John McIntyre

Best reason to ignore the AP Stylebook

Robert Lane Greene (@lanegreene) tweeted plaintively yesterday: "Sitting here looking at an infinitive that I absolutely must split. But Econ style book, even though we know the rule is bogus, won't let me."

This is the rule, from The Economist's style guide: "Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive: the ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it."


Jonathon Owen (@ArrantPedantry) quickly replied: "I hate that kind of equivocal reasoning. It just legitimizes and perpetuates ill-informed peevery."

Mr. Owen means what he says. At Arrant Pedantry he has written about craven submission to bogus rules and strictures about split infinitives, hopefully, the singular they, and related matters. At "It's Not Wrong But You Still Shouldn't Do It," he explains:


"The problem with the it's-not-wrong-but-don't-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it's-wrong-so-don't-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it's still trumped by the fact that you'd rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you've changed is the justification for avoiding the usage."

Further, and, be patient, we're about to get to the point about AP style, he says:

"The worst thing about this waffly kind of advice, I think, is that it lets usage commentators duck responsibility for influencing usage. They tell you all the reasons why it should be alright to use hopefully or split infinitives or singular they, but then they sigh and put them away in the linguistic hope chest, telling you that you can't use them yet, but maybe someday. Well, when? If all the usage commentators are saying, "It's not acceptable yet," at what point are they going to decide that it suddenly is acceptable? If you always defer to the peevers and crazies, it will never be acceptable (unless they all happen to die off without transmitting their ideas to the next generation)."

(I take that alright as a deliberate provocation.)

I suggest that you take Mr. Owen's point to heart and further, use it to muscle the Associated Press Stylebook toward more sensible guidelines. The AP Stylebook professes that it makes changes to reflect the way newspapers and others use the language, and writers and editors, like Mr. Lane Greene, feel bound by stylebook strictures. It looks like a closed loop.

But in fact the AP Stylebook appears to pay little attention to entries that have stood unexamined for a generation or more. Not to mention that the editors have ignored the helpful advice and counsel offered freely in posts at this site.

I suggest that you ought to ignore rules that have no point. Give the stylebook editors something to see.  The risks are minimal. Yes, some unenlightened editor may change things back. And you will probably irritate readers like Clark Elder Morrow, but there's sport in that. Be bold, brave, and resolute. What you have to gain is your self-respect in wielding the language vigorously, rather than submitting to zombie rules.