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My highly esteemed colleague fev has an inspired suggestion that I fear the Associated Press Stylebook will ignore: a Whatever entry.

He was inspired by a question about whether to use active voice or passive voice. The correct answer is whatever. Use what fits the purpose. A secondary inspiration came from my post yesterday on that/who.* The answer there, too, is whatever. Write what is apt for the subject, the occasion, the audience, the overall tone.

I read a tweet this morning from a colleague wondering about buying the 2011 edition of the AP Stylebook, because it has so many changes. I haven’t looked at it myself yet, but my shrewd guess is that most of those changes are insignificant.

Stylebooks are useful for regularizing practice in spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, and a host of other mechanical details so that the reader is not distracted by inconsistent practice. And you want to maintain consistent practice for the ease of your readers. But it is a mistake to make idols of stylebooks, expecting them to substitute for judgment.

During the [cough] hiatus [cough] of 2009-2010, when I took this blog to, I wrote that “now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.” And you may have noticed that since my return to these precincts, I have continued to use the Oxford comma. I have spelled out numbers higher than nine. I have used the apostrophe s for possession with singular nouns ending in s. These are, to AP Style fundamentalists, high crimes and misdemeanors.

No one seems to have noticed. Or if anyone noticed, it was not a big deal. Certainly no one has complained that my apostasy has made these posts more difficult to read. Whatever.

By all means, consult stylebooks for guidance. Consult usage manuals and authorities on language. Consult the prose your read. Consult your own tastes and preferences. Then do what seems appropriate for the subject, for the publication, for the audience, for your own sense of rightness.

You need not fear that in the dead of night you will hear hobnailed boots on the stairs and pounding on the door as the AP Style Geheime Staatspolizei come for you.


*You are welcome to follow the exchanges between Martha Brockenbrough and me at the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, but the sardonic comments from readers on my post are also worth your time.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:57 AM | | Comments (8)


I'm sorely attempted to suggest that making a fetish of style is one of the things that led to the decimation of newspaper copy desks -- I always thought it quality control, and that cutting QC in a market reversal would be unthinkable. The worst thing you do when things get bad is cut back on quality.

However, the people making the decisions essentially saw copy desk people as expendable style geeks.

Granted it wasn't the only factor but it was in the mix for sure.

I fear that Tom is correct, that we have too often focused on trifles while failing to address effectively serious, substantive issues.

Well said, both of you. Alas, the Twitterverse in particular, and the #APstyle hashtag in particular, has made it quite clear that style fetishism is still alive and well on copy desks.

Once I escaped from -- uh, left journalism I was glad to be able to stop writing "OK" and return to "okay," which at least looks like a word that isn't pronounced "ock."

OK was the original spelling, but okay is an acceptable variant. Just don't follow Dashiell Hammett's example and write okeh.

Hmm........ I'm not quite sure if "whatever", heard frequently for some time now in common American 'teen-speak', often punctuating a verbal exchange between friends (or rivals), is a holdover from the "he goes........ she goes....." Valley-speak mode of conversing, or has merely popped up on its own accord? Whatever.

Frankly, i've always found it rather annoying, particularly in the discounting, or vacuously resigned tone in which it is usually delivered. "Whatever" is generally broken down into an emphatic "what", followed by a little pause, then a distinct break between "ev" and "er", completing the word.

Teen #1---"No way am I hangin' out w/ that skanky, phony b***tch at the mall tomorrow........ no way!"

Teen #2---"What-ev-er."

Just a little slice of modern angst-ridden teenage reality. Whatever.


P.S.: I recall a very funny, slightly disturbing episode of the satirical cartoon cable show, "South Park", where the obnoxious, pudgy regular character, Eric Cartman, is firing off whatevers" right-left-and-center during a mock "Jerry Springer" reality TV show contest where he's trying to convince the audience that he's the most obnoxious, promiscuous, foul-mouthed 'tween' on the planet, just so he can win some cheesy prize.

After each outrageously gross, or over-exaggerated claim, Cartman would defiantly lash out at the universally booing in-studio audience w/ serial "whatevers", while his sweet, and totally perplexed mom sat frozen in shock at his side. (One of the stipulated rules of the contest was that the contestants moms had to accompany their little, out-of-control charges, on stage.)

This episode took "whatever" to another level entirely, and kind of made me dislike it even more. But I digress.

@Patricia the Terse. Sorry for the pop culture reference. Couldn't help myself.

But I digress.

Tom: I'm In sympathy with your point - my highly ill-informed impression is that too much time is spent on American newspapers pleasing the authors of the stylebook, and too little pleasing the readers. But I should point out that in the UK, where style geekery is less pronounced, the assault on the editing function is equally fierce.

Alex, John Travolta was in a movie after Saturday Night Fever which repeatedly used "whatever" as supposedly sparkling dialogue. We had to turn it off after 20 minutes or so.

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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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