You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

A bogus rule collides with the English language

The Baltimore Sun

When the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced this year’s revisions at the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing last week, there were no bombshells.

But there was one deeply satisfying change: abandonment of the collide/collision entry. It held that only two objects in motion can collide, that a moving object could not collide with a stationary one. The announcement: “We dropped the previous rule that two objects must be in motion before they can collide. The entry has been deleted.”

The editors cited a series of tweets from @CopyCurmudgeon, including “Actually, picking your nose seems like a better use of time than enforcing this rule,” and the conclusion of one of my blog posts: “Hey, AP Stylebook, you want a suggestion for the 2018 edition? Drop the damn entry.” I can only cite a remark by John Scholz, a former colleague on the copy desk, who once memorably said, “They have agreed to forgive me for being right.”

Predictably, there are people on Facebook bemoaning the change. It is painful to abandon mistaken distinctions that one has enforced for years, but in the end it is better to spend an editor’s time on edits that make sense.

In case you missed last year’s post and are still clinging to collide/collision, here is the bulk of what I said:

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage traces the supposed rule to Theodore Bernstein’s Winners & Sinners memos at The New York Times and from there to earlier sources. William Cullen Bryant disparages it, without explanation. MWDEU also points out that there is no warrant for it in the OED, which has a citation of blood colliding with the aorta wall from 1746.

One speculation is that someone examining the etymology, from the Latin collidere, col, “together” + laedere, “to strike or damage,” concluded that deference to the Latin required both parties to be in motion. The etymological fallacy is troublesome enough, but it is worse when based on bad etymology.

The rule is in Bernstein’s Careful Writer, and his dead hand can be discerned in the 1999 edition of The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: “Only two objects in motion can collide.”

Yes, there is a point on which the Associated Press Stylebook and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage are in agreement, and they are both wrong.

Merriam-Webster says, “to come together with solid or direct impact,” and the example sentence is “The car collided with a tree.” American Heritage says, “To come together with violent, direct impact,” without any usage note (!). Garner’s Modern American Usage is concerned only whether the preposition with the verb should be with or against. (The former is far more common.) The comment in the current Fowler’s (there’s nothing in the original) on the “two moving objects” is that “there is no basis for such a belief,” though it thinks that hit is a better choice. (It is.)

Stan Carey, writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, comments: “Some prescriptive usage rules seem so arbitrary and unnecessary as to be made out of whole cloth. One such rule has to do with the word collide, meaning clash or crash into each other, and with related forms like colliding and collision.

“According to the rule, you can use these words only when both items in a collision are moving. So if you cycle into a stationary gate, that’s not a collision, but if the gate is swinging at the time, it is a collision. Maybe you find this logical somehow – or maybe, like me, you think it’s awkward and silly. Or it would be, if it were an actual rule.”

So we have literally generations of American editors who have been enforcing this preposterous rule, for which there is no legitimate basis and which is invisible to everyone who is not a newspaper editor.

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