Wednesday, February 1, 2006

From Gauntlets to Profundities

The comment I referred to in my gantlet /gauntlet follow-up came from Tongue-Tied, a blogger in New York. In a post today, Tongue-Tied summarizes our discussion on the difference or lack of same. She/he winds up in an interesting place:

I’m creeping toward heresy here, so I might as well go over the edge: Clay states that it’s better to be consistent than right. But why is consistency sacrosanct? If you wrote “run the gauntlet” one week and “run the gantlet” the next week, would anyone even notice? Would there be any consequences whatsoever? (On the other hand, people would notice if you spelled it differently in the same article or issue--though if you’re using it more than once in the same article, you’re overusing it.)

A couple of points.

One: Tongue-Tied works as a magazine copy editor. I would argue that magazines, because they publish less often and are thought of as more literary than newspapers, have less to gain from across-the-board usage rules. A daily newspaper has an interest in keeping basic points of style consistent -- it's a credibility issue for readers. Folks study the newspaper to find out where we fouled up.

Two: I hate to use the slippery slope argument, but I'll dust it off here just for kicks. If you allow misuse (admittedly, of a somewhat arbitrary distinction), where do you draw the line? What usages won't we ever allow? What ones will we allow sometimes? What ones aren't that important? I would hate to see the difference between literally and figuratively lost, for example.

Okay, I feel better now. Let me argue the other side for a bit.

One: The slippery slope argument is bogus. Any copy editor makes distinctions just like that all the time. If you're attuned to the language and its flow, you can't make changes willy-nilly and expect writers or readers to respect you. You have to be both a grammar enforcer and an interested reader.

A lot of usage books will tell you to replace the word "like" with "such as" in sentences like this one. But you can kill a sentence with that extra syllable. I only recently overcame my reluctance to allow the "like" to stay. I found the colloquial voice -- in rare circumstances -- to be worth it.

Two: I started "Copy Massage" as a reaction against blogs that make too much of points like (there, I did it again) gantlet / gauntlet. You can fill a blog with such nitpicks, and you can become the next grammar guru bemoaning the falling standards of our language. Good luck.

I don't want to do that. Misuse of language does interest me; a large part of my job involves fixing mistakes, after all. But I find the wider field of editing, journalism and related issues much more attractive. That's why I named this blog "Copy Massage," as opposed to "Copy Hacking" or "Copy Perfection."

I have a great deal of sympathy for Tongue-Tied. We may not be on the same page, but we're reading from the same chapter.