Style sheet tyranny

Every so often I take a shot at the New York Times for adhering to some point of mechanical style, no matter what — for instance, its periodophilia in initialistic abbreviations (most recently, here), where it’s happy to disregard the ordinary practices of people and institutions who use the periodless versions of these abbreviations (even in public documents) in favor of its absurd instance on periods in things like the N.A.A.C.P., the A.F.L.-C.I.O., and L.G.B.T.

And then there’s the serial comma, where the paper is dead set against it (Omit Needless Punctuation; yes, I know, this runs counter to its periodophilia, but rules are rules), even where it might be useful.

So yesterday (July 29), we get, in the story “In Baring Facts of Train Crash, Blogs Erode China Censorship”, after a reference to the astounding number of messages on China’s microblogs about the tragedy:

The messages are a potent amalgam of contempt for railway authorities, suspicion of government explanations and shoe-leather journalism by citizens and professionals alike.

I was struggling with the startling idea that people were suspicious of government explanations and shoe-leather journalism, when the sentence came to an end and I realized that shoe-leather journalism … was intended to be a third conjunct, parallel to contempt for railway authorities and suspicion of government authorities. A comma, doctor, a comma!

I generally use the serial comma myself (and am sometimes accused of illiteracy for doing so — how silly is that?), but I’m not doctrinaire on the matter. Still, an editor yoked to a style sheet that abjures the serial comma might have the common sense to see that there are times when that final comma could be useful.

3 Responses to “Style sheet tyranny”

  1. John McIntyre Says:

    Actually, the Times’s stylebook says to use the final comma whenever necessary to avoid confusion. So what’s at bottom of the problem is not the rigidity of the stylebook but the failure of the editor to edit intelligently.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Thanks for the correction, John. I understand that the stylebook doesn’t insist on no final period in coordination. But the advice looks like a blanket injunction (as other items in the stylebook are), so editors simply apply the advice mechanically. It’s always, alas, easier to apply rules mechanically than intelligently.

  2. Edward I as Oliver Cromwell « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] 7/30/11: Style sheet tyranny (link) Every so often I take a shot at the New York Times for adhering to some point of mechanical style, […]

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