I particularly enjoy reading P M Carpenter when he writes about language or literature. On politics, he’s very liberal. But on these other issues, he’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. But that’s okay. So am I in my own idiosyncratic way. Sunday, he wrote, Language Crimes and Misdemeanors. (How do you not like a guy who references Woody Allen films in his article titles?) It is about the big happenings at The Washington Post. It seems that they are changing their style guide in a mad rush to catch up to the publishing world of 2000!
The big news is the move from “e-mail” to “email.” This brings back nightmares of the “Internet” Capitalization War. I don’t especially care, but it seems that simpler is always better if clarity is not harmed. And there could hardly be more clarity than “email”; I think “e-mail” is a bit clunky. Another change is from “Web site” to “website.” That one is especially repugnant to me. First, who capitalized “web” after 2006? Second, two words? Not even a hyphen?! At this point a website is something distinct from a site on the web. It deserves its own word, just like “gravesite” (which many websites represent).
But for pure silliness, The Post has decided to switch from “Wal-Mart” to “Walmart.” The truth is that the corporation’s name has been “Wal-Mart” since 1969. But the company calls itself “Walmart,” and has done so for a very long time. That’s the thing about style guides: they are autocratic. But all autocrats should know the limits of their powers. And continuing to call something by the wrong name is, well, wrong. We can argue all we want about capitalizing “internet,” but people and institutions have names. They define them — not the copy editor at The Washington Post. (BTW: I format The Post’s name like that because that is what it calls itself; I try to do that with all names.)
Carpenter doesn’t have a problem with these changes, but he doesn’t seem to be keen on them either. He describes the changes in the terms of war, “There are tactical moments, however, when ground should — and perhaps must — be ceded…” This is more or less, “I’ll give you ‘website’ but you can have ‘internet’ when you pry my cold dead hands off that capital I!” Fair enough. But what is this war being fought over? If The Washington Post gives up “Internet,” will it lead to George Will writing sentences like, “Me and him gone down to the fishin’ hole”? It’s absurd.
To me, it is always about clarity first and ease of writing second. As a result, unlike Carpenter, I am fanatical about the serial comma. Why? Because it is often necessary for clarity (“Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, and Burns and Allen”), and it is easier for the writer to simply put it in and not worry about whether it is or is not necessary. So these are what guide me in writing. The problem is that a stubborn commitment to past practice is very often an impediment to clarity and ease of writing.
I try, in my writing, to get things right — as defined by intelligent opinion. But that’s clearly third on my list of priorities. As for style guides? They are more about branding than grammar.