Wednesday, September 28, 2022

It's all the rage

 Words and usages in English go in and out of fashion. When a new expression, or a repurposed old one, emerges, the eager adapters jump on it, because it's all the rage, and the traditionalists scorn it, because all is rage. 

I've mentioned elsewhere that contact as a verb was widely deplored as a vulgarism in the 1940s and 1950s (" 'Contact" is not a verb in this house," Nero Wolfe tells Archie Goodwin). But as the means of getting in contact multiplied, the objection faded. The objection to hopefully as a sentence adverb meaning "it is hoped that" from the 1970s and 1980s has also been wearing away, having had little foundation to start with beyond disliking "the way those people talk." 

Thirty years ago, John S. Carroll as editor of The Sun had strong traditionalist views about language, and he deplored using host as a verb. So I dutifully added the prohibition to our house stylebook, and the copy desk dutifully changed every host as verb to play host to. In time John Carroll and the language moved on, and at The Sun we hosted without trepidation. With good reason. The current sense of hosting events carries a sense of sponsorship, often of large-scale events, by organizations, something beyond the traditional sense of receiving guests and entertaining socially. And play host to as a substitute is stilted. 

Thirty years ago, The Sun also had a prohibition in its stylebook damning the use of suck to mean "objectionable or inadequate" as "vulgar street language." The reason, when younger reporters asked for an explanation, was that the word suggested fellation, and their reaction was "Oh come on." (Merriam-Webster still calls it "slang, sometimes vulgar.")

We also upheld the pupil/student distinction but dropped it as educators increasingly came to see younger children as active participants in their learning rather than passive recipients of information. The Associated Press Stylebook has eliminated all vestiges of the traditional distinction. We also got the occasional letter from a reader objecting to our referring to children as kids ("Kids are goats"), but that is another item that the AP Stylebook has quietly heaved over the side. 

Language, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all our cavils away. 

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Death, be not affected

 Don't be mealy-mouthed about mortality. People die. When they do, just say so. 

At the death of Elizabeth II, some reports said that she had "passed" or "passed away." She died. 

Much as your squeamish discomfort with brute facts might tempt you to euphemize, pray don't. 

People die; they do not pass, pass away, pass over, expire, depart, succumb, enter eternal rest, go to be with Jesus/the Lord, go west, cross the bar, buy the farm, pay a debt to nature, rest from their labors, wander the Elysian Fields, breathe their last, answer the final summons, go to meet their Maker, yield up the ghost, ring down the curtain, cash in their chips, shuffle off this mortal coil, join the choir invisible, or climb the golden staircase.


Tuesday, August 30, 2022

The generous and the pinched

Another wrangle last week, this one in an online discussion with people who insist that the relative pronoun that, against all evidence, must not be used to refer to human beings and is "dehumanizing" when used so. Such dogmatism about the English language is common, strident, and frequently ill-informed. 

H.W. Fowler exploded the split-infinitive superstition a century ago. Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins has been available for half a century. Bryan Garner has been exposing superstitions and shibboleths about English usage for a generation. And yet what we commonly hear is that some commonplace word or usage is "uneducated" or "illiterate" or "like fingernails on a blackboard," and that we are verging on barbarism. 

What by contrast I found appealing in Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause is its atmosphere of openness and generosity. Ellen Jovin travels around the country from her base in New York City, setting up her Grammar Table in public spaces to engage any passerby who is interested in discussion of grammar and usage. Her account shows that people are fascinated by language, keen to talk about it, and--make note--willing to be better informed. 

My own experience as a professional copy editor over forty years is that my colleagues, far from being the robotic assassins of prose that some reporters would have had you think, have been open and generous in their approach to the craft. It was a quarter-century ago that Pam Robinson and the late Hank Glamann on their own volunteer time got the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing) launched. It has ever since relied on scores of volunteer speakers to broaden our perspective on language and editing and deepen our skills. 

In my own blogging I have learned a great deal from exchanges with linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky and with lexicographers such as Peter Sokolowski, Kory Stamper, Steve Kleinedler, and Emily Brewster, all willing to share their expertise and offer support. What one finds from them is that there are many Englishes beyond the standard written form, all of which have fascinating features worth examining. 

Karen Yin's Conscious Style Guide and Conscious Language Newsletter are invaluable sources of intelligent and informed explorations of the ways the language is shifting and efforts to treat everyone we write about with dignity and respect. 

There are, of course, fair targets: journalists who can't make their subjects and verbs agree, academics who make a fetish of obscurity, merchants of vacuous business jargon, and anyone who inflicts  pretentious or dishonest or dull prose on you. Striking a blow for clarity and accuracy is always apt. 

But they aren't the targets of the people with the pinched view of language, the view that some form of standard written English is the only "correct" one, that some schoolroom nostrum carried into adulthood (and often misremembered) is eternally valid. What is actually behind the pinched view is not really an objection to words and usages in themselves, but to the people who use them. These objections are an opportunity to parade contempt for people thought to be inferiors.

Life is all choices. You can choose to frisk among the Englishes with people who are open-handedly willing to talk about them with you. Or you can clutch a precarious gentility. 

Friday, August 26, 2022

God doesn't think he's a doctor

I got into a back-and-forth online this week over using the title doctor for people with non-medical degrees. 

He's the issue for stylebook editors and  the tinpot despots who make style decrees for publications: At colleges and universities, the title doctor is in widespread, nearly universal,* use. But people who have attended college or university are a minority, and in the wider population, a doctor is understood to be an M.D. 

Or a D.D.S. or a D.O. or a D.C. or a D.P.M. or a D.V.M. (Those are the doctorates the Associated Press Stylebook approves.)

The issue has some currency because of the recent sneering at Jill Biden's being called "Dr. Biden." She holds an earned doctorate in education, but the Ed.D. does not score high in prestige on some campuses and is often dismissed as not a real doctorate. (One illustration of the snobbery among the learned came when I was at Syracuse. Someone caused a stir by obtaining and releasing the faculty salaries, and the provost caused a further stir by saying publicly that you could not expect to hire a physics professor for what you would pay a Spanish teacher.)

I think it's questionable that the Associated Press Stylebook should take it upon itself to determine which academic degrees are more genuine than others. And its decision seems even more questionable if it is based on prejudice or ignorance in the wider population. 

We are a middle-class, status-conscious society. When someone has sat through all those classes and seminars, slogged through all those articles and books, and pushed out some dissertation which, if they are fortunate, no one but their committee will ever read, let them have what little scrap of distinction society permits them. 


* A member of the faculty at Syracuse, a Chaucerian, preferred the title professor, because, he said, doctor was the title of someone making a living by probing people's orifices.  

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Take it out: in the wake of

Journalism operates on conventions (write one obituary or one police story, and you can write a thousand), and the pressure of time leads reporters to reach for prefabricated phrases. The best writers try to break free of formula. Here's a hint. 

Nearly every day I see an account that some event has occurred or circumstance developed in the wake of another event or circumstance. This is, first, a dead or at least moribund metaphor, like free rein. Unless the reader is a sailor, it's unlikely that the expression conveys an image of the disturbance in water from the passage of a ship. 

Apart from the loss of the visual image, the expression has lost much of its original sense. When a large vessel moves through the water, its wake has the potential to endanger smaller craft. But in most contexts in newspapers, in the wake of does not mean "complicates" or "makes more difficult." It often means that one event is a consequence of another, or even simply came after another. 

Change in the wake of to following, and the reader will readily understand your meaning. And you will have omitted three words you can well do without.  

Start here

 When I posted photos of the shelves on which I keep my books on language and writing, Ben Yagoda noticed some gaps and kindly sent me copies of two of his books. Today I commend to you How to Not Write Bad (Riverhead Books, 177 pages, $15 and cheap at the price). 

It is not what you would call an ambitious book; he makes it clear from the start that you should look elsewhere if you have ambitions for belles lettres. He wants to make the student writing papers and the person writing memos for colleagues adequate and free of embarrassment at the task. 

His method is to identify four dozen or so basic lapses in grammar, usage, and writing that he has identified over the years as a teacher of writing at the University of Delaware. Subject-verb disagreement, punctuation, confusion of homonyms, reliance on cliches, and more. I can attest to the accuracy of his catalogue; these are the same deficiencies I identified in student work over twenty-five years at Loyola University Maryland and over forty years in the work of professional journalists. These are the mistakes that everyone makes all the time. 

He urges the writer to keep current with how the language is being used by wide reading. There is no substitute. How to Not Write Bad was published in 2013, and in it he predicts that singular they, widely deplored at the time, was likely to become standard in a decade. So he was prescient. Some of the cliches he lists have faded, but a substantial number of them continue to deaden writing. You have to pay attention. 

His examples, many from student or business work, are apt and his explanations concise. He shows how to excise extraneous language. And he continually stresses that you must clean up after yourself

If your ambition is to become a great writer, have at it. But to become a great writer, you must first become a good enough writer. This is a place to start. 

Monday, August 22, 2022

The small part

 On Saturday I attended a little gathering of Baltimore Sun employees and alumni to celebrate the belated acquisition of The Sun's 2020 Pulitzer Prize for exposing Mayor Catherine Pugh's Healthy Holly scandal, a handsome Tiffany crystal. I remarked online of my pride in having had a small part in the enterprise. 

A gentleman, whose name I do not care to mention, commented, "Only losers take credit credit for something in which they had little to no impact."* This is how people think when they do not understand what copy editors do. (Lately this is also how officers of publishing corporations appear to think.) 

It is the case that I did not report or write the articles or take the photographs. But other things accumulate to create impact. 

In editing the Healthy Holly stories, after they had been through the hands of the reporters and the assigning editors, I read each one through. If something did not seem clear to me, and might not be clear to the reader, I asked questions. I checked for factual accuracy and resolved discrepancies. I regularized, where necessary, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and other matters of English usage. When the length of a story exceeded the space allotted on the page, I had to trim intelligently so that no significant details were lost. I wrote or edited the photo captions. I wrote the headlines, which are the reader's gateway to the text, seeking to make sure that they were accurate and appealing. And I made a page proof so that another editor could check my work. The whole point is to make each story factually correct and as clear as possible. 

Work that is largely invisible may not be appreciated, and it was true in many newsrooms for many years that copy editors were seen as losers, the copy desk the last stop for reporters whose legs or livers had given out. But every copy editor knows how much work goes into this obscure craft, and how much it can improve stories. 

The better reporters also know that. 


*I could write [sic] after that doubled "credit," but that would be snotty. 


Tuesday, August 9, 2022

End a sentence with a preposition if you want to

 Yes, I know, Someone told you that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. Someone also told you never to split infinitives, none is always singular, and avoid the wicked passive voice, even though you're not quite sure what it is. Someone told you a lot of rubbish.

And even though you (probably) don't advocate the Ptolemaic theory that the universe revolves around the Earth or the theory that fire is the release of phlogiston from combustible substances, you continue to adhere to nonsense merely because Someone once told you so.*

Let me roll out a couple of the Big Guns. 

A century ago, the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler wrote this: "It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late ('They are the fittest timber to make great politics of' said Bacon; & 'What are you hitting me for' says the modern schoolboy) be kept true to their name & placed before the word they govern." 

The maintenance of this superstition, he writes, means that "immense pains are daily expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English."

More recently, Bryan Garner writes thus in Garner's Modern English Usage: "The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar. ... But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar." 

To illustrate, he compares the "Correct and Natural" ("people worth talking to") to the "Correct and Stuffy" ("people to whom it is worth talking"). Among the examples of natural English he cites is a sentence by George Orwell: "The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with." 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage closes its entry on the subject with a set of terminal-preposition sentences by established writers of English, including Bunyan, Swift, Johnson, Austen, Carroll, Joyce, Frost, and Thurber. 

You may at this point be unconvinced, firm in your resolve never to conclude a sentence with a preposition. And this is America, where if it is your preference to sound like a prig, it is also your right. 



*For a catalogue of rubbish frequently taught, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing is available by order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores like The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.  

Friday, July 29, 2022

Step up to the Grammar Table

On a September day in 2018, Ellen Jovin left her apartment in Manhattan and went to the street outside the 72nd Street subway station to set up a folding table and a sign identifying it as the Grammar Table, inviting questions, comments, and complaints, along with opportunities to vent. 

Public interest proved so strong that she and her husband, Brandt, took the Grammar Table around the country--to forty-seven states, Covid isolation thwarting their plan to make all fifty. Her exchanges with ordinary citizens over grammar and usage are now summed up in Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian (Mariner Books, 374 pages, $26.99). 

People, she discovered, are curious about grammar, ill-informed and uncertain about grammar, and sometimes dogmatic about grammar, occasionally giving her the Grammar Side Eye despite the presence on the table of references such as the Chicago Manual of Style and Garner's Modern English Usage to buttress her explanations.

Her fifty brief chapters cover nearly all the issues that commonly come up, and her explanations are clear and reliable. There's a great deal on punctuation: the common comma, the mysterious semicolon, the intrusive apostrophe. She finds it helpful to answer inquiries by making a chart to illustrate the differences of effect (noun and verb) and affect (verb and noun) or to write out the conjugations of lie and lay. She herself usually tries to write around singular they, but acknowledges that it has been widespread in English since Alfred burned the cakes. 

But the richness of the book comes from the people, who are straightforward about their perplexities and grateful for explanation. There's the man in Annapolis who doesn't care for swearing but is delighted to be informed that the technical term for inserting one of them in the middle of another word is infix. There are the two young men drunk at noonday in Decatur, Alabama, who occupy much of an afternoon on a variety of topics. There are people all over the country who say that they are bad at grammar, that they always hated grammar, that they are afraid of being mocked for their grammar. 

So much of people's uncertainties about grammar and usage rise from bad pedagogy. Many of the things that people think they know about grammar and usage, Ms. Jovin writes, are half-remembered "things you were told when your shoe size was changing annually." There are the perpetual zombie rules about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. She says, "Prohibitions from childhood, unfortunately, are like grass stains on white pants; they resist efforts to scrub them away." 

But over and over in this delightful book, the light dawns with the offer of a concise explanation, and the recipient relishes a sense of greater understanding and mastery over their own language, of possession. In a world where writing about English usage can reflect a sense of an embattled elite surrounded by rabble, this book relishes our common humanity, our understanding that our language is what we collectively make of it. It is refreshing to see. People love language.

Not all questions about usage can be readily resolved. A recurring point in the book, for example, is people's comfort with, or discomfort with, the object pronoun me used as a subject, the subject pronoun I used as an object, and the reflexive pronoun myself stuck in where it doesn't belong. Ms. Jovin's counsel about these matters should stay with us: "It's going to continue in spite of our wishes, so it's important to achieve a sense of inner peace about it." 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Classic yard care

 Taking advantage of a break in the brutal summer heat, I cut the grass this morning in the appropriate classical manner, boustrophedon, mowing across the yard and then turning in the opposite direction.

We have the word because of the way the Greeks plowed their fields. A Greek farmer directed his ox, bous, across the field and then made it turn, strephein, and plow a furrow in the opposite direction, alternating until it was time to call it a day. 

The work of the ox informed writing and reading as well in the classical world, with texts running left to right and then right to left. Imagine mastering Latin, with lines of all-caps text (majuscule) running in alternate directions, with no punctuation and no spaces between words. And you thought the Wordle was a challenge. 

The Greek ox also turns up in a couple of places in English. 

Bucolic, "pastoral" or "rural," derives from boukolos, "herdsman."

And bulimia was coined from bous plus limos, "hunger," thus the appetite of an ox. 

The movement of the ox also turns up in English. In Greek drama, the chorus performing choral odes moved first from right to left on the stage, the strophe, then reversed and moved from the left to the right, the antistrophe. Strophe in English is a term for a pattern of lines in poetry, similar to a stanza. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

The white man's burden

 A wooden box of family papers holds the receipt for the property taxes my great-great-grandfather, John Early, paid to Fleming County, Kentucky, in 1852: $12.30 for 210 acres of land, four horses or mules, and four slaves. So the family farm on which I grew up, where my grandfather, Lucien Lundy Early, lived as a gentleman farmer, was inherited wealth built in part on the unpaid labor of enslaved persons. 

The elementary school I attended was segregated until I was in the fifth grade. 

My parents never made disparaging remarks about Black people, but the one time they visited Baltimore, my mother told me that my father had been troubled by the behavior of Black people on the train. She did not specify, and I did not press for details, because race is something that white people are not comfortable talking about. 

The church I attend, Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill, was founded by slaveholders just as the Civil War was about to break out, and it was a segregated congregation until 1969. 1969! (We have been trying to do better.) 

My own history was much on my mind this week as I read Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness (Legacy Lit, 2022, 338 pages). It is an unflinching, unsparing account.

Growing up in South Carolina, a descendant of families who owned scores of enslaved people, he rebelled against the middle-class values of his parents and their unspoken, unacknowledged racism. 

His account is a series of discoveries, about himself and about his family. He looks back on his youthful rebellion, recognizing in retrospect that young white men, in their egotism and entitlement, get to misbehave. Their misbehavior is expected and tolerated; penalties, if any are light. They are protected in a way that young Black men cannot expect. 

He confronts his parents on their genteel racism--they are nice people; they don't hate Black people; they just can't acknowledge that they have benefited from their whiteness. He looks into his family's past, probing for details of his great-grandfather's participation in the assassination of a Black county commissioner in 1871. 

He lives in Baltimore, a daily witness to the residue of racism in housing, education, and employment. 

And though after a tumultuous youth he earned college degrees and became a writer--recently as co-author of I Got a Monster, an excellent book on the Gun Trace Task Force scandal--he cannot live comfortably in the entitlements of whiteness. He will stand up to white supremacy, identifying and opposing its manifestations. He will try to find ways to make reparations.

And because he cannot and will not deny his family, his inheritance, his history, and his whiteness, he  styles himself Baynard Woods. He is who he is and was, but he will mark his heritage and his privilege on his name.

Now, mind you, this is not wallowing in liberal white guilt, though some will dismiss this book to avoid confronting the truths in it. This is a clear-eyed attempt to understand the dominance of white culture and one's place in it, and I think that few will have the courage to match Baynard's self-examination. 

I'll leave you with a passage I copied out, and you can decide whether it describes the world you know: "This was the way white men rolled, I was learning--at war with the world, until you start to lose. Then at war with women. ..."

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Yes, you can, and you may

An online discussion group recently rehashed the ancient can/may distinction* with several participants stoutly holding to it. As it happens, I was reading something on the same point in Lane Green's excellent Talk on the Wild Side.**

He refers to Arnold Zwicky's distinction between the Normal, the dialect or variety of dialects we learn from childhood by listening to or speaking with other people, and the Formal, the dialect we learn through reading, writing, and schooling. Can is Normal; may is Formal. And it is a mistake to think that Formal is somehow more correct than Normal. 

But wait. As spoken and written American English have become steadily more conversational over the past century, can/may has eroded. Here's Bryan Garner: "Although only an insufferable precisian would insist on observing the distinction in informal speech or writing ... it's often advisable to distinguish between the two." But there's more. Educated speakers regularly say "can't I" rather than "mayn't I," "can't" rather than "may not." And "because may is a more polite way of asking for permission, a fussy insistence on using it can give the writing a prissy tone."

Lane Green moves from can/may to the deeper issue of how badly classrooms have handled language instruction. "When children are suddenly told that what they know their parents and nearly everyone else says, and what they have been saying all their lives thus far, is 'wrong,' there is a disconnect between the child's native competence and the new idea of an invisible but Platonically correct language out there. ..." 

The way they are taught grammar leads to humiliation, and they learn that "grammar is a set of rules for torturing your natural sentences into an unnatural form that will satisfy a teacher." 

We wind up with adults who are twitchy about the way they use their own language, apprehensive about being embarrassed. And the ones who were given no formal instruction in grammar after the defects of the traditional approach were recognized are no better off. That's why often when I am introduced to someone and say that I am an editor, they say, "I guess I'd better watch my language," and I have to suppress the impulse to murmur, "Too late." 

Until we get books on language for students and the general reader informed by linguistics rather than ill-informed pedantry, the best we can try to do is to insist that the Formal is something to learn for particular purposes and the Normal is just swell. 




*An explanation for readers who said "Huh?": Many of us who are still above the turf were taught in childhood that can expresses ability, may permission or authorization. Thus a child asking "Can I?" gets the fish eye from a teacher and must recast it as "May I." 

**Published in 2018. (I've fallen behind.) 

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Our whitewashed textbooks

Jim Johnson, who taught American history during my junior year at Fleming County High School, sought to enliven the class one day by setting up a debate on whether the Mexican War was justified. Knowing that I was both a talker and an avid reader of history, he assigned me to take the contrary view. 

It was indisputable that the Polk administration sent troops into disputed territory as a provocative act and that when Mexico responded the United States claimed justification to fight a brief war against a weaker nation, the result being an enormous land grab, and I said so. (That view was shared by an obscure member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Abraham Lincoln. Had I known it at the time, I would have used it.)

When the class voted, the decision was overwhelming and inevitable: The war was justified. 

The reason the vote was inevitable is that American history as taught in public schools is not history but patriotic propaganda. What can be discerned through the dull stodge of the textbooks* is that we used to have problems: slavery, you know, but that's all over; a civil war, but there were heroes on both sides; sad about the Indians, but they were in the way. And all those problems have been resolved in the steady forward march of American greatness. 

This is why The 1619 Project, which I have been reading, is so unsettling to people who were taught that kind of history. But we knew all the things it recounts. We knew that the Constitution was set up to ensure that a minority of voters in the slave states would get disproportionate weight in the House of Representatives and veto power in the Senate. We knew about lynchings and the violence against protesters during the civil rights movement. We knew that school segregation persisted into living memory. We knew that the federal government, cities, and business interests collaborated to keep Black residents in inferior housing. 

The other side of our history is also true. The Founders gave us a secular republic informed by the Enlightenment values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, values strengthened by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and by the 19th. And we have always had people strong enough to stand up for those principles and point out how we fall short of them. 

We hold those two views of our history in tension, because there is substance in each of them. Benjamin Franklin said that the Constitution gives us a republic, if we can keep it. As we mark the anniversary of our national independence, one way to keep the Republic is to maintain a clear-eyed view of our history, both the promise and the failures of the promise, like adults. 


* Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised from 1979 presents a thoroughgoing explanation of why history textbooks have always been manipulated for ideological reasons. (And are consequently bland and dull.)

Friday, June 10, 2022

The accidental editor

I did not come readily to my life's work. 

As a student at Fleming County High School in Eastern Kentucky, I thought, being a bookworm good at grammar, about becoming a high school English teacher. That was, after all, where the models were.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I seduced myself into imagining that I could become a writer of fiction. It turned out by my senior year, despite strenuous efforts, that imagination was lacking. 

So, when Syracuse University, which had turned me down for the master's degree program in writing, offered a fellowship in the academic program, I accepted immediately and came to aspire to being a professor of English specializing in eighteenth-century British literature. 

This despite the experience of my first semester, when I enrolled in a graduate seminar and wrote a paper on Jonathan Swift. It was not good. The professor favored me with four single-spaced pages of devastatingly sarcastic commentary on the paper's limitations and mine. A fellow student gasped that he had never seen anything like it. (That professor, denied tenure the same year, left the profession.) 

That experience left me gun-shy about writing academic papers. In fact, over six years in graduate school, there was only a single paper that I enjoyed writing and that a professor said could be made publishable. 

I left Syracuse in 1979, still thinking of finishing a dissertation on the joined themes of friendship and decay in the works of the Earl of Rochester and Jonathan Swift, which the world will now have to do without, and the world is not sad. 

Landing in Cincinnati, where my first wife had gotten a job, I spent five months applying for any opening that seemed even remotely possible, including one on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which offered a three-week trial, partly on the strength of my credentials as a minority hire. (Another story.)

There I found myself at last in my element, with smart and irreverent colleagues doing useful work, always against deadline and often in the face of the scorn of people, as I have described elsewhere, whose lapses in elementary English grammar and usage I cleaned up every working day. Recently on one of those online describe-your-job-obscurely posts, I wrote, "making people look more literate than they are." 

In time, I made my way to The Baltimore Sun, where I learned how to manage people from Andy Faith, and where two editors, John S. Carroll and Bill Marimow, allowed me to hire, train, and mentor the smartest people I could find for the copy desk. It was a grand time with grand colleagues, a long and full career. 

Some people go through their lives never discovering the work they were meant to do. It is largely luck, and I was among the lucky ones. 




Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Ten Reminders

 When you are on social media, remember that your classmates who were dim then are probably not appreciably brighter today. 

Your project will require three times the anticipated effort to achieve one-third of the desired result. 

In six months you will discover that you need the book you just donated to clear your shelves. 

If you did not put at least some vermouth into it, you cannot call it a martini. 

Any article or memo you write can be cut by at least 10%, and should be. 

When someone introduces themself as a member of Mensa, remember that they are the people who believe that IQ tests actually measure intelligence. 

That person rattling on about Judaeo-Christian values almost certainly knows little about Judaism, and may well know less about Christianity. 

They will tell you that it has become perfectly acceptable to wear brown shoes with a blue suit. They are wrong. 

You should stop adding all those commas before you turn into Henry James. 

You should make more productive use of your time than to read Ten Things posts. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Take a breath. The wells of English are not defiled.

 Someone raised a question today at an online grammar site, "Why is correct grammar a lost art?" and damme, I am heading down a well-worn path. 

It is a bad question for two main reasons. First, grammar is not a lost art. Grammatical writing can be found at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and even in many blogs (including [cough] this one). 

Second, it is misguided to speak of "correct" English as if standard English, the form used in schools, government, and the professions were the only one, true English. Standard English is a dialect of English, one very useful if you aspire to academia, government, or the professions, but all the other English dialects possess distinct and genuine vocabularies and syntax. African American and Appalachian English are just as much Englishes as the standard version. (So stop belittling the people who use them, and stop moaning that what Dr. Johnson called "the wells of English undefiled" have been polluted.)

Usually people who bemoan what they imagine to be the passing of grammatical English are harboring an  assumption that there was a golden age when all the children dutifully learned their English and wrote it properly. There was no golden age. I was there. In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, 1961-1965, I learned standard English from two formidable teachers, Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, who kept at us relentlessly. I learned it, and several of my classmates did, but many did not. 

The blunt fact is that most people are not good at writing, and most people never have been. Speech is natural and learned naturally, but writing is a skill that requires extensive instruction and practice. It is not easy to get good at it, so most people don't. Before the internet we could entertain the belief that the skill was widely applied, because most of what we read was edited prose in newspapers, magazines, and books. But the internet, allowing anyone who has an online connection to publish their writing, has exposed how unskilled at writing most people are. Hell, I was a newspaper copy editor, and my daily work for more than forty years was to correct basic errors in grammar and usage in the work of college-educated professional journalists. 

Some in the golden-age crowd like to argue that linguists and permissive teachers dropped instruction in grammar in the 1960s and thereafter, leading to a collapse of literacy. But one reason to move away from the traditional schoolroom grammar instruction is, as I just told you, that it was not particularly effective. Another is that it was full of bogus rules and bad advice. Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, published in 1971, has 250 pages itemizing bad instruction in English. 

Online discussions of this sort inevitably degenerate into peevery, with some preening themselves on their expertise in punctuation and others on their I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed sensitivity to particular words or expressions they dislike. None of this edifies. 

English, people, still ticking along at 700-plus years, is in no imminent danger. Nice of you to offer to help it, but it can take care of itself.  


Sunday, May 1, 2022

You are entitled to ignore bogus usage distinctions

 Earlier today a colleague posted on Facebook about the entitled/titled distinction, that entitled must only be used in the sense of "having a right to," never in the sense of "bearing the title." I remarked that that was not reliable advice and was asked, quite reasonably, why. 

Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern English Usage, is succinct: "The word entitle has two meanings (1) 'to provide with a right or title to something' ... and 'to give a title to.' ... But sense 2 actually predates sense 1, and both senses are well established."

Merriam-Webster's, Webster's New World, and the Concise Oxford give both senses of entitle, as does American Heritage, which, significantly, presents no usage note on this supposed distinction. There is no mention of a title/entitle distinction in four editions of Fowler's (I looked). 

Why, civilians ask, is this even an issue? It is because the Associated Press Stylebook, which has scraped many barnacles off its hull--but there were so many--advises in the entitled entry, "Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled." This advice I followed for many years, until I didn't. 

The title/entitle distinction was also upheld by the late John Bremner, who as the admired (and occasionally feared) Oscar S. Stauffer Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas and the author of Words on Words, had considerable influence on U.S. journalism. 

The origin of "rules" like this one lies in editors' relentless pursuit of precision in language, which tempts them to invent distinctions. The Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, in a notable example, expressed a suggestion that English would be tidier if that were only used to introduce restrictive dependent clauses, which only to introduce nonrestrictive dependent clauses. The British have persisted in ignoring this pious wish for the past century, but among U.S. editors it has become a Rule with a status on par with Newton's Four Laws of Motion. 

My recommendation is that you should have better things to spend time on than title/entitle, but if you must dither over whether a sentence should read "Mark Twain wrote a book titled Huckleberry Finn" or "Mark Twain wrote a book entitled Huckleberry Finn," just make it "Mark Twain wrote a book, Huckleberry Finn." The italics (or quotation marks, if you're still in thrall to the AP Stylebook) will do the job for you.  

Friday, April 29, 2022

Hands off the books

 Books were not plentiful in Elizaville, the tobacco-farming town in Kentucky where I grew up. Most people did not have shelves and shelves of books, and neither did the schools. There was no public library until I was a teenager. 

But there were comic books available at Gene Wood's general store, from which I accumulated Disney and superhero fare. When we visited my sister Georgia, a student at Morehead State, the drugstore there sold copies of Classics Comics for students to use as trots in English classes. I was a regular customer, and thanks to that drugstore I will never have to read Ivanhoe

At home there were some volumes of the Bobbsey Twins series that had belonged to Georgia, and I read them all because I would read anything. Recognizing the insipidity of Nan, Bert, Freddie, and Flossie pointed to a nascent critical faculty. After that it was the Hardy Boys, which my grandmother would buy me as a treat, at a dollar each, on her shopping trips to Maysville. 

One summer the county school system set up an improvised library with some sketchy holdings. Always interested in history, I selected a book of profiles of twentieth-century authoritarian leaders. My mother, thinking it might be too advanced for me, asked the supervising teacher if it was the sort of thing for me, and, to my enduring gratitude, she answered, "If he's interested, let him give it a try."

From that day, no one has ever set limits in what I might read, and I have indulged that freedom fully. 

In time bookmobile service came to Fleming County, and I was allowed to ride along with Ms. Betty Jean Moss as a volunteer assistant. My mother would make pimento cheese sandwiches on salt-rising bread, and we would take off to the towns around the county. Women and children would pour out of these towns and carry off armloads of books. 

Finally the county put up the funds to establish a public library, of which I became a regular patron. Moreover, I spent a year working as a volunteer assistant to the librarian, Ms. Margaret Davis, checking books out, shelving returns, and recommending titles. 

In high school and college, and since, I have read voraciously; history and biography, high literature and low. I was a teenager when I discovered Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe murder mysteries, and in my professional life I discovered that after a long day of working with journalists, nothing gave more pleasure than a comfortable chair, a strong light, a drink at my elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death. 

"Reading maketh a full man," Francis Bacon wrote. Books have been my life, my education, my career, my greatest pleasure, and they have been that because from my youth I was granted the freedom to explore them. 

Today I see reports of efforts to remove titles from educational curricula and public libraries, efforts to restrict students' and adults' access to information about the world around them. There is a blatant and monstrous dishonesty in claiming that freedom to read widely is a kind of indoctrination, and that limiting that freedom is not. It is an attempt to create what Milton in the Areopagitica dismissed as "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexerecised and unbreathed," unequipped to cope with the seriousness of life. 

Milton was right in 1644 to argue that people should have the freedom to read all manner of books and to sort out their merits, and that freedom is right today. Let the children read. Let them discover what quickens their interest, speaks to them, enlarges their understanding of the world they encounter. 

Take the blinders off. 

Friday, April 22, 2022

Copy desks rise, fall

 As a tyro on the copy desk of The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, I entered a scorned subculture. 

At many U.S. newspapers the copy desk functioned like those places of internal exile in the old Soviet Union. It was the place where reporters fetched up after their legs or livers gave out. Newspapers didn't fire people, but shuttled them about until they reached the place where they did the least damage to the operation, and there they stayed. The copy desk was management's last resort. 

It was an article of faith among reporters that were it not for the interference of copy editors, American journalism would see an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. A reporter at The Enquirer once explained to me that the process his work underwent on the desk was "running it through the dull machine." As it happened, I was familiar with his oeuvre, notable mainly for mixed metaphors and non-Euclidean uses of the comma. 

In search of a paper of greater sophistication, I secured a position on the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, where a reporter described the process his work underwent as "running it through the Dullatron." This artist was given to the construction of metaphors so grotesque that he was known on the copy desk as "the Purple-izer."

It was also at The Sun that as head of the copy desk I once reported to a supervisor whose little, oft-repeated joke was to call the copy desk "a necessary evil." 

For the record, when it was not being used as a dumping ground, the copy desk attracted smart, irreverent people for whom gallows humor constituted morale. It offered, as Robert Gottlieb describes in Avid Reader, happiness "as part of a relatively small group of congenial, like-minded people with whom I shared a common goal." We knew what the others thought of us, but there were no secrets from us because we saw what they had written. And we worked to hide their shame from the public.

In the 1990s editors at the American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized that newspaper copy editors were widely neglected and demoralized, and their efforts encouraged the founding in 1997 of the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing), of which I was a charter member. The goal was to increase recognition of our obscure craft and raise standards. 

Within a few years, a handful of major newspapers appointed assistant managing editors to oversee news, features, and sports copy desks, to codify standards, and to recruit, train, and mentor copy editors. For one brief shining moment it worked. 

Then, over the past twenty years, the bottom fell out of the paragraph game, and the sharp-pencil people concluded that the copy desk was evil (read: expensive), but not necessary. 


Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Sun turns on H.L. Mencken

 When on February 18 The Baltimore Sun published an apology for its history of racial prejudice, its editorial board took a swipe at H.L. Mencken, the most distinguished journalist in its 185 years of publication. 

While allowing that Mencken had opposed lynchings in the 1930s, the board chose to focus on the "deep-seated racism and antisemtism" that came to light when his diary was published in 1989 and said that the posting of a quotation from Mencken in the lobby of the paper's Calvert Street offices revealed "a lack of self-awareness and sensitivity."

Perhaps the board was not aware of Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, which recounts Mencken's efforts with the NAACP over four years in the 1930s to oppose lynchings, including his testimony in 1935 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. The last article he published before his stroke called for desegregation of the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. 

It seems also possible that the board was unaware of The Sage in Harlem by Charles Scruggs, which says that "more than any other critic in American letters, black or white, Mencken made it possible for the black writer to be treated as a fellow laborer in the vineyard," including the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. 

And despite dismissal of him as an anti-Semite, one of Mencken's closest friends was Alfred Knopf, his publisher, with whom he traveled to the Bach festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, another a rabbi from Oheb Shalom, and, still more, musicians with whom he played in his Saturday night group, according to a lecture by David S. Thayer delivered in 2015 at the Pratt Library's annual Mencken Day event. 

People working as journalists might recall his fierce opposition to censorship, his ridicule of the Babbittry of the Harding-Coolidge years, or his support of John T. Scopes and Darwinian evolution during the Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. 

But the diary entries are there in public view and cannot be whitewashed. You can say that his wife's death had darkened his view, as his political views as a Grover Cleveland Democrat had gone into eclipse during the New Deal. Understanding that does not wipe away or excuse the ugly stuff. 

Mencken in his youth was much influenced by reading Nietzsche and as an adult he was a thoroughgoing libertarian. I realized this in reading his article on chiropractic, which amused me as a teenager as typical American exaggeration for humorous effect, and which I later came to think he meant seriously. 

At one point in the essay he muses that medical quacks may perform a useful public service, because they "suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal." If you are a Nietzschean believer that some individuals have the strength of mind to construct their own characters and that most people don't, you can befriend similarly exemplary figures while dismissing the groups they come from with contempt. And if you are a thoroughgoing libertarian, you can say complacently that all people make choices and that stupid people who make bad choices get what is coming to them. 

I don't hold those views myself, but understanding them helps me to see why Mencken wrote what he did. That understanding makes it possible to see Mencken in a broader and more complex manner than simply resorting to the labels of "racist" and "anti-Semite" (applied to him by a paper that has been coasting on his reputation for decades). 

Understanding can go beyond retroactive virtue. We need to see that there is something about America in the 1619 Project, and also in the Enlightenment perspective of the founding, that the Founders often owned slaves but also gave us a vision of a better functioning republic. We can see that Franklin Roosevelt is not defined by his signing of the order to intern Japanese Americans. We can see that Lyndon Johnson carried water for Southern segregationists for years before he became the great civil rights president. We can try to see people as a whole. 

We can see Henry Mencken as a man capable of writing vile, bitter things that were not worthy of his best work, work which we can still honor. 

Monday, March 7, 2022

Two warm days, before the cold returns

 Yesterday, on a walk with Kathleen and a neighbor, we passed a house with a yard full of crocuses to which bees were giving their attention. 

Daffodils are visible on the south side of our house, though they have not yet bloomed. 

That morning, standing out a window at five, I saw a mature red fox trot down the sidewalk in front of the house.

On a walk this morning, I saw that the maple tree at the bottom on the hill next to the bridge over Herring Run was preparing to come out in bloom, and the deciduous magnolias on the west side of our house are about to follow suit with the first of their messy droppings. 

Also this morning, the neighborhood was full of robins, which I expect will soon swarm over our holly tree to consume the berries, as they do every year. 

This year I will not be at The Sun's offices at Port Covington to witness the blooming of the locust trees at the back of the property, or smell their fragrance to remind me of my childhood in Kentucky.

The rain is beginning now, and the thunderstorms  and cold front are on the way, but I have had two days to sit on the porch in fair weather to read in a book Daniel Okrent's posts as public editor of The New York Times, raising issues for journalism that remain current, and reading on my cellphone dispatches from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which also tell an old story that has not gone away. 

Spring in the third year of the pandemic will come, though I want it to come faster. I hope that The Sun will husband its strength under its new corporate owner and that The Baltimore Banner will soon launch as a fresh journalistic voice for the city. I hope that Ukraine will survive the brutal battering that is coming and that the West will help preserve it. 

I want to see the robins eat those holly berries and show me that life sustains. 


To correct and serve

 For many years at The Baltimore Sun my hands were the ones through which corrections moved into the paper. 

Errors of fact, either identified internally or through readers' complaints, were written by reporters or editors, approved by the managing editor, and sent to me for final examination before publication. We were scrupulous about this because, despite the nighttime telephone calls denouncing us as a filthy liberal rag, factual accuracy was important. 

And yes, we had errors of fact. Names misspelled, the fundamental error in journalism. Math lapses. (Always calculate the percentage yourself.) I sent through the correction on a features story that informed readers that carbon MONoxide would stop hiccups. (Technically, of course it will, but ...)

There is a widespread superstition among newspaper people that the original error cannot be repeated in the correction--probably an extension of the sound judgment that in apologizing for a libel it is good not to repeat the libel. But after we ran a correction telling no more than that a photo caption the previous day was of the wrong sea turtle, the editor decreed that we must repeat the error when it is necessary to make the correction comprehensible. 

The Sun took collective responsibility for errors rather than name the person responsible, which irritated reporters when an editor had been at fault: "It's my byline on the story, and readers will think I made the error." While I was sympathetic to the complaint, it remains a fact that what is published is a collective work, and reporters don't mind taking credit for stories that have been improved in editing.

(I once saw a story that passed through so many hands in repeated bouts of editing that the version sent to the copy desk for publication may not have contained a single sentence as originally written by the reporter. I was briefly tempted to write after the reporter's byline "as told to The Baltimore Sun." And no, I am not naming names. My entire career was devoted to concealing writers' and editors' shortcomings, and it is too late to start now.) 

From time to time, the paper was moved to publish a clarification rather than a correction. The point of a clarification is that while the published article was factually accurate, it had been written in a way that permitted an inaccurate inference.

Errors of grammar and usage of infelicities of prose were not subject to published corrections. They were instead dealt with in the in-house newsletter that I wrote, Publish and Be Damned.

In the case of this blog, and the one I published for years at baltimoresun.com, I had no copy editor, so crowdsourcing identified my lapses. I always promptly and gratefully accepted corrections. (There was one point late in my tenure at The Sun when I pissed off one of my masters and was instructed to have another editor vet my posts, but the supervision was cursory.) 

The unvarying form of the correction always ended with "The Sun regrets the error." And so did I. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

Corpora Punishment: A Grammar Noir Tale

Part 1: An editor walks into a bar

The day was leaking sunlight all over Baltimore at three o'clock, but that was not doing me any good. I was taking the healing waters in a dark saloon with a group of congenial barflies, discussing the finer points of demurrage and maritime law, when a seedy character crept in, put his hat on the bar, and ordered a beer. 

The tapster set down a brimming beaker, and the seedy character said, "Hey, don't splash it on my fedora."

"It's a trilby," I said. 

"What?"

"Those stingy-brim hats are called trilbies, named for the headgear of the eponymous heroine of George du Maurier's novel. Fedoras, which have wide brims and a center crease, were named for the hat Sarah Bernhardt wore as she played the eponymous heroine of Victorien Sardou's drama." 

"You must be a copy editor. Nobody else knows that kind of stuff. Hey, are you the one that upstart publication lured out of retirement?"

"I own the soft impeachment. What's your game?"

"You're the guy I came to see. They told me you hang out with these tosspots all the time. But, like, it has to be confidential."

"All right," I said. "Let's step into the back room for a minute."

We repaired to an even darker corner. He looked around guardedly and turned a sweaty face to me.

"Spill it," I said.

He whispered, "The peeververein are consolidating."

"Usage cranks? Consolidating"?

"Yeah. Different groups coming together. The Decimate Means 10 Percent crowd and the Kids Are Goats group have formed Etymology Is Destiny. Then they hooked up with the Two Spaces After a Period mob, the Over/More Than element, and the Standard English Is the Only English alliance." 

"And?"

"They're calling their organization Make English Great Again."

"So what? They can't do anything beyond infesting social media and talking among themselves."

"You're wrong, I'm tellin' ya. They've consulted Nevile Gwynne and Jacob Rees-Mogg. They mean business."

"What kind of business?"

He looked around again and bent close to my ear.

"Their goons got Paula Froke."


Part 2: The plot that failed

I gave him a look of disbelief that would credit a managing editor looking over a foreign correspondent's expense report. "What in the name of Henry Watson Fowler do they think they're going to do with the editor of the Associated Press Stylebook?

"They're going to slap her up in a secure facility at the University of Austin and make her revoke all the changes she's made since becoming editor, and then they're going to start dictating new rules to her." 

"Where are they holding her now?"

"They got her in a ballroom at the Hotel Pedantry."

"Drink your Smithwick's. I've got this."

The cabbie who dropped me off at the hotel half an hour later gave a fishy look at my bow tie, but my tip kept his mouth buttoned. 

I entered the lobby and walked up to the muscle standing at the ballroom door.

"No admission," he said. 

"Listen, sunshine," I said, "I used to be an assistant managing editor, and I don't take any guff from reptiles like you."

He went pale and swung the door open.

I walked up to some dimwit standing in front of a MEGA banner and gassing on about the split-verb rule, and took the microphone from him.

"Listen, you mugs," I told the crowd, "this little escapade is as pointless as reverse body type. Writers don't pay any attention to the AP Stylebook. They've never opened one. The only people who care about the stylebook are the copy editors, and the copy editor has been snuffed out like the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and the moderate Republican."

They gasped. 

"Now scram, the lot of you. I've got an autographed copy of Dreyer's English, and I'm not afraid to use it."

They scuttled away like an op-ed columnist who's seen a fact checker.

As I untied the ropes holding Froke in a chair she opened her mouth to begin thanking me, but I said, "Skip it, sister. There's still enough afternoon left to take the healing waters. Come along and I'll buy you a drink."

She likes Manhattans. 

The End


Thursday, March 3, 2022

I have to say it again: English ain't algebra

 Yesterday brought a Twitterspat in which I engaged, probably unwisely, with a woman who commented that logic governs English grammar and punctuation. 

This misconception rises because people become literate and are taught English grammar and stylebook conventions of punctuation, but are never taught the language, that is, the principles of language that linguists have discerned. (Neither was I taught linguistics in school or college, and I've had a great deal of catching up to do.)

Take punctuation. It doesn't require deep thought to see that its conventions are arbitrary. In American English, we put commas and periods inside quotation marks; British English does the opposite. I have seen people indulge in online disputes over which convention is more logical, but you can argue one side and then argue the other side until the cows come home. 

Punctuation is more fashion than logic, as you can see in Making a Point, David Crystal's history of English punctuation, or Keith Houston's Shady Characters The Secret Life of Punctuation Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. (Crystal here.)

As to grammar, we know many principles on which it operates, but they too are arbitrary, often accidents of cultural development. Old English collided with Norman French after A.D. 1066, and the Middle English that developed shed most of the inflections of Old English and the gendered nouns of the French. Other languages, though, maintain inflections and gendered nouns; are they more or less logical than English?

We know that the fundamental syntactical pattern in English is subject-verb-object. That isn't necessarily the case elsewhere. We know the order of adjectives, the deep grammar that enables us to talk about the little gray stone church and to see that the stone gray little church isn't right. They are principles, but logic has nothing to do with them. And neither does it seem logical that English should harbor a clutch of words called contranyms, like sanction, which bear opposite meanings. 

Places where reliable information about English grammar can be found are Don't Believe a Word by David Shariatmadari and The Joy of Syntax by June Casagrande. (Shariatmadari here; Casagrande here.) Then you will see that logic is useful for argument but irrelevant for grammar. 

The person in the Twitterspat was a lawyer who took it ill when I mentioned Samuel Johnson's observation that we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction. I think I deserve some credit for not quoting what Dr. Johnson said about lawyers. 


Saturday, February 19, 2022

Don't be an eejit on March 17

 Patrick Abdalla reminded me on Facebook this morning that March is nearly upon us, time to counter the ignorance that besmirches St. Patrick's Day. 

For ONE MORE TIME, the familiar term for the saint's day is St. Paddy's Day, not St. Patty's Day. St.Patty's Day is no more than you would expect from ersatz Irish who drink watery American beer dyed green. 

Paddy is the diminutive form of Padraic, the Irish form of the name Patrick. Patty is the diminutive form of Patricia. Do try to grasp that. 

Paddy is also a generic term for an Irishman. It survives in the ethnic slur paddy wagon, for police patrol wagon, which arose from nineteenth-century prejudice assuming that the Irish get drunk and violent every payday. 

I assume that on Twitter @paddynotpatty is prepared to swing into action. 

Do not tolerate the prevalence of ignorance. 

And treat yourself to a reviving pint of Guinness or Smithwick's. Slainte. 

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A brief announcement

 I have contracted to provide editing services to The Baltimore Banner, the pending online local news site of The Venetoulis Institute for Local Journalism. 

Monday, February 7, 2022

Not rusting out

 Since retiring in June I have been attending to household chores, cooking chicken for the cat, and reading books by the dozen. But the itch to edit is not easily ignored. 

So I spoke to a dozen and a half members of a public relations firm in Columbus, Ohio, during a Zoom luncheon session on grammar and usage, talked with one of Professor Rick Brunson's journalism classes at the University of Central Florida (again online), and spent an hour or so on Zoom to discuss self-editing and changes in English usage with the news staff of the Christian Science Monitor

As I have mentioned previously, I worked as a copy editor on several articles in the Printing Hate series by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park. Apparently satisfied with the work, the Howard Center has engaged me as a copy editor for an additional project. 

Some talks or work I do for love, but, like you, I would usually prefer money. If you think that hearing from a not-yet-extinct veteran editor would benefit your class/office/agency/group, or that you have a text or texts that could stand some close attention, don't be too shy to inquire. I can be reached at jemcintyre@gmail.com or at 410-963-2931. 

Monday, January 31, 2022

Call the pressroom

 You've seen it. A reporter dashes in to a busy newsroom with a hot scoop, and a crusty old editor picks up a phone, usually a candlestick, and barks into it, "Stop the presses!"

I've had occasion, often on a night when the Orioles were in extra innings, to call the pressroom about slowing or pausing the run to get the game score into a few thousand copies. (Really, nighttime baseball is unnatural.) But in forty years in the paragraph game I've only heard "Stop the presses" twice. 

The first occasion was the Saturday evening when Princess Diana and her boyfriend went for a drive. I was at the desk, and the Sunday edition of The Sun was falling nicely into place when a bulletin came over the wire services that Princess Diana had been in an automobile accident. My reaction was that of any seasoned journalist: "Shit!" I said. "We'll have to get something in about that."

The phone rang. Bill Glauber, then The Sun's London correspondent, was on vacation--in Paris. It was a serious accident, he said, and he would file. So we carved out some space on the front page for a story about Princess Diana having been seriously injured, and typeset the page for the first edition. 

The phone rang again. Glauber said we should be ready. "I think she's dead. They're not talking about her the way they would if she were alive or expected to live." 

We had just typeset the front page for the second edition when a bulletin came over the wires: Princess Diana dead. "Shit!" I remarked. And the news editor called the pressroom and said, "Stop the presses. We're tearing up Page One."

Forty minutes later, an eternity in press time, we typeset a front page with Princess Diana's death as the lead story, written by our correspondent on the scene. And in Anne Arundel and Howard counties, where we were then in competition with The Washington Post, the deadlines for The Post's Arundel and Howard editions were earlier than ours, and we beat them on the story on those jurisdictions. Sweet.

The second occasion was three o'clock in the morning after the 2000 presidential election. Half the lights in the newsroom had gone off automatically. We were holding Page One and one inside page for the election story. Finally a service called the election, and we typeset a front page with a BUSH WINS headline. 

The telephone rang. It was Paul West, from The Sun's Washington bureau. "They're still counting," he said. 

The news editor picked up the phone: "Stop the presses." We sent through a TOO CLOSE TO CALL headline and instructed the pressroom to junk any copies that had been run off with the previous headline, and also to destroy the plates immediately. We didn't want to be tagged with a DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN embarrassment. 

Last night The Sun's plant at Port Covington published the paper for the last time. The Sun has been printed continuously in Baltimore since 1837, apart from a brief interval after the Great Fire of 1904 destroyed the newspaper building, and tonight begins production of print editions at Gannett's plant in Wilmington, Delaware. 

The presses have been stopped. 


Saturday, January 29, 2022

Knowing your ass from a hole in the wall

Tweeted and posted yesterday: Let me just say that a breach is where you have broken through the wall and a breech is where your ass is. You may be interested in more of the why and the wherefore. 

Breach encompasses a sense of breaking. The noun can mean a broken condition,  a break in a wall from battering ("Once more unto the breach" in Henry V), a violation of a law, or a break in previously friendly relations. The verb means to break or violate. 

Breech originally meant short pants covering the hips and thighs, often as breeches or britches, later broadening the encompass pants in general. Breech also means buttocks, the part of the body covered by the breeches, the place at which the body forks into the legs. In childbirth, a breech delivery is one in which the fetus emerges buttocks/feet first instead of head first. In firearms, the breech is the part at the rear of the barrel, and a breech loader is a firearm in which the ammunition is inserted at the breech. A breeches buoy is a suspended canvas seat for transfer or rescue in water. 

Broach, like breach, is associated with breaking. It can be an instrument for piecing, a spit, or a tool for tapping a cask. The verb means to break open, such as literally to open a cask of beer or figuratively to open a subject for discussion. 

Broach, confusingly, since English is not necessarily an orderly language, is an alternative spelling for brooch, an ornament fastened by a pin or clasp. 

It's your language, and it's your responsibility to make sure that what you say or write is what you mean. 

Friday, January 28, 2022

When education is not one of your community values

 The McMinn County School Board, which removed the Holocaust graphic novel Maus from its schools, evidently employs someone able to write a sentence. This is its formal statement on the action:

"One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves.  The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.  Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools." Yadda, yadda, yadda. 

I vote to acquit the ten members of the school board who banned the book from charges of anti-Semitism. I believe that they were reflecting the values of their community, especially when one member was offended by the use of the word damn and another was aghast at a cartoon drawing of a nekkid figure. 

One frequently sees, after all, obsession with minor community mores over actual education. The high school in Fleming County, Kentucky, from which I graduated in 1969, had an obsession with the length of boys' hair, to the extent that at one point the principal was under pressure to line up the male students in the hallway each day for haircut inspection. One sees it as well in dress codes that dictate how much of a girl's body may be permissibly exposed to the light. 

McMinn County, Tennessee, (whose county seat, in a cruel irony, is Athens) is not far from Dayton, where a century ago John T. Scopes was tried and convicted of the crime of teaching Darwinian evolution. I have not the heart to inquire whether McMinn's biology classes are allowed to contravene Genesis. 

The McMinn board members have been held up to widespread ridicule and condemnation in social media, and doubtless they feel ill-used. This is the only advice I can offer them: If you don't want the world to think of you as a bunch of rubes, try not to act like a bunch of rubes. 


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

It's over

 A recent online discussion of English usage turned into a tussle concerning the use of over in the sense of more than, a molehill on which some are prepared to die. 

For those of you not in the know, it has been a widespread belief among U.S. journalists that over can only be properly used to indicate a spatial relationship, that to use it to mean more than in the sense of quantities is illogical, illegitimate, and illiterate.

There was a great cry of anguished souls at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society when the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that the over/more than distinction had been dropped. (Since Paula Froke became one of the editors of the stylebook she has busied herself lightening the ship by heaving broken furniture over the side.)

I attended that conference and spoke with three lexicographers, two from Merriam-Webster and one from the American Heritage Dictionary, who were floored to learn of a distinction of usage of which they were completely unaware. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and the other standard dictionaries list more than as one meaning of over

This meaningless distinction was apparently an invention of nineteenth-century journalists given to unexplained diktats. The instruction not to use over for more than appears in William Cullen Bryant's "Index Expurgatorius" of 1877, the "Don't List" compiled by James Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald, and in Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. From there it passed into the lore of newspaper editors and then the conventions of journalism schools. 

Here's what Theodore Bernstein of The New York Times wrote about this supposed rule in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971): Bierce "gave no reason for the objection and it is difficult to see how there could be any. Since the days of late Middle English the meaning in excess of has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write 'above $150.' " 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes that "over in the sense of more than has been used in English since the 14th century." Bryan Garner says in Garner's Modern English Usage that "the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet." And Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage indulges in a moment of British hauteur to note "a strong tradition in American newspapers and in some American usage guides of absolute, unconditional, almost maniacal hostility to the use of over with a following numeral to mean 'in excess of, more than.' " He advises "editors and writers of other varieties of English to be aware that the anxiety continues (and to judge by some editorial forums, can almost induce nausea or hyperventilation)." 

If you have routinely changed over (quantity) to more than, as I slavishly did for much of my forty years as a working editor, it it NOT YOUR FAULT that you were badly instructed. It is your fault, however, if you continue to do so after being informed that it is a waste of time and invisible to any reader who is not a journalist. 

Go and sin no more.  


Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In the beginning

I growled today at spotting "new initiatives" in an article. (Growling in the morning while reading the news exerts the lungs and increases blood flow to the brain, both beneficial effects, especially when combined with strong coffee.) 

An initiative is a first step, a beginning. Its sibs from the Latin initiare include initial and initiate, both of which indicate beginnings. If you are taking a first step in a series of actions, you are by definition doing something new, and thus new initiative is redundant. 

Granted, if you are contrasting a new measure with some previous effort, it would be entirely proper to use new initiative, but only to contrast with the earlier one. 

I have grudgingly abandoned a losing campaign against the irritating pleonasm safe haven, but damme if I will accede to new initiative

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A far, far better thing

 The next time the Associated Press Stylebook looks to clean the cobwebs in the attic, the editors might want to take another look at farther/further

The current entry, of long standing, restricts farther to physical distance, further to "extension of time or degree." This is one manifestation of editors' inevitable impulse to tidy up the language with minute distinctions invisible to most readers, or "dog whistle editing." 

Further and farther have been interchangeable for most of the history of English, as the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, the Oxford English DictionaryMerriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other authorities have acknowledged. 

And thus have the people spoken. If you look up further in the current Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, you will see one of its core meanings listed as farther. 

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note for farther, affirming the physical distance/abstract relations distinction. Significantly, the 74 percent of the Usage Panel's endorsement in 1987 had declined to 64 percent in 2009. Since the dictionary discontinued the Usage Panel in 2018, we are unable to see how much further erosion may have taken place. But Garner's Modern English Usage of 2016, while identifying the farther/further distinction as "punctilious usage," concedes in his Language-Change Index that further for physical distance is Ubiquitous but."

For the record, I dutifully enforced farther/further over four decades as a copy editor, though having done so does not leave me with a glow of professional pride. Time could have been spent on more significant matters. 

So AP Stylebook, how about chucking this one into the dustbin?