Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Style, yes, but common sense, too

I admit. I like the idea of style, AP or otherwise. It adds a certain sense of order to things and lets me write instead of having to think about the minutiae.

And I enjoy the various style quizzes that pop up in newsletters and other publications I get. It's always fun to see how much I recall.

My concern, however, is that they can send the message that it's all about style and that style is a rigid thing, when all it should be is a guide. Common sense often must prevail, and sense - the sense of the writer and what he or she is trying to accomplish.

Here are two questions and answers from the quiz I linked to above:
Q1       Arizona officials said the two thousand bushels were sufficient for its November Harvest festival.
A1       Arizona officials said the 2,000 bushels was sufficient for their November Harvest Festival
Our AP bible reminds writers that a plural noun could take a singular verb if the amount is used as a unit, rather than individually.  In this case, was becomes the proper verb since the writer is not referring to individual bushels.  For numbers, 2,000 is used.  Words come into the picture when the figure is in the millions or higher.  Festival is capitalized since it’s part of the formal title for this annual event.

Q4       K-Mart, Wal-Mart and JC Penny announced they will open at 12 midnight on Black Midnight.
A4       Kmart, Walmart and J.C. Penney announced they will open at midnight on “Black Midnight.”
All three company names can be checked in the stylebook.  Newer versions will remind journalists that Walmart is the correct version when referring to its retail outlets.  Midnight is sufficient without the 12, as is noon.  Black Friday is not listed with AP, and many papers have treated it with and without quotes.  Those using quote marks may be citing the punctuation guide in the back that states:  “A word or words being introduced to readers may be placed in quotation marks on first reference.”

Forget for a moment the admonition that when you do one of these things you're probably going to get something wrong - in this case the use of "Black Midnight" for "Black Friday" (which was used in the answer). Let's look at how what seem like a couple of absolutist answers really should be a bit more flexible:

 Arizona officials said the two thousand bushels were sufficient for its November Harvest festival. 
 A1       Arizona officials said the 2,000 bushels was sufficient for their November Harvest Festival.

Is the use of "its" in the original wrong? No. It's perfectly acceptable here if the writer's sense was "Arizona's ... Festival." So the editor should be checking with the writer for the sense.

K-Mart, Wal-Mart and JC Penny announced they will open at 12 midnight on Black Midnight.
 A4       Kmart, Walmart and J.C. Penney announced they will open at midnight on “Black Midnight.”

Is "Walmart" always mandated here? No. If you are talking about your local Walmart store, then that's the correct style. But if the writer's sense is that the company says it will open at midnight, then Wal-Mart is correct.

I hate that part of the stylebook and have only reluctantly given in. It can produce stories where you have both spellings repeatedly interchanged, which is bonkers.

So the next time you see one of these, have fun with it but take some of this style stuff with a grain of salt. Always temper it with what the writer was trying to accomplish, and if you don't know that, then ask or leave it alone.

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2 Comments:

At 11/24/11, 2:25 AM, Blogger vtuss said...

I like the idea of AP style, especially if AP were to use it.

 
At 11/24/11, 10:32 AM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Vince:
Ha! And amen!
-D

 

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