By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
10:21 AM EST, December 13, 2012
A brief preface for the liturgically uninformed:
Kathleen looked up from the comics pages this morning and marveled, "There are really people who think that this is the second day of Christmas." I believe she was looking at Mother Goose and Grimm.
The twelve days of Christmas are not the twelve days leading up to Christmas. This is Advent. The twelve days of Christmas begin on Christmas Day and run until the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. Lord knows no one can stop your listening to "The Little Drummer Boy" and all that other ghastly kitsch during Advent, but you could at least make an effort to get the terms right.*
And now on to business:
Postings have been sparse during the last week or so as I have been fighting off some minor malaise, but other people have been industrious.
Item: I realize the risk that complaining about people who misunderstand "the twelve days of Christmas" makes me look like a stickler, i.e., a common scold. A sobering correction for the tendency can be found at Carol Saller's Subversive Copy Editor blog, in a post "How Sticklers Give Copyediting a Bad Name": "When copyeditors brag that they haven’t overlooked a typo since they were twelve, they reinforce the image of a superficial reader with her elementary-school list of rules chopping away at the weeds without noticing the forest or where the path is headed. They relegate our profession to the status of other stereotypes that ignore the challenging, creative, intellectual aspects of a job: the librarian who is there to shush, the accountant to count beans; the novelist to crank out what everyone would if they* only had the time."
(You can read the post to see the note the asterisk points to.)
Item: I agree with the Fowler boys that, in general, it would be a good thing to introduce restrictive relative clauses with that and nonrestrictive, or parenthetical, relative clauses with which. But, as the formidable Geoffrey Pullum points out in "A Rule Which Will Live in Infamy" at Lingua Franca, that recommendation has ossified into a bogus rule.
That essay is worth reading, as is a follow-up at Language Log in which he acknowledges the Sisyphean effort to reason with academics: "if you want the stupid TA to give you an A on your paper, and said stupid TA insists on no passives and no which-relatives, what options do you have? If you want to publish your paper in a high-impact psychology journal, and its brain-dead editor insists on no split infinitives and no which relatives and no uses of since in its inferential meaning, what can you do? Some people live under savage and unyielding oppression of this sort. But I thought it was worth speaking out anyway. The way one does about Syria or North Korea. The tyrants are not listening to me, but I just want to have said it: I do not approve of tyranny"
Item: Also at Language Log, the ever-patient Mark Liberman explains how a Wall Street Journal article on Our Uneducated Young People is a blatantly ignorant account of a study and a classic example of the shallowness of our journalism.
It is odd but fascinating that our journalism predictably follows two opposite tracks. One is the belief in inexorable progress. We don't have those promised flying cars yet, but we like the giddy predictions of futurists about all the things that our unfailingly ingenious technology is going to accomplish for us. Parallel to that is the belief that we are in steady decay, which turns up most persistently in education stories indicating that with each generation we are falling further short of our forefathers.
Let me remind you. Thirty-five years ago I was a graduate assistant teaching composition to undergraduates at Syracuse University. Today I teach editing at Loyola University Maryland to the children of that generation. Neither generation was particularly adept at writing (no surprise; writing is hard) or particularly well-stocked with information. Progress and decay may in fact both occur, but neither looks overwhelming or inexorable.
Item: At Poynter.org, Criag Silverman has posted "The best (and worst) media errors and corrections of 2012," always an instructive, and humbling, roundup.
*For further reading, I recommend Diana Butler Bass on "The War on Advent."
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