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Examiner
  • Jeff Fox: Muddled definitions aren't helpful

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  • You probably heard about the outrage. The sharp disappointment of betrayal and the dull thud of standards falling.
    You didn’t hear?
    Well, that’s because the shrieks were coming from copy editors, and no one listens to them.
    These are the people who toil quietly to craft precisely written news, sharp headlines and bright page layouts. Occasionally they clear their voices and harrumph at the world about such things as the distinction between “like” and “such as.” You know, the stuff most normal people forgot three minutes after their seventh grade English teacher made her own vain, valiant case for precise wording.
    But no one listens to copy editors, in part because we get so worked up about the misuse of “literally,” that whole affect-effect thing and the fact that Fiberglas has a capital “F” and just one “s,” thank you ever so much. If they did listen, the TV crawl would not be filled with the misspelled “cancelled” during every bout of winter weather. And we wouldn’t have a “towards” problem.
    The other reason no one listens is that copy editors have been as decimated as any subpopulation of the modern journalist. Someone still has to get the paper out, but there’s less time to bark across the dark and barren newsroom.
    Last week’s cataclysmic news had America’s remaining copy editors huddling around the tribal campfire – Twitter, of course – trying to comfort each and make sense of it all.
    The one true book that guides us is the Associated Press Stylebook. There is but one “e” in “judgment.” It’s daylight saving – not savings – time. The criminal “pleaded” guilty, not “pled.” These are rules grounded in research, reason and consistency, and it is exceedingly good.
    But now the AP torments us. It seems to think the language of newspapers should bear some resemblance to the language people speak. Seriously? Have you turned on the TV lately?
    The AP also seems to think that occasionally throwing in the towel is better part of valor. OK, I’ll give them that one.
    The AP some time ago punted on “hopefully.” The old stylebook entry was, “It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us or we hope.” The distinction is subtle but precise, a matter of accuracy.
    No more. The AP says “hopefully” covers all that ground.
    Page 2 of 2 - Then it allowed “underway” as one word instead of the old two, in most cases. That had been a standard journalistic gotcha, and the copy editors grumbled at its loss.
    But now they’ve done it. Last week the AP said the first, fundamental thing you learned in Journalism 101 is null and void. “Over” applies to spatial relationships. “More than” is used for numbers.
    He made over $1 million. No, no, no. Go write it the proper way on the chalkboard.
    But that’s how people talk, right? Pish-posh. People also confuse “moot” and “mute,” and say “irregardless.” Let’s not even get started on “good” and “well.” We must have rules.
    The AP has subversively chosen to get with the times. If the campfire chatter is to be believed, however, it’s also created a whole new cohort of rule-breakers.
    I can see a couple generations of copy editors – bless their dwindling number – devoutly continuing to change fuzzy “over” for precise “more than” for years to come. It’s what they do. They believe it matters.
    Follow Jeff Fox on Twitter @Fox_EJC or @Jeff_Fox.
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