Sunday, July 13, 2008

Distinctions without difference?

In addition to this blog, I write a monthly column for press association newsletters and newspaper groups. July's get into language issues I touch on in the blog occasionally, so I thought I'd post this column in hopes of getting your feedback:

The new AP stylebook is out, which always gets me thinking about language changes and whether it's time to jettison some of the usages and spellings we cling to.

But I need your help. This month, let's look at some disputed usages – or ones I think might be ripe for questioning. Then, you tell me whether you observe the distinctions anymore. Please e-mail me at (that's a new address), and in an upcoming column we'll revisit the issue with your thoughts.

Over/more than: It's getting harder to find a desk that really labors over this AP distinction – use more than with numerals – anymore. John McIntyre, assistant managing editor in charge of copy editing at The Baltimore Sun, says there are too many more important things. Plus, most authorities now consider it a distinction without difference. Do you still change "over" to "more than?"

Lend/loan: The AP has just weighed in with a new stylebook entry elevating "lend" as the preferred verb. Classic usage manuals counsel similarly. But we see "loaned" all the time in newspapers and other writing. Is this an issue for anyone? Will you enforce AP style?

Another/an additional: AP has long held that "another" requires like things or amounts (you can't have 3 million and get "another" 4 million). I can't remember the last time I saw this distinction in an AP story, let alone a newspaper. Is it time to ditch it?

If/whether: "Working With Words," a widely used grammar and usage guide for journalists, says that when "whether" works in a sentence, use it. In classic usage, "if" is reserved for conditional (if … then) situations. But even the "Working With Words" authors acknowledge widespread substitution. I'm wondering whether – or if – it's time to let this fade.

Since/because: The AP allows "since" in a casual use where one thing follows logically, but is not the direct cause, of the other. And there are the persistent arguments about ambiguity (Since you won the lottery, we've been envious.) But McIntyre, again, says there's really no longer any practical distinction, and Arnold Zwicky at "Language Log" says the ambiguity argument is suspect because context almost always clarifies. Your thoughts?

Because/due to: While we are at it, what about this old shibboleth that these are not substitutes. If a writer writes: "He was overthrown due to the widespread poverty," would you change it. Would you insist only "His overthrow was due to the widespread poverty" is correct. It is time to acknowledge widespread popular ignorance of this distinction.

While: Do you recoil at its use as a conjunction in the sense of "whereas," especially beginning a sentence. Many of the arguments are the same as since/because, and many of the "it's a useless distinction" retorts are likewise.

Gantlet/gauntlet: Merriam-Webster's and American Heritage both now show gauntlet as the preferred term for running an obstacle course. Only Webster's New World, the dictionary favored by AP, sticks with "gantlet." So let me issue a challenge – do you care about that distinction?

Drunk/drunken: Notwithstanding Mothers Against Drunk Driving, this has been a stalwart of AP and newspapers' style in general. But both the Chicago Manual of Style and Bryan Garner, in his widely read usage manuals, suggest "drunk" may be more correct for temporary inebriation and "drunken" for a chronic condition. Maybe MADD has it right after all?

"Beg the question" for "pose the question": Yes, beg the question means a tautological argument. But as has been noted in several corners of the language world, if everyone is misusing it, are we being priggish in insisting otherwise?

Following/after: The AP prefers "after" as the preposition and "following" as the verb (in other words, he died "after" the wreck, not "following" it). But this is another case where the dictionary acknowledges much of the world uses "following" as a preposition. Do you spend any time changing it anymore?

Stanch/staunch: Even Webster's, conservative as it is, lists staunch as the preferred form of the verb. AP sticks with stanch. Where do you stand?

Include: Do you insist that "include" can cover only part of the whole? The dictionaries and usage guides say it might be worth rethinking that. Is it a distinction you think we need to keep?

Proved/proven: "Proved" is listed as the preferred verb in many references and "proven" the noun adjective*. But "proven" is very common usage ("He has proven his point."). Do you worry about changing this?

Stamp/stomp: Notwithstanding places like Stamping Ground, Ky., using "stomp" for "stamp" is so widespread, would you think to change it?

We easily could find a dozen others. As one copy editor wrote to me recently: "I will change 'males' to 'men,' and 'females" to 'women' (we are not lab rats), and I will change 'gender' to 'sex' every time I see these used improperly, which is almost all the time in medical writing."

I hope to hear from you.

*Yet another example of why we all need editors. Thanks to Craig Lancaster for the catch.

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At 10/8/08, 8:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The AP stylebook seems like another last ditch effort for 'journalists' to solidify the profession as legitimate. A book based on , ahem, wire-text, in the age of internet slingo...

In a similar way, it is like journalism profs, et al. bantering about 'ethics' ( good luck finding those in the competitive, infotainment oriented big corporate newsroom); or the call from college with an 'ethics core' curriculum in second year J-school and asking the question "should there be professional standards/licensing of journalists?".

The AP is and remains out of step with the vernacular, a a constant semi-legitimate gasp from an old American news agency for legitimacy.

But there are times when the right word boils down to more than editors with boils on their boilers, as noted by Sam Clemens “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”


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