Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The AP Stylebook: Repository of extinct rules

A correspondent with a stronger stomach than mine follows the AP Stylebook’s “Ask the Editor” feature, where she found this exchange:

Q. I've found that the online version of the AP Stylebook frequently does not adhere to AP rules regarding "over" and "more than." For example, on your home page for subscribers, there's a reference to "over 450 entries." I've seen this type of error several times in your online stylebook. The printed version always is accurate, however. What gives? – from Salem, OR on Thu, Jul 02, 2009

A. The home page now says: More than 460 pages, updated annually. Thank you for the reminder.

[Sound of steam escaping under pressure]

If the editors of the stylebook choose to waste their time on this, well, I have no authority over them. But their devotion to time-wasting non-rules — I won’t call it obstinacy — has unfortunate effects on the craft.

Somewhere today, one of our last surviving copy editors, a species more endangered than the Javan rhinoceros or the Kemp’s Ridley Turtle, is changing an over to more than and imagining that that constitutes editing. It is not. It is rather an adherence to what Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage calls “a hoary American newspaper tradition” dating back to William Cullen Bryant, despite over and more than having been used interchangeably in English since the fourteen century.

Merriam-Webster’s concludes: “There is no reason why you should avoid this usage.” There is also no reason that the AP should continue to trot put this pointless dictum. And there is absolutely no reason that a hard-pressed copy editor should pay any attention to it.


  1. Hmmm...I have just had one of those amazing "aha" moments. Clergy, dealing with the pointless dictums of the organized church, have much - I SAY MUCH - in common with copy editors.

  2. I know there are some guidelines in the AP Stylebook that are just plain wrong, but isn't the point of a stylebook to make guidelines to unify writing from a specific organization? I mean, don't most AP articles lack an author byline?

    Why so much fretting on your part?

  3. I fret because there is so much important work for overburdened copy editors to do that they should should not dissipate their energies and time on things that are pointless and stupid.

  4. From colleagues on Facebook:

    Bruce Hotlgren: This sort of thing (over/more than) is indeed exactly the type of silliness that has gotten copy editors and copy editing a bad name -- and shoved to the side -- in the past few years. AP, more than any other organization, has done all of journalism a terrible disservice by insisting that such ancient and pointless "rules" be followed even as the rest of the world has been changing at a breakneck pace.

    From Clay McCuiston: However, it has always been easier and more defensible to make a change like this. A novice copy editor can point to the stylebook and say, "Look! It says so." Far harder for such a novice to say, "This story has been written by someone with baseball mitts for hands and a chunk of ice for a brain. Let me fix it."

  5. "Foolish consistency ..."

    This sort of stuff matters to the type of people to whom this sort of stuff matters. As I'm sure you can attest (at length), John, there are readers who will write angry letters to "those morons in charge" at any given publication, assailing the staff over the slipshod editing that lets confusion over "more than" and "over" (or "fewer than" vs "less," while we're at it) contribute to the ruination of English and by golly, you can cancel my subscription. Until the editing community at large consists of a majority that can remain bemused while the ranters rant, zombie rules like this will continue to trudge the earth, eating the brains of people who should know better.

  6. My wife, who grew up in Delaware (and is therefore an expert on the subject of correct English) always laughs at the Baltimoronic use of the word "over," as in the sentence: "We are going over John's house." She says: "Really? You're going OVER his house? In the air?" The same people use "over" in this fashion as use the "truncated infinitive," as in
    "This board needs painted."

  7. Rebecca HendricksJuly 9, 2009 at 10:48 AM

    It isn't just novices who want a rule to point to. There are those on copy desks who edit, and those who memorize and apply rules. And since there may be one or two situations where "over" doesn't work for "more than", there needs to be a rule for the memorizers.

    My other theory is that these rules were made up some time in the distant past by experienced copy editors who wanted to make themselves seem more accomplished by making the job more difficult for beginners.

  8. Here, as in the church, people fall into the "we've always done it that way" trap. When your editor learned something at the knee of her editor in ages past, it's nigh impossible to convince her it's wrong, no matter how many times you cite Garner.

  9. Truncated infinitive? I've never heard that term before. Using the perfect participle instead of the progressive is a fairly common dialect marker, originating (apparently) in Scots. It's not Standard, but I don't laugh at it. (Does your wife fly "to" John's house when she goes "over to it" - or "over there"? Just wondering...)

  10. The Ridger:
    "Truncated" as in "cut off." "Infinitive" because that's the verb form.

    And it originated and is still used among the Amish, Dutch, Polish and German settlers of West VA, Virginia, MD, PA and Ohio. (Never heard a Scotsman break it off like that.) It's not endemic to Appalachia or to the Tennessee hills. It does mimic the German use, as in "Der Zaun muss weißgetünchte."

    The wife says she goes to John's house, not over it.

  11. "Over" for spatial relationships, and "more than" for quantitive relationships. It's that simple, and there's the reason in my mind. It's not just some AP dictum.