Common Sense Journalism


Two rights sometimes are wrong

by Doug Fisher

No. 5 for June 2002


Two right things sometimes come together to make something wrong. That happens occasionally when we forget that a stylebook often is descriptive, as much as prescriptive, and we try to combine two of its “rules” at once.

I was reminded of that common sense journalism the other day while scanning the internal stylebook of a major East Coast newspaper that firmly told its users to “lowercase highway patrol officer in all uses.”

Well, maybe.

It appears more likely, however, that this takes two good bits of advice from the Associated Press Stylebook and produces a slightly misguided combination. (It reminds one of the old joke about the professor who stood in the classroom and confidently declared, “No negative can be constructed from two positives,” followed quickly by a student’s retort from the back of the classroom, in that disdainful tone of youth, “Yeah, right.”)

The stylebook entry on highway patrol says: “Capitalize if used in the formal name of a police agency: the Kansas Highway Patrol, the Highway Patrol. Lowercase highway patrolman in all uses.”

It appears the newspaper’s stylebook writers have taken that last sentence and combined it with the advice, sprinkled throughout the stylebook in entries like “fireman” and “mailman,” to avoid sexist language. So the word patrolman becomes patrol officer.

All well and good on the individual counts. Taken together, however, they produce a debatable result.

The key is the word patrolman. As is often the case with the AP stylebook, the wire service was not trying to promote the use of a specific term but was saying that, if you do use the term patrolman, don’t capitalize it. That’s common sense because it does not mean a man of the highway patrol, but is a unique word with a unique meaning: “a person who patrols,” according to Webster’s New World College Dictionary. And in our construction that person happens to patrol the highway.

Now, a highway patrol officer is a trooper of a different stripe. This person is an officer of  the highway patrol. And if we are referring to a specific state patrol, then it becomes an officer of the Highway Patrol – or a Highway Patrol officer. This is especially true if we have referred to the patrol by its full, proper name earlier in the story, but we don’t have to do that as long as the reference to a specific highway patrol is implied. (In other words, it is not necessary to have to say South Carolina Highway Patrol first in order to be able to use Highway Patrol later if the context of the story makes clear we can be referring to only one highway patrol.)

These sorts of prescriptive vs. descriptive things come up more often than we think. Bill Walsh, the Washington Post copy editor of and “Lapsing into a Comma,” tells the story of an editor at another paper where he worked who changed french-fry machine to french fries machine because the AP stylebook says french fries. That’s reflexive editing of the same kind that just caused my word processor to capitalize “French” every time I typed it.

I agree with Walsh that the AP has not decreed now and forever more it shall be fries, but that the stylebook says is, if you run up against the term, the french is not capitalized. In fact, if anything, this is the prescriptive part because Webester’s uses French fry to denote the cooking process.

I see the same thing in my copy-editing classes, where one of the textbooks we use notes that half a is preferable to a half. So when a piece of copy comes along that says “a half-hour” or “a half-mile,” sure enough it gets changed to “half an hour” or “half a mile.”

 Of course, in a different place, this same textbook, along with the dictionary and the stylebook, allows that half-hour  is correct. What they’re saying, and what the students – and sometimes editors in these cases – miss, is that if you come up against “half hour,” be sure to put in the hyphen. And if you come up against a sentence such as “He promised me a half pie” then it’s probably better phrased as “He promised me half a pie.”

But if you are presented with “He said he’d be there in a half-hour,” then move on.

So if you find yourself tempted to apply two seemingly firm rules, step back, avoid the reflexive symptoms of “copy editor syndrome” and make sure two rights don’t make a wrong.  It just takes common sense.

Doug Fisher, a former AP news editor, teaches journalism at the University of South Carolina and can be reached at or 803-777-3315.

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