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.

What comes after plagiarism

The Colorado Springs Gazette has dismissed a student intern, Hailey MacArthur, after determining that she plagiarized material from The New York Times in four articles published by the Gazette. The examples that Jeff Thomas, the editor, quoted in his public apology to readers are blatant and damning.

One has to wonder whether this intern was uncommonly bold or uncommonly stupid. To lift material from any source in the Internet age is risky; to do so from The New York Times virtually invites discovery.

But the questions don’t end there. Hailey MacArthur is a student in the University of Florida’s School of Journalism and Communications. Today, Mindy McAdams, who is on the faculty at Florida, retweeted this question: “Should j-school allow plagiarist to return to school?”

This is both a technical and philosophical question.

The school’s policy on plagiarism resembles the codes at many colleges and universities. It includes this warning: “Failure to uphold the standards of academic honesty will result in a failing grade for the course and, potentially, other serious disciplinary action up to and including expulsion.”

But unless Ms. MacArthur was receiving college credit from the internship, she was working outside the university. Does this policy — can this policy — be applied to a student’s actions off campus?

Apart from whatever disciplinary action the school may or may not see fit to carry out, it is not just Ms. MacArthur who has a problem. So does the School of Journalism and Communications. If it is reluctant to ruin a student’s career, if it does not want to say that youthful mistakes are final, if it finds a promise of contrition and reform persuasive and allows her to continue toward a degree, a shadow will linger over its programs.

Expulsion is the nuclear weapon at a university, and it is always a difficult matter to decide whether to use it. Happily, it’s not my case to adjudicate. Or yours. But you should feel free to express your sentiments on the matter.

*Plagiarism, of course, has been a perennial college problem. In 1978, when I was assigned as a teaching assistant to a professor in a large lecture section of the sophomore survey of British literature, a dubious paper turned up. We didn’t have time to run down sources, so we announced to the class that there would be a delay in returning that set of papers because we were investigating a potential case of plagiarism. By the next class session, five students had dropped the course.

The extent to which theft is commonplace at publications great and small is indicated by Craig Silverman’s annual plagiarism roundups at Regret the Error. Here’s the collection for 2008.

Watching our language

If you have not heard Geoffrey Nunberg’s commentaries on language at NPR’s Fresh Air or read his op-ed essays in various newspapers, you can now catch up: He has collected more than fifty of them in The Years of Talking Dangerously (Public Affairs, 265 pages, $18.95).

Professor Nunberg, who teaches linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, is a refreshingly direct and clear writer with sensible and straightforward views about the ways we write and talk. His writing is so irresistible that I am resorting to the lazy reviewer’s expedient of simply quoting him extensively.

Much of the book is given to a discussion of political language.* “[M]y guess is that when people look back on the language of the early years of the twenty-first century, the first thing that will come to mind is the political vocabulary—well, that and the language of real estate—just as the sixties evoke the language of rock, drugs, and disaffection; the seventies evoke the language of disco and New Age; the eighties evoke management jargon and Valley Girl slang; and the nineties evoke techno-talk and fit-speak.”

The “collapse of the language of the right” by the time of the 2008 election, he says, resulted from “a kind of structure fatigue, brought on by the strain of spanning the increasing distance between its literal and symbolic meanings.”

Take torture, which Professor Nunberg wrote about in 2004 after the Abu Ghraib revelations: “Torture is torture is torture, as Secretary Powell put it. If you find yourself having to draw fine semantic distinctions here, you’re already way over the line.”

Political commentary has given us a group of stock figures who turn out what Professor Nunberg calls political smut, “malicious aggression that pretends to be mere naughtiness.” “When you think of the most successful practitioners of the genre, whether Coulter or O’Reilly, or James Carville, there isn’t a one of them who couldn’t be the model for a recurring character on Cheers or Drew Carey—the waspish virago, the bombastic blowhard, the sly yokel.”

But it’s not all about politics:

On spelling bees: “The national Spelling Bee is one of those odd competitions that turn an ordinary activity into a high-performance event, like extreme ironing.”

On blogs: “[T]he blogging world sounds less like a public meeting than the lunchtime chatter in a high-school cafeteria, complete with snarky comments about the kids at the tables across the room.”

On electronic books: “Reading Proust in a browser window, I once observed, is like touring Normandy through a bombsight.”

On Wikipedia: “...what most journalists and scholars regard as a guilty secret, which is that they rely on Wikipedia all the time. By ‘rely on,’ I don’t mean just for doing ‘preliminary research,’ which is how academics always say they use Wikipedia, in the same tone they adopt when they cop to glancing at People in the dentist’s waiting room. I mean using Wikipedia as a primary source of information.”

More on Wikipedia: “Reading the entry on the English language, for example, I think of what the physicist Wolfgang Pauli once said about a paper submitted to a journal: ‘This isn’t right. This isn’t even wrong.’ ”

On teens and new writing technology: Newspaper articles combine “three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: ‘the language is going to hell in a handbasket’; ‘you’ll never get me into one of those newfangled things’; and ‘kids today, I’m here to tell you. . . .’ ”

On moralistic pronouncements: “If intelligence consists in being able to make fine distinctions, then it stands to reason that moral absolutism tends to make you stupid.”

No fear of stupidity in this book. It is worth your time.

*I do not want to turn this into a political blog, but political discourse is not only widespread, but it also leaks into other areas and cannot be ignored. That much of Professor Nunberg’s commentary is on the language of the right reflects, as he says above, how pervasive conservative speech and thought were during the years these essays were written.