"None of us are hip"

An interview with Allan Siegal, language czar of the New York Times and editor of its new style and usage guide.

By Susan Lehman
Published November 5, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

The plural of "octopus" is "octopuses." "Bra" is preferred to "brassiere." And don't confuse "egg roll" (the food) with "egg rolling" (the frolic).

This and other useful information is available in the new edition of the New York Times' "Manual of Style and Usage" (Times Books). The manual -- which includes entries for "hypertext," "wannabe," "barrio," "biological parents," "gay" and "Kwanzaa" -- provides a nice look at the way in which language, at least in the paper of record, reflects social change.

The Times' apparent sensitivity to identity issues, for example, is so sweeping the new manual even cautions against possible offense to voodoo practitioners. ("Voodoo," notes the Times' stylists, "is a religion with many followers in Africa, and the West Indies, not to mention the United States" who "are offended by disparaging uses of voodoo to mean irrational beliefs.")

Religious awe is on the downswing, the manual suggests. While the earlier edition said He, Him, His, Thee and Thou should be capitalized when reference is made to God, Jesus, the Holy Ghost or Allah, the revised edition says lowercase will do. The perceptible increase in attention paid "East Hampton" in recent years is reflected in a fuller entry in the new volume. And what, in the last 23 years, has given rise to increased use of the terms "horsy, horsier, horsiest," an entry included in the new but not the old volume?

Subtitled "The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World's Most Authoritative Newspaper," the manual offers a vivid glimpse of how the paper sees itself. As the introduction suggests, readers will here find a window into the Times' character in entries on Corrections, Dateline Integrity, Fairness and Accuracy, and Obscenity, Vulgarity and Profanity. (Times junkies will thrill to find that the paper violated its virtual ban on obscenity and vulgarity on just three occasions -- during Watergate, when it published transcripts of White House conversations; again in 1991, when it published transcripts and articles generated by Clarence Thomas' nomination to the Supreme Court; and then again last year, when the Times published the Starr Report.)

Times assistant managing editor and style czar Allan Siegal co-authored the manual with senior editor William G. Connolly. Siegal spoke with Salon Media about the Times and its new style guide.

The new manual has an entry for "Bed Bath & Beyond." What exactly is the criterion for inclusion?

The criterion is: Are people working here likely to trip over something, a name, its spelling or punctuation? In many cases they already have.

"Spelling checker" is OK but not "spell-check." How arbitrary are these decisions?

That decision was pretty arbitrary. It was a tone decision. We don't like to sound staccato. We don't like to sound like a telegram. And we don't want to sound like technical people.

We're writing for a middle audience that is neither very hip and very technical nor very stodgy and very hyper-traditional. We want to sound like conversation and "spell-check" sounds like techno-jargon.

Why is "flap," as a noun used to describe fuss or controversy, trite?

Because it trips off the typewriters of too many writers, too much of the time.

The current volume contains a large entry under the word "irony." The older editions had no entry at all. Why, after 23 years, did you decide Times writers needed the lengthy discussion of irony?

We find people using "ironic" and "irony" very loosely too much of the time. In our daily critiques of the paper, we find ourselves telling people, "That's not an irony, it's just a coincidence." Irony doesn't mean, "Hey, isn't that interesting or strange!" So we put it in the book.

Why is "Valium" (absent from the previous volume) included in the new manual, but not "Prozac"?

Prozac probably should have been included. In fact it is very hard with well-known drugs to remember whether the name is a trademark or generic. It has nothing to do with the frequency with which Valium, or for that matter Prozac, is used within the general population. It has to do with how often people come up against it and wonder whether it's capped or not.

What about "Land Rover," "manhattan" (the cocktail) and "chowchow" (pickled vegetables), all of which are included in both the older and the revised manuals?

"Land Rover" is a constant problem because "Land Rover" and "Rolls-Royce" and others like them -- some of these take hyphens and some of them don't. And yeah, people gyrate crazily and guess about the hyphen.

How did "wannabe" ("the faddish slang of adults who, well, want to be teenagers") make it into the new volume?

A lot of our writers live in Manhattan and hang out with a hip crowd and try to use hip words. Some writers are influenced by people in other media -- such as advertising -- and it gets real tedious real fast.

Speaking of media, the manual's definition of media ["In discussion of news and information outlets, the word is meaningless when standing alone; politicians and publicity people have stretched it to embrace soap operas, talk shows, encyclopedias, technical journals and everything in between. And since the things in between include The Times, the discomfort of the embrace should be evident"] gives readers an idea of how the Times views itself. How did your sense of the Times inform the writing of the manual?

We think that our readers are, in many instances, better educated and, because of the work that they do, better informed, than we are. We are blessed with an extremely well-educated, accomplished, civic-minded readership. We're also blessed with -- and actively seek -- a lot of school circulation and regard among teachers, because they are the people who introduce newspaper readership to the next generation of newspaper readers. On certain litmus entries, we want to be acceptable to people who care about the language in a professional, clinical kind of way.

The new volume tolerates split infinities. Was that a difficult decision?

It wasn't a decision at all. We have long tolerated split infinitives and I don't think our position has changed in probably several editions.

"Queer" is the only exception allowed to the Times' no-slurs-allowed rule. Were any other exceptions considered?

No. We make exceptions, occasionally, after discussion. But there is no other exception that regularly has a place in the paper.

We put "queer" in because we think the new usage of "queer" has taken it into a different dimension and that people would be too prone to striking it out automatically or unthinkingly if we didn't alert them that this word has another life.

What you have to realize about the way the paper comes out is that it is edited by literally hundreds of people at white heat. Stories are quite commonly still being written at 7, 8 and -- God help us! -- 9 at night, and they are on the street someplace a little after midnight. A lot of the time what a magazine writer would do in the way of going to a dictionary or going to a usage book, newspaper people just don't have the luxury of doing. The manual aims to be first and foremost for the people here who edit under what I call combat conditions. It has the things they really need to know in a hurry.

Until now employees, per the Times manual, could be "dismissed" from their jobs but not "fired." Now it's OK to fire someone from their job. What happened?

What happened happened a long time ago. I was, in a very much more junior capacity, one of the people who helped compile the 1976 version and I argued then that "fired" had made it into the language and was no longer colloquial or slang. I lost that argument but I lived to fight another day. This time I had the votes.

"Fired" is a nice short word for headlines, so one is always tempted to overuse it. But, there is no question about it: There is nothing colloquial or slangy about "fired." We should have accepted it a long time ago.

Was there pressure within the paper to allow words like "gay" and "Ms."?

"Gay" and "Ms." were admitted long, long ago. We went through an unfortunate gap between editions of the stylebook because we could never get our act together to redo it. But sometime in the '80s "Ms." was accepted, by memo. And "gay" probably sometime in the latter half of the '80s also. Was there pressure in the '80s? Sure there was, lots and lots and lots of pressure. But it hasn't been an issue here for a long time. The stylebook is just catching up with what we've been doing.

On what other sorts of words and usage has pressure been exerted?

From the experience of "Ms." and "gay" and a few other things we lived through back then, we've gotten awfully good at heading off pressure. Many, many times in the last 10 years, people have asked me to take a stand on "black" vs. "African-American." I decided the republic would not fall if we did it both ways. And we did it both ways and the republic has not fallen.

Bobbing and weaving is not a bad editing technique. We're not in the pressure business here.

When Bill Connelly and I started this project, one of the first things we did was learn from other people's mistakes. The L.A. Times put out a stylebook that was ridiculed nationwide for what was seen as -- to use a word we don't encourage people to use -- political correctness. They retreated and have since redone the stylebook. We didn't want to be in that position.

Very early on we pulled together different panels of people from the newsroom, people who could speak for the interests and concerns of blacks, Latinos, people with physical disabilities and, believe it or not, Native Americans (in this organization, it wasn't easy finding them, but we found a few) and Asian-Americans, of which there was no shortage.

As an editor of a stylebook sitting with these people (who would never otherwise have assembled together), you had to wonder, "What are we unleashing here, what are we inviting in terms of pressure?" In fact, the people on our panel turned out to be really level-headed folks, which is another way of saying they are Times people as much as anything else that they are. They gave us a lot of very, very good ideas, many of which are reflected in this book. But they didn't press us to do anything that would make the language uncomfortable or awkward or artificial.

Your question was about pressure. There really hasn't been a lot of pressure here because there has been a lot of discussion, and discussion has obviated pressure.

The Times manual, as you say in the introduction, grapples with the vocabulary of social issues. This is most evident in the lengthy entry under men and women, an entry not included in the previous volume. Given how many sub-entries refer readers to the men and women section, it seems gender identification was of special importance to the manual writers. What can you say about this?

We really feel strongly about sexual equality. It's something that we live with every day here as we hire and make personnel decisions. We want this to be a place where a very diverse population feels welcome and feels that its prospects of advancing are as good as anyone else's. We wanted to pay attention to the things that we knew and that our staff groups told us were and are issues.

At the same time, I have a vision of the language that is spoken in and around certain college campuses -- Berkeley being one of them -- where there are signs out front saying they are looking for "waitrons." We don't want to speak that language. We have some readers who live in places like Berkeley but we have an awful lot of readers who live quite far from places like that.

We want to find a language that accomplishes everything that needs to be accomplished in the way of reflecting sexual equality without standing on a soapbox. Why is the entry long? It took more words to say that than in some other entries.

I wasn't speaking merely about the length, but about the apparent importance of matters connected to the way the Times treats gender issues.

Those are the issues that engage people in 1999. It's interesting, some things have gone away -- the caution against "women's lib" and "libber" and things like that sound very '70s to a 1990s audience. Those things have gone away. I listen -- I'm a language freak --to what people say; and what people come into the office and say reflects what they hear on the outside, and you hear people say "spokespersons."

What is the problem with that term?

It rings a bell. It's a proclamation of a political position. We want to accomplish the same thing without proclaiming a stance.

What difference would you say rules like those in the book really make, to writers at the Times and to the rest of us?

It's very hard to answer that kind of question without calling on my awareness of the kind of mail we get. People hold us to an incredible standard. They hold us to a much higher standard than we hold ourselves. Every editor here knows that on any given day, because of the speed with which it is produced, the paper is riddled with typographical errors, and though it is not quite riddled with grammatical errors, there are a small number. Yet pretty regularly, I get letters from people who say, "Aha! I finally caught you." They really think that the paper is perfect and is supposed to be perfect and this one misspelled word is either the beginning of a fall from standards or, worse yet, part of a plot.

Obviously we don't want to be judged by an unreal standard, but we want to be held to a high standard. We also know that the people we hire are of many ages, come from many places and have many backgrounds. If we did nothing about the tone of the language, we would get, in many places, a very funny-sounding newspaper.

For instance, a lot of my best friends here are business reporters and a lot of them went to B-school and spend all day hanging around people who went to B-school. If there weren't rules, their copy would be full of the kind of jargon you would expect to hear at an alumni convention of Harvard B-school grads. I don't think I want my newspaper to read that way.

People would still understand, wouldn't they?

Yeah. But they would be uncomfortable. The rules are partly to make readers comfortable and to make the information move quickly off the paper and into people's heads.

Who at the Times is subject to these rules? When are exceptions made?

Everybody is subject to them. They are more guidelines but they are not holy writ. Good writers who really know what they are doing and have a really thought-out reason for wanting to use a word differently ought to be allowed to do so.

Are there frequent battles about usage?

There are discussions. The hope is that the book prevents battles. I don't have any examples of this kind of discussion. But, I don't mind saying that Johnny [R.W.] Apple is the kind of writer for whom we make exceptions. He is a good writer and he thinks a lot about words. If he wants to use a particular word a particular way and he has thought about it, he ought to be allowed to do it. He's not the only one. Janny Scott of our Arts and Ideas page is another example of someone who uses words in non-accidental ways.

There are other things in the book that reflect the experience of writers getting frustrated and asking to be rescued.

Like what?

There's an entry called Arts Location. It's not the most spectacular or exciting entry in the book. It says when you are writing about an arts review, you don't have to say "the Metropolitan Museum of Art" every single time. You can say "at the Metropolitan"; if it's clear it's an art review, that's OK. This resulted from an art critic being frustrated when a lead with some rhythm and some conversational quality got bogged down with what someone thought the rules required. So we made it very clear at the time that the rules didn't require that and that seemed like a worthwhile thing to pick up and put in the book.

I see things in the paper that are just too rule-bound. Several times in this book it says its OK to talk about just "Harvard," or just "Yale" or just "Purdue," and you don't have to say "Harvard College" or "Harvard University." The reason for that is it's just artificial; everyone knows what you're talking about. That kind of notion grows with difficulty in the soil of this place. The purpose of this book is to get people to lighten up a little bit.

Does the lightening up suggest the Times is becoming more like other publications in which writers are given free rein -- grammarians be damned -- to do what's necessary to command attention?

We've being trying for a long, long time to give writers free rein, but within a delimited range. The first purpose of this newspaper is to convey information. There are lots of papers whose first purpose is to show off the writer's pyrotechnics. Once in a while, we do show off a writer's pyrotechnics, but that is distinctly not the be-all and end-all of our style. This newspaper is read in a hurry in the morning by people on lurching trains and lurching buses and the first thing they want to know when they are reading a story about, say, taxes in Washington, is whether their taxes are going to go up or down, and not how much of a show-off the writer is about prose style. There are other parts of the paper where that may be appropriate.

What is your favorite entry in the book?

I like the entry Bill Connely wrote about the expression "the late" in which he says, "Don't write that the late Senator opposed a bill because he was most surely alive at the time." I like the double-take that you do before you realize that he is being subtly funny.

There is an entry I wrote that other people said was funny but I don't find it that funny. In fact I argued repeatedly with Bill because I wanted to kill it out of the book. It's the one of the spelling of "Punxsutawney." ["Punxsutawney (Pa.). It is so spelled. And groundhog is so spelled. And overexposed publicity stunt is so spelled."] That's not my favorite entry although I wrote it.

I do like the one about trying puns out on your neighbor the way a mine shaft's air is tested on a canary. (When, as I wrote in the book, "no song ensues, start rewriting.") I hate puns. I hate low puns. I like good New York Times puns.

Which entry were you most resistant to? Or should I say, "To which entry were you most resistant?"

My own conscience, or my own sense of how this thing had to work, led me to do some things that I'm not thrilled about doing. We get a fair amount of mail about using apostrophes in plurals in things like "60's" and "70's" and "80's" and "abc's" and "tv's" and "p.c.'s" and it's not wrong.

If it were outright wrong by the lights of all usage authorities and dictionaries around, we wouldn't be doing it, but it's not anyone's first choice in style. The reason we do it is that we have a lot of heads that are all in caps and expressions like that are unintelligible if you drop the apostrophes.

We made our decision and we agonized over our decision and we tried several different versions of that entry. We didn't like any of the alternatives and we don't like this. It was the least of the evils.

You're often called "the Times' style czar." How did you become style czar?

I like the language and I read a lot about it and I always have. It happened before I was aware that it was happening ...

In the 1960s and '70s, [Times usage authority Theodore M.] Bernstein kind of adopted me as the logical next generation to do this kind of work. Bernstein had an authoritarian reputation about the language, not altogether justified, but ... Bernstein got pilloried a lot for rigidity. I've been mindful of that reputation and tried not to be that kind of czar.

On the other hand, there is no stopping people like Bill Safire from referring to me in his column as "the language czar." Every time he does, my kids get an enormous charge out of it and the kids in their class at school kid them about it. It's fine.

The book aside, as a language czar, which words do you find most annoyingly overused?

I don't like writing that makes us seem like we're trying to be hip. While most of us are not stodgy -- I am at the stodgy end of the spectrum here -- none of us are hip, absolutely none of us. If we were hip, we would be working someplace else.

That word "edgy" and a few others like that -- these are words used by people who like the salary structure at the New York Times but would rather be taken for somebody who's working at Details -- that tone bothers the bejesus out of me. "Edgy" "big-time," which was in the paper the other day -- as in "I owe him big-time" -- that's us trying to be something we're not. We ought to be who we are.

Susan Lehman

Susan Lehman is a staff writer for Salon Media.

MORE FROM Susan Lehman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

The New York Times