Editor to no one in particular as he's copy reading a story at 6 in the morning: "Is there such a word as `misjustice'?"
Some people spend their lives taking commas out wherever they see them and putting commas in wherever they don't see them. They're called editors. Many is the young reporter who has incurred an editor's wrath by not having a comma in the right place.I was always one (and still am) who had them in the wrong place. My attitude has always been that there are few absolutes in life and there ought to be few in grammar. My priority has always been communication, not commas and grammar.
After all, writing is a tough way to communicate. We communicate pretty well when we can talk, shout, cry and make faces and gestures. Even silence sometimes communicates volumes. (Remember the last time you got the silent treatment from your spouse?)
But trying to communicate information, emotion, drama, a point of view or humor via tiny black and white symbols on a piece of paper gets tough. It takes a fine writer to move someone to tears, laughter, anger or rapture when the means of communication is letters arranged in certain ways on a thinly rolled tree.
So a writer oughta be able to use every tool of modern wordfare, right? Well, not exactly. We're pretty stodgy in the newspaper business. Literary flamboyance, except perhaps for a few columnists and sports writers, is frowned upon.
No incomplete sentences. And don't overuse dashes - or exclamation points!!
The Deseret News has a thick stylebook (or is that style book?) published by the Associated Press, and also a supplement created by Deseret News editors.
The stylebook tells us such interesting things as "NATO is acceptable in all references for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, but use it sparingly. A phrase such as the alliance is less burdensome to the reader."
It tells us that nicknames (except in some sports stories) ought to be put in quotation marks, like Sen. Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson. It says noisome means offensive or noxious, while noisy means clamorous.
Our own supplement explains why we, at the Deseret News, use studentbody instead of student body. It orders us to call the park Sugar House, but the part of the city Sugarhouse.
As for me, I've always preferred not to clutter my brain with such stuff. So I have to do a lot of asking and checking on style questions.
After all, newspapers are the keepers of the gate, right? The last bastion of proper usage. (Whoops, another incomplete sentence.) The future of the language depends on someone maintaining standards and being consistent. You mustn't see bookkeeper in one spot and book keeper in another.
So we have style czars and a style committee. Assistant Managing Editor Don Woodward heads the effort and does a great job. Regional Editor Dave Schneider and Copy Chief Lee Hunt are the line editors who uphold the standards and chew out violators. The style committee meets periodically to develop arcane rules that the rest of us don't understand.
The problem is, as usual, the Sports Desk. Have those guys ever seen a style rule they liked? While the rest of us worry about why we say mid-America, but midterm, the sports guys break every rule in the book. Well, it's actually not that bad, but they do write with more freedom than the news writers.
The language is always developing, of course, and style must develop with it. What do you do when a new word or phrase comes along? We finally got so confused over how to handle superconducting supercollider (upper case? lower case? two words? four words?) that someone sent a message over the computer system listing the various possibilities: superconducting supercollider, superconducting super collider, Superconducting Super Collider, Superconducting Supercollider, Supercolliding Superconducter, Super super conducting collider, Supercolliding conductor, SuPeRcOnDuCtInG SuPeRcOlLiDeR, super duper pooper scooper, supercalifragilisticexpialidociouscollider, souper cunductin soupercoolaider, and Su perM an.
Now the real question of the day is whether, in the first sentence of this column, that single quote mark at the end of misjustice was supposed to go inside or outside of the question mark. Some English teacher will, no doubt, let me know.