What’s in Style

I love reading the New York Times editor Philip Corbett’s After Deadline blog, not so much for the gaffes he’s willing to expose in his weekly “newsroom critique” as for the glimpses he provides into the arbitrary nature of style manuals. His examples tend to send me squirreling into the OED or harrumphing over student usages that hadn’t bothered me until that moment. Three were of particular interest last week:

1. Almost one million of these $35 machines have shipped since last February, capturing the imaginations of educators, hobbyists and tinkerers around the world. This intransitive use of “shipped” has a flavor of jargon. Better to say “have been sold” or “have been ordered” or even “have been shipped to stores.”

I ran to the OED on this one. The intransitive definitions of the verb “to ship” actually preceded the transitive ones. More intriguing, to me, was evidence that both transitive and intransitive definitions refer specifically to transporting or being transported by ship, until we get fairly deep into the definitions, where we find the transitive “to transport by rail or other conveyance” and the intransitive “to admit of being transported.” So the use of “ship” in Corbett’s examples is probably figurative, evoking a once-universal water-borne economy. As such, curious minds wonder whether the OED’s example from an 1867 agricultural society text, “It ships well, and is a very good peach,” shouldn’t sway the style manual.

2. Both are wonderful, particularly if you convince Mr. Wijesinghe, who waits tables in a sarong, that you can handle some spice. The stylebook prefers “waits on tables.”

My students—the ones born without silver spoon in mouth—often wait tables. When they wait tables, they wait on customers. Trust me—they write about these jobs in their autobiographical stories, and the customers are always boorish, and someone always has a crush on someone else in the kitchen. Google Ngrams shows a slight preference for “waits tables” in the last 20 years, but this one is surely a purely stylistic choice, unless we want to get into a debate about nuances. For instance, is there a greater degree of servility conveyed when we use the word “on”? Discuss.

3. Whether feral or domestic, cats are tuned to the hunt, and when they see something flutter, they cannot help but pounce. From the stylebook: help (v.). Use the construction help wondering, as in He cannot help wondering. Not He cannot help but wonder.

A strange distinction, isn’t it? The OED defines this use of help—almost universally employed in the negative—as “to prevent oneself from, avoid, refrain from, forbear.” Which means you always have to think double-negatively, as in “he can’t not do it.” The but is obviously extra; the OED’s 1952 example, “They were brutally raped by conquistadors … who could not help increase geographic knowledge” is plain enough. Yet as that same example makes clear, the -ing suffix is equally unnecessary. Certainly plenty of expressions contain such extra words. My experience, especially with students, is that help but is considered more formal, with a whiff of the 19th century, even though actual usage doesn’t bear out that impression.

All major publications have stylebooks, of course, and when writing for those publications, one does well simply to accept whatever judgment has gone into making them consistent along certain lines. (My only run-in with The New York Times in this regard was when I was prohibited from using the word scenario, to which I’m not much attached anyway.) But what assumptions led to some of these recommendations? What pressures will eventually lead to rescinding that preference for waits on? One cannot help wonder.


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