John McIntyre

We have enough rules about language. Stop inventing new ones | COMMENTARY

An editor’s job is to be precise with the language by following the rules, but some editors, in their zeal for precision, come up with rules that do not exist in the language.

The classic example is the supposed over/more than distinction (that over must only be used for spatial relationships, more than for quantities). The rule was invented by nineteenth-century U.S. journalists and observed only by U.S. journalists until the Associated Press Stylebook dropped it, causing a great hullabaloo among practitioners discovering that they had prided themselves for decades over making a pointless change.


I posted yesterday about a specimen that I think reveals how these time-wasters come about.

It was a distinction between how and the way that a former colleague invariably made: changing how something was done to the way something was done. This flummoxed many colleagues, who indicated in responses yesterday that they had never known of any such distinction.


But Eric Boyer pointed me to a post at the English Language & Usage site that gave me a clue to its origin. How and the way are equally acceptable to introduce “the method or process by which something is undertaken.” But only how can be used to introduce a question.

The penny dropped. It is easy to see that my former colleague transformed “Only how can introduce a question” into “How can ONLY introduce a question.”

Thus can editors, and copy editors in particular, trap themselves by falsely extending distinctions. My favorite example of that is one that vexed the late Bill Walsh. Copy editors following AP style would change “half a mile” to “a half-mile” because “AP says to do that.” But AP, as Bill pointed out, says no such thing. AP says that if you write “a half-mile” you must hyphenate it; it nowhere says that “half a mile” is disfavored or prohibited.

Best not to make oaks out of such acorns.