Chip Minemyer | More than a small crisis underway for copy editors everywhere

March 23, 2014 

When Chris Wilkerson worked at the Centre Daily Times, he would often bellow from the copy desk: “Under way is two words!”

That was so in 2000 and 2001, when Wilkerson was part of the CDT’s news team.

But in 2013, the journalism gods who produce our industry’s “bible” — the Associated Press Stylebook — decided underway would always be one word, leaving Wilkerson and other language perfectionists wondering: What is still sacred?

Last week, they found out, when AP changed another of its long-standing “rules.”

AP officials told the Poynter Institute that it is now acceptable to use “over” and “under” when comparing numbers, as in “we raised over $1 million this year.”

Forever, it seems, journalists were taught to reserve “over” and “under” for spatial relationships, and use “more than” and “less than” when comparing figures.

And across the media world, in conversations, Twitter posts and blogs, the reaction was the same: “What!?!?!”

The “more than” style change, AP officials explained to Poynter, was because the phrase “has become common usage. We’re not dictating that people use ‘over’ — only that they may use it as well as ‘more than’ to indicate greater numerical value.”

To that, editors would echo English teachers in saying that we attempt to adhere to correct language usage, even when the vernacular shifts with changes in culture.

What’s next? I don’t know whether I should LOL or be SMH. OMG!

Wilkerson studied journalism at Auburn University and now serves as the deputy editor of the Tampa Bay Business Journal.

“We had a class where they beat this stuff into our system so much,” he said. “You couldn’t pass without learning it.”

Journalism students at Penn State and elsewhere are nodding in agreement. It gets twisted deep inside your brain. Call it education or brainwashing, but it happens.

“Anytime people ask me to help them with a letter or something, I find myself correcting ‘more than’ and ‘less than’ and all of that stuff,” Wilkerson said. “Sometimes people look at you a little funny. Once that stuff gets in your head, it’s there, you know?”

Kevin Mattison was my boss about a million years ago at a little newspaper called the Centre Democrat in Bellefonte.

He’s now the executive editor at The Observer, in Amsterdam, N.Y. And Mattison is supremely stressed out about the easing of the standards of his trade.

“I have seriously never been more disappointed with society, and the people who stand at its forefront with the capacity and responsibility to shepherd common sense,” Mattison said in an email. “We have given up. Everybody else says it wrong, so we might as well, also. Lemmings.”

Former Daily Collegian editor Lexi Belculfine, now with the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, lamented: “Everything I know is a lie.”

I’ve killed many red pens in my career scratching out “under” and writing in “less than.” Or my own pet peeve: “like” vs. “such as.”

I’m sure I won’t stop, even if AP next year decides it’s perfectly acceptable to write, “Editors get all worked up over rules like ‘underway is one word’ and ‘over can be used to compare numbers.’ ”

Steve Smith, CDT news editor, found humor in the situation.

“I’ve had over enough of this whole thing,” Smith said. “And who knows? Maybe officers and the military will start saying ‘more than’ when they end radio comms. ‘Roger that? More than.’ ”

CDT front-page designer Dave Kubarek said he comforted a “crestfallen” colleague with this advice: “Learn to cope. Some people are just going to have to get ‘more than’ it.”

Mike Shor, who described himself as “professing at UConn,” quipped on Twitter: “More than my dead body!”

Borrowing from John Belushi’s rant in “Animal House,” the AP’s own Matt Moore, Pennsylvania news editor, tweeted: “Over isn’t over, even if @APStylebook says it’s over.”

We’ve lost a few of our golden rules. But at least we haven’t lost our sense of humor.

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