Mon. June 07, 2004: wordsniffer
To: Whitney Gould
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
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,
Date: Tue, 08 Jun
From: Whitney Gould
Subject: RE: A nose for good writing.
To: Mike Zetteler
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.
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 bartleby.com 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
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.
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.
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")
preface_4.htm#chronology> 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.
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."
Feb. 16, 2004: "Little Boxes"
From: Mike Zetteler
Sent: Monday, February 16, 2004
To: Dave Tianen
Subject: "Little Boxes," little omission
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 <http://www.redrock.org/issues/
I enjoy your work.
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
From: Dave Tianen
Subject: RE: "Little Boxes," little omission
To: Mike Zetteler
I remember Petes version which was a minor hit. I dont 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.
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.
WAKE FOR A SINGER
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.
Feb. 26, 2003: whale/wail
"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
on Journal Sentinel weak copy
To: Mike Zetteler
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.
though I didn't have the heart -- or time -- to point it out, he later
wrote (Nov. 22, 2004):
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
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
Jan. 2, 2003: nauseous/nauseated
Sent: Thursday, January 02, 2003
To: Mark Johnson
Subject: English Usage
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.
Date: Fri, 3 Jan 2003
From: "Mark Johnson"
To: "Mike Zetteler"
Im 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 Ive learned from 16 years of reporting: its a poor policy to
belittle other people for mistakes (and by the way, this is hardly one of the
worst errors one can make). Id be curious to know whether you believe
your career has been mistake-free. If thats the case, youd be the
first such writer in history.
Dear Mark Johnson:
At 1/3/03, you wrote:
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Thu. Jan. 23, 2003: enormity/immensity,
Subject: RE: Snapshot
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
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
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?