Monday, November 29, 2021

Decline, fall

 Someone has seen fit to post on Facebook a statement by the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." 

This is the kind of trope conservatives have favored since Cicero complained that no one spoke good Latin any longer.* There is always a Before Time, often associated with the point at which the complainer reached puberty, when people were better educated and things were done properly. That everything since is degenerate, of course, bolsters the complainer's status as standing above the herd. 

Even so, a remark as fatuous as Mr. Sobran's commands attention. 

A century ago a college education was a privilege for a limited segment of the population, and students headed for college typically attended schools with a curriculum shaped toward that end. It was only after the Second World War, particularly with the G.I. Bill and increased federal aid to education that the college population expanded enormously, including students from families that had never previously aspired to a university education. To speak sweepingly of two quite different student populations, with different backgrounds, needs, and preparation, obscures relevant facts. 

Moreover, even in that nonexistent golden age when every high school student had conned Latin and Greek, the university faculty was seldom impressed. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quotes John Warner saying, "Professors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students. ... I have a quote from Harvard professor Adams Sherman Hill from 1878 complaining about his students 'making blunders which would disgrace a boy 12 years old.' ” As reliably as conservatives bemoan the present decadent age, university faculty members kvetch that students do not already know the things they have come to learn. 

The time to which Mr. Sobran alludes was one in which English classes taught the traditional grammar, which took with a handful of students but eluded the majority. Then in the second half of the twentieth century, as the deficiencies of that approach became apparent, many schools dropped the traditional grammar. The consequence was that students did not know technical grammar but still did not write very well. Exploring how students could be better taught would have been interesting, but belittling schools and students was apparently easier for Mr. Sobran. 

The fundamental thing that he chooses to overlook is that writing is difficult, and very few people ever become adept. We probably should have always known that, but now the internet puts the evidence before our eyes every day. And now that many publications have essentially abandoned copy editing, everyone can see how professional journalists actually write. 

In one hundred years we have come from conservatives saying the things they always say to conservatives repeating the things they always say. 

* Not a joke. In Brutus: "People in general, who had not resided out of the city [Rome], nor been corrupted by any domestic barbarisms, spoke the Roman language with purity. Time, however, as well at Rome as in Greece, soon altered matters for the worse: for this city, (as had formerly been the case at Athens) was resorted to by a crowd of adventurers from different parts, who spoke very corruptly; which shows the necessity of reforming our language, and reducing it to a certain standard, which shall not be liable to vary like the capricious laws of custom."

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Just the phatics, ma'am

When I expressed dissatisfaction recently with what I called "phatic journalism," a few people quite reasonably asked what the hell I was talking about. 

Phatic speech, in which we all indulge, is casual comment on inconsequential matters -- the weather, last night's game -- to be sociable and acknowledge another party as a fellow human being. It is a form of harmless social lubrication, devoid of substance. 

In what I would call phatic copy editing, what purports to be editing is merely inconsequential edits -- changing "like" to "such as," "over" to "more than" -- rather than a focus on substantive issues in the text. Phatic copy editing yields stories that conform to standard grammar and house style despite being superficial, incomplete, or dull. (Grammar ain't everything.)

Phatic substantive editing yields the kind of political horse racing story that we see all the time: The president's popularity was up two points yesterday but is down three points today, with positive or negative implications for the midterm elections. Hot yesterday. Colder today. Could rain tomorrow. 

This is how we get supposedly "balanced" stories in which Party A asserts something and Party B asserts the contrary, without enough information for the reader to evaluate the worth of either. This is how we get reports of a "trend" that involves three people. This is how we learn the views of minority groups from the same half-dozen representatives who are quoted every time. 

So that's the news. Think it'll rain? 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Wasted words

 You would do your readers a courtesy to omit from your writing some of the words tediously overused in journalism. 

Battle "Politics," said Mr. Dooley, "ain't beanbag." But neither is it an armed conflict. Neither are sporting events. And neither is the experience of having cancer. If you were to forgo military metaphors, you might discover how impoverished your imagination is. 

Controversial Conflict, they told you in your newswriting class, is one of the fundamental news values. If there were no controversy, there would be no news and thus no story. 

Currently If it's not happening now, why are you writing about it?

Dramatic This is a show-not-tell violation. If the circumstances you describe are not dramatic, using the word will not make them so to the reader. 

Firestorm The Allied attack that destroyed Dresden, which Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse-Five, involved such a multitude of incendiary bombs that the heat of the fires created great winds that made the fires doubly destructive. A group of ill-informed people shouting at a school board meeting does not constitute a firestorm. 

First Are you sure of that? Are you really sure? You looked it up, didn't you?

Iconic Just don't. If you picked up a dictionary, you would be hard-pressed to find a common or proper noun that has not at some point been called "iconic." A word used to describe everything describes nothing.

Ironically Good idea to check whether what you actually mean is coincidentally

Prestigious See Dramatic

Saga Yes, you have a long, involved account. That does not make your story the Elder Edda. 

The public may wish to comment with suggestions of additional words you could shun. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The misterectomy

 When I joined The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the paper, seeing itself as a country cousin of The New York Times, used honorifics in its news stories. Men were mistered, unless they had military, civil, or ecclesiastical rank, and reporters had to determine whether the women they wrote about were to be Miss, Mrs., or Ms. 

But the main burden of enforcing the style rules fell on the copy desk, which, in addition to maintaining courtesy titles in local copy, had to insert them in wire service copy. 

Then there were the debates on the desk. Historical figures did not get titles (no Mr. Caesar). How long did a notable have to be dead to shed their title? I once suggested when there had been time for the flesh to fall from the bones. 

House style also denied courtesy titles to criminals. More debate. Did the person have to commit a felony, or did a misdemeanor count? The title could be restored once the debt to society was paid, but was the mister restored after a prison sentence was completed, or when probation was completed? Engraved in memory was the case of the governor of Maryland who lost his title after being convicted of a felony but got it back when an appeals court overturned his conviction. 

In the early 1990s, the paper went on a brief binge of asking the employees how the work could be improved. (It worked well in the pressroom, where employees suggested many efficiencies, less well in the departments whose managers clung tightly to their authority.) Even the copy desk was included. 

When the copy editors brought forth their proposals, courtesy titles topped the list. While the justification of using courtesy titles was that the formality conferred respect, the copy editors argued that the practice was stuffy and archaic, and also busywork that distracted from more significant editing. The editor, John S. Carroll, nodded, and with a wave of his hand courtesy titles were dismissed from The Sun

The remain, as a lingering mark of formality and respect, in the paper's obituaries, when the staff remembers to include them.