The Core Dump

A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures

[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 27 October 2011]

The shibboleth of style

Nic is not pleased with the AP stylebook.

Spelling and grammar in the English language is essentially a cruel hoax. Granted, any human-generated syntax is counter-intuitive and weird. Just ask anybody who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language. Grammar most often can’t be approached logically: Some things are the way they are just because that’s the way they are.

For example, why is table (Tisch) a masculine word in German1? There might be some deep psychological reason hidden in the German collective unconscious, but for the purpose of somebody learning the language, it’s just something you have to suck up and memorize. Have fun.

But English! Ah, English is the master language of weirdness, a lot of which stems from its history as an uneasy merge of German, French, Old Norse and its tortured use as a lingua franca around the world, where like a backpacker Eurailing the summer away it picked up more than one infection.

Latin can be blamed as well, since as the language of educated people since the fall of the Roman Empire, many fine, upstanding gentlemen with too much time on their hands have attempted to straitjacket English into Latin grammar.2

After all, why go through the trouble of learning Latin without using it to make other people miserable?

So. English. Where rules and logic go to die.3

Every self-respecting institution that communicates in writing operates according to a style guide. This is a Good Thing™ as it ensures common usage of terms which in turn increases clarity.

At work we operate under the AP Stylebook, arguably the most common style guide out there. Many newspaper articles you read follow AP style or some home-brewed adaptation.

AP style suffers from the same problem as English grammar: It has no logical consistency.

Unlike English, it doesn’t have a tortured past as an excuse.

As an example, last year to much fanfare the AP style overlords decreed the word “email” shall no longer be hyphenated. Yes, until recently if you wrote correct AP Style, you had to write “e-mail” even though nobody else on Earth did. But no longer! Huzza! We can write like everybody else in the world and still adhere to the One True Style!

So what about “e-book”? It just makes sense to change all the e-whatever words in one swoop, right?

This is why you are not an AP style overlord.

Well, this and your lack of a proper maniacal cackle.

Other e-words will be folded in at some point, maybe, if they are deemed worthy. You know, on a case-by-case basis.

Which is exactly the problem. Every decision being ad hoc means you can never reason out whether a particular word is hyphenated or whether a term is written as one word or two. It can’t be deduced. You have to look it up. And every year a few words change.

Which in my darker moments leads me to wonder how much of AP’s revenue comes from sales of the style guide.

Yes, yes, I know, English is a living language and is constantly evolving over time, blah blah. I’m not arguing against that. What I am arguing against is the lack of consistency.

What I really suspect is driving the Byzantine nature of the style guide is that it is a shibboleth: If you can internalize the rules and keep up with them you have shown yourself to be in the club. It’s a waste of time. Not the style guide itself or the reason for its existence, but the angels-on-a-head-of-a-pin persnickety illogic of the damn thing.

Simplify, simplify.

  1. For that matter, why do nouns have genders in German and French in the first place? It’s a bit creepy when you think about it. Although the Germans win for having a neuter as well as male and female. Swedish also makes a strong showing in the confuse-the-foreigner league by having two noun forms that have no semantic meaning. You just have to memorize them for no particular reason. 

  2. Educated people who were taught Latin and consequently had too much time on their hands are the reason why you’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. Look it up. 

  3. Yes, it’s easier in some other languages. Sweden and France, for instance, have institutions whose sole purpose is to decide what is correct in the language. These institutions publish dictionaries that are the Official Language Dictionaries. Scrabble arguments in those languages are easily resolved. 

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