Friday, April 20, 2012

Hopefully, Everyone Will Do as They See Fit

As I settle back into the real world, scratching at imaginary insects under my skin after four days of the heroin-y warmth of sharing a cocoon with hundreds of my people in New Orleans at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society, I'm marveling at the reaction to a small tidbit from the Big Easy. The editors of the Associated Press Stylebook have gotten into the habit of using our little gathering to stage publicity stunts, declaring the electronics-industry space saver "mic" as preferred over the actual word "mike" as the abbreviation for "microphone" one year, and removing the hyphen from "e-mail" another. I was relieved to sit in on the AP guys' session this year and hear nothing of particular import.

Oh, there was that "hopefully" thing. Now it's OK in AP style to use the word to mean "it is to be hoped that," in addition to "in a hopeful manner."

That made news. It made some angry. I say: Much ado about nothing, times two.

In the first place, to the extent that the sentence-adverbial role of "hopefully" was ever an issue, it was an issue not of correctness but of taint. Misguided sticklers have made a fetish out of looking at something like "Hopefully the weather will be nice today" and pretend-interpreting it to mean the weather was experiencing a feeling of hope. Meanwhile, they didn't apply that logic to other adverbs used in precisely the same fashion:

Frankly, she's just not that into you. (Wait, you're being frank -- why are you saying she's being frank?)

Honestly, Joliet is a dump. (Wait, you're being honest -- why are you talking about that city being honest?)

Seriously, he's an idiot. (Wait, you're being serious -- why are you talking about him being serious?)

Mercifully, I had an excuse to leave early. (Wait, you're not being merciful -- why are you talking about being merciful?)

Curiously, the cat didn't show up for dinner. (Wait, you're not talking about a curious cat ...)

In the second place, this just isn't a front-burner issue. AP style is used mainly by news organizations, and news organizations, for the most part, are not supposed to express hope or any other opinions. I suppose the stylebook change loosens the reins on some editorial writers, but other than that, it's an almost entirely inconsequential bit of pandering. I'm not complaining; I'm just shrugging.

The taint issue, however, is interesting, and it has broader implications. Even if you enjoy the subject of style as much as I do, you have to admit that the whole point of style is to be invisible. Get the hell out of the way. Don't distract from the writer's message or detract from the writer's credibility. To that end, we sometimes avoid usages not because there's anything wrong with them, but because a lot of readers think there's something wrong with them. Arnold Zwicky has written for Language Log about this mind-set, which he calls "crazies win." Robert Lane Johnson recently discussed the Economist stylebook's caution against splitting infinitives, a policy he feels duty-bound to enforce even though he disagrees with it. There was predictably Zwickian reaction on Twitter and in blogs from, among others, John McIntyre and Jonathon Owen (Owen had discussed the issue at length months earlier, hence the time-warp link).

The split infinitive is right up there among the most baseless and silly prohibitions in all of misguided-sticklerdom. At the Washington Post, the publication that pays my salary, we split infinitives, letters to the editor be damned. On the other hand, I don't get the sense that we're going to be following AP on "hopefully" (we haven't on "email" or "website" or "mic" either). Judgment calls, all. Do you lowercase "e.e. cummings" because "everybody knows" that was his preference, or do you write "E.E. Cummings" because "everybody" is wrong? You'll get angry letters even when you're indisputably correct. If you're one of those people who think I should have just written "one of those people who thinks," perhaps you're the one of the people who wrote the Post to tell us we were wrong on that point when we most certainly were not. (If you look hard, you'll find examples of that error on more than one of the language-expert blogs I've mentioned above.)


On another front in language evolution, you're not likely to see the singular "they" any time soon in the stylebook of the Associated Press or the Washington Post or any other major newspaper. This, too, came up at the ACES conference, in a presentation by Sandra Schaefer of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. I caught only part of her session, having been busy learning whether to use "blow job" or "blowjob," but she made the case that "they" is not only the logical candidate to replace "he or she" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but also quite well established as such.

I agree on the former point. On the latter, however, I think the burden of proof is formidable. For now, I feel compelled to keep letting the crazies win. I hope with all my being that the evolution away from "he or she" and the like is swift. I also like "they" without a clear plural antecedent ("Trader Joe's is great -- they have a lot of good cheap wine!").

But large mainstream general-interest publications simply aren't on the cutting edge when it comes to language innovation, nor should they be. You can thank this innate conservatism for the fact that I'm not hotmailing you to let you know that I've gifted you and your empoyes thru some cigarets in the frigidaire.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Don't Be a Serial Killer

Newspaper style generally eschews the serial comma. I'm fine with that. Toast, juice, milk and Trix. But sometimes that comma is useful. If I write about a city's departments of housing, parks and recreation and well-being, do I mean there's a department of parks and recreation or a department of recreation and well-being? And what if my series consists of three or four full sentences? For many serial-comma-phobic journalists, the answer to those questions tends to be: Semicolons! Ugly, unwieldy semicolons. Clearly, those journalists did not actually read the stylebook to which they are slavishly devoted. AP specifically says that the serial comma is needed in those cases.
IN A SERIES: Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

So it's The departments of housing, parks and recreation, and well-being, not the departments of housing; parks and recreation; and well-being. Once one of the elements in a series includes a comma, then you want those ugly, unwieldy semicolons: The committees on appropriations; health, education and welfare; and labor.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I am back from New Orleans and the 16th national conference of the American Copy Editors Society. You should have been there.

A few people expressed interest in getting their hands on the PowerPoint presentation that I used in hopes that nobody would look at me during my "Tiny Acts of Elegance" session. I don't think the visuals are all that useful without my accompanying blather, but I aim to please. You can download the file here, at least until the bitching about my last-minute typos causes me to take my ball and go home.

Said blather, of course, can be mined from previous posts here and from my books. (Spoiler: A new one is in the works.)