Friday, September 09, 2011

Six million-dollar men

Today's quiz: How many bones, and how old?

If you get to look at the picture accom- panying the story, it's a little easier, and there's also a clue if you see the cutline: the number appears midsentence, so you get a bit of a style bump from "2 million-year-old" rather than "two million-year-old." But it's hard to avoid reminding people that most hyphenation rules, however good they are for however vast a majority of cases, need a footnote on the order of "Break this rule if you're at risk of looking dumb."

We're into the second week of the semester, so today was the first chance to talk about ambiguity. Much of the grammar that editors deal with isn't "bad" or "wrong" as much as it is right about several things at once. Here are a couple examples of what happens when modifiers go feral:

Former Democratic Gov. Mel Carnahan

Former Republican Sen. Jim Jeffords

Both look pretty standard in hed terms, and they're both "right" -- they're just right in different ways about different things. Good editors would make sure the audience knew that former Gov. Mel Carnahan was a Democrat and that former Republican Jim Jeffords was a senat0r.

What does that have to do with millions -- and with whether we're talking about two bones, each a million years old, or a set of bones of indeterminate number but clearly around 2 million years old? It's a matter of style. AP style bans the hyphen in million and billion compounds; Freep style demands it. Usually, for a lot of reasons, AP's style is better (if nothing else, the dollar sign makes "$7 million budget" clear in a direct way that "7 million-dollar budget" isn't). In rare cases, Freep style wins, and "two-million-year-old bones" is one.

Good editors think with the brain. They follow style in nearly all cases because, among other reasons, style is a time-saver. Why fight about whether it's "10 p.m." or "10PM" when you can flip to a perfectly good decision made decades ago and settle it? But in the 5 percent of cases where the style rule will cause a demonstrably stupid result, good editors are the ones who say "don't apply that rule." They really don't care if the AP Stylebook gang is shocked -- shocked! -- to find random hyphens in headlines. They care about whether the end product makes sense to the people buying it. And that often entails quietly throwing a few AP rules over the side.

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Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

"This bone is 1,000,003 years old," says the farmer to the tourist.

"How do you know that so precisely???"

"The scientist told me it was a million years old when I found it, three years ago."

12:43 PM, September 12, 2011  

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