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.

The Greeks started it

As with so much else in Western culture, the cult of the celebrity — its degenerate state deplored in yesterday’s post, “Who cares about Ashton Kutcher?” — had its origins in ancient Greece.

Robin Lane Fox, writing in The Classical World, says that the spirit of competition that led to the creation of multiple festivals in the sixth century B.C. also produced “a culture of the ‘celebrity,’ ... not a culture of great warriors but one of great sportsmen, poets and musicians. By contrast, there are no ‘celebrities’ in the world described in the Old Testament or in the Near Eastern monarchies.” Cities honored their champions with victory parades and celebrated their careers in stories. That tradition, too, lives on in what the 20th century called boosterism.