300 Posts, Still Getting It Wrong

geoff_as_dunce I have just arrived at a small milestone: This post is my 300th on Lingua Franca (see the full listing here).
In August 2011 we started publishing every working day of the year, and I’ve done 50 posts a year with no breaks. That’s a lot of practice. But I’ve hardly ever managed to write a post that is flawless in the eyes of our wonderful and dedicated editor, Heidi Landecker.

The Chronicle does serious editing. We were all told from the get-go that we had to follow New York Times guidelines not only on matters like nomenclature, spelling, abbreviation, and punctuation, but also on profanity. No crude words or obscene oaths, even in quotations, and no coy asterisk masking either. (I did see Lucy Ferriss get away with a discussion of some naughty stuff in this post, and to my amazement she was even allowed to call it “How ’Bout That Ass?” — but only with a picture of a donkey at the top as a distractor.)

I heard a rumor at the water-cooler that one editor many years ago wanted to outlaw all “contractions” (suffixally negated or reduced auxiliaries), even in the most casual writing. That would have been tiresome. Even editorials on serious topics in The New York Times alternate between do not and don’t, he will and he’ll, etc. And rightly so. There are reasons English evolved the two styles that I have called normal and formal. Sometimes you want something to read as if declaimed from a podium, and sometimes you want it to feel more like chatting over lunch. In a blog post it’s quite often the latter.

Heidi does allow me the full untrammeled syntax of my native language, I’m glad to say. She would not dream of denying me a split infinitive if I desired one; my passive clauses do not suffer the indignity of being replaced by active counterparts; I can use hopefully as a modal adjunct; and so on.

The worst trouble I have is with a curious principle governing capitalization after a colon. In Britain, what follows a colon does not get uppercased. My early history (I was educated in England) exposed me to too much of the British practice, so despite decades of writing American English, I tend to do this:

The first rule of Fight Club is: you do not talk about Fight Club.

For The New York Times (and a range of other American publishers) that’s an error. The correct version would be:

The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.

However, this example does not violate NYT style:

Fourth rule: only two guys to a fight.

The relevant regulation is interestingly abstract — you can’t even explain it to students unless they know basic grammar. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage (2015, Page 66) says: “For consistency, capitalize what follows a colon if it is a complete sentence.” Now, this is badly put; what they mean by “complete sentence” is “independent clause” — a clause that could be a complete sentence if you used it on its own. But what’s interesting to me is that the edict cannot be enforced by current word-processing software.

Although both Microsoft Word and our WordPress blogging platform handle conversion to “smart quotes” reasonably well,* identifying independent clauses calls for a grasp of syntax, semantics, and pragmatics that is beyond any current computational linguistics. To see this, consider a sequence of words that can be either an independent clause or something else. Take fruit flies, for example. This could be a whole sentence, but is more usually a noun phrase. You’d need to understand the context to know whether to capitalize the first word. It would be wrong to do so in this case:
There’s one species we can keep in the lab without the animal rights activists getting upset: fruit flies.


But in an example like this next one, the very same sequence of words should have a capital initial:

bananadroneSomething wonderful happens when you attach a banana to a drone: Fruit flies.

Since WordPress cannot identify independent clauses, Heidi has had to fix my postcolon capitalization hundreds of times. I’m sorry, Heidi. I enjoy writing for Lingua Franca, and after more than six years I ought to have trained myself to be fully NYT style-compliant. Be patient. I’m slow, but I’m quite sure I can be taught to follow a prescriptive rule.

*The usual smart-quotes algorithm is not perfect; it fails on word-initial apostrophes, as in Lucy’s how ’bout that. To force a word-initial apostrophe in HTML you use the character code ’ instead of the apostrophe.

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