The language of our Times

I read John Gruber’s Daring Fireball mainly as a source for Mac punditry, but I also enjoy non-Mac subjects that John often brings up. For example, from him came this link to a question and answer with the New York Times‘s Deputy Editor Philip B. Corbett. Among Mr. Corbett’s responsibilities is maintaining the Times‘s style guide, and the issues he addresses here focus on language and style.

I found particularly interesting the confirmation of two stylistic practices you’ll see in the Times, both having to do width identifying people. The first—using a person’s first name, middle initial, and last name unless the person is better known otherwise—is fairly straightforward. I first noticed it in my work: the Times always refers to Apple’s CEO as Steven P. Jobs, a formality accorded to him by pretty much no other source I’ve encountered.

And then, in second references, the Times always adds a courtesy title. For example, upon second reference, the above personage would be referred to as “Mr. Jobs” rather than simply “Jobs.” Mr. Corbett explains:

Perhaps I’m tradition-bound, but this is one quirk of Times style that I would go to some lengths to defend. We strive for a tone that is literate, civil and serious: not fussy or old-fashioned, but also not chatty or self-consciously hip. It’s not an easy balance, and we don’t always get it right. But I think the simple use of courtesy titles — whether it’s “Mr. Bush,” “Mrs. Clinton” or “Ms. Rivera, a teacher from Queens” — injects a note of thoughtfulness and civility into our pages. Amid the daily cacophony, that seems a worthy effort.

Agreed. To me, it does at times see a little stuffy, but I also kind of appreciate it, in same way that you grow to recognize—and perhaps even love—your friends’ own linguistic tics.

And lest you think that issues of language are unimportant, consider Mr. Corbett’s discussion on the politics of language, and think about how the simple choice of one word over another can produce vastly different meanings for those reading:

We try to report facts rather than simply apply labels. Take the case of Hamas, the Palestinian organization that won recent elections but that the United States, the European Union and Israel consider a terrorist group. Hamas members have often carried out or condoned suicide bombings that kill civilians. Those are terrorist acts, and no reporter or editor at The Times would shy away from that description. Hamas also runs clinics and other social services. So, if Hamas is a terrorist group, are those terrorist clinics, staffed by terrorist doctors? Better to state the facts rather than merely relying on predetermined labels.

If you’re a language geek, you’ll find plenty of other interesting sections of the question & answer section. For example: is “none” singular or plural? How does the Times decide how to transliterate foreign languages? Are colloquialisms fair use for print? (I just brought this up today, when I went to write “a whole nother question” in piece. “Nother” of course, is not a word, though it would be perfectly acceptable in conversation). I realize that thirteen pages of question and answer on language, grammar, and punctuation isn’t the kind of thing that gets most people riled up, but as a writer I can no more resist studying a list of phrases deemed “overworked” by the Times than a woodworker can avoid poring over a catalog of tools.

[…] my last post, I remarked to Jason that I’ve long found linguistics fascinating and, if I’d ever […]