By Shawn Miller, Avoid the Abyss
I had to read twice the following lede in a New York Times story ("Obama Is Considering Strategy Shift in Afghan War" by Peter Baker and Elisabeth Bumiller). After the second read, I was annoyed.
"President Obama is exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan, including a plan advocated by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. to scale back American forces and focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan, officials said Tuesday."
What tripped me up was the reference to "Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr." Joseph R. Biden Jr.? They mean Joe Biden, right? The former Senator from Delaware with a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth?
Then why not just say, Vice President Joe Biden? Or even -- as the Washington Post does -- Vice President Biden? After all, in the same lede, the Times refers to the leader of our nation simply as President Obama.
It's because the New York Times is precious and has its own style, which annoys me.
Style in newspaper parlance just means convention; it has nothing to do with elegant writing. So, for instance, Associated Press style dictates that numbers are written out from one through nine, but become figures when they reach 10. E.g., The robber stole three cars, drank 11 sodas and mugged six 8-year-olds. (Notice that it's 8-year-olds and not eight-year-olds -- ages are always figures.)
Style then is just a way to impose a uniformity of presentation upon writing on a wide-range of topics that you find in a general interest newspaper. There's nothing magical or special about style and it can be idiosyncratic and wrong-looking (like the AP's preference for OK rather than okay) and, for copy editors, hard to keep track of. But it serves a purpose.
But the New York Times -- the Gray Lady -- follows its own style. Indeed, it has its own style book, which doesn't actually make it unique; so does the Washington Post and lots of other papers. In fact, the DR has its own style book, but it is small -- more of a booklet -- and works as a supplement to the AP guide.
"Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr." typifies what is wrong with the Times' style: it's precious, different (it seems to me) for the sake of being different and, above all, pretentious.
No one calls Joe Biden anything other than Joe Biden . . . except the Times, which feels the need to dress him up with a full first name, a middle initial and a "jr." for good measure because, I guess, it's more formal or genteel or debonair or something.
For one thing, the purpose of style generally is uniformity and if the Times' style deviates from accepted use for no good reason, it becomes a hindrance to readers who, like me, are forced to reread otherwise perfectly sensible ledes because a "jr." is inexplicably tacked on to the last name of our vice president.
For another thing, the New York Times is just a newspaper. It's not a novel, it's not a work of art. It's printed, like all other newspapers, on cheap paper and sells for pocket change. It is meant to be thrown away after it's read -- in all likelihood on the same day it was created.
So let's not get too full of ourselves, OK?