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The manufacture of bogus rules

When I posted about a reader who was critical of The Sun’s headlines at “So our headlines stink,” I drew the attention of Arnold Zwicky at Language Log. While Professor Zwicky found the reader’s criticisms “nutty,” to use a technical term that I can endorse, he presents a deeper analysis of the source of such criticism. It’s worth your attention.*

What he sees as a root of unthinking or rigid prescriptivism can also be found in an approach to editing that hampers the work of some of my colleagues on copy desks: a narrow right-or-wrong, black-or-white, 1-or-0 approach to language and usage, combined with a tendency to elevate a guideline or a particular practice into a universal rule.

This is an attitude that looks for sacred texts — Strunk and White, the Associated Press Stylebook — and converts guidelines or a direction for a limited set of circumstances into rules to be applied regardless of context, occasion or audience. It leads to application of those rules instead of judgment. It leads to the kind of editing in which every comma and hyphen is in its supposedly correct place, every number-one has been changed to No. 1, but the article itself has no more organization than a haystack. It leads to a coat of battleship gray slapped onto every surface. It leads to a kind of tunnel vision that really cheeses writers off.

And, perhaps more to the point, it leads to a resistance to hearing — from this blog, from Merriam-Webster’s or Garner on Usage, from Language Log — that the rule is not a rule, or that it has been misapplied. As Samuel Johnson ruefully observed, “We are more pained by ignorance, than delighted by instruction.”


* Professor Zwicky has turned off the comments function on his post; feel free to comment here.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:21 AM | | Comments (4)


It leads to a coat of battleship gray slapped onto every surface.

What a great line. I'm stealing it.

Bucky --
If you change "gray" to "grey" you'll be safe from charges of plagiarism.

What you seem to be advocating is the use of common sense, yet as Voltaire said, "Common sense is quite rare."

"Cheeses off"? I must use that at work tomorrow.

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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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