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.” 


“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 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.