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


3 cups corn

4 eggs

4 tablespoons flour

2 cups milk

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon salt 


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.