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Ground Zero

A message sent out today over my signature to the news staff of The Baltimore Sun:

In blatant defiance of an imbecilic Associated Press Stylebook rule:

Ground Zero, the site of the September 11 attacks in New York City, is capitalized.

But “ground zero,” the generic term for the place directly under the detonation of a nuclear explosive, is lowercased.

There, I feel better now.



Posted by John McIntyre at 2:54 PM | | Comments (9)


Keep looking AP, someday you will find the one size that fits all.

I begin to see why AP style annoys you so much.

I always thought of trying to learn AP Style as brain exercise.

"It is revolting to have no better reason for a rule of law than that so it was laid down in the time of Henry IV. It is still more revolting if the grounds upon which it was laid down have vanished long since, and the rule simply persists from blind imitation of the past."

—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., "The Path of the Law", 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897)

If only all life's annoyances could be dismissed so easily.

Did you include a reason for your style note when sending out this message? Something to the effect of "There are many similar places that would get the lowercase treatment, but when talking about the New York City location, it should be capitalized" perhaps? Or is there some other reason you cited?

I imagined that the reasoning behind the style note would be apparent, since "Ground Zero" refers to a specific place, widely known by that name, regularly capitalized in the kind of journalistic and popular uses that the AP's stylebook editors cite in justiifying their rulings.

By the way, the lexicographer Ben Zimmer has discovered that I am one of the first persons, perhaps the very first, to publicly use "ground zero" for the WTC bombing site: see . That posting predated by a few minutes the first known use on national TV.

Ben wrote and asked me where, if anywhere, I heard it from. I told him that I almost certainly did not hear it from anyone, and that it arose spontaneously in my mind.

John Cowan, that's very Topsy-like of you.


P.S. And congrats on being cited by Mr. Zimmer for anything; it's a distinction I think I'll never enjoy.

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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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