John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Newspapers have no sex

A reader, apparently mistaking me for the Answer Man, has written to ask my views on personification, saying that she has been challenged on her preference to avoid it in business writing. “The World’s Largest News-Gathering Organization told us ...” is the example she supplied.

The Associated Press has long been wary of personifications, ruling specifically in its stylebook that hurricanes and ships are neuter, not female.

The Chicago Manual of Style says simply, "The poetic device of giving abstractions the attributes of persons, and hence capitalizing them, is rare in today's writing." (We’ve lost something there, as in Samuel Johnson’s lament that teaching involves such demands of patience “to recall vagrant inattention, to stimulate sluggish indifference, and to rectify absurd misapprehension.”)

It is more common today in American English to write that a committee has issued its report than to write their report, even though committees comprise purportedly human beings. I am dubious about personifying nations, governments, universities, corporations, organizations, clubs, committees, or other groups, as if they possessed discrete identities.

At the same time, it is commonplace to write that a report, which has no voice, says something. Told, in the example cited, is something that I would shy away from on the ground that a news organization does not speak with a single voice, while recognizing that most readers would take the word in stride.

You clicked on this post just because of sex in the title, didn’t you? Grow up.

11 comments:

  1. I read these posts regardless of sex. :)

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  2. I read these posts while I'm having sex. ;-)

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  3. Committee members can write the report and members of the university faculty can announce their recommendations and staff members can present their complaints to management (well, at least at some employers).

    Did you write this post just so you could put sex in the title?

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  4. oooh...poor sex partner...

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  5. Yep, a bunch of copy editors all right.

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  6. My issue has to do with tense. I believe that past tense is the proper tense for reporting. So and so SAID such and such. I disagree with the seemingly widespread practice today of using the present tense for attribution. When did this happen, and why is it so widespread? However, what bothers me as much is a lack of consistency in the use of a tense, within an article or within a publication. Your thoughts?

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  7. My father (a lawyer, not an editor) used to say that one should say "The jury has agreed" but "The jury have disagreed", because in the first case they spoke with one voice, whereas in the second case there were obviously at least two. He was kidding.

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  8. Newspapers in France have a sex - masculine - though in saying this I run the risk not only of personifying them but also of reinforcing a national stereotype.

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  9. @ Stan - at least you didn't say "Newspapers in France have sex"...

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  10. BrianT: Indeed. I wanted to avoid connoting too much jouissance du journal.

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