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.