Style Guides and Silly Pedantry

The Washington Post BuildingI 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.

Will the Fed Board-Members Be Held Accountable?

Janet YellenYesterday, Paul Krugman wrote about the Federal Reserve’s almost certain coming interest rate hike. I’ve been very gloomy about this and you all may be very bored with my obsession. But it is really important. And Krugman added an extra bit of gloom. He said that the Fed could very well be wrong about the economy — causing it to stagnate. “And this would be much more serious than a modest uptick in inflation, because it’s not at all clear what the Fed could do to fix its mistake.” That sentence sent a chill down my spine.

The issue isn’t really interest rates; it is rather the expectations of the business community. It doesn’t take much for the economy to go on tilt. A few businesses start laying off workers and it starts a cascade. And the Fed does what? Lower interest rates?! The interest rates wouldn’t be high enough for that to have much effect. The vast majority of businesses are just reacting to the businesses that reacted badly to the first Fed rise. Sure: it will all sort itself out. Eventually. But I’m old enough to take Keynes’ maxim very seriously, “In the long run we are all dead.”

Let’s suppose that Janet Yellen and Partners, LLC does get it wrong. Let’s suppose they raise interest rates and the economy stagnates or goes into recession. That will mean millions of people who should have had jobs won’t.

Krugman has written a lot over the last several years about how inexplicable it is that policymakers continue to listen the advice of people who have been “wrong every step of the way.” But I don’t really understand his confusion. Isn’t it clear enough that it is the policymakers themselves who want to do what has been shown to be “wrong every step of the way”? I am not inclined to give the Fed much credit here. It is an institution of, by, and for the bankers. It isn’t raising interest rates because it thinks this is what the economy needs right now; it is raising them because it wants to and now it can get away with it.

But let’s suppose that Janet Yellen and Partners, LLC does get it wrong. Let’s suppose they raise interest rates and the economy stagnates or goes into recession. That will mean millions of people who should have had jobs won’t. But I can tell you some people who won’t be out of a job: Fed Chair Janet Yellen; Fed Vice-Chair Stanley Fischer; Fed Governor Daniel Tarullo; and so on. None of them will be held to account. People like that are never held to account.

Krugman wrote, “But those critics have been wrong every step of the way. Why start taking them seriously now?” A better question might be, “Why do they even have jobs?” The truth is a professional fire fighter who was terrible at his job would not be a professional fire fighter. That goes for pretty much every job that regular people have.

I was recently on the periphery of the firing of a writer at my day job. I feel bad about it because I was at least party to blame: I complained about him a lot. The truth is that he was turning in crap work. Yet the work was passable. He never did anything that seriously damaged the company. But if the Fed seriously damages our economy, no one will be fired.

Anniversary Post: Horace

HoraceOn this day way back in 65 BC, the great Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to us English speakers as simply Horace, was born. Most people know of him because of one line from one of his poems Odes Book III, Poem 2: Dulce Et Decorum Est. The line itself is, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” A straight translation is, “Sweet and decorous it is for the fatherland to die.” Now Horace is exhorting his fellow Romans to man up. You can read the whole poem in English at Poetry in Translation. Today, we know the line from Wilfred Owen’s poem of the same name where he quotes the line. This is how he ends his poem:

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori
.

I learned a great deal about Latin from reading Horace. All my life, I had heard that Latin was a perfect language. Yet here was this famous line that ends with an infinitive. It sounded vaguely like German to me. What I learned is that there is no such thing as a perfect language. And no language is superior to another. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I run into grammatical problems all the time that simply can’t be solved in English, but that is built right into other languages. It is very much like programming languages. The best language depends upon what you want to say. And that can change clause by clause. But one cool thing about Latin: it really isn’t that hard. If I had a child, I would encourage her to study it.