I cleaned out my office last month. I recommend the process. The reason, I hasten to add, wasn’t a sudden attack of orderliness but my retirement from teaching at the University of Delaware, and an office is no longer something I am entitled to. Hence, emptying it out.
In the process, I came upon a lot of jetsam and flotsam, most of which I tossed. One of the items I kept is a document I acquired during the research for my history of The New Yorker magazine, About Town, which was published in 2000. This document is 87 11-by-17-inch pages long, and it appears to have been composed on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Paper-clipped to it is a note to me from a copy editor at the magazine, dated July 29, 1996:
Here is a copy of our word list. At the end are some more general rules. I hope this is of some interest and/or help in your project.
It’s essentially the sort of style guide that many publications generate and keep, to supplement the AP Stylebook or other resources they use in figuring out when to capitalize, italicize, use digits or spell out numbers, and so on. I honestly don’t remember the extent to which I used the “word list” in writing my book, but it sure is fascinating reading now.
For one thing, it is a sort of sequential time capsule. That is, one has the sense that it was drafted shortly after the magazine’s founding (more on the next comma in a minute), in 1925, with new entries added over the years, with the effect that, even in 1996, many of them would have no longer been in use, but clearly belonged to particular past decades or periods. For example:
- brunet (masc. noun and adj.), brunette.
- Earth shoes.
- Frug, the (dance).
- gents’ room.
- Man, the (Harlem for cops).
- One-Eye Connelly (gate-crasher).
(According to a post on ancestry.com., “James Leo ‘One-Eyed’ [sic] Connelly was known as the world champion gate-crasher, for his habit of sneaking into sporting events (particularly boxing matches) and political conventions. He died December 21, 1953 in Zion, Illinois.”)
Some of the style rules, too, are redolent of the past. The 1996 New Yorker would have its authors write catercornered (instead of the now much more common kitty-corner or catty-corner), legitimatize (instead of legitimize), and sidewise (though the guide notes that “sideways is permissible in fiction”). Others are puzzling. “John D. Rockefeller 3rd,” but “John D. Rockefeller IV.”
And some of the entries are informative or thought-provoking. One reads, “airplane engines (airplanes do not have motors).” Another: “‘Thought to himself’ is redundant. Avoid.” And: “Do not write, ‘He had his throat cut.’ ‘He had his skull fractured.’ This implies nonexistent volition.”
There are a lot of “do not"s:
- “more importantly,” meaning “what is more important,” banned.
- “due to": use only following form of “to be.”
- still and all (avoid).
- Do not write “At long last” unless for deliberately obnoxious effect.
- “Alright"; “transpire” to mean happen; and “gotten,” unless dialogue or country style, are banned.
The insistence on using of got instead of gotten is one of the eccentricities for which The New Yorker is famous, or should I say notorious. I have long led a lonely campaign to pressure it to accept gotten, as every other American would, in sentences like this one from a recent issue: "… the loving kindness of Petfinder had got in my head.” At this point I have pretty much given up.
Other anomalies are seen in the style guide’s entries “marvellous” and “coöperate, etc.": the single words standing in for all the cases in which the magazine, alone among American publications, doubles the “l” and employs a two-dot diaeresis. Also mandated is “his fellow-workers"; that annoying hyphen is still the order of the day.
I used what I call a New Yorker comma a couple of paragraphs ago when I wrote that the document “was drafted shortly after the magazine’s founding, in 1925.” I hesitate to open a can of worms just as this post is winding to an end. But in brief: the New Yorker‘s has a strong interest in using commas to denote non-restrictiveness, as in that ", in 1925" and in a sentence like, “Before [Lee] Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret …" As I noted when I wrote about the magazine’s comma use in the New York Times‘s “Draft” blog, “No other publication would put a comma after ‘died’ or ‘cancer.’ The New Yorker does so because otherwise (or so the thinking goes), the sentence would suggest that Atwater died multiple times and of multiple causes.”
The topic comes up in the 1996 guide, in this brief passage.
Always mark off non-restrictive words, phrases, and clauses by commas except
He (was born) (died) in New York in 1795.
His brother Michael said (even if only one brother).
Those exceptions fascinate me, because I don’t think the New Yorker follows them anymore. I didn’t do a scientific study, but in a minute or two of searching at the magazine’s website, I found that it recently printed the following:
- "… just hours after his brother, Stephen Paddock, massacred more than fifty people on the Las Vegas Strip.”
- Louis Cha “was born, in 1924, in a prosperous town along the Yangtze River delta …"
So it would seem that The New Yorker has become stricter in comma use in recent years, defying a trend in Britain and the United States. The things you learn when you clean out your office.