All right, I was snarky, but ...

July 10, 2013|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday I was reproached, discreetly and privately, for my tone in the post inquiring after the dumbest AP style rule. So let me say, directly and publicly, that I have met David Minthorn, Darrell Christian, and Colleen Newvine on their visits to American Copy Editors Society conferences, and I can attest that they are serious, amiable, well-meaning professionals, not at all the sort who would, as someone quoted P.G. Wodehouse, walk over your face in thick shoes.

All the same, there are aspects of the Associated Press Stylebook that mirror the hidebound traditions and practices that continue to hobble newspaper journalism.

You know the sort of thing I refer to, if you still read newspapers: the slavish lathering of empty-headed celebrities; the tedious accounts of public meetings, because it's the easiest coverage of "news" to get because the public has a sacred Right to Know, no matter how dull or pointless; the superficial, slogan-ridden political coverage; the strained arabesques of feature stories that attempt literary effects; the banality of columnists' making fodder of commonplace events or cannibalizing their spouses and children for copy.*

Similarly, the AP Stylebook is, in part, a repository of similar stale artifacts. The split-verb superstition. The over/more than rule. The injuries-can't-be-sustained rule. The things that lead copy editors to imagine that enforcing bogus rules and usage superstitions constitutes editing.**

And why? Inertia. It's not that any of the points on which I have been tweaking the AP Stylebook on this blog for the past seven and a half years are at all novel. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage dates from 1994, Bryan Garner's first dictionary of American usage from 1998. Theodore Bernstein demolished the over/more than superstition in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins in 1971. Yes, 1971. It's not as if all this information about language has been locked away in a vault somewhere, waiting for a Bradley Manning or Edward Snowden to bring it to light.

The people who hold these shibboleths clutch them close. If the AP Stylebook had the temerity to sweep away some of this rubbish, there would be resistance, perhaps not torchlight processions with pitchforks, but certainly mulish resistance. And, of course, there would be no change in behavior from the copy editors who are still using the stylebook and dictionary they were issued in 1986.

So today, in recognition of the difficulties in revising outdated and misguided entries, and then getting the changes accepted by the users, I will eschew snark, resorting instead to a hopeful exhortation to the editors: Man up.

*Yes, I understand that you can get all those things, and worse, on the Internet, but newspapers are supposed to be better than that because we are Professional Journalists.

**It is only fair to point our that journalism schools bear equal responsibility in this conspiracy against idiomatic English in favor of journalese.

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