A Question About Harold Ross and His Asking, “What the Hell Do You Mean?”

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Harold Ross was passionate about clarity but did he ask the “What the hell” question?

By Jack Limpert

Last week I put up a post about barbed comments editors sometimes write on galley proofs and said: “Harold Ross, the legendary New Yorker editor, liked to write ‘Who he?’ or ‘What the hell do you mean?’ on galleys.”

Then I got an email from longtime journalist Mike Feinsilber asking, “Are you sure those are Ross’s exact words? I’ve read every Ross book ever published and ‘What the hell do you mean?’ doesn’t sound right. For one thing, his comments were addressed to the editor, not the writer so ‘you’ wouldn’t be right. Can you check it out?”

I’ve had no luck checking it out. I emailed Tom Kunkel, who wrote a wonderful Ross biography, Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker. Tom said, “He probably did write that line here and there.” But it’s not in Tom’s book. Neither could I find it in Brendan Gill’s charming 1975 book, Here at the New Yorker.

The challenge in checking out “What the hell do you mean?” is that I first used it more than 30 years ago in the Washingtonian magazine’s notes for writers. One section of the notes for writers reads:

Suggestions on Style
We have no rules on writing style. The style should come naturally from the writer and the material. In The Elements of Style, William Strunk made these suggestions:

Be specific, concrete, definite.
Use the active rather than the passive voice.
Put the statements in positive form.
Write with nouns and verbs.
Don’t overstate.
Avoid the use of qualifiers.
Don’t explain too much.
Avoid fancy words.
Be clear.

In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell pointed to these sins of bad writing: “Staleness of imagery . . . lack of precision . . . the concrete melts into the abstract . . . a lack of simple verbs.” Some of Orwell’s suggestions:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech that you are used to seeing in print.
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Never use the passive where you can use the active.
Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

One last word: Speak to the reader as an intelligent friend. The best style is clear, honest, and direct. We like sophisticated ideas and simple language, not the reverse. And don’t forget the favorite question of the late New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “What the hell do you mean?”
Sometime in the late 1970s I wrote those notes for writers—and the magazine has been giving that advice to writers ever since. But now I can’t remember where I got the Ross question and haven’t been able to find it using Google or checking my Ross books.

Mike Feinsilber says it doesn’t sound right. I think it sounds like Ross and I know I didn’t make it up. Any suggestions or research help on the Ross quote would be much appreciated. No editor wants to end his career by being forced to admit that the advice he’s been giving writers for more than 30 years can’t be fact-checked.


  1. A note from a reader:

    An early edition of the college textbook, Language Awareness: Readings for College Writers, published by St. Martin’s Press, has a chapter written by Norman Cousins titled, “Are You Making Yourself Clear?” Cousins, who edited the Saturday Review from 1942 to 1972, said:

    In written communication, no better advice can be offered than to cite the favorite six-word question of Harold Ross, late editor of the New Yorker: “What the hell do you mean?” Ross was a great editor because he was death on ambiguities. Though he edited one of the most sophisticated magazines in the nation, he cherished the simplicities. He insisted on identifications for all names and places. And he hated extraneous words or observations. Under his rule, the New Yorker became a model of clear, effective writing.

  2. Amy Cunningham says

    I’ve heard that one editor at USNews used to write “What mean?” in the margins of manuscripts until one exasperated writer finally wrote back, “What fuck think mean?”

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