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

Back to the roots

The Baltimore Sun

One of the most durable metaphors in American politics is the grass roots, or grassroots (more on the difference later.

William Safire defines it with admirable concision in Safire’s Political Dictionary: “The ultimate source of power, often patronized, occasionally feared; the rank and file of a party, or voters not normally politically active.”

He traces the term to mining terminology, for the soil immediately beneath the surface, and cites an early use by Sen. Albert J. Beveridge at the Bull Moose convention in Chicago in 1912: “This party comes from the grass roots,” &c., &c.

This is an election year, and the grass roots, or grassroots, are sprouting all over journalism, a cliche no writer can resist. And my oracle, the Associated Press Stylebook, does not advise me how to spell it—open compound or closed compound, and how to deal with it as an adjective? Open compound, closed compound, hyphenated compound? I see all of them all the time, in local copy and wire service copy.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary (fifth edition), the basis of AP style, says grass roots for the noun, for the adjective grass roots, also grass-roots, or grassroot. Many thanks for the help, Webster’s New World.

Merriam-Webster offers grassroots or, “less commonly,” grassroot for “basic,” “fundamental,” AND grass roots for “basic level of an organization.” Many thanks, Merriam-Webster.

American Heritage goes whole hog for the closed compound and lists grassroots for both noun and adjective. I suspect that that is where we will all end up.

I am sitting up here at the desk, and no one pays any attention to what I am doing, or seems to care. So, from this point forward, in The Baltimore Sun’s pages grassroots is both noun and adjective. Fiat, fiat, in secula saeculorum. Post No Bills.

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