About John McIntyre

A former classmate asked me to autograph a copy of my book of writing and editing maxims, "The Old Editor Says," for his daughter, who coaches writers. I wrote, "Always be free to give advice on writing. Always remember how little likely people are to take your advice." A handful of my students at Loyola University Maryland, where I have taught editing since 1995, have taken my advice and done well, and even some of my colleagues at The Baltimore Sun appear to have paid attention. Perhaps it's because I have learned how to give better advice. In my youth I was a terrible snob about English usage, a rigid prescriptivist. But as I have come to read more widely, the become acquainted with some of the best professional editors through ACES: The Society for Editing, as well as lexicographers and linguists, I have become less hard-shell. Today I call myself a reasonable prescriptivist, or an informed prescriptivist, less concerned with what people imagine The Rules to be than with what is appropriate. What is appropriate to the writer, to the subject, to the publication, to the occasion, and to the reader (the party most often neglected in these operations). I try to keep in mind what Flannery O'Connor said when she was asked how much a writer can get away with. She said you can get away with anything that works, so long as you remember that no one has ever gotten away with much.

What I do and why

Growing up in a minuscule town in eastern Kentucky, I was a good student, a teacher’s pet, and a bookworm.

Being a good student meant always having the right answer, and in English class, where I excelled, the right answer was always formal written English. I absorbed the dangerous belief that formal written English is “correct” English, all other forms being inferior at best, or downright wrong.

Consequently, I came to talk like a book and developed into a terrible language snob during adolescence and early adulthood, the worst kind of prescriptivist. It took some time for me to discover — through wide reading, through acquaintance with other editors in ACES: The Society for Editing, and through blogging exchanges with linguists and lexicographers — that language snobbery is no more noble, moral, or excusable than snobbery based on ancestry, place of birth, IQ score, wealth, physical beauty, or wardrobe.

This means I have had to revise, or even reverse, what I have told students in my editing class at Loyola University Maryland, but unlearning is an inescapable part of learning.

Over nearly forty years as an editor at newspapers, first The Cincinnati Enquirer and currently The Baltimore Sun, I have come to understand that my task is not to enforce a handful of superstitions and shibboleths, but to assist the writer in accomplishing their purpose. (Yes, singular their. Get over it.)

Accomplishing that purpose means making judgments rather than enforcing rules or rigidly adhering to a house style. The judgments involve balancing a set of interests: what is appropriate for the writer, appropriate for the subject, appropriate for the occasion, appropriate for the publication — and appropriate for the reader, the party most commonly overlooked.

That’s the job.