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

Not all the little things are of equal value

The Baltimore Sun

Yesterday, a reader commented on Facebook about my rant over the Associated Press Stylebook’s bogus rule on collide: “Seems like an odd issue to waste time fussing over, given the state of...everything.”

Of course, editors are concerned with the little things—spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, house style—but discussion of things like the collide entry opens up issues that are fundamental to the craft.

Editing is supposed to do the minimum necessary. Editing, like surgery, is invasive. Every time an editor opens up a text and makes a change, they are, like a surgeon opening up a body, running the risk of damage. Making pointless or misguided changes unnecessarily increases the risk.

Editors can be blinkered by what they look for. Editors maintain a mental inventory of the kinds of errors they expect to find: subject-verb disagreements, confusion of homonyms, the spelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s middle name. Preoccupation with zombie rules can distract an editor from noticing genuine errors and faults.

Editors must do triage. There is never time for everything. An editor must identify what must urgently be corrected, what should be addressed once the urgent issues are resolved, and what can be allowed to go through untouched. D’you think that maintaining the rapidly eroding comprise/compose distinction is the most efficient use of your limited time?

Editors need continuing education. It’s true that if you are merely a hack, you can get by with something you remember your teacher telling you in freshman English, some arbitrary dictum your first editor insisted on, some rule in that ten-year-old copy of the AP Stylebook that is the most recent edition you’ve bothered to acquire. But if you want to be more than a hack, you must keep up. Not only is the language changing, but our understanding of the language is changing. Garner’s fourth does not say quite the same things as Garner’s first.

Every time the editors of the AP Stylebook experience a momentary fit of lucidity—think of their changes in the over/more than, hopefully, and singular they entries—there is an outcry from editors who think that their professional standing rests on their having followed those abandoned rules for decades. Real professionalism lies in a willingness to recognize when you have been given faulty instruction, to ruefully acknowledge that Will Rogers was right: “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know that ain’t so.”

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