Sunday, December 31, 2023

A chronicle of time wasted

Despite having vigorously defended the work of copy editors for decades, I concede that not all that we were called upon to perform had the best effect. Here's a recollection. 

When I began work at The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the grandees who ran the paper liked to ape The New York Times. One consequence is that The Sun, like The Times, used courtesy titles on second and subsequent reference to everyone except the long dead and notorious criminals.*

The staff understood the house style and generally followed it in local copy. But the copy desk was obliged to supply courtesy titles in wire service copy. That meant that copy editors working on national, foreign, and business copy had to supply Mr., Mrs., Miss, Mrs., military rank, ecclesiastical titles, and the like in every Associated Press and Reuters story that came over the desk. It was busywork that may well have gone unnoticed by most readers, but it was our house style, a mark of our sober dignity. 

In the 1990s there was a short-lived vogue for consulting actual employees about how the work might be better carried out, and I heard that in the pressroom a number of suggestions came up that improved efficiency and productivity. Even the copy editors were included in this START (Sun Teams Achieving Results Together) program. 

Among the proposals the copy editors produced: Eliminate all courtesy titles, except in direct quotations and in obituaries. With a Jove-like nod, John S. Carroll, the editor, said, "Yes." And thus Sun house style remains, in secula seculorum

The Sun eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and there is no longer busywork of that kind, or work at all. 


*I digress: Determining eligibility for those two categories was a point of nearly endless discussion on the desk. 

Saturday, November 25, 2023

You can still make corn pudding for Christmas

On Thanksgiving I posted that Kathleen had made my mother's corn pudding as one of the side dishes at dinner, and a couple of people asked for the recipe. Here it is. 

Marian Early McIntyre's corn pudding

Ingredients

3 cups corn

4 eggs

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt 

Instructions

Mix corn with flour, salt, sugar, and butter. 

Add well-beaten eggs and milk.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, stirring three times while baking. 

Friday, November 17, 2023

Let unlearning be unconfined

 A couple of weeks ago I posted "Give up the ship," in which I argued to abandon, or at least consider abandoning, a handful of long-established usage rules. One reader commented, "My teaching career has been in vain."

Well, mine too. There are points of usage that I taught during a quarter-century at Loyola University Maryland before I came to understand that they were invalid or dangerously dated.* Several of them had been in the Associated Press Stylebook since Joseph Pulitzer was in short pants, which I also enforced on the copy desk until I learned better and nagged the stylebook editors relentlessly to eliminate them. 

When we read about some fresh development in biology or physics, we don't fume and resist and insist that what we were taught in sophomore year of high school is true and eternally valid. We expect that we are going to learn new things, and in the course of learning those new things discovering things we previously learned have to be abandoned. It has been during my lifetime, for example, that the theory of continental drift has become established science after a long period of being ridiculed.

But with language, with grammar and usage, there is stubborn resistance to learning new things and abandoning old ones. (Does gender-neutral third-person singular they spring to mind?) I suspect I know why.

I was, after all, an English major in college, and my mastery of what I had been taught was proper English was not only central to my academic career but also to my identity. As I have remarked elsewhere, without high birth, wealth, and physical beauty, mastery of English grammar was all I had going for me. So sticklers, who insist on precision in English usage even when they are misguided, do so because it is a prop to their identity, a means of differentiating themselves from Those People.**

We can talk about the structure of grammar and examine historic patterns of usage, but language is social and therefore messy. The way we talk and write is how we present ourselves to other people and expect to be perceived by them, just as we make judgments about them on the basis of how they speak and write. Language is as good a means as any to draw a sharp line between ourselves and whoever we label as Those People. 

Working as an editor, trying to make texts clear and appropriate for various audiences, I find it wholesome not to make a fetish of grammar and usage. You can see from this post and others that I deal in the register of standard formal English and that dropping shibboleths over the side does not mean that Anything Goes. After more than forty years as a professional editor, I am still learning and putting that learning to use. 


* I was receptive to the idea early on, having read Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins in graduate school. It was one of the inspirations for [cough] my own Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing.

** We see the same phenomenon with history, which people also internalize as part of their identity. I was still in high school when I knew, because of wide reading, that the patriotic sanitized history in our textbooks was pap, that what actually happened was far more complicated and often darker. The people who think that Confederate statues are history rather than propaganda, for example, have identifiable reasons for wanting to believe that.  



Monday, November 13, 2023

Where things go

That monosyllable go turns out to contribute to highly expressive phrases. 

It can mean to cooperate, as when one goes along or goes with the flow. That is, to use another idiom, to follow the herd. To go in with is the agree to share expenses. To champion a person or cause is to go to bat for

Or it can mean the mere appearance of cooperation, as when one goes through the motions, makes a pretense of doing something. 

It can mean success, as in to go great guns or go one better. Of course, there is always a risk that success may go to one's head

It can mean to oppose, to go after someone, or to go out, go on strike. 

All-out efforts can be indicated by go to the matgo for broke, or go to town. But if you don't want someone to make such an all-out effort, you can go easy on them. 

Some in the U.S. dislike the British go missing, but it is helpful neutral term when someone is not where they are expected to be, covering the range from merely wandering away to kidnapping. 

Bad behavior has a wealth of expressions. To go ape is to lose self-control. To go ballistic is to fly into a rage. To go round the bend, go off the rails, or go to pieces is to behave abnormally. To go off the deep end is to get unnecessarily angry. When bad behavior annoys, the party responsible can be dismissed by being told to go fly a kite.

Of course it gets into sex, to go steadygo all the way, go to bed with, and go down on

Things often go bad. To go belly up is to become bankrupt. When things do not proceed according to plan they can go southgo sideways, or go pear-shaped. (This last, a British idiom, is thought to have arisen from the difficulties airplane pilots can encounter in doing loops.) 

And to go west, where the sun sets, is to die.  

Monday, November 6, 2023

Baltimore: The Greatest City in America

 In 1986, when we moved to Baltimore so that I could begin work on The Sun's copy desk, we rented an apartment in Towson while we looked for a house in the city. 

A couple in a nearby apartment had a daughter the same age as our twins, and the children played together and swam in the pool. In conversation with the parents we discovered that though they had lived in Towson for several years, they had never set foot inside Baltimore's city limits. 

Their daughter had never been to the National Aquarium, the Science Center, the Maryland Zoo. Or the Baltimore Museum of Art or the Walters Art Museum. Had never strolled around the Inner Harbor or seen the Constellation. Her parents were content with the turn-ons of Towson (which was not in 1986 the cosmopolitan happening place it has become today).*

In that they resemble many people in the counties surrounding Baltimore who decline to come into the city or, if they happen to work in the city, prefer to drive in at 40 mph or more and exit at the same speed at the earliest possible moment. They regularly write letters to The Sun to inform us that we in the city are living in a cesspit. 

That is not to say that the bleak picture of a crime-ridden decaying city that Sinclair's Fox 45 television station exerts itself to broadcast to the surrounding area can be wished away. 

Too many people, especially impetuous young men, carry guns and use them. Some years ago the driver of an unlicensed cab was fatally shot across the street from my house at 9 p.m. That was when I discovered that one task for the Fire Department is to show up the next day and hose the blood and brain matter from the pavement. 

There is no denying the consequences of living in a one-party city with too many Democratic hacks in government. Two mayors have left office amid charges of corruption. We spend more than $600 million a year on a police department that seems unable to reduce homicides or even manage traffic enforcement, and for which we have spent an additional $22 million in settlements to the victims of the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. Our Department of PublicWorks can't manage water billing or operate the sewage treatment plants. 

We have schools that have to send children home on days that are intolerably hot or intolerably cold. 

A third of city residents do not own an automobile, and public transit is laughable. 

So you may be wondering why I am still in the modest house my wife and I bought nearly thirty-six years ago, or why I call Baltimore The Greatest City in America.**

Our house is in a racially mixed neighborhood in the northeastern quadrant of the city, and we like our neighbors. There's a creek nearby that I pass on my daily walks, occasionally seeing a heron take flight or a hawk circle overhead. 

Despite the city's reputation for danger, for more than thirty years I drove through the city after work at the newspaper at midnight, one o'clock, or three o'clock in the morning, without incident. 

There's a very nice bookstore in the neighborhood, one of several in the city. (You see that, Towson?) There's also a very nice Italian restaurant specializing in the cuisine of Abruzzo; my wife and I had a leisurely lunch there with a friend yesterday. The Enoch Pratt Free Library has a branch here and is diligent about providing books I request. 

We have a group of friends who meet at a bar near Belvedere Square at three o'clock in the afternoon several days a week for beer and badinage. 

My parish, Memorial Episcopal Church, has a progressive history: rejecting its segregationist past, hiring the first woman priest in the diocese and the first openly gay male priest, working to form alliances with the surrounding Black neighborhoods.***

We've been to the museums, the symphony, the zoo, the opera, and the Inner Harbor. We've visited the one-of-a-kind Visionary Arts Museum and drunk in the view of the city from the summit of Federal Hill. 

And yet, when I say any of this online, some jabroni in the county tells me that I'm living in a shithole and am a hopeless liberal who can't listen to reason (as if some feckless echo of Donald Trump constituted the voice of reason). Let me tell you, I have seen what some call the lovely suburban life, York Road from Towson to Cockeysville, Ritchie Highway from Annapolis to Baltimore, and I'm having none of it.

My wife and I have had a happy life here for three decades, and now that we are retired we feel no impulse to leave what for us has been The Greatest City in America for anywhere else. 


*I joke. Towson, a county seat of 5,000 people adjacent to a state university with more than 20,000 students, cannot support a bookstore.

**"Baltimore: The Greatest City In America" is the slogan then-Mayor Martin O'Malley affixed to benches around the city, a morale booster for a battered urban populace. It got some attention recently when a resident used it on an an NPR radio show

***And indulging me in smoking up the joint with incense a couple of times a year. 


Thursday, November 2, 2023

Don't dispute refute

I grumped this morning about that article that used refuted in a context plainly indicating that the sense was "disputed" or "rebutted," and someone reminded me that those senses of refute have become widespread enough to be included in dictionaries. 

One colleague, alluding to yesterday's post, said, "You can’t blog about how 'literally' is a perfectly acceptable substitute for 'figuratively' and then split this hair."

I answered: Watch me. 

Are you watching?

The non-literal use of literally is not some linguistic innovation for which we can blame Millennials. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that what it calls the "hyperbolic use" of the word was common in the nineteenth century and can even be traced to Pope. A use so well-attested for so long hardly seems worth fuming and fretting over today. 

Had I been editing that article that ran this morning, I would have changed refuted to either disputed or rebutted, as has been my practice. Since the earlier sense of refute, "to disprove conclusively," survives though blurred, I prefer to retain it for contexts that plainly indicate that sense. 

An example: Sixty court cases have refuted Donald Trump's assertion that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. 

As far as I am concerned, the hair has been split. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Give up the ship

 During more than forty years as a copy editor, part of my job was to make copy clean and correct. Another part of the job was to determine when things previously thought correct no longer applied. 

I give you the example of the over/more than distinction drummed into journalists, that over may only be used to indicate spatial relationships, a rule so willfully ignorant of standard English usage that even the Associated Press Stylebook finally abandoned it. There are more. 

You may have held bravely to the distinction that literally cannot mean figuratively; that an enormity is a great evil, not a Really Big Thing; that a dilemma involves a choice between two unpleasant options, rather than a mere perplexity. It falls to me to tell you that those ships have sailed; they are not even visible on the horizon. 

No doubt you understand that podium derives from the Greek word for foot and thus indicates an object one stands on, not behind. The thing one stands behind to read from a book or other text is a lectern, from the Latin word for reading. That thing the clerk stands behind at the airport gate is a desk, but so many hundreds of thousands of travelers have now been summoned to the podium that the original sense has been rubbed away. The Greek etymology is instructive, but not definitive. 

I once made a spirited argument that one could distinguish between convince and persuade, the former being a stronger term, because people can be persuaded to do things even when they are not convinced it is right to do so. I long ago gave up on it, and assume you have too. 

Probably you know that to beg the question is to make a logical fallacy, to assume the validity of what you are purportedly trying to prove, not to prompt or pose a question. And if you are writing for The New York Review of Books, more power to you. If you are writing for nearly anyone else, your accusation of question begging is apt to produce furrowed brows. 

Well-brought-up writers and editors know that comprise means to contain, to encompass. The whole comprises the parts, which compose the whole. Well-brought-up writers and editors were taught to shudder at is comprised of, and Bryan A. Garner cites the heroic labors of Bryan Henderson, who single-handedly changed 18,000 Wikipedia instances of  is comprised of to is composed of. The example of Canute comes to mind. 

I learned as a lad that the due in due to must be an adjective following a linking verb. "The error was due to ignorance of standard usage." See: due is the predicate adjective, and to is just a preposition. But to write due to ignorance of standard usage would make due to a PREPOSITION and scare the horses in the streets. If you escaped that particular lesson, count yourself lucky. 

Perhaps in a subsequent post I may mention traditional distinctions of usage that still matter. 


Friday, September 22, 2023

The printed word

 I have been a subscriber to The Baltimore Sun, a seven-day-a-week print subscriber, for thirty-seven years, since I began working on its copy desk, and I have begun to wonder what the point is. 

Since The Sun publishes online first, I have already seen its stories the day before, sometimes several days before, they appear in the print edition. And I will also have seen the Associated Press and New York Times articles The Sun picks up as well. So I am essentially paying for a print newspaper to read the "Ask Amy" column and the comic strips. (Yes, they're in the online edition as well, but there is something just wrong about reading a comic strip on an iPad.)

Beyond that, the quality of the print edition, since Alden Global Capital shut down The Sun's printing plant and transferred print production to the Gannett organ in Wilmington, Delaware, has been abysmal. Light inking is the least of the problems. 

The cost, however, has been rising. I believe it was Al Neuharth of Gannett who experienced the illumination that a decline in advertising revenue could be offset by jacking up the circulation prices, since newspaper readers were dependent on their habit. Unfortunately, neither Neuharth nor the other corporate illuminati ever figured out a way to attract new readers, and my generation with the newspaper habit is steadily proceeding to a location to which the circulation department cannot deliver. 

Dammit, I want my morning ritual, in my chair with a cup of strong coffee and my newspaper. The main pleasure that has survived is the grumbling. Tribune eliminated copy editing even before the company was acquired by Alden Global, and the daily procession of subject-verb disagreements, misplaced modifiers, and other offenses against English usage does not pass unremarked on at these premises. There is also a grim satisfaction in noticing when the online text has been incorporated intact without altering references, a clear indication of the lack of an editor's eye on the page. Carp, carp, carp, that's the life. 

I could call circulation to cancel print, converting the savings to bourbon money. But I might just ride it out until one of the sharp-pencil people at Alden Global determines that the cost of print production, even with Gannett, is greater than the mingy returns from print advertising and subscriptions, turning my seven-day-a-week newspaper into a three-day-a-week newspaper, or simply online only. 

In forty years at newspapers I only twice heard an editor call the pressroom to say, "Stop the presses." I think it will be a good deal less than forty until all of them are stopped. 


Wednesday, September 13, 2023

What he said

 Journalists, ever citing people's speech and documents, are rightfully fond of the word said. It is plain, straightforward, unobtrusive. It gets the job done without resort to the thesaurus and pretension. 

But journalists are unaccountably unwilling to invert subject and verb in these citations. Perhaps they feel the construction arch and dated, something one would find in Gilbert and Sullivan, as one indeed can in one of my favorite passages in Trial by Jury, the judge's recommendation of his daughter in marriage: "You'll soon get used to her looks," said he, / "And a very nice girl you'll find her! / She may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with the light behind her!"

But this aversion can lead to strained and awkward constructions, of a kind I see daily. Here's a synthetic example (so as not to embarrass anyone publicly): "Said suffices," John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun, said. 

You see the problem. The delay between the subject and the verb creates a suspensive effect, dropping you at the end of the sentence at the prosaic and anticlimactic said. Much better to render it said John McIntyre, a retired editor of The Baltimore Sun. 

That keeps the subject and verb nestled close together, where they are happy, while also maintaining the connection between the noun and the appositive phrase.  

Go, and sin no more. 


 

Sunday, September 3, 2023

On-the-job learning

 I have allowed a significant date to pass unremarked. On August 17, fifty years ago, I worked my last day at the Flemingsburg Gazette before leaving for graduate school at Syracuse.

Lowell and Jean Denton, the proprietors, had hired me in the summer of 1968, after my junior year in high school, to allow Jean to take the summer off. The six years I worked at the Gazette, a weekly in Fleming County, Kentucky, with about 3,000 circulation, were a practical education, an apprenticeship, in newspaper journalism. 

I attended meetings of the fiscal court (the county council in Kentucky) and interviewed the superintendent of schools about plans for the coming school year. I profiled local worthies. I covered the beautiful baby competition at the Ewing Fair. (I did not determine whether it was accident or design that Mr. Pierce Million, who rented the public address system for the occasion, played a recording of "Born to Lose" as the mothers and babies crossed to the infield.) I Englished the social notes from the outlying communities. I did copy editing and proofreading. I took classified ads over the telephone. On Wednesdays I drove the pasted-up pages to the newspaper in Cynthiana that printed us, drove the printed copies back, helped with the Addressograph, bundled copies for mailing, and delivered the bundles to the post office. On Fridays I swept out the office and dusted the counters. Photography and page makeup were pretty much the only things I didn't do. 

I was reporter, columnist, copy editor, proofreader, clerk, and dogsbody. 

It was grand. Lowell and Jean were generous and indulgent in allowing me to make mistakes and recover from them, and the income from the job was a welcome help with my college expenses. Lowell was the practical partner in the enterprise; he did all the photography and dealt with all the advertisers. Jean was the literary partner, particularly fond of the work of Joan Didion. I was once assigned to profile a worthy and "lay it on thick." I attempted that, and Jean looked at it, told me, "We don't publish satire," and rewrote it herself. 

And I owe them my life's career. When, after abandoning the Ph.D. program in English at Syracuse, I approached The Cincinnati Enquirer for a post on the copy desk, the Flemingsburg Gazette was my only significant journalistic credential. (As an undergraduate and graduate student, I [cough] never took any classes in journalism.)

Lowell and Jean are gone, and I honor their memory, grateful that they were willing to take me, a skinny kid, a bookworm, into their business and allow me to learn it. Yes, I spent six summers at the Gazette, and they became the prelude to forty years in newspaper journalism. 

Sunday, August 27, 2023

We used to read the stuff before publication

When I retired two years ago from The Baltimore Sun after more than three decades of service as an editor, I swore a mighty oath that I would not become one of those former Sun employees who splutter that the place went straight to hell once they left. 

But damme, there's a limit. 

A Sun reporter filed a story that began, "Nearly 60 years ago, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared he had a dream. ..." It was published online two days ago. 

It appeared this morning on Page One of The Sun, above the fold, with the identical opening sentence, the day AFTER the 60th anniversary. Paired with the story was a refer to the wire service story inside on commemoration of the anniversary. 

So it seems that the print edition has become of so little consequence that there is no editor on hand paying sufficient attention to protect a reporter from looking like a fool. 

This is precisely the sort of thing that used to be caught before publication on the copy desk, when newspapers still had copy desks. 

COUGH:

A fellow copy editor reminds me that tomorrow, Aug. 28, is the 60th anniversary of the King speech. as we see, I do not have an editor to keep me from looking like a fool. 


Thursday, July 13, 2023

Shootings first, questions after

 The recent violence at the Brooklyn Homes housing project in Baltimore, in which two people were fatally shot and 28 wounded, is being commonly described as a "mass shooting." That is a slippery term. 

The Associated Press Stylebook says that there is no firm consensus on what constitutes a mass shooting: "Definitions vary. A database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University defines mass killings as four or more dead, not including the shooter."

When The Sun described the Brooklyn Homes shootings as perhaps the greatest mass shooting in Baltimore history, I wondered whether the Pratt Street riot of 1861 should be included. When the local mob attacked the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry as the troops were marching between two train stations, the casualties included eight rioters, three soldiers, and a bystander killed, with scores of soldiers and civilians wounded. 

But no, the term mass shooting is a 20th-century U.S. coinage. Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas in Austin in August 1966, fatally shot 15 people and wounded 31 others before being killed by police officers, setting the pattern for mass shootings: A gunman (mass shooters are typically male), for motives that may be unknown and unknowable, begins firing in public, at specific individuals or at random, with multiple fatalities and woundings, at a single event. 

That pattern fits the shootings in 2017 in Las Vegas, in which Stephen Paddock, firing from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, killed 60 people and wounded more than 400 before he killed himself. 

But groups of people die in shootings in other contexts. We don't necessarily call it a mass shooting when gunfire breaks out in public between gang members, when people are killed in an armed robbery, or when an entire family dies in a murder-suicide. 

Do the Brooklyn Homes shootings qualify as a mass shooting? There appear to have been two or more shooters, and their motives are unknown. If the violence turns out to have been gang-related, will we still call it a mass shooting? Or if it started as a domestic dispute? Are two deaths rather than four or more enough to qualify?

It would be tidy if we could define the term as a single shooter, at a public event, with four or more fatalities. But the proliferation of firearms in this country and the increasing propensity to use them on impulse make it difficult to characterize these events neatly. And the tendency to lump so many multiple shootings under the category "mass shooting" can blur what is distinctive about each case. 

I don't think that it is a very useful term. 


Monday, July 10, 2023

Yeah, you're not alone

You are writing a story about someone, let's call them X, who has a problem. X has a medical condition and cannot find or afford treatment; X is looking for housing and is unable to afford current rents; X is living in a neighborhood where police presence is sporadic and ineffective, and is afraid to leave the house. 

By the most remarkable coincidence, X exemplifies the larger issues in the story you are actually writing, so after three or four paragraphs about X, you drop them, perhaps to return for brief mention later in the article, and write the nut graph that explains the issue that your article is really about. 

But first you must write the essential transition: X is not alone. 

The thing is that this device, known as the "anecdotal lede" in the paragraph game, has become so familiar to readers over the past quarter-century or so that no transition is really necessary. The reader grasps what the game is. That means that the "X is not alone" transition is something more than a gimmick; it has become a cliche. 

When I was an editor at The Baltimore Sun and an "X is not alone" transition came across the desk, I immediately deleted it, to no harm to the structure of the article and no obstacle to the reader's understanding. We actually disparaged it in the house style guide, to which reporters paid fitful attention. 

But the "monkey-see, monkey-do" tendency in journalism is powerful, and you will see "X is not alone" all the damn time.

On one occasion I deleted it from an article, and the next day the reporter asked for an explanation of the change. A writer is always entitled to an explanation of changes in editing, and so I patiently explained that that transition had become a stock device that was not particularly helpful to readers and that we had been discouraged from using. 

The reporter answered: "It's not a cliche when I use it." 

You see what editors are up against. 

Sunday, June 18, 2023

There's a hole in the world

 In the fall of 1973 I arrived at Syracuse University as a graduate student in the English department and almost immediately found my way to the graduate student lounge, a room in the basement of the Hall of Languages featuring pieces of cast-off furniture, among them a repulsive couch the color of spoiled salmon. 

There I met Ed Voytovich, tall, smart, generous, and funny. He was playing bridge with other graduate students. In time I came to see that he was one of the smartest among us, perhaps the smartest, but blessed with an easy geniality that endeared him to everyone in the department. For the next six years I enjoyed his company, making jokes, comparing obscure literary allusions, talking about books and authors, gossiping about the faculty. 

Now he's gone. He died two weeks ago today after several years of fading gradually away from Alzheimer's, and there is a gap in the world that cannot be filled. 

Ed completed an honorable dissertation in 17th-century Jacobean drama (so much stuff there) and made two hundred unsuccessful attempts to find a faculty position, because of the oversupply of Ph.D. holders. So he gave it up. He had made some money by painting houses in the summer, and so he set himself up as a housepainter. 

I joined his crew in 1979, before leaving Syracuse and abandoning my own Ph.D. (though it was some years before I realized I had made the decision and put my notes and drafts on the curb to be pulped into cardboard). 

He was skilled in painting, but his confidence in his abilities led him into more elaborate projects. "I need to have the chimney pointed. Can you do that?" "Sure." And he would read how to point a chimney and do it. During that summer we built a study in a basement with a sloping floor and constructed bookcases for it. He made himself a new career in contracting and gave good value wherever he was engaged. 

He married Marie Sprayberry, another graduate student and friend (she was my best person at my wedding to Kathleen), and over the years they would visit Baltimore or we would visit Syracuse, to eat good food, drink, talk about books, gossip, and jointly recite Philip Larkin's "This be the verse." We were friends for more than forty years until the illness took him from us, and now we mourn. 

I told you he was smart and literate, no one more so. I told you he was funny. But what I need you to understand is that he was even-tempered and the most humane human being I have ever known. And it is left to me to repeat what the Romans said: Sit tibi terra levis. May the earth lie lightly on you. 


Saturday, June 17, 2023

The stone the writer accepted

When writing about Baltimore, please keep in mind that those quaint streets in places like Fells Point are not cobblestoned. 

Repeat: Do not write about Baltimore's quaint cobblestoned streets. 

Cobblestones are round, like cannonballs. Cobbles are typically formed naturally, by erosion in rivers.

Those quaint Baltimore streets are paved with Belgian blocks, or setts, which are quarried and rectangular. Those in Baltimore sometimes arrived as ballast in ships. 

Mistaking streets paved with Belgian blocks for cobblestoned streets is sheer carelessness. 

Monday, May 29, 2023

I will never be a true Baltimorean

When I accepted the offer of a job on The Baltimore Sun's copy desk in 1986, my wife and I moved to an apartment in Towson, two years later buying a brick ranch house in Northeast Baltimore. But thirty-five years later, as a resident of Baltimore, I cannot claim to be a Baltimorean. 

First of all, I do not have grandparents who were born here. 

I did not attend City College or Poly or any other Baltimore high school. 

My indifference to the Orioles and the Ravens is complete, now that I no longer have to sit up waiting for their interminable games to end to get final scores into the paper. 

Perhaps most seriously, though I enjoy Maryland crab soup, I dislike picking crabs. The process is reminiscent, not in a good way, of dissection in high school biology class, and the reward of the crab meat is not commensurate to the effort required to acquire it. Not even accompanying glasses of beer make the process alluring.

Oh, there are many things I appreciate about Baltimore: the heron I occasionally see on my walks down the hill to Herring Run, the Cone Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, my progressive parish (Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill), the now-closed and lamented Hamilton Tavern, the Pratt Library, our day-drinking group at Zen West. 

But really, three decades and more later, I'm still an auslander, an expatriate Kentuckian who responds to the blooming fragrance of the locust tress in spring as a reminder of the locust trees on the other side of the Alleghenies. (My wife discerns occasional traces of my original Kentucky accent, but I would not, nor should I, ever attempt the Baltimore accent.) 

Living in a place which, comfortable as it has been, is yet not quite a good fit reminds us that we are all pilgrims, finding our way through the world. 

Sunday, May 21, 2023

Things The Baltimore Sun says are iconic

Charles Grayson Gilbert, subject of iconic newspaper photo ...

Iconic ‘Caddyshack’ yacht is for sale.

Berger cookies run low on shelves around Baltimore as iconic baker waits for repair.

Westminster officials approve new contract for repairs to city’s iconic clock tower.

C.P. Crane power plant demolished, toppling iconic stacks.

Bye, Hon: Iconic Baltimore cafe closing after 30 years.

Rutschman and other Orioles players hung out with the kids in attendance, even sliding down the iconic hill at Lamade Stadium.

National Treasure won an enthralling finish as tens of thousands of racing and concert fans flocked and reveled at Baltimore’s most iconic annual event.

To celebrate Preakness week, the McCormick & Co. iconic seasoning is offering Old Bay lovers a chance to spice things up with a free tattoo. 

Today, racing remains historic and entertaining and, perhaps most notably in Maryland, brings the state its most iconic annual event, the Preakness.

The red scrapings, which pose a threat to public health, especially for children, were found at a day care, a playground and homes within a half-mile radius of the iconic tower.

Cowser was faster, completing his metaphorical Kessel Run in fewer parsecs by finishing off Han Solo’s iconic ship in September. 

Turning around the beleaguered Harborplace — considered an iconic part of the Inner Harbor ...

The special edition brew “represents the pairing of two iconic brands coming together to celebrate Baltimore."

The renowned Italian vocalist, who is blind, is one of the most iconic and recognizable classical voices in music worldwide. 

Warner said the musical’s songs are iconic, and anyone who remembers the decade is almost certain to find themselves singing along to the title track.

Attman’s Delicatessen, the iconic Baltimore deli that got its start on “Corned Beef Row” more than a century ago, will open a new location in Harbor Point.

The trio of iconic R&B performers with a slate of hits and harmonies dating back to the 90s will perform at Baltimore’s CFG Bank Arena on July 29.

 The zipper wig is one of four iconic hairpieces she designed for Kim and then recreated for “The Culture: Hip-Hop and Contemporary Art in the 21st Century.” ... She created iconic ‘dos worn by hip-hop royalty Mary J. Blige and Lauryn Hill — looks still copied today.

Instead, it narrowly cleared the iconic wall, leaving the Orioles with a stunning 9-8 loss on the walk-off home run.

Enough, already? 

Monday, May 15, 2023

Fixing the blame

 Thirty years ago, under John S. Carroll, The Baltimore Sun refined its policy on corrections. Because production of the paper was a collective effort, The Sun took collective responsibility when errors of fact made it into print, not assigning individual responsibility. The Sun regretted the error, and that was that. 

The one exception: A correction assigned responsibility when The Sun had been given erroneous information. 

Reporters disliked this policy and regularly groused about it. Their complaint, and it was reasonable, went like this: "It's my byline on the story, and when a reader sees a correction that doesn't include 'because of an editing error,' the reader thinks I made a mistake, and it reflects badly on me."

The response to that complaint was that the reader is more concerned with the accuracy of the story than with naming and shaming in the newsroom. If there were to be a "because of an editor's error" correction or a "because of a copy editor's error" correction, why not a "because of reporter's error" correction? Guess which category would be most numerous. 

My own perspective after forty years of editing reporters' copy is that the correction policy left them with undeserved blame for mistakes they did not make. At the same time, my work and the desk's work left them with undeserved merit for more accurate and more literate writing than they in fact produced. 

Consider it a wash. 

Monday, May 8, 2023

Weep no more

Someone has suggested on Twitter that it is time for the Kentucky Derby to dump "My Old Kentucky Home," and as an expatriate Kentuckian, I want to object. The very things that make the song objectionable are the very reasons to keep it.  

The author, Stephen Foster, wrote it and other songs for minstrel shows. Minstrel shows, you will recall, were nineteenth-century entertainments in which white people donned blackface and performed songs and dances that were cartoonish parodies of Black culture, for the amusement of white audiences. In the plaintive song itself, a black family of enslaved people who have been sold down the river recall with nostalgia and grief their happier life back in Kentucky, before hard times came knocking at the door. 

You cannot ask for a better illustration of woke history than the spectacle at the Derby of pudgy men in their ice-cream suits and before-Memorial Day seersucker and their ladies in elaborate millinery singing this song. Recognizing the casual racism pervasive in the past and its unexamined survivals today explains much about the double nature of the Republic. 

My own old Kentucky home, the farm my grandfather inherited from his father, where I roamed the fields as a child, is gone, sold to people better qualified to work the land than I am. It, too, has a double history, illustrated by a property tax receipt from in 1850s showing that my great-great grandfather owned two hundred acres, four horses or mules, and four human beings. If you are a thinking person, you learn to recognize and live with both sides of your history. 

So when the band strikes up on Derby Day, I too will stand and sing of the old Kentucky home, far away, for good and for ill. 

*****

After three decades in Baltimore, a digression.

From time to time some yahoo will suggest replacing "The Star-Spangled Banner" as the national anthem, usually with "America the Beautiful" or "God Bless America." 

It's true that Francis Scott Key's text objects to British encouragement of slave rebellions during the War of 1812, but that's in a verse we never sing, and he brings in God in the last verse, which we also never sing. The reason to keep the national anthem is that the only part we actually sing does not go in for triumphalism but asks us a question: Have we lived up to the ideals we proclaimed at the founding? That is a question worth asking every day.

As to the others, "America the Beautiful," with its insipid melody, keeps dragging God in, and "God Bless America," though Irving Berlin could write a catchier tune, does the same. God has many nations to look after, and it would be selfish of us to monopolize the Deity.


Saturday, May 6, 2023

Uneasy lies the head that is coronated

As far as I can tell from online comments, both monarchists and republicans appear to be spluttering over people saying that Charles III has been "coronated." 

"The word is 'crowned,' not 'coronated.' " " 'Coronated' is not a word." " 'Coronated' is a bastard back-formation from 'coronation.' " Someone quotes Paul Brians saying that it only means "crown-shaped" and is legitimately used only in biology. 

I hardly ever recommend that people switch to decaf, but this might be the occasion. 

Coronate has been a word in English since the early 17th century, with a citation from 1626. 

It derives from the Latin coronatus, past participle of coronare, "to crown." 

The Oxford English Dictionary lists it, saying that it is a relatively rare word. Merriam-Webster includes it, defining it as "to crown." Its rarity might be attributed to the lack of a major coronation to cover over the past seventy years.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage quotes The Wall Street Journal of February 9, 1952: "Queen Elizabeth II will probably be coronated sometime between August and the spring of 1953."

So it is a word, an English word in use. 

You do not much like it; you do not like it at all; you despise it and the people who use it. 

Your futile protest has been noted.

 

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Don't take subjects, take people

Fifty years ago this June, I had to take my transcript to my academic advisor to be approved for graduation from Michigan State University. 

He ran a practiced eye down the page, stopped, looked at me, went down the page again, more slowly, looked at me, and said, "You appear to have gotten yourself a liberal education. How did you do that here?"

"I sneaked around," I said. 

One of my instructors in the first term of freshman year, the late Jean Nicholas, gave me the best advice I received in college. "Don't take subjects," she said. "If you want to learn subjects, go to the library and read about them. Take people instead. Find out who the most interesting teachers are and sit in their classes. One of the things you are here for is to learn different approaches to life, different senses of humor." 

As an English major, I took most of my courses in English, but I embarked on courses on anthropology, religion, philosophy, art history, and more, while continuing to read broadly and avidly. On campus there were free screenings of films by Bergman and Fellini. The Chicago Symphony came around on tour every year. 

Michigan State gave me a broad framework of general knowledge and the ability to analyze texts and reason about them. This, I think, is what education is properly meant to do. 

But we see colleges and universities cutting back on offerings in the humanities, because we appear to think of education in a cramped and crabbed vocational perspective. Any course that does not immediately contribute to subsequent gainful employment is a waste of a student's time and all that expensive tuition. 

This has been going on for some time now, as evidenced, for example, by the hordes of diploma-holding middle-class adults who fall victim to crank anti-vaccine theories, because they were never encouraged to develop critical thinking. The national survey of U.S. book reading statistics in 2022 found that about half of American adults had not read a single book in the past year. STEM is important, but the humanities help make us human. 

I was fortunate to have parents who allowed me to chart my own course in college, teachers who offered unfailing encouragement, and an education (yes, a degree in English, of all things) that prepared me for a forty-year professional career and many satisfactions in life. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stick it to sticklers

To start. My name is John, and I am a recovering stickler. As a bookworm and teacher's pet, I absorbed the schoolroom grammar to the last jot and tittle, and I was obnoxious about it. When you lack physical beauty, wealth, or distinguished lineage, you make use of whatever you can, and grammar enabled me to be an insufferable snob well into adulthood. 

This is my first count against people who identify as sticklers: their weaponization of language to assert dominance. Telltale indications are remarks about "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. But, as I have said before, snobbery about language is not more noble than any other form of snobbery; it's just a shabby little stratagem to gain advantage over others. Not just shabby, but a pathetic assertion of superiority, as when someone sports an "I am silently correcting your grammar" mug or T-shirt. 

My second count against sticklers is that they are frequently WRONG. They will fume about split infinitives or none used as a plural or other bogus rules enumerated in my little book Bad Advice. They will complain that irregardless is not a word. They will carry on about terminal prepositions. And all that H.W. Fowler, the editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Bryan A. Garner, and Benjamin Dreyer demonstrate to the contrary is pointless because Somebody Told Them Once and they will hold on to it until the universe enters its final entropy. 

My third count is that sticklers refuse to acknowledge register, usually under the mistaken belief that formal written English is the only "correct" English, all other dialects and variants being defective and used only by "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. All the Englishes, formal and colloquial, allow speakers within their respective communities of usage engage with one another. None is inherently more correct than the others, but more appropriate to the situation.

This is not to say that "anything goes," one of those ill-informed retorts sticklers are fond of, though I tend to endorse Flannery O'Connor's remark that "You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much." I have been a professional editor for more than forty years and a blogger about language for eighteen, during which time I have learned many things and have found it necessary, helped by colleagues, linguists, and lexicographers, to unlearn several. 

A person who did not leave a name commented on one of my recent posts, sneering about "those bogus rules that provided you a profession, but that you sanctimoniously deprecate." Yes, I enforced many bogus rules until I learned better, liberating myself and the texts I worked on from the stickler straitjacket. It turns out to be possible to produce effective language by paying attention to it and avoiding sticklers' faulty precision. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Copy editors see things many readers don't notice

We of the obscure craft see many things, large and small. Here is a recent sampling. 

Item: A flag flying half-mast. Uh-uh. A flag is only flying at half-mast if it is on a boat or ship. If it's on a flagpole on land, it is flying at half-staff.

Item: A reference to a city and a state lacking the second comma. When one writes about Baltimore, Maryland, the state name is treated as an appositive and is conventionally set off with commas. There is a parallel case with dates; a post written on March 9, 2023, needs that second comma after the year.

Item: Hyphens are cropping up in compounds with -ly adverbs. Adjective-noun compounds are hyphenated: free-range chicken. Compounds with an -ly adverb and a participial adjective are not: a fully fledged fowl

Item: At wit's end. No. You are at the end of your wits, so it should be the plural possessive, wits' end. A wit's end would be the death of Dorothy Parker. 

Item: A passage in a book: When Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1901, "the Supreme Court met in the old Senate Chamber in the Longworth House Office Building. That building was also infamously known for being the location where, in 1856, Preston Smith Brooks, a South Carolina planter, nearly beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death." The Supreme Court met from 1810 to 1860 in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol. From 1860 to 1935, when it moved into its own building, the Court met in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol (which is where Brooks assaulted Sumner). The Longworth House Office Building was completed in 1933. I gave up on the book 89 pages in. 

Item: An article about an an organization that receives public funds in which the organization quotes studies indicating that its work is effective, without a single citation of a critic questioning those claims. I doubt that there is a publicly funded organization anywhere in the United States that has escaped criticism. 

Item: I note that the impulse to identify any and every thing as iconic has not been suppressed, most recently "the iconic sign for The Baltimore Sun" above the scoreboard at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

Plainly, not all of these items are of equal importance, but I'm here, and I'm noticing.  

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Reminders for National Grammar Day

There are many Englishes, and each of its dialects is valid for communication among its users. 


Standard written English is not the One True English; it is a dialect that is useful in some, but not all, contexts. 


Language snobbery is not more noble than other forms of snobbery. When someone writing about grammar and usage begins to use terms like “illiterate,” “hoi polloi,” “the masses,” just stop reading. 


It is not your fault that you were taught bogus rules of usage. You can unlearn them.


Use or do not use the Oxford comma, as your taste or house style determines. And don’t make a fuss about it. 


To determine a point of standard usage, consult Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (fifth edition), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield), and Benjamin Dreyer’s  Dreyer’s English. Preferably all four. When they don’t agree, you get to make up your own mind. 


Five books that can enlarge your sense of the language:


Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak

Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet

Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

David Shariatmadari, Don’t Believe a Word


Language is the most democratic thing we have. You get one vote. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Grammar Noir: The Old Editor grilled

I was at the bar sipping an afternoon boulevardier when some rando came in and asked, “Are you the Old Editor?” When I owned the soft impeachment, he handed me a piece of paper and said, “You have been served.” 


The paper was a summons to testify before the House Subcommittee on Governmental Travesties, chaired by one Representative Browbeat, with regard to challenges to my book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing. 


My attorneys at Dewey, Cheatam & Howe assured me that there was no option but to appear, so I selected a dark suit, a somber bow tie, and a humble demeanor, taking my seat in the chamber. 


The inquisitors glowered at me like reporters who have been assigned weekend shifts.


The first question was from Congressman Gorgon: “It says here, on the third page of this disgraceful book, that there is no harm in ending a sentence with a preposition, despite what all of us have been taught since elementary school. I’m appalled. If not teaching correct grammar, what do you think schooling is for?”


“Well, Congressman, since your question ended with a preposition without your noticing it, we may have to entertain the idea that terminal prepositions are just naturally used by native speakers of English.”


The chairwoman’s gavel cut off a ripple of laughter from the spectators. 


Congresswoman Preen followed up: “You also write that there is no harm in split infinitives, and you have the gall to advise that splitting the infinitive is often preferable. This is the worst kind of woke editing to even pretend to be legitimate.”


“Um, Congresswoman, I think you can see that you your remarks allowed the adverb even to fall into a comfortable spot in the infinitive to pretend.”


The look on the congresswoman’s face was like the expression at someone’s first sip of newsroom coffee, which, like the newsroom itself, is weak but bitter. 


Chairwoman Browbeat interrupted: “It is bad enough that you want to tear down the rules of grammar, but it’s even worse that you want to deny people’s humanity by allowing that to refer to human beings. This is more of the Critical Grammar Theory that has been gaining ground because of you people with your degrees from elite universities, and we cannot allow CGT to be taught.”


“Well, Congresswoman, I wouldn’t say elite. I have a master’s degree from Syracuse …” 


“And CGT is exactly why we must urgently pass legislation to make English the official language of the United States, and criminalize the subversive and woke teaching of CGT.” 


“I would have thought, Congresswoman, that your party’s principles of free speech and limited government might get in the way of a law to make the way people talk a criminal offense. But to respond directly to your proposal to make English the official language of the nation, I’d like to quote a maxim from my other book, The Old Editor Says.” 


“Yes?”


“You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass.”


“Security! Eject this man!”  

Monday, February 27, 2023

The question

Gather around, children, and let the Old Editor tell you a story from the Before Times about how copy editing is more than messing with commas. 

It was a Friday night at The Baltimore Sun, and the copy desk had finished with the daily edition and turned its attention to the Sunday sections for the advance press run. 

Two copy editors came to the Old Editor to announce a problem with a story scheduled for a Sunday section front, a story written by a reporter with more than two decades' experience at the paper, moved to the copy desk by the department head. 

Actually, more than one problem. The structure, if anything so chaotically organized could be said to have a structure, deposited the summary sentence identifying the focus of the story in the eleventh paragraph, after which the story proceeded in a completely different direction. 

But the touchy point was that one source accused four persons, by name, of actions that appeared to be criminal conduct, without any supporting evidence. And the accuser, the story said, had been called, by anonymous sources (!), senile.

 "What do you want to do?" the copy editor asked. The reporter and assigning editor were unavailable, deadline was looming, and there was nothing on hand to replace the dubious story on the Sunday section front. 

"Cut everything that is libelous and publish the rest," the Old Editor said. "It won't make much sense, but our readers are used to that."

If we had published that thing as sent to us in Sunday's editions, on Monday the principal concern in the publisher's mind would have been how many zeros to put to the left of the decimal on the settlement check. Instead on Monday, the Old Editor took the story as submitted into the editor's office and said, as they say on Law and Order, "Please read the highlighted portions." 

The two copy editors who raised the alarm were given citations by the publisher, and the reporter and assigning editor were invited into the editor's office for a little chat. 

(I used that story, with substitutions for all the proper nouns, for years in my editing class and workshops. Many jaws dropped.)

Mike Waller, The Sun's former publisher, came up through the ranks, including the copy desk at the Louisville Courier-Journal in its glory days. He used to say that copy editors are there to ask questions, and the most valuable question a copy editor can ask is "Are you sure you want to do that? Are you really sure?" 

Today at publications that determined copy editing to be an expensive frill, there's no one to ask that question. 

Thursday, February 16, 2023

What to do with all those young people

 Recently the Associated Press Stylebook issued guidance to avoid using the with nouns referring to groups of people, such as "the mentally ill" or "the disabled," as potentially dehumanizing. (The initial tweet included "the French," for which they were thoroughly razzed.) 

People in social service agencies and organizations have grown terribly fond of using youth to refer to young people,"young people" or "adolescents" or "teens" being apparently insufficiently officious. I'd like to suggest that that, too, is potentially dehumanizing language. And if not dehumanizing, at least awkward outside government reports and other repositories of too-starchy English.

Oh, I don't mind all that much as a collective noun for the overall population in that age range--"services for youth," "youth employment," "children and youth involved with law enforcement," that sort of language. 

But I also see it used indiscriminately, and echoed by journalists, for discrete groups, for individuals: "group of 15 youth, 2 adults," for example. This is just irritating and unnecessary. 

If we need an overall term for the collective group and individuals, perhaps we should emulate the example of Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny and call them yutes.  

Thursday, February 9, 2023

The name of the game: You Can't Win

 A colleague laments: "Copy editing is not a job for the fainthearted. You catch and fix hundreds of typos and grammatical mistakes every week, but miss one tiny thing and some reader fires off a caustic email about how much you suck."

Those are the kind of letters and messages forwarded to me when I oversaw The Sun's copy desk (when The Sun still had a copy desk). They fall into categories.

The first, and smallest, is actual factual error, which I would have to confirm, then write a correction and submit it to my betters for approval for publication. While newspapers do not employ fact checkers, it was the duty of copy editors to identify and correct errors of fact whenever possible. (I remember a reporter who misspelled the name of a public official fourteen times in a single article. We, of course, fixed it, and commented on the desk that his having misspelled the name the same way fourteen times marked an advance in proficiency.) 

Then the submissions from skilled observers who spot typos and the other small change of errors. You know, to for too, absent or misplaced hyphens, lead for led or other mistaken homonyms. Before you write to complain that you saw it's for its and ask whether the writers and editors have attended college, a reminder or two would be apt. The first is that journalistic enterprises, in print and online, produce a large volume of prose in a short time; errors are inevitable, and the most that even a skilled copydesk can do is to reduce them to a minimum. The second is that copy editors are skilled readers, and the brains of skilled readers have an autocorrect more sophisticated than the one on your computer. The eye registers a to or it's in the text, but the brain interpreting the data expects too or its in that construction and moves on. (This is why in the lost past at The Sun we had every story read by at least three editors before publication, and it was not uncommon for the printer doing pasteup to remark, "You see what you assholes missed this time?")

 The most frustrating category comes from the reader who triumphantly pounces on some error that is not an error, a violation of some schoolroom shibboleth (none as a plural, a terminal preposition, data as a singular -- I have catalogued a number of them in my little book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing). Since readers who take the trouble to write are entitled to a response, I would patiently explain, with citations, why the supposed rule is bogus, usually receiving a response reminding me of Dr. Johnson's observation that we are "more pained by ignorance, than delighted by instruction."

Oddly, the largest category of things the copy desk did not fix never generated any letters of complaint. I am thinking of slack writing, lack of focus, the story that meanders for half a dozen paragraphs before getting to the point, impenetrable copspeak (Was that altercation a shouting match, shoving, a fistfight, or exchange of gunfire?), and misjudged literary effects. (God's truth, I was once confronted by a reporter who insisted, "It's not a cliche when I use it.") Readers may not read analytically in the way that editors and copy editors do, but they can tell when the stuff does not interest, and then they just stop. You never hear from the readers you lose. 

At my blog, which was published at baltimoresun.com from 2005 to 2021 and here since 2009, I never had a copy editor, and all my errors have been my own. It appears that there are few actions that generate more pleasure than pointing out a copy editor's error. 

Go for it. 

Friday, January 20, 2023

The foggy, foggy "due"

Perhaps you were taught, as I was, to cringe when due to is used as a preposition, viz., Due to unfounded objections by twentieth-century commentators, the usage has been stigmatized as vulgar and ungrammatical. You would have been told to use owing to or because of instead. 

You would have been taught that due is an adjective, not a preposition, and in proper use follows a linking verb: The prohibition was due to unfounded objections by twentieth-century commentators, due being an adjective referring back to prohibition

Wilson Follett condemned the prepositional sense in Modern American Usage, saying that it is shunned by "everyone who cares about workmanship" and deploring that Webster's Second (yes, the sacred Webster's Second) finds that it is "in common and reputable use." 

In Garner 5 Bryan Garner notes the traditional view but concedes that the prepositional sense is ubiquitous.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, tracing the history of the dispute, points out that many people who concede that prepositional due to is established in the language still remark that it is informal or disparaged by some people; thus "due to has entered the folklore of usage." 

MWDEU concludes: "In our judgment, due to is as impeccable as owing to. ... There has never been a grammatical ground for objection, although the the objection formulated in the early part of this [twentieth] century persists in the minds of some usage commentators."

And Jeremy Butterfield, in Fowler's 4, says that despite "the tut-tutting of last-ditch pedants," the prepositional sense of due to "is now part of the natural language of the 21c." 

There you have it: a usage distinction invented out of thin air a century ago, promulgated in a series of usage manuals and classroom diktats, and enforced by platoons of copy editors wasting their time on dog whistle edits,  now finally, blessedly, fades away. 

You still object? Get a life. 

Sunday, January 15, 2023

A weekend with the dead

One of the drawbacks of becoming a septuagenarian is the number of people who have climbed the golden staircase before you. 

I've been reading people's comments online about Margaret Lord, a Baltimore Sun copy editor who died recently at 88. Maggie was a fixture on the copy desk at The Sun when I came on board in 1986, and she generously assisted me in acclimating. She was British, swilling endless cups of Red Rose tea, and she had an eagle eye for defects in copy. When we went on strike in 1987, after an overnight stint on the picket line, she took me home and cooked me scrambled eggs. Everyone knew her generosity of spirit and her politeness, and everyong knew that she was invariably right. 

Her ability to deal with editors and reporters without ruffling feathers was matched by the late Paul Mattix, who was also on the desk when I arrived. Paul's infectious good humor endeared him to everyone, but as an editor he had no illusions. He got along fine with les enfants terribles in features while exchanging a knowing nod with colleagues on our desk. 

You will not have heard of Dacia Dunson, a young Black woman I hired for the copy desk, who won the affection and respect of her fellow editors, and who would have had a glorious career had not cancer taken her from us. Walter Dorsett, an experienced copy editor with no illusions, was with us too briefly to get to know him thoroughly before cancer took him, too.  Connie Knox, the thorn in The Sun's side as Newspaper Guild leader, was also theoretically my subordinate, and death took her shortly after her retirement from the paper.  

At The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bill Trutner, long gone, a balding former schoolteacher as slotman gently introduced me to the customs and procedures of the copy desk. And the late Bob Johnson, my salty first news editor, offered one of his country expressions as a caution against pursuing a futile line of questioning: "Son, you're looking up a dead hog's ass."  

Lowell and Gene Denton, who gave me a start as a high school and college student during summers at The Flemingsburg Gazette from 1968 to 1973, indulged me in youthful excesses and gave me an introduction to the practicalities of journalism at a weekly newspaper in rural Kentucky that proved to be of enduring value. 

And I am left to honor their shades. 

Saturday, January 7, 2023

Yeah, I read books

 As a child, a nearsighted teacher's pet allergic to sports, I was, of course, a bookworm, and reading has sustained me these past sixty-plus years. Last year, in retirement, was no exception, and since there appears to be a thing about parading one's reading online, I might as well make a few remarks. 

People do not talk enough about the pleasure of re-reading books, but last year I returned to Master of the Senate, my favorite of Robert A Caro's multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. (And I wait impatiently for Caro and his editor, Robert Gottlieb, to publish the fifth and final volume.) Trollope's Barchester Towers, one of the most satisfying Victorian novels, satisfied once more. 

Patrick O'Brian's Master and Commander briefly tempted me to repeat the twenty-novel Aubrey-Maturin roman fleuve, but I resisted. Forty years later, I still enjoyed Austen's Mansfield Park. People complain that it doesn't flare as brightly as Pride and Prejudice and Emma, but Austen was bold to explore the life of a heroine who is quiet, shy, and apprehensive of her place as a poor relation among a great landed family. The carelessness of Sir Thomas, the lassitude of Lady Bertram, and the delicious dissection of Aunt Norris always give pleasure. 

But there was new stuff too. I enjoyed Daniel Okrent's Public Editor #1, about his service with The New York Times, and I tried to enjoy Margaret Sullivan's Newsroom Confidential, about her service as a public editor, but as engaging as her autobiographical account of her infatuation with newspapers was, she might at the end have gone beyond what she had already said in her columns to talk about the strange new landscape of journalism and where things may be heading. 

Becoming Duchess Goldblatt filled in the details of an online phenomenon, Mel Brooks's All About Me! was unfailingly amusing, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry's The Bright Ages gave a fresh perspective on the Middle Ages, and Erik Larson's The Splendid and the Vile offered details of Churchill and London during the Blitz. 

I had seen criticism that Nicole Hannah-Jones et al. had overstated their thesis in The 1619 Project, but however much you may admire the Founders as children of the Enlightenment who enunciated values that they did not live up to, The 1619 Project is unrelenting in displaying the ugly facts that the public school curriculum always glosses over. (It did in my day, and I am confident it still does: We had some problems, but America is going great guns. Yeah.) A very useful companion is Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness, in which a clear-sighted writer tries to come to terms with the white supremacy in which he grew up and still lives. Jess McHugh's Americanon focuses on key books that have shaped--and misshaped--U.S. culture. Also in history, Stacy Schiff's elegantly written The Revolutionary: Samual Adams shines a bright light on the events leading up to the Revolution. 

In my line of work, Lane Greene's Talk on the Wild Side, a refreshingly non-pedantic book on English as she is spoken and written, was a welcome addition to the discussion, and Ellen Jovin's Rebel with a Clause, recounting her discussions with the public when she set up her Grammar Table around the country, was unfailingly genial. 

Donna Leon's Transient Desires momentarily slaked my appetite for murder mysteries. (As I have said before, after a full day of working with professional journalists, noting gives more pleasure than to sit down in a comfortable chair, with a good light behind you, a strong drink at your elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death.) 

 In a relapse to my long-abandoned career in graduate school thinking about eighteenth-century literature, I picked up Adam Sisman's Boswell's Presumptuous Task: The Making of the Life of Johnson. The account of Boswell's writing the Life, along with description of his fugitive encounters with Johnson, becomes as much an account of his life as of his book, because the two cannot be readily separated. The foolishness of Boswell's public behavior cannot diminish his accomplishments as a great writer of biography.  

And by the way, if you haven't read the Life of Johnson, what the hell is keeping you?


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Speaking American

One hundred and four years ago, H.L Mencken published the first edition of The American Language, arguing that this nation had developed a distinctive form of the English language, in no way inferior to the form spoken and written in the British Isles. Over the decades it grew in multiple editions and ultimately to two fat supplementary volumes. 

This month sees the publication of The People's Tongue: Americans and the English Language, edited by Ilan Stavans (Restless Books, 512 pages, $35). This hefty anthology covers the territory with selections from The New England Primer to John McWhorter writing in 2022 about "English as a Living Language--Period." 

You will find John Adams advocating for an American Language Academy to keep English in good order, and you can read Sen. S.I. Hayakawa's proposal to make English the official language of the United States. (Neither proposal came to anything, and neither should have.)

Noah Webster's preface to An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 is included, as are "The String Untuned," Dwight Macdonald's hissy fit over Webster's Third, and Merriam-Webster's Peter Sokolowski's lucid explanation of how new words find their way into dictionaries. 

David Foster Wallace's "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage," his response to Bryan A. Garner's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 2001, will alternately delight and irritate. And you can savor nine pages of tweets in which Donald Trump insulted CNN from the announcement of his candidacy for the presidency in 2016 to the suspension of his Twitter account in 2021. 

What I found most interesting was a series of contemporary essays, Amy Tan's "Mother Tongue," Chang-Rae Lee's "Mute in an English-Only World," Jamaica Kincaid's "In History," Ilan Stavans's "In Defense of Spanglish," and others by Americans whose cultural background is not standard American English, and who by finding means to cope with the language are also contributing to it. It is not the kind of English that John Adams anticipated, but it is a rich one. 

And, of course, there is something from Henry Mencken, "The Characters of American" from 1919, in which he identifies as a principal characteristic of our language "its impatient disdain of rule and precedent, and hence its large capacity (distinctly greater than that of the English of England) for taking in new words and phrases and for manufacturing new locutions out of its own materials." 

So we were; so we are.