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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.
Your turn now

Yesterday was the final class session of my editing course at Loyola University Maryland. Feeling impelled to make some final remarks, I told my students something along these lines:

The kind of writing and editing we do today, writing informed by the traditions and conventions of journalism, has its roots in the eighteenth century, when an emerging middle class began to achieve and flex political power. It was also the time, by no coincidence, that newspapers began to come into their own, writing for that emerging middle class.

The service our writing and editing performs, at its best, is hinted at in something that Alexander Hamilton wrote in the first number of The Federalist: “It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined...

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Something to sew on a sampler

In “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” collected in Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor makes a point about attempting to do new things in fiction that can readily be extended to similar attempts in journalistic writing:

“It’s always wrong of course to say that you can’t do this or you can’t do that in fiction. You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much.

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Singular "they": the arguments

Writing at Motivated Grammar in 2009, Gabriel Doyle made a thorough and compelling case for accepting singular they as a legitimate epicene third-person pronoun.

There is an archive of posts on the subject at Language Log. Stan Carey was sensible on the subject in a 2013 post at Sentence first.

After a burst of articles on the subject this spring, the redoubtable Mededitor explored some of the complexities associated with use of singular they in his post “They They My My.”

And today at Stroppy Editor, Tom Freeman has posted one of the most thoroughgoing and persuasive treatments, not simply rebutting the familiar arguments against singular use, but presenting further evidence of use by reputable writers and evidence from Google Books and the Corpus of Contemporary American English to demonstrate how widespread actual use has become.

You do not have to like or use singular they; no one is holding a gun to your head. But if, after looking at the articles, following the arguments and examining...

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Too true to be good

The shocking embarrassment of Rolling Stone over its campus rape story brings to mind the Jayson Blair scandal at The New York Times, the Jack Kelley scandal at USA Today, the Janet Cooke scandal at The Washington Post, and any number of less-notorious instances of fabrication and plagiarism.

What all these disgraces have in common is a failure of editors to fulfill their duty to be skeptical. And we know how they come about: The story was just too good, or the writer was a star who had risen to a status above editing, or simple haste, carelessness, or laziness led to the inevitable result.

At the invitation of the Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Press Foundation, I will be conducting a workshop on Skeptical Editing on Friday, May 8, from 9:00 a.m. to noon at The Baltimore Sun, 501 North Calvert Street in Baltimore. The cost is $75 for MDDC Press Association members, $85 for non-members. A registration form is here.

If you are skeptical about the utility of such a workshop (as you...

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In a word: snickersnee

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 

SNICKERSNEE

You are probably most familiar with this word for a large knife (pronounced SNICK-er-snee) from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado: “As I gnashed my teeth, / When from its sheath I drew my snicker-snee.”

But the word we have not from Japan but from the Netherlands. The Dutch steken, “to stab,” and snijden, “to cut,” appear to be the roots. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a 1727 entry from Abel Boyer’s Dictionnaire Royal, “Snicker-snee (the Dutch way of fighting with pointed Knives).” The OED also lists an early eighteenth-century sense as a verb, “to fight with knives.”

So it appears that the word was a noun and a verb for the fight before it developed its current sense of the weapon involved.

Knife itself we have from the Old Norse knifr, which became the Middle English knif. (The k was...

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Vindication

One of those hairsplitting issues with which copy editors have long been preoccupied is the convince/persuade distinction.

The main argument for it has been that one is convinced of something; one is persuaded to do something. That is, one does not follow convince with an infinitive.

In a number of posts I have attempted to draw a distinction of intensity of meaning, that convince, with its tie to conviction, suggests something stronger than persuade: I can be persuaded to do something even if I am not convinced that it is a good idea.

As far as I can tell, this argument has been thoroughly ignored every time I have made it.

Consider my pleasure the other day when, reading Joseph J. Ellis’s American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic,* I came across John Marshall’s comment on the debate between Patrick Henry and James Madison over Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution: “Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade. … Mr. Madison had the...

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