On Twitter @APStylebook regularly tweets dicta, usually innocuous. But yesterday @APStylebook favored us with this: “Two objects must be in motion before they can collide. A moving train cannot collide with a stopped train.”
And the tweets kept coming.
Mine merely said, “This is a bogus rule, long since exploded. Look at a dictionary. Look at Fowler's. Garner doesn't even bother with this.”
Then @CopyCurmudgeon erupted in a thread of tweets that has gained admiration. A couple: “I will literally never enforce this. I would not enforce this even if I were writing the AP Stylebook.” “Even for a style guide that is often stubbornly, extravagantly stuck in the past, this is ridiculous.” “Actually, picking your nose seems like a better use of time than enforcing this rule. At least it makes one person feel better.”
What we are dealing with here is one more rule, like the bogus over/more than distinction, invented and enforced by American newspaper editors and invisible to the rest of the English-speaking world.
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.) Fowler’s comment 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. And if the over/more than furor is any precedent, pointing that out will produce grumbling mumpsimuses.*
Hey, AP Stylebook, you want a suggestion for the 2018 edition? Drop the damn entry.
*You can look it up here.