Monday, August 12, 2013

Stopses and friskses

Q. What is the plural of "stop-and-frisk" when referring to multiple searches under that policy? Is it "stop-and-frisks," "stops-and-frisks," or "stops-and-frisk?" – from Storrs, Conn. on Mon, Aug 12, 2013
A. On first reference, stop, question and frisk policies or actions. On second reference, AP uses the shorter form, stops.

Some days it's hard to see how our friends at the AP even open the e-mail without dissolving in howls of derisive laughter (stopses and friskses, gollum gollum gollum). Really? "The latest in a series of stops-and-frisk involved a delivery driver bringing an order of Whoppers Junior to the inspectors general"? Still, it's a chance to let a style question produce a suggestion or two about style sanity, which is why the AP's answer is so useless.

Nobody in the editing audience would be surprised to find that the AP doesn't read its own stylebook. Or, probably, that the AP doesn't even read its own copy, because the answer above -- like it or not, and I don't -- bears no resemblance at all to what the AP actually does. Today's lede (filed well after the question was posted) is one example: 

NEW YORK (AP) -- The nation's largest police department illegally and systematically singled out large numbers of blacks and Hispanics under its controversial stop-and-frisk policy, a federal judge ruled Monday while appointing an independent monitor to oversee major changes, including body cameras on some officers.

That sentence would produce a sensible style rule: A preposed compound modifier that needs a conjunction -- "your sink-or-swim attitude really yanks my chain" -- probably ought to be hyphenated. (The clumsy NP "stop, question and frisk actions" is, thankfully, pretty rare, and at a quick Lexis glance, doesn't show up in AP texts at all.) But the AP isn't doing very well at settling on a style, as illustrated by this first-reference plural from May 3:

Samuel Walker, a University of Nebraska criminology professor and expert in police policy working pro bono for the plaintiffs, proposed a database where information on an officer complaints, days on patrol, stop and frisks, and arrests made would be collected and analyzed to catch potential problem officers.

The same plural shows up four grafs later, but a bit farther in, it gets Safirized in the hands of an expert (at least, if we can trust the AP's transcription skills):

"A court has recognized that while stops and frisk are a legal tactic, what we have going on here is way too much of a good thing," said David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who is an expert on street stops.

In a June 3 story, "stop-and-frisk" is hyphenated on first reference as an object NP:

During the 10-week trial, city lawmakers reached agreement on a proposal to create an inspector general to oversee the police department, based largely on the outcry over stop-and-frisk and a series of stories by The Associated Press about the department's monitoring of Muslims.

But not on May 27:

Facing calls from civil rights and minority advocates to rein in the police practice known as stop and frisk, she agreed to back creating an inspector general for police, an idea Bloomberg and the city's popular police commissioner vigorously oppose.

Based on those, I'd issue a second style rule: When you use "stop and frisk" as a subject or object noun phrase, distinguish it with punctuation. I kind of prefer quotation marks, but if you like hyphens, put an asterisk in your stylebook and go to town. And that's the real problem with "Ask the Editor." Some poor reader with a tad bit of Clue Deficit Disorder ("stops-and-frisks" -- srsly?) asks a question that calls for a reasonable answer, which might even incorporate a little reasonable ambiguity: do this, unless it looks really bad, in which case don't.

Editors -- particularly student editors, who yearn for anything that helps clarify the strange world of professional practice -- could actually benefit from sensible, data-based suggestions about how to make style decisions. Sometimes, those answers require admitting that (a) you might have been a little bit wrong before, (b) not all cases are identical, and (c), owing to (a) and (b), a good mandate might well end up having some exceptions. At the very least, though, if you want to write credibly about what you do, you need to look accurately at what you've done.

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