Saturday, April 21, 2007

Style serves meaning

Two thousand-year-old beliefs about God, the soul, sin and people outside our tribe are hindering medical research and warping public policy.

So, allegedly, says a letter to the editor. Leading to a question: Which two 11th-century beliefs does the correspondent have in mind?

Right. Clearly the correspondent (in his or her own bumbling way) is trying to wrap a few a millennia worth of assorted beliefs into a single potshot aimed at the early days of the Common Era. Which would be "two-thousand-year-old beliefs."

At a distance, one is inclined to guess that in editing the letter for "style," somebody mis-extended the AP's silly ban on hyphenating "million" and "billion" compounds. The rule's OK for simple compounds, like "$2 million building." It's shaky for multiples, like "$2 billion-plus budget," in which the hyphen appears to be setting off the second part of the compound. And in the "two thousand-year-old beliefs" above, it's just dumb.

Meaning isn't the servant of style. Style is the servant of meaning. That's the bottom line of all stylebooks.


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