Saturday, March 03, 2007

McIntyre's bon mots

I make no secret of it, John McIntyre, AME in charge of the desks at the Baltimore Sun, is one of the people I greatly respect in this business. Erudite and not prone to needlessly throwing grenades, he still allows himself the occasional Molotov cocktail -- or in lesser cases just a rubber band zinged across the room -- at appropriate times.

I have been painfully behind on my reading and just getting to catch up on about two months' of John's blog. I recommend to you a whole skein of recent posts about the language (and life). Some recent bon mots (in some cases I have collapsed paragraphing):

  • Looking for errors in daily newspapers is like fishing with dynamite; it’s just too easy to be morally sound.
  • It is well past time to retire the red state/blue state cliche. The best reason is that it is a cliche, a kind of automatic writing that releases the writer from the unpleasant challenges of imagination and thought. But there is a subtler reason for shying away from these terms, lying in the tendency of words and images to warp perceptions. ...
  • One of the things I’ve struggled to accomplish in these operations is to keep a distance from dogmatic grammar snobs while maintaining that useful and important judgments can be made about language and usage. ... The year I abandoned my uncompleted doctorate in English, I came across a dissertation abstract that said — the author’s own summary, mind you — that Jonathan Swift thought true love to be superior to false love. The thought of having to read several thousand words leading up to this remarkable conclusion was a serious deterrent to the academic life. This was also about the time that the nimble thoughts of Messrs. Barthes, Derrida and Foucault swept over the American academy, leading to the production by less gifted practitioners of a prose stodge defying comprehension. Some might call it gibberish. Some have. ... (from an excellent ongoing series of posts about the evolving language and usage that began with the question of whether "impactful" has reached acceptance).
  • My students look vaguely baffled — it is one of their most common expressions — when I try to explain that the traditional and established meaning of disinterested is impartial, not having an interest in the matter at hand. A judge, I tell them, is supposed to be disinterested, not caring which side wins or loses at trial. To be disinterested means not having a dog in that fight. Then they go back to using disinterested, as do their fellows, to mean uninterested, with only a flickering recognition that they are trapped for a semester in a classroom with some old guy who carries on about things that no one else cares about.
  • It is not the barbarians at the gate whom we address — they all seem want to learn English. It is the citizens inside whose carelessness and affectations mar their own prose.
If you are not reading John's posts of every few days (as I sadly fell behind on), you are missing one of the great students of English and journalism and will be the poorer for it.

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