When you are on social media, remember that your classmates who were dim then are probably not appreciably brighter today. Your project will require three times the anticipated effort to achieve one-third of the desired result. In six months you will discover that you need the book you just donated to clear your shelves. If you did not put at least some vermouth into it, you cannot call it a martini. Any article or memo you write can be cut by at least 10%, and should be. When someone introduces themself as a member of Mensa, remember that they are the people who believe that IQ tests actually measure intelligence. That person rattling on about Judaeo-Christian values almost certainly knows little about Judaism, and may well know less about Christianity. They will tell you that it has become perfectly acceptable to wear brown shoes with a blue suit. They are wrong. You should stop adding all those commas before you turn into Henry James. You should make more productive use of your time than to read Ten Things posts.
Someone raised a question today at an online grammar site, "Why is correct grammar a lost art?" and damme, I am heading down a well-worn path. It is a bad question for two main reasons. First, grammar is not a lost art. Grammatical writing can be found at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and even in many blogs (including [cough] this one). Second, it is misguided to speak of "correct" English as if standard English, the form used in schools, government, and the professions were the only one, true English. Standard English is a dialect of English, one very useful if you aspire to academia, government, or the professions, but all the other English dialects possess distinct and genuine vocabularies and syntax. African American and Appalachian English are just as much Englishes as the standard version. (So stop belittling the people who use them, and stop moaning that what Dr. Johnson called "the wells of English undefiled" have been polluted.)Usually people who bemoan what they imagine to be the passing of grammatical English are harboring an assumption that there was a golden age when all the children dutifully learned their English and wrote it properly. There was no golden age. I was there. In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, 1961-1965, I learned standard English from two formidable teachers, Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, who kept at us relentlessly. I learned it, and several of my classmates did, but many did not. The blunt fact is that most people are not good at writing, and most people never have been. Speech is natural and learned naturally, but writing is a skill that requires extensive instruction and practice. It is not easy to get good at it, so most people don't. Before the internet we could entertain the belief that the skill was widely applied, because most of what we read was edited prose in newspapers, magazines, and books. But the internet, allowing anyone who has an online connection to publish their writing, has exposed how unskilled at writing most people are. Hell, I was a newspaper copy editor, and my daily work for more than forty years was to correct basic errors in grammar and usage in the work of college-educated professional journalists. Some in the golden-age crowd like to argue that linguists and permissive teachers dropped instruction in grammar in the 1960s and thereafter, leading to a collapse of literacy. But one reason to move away from the traditional schoolroom grammar instruction is, as I just told you, that it was not particularly effective. Another is that it was full of bogus rules and bad advice. Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, published in 1971, has 250 pages itemizing bad instruction in English. Online discussions of this sort inevitably degenerate into peevery, with some preening themselves on their expertise in punctuation and others on their I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed sensitivity to particular words or expressions they dislike. None of this edifies. English, people, still ticking along at 700-plus years, is in no imminent danger. Nice of you to offer to help it, but it can take care of itself.
You are entitled to ignore bogus usage distinctions
Earlier today a colleague posted on Facebook about the entitled/titled distinction, that entitled must only be used in the sense of "having a right to," never in the sense of "bearing the title." I remarked that that was not reliable advice and was asked, quite reasonably, why. Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern English Usage, is succinct: "The word entitle has two meanings (1) 'to provide with a right or title to something' ... and 'to give a title to.' ... But sense 2 actually predates sense 1, and both senses are well established."Merriam-Webster's, Webster's New World, and the Concise Oxford give both senses of entitle, as does American Heritage, which, significantly, presents no usage note on this supposed distinction. There is no mention of a title/entitle distinction in four editions of Fowler's (I looked). Why, civilians ask, is this even an issue? It is because the Associated Press Stylebook, which has scraped many barnacles off its hull--but there were so many--advises in the entitled entry, "Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled." This advice I followed for many years, until I didn't. The title/entitle distinction was also upheld by the late John Bremner, who as the admired (and occasionally feared) Oscar S. Stauffer Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas and the author of Words on Words, had considerable influence on U.S. journalism. The origin of "rules" like this one lies in editors' relentless pursuit of precision in language, which tempts them to invent distinctions. The Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, in a notable example, expressed a suggestion that English would be tidier if that were only used to introduce restrictive dependent clauses, which only to introduce nonrestrictive dependent clauses. The British have persisted in ignoring this pious wish for the past century, but among U.S. editors it has become a Rule with a status on par with Newton's Four Laws of Motion. My recommendation is that you should have better things to spend time on than title/entitle, but if you must dither over whether a sentence should read "Mark Twain wrote a book titled Huckleberry Finn" or "Mark Twain wrote a book entitled Huckleberry Finn," just make it "Mark Twain wrote a book, Huckleberry Finn." The italics (or quotation marks, if you're still in thrall to the AP Stylebook) will do the job for you.
Hands off the books
Books were not plentiful in Elizaville, the tobacco-farming town in Kentucky where I grew up. Most people did not have shelves and shelves of books, and neither did the schools. There was no public library until I was a teenager. But there were comic books available at Gene Wood's general store, from which I accumulated Disney and superhero fare. When we visited my sister Georgia, a student at Morehead State, the drugstore there sold copies of Classics Comics for students to use as trots in English classes. I was a regular customer, and thanks to that drugstore I will never have to read Ivanhoe. At home there were some volumes of the Bobbsey Twins series that had belonged to Georgia, and I read them all because I would read anything. Recognizing the insipidity of Nan, Bert, Freddie, and Flossie pointed to a nascent critical faculty. After that it was the Hardy Boys, which my grandmother would buy me as a treat, at a dollar each, on her shopping trips to Maysville. One summer the county school system set up an improvised library with some sketchy holdings. Always interested in history, I selected a book of profiles of twentieth-century authoritarian leaders. My mother, thinking it might be too advanced for me, asked the supervising teacher if it was the sort of thing for me, and, to my enduring gratitude, she answered, "If he's interested, let him give it a try."From that day, no one has ever set limits in what I might read, and I have indulged that freedom fully. In time bookmobile service came to Fleming County, and I was allowed to ride along with Ms. Betty Jean Moss as a volunteer assistant. My mother would make pimento cheese sandwiches on salt-rising bread, and we would take off to the towns around the county. Women and children would pour out of these towns and carry off armloads of books. Finally the county put up the funds to establish a public library, of which I became a regular patron. Moreover, I spent a year working as a volunteer assistant to the librarian, Ms. Margaret Davis, checking books out, shelving returns, and recommending titles. In high school and college, and since, I have read voraciously; history and biography, high literature and low. I was a teenager when I discovered Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe murder mysteries, and in my professional life I discovered that after a long day of working with journalists, nothing gave more pleasure than a comfortable chair, a strong light, a drink at my elbow, and a book in which disagreeable people meet violent death. "Reading maketh a full man," Francis Bacon wrote. Books have been my life, my education, my career, my greatest pleasure, and they have been that because from my youth I was granted the freedom to explore them. Today I see reports of efforts to remove titles from educational curricula and public libraries, efforts to restrict students' and adults' access to information about the world around them. There is a blatant and monstrous dishonesty in claiming that freedom to read widely is a kind of indoctrination, and that limiting that freedom is not. It is an attempt to create what Milton in the Areopagitica dismissed as "a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexerecised and unbreathed," unequipped to cope with the seriousness of life. Milton was right in 1644 to argue that people should have the freedom to read all manner of books and to sort out their merits, and that freedom is right today. Let the children read. Let them discover what quickens their interest, speaks to them, enlarges their understanding of the world they encounter. Take the blinders off.
Copy desks rise, fall
As a tyro on the copy desk of The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1980, I entered a scorned subculture. At many U.S. newspapers the copy desk functioned like those places of internal exile in the old Soviet Union. It was the place where reporters fetched up after their legs or livers gave out. Newspapers didn't fire people, but shuttled them about until they reached the place where they did the least damage to the operation, and there they stayed. The copy desk was management's last resort. It was an article of faith among reporters that were it not for the interference of copy editors, American journalism would see an efflorescence of English prose not seen since the reign of the first Elizabeth. A reporter at The Enquirer once explained to me that the process his work underwent on the desk was "running it through the dull machine." As it happened, I was familiar with his oeuvre, notable mainly for mixed metaphors and non-Euclidean uses of the comma. In search of a paper of greater sophistication, I secured a position on the copy desk of The Baltimore Sun, where a reporter described the process his work underwent as "running it through the Dullatron." This artist was given to the construction of metaphors so grotesque that he was known on the copy desk as "the Purple-izer."It was also at The Sun that as head of the copy desk I once reported to a supervisor whose little, oft-repeated joke was to call the copy desk "a necessary evil." For the record, when it was not being used as a dumping ground, the copy desk attracted smart, irreverent people for whom gallows humor constituted morale. It offered, as Robert Gottlieb describes in Avid Reader, happiness "as part of a relatively small group of congenial, like-minded people with whom I shared a common goal." We knew what the others thought of us, but there were no secrets from us because we saw what they had written. And we worked to hide their shame from the public.In the 1990s editors at the American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized that newspaper copy editors were widely neglected and demoralized, and their efforts encouraged the founding in 1997 of the American Copy Editors Society (now ACES: The Society for Editing), of which I was a charter member. The goal was to increase recognition of our obscure craft and raise standards. Within a few years, a handful of major newspapers appointed assistant managing editors to oversee news, features, and sports copy desks, to codify standards, and to recruit, train, and mentor copy editors. For one brief shining moment it worked. Then, over the past twenty years, the bottom fell out of the paragraph game, and the sharp-pencil people concluded that the copy desk was evil (read: expensive), but not necessary.
The Sun turns on H.L. Mencken
When on February 18 The Baltimore Sun published an apology for its history of racial prejudice, its editorial board took a swipe at H.L. Mencken, the most distinguished journalist in its 185 years of publication. While allowing that Mencken had opposed lynchings in the 1930s, the board chose to focus on the "deep-seated racism and antisemtism" that came to light when his diary was published in 1989 and said that the posting of a quotation from Mencken in the lobby of the paper's Calvert Street offices revealed "a lack of self-awareness and sensitivity."Perhaps the board was not aware of Mencken: The American Iconoclast by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, which recounts Mencken's efforts with the NAACP over four years in the 1930s to oppose lynchings, including his testimony in 1935 before the Senate Judiciary Committee in favor of the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill. The last article he published before his stroke called for desegregation of the tennis courts in Druid Hill Park. It seems also possible that the board was unaware of The Sage in Harlem by Charles Scruggs, which says that "more than any other critic in American letters, black or white, Mencken made it possible for the black writer to be treated as a fellow laborer in the vineyard," including the work of W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, and James Weldon Johnson. And despite dismissal of him as an anti-Semite, one of Mencken's closest friends was Alfred Knopf, his publisher, with whom he traveled to the Bach festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, another a rabbi from Oheb Shalom, and, still more, musicians with whom he played in his Saturday night group, according to a lecture by David S. Thayer delivered in 2015 at the Pratt Library's annual Mencken Day event. People working as journalists might recall his fierce opposition to censorship, his ridicule of the Babbittry of the Harding-Coolidge years, or his support of John T. Scopes and Darwinian evolution during the Monkey Trial in Dayton, Tennessee. But the diary entries are there in public view and cannot be whitewashed. You can say that his wife's death had darkened his view, as his political views as a Grover Cleveland Democrat had gone into eclipse during the New Deal. Understanding that does not wipe away or excuse the ugly stuff. Mencken in his youth was much influenced by reading Nietzsche and as an adult he was a thoroughgoing libertarian. I realized this in reading his article on chiropractic, which amused me as a teenager as typical American exaggeration for humorous effect, and which I later came to think he meant seriously. At one point in the essay he muses that medical quacks may perform a useful public service, because they "suck in the botched, and help them on to bliss eternal." If you are a Nietzschean believer that some individuals have the strength of mind to construct their own characters and that most people don't, you can befriend similarly exemplary figures while dismissing the groups they come from with contempt. And if you are a thoroughgoing libertarian, you can say complacently that all people make choices and that stupid people who make bad choices get what is coming to them. I don't hold those views myself, but understanding them helps me to see why Mencken wrote what he did. That understanding makes it possible to see Mencken in a broader and more complex manner than simply resorting to the labels of "racist" and "anti-Semite" (applied to him by a paper that has been coasting on his reputation for decades). Understanding can go beyond retroactive virtue. We need to see that there is something about America in the 1619 Project, and also in the Enlightenment perspective of the founding, that the Founders often owned slaves but also gave us a vision of a better functioning republic. We can see that Franklin Roosevelt is not defined by his signing of the order to intern Japanese Americans. We can see that Lyndon Johnson carried water for Southern segregationists for years before he became the great civil rights president. We can try to see people as a whole. We can see Henry Mencken as a man capable of writing vile, bitter things that were not worthy of his best work, work which we can still honor.
Two warm days, before the cold returns
Yesterday, on a walk with Kathleen and a neighbor, we passed a house with a yard full of crocuses to which bees were giving their attention. Daffodils are visible on the south side of our house, though they have not yet bloomed. That morning, standing out a window at five, I saw a mature red fox trot down the sidewalk in front of the house.On a walk this morning, I saw that the maple tree at the bottom on the hill next to the bridge over Herring Run was preparing to come out in bloom, and the deciduous magnolias on the west side of our house are about to follow suit with the first of their messy droppings. Also this morning, the neighborhood was full of robins, which I expect will soon swarm over our holly tree to consume the berries, as they do every year. This year I will not be at The Sun's offices at Port Covington to witness the blooming of the locust trees at the back of the property, or smell their fragrance to remind me of my childhood in Kentucky.The rain is beginning now, and the thunderstorms and cold front are on the way, but I have had two days to sit on the porch in fair weather to read in a book Daniel Okrent's posts as public editor of The New York Times, raising issues for journalism that remain current, and reading on my cellphone dispatches from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which also tell an old story that has not gone away. Spring in the third year of the pandemic will come, though I want it to come faster. I hope that The Sun will husband its strength under its new corporate owner and that The Baltimore Banner will soon launch as a fresh journalistic voice for the city. I hope that Ukraine will survive the brutal battering that is coming and that the West will help preserve it. I want to see the robins eat those holly berries and show me that life sustains.
To correct and serve
For many years at The Baltimore Sun my hands were the ones through which corrections moved into the paper. Errors of fact, either identified internally or through readers' complaints, were written by reporters or editors, approved by the managing editor, and sent to me for final examination before publication. We were scrupulous about this because, despite the nighttime telephone calls denouncing us as a filthy liberal rag, factual accuracy was important. And yes, we had errors of fact. Names misspelled, the fundamental error in journalism. Math lapses. (Always calculate the percentage yourself.) I sent through the correction on a features story that informed readers that carbon MONoxide would stop hiccups. (Technically, of course it will, but ...)There is a widespread superstition among newspaper people that the original error cannot be repeated in the correction--probably an extension of the sound judgment that in apologizing for a libel it is good not to repeat the libel. But after we ran a correction telling no more than that a photo caption the previous day was of the wrong sea turtle, the editor decreed that we must repeat the error when it is necessary to make the correction comprehensible. The Sun took collective responsibility for errors rather than name the person responsible, which irritated reporters when an editor had been at fault: "It's my byline on the story, and readers will think I made the error." While I was sympathetic to the complaint, it remains a fact that what is published is a collective work, and reporters don't mind taking credit for stories that have been improved in editing.(I once saw a story that passed through so many hands in repeated bouts of editing that the version sent to the copy desk for publication may not have contained a single sentence as originally written by the reporter. I was briefly tempted to write after the reporter's byline "as told to The Baltimore Sun." And no, I am not naming names. My entire career was devoted to concealing writers' and editors' shortcomings, and it is too late to start now.) From time to time, the paper was moved to publish a clarification rather than a correction. The point of a clarification is that while the published article was factually accurate, it had been written in a way that permitted an inaccurate inference.Errors of grammar and usage of infelicities of prose were not subject to published corrections. They were instead dealt with in the in-house newsletter that I wrote, Publish and Be Damned.In the case of this blog, and the one I published for years at baltimoresun.com, I had no copy editor, so crowdsourcing identified my lapses. I always promptly and gratefully accepted corrections. (There was one point late in my tenure at The Sun when I pissed off one of my masters and was instructed to have another editor vet my posts, but the supervision was cursory.) The unvarying form of the correction always ended with "The Sun regrets the error." And so did I.
Corpora Punishment: A Grammar Noir Tale
Part 1: An editor walks into a bar The day was leaking sunlight all over Baltimore at three o'clock, but that was not doing me any good. I was taking the healing waters in a dark saloon with a group of congenial barflies, discussing the finer points of demurrage and maritime law, when a seedy character crept in, put his hat on the bar, and ordered a beer. The tapster set down a brimming beaker, and the seedy character said, "Hey, don't splash it on my fedora.""It's a trilby," I said. "What?""Those stingy-brim hats are called trilbies, named for the headgear of the eponymous heroine of George du Maurier's novel. Fedoras, which have wide brims and a center crease, were named for the hat Sarah Bernhardt wore as she played the eponymous heroine of Victorien Sardou's drama." "You must be a copy editor. Nobody else knows that kind of stuff. Hey, are you the one that upstart publication lured out of retirement?""I own the soft impeachment. What's your game?""You're the guy I came to see. They told me you hang out with these tosspots all the time. But, like, it has to be confidential.""All right," I said. "Let's step into the back room for a minute."We repaired to an even darker corner. He looked around guardedly and turned a sweaty face to me."Spill it," I said.He whispered, "The peeververein are consolidating.""Usage cranks? Consolidating"?"Yeah. Different groups coming together. The Decimate Means 10 Percent crowd and the Kids Are Goats group have formed Etymology Is Destiny. Then they hooked up with the Two Spaces After a Period mob, the Over/More Than element, and the Standard English Is the Only English alliance." "And?""They're calling their organization Make English Great Again.""So what? They can't do anything beyond infesting social media and talking among themselves.""You're wrong, I'm tellin' ya. They've consulted Nevile Gwynne and Jacob Rees-Mogg. They mean business.""What kind of business?"He looked around again and bent close to my ear."Their goons got Paula Froke."Part 2: The plot that failedI gave him a look of disbelief that would credit a managing editor looking over a foreign correspondent's expense report. "What in the name of Henry Watson Fowler do they think they're going to do with the editor of the Associated Press Stylebook?"They're going to slap her up in a secure facility at the University of Austin and make her revoke all the changes she's made since becoming editor, and then they're going to start dictating new rules to her." "Where are they holding her now?""They got her in a ballroom at the Hotel Pedantry.""Drink your Smithwick's. I've got this."The cabbie who dropped me off at the hotel half an hour later gave a fishy look at my bow tie, but my tip kept his mouth buttoned. I entered the lobby and walked up to the muscle standing at the ballroom door."No admission," he said. "Listen, sunshine," I said, "I used to be an assistant managing editor, and I don't take any guff from reptiles like you."He went pale and swung the door open.I walked up to some dimwit standing in front of a MEGA banner and gassing on about the split-verb rule, and took the microphone from him."Listen, you mugs," I told the crowd, "this little escapade is as pointless as reverse body type. Writers don't pay any attention to the AP Stylebook. They've never opened one. The only people who care about the stylebook are the copy editors, and the copy editor has been snuffed out like the dodo, the passenger pigeon, and the moderate Republican."They gasped. "Now scram, the lot of you. I've got an autographed copy of Dreyer's English, and I'm not afraid to use it."They scuttled away like an op-ed columnist who's seen a fact checker.As I untied the ropes holding Froke in a chair she opened her mouth to begin thanking me, but I said, "Skip it, sister. There's still enough afternoon left to take the healing waters. Come along and I'll buy you a drink."She likes Manhattans. The End
I have to say it again: English ain't algebra
Yesterday brought a Twitterspat in which I engaged, probably unwisely, with a woman who commented that logic governs English grammar and punctuation. This misconception rises because people become literate and are taught English grammar and stylebook conventions of punctuation, but are never taught the language, that is, the principles of language that linguists have discerned. (Neither was I taught linguistics in school or college, and I've had a great deal of catching up to do.)Take punctuation. It doesn't require deep thought to see that its conventions are arbitrary. In American English, we put commas and periods inside quotation marks; British English does the opposite. I have seen people indulge in online disputes over which convention is more logical, but you can argue one side and then argue the other side until the cows come home. Punctuation is more fashion than logic, as you can see in Making a Point, David Crystal's history of English punctuation, or Keith Houston's Shady Characters The Secret Life of Punctuation Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. (Crystal here.)As to grammar, we know many principles on which it operates, but they too are arbitrary, often accidents of cultural development. Old English collided with Norman French after A.D. 1066, and the Middle English that developed shed most of the inflections of Old English and the gendered nouns of the French. Other languages, though, maintain inflections and gendered nouns; are they more or less logical than English?We know that the fundamental syntactical pattern in English is subject-verb-object. That isn't necessarily the case elsewhere. We know the order of adjectives, the deep grammar that enables us to talk about the little gray stone church and to see that the stone gray little church isn't right. They are principles, but logic has nothing to do with them. And neither does it seem logical that English should harbor a clutch of words called contranyms, like sanction, which bear opposite meanings. Places where reliable information about English grammar can be found are Don't Believe a Word by David Shariatmadari and The Joy of Syntax by June Casagrande. (Shariatmadari here; Casagrande here.) Then you will see that logic is useful for argument but irrelevant for grammar. The person in the Twitterspat was a lawyer who took it ill when I mentioned Samuel Johnson's observation that we are more pained by ignorance than delighted by instruction. I think I deserve some credit for not quoting what Dr. Johnson said about lawyers.