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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?



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (6)


When I was a youngster we didn't have television for entertainment. We just stared at the sun -- and we liked it!

Mr. Zwicky's parenthetical comment about composition teachers missing many errors, despite their knowledge of the rules, is well taken. Before I retired I worked with government contractors to define and review Quality Assurance programs and practices. It is an axiom in that field that even several trained inspectors in sequence will not discover every defect. While we now use automated inspection systems to inspect every detail of each product, I wonder if there will be similar automated style inspection and correction programs. Given the way Microsoft Word wants me to write, I think not.

If kids understand an indecent term, have they not been corrupted already?
And if they don't, what harm is done? There are good reasons for keepign the profanity count low, but this isn't one of them.

If kids understand an indecent term, have they not been corrupted already? And if they don't, what harm is done?

One could argue that even if they understand the meaning, keeping certain language out of publication teaches children, by the absence, that such words and terms are not to be used in everyday discourse. The harm in publishing them, therefore, comes in making these words seem appropriate for use with parents, teachers, and friends. This may sound too nuanced for children to grasp, but frankly, they pick up on the distinctions of language quickly, as evidenced by their capacity for "corruption".

Not that I think that means the paper should hold itself to antiquated standards of linguistic decorum. In truth, I would likely judge quite liberally in allowing such terms to be published. But I don't buy the "what harm is done?" line as an argument in favor of such judgment.

Just because a child knows those terms, doesn't mean he (or she) won't object. My son frequently barks "watch your language!" to his Nintendo DS, when the "mission commander" on his MechWarrior game says, "What the hell is going on here?"

He feels very strongly that some language is not appropriate, and he does NOT appreciate other people deciding that he will hear or see it.

Abigail is right about the message of what is appropriate. For that matter, grown-ups follow those same cues.

And just because you *can* say something, doesn't mean it isn't vulgar. Do you *want* your publication to be vulgar?

There may be occasions or articles in which that greatly adds to the tone, etc., but honestly? Most of the time is doesn't add that much. Not really.

Over the years, I have decided that I am against "foolish" consistency. I insist that I will not have a rule about whether to use "proven" or "proved" (and similar silly things)--does it matter? No.

But also I think it is foolish to say, "well, we used 'get laid' *last* week and nobody minded!" Just because you missed it once doesn't mean you are doomed to repeat it against your better judgment.

Also--Zwicky says, "All of this dodging about is supposed to be in the name of protecting children (though some of it is probably a way of avoiding fines or lawsuits or just objections, which are in turn usually justified as a way of protecting children)."

No, Mr. Zwicky--that's not the real reason. The real reason is "just objections." The term "family newspaper" encompasses grandma and grandpa, too.

I don't want to run into vulgarity all the time, and I would like to feel that i don't need to protect myself from my daily newspaper.

True, now that I have kids, it exasperates me more on the grounds that my children will be exposed to it--my kids *do* ask what those terms mean, and they do read advertisements ("make a porno"), headlines, and occasionally news articles. That NintendoDS-scolding ten-year-old in my house would be saying, "what's the joke about 'get laid'?"

And it is true that I would just as soon not have to introduce my kids to those phrases sooner.

But I think it is far from past time to start objecting to crudity on the ground that some of us GROWN-UPS find it crass.

And that it is acceptable, and even desirable, to attempt to seem as though one's publication has some level of "good breeding."

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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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