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Diktats, edicts, fiats and ukases*

All rulings about a publication’s house style are arbitrary. When there is more than one possibility for writing something — a number as a word or a numeral, a title abbreviated or written out, a noun capitalized or lowercase — a house style picks one for the sake of consistency, so as not to distract the reader.

But the power to make arbitrary rulings tempts those who wield it to enshrine their personal preferences in the publication’s policies. Editors, managing editors, assistant managing editors, copy desk chiefs and other tinpot autocrats leave their traces behind, sometimes shackling their staffs for years after their own departures.

Charles H. “Buck” Dorsey Jr., The Sun’s managing editor during the glory days of the 1940s and 1950s, affectionately memorialized in Russell Baker’s The Good Times, despised the verb gutted. It was an ugly word, he said, that was not to appear in his newspaper. The rule against it, from the “Whims and Foibles” section of The Sun’s 1958 stylebook, survives today in the electronic version.

It is widely disregarded, not just by the reporters, many of whom cannot be troubled to consult the stylebook, but also by copy editors, who are expected to have a working knowledge of the stylebook.

(I can, however, make a case against gutted. If we are writing, as we usually are, about burned buildings rather than fish, I don’t know what the writer means by gutted. Is the interior destroyed, with only the shell standing. Or is the interior seriously damaged but partially intact? Or something else. More precision would be good.)

Another departed managing editor hated the word escapee. The -ee suffix, he argued, is appended to verbs to indicate that an action is done to someone. But a prisoner who escapes is the actor, and therefore should be called an escaper. The logic is impeccable, but the English language does not operate by logic. While escaper is indisputably in the language — the OED cites a passage in the King James Bible — escapee has been the word in wider use for well over a century. We went along with escaper for a while, to placate authority, but escaper last appeared in The Sun in September 2001 and is not likely to make many future appearances.

As these two examples attest, while it’s easy to make a rule, it’s extremely difficult to enforce it in a newsroom full of journalists accustomed to going things their own way. Over time, a combination of defiance, lax enforcement and failure to instruct new employees further weakens the rules.

The real surprise is how long the bad ones survive. I’m confident that readers of this blog could offer a bounty of examples.

 

* All four are arbitrary rulings. Diktat is German, so no more need be said about authoritarianism. Edict is from the Latin verb edicere, “to proclaim.” Fiat is also from Latin, “let it be so.” Ukase is Russian, the word for a decree by the czar.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:51 PM | | Comments (8)
        

Comments

All three are arbitrary rulings. Diktat is German, so no more need be said about authoritarianism. Edict is from the Latin verb edicere, “to proclaim.” Fiat is also from Latin, “let it be so.” Ukase is Russian, the word for a decree by the czar.

I count four.

Indeed you do. And now, so do I.

At my first job in Greensboro, N.C., many years ago, I was told to avoid "blast" as a synonym for "criticize" because the managing editor hated that use of "blast." This was true in stories but especially in headlines.

We were also to write "North Carolina and South Carolina" and not "North and South Carolina" in stories about those states.

I worked at a paper that spelled the past tense of "kidnap" with only one "p." Why? To make headlines easier to write.

This being south Florida in the 1980s, the word made its way onto many section fronts.

A new hire saw a street edition in a box near the end of her move to town. "Kidnaped" appeared in a headline above the fold. She considered turning around and fleeing the state.

A new copy chief (who became a managing editor) entered a rule into the company's stylebook, followed by all its publications:

"the 1800s" meant (to her, and only to her) the first nine years of the century.

I couldn't argue her out of it, no matter HOW many books I showed her. So I refused to follow that style in my own publication.

I was never so glad to edit a stylebook in the wake of someone's leaving.

We had an editor who hated "autumn." Lord knows why.

The older I've gotten, and the more experienced, the less I approve of those sorts of quirks becoming law. Staffs change; freelancers come to work for us--we need not to be making our lives harder.

These may be apocryphal, or patently false, but the important point is that each was told to me by another editor while I was working. If the rules exist or not, what matters is that people are still enforcing them.

At our tourist-centric coastal city newspaper, there was a long -- perhaps a decade or so -- prohibition against the word "shark" in refence to ocean attacks. The ownership was wary of frightening off the swimmers. I'm not sure what was used in its place -- something like "marine life attack" or "aquatic life attack" or something equally ridiculous and nonsensical.

In police beat listings, we are not to identify suspects as homeless or transient, even if the police identify them as such (or the only address they give is the homeless coalition, which is not a shelter but a place to get mail). It is simply "no address listed."

Finally, we are forbidden from using the word "raffle" in items about church or charity fundraisers. For some reason, that promotes gambling? We are always to say "drawing" instead.

I continue to be annoyed by the now-standard use of the double possessive, as in "a friend of Joe's." yeah, I know, AP prefers it. Through the end of my long career in newspapers (mostly at The Sun, of course), I ignored the AP style on such constructs. Sometimes 'style' can be very annoying.

Much as it pains me to disagree with Mr. Ettlin, the double possessive, or double genitive, is not some recent fad cooked up by the Associated Press. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage points out that it goes back in English "before Chaucer's time." We say, after all, "a friend of mine," not "a friend of me." The double possessive is, Merriam-Webster confidently asserts, "a perfectly acceptable, perfectly normal form in modern English." You don't have to like it, but you can't deny that it is idiomatic in the language.

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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 john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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