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Not a dime's worth of difference

The good side of the mild obsessive-compulsive disorder that copy editors exhibit is concern for precision in the language. The bad side, which I reluctantly admit is more common than I like, is a tendency to insist on distinctions that aren’t worth making.

For example, many copy editors insist on the venerable Associated Press Stylebook principle that over should be limited to spatial relationships, with more than preferred with numbers. A statement that a tree is over a hundred years old will be reflexively changed to "more than a hundred years old." (And "a hundred" might well be altered to "100.")

An entry in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces this "hoary American newspaper tradition" to William Cullen Bryant’s Index Expugatorius of 1877, points out that over in the sense of more than has been in common usage in English since 14th century, and says, "There is no reason why you should avoid this usage."

The distinction between attorney and lawyer has also eaten up an inordinate amount of time on copy desks. While an attorney, a person acting on behalf of another, need not be a lawyer, the distinction, according to Garner’s Modern American Usage, is not generally observed even within the legal profession. (Mr. Garner is also the author of A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage and editor of Black’s Law Dictionary.) That this is, at best, a gossamer distinction can be demonstrated by the tendency of one copy editor to alter lawyer to attorney in copy, while the next alters attorney to lawyer on page proof. This pointless ballet is another waste of energy.

Another editing tic is that like must be used only to indicate resemblance and that such as must be used to introduce an example. An error like that would likely be changed to an error such as that, to little purpose. Several standard works on usage do not even mention such a distinction; those that do are not in agreement on its importance. This suggests that editors might have better things to do with their time than to make these substitutions.

The central judgment an editor must make is the distinction between what is important and what is not. These examples point to the hazard of removing the mote while overlooking the beam.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:01 AM | | Comments (8)


Great entry, John.

Note that your William Cullen Bryant quotation also eschews another stylistic bugaboo: the prohibition on "reason why." My spirit often gets a little lift when I see that such clear, natural phrasing made it through to print without being clumsily chopped down to just "reason," as in: "There is no reason you should avoid this usage." When the "why" is dropped, the result is a potential miscue. “Reason” could be read as the antecedent of an implicit relative “that,” as in: “There is no reason you should cite for ignoring that rule other than the obvious fact that there is no such rule.”

Have to disagree on "reason why". It's simply an obvious redundancy. I don't see Mr Fisk's "miscue" and I don't even understand his sentence example.

I would be inclined to substitute (for "why") the word "that", as in: "The reason that we went was to see the pyramids."

It’s true that the “why” can often be dropped without consequence, but not always. Good writers have been using “reason why” for centuries. What I object to is a dogmatic, search-and-destroy ban on such a clear and standard locution. But this is John’s space, so I won’t prattle on about this tangent I’ve started.

Oh, talk among yourselves, by all means.

Mind if we smoke?

Smoke? Are you kidding?

My family has been growing tobacco on a farm in Kentucky since 1862.

Smoke 'em if you got 'em.

I have to reserve the right to answer "I'm an attorney" with "No, you're not!"

I adhere to these distinctions that don't make a dime's worth of difference strictly to keep the pedants off my back, myself. Yes, I might waste a few microseconds of my time, but this way the quibblers have to find a real mistake before they can complain...

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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