David Knopf - Style rules have their place, but sometimes that’s on the sidelines

07/02/2013 12:00 AM

07/01/2013 8:10 AM

We journalists work under a set of style rules published by The Associated Press.

The rules are referred to as “The AP Stylebook,” and we glibly allude to its enforcers as “the AP police,” a unit as hard-nosed as the detectives on “Law Order Criminal Intent.”

Of course, these investigators are figments of our imagination, but just to be safe we only discuss style matters on prepaid cell phones or in parking garages not bugged by the NSA.

Style rules do serve a purpose: They create a uniformity that enables one paper to pick up another’s story (or one reported by the AP itself) without having to revise it to conform to a paper’s own style. This can certainly help when deadlines loom or if the paper doesn’t have a correspondent in Abu Dhabi.

But as with any rules, there are those who apply them too rigidly and leave a reporter’s prose sounding like a division of Panzer tanks advancing on Stalingrad.

That was the case at one paper where I worked. We had a copy editor who insisted that highway names be written in a way that used up about half the 450 words she’d arbitrarily decided our stories could have.

The idea, I suppose, was to teach locals how to replace their untutored woodsy vernacular with the King’s English, or in this case, the Queen’s. For example, when real people describe a numbered highway, most say “291 Highway,” “291” or, in the case of an interstate, “I-35” or, more likely, just “35.”

According to our copy editor — we imagined her in black leather, with a whip and the name Madame Zerelda — all highway references would be written ”Missouri State Highway 291” or “Interstate Highway 35.”

But when you have 450 words to explain why new sludge pits are needed at the city sewage plant, you don’t want to waste even one on the verbal equivalent of military parades and heel clicks.

I do obey many AP rules, particularly the ones sent down from the mountain prior to 1985, when I was fresh out of journalism boot camp and a little green in the gills. More or less, things I learned as a freckle-faced newbie are still with me.

For example, as an AP adherent I

will not

allow “under way” to be written as one word. When I was young and impressionable and took the sacred oath to Serve and Protect, I was taught it should be two. Two words it remains today, even as with advancing age I relax, become more accepting and lift my 2004 Stylebook only in moments of great duress, like searching my desk for spare change.

When I edit copy in the bowels of the News Bunker, I adhere to AP rules 97 percent of the time. But lately, I’ve struck on a rule of my own: Consistency, consistency, consistency.

While I still dutifully change “Kansas” to “Kan.” instead of Ks. as in something you mail, and abbreviate most military ranks — “Lt. Col.” instead of “Lieutenant Colonel” — I’ve found lately if I do something the same way all the time, right or wrong, I am satisfied.

For example, no one up here refers to the main state road as Highway 13. Write it that way, and people will go, “Hey, look here. He’s got that backwards!”

With that in mind, as a copy editor with a populist bent I think it’s not just OK, but advisable to refer to the road as 13 Highway. I don’t want to startle anyone with stilted language or the sound of advancing tanks.

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