The old order changes 

Rosie Right

Every now and then the mighty New York Times adds a slick little insert to its regular edition. This is to interest us in what goes on at The Times, and believe it or not, it often succeeds. The fall 1999 edition discussed the new stylebook that NYT writers and copy editors will begin using this fall.

To those of us who are interested in the minutiae of language, the changes The Times will be incorporating are of special interest.

Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor, co-authored the book with William G. Connolly, senior editor. Mr. Siegal tells us "'The rules are not sacrosanct. We have a lot of good writers who think carefully about the language and about words, and when they think a rule should be broken to achieve an effect, that's usually fine." But he warns that this license should be used sparingly.

"Common sense, the authors insist, always takes precedence over rules. A classic example of the clash of imperatives involved a writer's use of the word fired to mean removed from a job. Since the old stylebook objected to that usage as too colloquial, an editor changed last hired, first fired to last hired, first dismissed.

"'The editor was following the rules — right out the window onto 43rd Street,' Mr. Connolly said."

Rosie was particularly interested in the discussion about how a defendant pleads in a law case. The AP Stylebook says: "use innocent, rather than not guilty, in describing a defendant's plea or a jury's verdict, to guard against the word not being dropped inadvertently."

But The Times says its new book "pays attention to legal distinctions. While many publications routinely write that a defendant will plead or be found innocent, The Times does not. The reason is that in the American legal system, a defendant is presumed innocent and therefore has no need to prove it. The plea or verdict, then, is not guilty."

Rosie will, perforce, follow the AP's rule, but she feels The Times' explanation makes a lot of sense.

The Times is ruling that titles written after a person's name should be lowercased. Even the pope and the president are lowercased when those words are not followed by their names. With a degree of self-confidence Mr. Siegal tells us: "There are undoubtedly some who, at least initially, will be shocked to see president and pope lowercased. ... But we think the president and the pope won't mind." Rosie doesn't believe too many newspaper readers will be shocked since the AP has been using this system for years.

Let Rosie hear from you by telephone (358-0825), fax (355-9089), letter 1118 W. Main St., Richmond, Va. 23220) or e-mail (rright@richmond.infi.net)

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