A Flexible Approach to Style and Language  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 1999

A Flexible Approach to Style and Language   

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage

By Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly
Times Books
384 pages; $35

Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     


Copy editors are a merry band, as everybody knows, cheerily executing their duties as style police with that special sensitivity so endearing to worshipful colleagues. Having been a copy editor myself, I fondly recollect those zany hours debating serial commas and sibilant possessives, or whether coroner is an occupational title (and so, of course, lower case) or an official one (capitalized).

These are matters of state for copy editor types, and quite a few tantrums have been touched off by such Style Committee deliberations as whether to liberalize the split-infinitive rule.

So it is momentous when the imperial New York Times delivers a major revision of its official style guide, the biggest since 1976. From its pedestal, the Times can offer an authoritative reckoning on the state of our language, and by extension on the state of our all-important common discourse.

Language matters. Words are weapons of almost insurmountable power. It may be amusing to contemplate copy editors squared off over whether "contact" can be a verb (it can, the new manual grudgingly decrees), but cumulatively such issues make a difference. Respect for the language shows respect for ideas. It shows seriousness of purpose. It builds credibility with audiences, who tend to equate care in language with care in fact and context as well.

Precise language deepens meaning and fosters shared understanding. Sloppy style breeds mistrust and miscommunication.

As Allan Siegal and William Connolly aptly put it, "there is little difference between a Martini and a martini, but a rule can shield against untidiness in detail that might make readers doubt large facts."

In this volume, readers will find plenty of rules but also a window into larger philosophies that underlie them. For example: "Times writing treats the sexes equally...shuns stereotypes and assumptions...is also un-self-conscious." The paper "virtually never prints obscene words, and it maintains a steep threshold for vulgar ones." And, "The Times does not 'clean up' quotations," though writers "should, of course, omit extraneous syllables like 'um' and may judiciously delete false starts."

Perhaps the most visible and applaudable change is that the Times plants itself steadfastly behind "respect for the group sensibilities and preferences that have made themselves heard in the last two or three decades--concerns, for example, of women, minorities and those with disabilities." It discourages admitted homosexual, because the term suggests criminality or shame, and handicapped and invalid, because they are vague. It accepts partner to mean "unmarried companion of the same sex" and counsels that while queer should be treated "as an offensive slur... Some gay men and lesbians have rehabilitated the term as an ironic badge of pride."

It anoints Ms. as the accepted courtesy title unless a woman prefers otherwise and advises writers to select black or African-American based on "the term preferred by the group or person being described."

Such decisions are often mocked as political correctness ("a term of ironic disparagement," generally avoided), but in my judgment they mostly reflect common courtesy and consideration.

The stylebook also offers the occasional behavioral protocol. Obit writers, for example, are expected to "try to learn the cause of death without hectoring the bereaved." There is even some drollery: "The best thing about a period is that it ends a sentence," or this entire entry for user-friendly: "It can be reader-tiresome."

As expected, the Times stands tough on some hot-button issues: "Do not use host as a verb" except in direct quotes. "Preserve the distinction" between imply and infer. Avoid "faddish" terms, such as flap. And it retains careful distinctions between blame for (OK) and blame on (to be avoided), between lack (shortage of something needed) and absence (general shortage).

But, in general, the watchword seems to be flexibility, standards that the manual calls "traditional but not tradition-bound."

It goes all the way in toppling some once-sacred oldies: "Data is acceptable as a singular term for information...the singular is datum, a word both stilted and deservedly obscure."

In other cases, it engages in artful, even ostentatious waffling. Take the case of media, where the stylebook notes, "The term is often seen doing duty as a singular. But The Times...will keep it plural for now." For now?! Is the paper actually on the verge of accepting the barbaric "media is"? Can "newspapers is" and the "Supreme Court are" be far behind?

Uncomfortably often, the guide seems to hide behind a blame-the-readers rationale for not loosening standards. Here, for example, is its lame defense of the who-whom rule: "Many dictionaries have relaxed the distinction.... But in deference to a grammar-conscious readership and a large classroom circulation, The Times observes the traditional standard." On hopefully in the sense of "let us hope": "...writers and editors unwilling to irritate readers would be wise to write they hope or with luck." On presently: "Use it to mean soon. The alternative meaning, now, is out of favor with many precise writers."

Are standards important simply to pacify a constituency of picky readers? Surely the Times has more intellectual self-confidence than that.

Years ago as a young copy editor, I attempted to use the phrase "zoom up" in a headline. Ordering me to try again, a slot-person named M.S. Van Hecke barked, "Zoom means up. You can't zoom down." And you still can't, says the last entry in this book: "[T]he word describes only upward motion." A good language cop taught me a lesson I never forgot back then, and we need firm guidance no less today.

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