Thursday, July 14, 2011

Active aggressive

I think there's a reason that first clause is passive. It keeps the "Ask the Stylebook" editors from having to say "The AP prefers the active voice for most news stories," which would probably set off loud guffaws from people who actually read AP stories and notice that -- whatever the head office thinks -- AP writers often use whatever voice helps them express the meaning they want to. As in this classic bit of AP lede writing from (ahem) April 1865:

The President was shot in a theater tonight, and perhaps mortally wounded.

I like stylebooks. I really do.* And I try to encourage close attention to them -- if for no other reason than "Why don't we see if we've already settled this one?" is almost invariably a better answer than "Let's invent some AWESOMELY STUPID rules!" It's genuinely convenient to have a handy answer to questions like "do we abbreviate that?" or "how do we spell ﺍﻟﻘﺎﻋﺪۃ in English anyway?" But the AP Stylebook in particular needs a bigger and more welcoming entry under "whatever."

Take John's discussion today about "that" and "who." That's the sort of style issue that could use a big old cross-reference to the "whatever" entry. It will say something like: Dude, whatever! Use the one that works! Good writers will figure out which one they need pretty quickly, and bad writers won't become good writers no matter how many rules you make them memorize.

* There are half a dozen of the things sitting next to me as I type, waiting to play their part in some project or another that might or might not get started after all the overdue and nearly-overdue stuff gets finished. Isn't summer awful?

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