Friday, February 24, 2006

Pointless distinctions

[This post from a week ago was eaten by technology at some point, so I'm reposting.]

John McIntyre makes excellent points in this You Don't Say post -- about changing copy that doesn't need to be changed.

He includes over vs. more than. The AP rule says:
over It generally refers to spatial relationships:

More than is preferred with numerals: Their salaries went up more than $20 a week
John points out that over has been used this way in English since the 14th century. We should get over it already, he says; I agree.

Next on John's list is attorney vs. lawyer. The AP rule says:
In common usage the words are interchangeable.

Technically, however, an attorney is someone (usually, but not necessarily, a lawyer) empowered to act for another. Such an individual occasionally is called an attorney in fact.

A lawyer is a person admitted to practice in a court system. Such an individual occasionally is called an attorney at law.
The first sentence of the AP entry really says it all: The words are interchangeable. Not even lawyers maintain the distinction; why should we?

The third example John gives is like vs. such as. He writes:
Another editing tic is that like must be used only to indicate resemblance and that such as must be used to introduce an example. An error like that would likely be changed to an error such as that, to little purpose.
There is a lot of disagreement on this rule. Most people ignore it, but Bill Walsh, for one, thinks it is a distinction worth observing. (See the Capital Idea post here.) But John makes the point that such widespread disagreement "suggests that editors might have better things to do with their time than to make these substitutions."

I have a few other rules I'd like to see copy editors question more:

Another vs. an additional
AP says: "Another is not a synonym for additional; it refers to an element that somehow duplicates a previously stated quantity." If you have $5, you can be given another $5, but not another $6. I can't see how this distinction serves any purpose, and I think it's lost on almost all readers.

AP says: "It usually means no single one. When used in this sense, it always takes singular verbs and pronouns: None of the seats was in its right place." I'd say it's quite the contrary, usually used as a plural these days. But it can be either, depending on what's being stressed. Let your ear be your guide.

Last vs. past
AP says: "Avoid the use of last as a synonym for latest if it might imply finality. The last time it rained, I forgot my umbrella, is acceptable. But: The last announcement was made at noon may leave the reader wondering whether the announcement was the final announcement, or whether others are to follow." Many copy editors' solution is to always change last to past. But when you review the AP rule, you can see that that's not what was intended. Just be cognizant of the possibility of confusion.

An interesting side note: I had been used to changing last to past early in my career. But when I came to the Dallas Morning News, I was surprised to find this entry in the local stylebook: "'Last five months" is preferred when referring to that period immediately preceding. Of course the months are past." So ... many copy editors here changed past to last by rote, instead of the other way around. And that shows you just how ridiculous a rule it is. The desk chief, Joel Thornton, has since gotten rid of the rule with a memo titled "Last or past? I don't care."
The DMN stylebook prefers last, but there are conflicting opinions on whether the last four days or the past four days is more correct. Use either one; it's not something we should waste time on.
That pretty much sums it up. But it also underscores another important point: Make sure there is unity on the desk before you start ignoring AP style rules willy-nilly. The stylebook is there for consistency's sake, and if we all ignore the rules we don't agree with, we defeat the stylebook's purpose.


At 10:16 PM, February 24, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nicole, you scare the heck out of me with your recommendation to "let your ear be your guide." That reminds me far too much of teachers who used to recommend comma placement according to where one took a breath. One should let his ear be his guide only if his ear has been thoroughly trained.

At 1:05 AM, February 28, 2006, Blogger Nick said...

That wasn't a blanket recommendation, was it Nicole? You've given us license to use our ear on the question of "none" being plural or singular. I bet you agree with Bill generally.

Also, that Joel Thornton ... one decisive dude.

At 7:13 PM, February 28, 2006, Blogger Nicole said...

Thanks, Nick; you're right. It certainly wasn't a blanket recommendation.

But it must be said: Editors who follow their ear are likely to do less harm than editors who blindly enforce rules they don't understand.

At 7:15 PM, March 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

AP should change "Web site" to the, uh, less annoying "website."

At 4:17 PM, March 24, 2006, Blogger LFelaco said...

I beg to differ on Web site; the annoying one is website (or "web-zit," which is what I hear in my head when I see it).

At 8:59 AM, February 08, 2008, Blogger not the me you want me to be said...

I work in medical transcription where accuracy in spelling and grammar is a top priority, and I ran across the past vs. last discrepancy this week. I remember learning from my transcription course that past and last don't mean the same thing, so they are not interchangeable, and I've followed the rule the same as the AP stated above in your blog. No one has said anything to me about it in five years in this profession until this week when I was asked to stop correcting last to past. I had to search more extensively than I thought I would to find the rule stated anywhere to back up my point, and your blog is one of the few places it's mentioned online. Interesting that past/last doesn't seem to matter to plenty of folks. It irritates me to leave it unchanged.

At 8:23 AM, May 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 6:47 PM, December 06, 2008, Blogger GRS said...

"One should let his (or her) ear..."

At 3:13 PM, February 02, 2011, Anonymous Generic Viagra said...

He includes over vs. more than, It was the most interesting thing that it read, so I think that all the blog is good, but I have many doubts now.


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