Friday, July 12, 2013

Style lunacy

I'm at a loss for technical or procedural explanations, so I have to conclude that this one's deliberate. Someone saw "preemie," looked in the AP Stylebook under "pre-," and followed the rule right into the ground:

... a hyphen is used if a prefix ends in a vowel and the word that follows begins with the same vowel.

Hence, "pre-emie" is hyphenated, just like "pre-election," "pre-eminent," "pre-exist" and the other examples. Which is unfortunate, in that "preemie" is not only a word of its own (recorded, in various spellings, since 1927)  but the very sort of word you'd expect someone writing -- or editing, if that sort of thing still goes on -- a 1A feature about an obstetrician to have heard and seen before. If you're really, truly in doubt, poke around. You know the alien creature is a noun, what with the article and the relative clause and all; is there a noun "emie" that you could stick a prefix on? What would a "post-emie" look like?

Back when he was picking on copy editors, Lawrence of Arabia pointed out that  Arabic-English transliteration systems are really helpful, as long as you know enough Arabic to make sense of them. Think of the stylebook the same way. It's a great tool, but it does expect you to know a little about the language you're working in. 

If you peeked at the link, you might have noticed that "preemie" isn't hyphenated in the online version. That's nice, but it suggests that a lot more stuff downtown is printed without editing than anyone ought to be comfortable with. Here's the print version:

A few years ago, a 100-year-old Georgia doctor was celebrated for giving birth to somewhere between 15,000 to 18,000 babies.

Online, the guy* sounds a little less like a mama spider:

A few years ago, a 100-year-old Georgia doctor was celebrated for delivering somewhere between 15,000 to 18,000 babies.

My sword starts to give off a blue glow when a writer can't get closer than "a few" and "somewhere between," but the bigger point is the one that bothers me. If we can't distinguish the stuff we publish from the fire hose of random babble on the Internet, why should we expect people to pay for it?

* This is my first guess, but when I'm pondering stuff like "trust" and "credibility" and "professionalism," I like to think someone on the staff has already done the easy ones.

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