New York Times style rules: “Consistent, Sensitive and Weird”

Today’s New York Times column by public editor Clark Hoyt discusses the Times’ idiosyncratic and sometimes controversial style and usage rules. For example, the Times does not capitalize acronyms over four letters (they only capitalize the first letter), so while the rest of the world uses NAFTA, the Times alone uses Nafta. The example cited in the column was Navy SEALs, which the Times insists on printing as Navy Seals, despite objections from readers and the Navy:

Cmdr. Greg Geisen, the spokesman for the Naval Special Warfare Command, said SEALs is the name of the outfit, and “we would never, ever, ever in any way, shape or form spell it capital s, small e, small a, small l.” But, he added, “if The New York Times doesn’t want to be accurate, that’s O.K. No one here is going to get irate or offended over it.”

I agree with Hoyt that the Times should change its acronym policy:

I would also make it SEAL. I think the rule on acronyms is too rigid; it leaves The Times virtually alone in calling UNESCO Unesco, UNICEF Unicef and, my personal pet peeve because I am a fan, NASCAR Nascar. Maybe people who read only The Times are used to these, but most people in the Internet age get news from many sources, and The Times stands out as weird and maybe clueless.

The original intent of the rule was to limit the number of all-caps acronyms “looking like pieces of kitty litter all over the newspaper,” said Craig Whitney, the standards editor. But he said that may be less relevant on the Web, and “it is not written in stone that we will always adhere to that rule.”

It’s good to know I’m not the only one annoyed by many of these unusual style choices:

Many Times readers do get offended and irate over style issues like this one, and the complaints often involve an accusation that the newspaper is being disrespectful. In the last few weeks, I have heard from readers who think The Times is showing disrespect every time it refers to the president as Mr. Obama, and from others incensed that the newspaper used the word midget in a news article.

Each case illustrates the challenge of maintaining a consistent style in a changing world, where some people read political motives into simple usage conventions, where words once thought acceptable become objectionable, and where other words once objectionable become part of everyday language. A newspaper has to have rules, the linguistic equivalent of driving on the right side of the road and stopping at red lights, to avoid chaos for readers.

At The Times, a lot of consideration goes into usage issues, and they are often more complicated than they seem at first blush. Why not just call Seals SEALs? Well, what about Yahoo, which wants an exclamation point after its name? What about a rock group with a name containing an obscenity?

Though some of its rules seem eccentric or charmingly old-fashioned, like calling people Mr., Ms. and Dr., The Times does change, if usually slowly.

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

5 responses to “New York Times style rules: “Consistent, Sensitive and Weird”

  1. It strikes me that the Times follows many English conventions. (In England, for example, AIDS is Aids; the serial comma is abhorred.)

    I used to dislike the serial comma. I thought it made sentences look broken. These days I’m more pragmatic.

  2. I think the acronym issue is a small part of a question of where a name or brand ends and a publication’s style begins.

    As far as I’m concerned, capitalization is part of the writer’s style, and the name owner’s wishes are irrelevant. For example, I have some friends who write only in lower case. Would I insist that when mentioning me that they capitalize my name? No. When mentioning them, would I lower-case their name? Again, no. So I think the Navy’s opinion on Seal vs SEAL vs seal, although perhaps interesting, shouldn’t matter to the Times, as would any notions the Navy has on font choice, text size, or ink color.

    Whether this particular Times style choice is a good or bad one is something I’d judge by careful studies of what works best for readers, along the lines of what Jakob Nielsen often does. Give that I’ve never even noticed this Times quirk, I’d suspect that there’s little practical difference, but I’d love to see somebody get solid numbers on readability for this.

  3. when i retire, i plan to start the i.h.a.s — the ‘i hate acronyms’ society.

  4. My favorite aspect of the NY Times style guide is that initialisms are rendered in capital letters with their periods, while acronyms (excepting the above rule) are spelled in small caps.

    So, F.B.I. (large caps), but NASA (small caps); but even odder, C.D.-ROM, in which C.D. is in large caps and ROM is in small caps.

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