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  Mike Zetteler

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Mon. June 07, 2004:  wordsniffer

To: Whitney Gould
Cc: [Copy Chief]
Subject: A nose for good writing.

Dear Ms. Gould:
This message may seem a little belated, referring as it does to a "Spaces" column of yours from April 28 about the home of Nick Cascarano in Glendale.  At any rate, though I enjoy your work & generally agree with you to the extent that I have an opinion about the architectural matters you discuss,  I think it is just as important that you care so much about them to the extent of trying to enlighten others.  In the same way, as a former reporter & still a writer & editor (for my Web site), I care enough about
English usage & journalism to be taken aback by the phrase you use to describe a Review Board member's description of the house that "Everyone
hated."  To quote:
     "A Jiffy Lube," one sniffed.
     As the New Yorker magazine might have once put it, I doubt those are words that ever got sniffed. They could have been shouted, or whispered or croaked or simply said.  But -- and this is a common annoyance with me -- they could not have been smiled, sneered or laughed, for example.  If you think otherwise, when you have a private moment try to sniff them.  Let me know how it sounds, if you would.
     I don't expect every reporter to be aware of such nuances, I guess, though it is reasonable, but surely the Journal Sentinel's notoriously weak copy desk should be familiar with such a common error, as that is what they are paid for.  I would simply change such a phrase to: "A Jiffy Lube," one said, sniffing.  Or, one sniffed and said, "A Jiffy Lube."  Of course, this works with all such attempts to express words in ways that have nothing to do with the way speech is produced.

Yours for careful writing,
Mike Zetteler

Date: Tue, 08 Jun 2004 
From: Whitney Gould 
Subject: RE: A nose for good writing.
To: Mike Zetteler 

Hi, Mike.
Thanks for your note.  I guess we are just going to have to agree to disagree on this one.  "Sniff" was precisely the word I wanted to use, to convey the snootiness of that neighbor's response to this house.  My dictionary lists one of the definitions of sniff as: "to express disdain, skepticism, etc."  It's one of several intransitive verbs (snort
is another one) that can properly be used to convey an attitude. You don't have to literally sniff (or snort) to suggest what you mean.  All sorts of writers we admire, from Jane Austen to Charles Dickens, have used sniff in this context.

Best regards,
Whitney Gould
Urban landscape writer
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Comment:  Maybe a good defense, from someone you can tell just hates to concede a point, however minor,  but suspicious, as noted in this follow-up:
     Sniff does indeed have the desired
connotations, but Gould herself states that it is defined as an intransitive verb for this, & I think that literally sniffing or snorting, for example, are just the sounds the author wishes to convey, or at least approximate, in these cases.  How else to tell one attitude from the other?   To couple sniffed with a word or phrase, though, seems transitive to me, & not supported by her example or -- to repeat -- speech mechanics.  It is true an Internet search for such usage will turn up some examples, but they are, again, almost always the intransitive kind except for some who might be considered less polished writers than Jane Austen, such as Sinclair Lewis  [called by his own biographer, Mark Schorer:

   . . . one of the worst writers in modern American literature,  [though] without his writing one cannot imagine modern American literature.  That is because, without his writing, we can hardly imagine ourselves." ]

 In fact, of all 41 examples of sniffed & snorted words turned up by in English literature, 7 are from a Lewis character & one is from Booth Tarkington.  Not a one from anyone else, neither Dickens nor Austen. The others all literally sniff (or snort); many, of course, on the hunt for an actual odor.  And of course, even Shakespeare may lapse on occasion.  That doesn't mean they don't occur, of course, though it can't be very common.  But, complicating matters, while I know writers on the subject have commented to this same end (thus my own internalized objection -- that, & common sense), a search of the Internet & my own reference works has not turned up any such discussion, no doubt because there is no easy search term to enter.  Just looking for sniff or snort or laugh or other misused words doesn't necessarily lead to the applicable opinion, as the authority may have used entirely different examples or subject headings.  I'll keep looking, though, until I sniff something out, because I know it's there.         

Thu. Jan 23, 2003:  awoken/awakened

Subject: RE: Waking up to correct usage
Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2003
From: "Meg Kissinger"
To: "Mike Zetteler"
Cc: "George Stanley"
     hey, Mike.  My dictionary not only has "awoken,"  but it list [sic] it as the preferred usage. (Oxford) I hope you haven't been carrying this around in your head since last September.  thanks for reading.

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Zetteler
Sent: Wed 1/22/2003
Subject: Waking up to correct usage
Dear Ms. Kissinger:
     Regarding your story "Aging with grace" (Tue. Sept.24, 2002), I gather that you & the JS weak copy desk (which should have caught the error) 
are under the impression that there is such a word as "awoken," here used in "will have awoken each morning. . . ."
     I, at least, can't find it in my dictionary, & suggest "awakened" be used in the future.  Or let me know if I'm wrong, perhaps by the time I wake up in the morning.
     Mike Zetteler
Comment:  Seems like she had a point.  But wait, there's something sneaky behind that "it (OED) list [sic] it as the preferred usage."  
     So I tried for some  mutual elaboration, but she evaded further discussion, in the
Next Exchange:

     Dear Ms. Kissinger:
     My apologies -- well, almost.  I suppose you're rather busy, but I thought that if were in your position I would want a reader to drop a line to admit to being overzealous.  And when I checked an online dictionary (Merriam-Webster), as opposed to my small Webster's New World, I did indeed find "awoken."  I learned a lesson, to check another source online before being so critical. Then I read in a JS Perspectives page article (Sat. 1/25) about the West Bank occupation that "I am awakened by gunfire. . . ."
     Wait a minute, I thought, how can this be?  Even tho newspapers may follow different style sheets & some are idiosyncratic (such as the Chicago Tribune, w/ its "fonetic" spellings (probably before your time), copy desks at least strive for consistency.  That's why most newsrooms I've been in have a big, unabridged Webster's somewhere in the room for everyone to access, so they wouldn't rely on some other source (such as even the OED, venerable tho it is).  But I looked again at your reply, & was even more puzzled.  That you could find "awoken" in the OED is reasonable, as it includes the most outdated appearances in the language, but what does it mean to say it is the preferred usage? If it is the first listing for another word or phrase such as "awakened" or "to wake up," you should know that the Oxford is unique among dictionaries, as far as I know, in that the oldest -- & most likely archaic -- entries are listed first, to trace their development, while most others list the preferred usage first. Thus, the preferred usage, being contemporary, is  last in the Oxford.  In other dictionaries, this usually implies slang or casual (as in "loosely") usage.
     Check <
> where it says:
The Oxford English Dictionary is based upon historical principles, and the meanings of individual words entered in the Dictionary are therefore ordered chronologically, within a semantic framework resembling a family tree. Earlier meanings (or related groups of meanings) of a word are placed before later ones, and it is typically possible to track the semantic development of a word over time throughout an entry.
     In any case, both of the instances I cite in your paper can't be preferred; I leave it to the future to see which prevails.
     Unfortunately, I couldn't check the online OED entries for "awaken" myself, since it is a paid subscriber service.
     By the way, it's not that I carried this matter around in my head since Sept.  It's just that I have long felt that the JS's copy editing has gone downhill, maybe because they are understaffed & overworked, & I began saving examples, perhaps for an article of my own.  Something finally snapped, & I began e-mailing a few offenders. Sadly, tho you & Crocker Stephenson were professional about it, others -- including George Stanley -- responded like prima donnas, enraged that they could be criticized, tho reporters do it every day on your pages to others.  Spice & Bivak and [Tim] Cuprisin often drip sarcasm in their columns, to name 2 examples (& you could certainly sting), yet Stanley lectured me on how to communicate properly.  At least the hyper-sensitive & defensive replies I got -- & just what are the reporters' e-mail addresses supposed to garner?  Lots of praise?  Fat chance, I would think -- can be material for any commentary on the matter I may write for another publication. . . . 
     Especially since Stanley implied I was being cut off from further communication except for US Mail for my temerity.  I'll see whether this gets through; even a two-word reply will let me know (you can make it rude; I can handle it).
     I hope all this hasn't been too pedantic or draining for you.  I enjoy your writing.
     Mike Zetteler

From: "Meg Kissinger"
To: "Mike Zetteler"
Subject: RE: Waking up to correct usage

no intrusion.  i enjoy the discussion.  it's what makes america -- and a good newspaper -- lively.  in the words of the immortal mr. burns, "Shine on, you crazy diamond."

Mon. Feb. 16, 2004:  "Little Boxes"

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Zetteler 
Sent: Monday, February 16, 2004 
To: Dave Tianen
Subject: "Little Boxes," little omission

Dear Dave:

You probably won't remember me as a stringer for the Northeast Post newspaper when you were my editor.  Anyway, regarding your McGarrigle's review, you may know but chose to overlook that Malvina Reynolds in 1961 wrote "Little Boxes," as a little searching on Google will attest, though Pete Seeger did record it on an album (as did many others) & sang it at his well-known 1962 Carnegie Hall performance.  It is her singles version that I remember from the radio in the early 60's, though of course I am older than you.  She seems like she was an admirable person -- songwriter & activist -- & should probably get some credit.  I have a high regard for the old lefties, & they shouldn't be dismissed as irrelevant, even more so today.

You may be interested in an updated .MP3 version at <

I enjoy your work.
 --Mike Zetteler

From the site:
The song will begin playing soon after this page loads.  There is a control to stop it.  If you'd like to download your own copy, please Click HERE. Remember, though - it is a copyrighted work: Malvina Reynolds wrote the original song (words & music), while I (Roger Scimé) contributed all the lyrics that follow the first verse.  All rights are reserved.

Date: Mon, 16 Feb 2004 
From: Dave Tianen 
Subject: RE: "Little Boxes," little omission
To: Mike Zetteler 

Hi Mike,
I remember Pete’s version which was a minor hit.  I don’t remember the original.  I thought it was a little bit unusual that they chose to sing in it in French. Nice to hear from you.
Dave Tianen

Comment:  I didn't raise another point, that Tianen wrote that the tune "was sung in French to avoid the snobby smugness [my ital.] of the original."  But surely the song is a reaction to the consumerism & conformity of the times, not snobbery.  As a poor Jewish socialist from the Bay area who wrote about her factory life before earning many degrees & creating numerous works for children, she would hardly consider herself socially superior to working-class achievers, though she did abhor their loss of individuality.  Her grace & simplicity are displayed here, written  about two years before her death on March 17, 1978:

 From Malvina's Sporadic Times, Vol I No. 3: June, 1976

It's a bit early for my epitaph, but I've made a resolution to get things done on time and not wait till the last minute.


Celebrate my death for the good times I've had,
For the work that I've done and the friends that I've made,
Celebrate my death, of whom it could be said,
“She was a workingclass woman, and a red.”

My man was the best, a comrade and a friend,
Fighting on the good side to the very end,
My child was a darling, merry, strong and fine,
And all the world's children were mine.

Is that a snob?
And of course the turbulent, eclectic
McGarrigles likely wouldn't countenance smugness or snobbery in their sources, either.  But they are French-Canadian & noted for performing & recording in French, so there's no mystery here.

Sun. Feb. 26, 2003: whale/wail

On 2/26/03, 
"Mike Zetteler" wrote:

     Dear Philip Chard:
     You may wail like a baby when you read this, but I doubt whether you were "wailing on someone" you could defeat in your childhood, as you wrote in your Milwaukee Journal Sentinel column of Feb. 25, 2003.  Though it was a whale of a story, you probably had been "whaling" on him, at least according to my dictionary.  An unusual slip on your part, no doubt, but I am writing primarily to copy this to the JS's weak copy desk.  Though they wouldn't usually scrutinize syndicated material, as I assume this is, really closely, they still should have caught it.  I wonder how many others did.
     Mike Zetteler

Re: "Whaling" on Journal Sentinel weak copy

To: Mike Zetteler

     Dear Mike:
Many of you caught it.  Unfortunately, I did not.  While I certainly hope for help from the copy editors, I don't count on it.  It was my error.  In fact, there were four errors in the column; two for spelling and two for grammar.  The other spelling error was "ally" rather than "alley," and my use of "he" instead of "him" and "we" instead of "us" also brought out the grammar police.

Thanks for reading.  And, yes, I am wailing.  Best regards.
     Philip Chard
Oddly enough, though I didn't have the heart -- or time -- to point it out, he later
(Nov. 22, 2004):
 "In my extended family, I have witnessed parents striking, yelling at and going ballistic on their children. Even in public settings, one encounters moms and dads wailing on little ones under the rationalization of "discipline."
And also (Nov. 8, 2004):
Well, in our national family we have just finished wailing on each other in exceptionally nasty ways. Personal attacks, lies, innuendo, name-calling, dirty tricks."

Thu. Jan. 2, 2003: nauseous/nauseated

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Zetteler 
Sent: Thursday, January 02, 2003
To: Mark Johnson
Subject: English Usage
 Mr. Johnson: 

I don't have the highest expectations for grammatical precision in the Journal Sentinel, but I would have at least thought you still had some copy editors that paid enough attention to front page articles to protect you from yourself & your worst errors.  I refer, of course, to the recent confusion (1/02/03) between nauseous & nauseated.  The poor women in the article may indeed have been nauseous (that is, causing nausea), but I assume you meant she was suffering from nausea, or nauseated.  A helpful hint: Think of the parallel between poisonous (no "d") -- causing one to suffer poisoning (similar to nauseous) -- & poisoned (with a "d") -- the state of being poisoned (similar to nauseated).  The error was unfortunately repeated throughout the article.

I hope this has been helpful. You ought to be ashamed.

Mike Zetteler

Subject: reply
Date: Fri, 3 Jan 2003 
From: "Mark Johnson" 
To: "Mike Zetteler"
Dear Mike:
I’m sorry you feel that way.  I take great care with my writing.  Still, no one is immune from errors. You ought to know this as a writer.  I certainly make my share of mistakes and try to learn from them. 
One lesson I’ve learned from 16 years of reporting: it’s a poor policy to belittle other people for mistakes (and by the way, this is hardly one of the worst errors one can make).  I’d be curious to know whether you believe your career has been mistake-free.  If that’s the case, you’d be the first such writer in history. 
Mark Johnson

Dear Mark Johnson:
At  1/3/03, you wrote:
Dear Mike:
I m sorry you feel that way. I take great care with my writing. . . . etc.

Mark:  Having made my point (about nauseous), harsh as I may have seemed, I would not bother you about it again except that there was an implicit question -- perhaps only rhetorical -- in your reply, & it would be rude not to respond (more on that question later).  But since you wrote that you "take great care" with your writing, I do wonder why you should say "I'm sorry you feel that way."  We're talking English usage, & it's certainly not wrong to "feel" that only correct usage will do, & point out errors, tho I suggest that it's not really a matter of how I "feel" about it.  I was only pointing out a fact, something it is not appropriate for a reporter to feel "sorry" about.  And how would you learn from your mistakes if no one pointed them out?  (You're welcome.)  In that regard, you should note that I was really being critical of the copy editing there, precisely because reporters are liable to make mistakes.  That is why a copy desk is needed, after all.  Here, this was on the front page of a paper that used to be near the top of most lists of great US papers (tho not any more), & that probably still likes to think it belongs there.  When I worked there, Tom Barber headed the copy desk (& loaned me several books on editing; I could suggest some to you) & did the job better than is being done today, in general. I've got the clips to prove it.         
                 One lesson I've learned from 16 years of reporting: it s a poor policy to belittle other people for mistakes
I don't see where you were belittled, just corrected; in any case, tho this is a good rule for reporters, I was not reporting. 
   (and by the way, this is hardly one of the worst errors one can make).
OK, but it's not insignificant, either, for a major newspaper, especially for the front page, which usually gets more scrutiny from the copy desk -- & it is their job to be on top of such things.
        I'd be curious to know whether you believe your career has been mistake-free. If that's the case, you d be the first such writer in history.
Now, the question.  Again, you're curiously imprecise. Do you mean, is it "the case" that I believe my career has been mistake-free, or that it actually has been mistake-free, thus making me the first writer in history to be so? It's true, probably no prolific writer, at any rate, has been mistake-free, but surely some have believed themselves to be so. And by mistakes, I'm assuming you mean actual grammatical or usage errors, not in matters of opinion or facts -- about which there can often be debatee -- that might be exposed later. Every reporter gets something wrong -- I hold it as a truism, that in every story about which I personally know the situation, I find something in the article to be incorrect, misleading, incomplete or intentionally obscured because of the reporter's ignorance. "Write around it," as we say.
But I can honestly say that I have never been charged by a reader with a grammatical or usage error, or even by an editor, tho they may have changed a lot of things without telling me. I have had conferences where I had to explain myself, however, tho probably not over grammar (sometimes I used big words: "conurbation" being one, I recall). At the Waukesha Freeman, even proofreaders had the authority to call down to reporters to question something, & they did to me, at least once, but I don't remember if I prevailed.  Indeed, in my message to you I typed "women" where I meant "woman," tho I don't think true typos should be held against one in an informal e-mail (or you'd be in for more criticism).
But if you're indeed wondering about general errors, not opinions, I can still only think of one, & nobody caught it but me: At the Freeman I covered the first rock festival in Wisconsin, at State Fair Park.  I reviewed Chuck Berry, among many others, & referred to a song as "Johnny Be Good." Later I learned, of course, it should have been "Johnny B. Goode." I was mortified.  Oddly enough, the old Journal's John Carman -- who eventually moved to a San Francisco paper [the Chronicle, as Entertainment Editor] -- later did exactly the same thing, & he was an actual music critic, while I was faking it for the free tickets.  I mentioned it at the old John Hawke's Pub, then a great hangout, but he just shrugged it off.  So I guess there was a lesson there for me.  Perhaps that small-town journalists can be just as professional as in the big leagues, or more so.
It's been nice talkin' at ya.
Mike Zetteler

Subject: your reply
To: "Mike Zetteler"
I'm glad you wrote back. I wondered what kind of person would send such a snotty email (perhaps you forgot the remark, "you ought to be ashamed").

Based on your note, I'd say you think a great deal of yourself. And, wow, you've got the clips to prove it!
I stand by my statement that no writer (until you came along) believed their  [sic] career to be mistake-free.  I cannot imagine any writer -- good, bad, or mediocre -- being so seelf-deluded.
Speaking of which, you mention that you have NEVER been charged by a reader or editor with a grammatical or usage error.  Let me suggest one possible explanation.  Maybe readers found all of your writing dull, and bailed out before they reached the errors.
As for your contention that you can remember making just one factual error, I don't buy it for a second.  The fact you would have the arrogance to make such a ridiculous statement explains a lot.
In any case, thanks for pointing out my mistake.  I'll learn from it.
It's a shame you couldn't show a little class, and skip the attitude.
Mark Johnson

Comment: The reader can decide how likely it is that "no writer" has EVER believed his "career to be mistake free" until I came along, but I must point out that I said only that I was never CHARGED by a reader or editor with a grammatical or usage error, though indeed my copy may have been changed without my noticing (or caring), which is true.  Of course, there were no e-mails in those days to facilitate reader corrections.  As for factual errors, I remember one, besides the one I mentioned, when I referred to a speaker from the floor at a Democratic Party function in Waukesha as someone unknown to most of the participants there (I had asked around), when in fact he was well-known to some.  No one ever complained, as no one noticed (or cared) about Johnny B. Goode being called Johnny Be Good, but the fact that I remember this after 35 years shows how hard I worked at not making mistakes and how few there were (as I said, none that I can remember; call me arrogant if you wish).  I do wonder if JS Managing Editor George Stanley "found all of [my] writing dull," before threatening to excommunicate me.

                                            Zonyx Report Scorpion Mascot:  It Stings!

Thu. Jan. 23, 2003: enormity/immensity,

Subject: RE: Snapshot of Evil?
Date: Thu, 23 Jan 2003
From: "Crocker Stephenson"
To: "Mike Zetteler"

I checked my dictionary, and you are
exactly right.  I love these sorts of
distinctions, and I'm glad you clued me into
this one.

-----Original Message-----
From: Mike Zetteler
Sent: Wednesday, January 22, 2003
To: Crocker Stephenson
Subject: Snapshot of Evil?

     Dear Mr. Stephenson:
     I was intrigued to read in your "Snapshots" column of Wed. Jan. 22 the "naked truth" about G. E. is that beneath her skin was "the enormity of the particular life" hidden there.  My Webster's dictionary lists the first 2 definitions of "enormity" as "great wickedness" or "an outrageous act," as in the Holocaust, for example.  I wondered how this applies to G. E.  Of course, lots of people think it means "huge" or "enormous," tho they might more correctly use "immensity" or "vastness," as when referring to the universe.  True, the sense of large size or extent has crept into the language, but even my permissive dictionary calls this, the final definition, as one used "loosely."
     Surely you, & the JS's weak copy desk, are more demanding, tho it seems the copy desk generally isn't very particular.
     Of course, you may have intended it exactly as you wrote it, but surely someone's death from a common -- or even uncommon -- disease, tho sad, doesn't descend to the level of a great evil, nor does coming to terms & coping with it.  At any rate, you write about the "enormity of the particular life"; that is, her life, not Annie's death.  Imprecise, to say the least. Did I miss something?

     Mike Zetteler

Thu. Jan. 23, 2003
Thu. Jan. 2, 2003
      Continued Zone II Pointer Arm:  E-mails continued next column
© Copyright 2004
     Mike Zetteler

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