“slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

If you are confused about the difference between style and grammar, you should read this testy but important post from The Economist’s Johnson blog, pointing out a problem with Paul Farhi’s Washington Post profile of David Minthorn, one of the editors of the AP Stylebook. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

“E-MAIL” or “e-mail”? “Bed and breakfast” or “bed-and-breakfast”?… “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Mic” or “mike”?

My question isn’t which of these readers prefer, but a more abstract one: which of these are questions of grammar?

The Washington Post profiles the Associated Press’s “grammar and style expert” David Minthorn today. In raising all these questions (and Mr Minthorn’s answers) and in describing Mr Minthorn as a kind of linguistic Solomon, the Post’s Paul Farhi never once makes a crucial point: none of these questions has a correct answer at all, because they are not questions of grammar. They are all style…

Whether to hyphenate “e-mail” or not is one of the most trivial and boring things I can possibly imagine having a debate about, but the AP’s recent move to “email” caused an almighty furore….

It’s good to be consistent, and that’s why the AP and The Economist (and probably the Washington Post) have something called a style. But this is just a series of subjective, almost capricious rulings so that we don’t see “e-mail” and soon thereafter, “email”, a “Ghaddafi” here and a “Qaddhafi” there. As the name suggests, style is a matter of taste…. Who cares, for goodness’s sake? Just pick one and stay with it.

Grammar, on the other hand, really does render “right” and “wrong” judgments…. This isn’t to say there aren’t open or controversial questions of grammar. And there are meta-level questions about the sources of authority in questions of grammar, the old prescriptive versus descriptive argument…. Whatever your language or dialect, it has rules….

Many people worship and slavishly follow the AP’s style. They shouldn’t, because the whole idea of slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language…

It’s also important to remember that there are different style guides for different types of writing, and each style is influenced by practical considerations unique to their publications. For example, Chicago style (used by most of the publishing world) uses the serial comma for clarity, while AP style (used by most newspapers and journalists) doesn’t use the serial comma in order to save column space. Here are two additional examples from Farhi’s article. The AP decision to drop the hyphen from “e-mail” was made because “the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second.” And though Chicago italicizes the titles of books and periodicals, Minthorn notes that “AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them….”

So you should make sure the style you are using is appropriate to the specific type of writing or publication, understand the reasons behind the style decisions you make, and apply your style choices consistently. For more about style manuals, see my previous posts on the subject. For more examples of Chicago and AP style differences, see the AP vs. Chicago blog.


3 responses to ““slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

  1. Samuel Butler said that most people mistake grammar for style, and I’m inclined to think it’s still true today. Certainly a large proportion of people appear to be unaware of the distinction. The Internet is rife with rants about “grammar” that are just lists of spelling and style peeves, many of them anachronistic but clung to as though their observance will protect the language from certain ruin.

    For what it’s worth, I find Johnson consistently useful and sensible, a very welcome addition to the language blogging community.

  2. Ain’t it the truth! Some grammar rules are really important, though:
    1) Never verbify nouns.
    2) A preposition is a bad thing to end a sentence with.
    3) Splitting infinitives up is very bad.
    4) Never use absolute statements.
    5) Stick with a single language, n’est pas?
    6) Always use “I” after “and” when referring to yourself no matter what: “She gave the tickets to Mary and I”
    7) “Whom” makes you sound more formal. Always use it. “Whom is calling?”

    Follow these rules and you’ll talk as goodly as me.

  3. Reblogged this on The potato blog and commented:
    Roaming around this blog cheered me up no end and I feel so much better about criticising other people’s writing.