Monday, July 22, 2013

Style and clues

In that case, what's the point of the tweet? Formal titles are capitalized before names even when royalty aren't involved, and "Prince" would be capitalized as the first word of the sentence anyway, and there's no explanation at all of why "Duchess of Cambridge," which follows the name, is capitalized in violation of the "titles" entry (In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual's name).

It's probably too late to keep anybody from putting a story about royal families on the front page Wednesday,* but it is worth speculating on why such a tweet was considered relevant in the first place. I'd guess that AP was trying to explain why "Duchess" is capitalized after a name, which is explained under "nobility," rather than "titles," and that in itself suggests some entertaining things about AP style and style in general.

The "nobility" entry takes up more than a page and a half in the 2012 AP Stylebook. That's about twice as much room as the AP needs to explain "Islam" -- a substantial change from the dawn of the modern stylebook era in 1977, when "Islam" took all of four lines, or about a third of the size of the entry for "laetrile." Size isn't everything, but it is an indicator of what a stylebook thinks users need to, or should, talk about. The Guardian's 1928 stylebook has a detailed entry on "house servants," because, well, when the clock is running, you don't need to know why "housemaid," "kitchen-maid" and "children's maid" are rendered differently; you just need the rulebook.**

Some of the US press's bizarre fascination with the British royal family is of a piece with that, and given that it's no longer 1928, it hardly seems unreasonable to ask how much cognitive energy we still need to burn on the likelihood that any marquess, viscount or baron might also be identified as a lord. The less ideologically deranged of the two local papers proclaims each morning*** on page 2A that it corrects "all errors of fact," but it doesn't extend that concern to, say, the distinction between a head of state and a head of government, which -- unlike nailing the spelling of "marchioness" and "viscountess" -- actually has something to do with rolling out the bombs.

Editing is a craft of distinctions large and small, and I don't mean to suggest that your trivia are somehow lesser than mine. Nor am I implying some Whorfian spell under which the AP's obsession with stylistic details about the folks we -- bluntly -- kicked out of governance quite some time ago bears some linear relationship to our media's general cluelessness about the world around us. But I would like to suggest that the AP could be a little more helpful. Instead of bollixing a meaningless style tweet timed to the royal birth, try thinking about how much underbrush from the 1920s you could clear from the public agenda.

* Fun as it might be to speculate on what it would have taken to get the Belgian abdication into the paper at all.
** The distinction in parliamentary reporting between (Hear, hear) and (Cheers and "hear, hear") looks kind of arcane, but work with it.
*** It's still printed every day, though it only lands in the driveway three days a week.

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9 Comments:

Anonymous Picky said...

I once worked for a paper (in the UK) whose stylebook (or "the stylebook of which" as it might well have preferred) gave several pages to the correct styles for various members of the aristocracy (down to details about "of That Ilk" and so on), and equally to the styles of address of various Church of England clergy (the rest of the Christian World was more cursorily dealt with) and peculiarities in the names of Oxford and Cambridge colleges and their senior staff. It's good not to get such stuff wrong, of course, but one suspects the acreage given to these parts of the Establishment was less to do with their significance to our work and more to do with the volume of letters the poor old editor received when we got them wrong. And that doesn't seem to me to be a particularly unworthy reason behind such stylebook decisions.

10:51 AM, July 23, 2013  
Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Is it possible that they were obliquely aiming at all the people (koff CNN koff) who were prattling on (at least in their crawls) about "Duchess Catherine"?

4:29 PM, July 23, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Picky: I can't imagine which paper that could *possibly* have been.

One stricture of aristocratic nomenclature that really seems to be dying out now is the rule that you never identify peers by their first name, only by their surname.

In theory, once Henry Blogspot gets a peerage, he becomes Lord Blogspot, and if there is already a Lord Blogspot, he has to choose a territorial designation – Lord Blogspot of Nine Elms, say – rather than distinguish himself with 'Henry'. And in theory, according to a newspaper style guide with a lot of information about this subject – can't imagine which one – the style "Lord Henry Blogspot" is only really to be used by younger sons of dukes and marquesses.

However, with so many first-name-friendly celebrities and/or people with common surnames being ennobled, it's getting increasingly hard to remember which Lord Smith/Patten/Alli etc is which, so the just-about-canonical practice of putting first names in brackets – Lord (Henry) Blogspot – is commonplace. Often, now, the brackets are being omitted. I try to keep them in, but it won't be long now before they vanish altogether from lack of use, I suspect.

9:43 AM, July 25, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

Lawks yes. This might be the Recency Illusion (well, recent for me) but I seem to remember this starting with Ted Willis, the rather competent television dramatist, who, despite some years as a Young Communist, became Lord Willis, referred to at first by the respectable press as "Lord Willis, formerly Ted Willis, the Dixon of Dock Green dramatist" and then by more humble organs (and subsequently everyone else) as Lord "Ted" Willis or Lord (Ted) Willis or, horribly, Lord Ted Willis.

What on earth do you think our cousins across the Atlantic must think of this nonsense? They who happily refer to the Duchess of Cambridge as "Kate Middleton"?

2:12 PM, July 25, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

Incidentally, I don't want to be found supporting the Grauniad in the trenches (or do I?) but actually the Manchester Guardian 1928 stylebook entry on domestic servants could only be described as "detailed" by a very specific use of that word. The entry is actually very brief and very sensible.

3:24 PM, July 25, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

American colleagues are making remarks today that could best be described as "pointed" about that very matter. I must say I thought I was vaguely on top of the aristocracy situation but the more you read the style guide at the Telegraph – 'The wives of younger sons of dukes and marquesses use "Lady" with their husbands' forenames, as in Lady John Russell. At second mention, she is Lady John, never Lady Russell' etc – the more it becomes daunting to the point of preposterousness.

4:20 PM, July 25, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

Yes. The only thing you can say in its favour is that we are talking about people's names, and getting people's names right is a basic skill of the trade. Come the Revolution all will be so much simpler. And not only with the aristocracy. Editors, managing editors, heads of content and all the rest of Byzantium will be off getting re-educated in the fields of Northumberland. No longer will the journalistic proletariat have to worry about the vital precedence the deputy editor is afforded over a mere stray assistant editor.

7:46 AM, July 26, 2013  
Anonymous Picky said...

And, just to make my point, pat comes Ben Zimmer in a.comment on the Pov piece that follows. Can it really be that Jamie Fahey is "deputy production editor for the Guardian news desk"? Possible, I suppose – I'm not in touch with the convolutions of today's newsroom structures – but if I were Chief Comment Sub-editor here, I'd check that.

4:07 AM, July 27, 2013  
Anonymous Ed Latham said...

Indeed, yes – Jamie is one of the deputy production editors, but not for the news desk, whom we in production regard as 'that lot over there'.

7:48 AM, July 27, 2013  

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