Tuesday, January 11, 2022

It's over

 A recent online discussion of English usage turned into a tussle concerning the use of over in the sense of more than, a molehill on which some are prepared to die. 

For those of you not in the know, it has been a widespread belief among U.S. journalists that over can only be properly used to indicate a spatial relationship, that to use it to mean more than in the sense of quantities is illogical, illegitimate, and illiterate.

There was a great cry of anguished souls at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society when the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that the over/more than distinction had been dropped. (Since Paula Froke became one of the editors of the stylebook she has busied herself lightening the ship by heaving broken furniture over the side.)

I attended that conference and spoke with three lexicographers, two from Merriam-Webster and one from the American Heritage Dictionary, who were floored to learn of a distinction of usage of which they were completely unaware. Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and the other standard dictionaries list more than as one meaning of over

This meaningless distinction was apparently an invention of nineteenth-century journalists given to unexplained diktats. The instruction not to use over for more than appears in William Cullen Bryant's "Index Expurgatorius" of 1877, the "Don't List" compiled by James Gordon Bennett at the New York Herald, and in Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right. From there it passed into the lore of newspaper editors and then the conventions of journalism schools. 

Here's what Theodore Bernstein of The New York Times wrote about this supposed rule in Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins (1971): Bierce "gave no reason for the objection and it is difficult to see how there could be any. Since the days of late Middle English the meaning in excess of has been in reputable use. Strangely enough, those who dislike over do not hesitate to write 'above $150.' " 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage observes that "over in the sense of more than has been used in English since the 14th century." Bryan Garner says in Garner's Modern English Usage that "the charge that over is inferior to more than is a baseless crotchet." And Jeremy Butterfield in Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage indulges in a moment of British hauteur to note "a strong tradition in American newspapers and in some American usage guides of absolute, unconditional, almost maniacal hostility to the use of over with a following numeral to mean 'in excess of, more than.' " He advises "editors and writers of other varieties of English to be aware that the anxiety continues (and to judge by some editorial forums, can almost induce nausea or hyperventilation)." 

If you have routinely changed over (quantity) to more than, as I slavishly did for much of my forty years as a working editor, it it NOT YOUR FAULT that you were badly instructed. It is your fault, however, if you continue to do so after being informed that it is a waste of time and invisible to any reader who is not a journalist. 

Go and sin no more.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

In the beginning

I growled today at spotting "new initiatives" in an article. (Growling in the morning while reading the news exerts the lungs and increases blood flow to the brain, both beneficial effects, especially when combined with strong coffee.) 

An initiative is a first step, a beginning. Its sibs from the Latin initiare include initial and initiate, both of which indicate beginnings. If you are taking a first step in a series of actions, you are by definition doing something new, and thus new initiative is redundant. 

Granted, if you are contrasting a new measure with some previous effort, it would be entirely proper to use new initiative, but only to contrast with the earlier one. 

I have grudgingly abandoned a losing campaign against the irritating pleonasm safe haven, but damme if I will accede to new initiative

Sunday, January 2, 2022

A far, far better thing

 The next time the Associated Press Stylebook looks to clean the cobwebs in the attic, the editors might want to take another look at farther/further

The current entry, of long standing, restricts farther to physical distance, further to "extension of time or degree." This is one manifestation of editors' inevitable impulse to tidy up the language with minute distinctions invisible to most readers, or "dog whistle editing." 

Further and farther have been interchangeable for most of the history of English, as the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, the Oxford English DictionaryMerriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, and other authorities have acknowledged. 

And thus have the people spoken. If you look up further in the current Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, and Webster's New World College Dictionary, you will see one of its core meanings listed as farther. 

The American Heritage Dictionary has a usage note for farther, affirming the physical distance/abstract relations distinction. Significantly, the 74 percent of the Usage Panel's endorsement in 1987 had declined to 64 percent in 2009. Since the dictionary discontinued the Usage Panel in 2018, we are unable to see how much further erosion may have taken place. But Garner's Modern English Usage of 2016, while identifying the farther/further distinction as "punctilious usage," concedes in his Language-Change Index that further for physical distance is Ubiquitous but."

For the record, I dutifully enforced farther/further over four decades as a copy editor, though having done so does not leave me with a glow of professional pride. Time could have been spent on more significant matters. 

So AP Stylebook, how about chucking this one into the dustbin? 

Friday, December 31, 2021

Journalists' resolves

 Can  you ...

Write about a person's death from cancer without using "a long battle with"?

Describe X, a person  whose situation is representative of your story, without then saying "X is not alone"?

Write about some hugely expensive house, particularly a vulgar McMansion, without calling it "stately"?

Manage never to use "iconic" to describe any person, place, or object? (You knew this one would be on the list.) 

Eschew copspeak ("suspect" for unidentified perpetrator, "ejected from the vehicle" for "thrown from the car," or anything else copied verbatim from the officer's report)?

Never say that "an autopsy will be conducted to determine the cause of death"? (Because why else do they cut people up?)

Forgo using synonyms for "said"?

Write about Mars without ever calling it "the Red Planet"? 

Omit describing what the subject ate for breakfast in an interview story? (Because you weren't important enough to rate a lunch interview.)

Refrain from setting foot in any leafy suburb, sleepy rural town, gritty urban neighborhood, hardscrabble community, or any other place that tempts you to condescend to your subjects?

Friday, December 17, 2021

I'm an editor and I'm OK

 An editor boasts that in a single shift I:

Item:  Eliminated a sentence-ending preposition.

Item: Changed like to such as

Item:  Gave data a plural verb instead of a singular. 

Item:  Changed convinced to persuaded.

Item: Changed since to because

Item: Changed a singular they to he or she

Item: Changed loaned to lent.

Item: Removed and from the beginning of a sentence. 

Item:  Eliminated a split verb.

Item: Changed over to more than

Item: Changed that to who in a reference to a group of people. 

Item: Gave none a singular verb instead of a plural.

Item: Changed careen to career.

Item: Changed hopefully to it is hoped that.

Item: Unsplit an infinitive.

Item: Removed however from the beginning of a sentence. 

Item: Changed collided to crashed


An experienced editor knows the why and wherefore of each of these changes, but you may be mystified. That's all right. Each of these changes, except in rare circumstances, does nothing to correct or improve the text. They are all editorial fetishes that have grown up over the years, permitting the belief that making these time-wasting and inconsequential changes is a badge of professional craft. 

I in my time have been responsible for most of them, and some of them I taught for years in my editing class, until I learned better. I've said elsewhere that I spent the first half of my career as an editor learning and the second half unlearning. Do not discount the benefits to the reader of your unlearning. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Listen up, people

 There, awaiting my morning grumble, in the middle of an Associated Press article on the recent tornadoes: "crews recovered pieces of peoples' lives."

People, a plural noun, is equivalent to "human beings" or "persons." 

Peoples, a plural noun, identifies a group of human beings, typically a large one, with a common culture or kinship. 

Crews were therefore recovering people's effects, the belongings of individuals. 

Unless you are writing about the peoples of the world represented at the United Nations, you are seldom going to be called upon to use anything but people

See if the Associated Press can master this distinction, and if it sticks, maybe tomorrow it can have a go at another one. 

Monday, November 29, 2021

Decline, fall

 Someone has seen fit to post on Facebook a statement by the late Joseph Sobran: "In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school to teaching Remedial English in college." 

This is the kind of trope conservatives have favored since Cicero complained that no one spoke good Latin any longer.* There is always a Before Time, often associated with the point at which the complainer reached puberty, when people were better educated and things were done properly. That everything since is degenerate, of course, bolsters the complainer's status as standing above the herd. 

Even so, a remark as fatuous as Mr. Sobran's commands attention. 

A century ago a college education was a privilege for a limited segment of the population, and students headed for college typically attended schools with a curriculum shaped toward that end. It was only after the Second World War, particularly with the G.I. Bill and increased federal aid to education that the college population expanded enormously, including students from families that had never previously aspired to a university education. To speak sweepingly of two quite different student populations, with different backgrounds, needs, and preparation, obscures relevant facts. 

Moreover, even in that nonexistent golden age when every high school student had conned Latin and Greek, the university faculty was seldom impressed. In an article in Inside Higher Ed, Scott Jaschik quotes John Warner saying, "Professors lamenting about student writing is as old as professors and students. ... I have a quote from Harvard professor Adams Sherman Hill from 1878 complaining about his students 'making blunders which would disgrace a boy 12 years old.' ” As reliably as conservatives bemoan the present decadent age, university faculty members kvetch that students do not already know the things they have come to learn. 

The time to which Mr. Sobran alludes was one in which English classes taught the traditional grammar, which took with a handful of students but eluded the majority. Then in the second half of the twentieth century, as the deficiencies of that approach became apparent, many schools dropped the traditional grammar. The consequence was that students did not know technical grammar but still did not write very well. Exploring how students could be better taught would have been interesting, but belittling schools and students was apparently easier for Mr. Sobran. 

The fundamental thing that he chooses to overlook is that writing is difficult, and very few people ever become adept. We probably should have always known that, but now the internet puts the evidence before our eyes every day. And now that many publications have essentially abandoned copy editing, everyone can see how professional journalists actually write. 

In one hundred years we have come from conservatives saying the things they always say to conservatives repeating the things they always say. 

* Not a joke. In Brutus: "People in general, who had not resided out of the city [Rome], nor been corrupted by any domestic barbarisms, spoke the Roman language with purity. Time, however, as well at Rome as in Greece, soon altered matters for the worse: for this city, (as had formerly been the case at Athens) was resorted to by a crowd of adventurers from different parts, who spoke very corruptly; which shows the necessity of reforming our language, and reducing it to a certain standard, which shall not be liable to vary like the capricious laws of custom."

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Just the phatics, ma'am

When I expressed dissatisfaction recently with what I called "phatic journalism," a few people quite reasonably asked what the hell I was talking about. 

Phatic speech, in which we all indulge, is casual comment on inconsequential matters -- the weather, last night's game -- to be sociable and acknowledge another party as a fellow human being. It is a form of harmless social lubrication, devoid of substance. 

In what I would call phatic copy editing, what purports to be editing is merely inconsequential edits -- changing "like" to "such as," "over" to "more than" -- rather than a focus on substantive issues in the text. Phatic copy editing yields stories that conform to standard grammar and house style despite being superficial, incomplete, or dull. (Grammar ain't everything.)

Phatic substantive editing yields the kind of political horse racing story that we see all the time: The president's popularity was up two points yesterday but is down three points today, with positive or negative implications for the midterm elections. Hot yesterday. Colder today. Could rain tomorrow. 

This is how we get supposedly "balanced" stories in which Party A asserts something and Party B asserts the contrary, without enough information for the reader to evaluate the worth of either. This is how we get reports of a "trend" that involves three people. This is how we learn the views of minority groups from the same half-dozen representatives who are quoted every time. 

So that's the news. Think it'll rain? 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Wasted words

 You would do your readers a courtesy to omit from your writing some of the words tediously overused in journalism. 

Battle "Politics," said Mr. Dooley, "ain't beanbag." But neither is it an armed conflict. Neither are sporting events. And neither is the experience of having cancer. If you were to forgo military metaphors, you might discover how impoverished your imagination is. 

Controversial Conflict, they told you in your newswriting class, is one of the fundamental news values. If there were no controversy, there would be no news and thus no story. 

Currently If it's not happening now, why are you writing about it?

Dramatic This is a show-not-tell violation. If the circumstances you describe are not dramatic, using the word will not make them so to the reader. 

Firestorm The Allied attack that destroyed Dresden, which Kurt Vonnegut described in Slaughterhouse-Five, involved such a multitude of incendiary bombs that the heat of the fires created great winds that made the fires doubly destructive. A group of ill-informed people shouting at a school board meeting does not constitute a firestorm. 

First Are you sure of that? Are you really sure? You looked it up, didn't you?

Iconic Just don't. If you picked up a dictionary, you would be hard-pressed to find a common or proper noun that has not at some point been called "iconic." A word used to describe everything describes nothing.

Ironically Good idea to check whether what you actually mean is coincidentally

Prestigious See Dramatic

Saga Yes, you have a long, involved account. That does not make your story the Elder Edda. 

The public may wish to comment with suggestions of additional words you could shun. 

Monday, November 8, 2021

The misterectomy

 When I joined The Baltimore Sun in 1986, the paper, seeing itself as a country cousin of The New York Times, used honorifics in its news stories. Men were mistered, unless they had military, civil, or ecclesiastical rank, and reporters had to determine whether the women they wrote about were to be Miss, Mrs., or Ms. 

But the main burden of enforcing the style rules fell on the copy desk, which, in addition to maintaining courtesy titles in local copy, had to insert them in wire service copy. 

Then there were the debates on the desk. Historical figures did not get titles (no Mr. Caesar). How long did a notable have to be dead to shed their title? I once suggested when there had been time for the flesh to fall from the bones. 

House style also denied courtesy titles to criminals. More debate. Did the person have to commit a felony, or did a misdemeanor count? The title could be restored once the debt to society was paid, but was the mister restored after a prison sentence was completed, or when probation was completed? Engraved in memory was the case of the governor of Maryland who lost his title after being convicted of a felony but got it back when an appeals court overturned his conviction. 

In the early 1990s, the paper went on a brief binge of asking the employees how the work could be improved. (It worked well in the pressroom, where employees suggested many efficiencies, less well in the departments whose managers clung tightly to their authority.) Even the copy desk was included. 

When the copy editors brought forth their proposals, courtesy titles topped the list. While the justification of using courtesy titles was that the formality conferred respect, the copy editors argued that the practice was stuffy and archaic, and also busywork that distracted from more significant editing. The editor, John S. Carroll, nodded, and with a wave of his hand courtesy titles were dismissed from The Sun

The remain, as a lingering mark of formality and respect, in the paper's obituaries, when the staff remembers to include them.