The slipperiness of the rules
The ever-thoughtful Arnold Zwicky has written at Language Log about the problems inherent in the “attempt to regulate publication practices rigidly.” That is, the structure at newspapers and other publications at which “writers are expected to adhere to the prescribed practices, and editors are expected to correct them when they don't."
The first problem he mentions is the sheer quantity of choices in such an effort:
[T]here are alternative styles used by different writers on different occasions, so that pretty much everyone is exposed to the alternatives, and many writers (and editors) will be expected to shift their practices from those the use, or used, on other occasions. In this situation, it can be very difficult for people to maintain perfect consistency, even on relatively “mechanical” choices ... neither writers nor those who are reading for the purposes of editing can attend to all the choices in a text, since there are a vast number of them and they are clustered densely in every text. (Composition teachers marking essays for things they believe to be errors miss a great many.) In fact, it's reasonable to ask what the point of trying to adhere rigidly to certain prescriptions is.
The second problem is with the rules themselves:
[T]he prescriptions are either quite complex or not entirely clear or not easy to apply in some situations (usually two or more of these). Very few prescriptions are as simple as they first appear ... most of them have great areas of unclarity ... and it can sometimes be hard to tell whether a prescription even applies (distinguishing restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses can sometimes be a tricky business, as almost any copyeditor can tell you).
Since these observations go to the heart of what copy editors try to accomplish, they are worth a little further consideration.
The Sun’s stylebook, which is based on and which incorporates much of Associated Press style, has about 3,000 entries, of which copy editors are expected to have a working knowledge. (Most newspapers long since abandoned any effort to instruct reporters in house style, and even the knowledge of assigning editors is spotty.) When you consider the number of things that can go wrong apart from conformity to house style — factual inaccuracies; errors in spelling, punctuation, grammar and usage; ill-judged prose effects and other infelicities — it is no wonder that not all of those choices “clustered densely in every text” get an editor’s attention.
This, by the way, is one reason to look periodically at those stylebook entries to determine which ones make sense and which ones merely waste time.
The second point, that it is virtually impossible to apply the prescriptions uniformly throughout the publication, is also well taken. The diction or sentence structure appropriate in an editorial or a business story could look weirdly out of place in the sports section. Columnists are given more license to be informal or colloquial than the writers of straight news stories. Since every story by every writer has to be considered in its own context, editors can only get themselves into trouble by applying a set of rules identically in every circumstance. Editors must perforce work within a continuum of what is considered appropriate for a given publication, and the inherent subjectivity will inevitably produce inconsistencies.
And now, as economic pressures reduce the number of editors at newspapers, magazines and electronic publications, putting more work in fewer hands, it becomes even more urgent for us to focus on what is central to the effort of editing and reach a consensus on giving up on what is misguided or peripheral.
Now to digress:
The occasion of Mr. Zwicky’s post is the apparent reluctance of The New York Times to publish a relatively mild colloquial term for sexual congress * in an article, though it had published the term in previous articles.
When and where to permit profanities (gross or mild) or colloquial terms for body parts and bodily functions is one of the great nuisances on a copy desk, because you can’t win. The writer will call you a prig if you delete or paraphrase the language, and readers will complain if you let it through that you are corrupting the minds of children. ** Newspapers, it is true, continue to have readers who are relatively fastidious about vocabulary and who expect their printed edition to conform to their long-established expectations. But I think it should be open to discussion whether their tastes should dictate that the entire paper should be prissy.
It is hard enough to get the words spelled right, in intelligible sentences that conform to something approximating standard written English and not too outrageously at variance with external reality.
* To get laid.
** Who ARE these children who are reading newspapers? I didn’t think you could get anyone under 50, at bayonet point, to look at a newspaper. And don’t these children watch television? Look at the Internet? Listen to the lyrics blasting out of automobile sound systems on warm summer days?