We writers need to lead by example

By Jeff Linville - jlinville@civitasmedia.com

My coworker Tom Joyce likes to say, “When you work with words, words are your work.”

Being a career journalist means becoming knowledgeable of spelling and grammar rules.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat, but there is just one way to properly punctuate a sentence.

Or at least, that’s what I was taught in school.

A journalist isn’t bound just by the exacting rules of grammar, but by an evolving standard known as AP, or Associated Press, style.

For you commoners, the Associated Press puts out a new stylebook every year.

David Minthorn, the AP Stylebook’s co-editor, explained why the book changes each printing.

“We reflect usage, in our view,” he told reporters when this year’s edition was released. “We’re not trying to get ahead of the game. When we make a change, almost always it reflects the reality of language use and what’s happening in vernacular speech or idiomatic speech.”

Some of the changes are so minor that none of us care. It is now okay to use BLT to describe the sandwich with bacon, lettuce and tomato. It is now okay to put capital letters on Final Four and Elite Eight. Selfie is now an okay word for writers to use.

However, some of the changes just make us longtime writers and editors cringe.

New this year is that we’re not supposed to use the word suicide, unless it is a direct quote from authorities. Instead, say he killed himself or she attempted to kill herself.

Um, I’m pretty sure that’s what Webster’s dictionary says is the definition of suicide. As Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose would smell as sweet.”

Then there was the rule not to shorten state names anymore. We can’t just say Cana, Va., anymore. We have to write out the whole state name — even though everybody who lives in our reading area darn well knows where Cana is.

Still, that’s not what really bugs me. What gets me and other journalists fired up are when changes are made just because people keep getting it wrong.

What if everyone I met called me Jack instead of Jeff? Then the AP Stylebook would say that it is now a rule that my name is Jack, whether it’s right or not.

For example, over and under are descriptions of an action. A person can climb over a fallen tree, and his dog might crawl under it. These are directions, not amounts.

Yet, for decades, people with poor grammar have said things like “over a million dollars” and “under 10 bucks.”

For years, I have edited stories to fix these problems when young writers screw up.

Only now, the AP Stylebook has given up the fight and says it is perfectly okay to use these terms for amounts.

More than and over are now the same thing, according to the Associated Press.

As one journalist tweeted, “More than my dead body!”

Now before you readers think, “Sounds fine to me. Let’s do it,” let me remind you of one thing.

This is the same argument that became a national issue in the late 1990s with ebonics.

Remember that? A school board in Oakland decided that the urban street slang used predominantly by its black students should be considered its own language.

This was such an misguided idea that even black leaders spoke out against it.

Rev. Jesse Jackson said, “I understand the attempt to reach out to these children, but this is an unacceptable surrender, borderlining on disgrace.”

Education leaders said that kids needed to learn the proper way to speak and write English because it was important to their future.

That’s exactly the issue here, too. Rather than teach kids there is a difference between more than and over, we are throwing up our hands and surrendering.

What’s next? Do we forget about teaching lay/lie or who/whom since kids are always messing those up, too?

If enough kids think New York City is the capitol of New York, do we take that title away from Albany?

Look at the posts that teens make on Facebook. Then ask a high school English teacher about writing assignments. The kids are almost as bad in their homework assignments as they are on social media.

We should be stressing the importance of education, not lowering our standards — especially in our newspapers, which should be held to a higher accountability.

By Jeff Linville


Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

Jeff is the associate editor and can be reached at 415-4692.

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