Editors and the Little Dutch Boy syndrome

The Baltimore Sun

Three years ago at the American Copy Editors Society’s national conference, the editors of the Associated Press Stylebook announced that they were dropping the over/more than entry, and there was a mighty clamor. Last week, when ACES met in St. Petersburg, Florida, Colleen Newvine of the AP mentioned that people are still complaining about the decision.

Now I am not, as you may have noticed, given to panegyrics about the AP Stylebook, but their decision was eminently sound. The over/more than distinction (that over must be restricted to spacial relationships) was invented by American newspapers editors and exists nowhere else in English. Applying it is dog-whistle editing—making a distinction that no reader hears.

That complaints about the over/more than entry continue to echo tells me that many of my colleagues are afflicted by Little Dutch Boy syndrome.* They are convinced that if they surrender so much as a single one of their language shibboleths—over/more than, none used only as a singular, forbidding since to mean because, &c.—we are going to lose Holland.

English is not that fragile. The dialect that we call standard English, or standard written English, as Anne Curzan of the University of Michigan pointed out last week at ACES, is not menaced by the other dialects of English—but is in fact regularly replenished and renewed by them.

And talking about the standard dialect intelligently is going to require more sophistication and nuance than one generally encounters. Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster remarked in one session, “I don't like saying standard English. I think that's a platonic, fictional ideal that has never existed.” That is absolutely on the mark, but it requires a little unpacking.

First, we know that there is a register of English that we label standard. We know that it is the prestige dialect, that the written form has to be taught, and that it is the indispensable form of English for business, law, the professions, and so on. We identify marks of vocabulary and syntax associated with that register. And we observe that speakers and writers freely adopt elements of other registers—the informal, the colloquial, slang—for occasional effect.But, as I have written previously, standard English is not a Thing Out There, separate from those of us who use it. And it is certainly not just One Thing.

Look at my own newspaper. If you read an editorial in The Sun, an article on fashion in the features section, and an account of a baseball game in the sports section, they are all in standard written American English, but you will see a considerable variation in register. Academic writing, to the extent that it appears to be English, is in the standard form, and so is Goodnight Moon. The range of standard English is a continuum, and working effectively in it requires judgments rather than the mechanical application of “rules,” some of them bogus.

I was talking with Kory Stamper and Peter Sokolowski of Merriam-Webster about the attention their tweets have been getting, telling them that the most effective one I’ve seen was the response to a tweet by @gabrielroth: “No one cares how you feel.” I should have that embroidered in cross stitch and hung above my desk.

We all have individual aesthetic preferences in language, but we only have one vote each. Before you post your pet peeves about those preferences, remember that no one cares how you feel. You dislike irregardless? Don’t use it. You want to insist on wasting your time in dog-whistle editing by recasting sentences to avoid singular they? Well, an editor takes satisfaction where they find it.** (Unless you are under the thumb of some fool, editor or client, who insists on it, in which case you have my sympathy.)

English is not over; it is more than.


*I have to explain to my students at Loyola, who evidently have not been told the story, that the plucky little Dutch boy walking home spots a small leak in a dike and, realizing that the water pressure will gradually enlarge the hole until the whole dike gives way, sticks his finger in the hole to plug it and stands there until an adult comes by to summon help.

It’s necessary to tell the story because one occasionally comes across a reference to “the little boy with his finger in a dyke.”

I am not making this up, you know.


**I could have recast that to say that “an editor takes satisfaction where it can be found,” but then I would have reverted to the Dreaded Passive Voice.

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