in new translations, and I think I'll read one out on the porch before the day grows too hot. 

In the afternoon I can join my former colleague Fred Rasmussen and the assorted barflies he has gathered about him at Zen West to sample the healing waters. (Damn, Fred's at work today and I am not. Sad.) Retirement merits a quiet ale. 

Then, I think, since it's to be a hot day, I'll chill a bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc and make a Nicoise salad for dinner with Kathleen. 

Moving forward, this version of You Don't Say is the blog I set up in 2009 to continue writing when The Sun laid me off, and at least temporarily I will post here occasionally. One benefit is that people in the United Kingdom and Ireland who would like to read it should now be able to see it. 

The impulse to harangue the young has not completely faded, so if you have a class to teach in the Baltimore area this fall, I'd be open to a guest appearance to talk about grammar, usage, editing, or journalism. 

Not gone yet. 

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Family continuity represented in furniture

 This swivel chair was in the general store my grandfather, John H. McIntyre, operated in Elizaville, Kentucky. He sat in it to keep his accounts and pay his bills. After he died in 1945 and my father, Raymond McIntyre, took on the operation of the store, he sat in it as he kept his accounts. After he was no longer operating the store, the chair was in the Elizaville Post Office, where my mother, Marian Early McIntyre sat in it each month to maintain her postal accounts. After she retired, the chair came to me, and it is now at my desk, where I sit to pay bills and write letters. 

Yes, that is a spittoon on the floor by the desk. 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Working from home is hardly working

For the past year a desk, table, and chair in the basement have served as my remote newsroom of The Baltimore Sun. My wife, Kathleen Capcara, has had to do a good deal of her work for Trinity Episcopal Church in Towson from our house, making videos at the dining room table and performing other tasks by email and Zoom sessions. 

She has a desk in a neighboring room in the basement. Recently she suggested turning the children's old toy room, between our two desks, into a break room that we could share as colleagues. 

She put out some candies, Gummi Bears (which I detest), and cough drops on a table. I supplied an electric kettle and a selection of teas. We moved the clock above my desk into the break room. 

It has worked out well enough. Since our hours do not usually overlap much, neither my swearing nor her muttering constantly to herself has caused friction. People are clearing their own dishes and cups, emptying the wastebaskets, and refraining from leaving garments and personal possessions strewn about. 

There is room for improvement. Crucially, there is no water cooler around which the staff could gather and exchange gossip. I could bring in a cafetiere, but I refuse to remove the coffee grinder and beans from the kitchen, where they are desperately needed in the morning. 

And frankly, the ambience lacks pizzazz. I proposed setting up an Employee of the Month poster to bolster morale, but the idea has gone nowhere.

What the break room has fundamentally done is to throw into high relief that the management of this outfit stinks. 

I am not suggesting that unionizing is the remedy, but options must be given consideration. 

And now I'm going upstairs.