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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Printerum est errare, vol. 2

This week, there's a neat Q&A with Philip B. Corbett, the deputy news editor of The New York Times, about questions of style and usage in the paper. Three things caught my attention:

1. The decline narrative is tempting! Corbett notices it, too. So the questions that come in about this decline all sound very similar, but they aren't really questions. They're observations in the form of questions, and they have a distinctive way of moving between the general and the particular--oh, there are so many particulars that it's imperative to generalize!

That above paragraph isn't a knock on the careful readers or on Corbett; it's just an observation about decline narratives. I know it because I'm obsessed with it. I spent a summer reading all the old issues of the Columbia Daily Spectator as a personal hairshirt assignment, and I was sure that we were making more mistakes than had ever been made in the history of newspaper. But we kind of were.

Then one night before I went in to proof-read, I picked up Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby, now one of my favorite albums, and something hit me. That line in "South Tacoma Way," "I can't comprehend the ways that I miss you / They come to light in my mistakes," isn't about newspapers at all (and maybe it's weird or sad that this is my frame of reference), but it put the decline narrative in perspective for me. That imagined past of higher standards and fewer mistakes is partly a nostalgia for a past that's either not real or isn't reconstructable. I still have that line taped to my desk.

This newsbrief from The Onion captured the second stage of the decline narrative for me.

2. George Orwell will show up in any contemporary discussion of political language, but the reference will be fuzzier than it was in 1984. It's like clockwork--like the clocks are striking thirteen.

This is the weirdest version I've seen of the Orwell imperative.

3. There are funny vestiges of the old technologies of print in the ways we think about style. Here's part of his answer to a question about the serial comma:
I haven't researched the question, but I suspect that journalists' aversion to the additional comma arose in the old days when setting type was laborious and expensive. If you already have an "and," why bother with a comma, too? The practice persists, from habit and perhaps from the sense that fewer commas make prose seem more direct and rapid — qualities we journalists prize in our writing.

And then in a later question he notes that people suggested that the Times save space in their newly narrower columns by eliminating titles such as Mr. and Dr. It wouldn't have worked, Corbett says, but it's funny to think that more than one person suggested it.

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