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"But the stylebook says . . ."

hapter 2 of my first book is about how to read a dictionary. You might think that's a waste of paper, but you'd be wrong.

Stylebook entries are designed to be even more explicit in their explanations than dictionary definitions are, but writers and editors still manage to miss the point. When members of the American Copy Editors Society were asked to cite examples of often-misused words, John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun nominated "stylebook."

The most common form of stylebook abuse is the use of an affirmative entry as a negative entry. Boneheaded editors see x in the stylebook and decide that means they must never, ever use y. A lot of stylebook entries do work this way, but the authors of the stylebook are giving us a little credit and figuring that we can tell which y they're discouraging. One entry, for example, reads "spaceship." This doesn't mean all other words in the language are banned; it means simply that AP does not use "space ship" as two words.

When I was putting together the metro section at the now-defunct Phoenix Gazette, a by-the-book copy editor proofreading one of my pages changed "french-fry machine" to "french fries machine," pointing out an AP entry that read simply "french fries."

"You idiot!" I didn't say -- well, I almost did. Obviously, this was an entry illustrating that "french" is not capitalized. You can argue my compound-modifier hyphenation, I suppose, but the machine isn't a french fries machine any more than McDonald's is a hamburgers restaurant; the singular adjectival form is well established.

That's an outrageous example; you've probably never made a change that stupid. I bet a lot of people, however, have changed "half an hour" to "a half-hour" because AP mentions the latter but not the former. That's almost as ridiculous. "Half an hour" sounds infinitely better, and the AP entry is simply illustrating that "half-hour," if it comes up, gets a hyphen.

Here's a more subtle example: Earlier in my Phoenix Gazette career, as a 110-pound weakling of a college sophomore interning on the copy desk, I made a pretty obvious editing change, inserting a comma between a second-reference last name and an of-this-hometown clause (something like "Smith, of Phoenix, enjoys Mexican food"). No-no-no, I was "corrected" by a helpful copy-desk middle manager. The stylebook says you don't use a comma before "of." She showed me the citation in the then-current version of the AP manual:

The use of the word of eliminates the need for a comma after the hometown if a state name is not needed: Mary Richards, 36, of Minneapolis and Maude Findlay, 48, of Tuckahoe, N.Y., attended the party.
Yes, I had seen the entry. I had enjoyed the '70s-sitcom examples. But I hadn't seen any mention of second reference, and that's the whole point here. Since the actor has already been introduced, any additional information is non-essential, and non-essential clauses (as the stylebook says) get commas. I objected, but my superior chose to let a stylebook omission trick her into an error.

Now what?


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