Monday, April 22, 2024

Not unusual

 It has been the custom of the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook to announce their annual revisions at the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, presumably because those are the people who care what is in the AP Stylebook

These updates regularly have something to raise the hair on the back of a stickler's neck. This year it is the entry on unique: "The stylebook is changing its guidance on the word 'unique.' The revised entry now says: 'The word can mean one of a kind, unparalleled, having no equal, etc.; or highly unusual, extraordinary, rare, etc. If used in the sense of one of a kind, don’t use modifiers such as very, rather, etc.' "

One can still hear keening over the abandonment of the unfounded over/more than distinction or the heaving over the side of the "split verb" rule, which held against all evidence than one cannot insert an adverb between an auxiliary and the main verb (and which I take some pride in having campaigned against for years).

The editors of the AP Stylebook are not wild-eyed Jacobins; they endorse changes in usage only after those changes have been in wide use for years. 

Regarding unique: Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler 4 comments on the sense of "particularly remarkable, special, or unusual," remarking, "All modern monolingual dictionaries recognize this meaning, usually with a warning."

American Heritage in 2011 upheld the absolute sense of the word but conceded, "In fact, the nontraditional modification of unique may be found in the work of many reputable writers and has certainly been put to effective use."

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994) explains, "Words that are in widespread use have a natural tendency to take on extended meanings. In the case of unique, it was natural that a word used to describe something that was unlike anything else should also come to be used more broadly to describe something that was, simply, unusual or rare," the latter use having been common for more than a century.

Bryan Garner clucks that the looser usage is in his Stage 3 of language change: "Widespread, but ..."

Unique we lifted from the French, who had it from the Latin unicus, "one." I suspect that insistence on the absolute meaning rises in part from the etymological fallacy, the belief that the meaning of a word must be restricted to its original sense. You may know people who insist that decimate must refer for the destruction of a tenth rather than substantial damage. I used to teach my students at Loyola that dilemma had to mean two unsatisfactory choices, like Odysseus having to decide between Scylla and Charybdis, because the Greek root di- means "two." I have no way to get back to them now to say that it can simply mean "a difficult situation." 

English is on the move, and has been since we and the French destroyed Anglo-Saxon. And though it will likely lead to by expulsion from the Stickler Sodality, I recommend judgement instead of rigid adherence to rules of dodgy provenance. Figure out what will make sense to the reader. 

Monday, April 15, 2024

Not during the reign of Edward Longshanks

A fellow editor writes to ask if I, as a resident of Baltimore, can attest that there has been a Roman Catholic presence in the city since the latter part of the 13th century. 

He refers to an article on a proposal to close several parishes that says the closures would "reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life," and asks, "You know more about Charm City than I do, but was there *really* a Catholic presence in Baltimore circa 1291 A.D.?"

My best guess is that the number 730 refers to the aggregate ages of the affected parishes. The oldest in continuous operation, St. Vincent de Paul, dates from 1841, the same article informs us. 

Had I been engaged to edit the article, hoping to avoid misunderstanding, I would have confirmed my surmise and made it read, "The combined ages of the sites that would be lost reflect more than 730 years of the city's Catholic life." 

But that's just me, a meddlesome editor. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Once a bookworm, always a bookworm

An old friend asked me on Facebook if I could recommend some nonfiction books, so I put together a list of the ones I've liked most in two and a half years of retirement:  

Isabel Wilkinson, Caste; Ron Chernow, Grant; Matthew Gabrielle and David M. Perry, The Bright Ages; Erik Larson, The Splendid and the Vile; Nikole Hannah-Jones et al., The 1619 Project; Baynard Woods, Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness; Jess McHugh, Americanon; Stacy Schiff, The Revolutionary: Samuel Adams; Dahlia Lithwick, Lady Justice; Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America; Kevin Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, Myth America; Joel Richard Paul: Indivisible: Daniel Webster and the Birth of American Nationalism; Richard Miles, Carthage Must Be Destroyed; Joel Richard Paul, Without Precedent: John Marshall and His Times; Timothy Egan, A Fever in the Heartland; Joseph Ellis, American Dialogue; Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus.

I was tempted to recommend The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, but at roughly a thousand pages, 900 text and 100 apparatus, it is something to take on.

Maybe you would like some fiction recommendations. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

In the beginning was a word

Imagine a collection of short detective stories in which no case is solved. 

I was four pages into Anatoly Liberman’s discussion of the origin of the word finger — including multiple Germanic words, along with Goth, Greek, and Latin — when I reached this sentence: “It seems that we are exactly where we were at the beginning, and the impression is correct.”   

Professor Liberman, who has entertained word nerds for years with the blog OUP Etymologist, has now sifted through some eight hundred posts, selecting, revising, and updating to produce Origin Uncertain: Unraveling the Mysteries of Etymology (Oxford University Press, 344 pages, $29.99). 

“Origin unknown” is the signal in a dictionary that lexicographers have thrown up their hands and confessed that they cannot tell you where that word came from. Very old words were long in speech before they were ever recorded in a text, as is slang. Words change meanings and pronunciations. They alter when they encounter other languages. They are shape-shifters. 

Curiosity about word origins leads people to “fanciful and clever conjectures,” which must be sorted out. And the internet is littered with folk etymologies. (Yes, we all heard “Fornication Under Command of the King” as teenagers, but no.) Professor Liberman advises: “In semantics, no river is so broad that it cannot be crossed by an ingeniously built bridge. The bridges look safe, but one should think twice before crossing them.”

Certainty is not a ready commodity in etymology, which is why Professor Liberman describes his work in this book as an effort to “throw some light on obscurity.” 

He has an interesting conjecture on honeymoon, which Samuel Johnson defined as “the first month after marriage, when there is nothing but tenderness and pleasure,” adding a comment that the moon will wane. So we see that the early sense of the word was pejorative, bearing the sense that love will not last. Professor Liberman suggests that over time, users of the word focused on the sweetness of the honey component rather than the transitory moon, eventually arriving at the sense of harmony with which we use it. 

Honeymoon is a reminder that words can undergo amelioration and deterioration, moving from negative to positive, or positive to negative. You have to watch them. 

I took a personal interest in his entry on curmudgeon, which Johnson described as “an avaricious churlish fellow,” and the sense in Britain has remained that a curmudgeon is a miser. But in the mid-twentieth century in the United States, Webster’s Third labeled the “avaricious” sense as archaic, defining the word as “a crusty, ill-tempered, or difficult and often elderly person.” (It’s a fair cop.) The etymologist Walter W. Skeat traced the origins to the Scottish murgeon, “mock, grumble,” and mudgeon, “grimace.” 

This book is an exploratory expedition through the Englishes, Old, Middle, and Modern, and the other languages that they have— or may have — brushed up against. 


Monday, March 4, 2024

The practice of lexis can lead to tsuris

 Once you hang up the green eyeshade, nobody pays you any longer for finding fault and you have to think up other things to do. Sometimes, on afternoons before the bar opens, you go to the library, pick up a book at random, read a few pages, mutter “I’d’ve caught that,” and put it down. 

I was on my way out when my passage was blocked by a stocky librarian looking as determined as a managing editor denying an expense account filing. 

“Ma’am, I’d like to go out,” I said. 

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, I’m only thirty-five,” she said. “And if I let you out the door you’d be trapped in the middle of the demonstration.” 

“A demonstration? At the library?”

“They’re protesting Merriam-Webster.” 


"Don’t you see all the Make Grammar Great Again caps?”

“Ah, I only saw as I came in the guy with the petition to restore the default masculine.”

“Oh, him, he's been around forever. But Merriam-Webster recently posted on social media that there’s nothing wrong in English with ending a sentence with a preposition, and it’s been all hell ever since.”

“How d’you mean?”

“Demonstrations like that out front.  They petitioned us to remove all the Merriam-Webster dictionaries from the shelves and cancel the online subscription. Some people tried to take the dictionaries out of the building, and we had to tell them reference books are non-circulating. Moms for Literacy got a city councilman to threaten our funding.”

“Can I just take a look at what they’re doing?”

“All right, but you’re not going out.”

It was wild out there, like the rush for the newsroom pizzas on election night. 

Two guys in black robes were crossing back and forth with a Webster’s Second open on a gurney as if it were the Ark of the Covenant. Marchers waved placards proclaiming “UP WITH THIS WE WILL NOT PUT.” One sign said “LEXICOGRAPHY IS PORNOGRAPHY.” To one side, a knot of protesters was chanting “Not over, more than!” An older woman with a bullhorn was shouting, “Kids are goats! Kids are goats!”

I asked the librarian, “They ever violent?”

“Nah,” she said. “They did get hold of a copy of McIntyre’s Bad Advice and burned it on the front steps, but that’s as ugly as it got.” 

“How’d they get onto some obscure copy editor nerd?”

“He’s some kind of pompous ass on social media all the time, and they ferreted him out there.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Just wait. I called the police.”

In a little while, for sure, a patrol car pulled up and an officer got out. He went from person to person, holding up a document, and one by one they turned and left, like the staff laid off by a hedge fund.

“What’s that he’s got?” I asked.

“Huddleston and Pullum on stranded prepositions. He tells them if they don’t go home, they have to read it. Works every time.”

I said, “I’m going to buy a lexicographer a drink,” and stepped out the door. 

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Language sneaks up on you

Making my way through the thousand pages of The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium by Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics at the University of Chicago, and published by the Oxford University Press, I came up short against a word: snuck

Some of you, I suspect, will be as horrified by this as by the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. But you, like the House of Palaiologos, will be on the wrong side of history. 

Snuck, a variant of sneaked, lived for decades in the United States as a regional colloquialism. But in the twentieth century, and particularly in the current one, it picked up speed. 

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary says that 75% of its usage panel found snuck acceptable in 2008. 

Merriam-Webster notes that snuck "has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked." 

And Bryan Garner, in the fifth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage, writes that "with startling alacrity, it has become a casualism," perhaps because of "phonemic appeal." He continues: "In any event, the numbers don't lie: in AmE, snuck has become strongly predominant; in BrE, it has become about equal in frequency to sneaked." It crops up in legal opinions, and "the last year in which sneaked appeared more often in print than snuck was 2009."

Resistance remains. I don't care for snuck and do not recall ever having used it in speech or text. But resistance in language is usually futile. 

That's it. You don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.  

Saturday, February 24, 2024

My life as a drudge

 February 8 marked forty-four years since I began work as a copy editor. 

The Cincinnati Enquirer took a risk in hiring a fugitive graduate student for the copy desk, where I absorbed the principles and customs of the work from colleagues like Phil Fisher, slotman Bill Trutner, and news editor Bob Johnson. My colleagues were, typically of copy desks, smart, competent, and irreverent. 

After six and a half years on the desk, I made good my escape from Gannett. The saloon where my colleagues gathered for the farewell to McIntyre party turned out to be the same saloon where the city editor had scheduled a good riddance to McIntyre party. Awkward. At least for those who came through the door and realized that a choice had to be made. 

Then thirty-four years as a disciple of Andy Faith on the desk at The Baltimore Sun, which when it was in funds gave me a free hand to hire, train, and mentor the smartest editors I could find. We had a grand time and a national reputation until the bottom fell out of the paragraph game. Tribune Publishing eliminated the copy desk in 2019, and I spent two years as a "content editor," viz., a processor of copy rather than an editor. 

Now in retirement, I mark two years this month as a freelance copy editor for the online nonprofit Baltimore Banner, where the work is as rewarding as it first was more than four decades ago. 

"Rewarding, huh?" you ask. "Weren't you just a comma jockey? You just called yourself a drudge." 

I have to concede that regularizing other people's erratic punctuation, though necessary, was not the most gratifying aspect of the job. Nor was correcting the spelling of names. (We had a reporter who once misspelled the name of the U.S. attorney for Maryland fourteen times, but because he misspelled it the same way fourteen times we took it as an advance in his technique.) 

 But untangling syntax, tightening loose prose, making sure the elements were in the proper order, clarifying murky points, and occasionally taking my hands off the keyboard (when something good required no further work) provided satisfactions way beyond commas. 

Every time I opened a story, my question was what is this writer trying to do, and how can I assist them in achieving their purpose while serving the readers' interests. And every time I shipped a story on to publication, I wanted to say it had been done shipshape and Bristol fashion. 

That's the job: leave it better than you found it. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

So you want to be an editor?

 The following text is an article on U.S. involvement in Kosovo during the Clinton administration, compiled by an editor at The Baltimore Sun from the Associated Press, Reuters, and The New York Times, that was sent to the copy desk, in this form as God is my witness, for publication. I used it for some years in The Sun's brutal applicant test for copy editors. See what you can make of it in the comments. 

LONDON — NATO allies endorsed a last-ditch U.S. effort Friday to end the violence in Kosovo peacefully, even as Secretary of  State Madeleine K. Albright warned Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that “time is all but gone” for him to avoid airstrikes.

Albright declared that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was united and ready to authorize the bombing. “There was an attempt to divide us, and that has failed,” she said.

In Washington, President Clinton told senior senators in a letter what they could expect if force is used. He described a powerful first thrust, followed by a progressive expansion of intensity.

“There will be no ‘pinprick’ strikes,” he said.

As to NATO options that would involve U.S. and allied ground forces in hostile action, “I can assure you the United States would not support these options, and there currently is no sentiment in NATO for such a mission,” Clinton said. 

Albright met with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, trying to shore up support for airstrikes. “If he was looking for rescue from any member of the Contact Group, he did not get it tonight,” British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said.

She also met with the foreign ministers of the other five nations that make up the Contact Group on former Yugoslavia: Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Russia, but failed to gain Moscow’s support for airtrikes against the Milosevic’s security forces.

“If he was looking for rescue from any member of the Contact Group, he did not get it tonight,” British Foreign Minister Robin Cook said.

But there was no word from Italy and Germany as to whether their disquiet over the threatened military operations had been eased. A statement issued by the foreign ministers called on Milosevic to meet conditions of U.N. resolutions and made no mention of military action.

Albright accused Milosevic of “cosmetic gestures” to meet international demands on Kosovo and said he has “but a few days” to reverse course and avoid NATO military action.

“One of the keys of good diplomacy is knowing when diplomacy has reached its limits. And we are rapidly reaching that point now,” she warned.

Albright said earlier yesterday that Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. mediator for the Balkans, would return to Belgrade for a fourth round of talks this week with Milosevic. The foreign ministers endorsed Holbrook’s mission to the Yugoslav capital. 

Albright declined to say categorically that Holbrooke’s visit would be the last peace mission before NATO airstrikes, but a British official, briefing reporters after the meeting, said, “Holbrooke’s trip is the last attempt.”

Despite the arguments, Russia did not relent its opposition to the use of force. British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who chaired the Contact Group meeting, said Russia was not being “invited” to participate in NATO’s decisions.

Albright met with the foreign ministers of the Contact Group in London after conferring in Brussels, Belgium, with Holbrooke, Gen. Wesley Clark, NATO’s supreme commander, and NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Cookies, you need cookies

 Today Kathleen baked sour cream cookies from my grandmother's recipe. They were the great treat of my childhood, the batter alone tasting better than any other cookie batter I have sampled. I have shared the recipe before, and today I'm offering it to you again. 

Kathleen, who thinks they are cakey (de gustibus non est disputandum), likes to do a light lemon icing, and you, of course, are free to do that. 

Clara Rhodes Early’s Sour Cream Cookies

1 cup shortening

2 cups sugar

3 well-beaten eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 cup sour cream

5 cups sifted flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon soda

1 ½ cups nuts (optional)

Drop from teaspoon onto cookie sheet.

Press down.

Bake 15 minutes at 350 degrees.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Um, about that anthem

Yesterday Armstrong Williams, co-owner of The Baltimore Sun, deplored the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the Super Bowl: "It is an anthem created for one race, and one race only. Playing it at the Super Bowl epitomizes attempts to divide the nation at its core by race."

By contrast, he says, the "Star-Spangled Banner" "is not a white national anthem. It’s not a Black national anthem. It’s not a national anthem for any race. It is a national anthem for everyone, regardless of race."

Perhaps Mr. Armstrong has not had occasion to read Francis Scott Key's poem in its entirety. The third verse contains these interesting lines: "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." They refer to Britain's offer of freedom to any enslaved person agreeing to serve in the British army against the American. 

So you see, as is so often the case in this nation, race keeps cropping up all over the place. Luckily, we only ever sing the first verse. 

Mr. Armstrong might also take a moment to ponder the opening of what is colloquially called the Black national anthem: "Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty." It celebrates freedom, a freedom that was not acquired easily. 

It is small-minded for anyone celebrating "the land of the free" to begrudge another celebration of freedom. 

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

Nothing's more democratic than English

Language is the most democratic thing we have: Each English speaker gets one vote, and the language becomes what we collectively make of it over time. 

Some people do have influence, but it is limited. (You may think a big-time former newspaper editor is influential, but you would be mistaken.) Samuel Johnson set out to write a dictionary of English that would “fix” (in both senses, "repair" and "make permanent") the language, but on completion ruefully acknowledged that it goes its own way. 

Noah Webster’s dictionary got Americans to spell “honour” and “colour” without the “u,” but simplified spellings he promoted — “wimmen” for “women,” “soop” for “soup,” “tung” for “tongue” — went nowhere. 

Two and a half centuries of grammarians and schoolteachers have hammered away that it is incorrect to use “they” as a third-person singular pronoun, all in vain. We have been using “they” as a singular since King Alfred burned the cakes, and today even the “Associated Press Stylebook” and “Chicago Manual of Style” have grudgingly accepted it. 

(You may not be comfortable with it, but you’re already OK with using “you” as either a singular or plural, so you can get used to things.) 

The same generations have labored to maintain the “lie” and “lay” distinction, that “lay” is the past tense of “to lie,” not “laid.” But I taught editing to undergraduates for 24 years, and let me tell you, it’s not going to happen. You can try to hold on to it in formal prose, but over time even formal prose yields to the the way people actually speak. 

H.L. Mencken, with characteristic bluntness, summed it up in “The American Language”: “The plain people will always make their own language, and the best that grammarians can do is to follow after it, haltingly, and without much insight.”

Jonathan Swift proposed establishment of an English Academy that would, like the French version, establish and legislate the correctness of the language. But we English speakers are a stubborn and unruly lot. We made a mongrel language out of a mishmash of Anglo-Saxon and Norman French. We take things freely from other languages and do as we please with them. (Imagine a francophone’s wince at the way we pronounce “lingerie.”) It’s our language, we do as we please with it, and we have always done so. 

In our language, we are a free and unfettered people. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

The editor's hand

The reputation of editors, particularly copy editors, has not been enviable. There is a long tradition of writers affecting to believe that if we were only rid of these petty, pedantic, literal-minded, comma-chopping drones, we would experience an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. But all parties should grasp that writers, editors and copy editors alike work toward a common goal: accuracy, clarity, and precision of expression  perhaps even elegance. It is essentially a communal and collaborative activity.

Christopher Ricks, reviewing Johnson on the English Language for The New Criterion in 2005, said: "The meaning of a word is neither a matter of opinion, nor a matter of fact, neither subjective nor objective, but an exercise of communal judgment. ... A language is a body of agreements (not opinion or facts but agreements, judgments that are at once personal and impersonal, individual and social), agreements not only between people who are alive but also between those who are alive and those who are dead, It is by courtesy of the dead that we are able to communicate at all, and this is one of the many reasons why those of us who are (for now) alive should treat with courtesy the dead." 

Mutual respect among the parties —  the editor for the writer’s primacy of imagination and invention, the writer for the editor’s sharpness of eye and sense of precision, the respect of both for the language we have inherited and of which we are custodians — is necessary for the formation of reliable judgments. For the writer, understanding the editor’s role and methods will sharpen perceptions during the first crucial editing, the writer's self-editing of the text. For the editor, improving the techniques of editing will better serve for the writer — and the reader. D'you remember there's a reader?

The reader’s interests transcend the preoccupations and vanities of both writer and editor. All readers demand clarity and order, and when they do not find it, they turn aside without compunction. Particularly the informed reader, the literate reader offers the greatest promise for appreciation of the writer’s effort; for them, precision in the use of words shows that the writer is to be honored for having mastered the craft.

Though the perspectives and skills, not to speak of the temperament, of writing and editing are distinct, what they have in common is what John Updike said of The New Yorker’s Katherine White in an essay reprinted in Odd Jobs: “To the born editor, it must be, the mass of manuscripts looms as nature and experience do to the writer — as a superabundance to be selected from and refined, and made shapely and meaningful.”

Let us be clear: Writing is a primary function, editing a secondary one, and no one should pretend otherwise. Editors must also realize that their task is to bring out and clarify what is inherent in the text, to make it shapely and meaningful, but they cannot go beyond what they are given. As Anthony Trollope said, “One cannot pour out of a jug more than is in it.” 

The personal element, always present, cannot be ignored. However much writers tell themselves that they are professionals, that the text they have written is an artifact rather than an extension of themselves, that criticism of the text is not a reflection on their selves, very few really believe that. No one enjoys being edited. This is what editing looks like to the writer: After the vividly recalled circumstances of the conception of the article, the prolonged gestation, the sweat and pain of the labor that brought it forth into the world, the writer murmurs, “This is my child.” And then: “Here comes some editor, saying, " 'Mmmm-MMMMPH, that is one ugly baby.' "

Disarming the writer’s psychological reaction is an editor's crucial responsibility if anything useful is to be accomplished. When a discussion of editing issues turns instead into a struggle over who will prevail, on who has say-so, editing turns into a battle. The loser leaves the field smarting from defeat and vowing to be a victor in the next round, guaranteeing a continual cycle of conflict in which the reader is the ultimate loser.  

A writer might consider a different metaphor. Imagine that you, the writer, are about to receive an award at a formal banquet. You are wearing your best clothes and have taken trouble with your grooming. Just as you are about to walk into the bright light to claim the plaque or the trophy and savor the applause, a person standing beside you points out that you have a foot-long streamer of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your shoe. You do not want to hear that. You feel foolish and embarrassed — but not nearly as much as you would have been had you walked out before an entire audience with a length of toilet paper flapping at your foot. The person who warned you is a friend who has performed a useful service for you. An editor is, or can be, that kind of friend, who spares you public embarrassment.   

You as a writer are, of course, perfectly free to ignore your editor, just as you are free to check out of the hospital against medical advice. But do you want to take the chance? 

Learning on your own, without an editor’s advice, is learning the hard way. Russell Baker describes the method in The Good Times, explaining the relationship between reporter and copy editor (copyreader) at The Sun in Baltimore more than half a century ago: "The Sun believed in learning by doing. … Copyreaders rarely changed anything you wrote, no matter how dreadful it might be. Once promoted to the big time, you were given a lot of rope. A reporter could also learn by making a fool of himself. So went the theory, and the Sun dared to live by it until it became obvious the offender would never learn anything, in which case he was tucked away in an inconspicuous niche where he could no longer embarrass the paper."

So we can do it the easy way, or we can do it the hard way.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

I subscribe to The Baltimore Sun. For now

 For more than thirty-seven years, thirty-three of them on the staff, I have been a daily subscriber to The Baltimore Sun. The announcement that the newspaper has been purchased by a conservative crank with no experience, and apparently no interest, in newspaper publishing has led a number of people in my orbit to announce that they have canceled or plan to cancel their subscriptions. 

But I have friends and colleagues who, stunned and dismayed, are still there, working as professionals, trying to provide readers with accurate, reliable news about the city and the region. I am loath to abandon them. 

The Sun has undergone a painful decline over the past two decades because of corporate management that has been alternately incompetent and avaricious. (Occasionally both.) Everyone on the staff during that time understands how hard we worked to produce a reputable publication with fewer people and resources. The remaining staff members today face the greatest challenge yet. 

So I am still here, reading the print edition each morning and watching online during the day, waiting to see what can be done to salvage the work against great odds. Very likely there will come a point at which it is unbearable to look at a paper to which I have given half my life. Should that point arrive, I will make the call to circulation, and mourn the loss. 

Thursday, January 11, 2024

The plot against the copy desk

 It was the 1990s. I was chief of the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun.

One day a senior editor came into my office, closed the door, and sat down.

"What's up?" I asked. 

He said, "[Editor X] is compiling a list of the sins of the copy desk and inviting other editors to contribute."

"Ah," I said. 

"What do you want to do about it?"

I thought for a moment and said, "Nothing." 


"Nothing. They can't complain about our editing without showing what they send to the desk, and that stuff can't stand up under examination."

He got up, opened the door, and left without another word. 

Nothing further was ever heard about the sins of the copy desk. 

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

Yeah, you probably need an editor

We know, because we have looked at the internet, that few people can write effectively, and we also know that all human beings are prone to error. Engaging an editor compensates for this state of affairs. 

First of all, your editor will catch lapses in spelling, punctuation, grammar, and English usage. Trivial details as they are, they give readers an opportunity to discount your competence and dismiss your message. Your editor works to make your text clean. 

Then, do you actually know what you are trying to say? When we write, we have an idea in our heads of the meaning and importance of what we are attempting to say, but what appears on the page may not correspond. Your editor will keep asking what you mean here and whether you meant to say that and how you think the reader will understand this. Your editor works to make your text clear. 

Do you know how to shut up? First-draft writing tends to be slack, and revision may not fix it. An editor will know how to tighten your prose, identify rambling, drop verbiage, make your point more direct. Your editor works to make your text concise. 

The main thing is that your editor will weigh what is appropriate. Is what you say appropriate to the subject? To the situation? To the occasion? To the publication? To the audience (the party frequently disregarded in these operations)? Your editor may have to be the person to tell you, tactfully, that you are not as funny as you think you are, as elegant, as impressive. 

Your editor, if they are competent and professional, does not want to demonstrate superiority over you, but to assist you in accomplishing your purpose, to collaborate to make your text more efficient and effective, to keep you from making an ass of yourself in public. 

Yes, you need to pay for this. Expertise as an editor is acquired by study and apprenticeship in the craft. Your friend who got a passing grade in English in high school is not an equivalent.  

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Editor, control your crotchets

Editors are human beings, though you may have been told otherwise, as susceptible to idiosyncratic preferences about language as anyone else. Even the most scrupulous can be tempted to impose a crotchet on a text being edited. 

One of mine is to despise the term locals in writing about the members of a community. It is vaguely condescending, the eminent journalist looking from great height at the inhabitants going about their little lives. It echoes the expression local yokels. So I regularly change locals to local residents

But it is a slippery slope in choosing when to impose a personal preference, and, as usual, it is easier to spot a problem when someone else is doing it. We had a copy editor at The Sun who thought that the word how should not precede a clause. He would routinely change "how the copy editor approaches the text" to "the way the copy editor approaches the text." Where he got this notion I cannot say; it does not come up in any of the manuals I have consulted, nor does it achieve a significant gain in clarity. 

This is dangerous, principally because editors tend to find what they are looking for. If you have a set of arbitrary preferences in your head, you will find all that occur, at the hazard of missing something important. I wrote the other day about copy desk busywork, and the unreflective imposition of personal preferences is another example of time-wasting edits. 

So I try to examine my own preferences, consult with linguists, lexicographers, and usage experts to see whether there is justification. In the case of locals, I can explain my reasoning if challenged by the writer or another editor. In other cases, I can appeal to authority, such as Theodore Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins or Garner's Modern English Usage

You do not have enough time in editing to do everything that you need to do, much less everything that you would like to do. You need to examine very carefully how you are spending that time.