The Post shakes up its stylebook (somewhat)

Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copyeditor, has been chatting online again. As copyeditors are wont to do (an old English saying whose origin I don’t know), he’s been tinkering with the paper’s stylebook. “Some of that work is a game of old-fogy Whac-a-Mole,” he says, “in which I shake my head at Kids Today and break up brandnewterms with the space bar or the hyphen key.” Heh.

“These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ, but mass-market print journalism is inherently conservative with language. On the one hand, I can’t deny that there is a growing synergy between technological change and language change. On the other hand, there’s something absurd about onewording a five-minute-old invention when a paper clip still isn’t a paperclip after 115 years. So, for example, we cling to ‘voice mail’ (somewhat older than five minutes, but well short of 115 years) and ‘e-mail’ and ‘Web site.’ And ‘user name’ and ‘ear buds.’ ”

Come on, Bill. Even the Associated Press switched to “email” and “website” years ago. The Post is starting to look silly by holding out. But then, this is the news organization that hung on to “employe” for decades.

Also regarding the stylebook changes, he says, “More timelessly, I warn against saying someone ‘declined to be identified,’ which is sort of like declining to be punched in the nose—it’s not in your control.” Oh dear; I’m disagreeing with my colleague again. If it is not in the person’s control, he or she is identified: “ … said Jane Jones of Rockville” or “said John Jones, undersecretary of the Interior.” If it is in the person’s control, then he or she can decline: “ … said a witness at the scene who declined to be identified.” See?

Another recent change seems to bring the Post’s stylebook in alignment with AP—or at least alongside it—regarding state names. AP has gone to spelling out full state names. As Bill explains, “I’m not as aghast about spelling out state names as a lot of copy editors are, but it does seem like a waste of space. AP’s reasoning is that it has an international audience of readers who may not know what Mo. is. At The Post we’ve gone through a similar change of mind-set when it comes to local communities, which is why Arlington is now ‘Arlington, Va.’ ”

I’d wondered about that! There’s a line between fully informing readers, which a newspaper should do, and babying or talking down to them, which this change does, in my opinion. Any city, town, or large unincorporated area within the local readership zone should not have to be identified in this manner. A neighborhood, of course, would be described by context: “In King Farm, Rockville’s ‘new urban’ planned community ….”

That’s because no one in Prince William County (Virginia) can be expected to know a neighborhood in Montgomery County (Maryland). But it’s basic local literacy to know where Rockville, Ashburn, Bowie, Georgetown, Takoma Park, Arlington, Oxon Hill, and Reston are, at least generally. If you’re new here or otherwise don’t know where something is, you learn by discerning from context, which the story should provide. Likewise, the story should locate all but the very largest cities outside the local area. (The largest are identified this way in AP: “Atlanta: The city in Georgia stands alone in datelines.”)

In yet another change, the Post is now caving to common but confusing usage with “condo.” Rather than refer to apartments and townhouses, Bill says, the newspaper will use “condominium” or even “condo” “where once we reserved the term for discussion of the mode of ownership.” Ugh! It’s perfectly obvious to the eye what’s an apartment and what’s a townhouse. (This not being New York, we almost never have to get into the definition of “rowhouse” or “brownstone.”) Why muddle the completely clear?

On the other hand, it sounds like some housecleaning Bill did was long overdue. The Post stylebook apparently used to tell editors to “use play down instead of downplay” and that “unplanned events ‘occur’ while planned ones ‘take place.’ ” Now that’s esoteric.

Other old rules the new book throws out:

–distinguishing between “people” and “persons”

–distinguishing between a spiral and a helix

–not using “premiere” as a verb or “repeat” as a noun (as a synonym for “rerun”)

–getting worked up about “parameters,” “unless and until,” and “self-confessed”

As Bill said, “These are judgment calls, and reasonable people will differ.” I differ with the Post on many of its latest changes or lack of changes. I quibble with AP, too—especially about the serial comma—but AP is the most universally useful style guide out there.

Bill is worth reading, though, as always. His latest chat closes this way, and let me agree with his agreement with a contributor: “Winceworthy is a great word.” If you like language, a language chat is worth a visit.

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.

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