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Rising to the occasion

A correspondent looked in on the Associated Press Stylebook’s online question-and-answer site* and found this exchange:

Q. Does AP have a rule or guideline on the order of compared numbers? For example, in "Tuition would rise from $12,681 per semester to $13,176," does AP care which number comes first, old or new? – from Mount Pleasant, S.C. on Thu, Jun 09, 2011

A. It may be a clearer to say ... Tuition would rise to $13,176 per semester, from the current $12,681 per semester.

The correspondent reports being “baffled by editors who think it is more helpful to put the old number after the new number when comparing numbers.” Right. Typically, when we say that something rises, we talk about a starting point and then a higher. That is what “rises from” suggests.

My suspicion is that AP prefers “rises to” not because it is “clearer,” but because that allows placing the newer number first, which is, after all, the news. That the reader may have to work backward to figure it out is of no consequence to the AP, because the customary reading expectations and ease of the reader are not a consideration. (Think of the AP’s insistence on placing adverbs deliberately awkward places in sentences.)

 

*You Don’t Say strongly advises against this. Where AP is silent or opaque, you should establish your own style preferences.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:24 AM | | Comments (12)
        

Comments

In my experience writing and editing, including a stint with AP, the reason for that wording is to avoid confusion with reporting a range. "Gas prices could rise from $3.50 to $4." Does that mean the final price is $4, or somewhere between $3.50-$4 higher than some unknown current number?

In the example above, inserting "per semester" helps. I agree with the news argument, and don't think it's so awkward as, say, where AP inserts time elements in leads.

Carrie beat me to the punch. The style guide of the venerable New York Times has the same recommendation:

"When reporting a rise or a fall, give the 'to' figure first (in spite of logic), to prevent misreading as a range."

Perhaps that's what AP is getting at with "clearer."

And yet I have no problem understanding the "rising from" example in the question. Is there anyone whose perceptions have not been corrupted by newspaper style guides who experiences this as a misreading or confusion?

I would not misread either the tuition example or the gas prices example. No one would assume that gas prices will actually jump $4/gal. It's kind of like saying something like "We estimate the rock to be from 250 to 300 million years old." No reader will really misread this as a range of a mere 250 years to 300 million years.

What I really hate is when the smaller number is placed atop the bigger one in a table, leaving the reader to do subtraction upsidedown.

I rather like putting the current figure first when it is the point of things. For instance, let's say you have a story that would typically begin:

Students at Ivy University will pay 10 percent more next year, trustees decided Tuesday.

The new tuition of $110 a semester is up from the current $100 ... etc.

In other cases, putting the older number first might read better.

I'm not sure the "readers expect" argument really has any more validity than the "range misinterpretation" one. If we are giving readers credit for understanding the latter, we really should for the former too.

This technical writer had no issue reading the original and understanding it.

@ Doug Fisher -- As the correspondent who raised this issue with Mr. McIntyre, let me add some background.

When I read "tuition has increased from $5,000 to $5,500" I read smoothly through the construction. When I read "the value of the shares went from $40 in 2008 to $7 in 2010" I read smoothly.

When I read "tuition has risen to $5,500 from $5,000," my brain goes "wait, what?" I always stop at those constructions and look at the numbers twice. It is a brief pause, and I do understand the sentence, but I generally try to edit so readers don't have moments when they have to track back. I wondered if any other readers or editors had the same problem I do. I think I expect to see "from" before "to."

I have been trying to listen for these comparisons in normal speech to see what people say, but mostly what I hear is, "Gas was $3.65 last week and now it's $3.82." When the higher number comes first, the speakers seem to use two sentences: "I can't believe gas is $3.82. It was $3.65 last week when I filled my tank."

I don't think I have heard a "to (new amount) from (old amount)" construction in conversation since I've started consciously listening. I don't know how common the "to-from" construction is compared to the "from-to" in writing from outside the news media.

To me, it makes more sense to put the higher figure at the end. The end of the sentence is the stress position. That's where the most important information should be, and in this story, the most important information is the new price. The AP would have the writer bury the most important information in the middle of the sentence.

My oh my, do I agree with your footnote! I know I don't understand properly the weird relationship between American newspapers and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at AP, but really, asking them to pronounce on a matter like that: it's creepy!


Speaking of comparative risings-and-fallings (don't go there. HA!), I've always had some difficulty w/ the now almost cliched phrase, "Well, it's all downhill from here."

I remember my creeping embarrassment and nagging concern after I had sent out my hand-cartooned birthday card wishes to brother, Don, on the occasion of his benchmark "Big 6-0".

I caricatured him on skis weaving down some imagined slalom course, breezing by flag marker No. 60, w/ No. 61 further down the precipitous slope, w/ I thought at the time, the appropriate caption, "Well bro, it's all downhill from here.'

Hours after i had dropped my little customized birthday missive in the post to my brother living back in the greater Metro Toronto area, I realized that that aforementioned phrase could be taken in a couple of ways. One, that life from that point onward would be smooth sailing, gravity defying, like a skier bolting down a mountain slope, or two----a negative connotation---implying that life isn't going to get much better from here-on-in. Oops!

Just to clear the air, so to speak, i called my younger brother, prior to my card even arriving, to explain to him that my "downhill' reference in my card was intended as a positive, life-gets-better affirmation, and not that living beyond 60 would be an everyday, dreary slog.

I realized that I was kind of taking the spontaneity of the card's message out of the mix, almost like telegraphing the punch-line to a joke before the end. But I felt much better in clarifying my sentiments, even though Don said he would have seen it as a glass-half-full, positive affirmation, anyway.

A full year hence, and that "downhill' comment still haunts me. HA!

------Wishing all your great dads out there a super, loving Father's Day.

Sadly my Dad passed back in July of 1985 at 65 years-of-age............ my current age as of four days ago. I still miss him, warts and all.

Those Great Depression era/ World War II vet dads were a tough, resilient breed, who often held in a lot of emotion, and weren't the most touchy-feely types. Yet they, in-the-main, proved to be great family providers, and deep down we kids knew that we were always loved, despite the emotional distance that we often felt.(Some of my fellow bloggers might relate?)

And a special shout out to all those moms and dads serving their country in our armed forces all over this globe. Your sacrifices are immense, and this day is extra special for you dedicated, and courageous folk. God Bless!

ALEX

Picky: A foolish consistency, said a great American, is the hobgoblin of little minds, and many American minds are possessed by this hobgoblin.

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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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