AP Never Changes, Never Progresses

by Charmaine on September 12, 2016

OK, I know this is a first-world problem. But I’m still livid, after having (once again) submitted a question to the Associated Press (AP) Ask the Editor column and (once again) received an entirely unhelpful answer.

My boss and I got into a quagmire about whether or not the term “advanced driver assistance systems” should be ADAS or ADASs when made into an initialism. Did you know that an initialism is an acronym that you can’t pronounce, but an acronym is pronounceable?

Anyway, my boss said that because “systems” is always plural, ADAS was correct. I replied that I thought that was precisely when you would apply the “s” to the initialism/acronym/whatever, because the last word in a term that gets made into what I’m now just gonna call a series of letters is plural. The fact that it’s always plural doesn’t mean that the rule to apply “s” doesn’t jive.

I have such a terrible track record with submitting questions to Ask the Editor that I only do it once every couple of years. Given my track record, I am terrified about how to phrase my question. I read Ask the Editor questions several times a day looking for style guidance as I edit, but I’ve never gone so far as to analyze which ones are more likely to get a freaking definitive answer. I have a job after all. That’s why I haven’t blogged since 2012.

I should not have to panic when asking the editor of the style guide that my Fortune 100 clients use a valid question, but there you go. Problem No. 1 (haha not problem #1, I know my AP).

In this case, I decided that asking the question only generally would likely not get me a clear answer. I know that AP discourages alphabet soup, so I thought if I actually asked what to do with ADAS specifically, he might not lecture me on what the rule is for spelling everything out.

But at the same time, I really wanted clarification on the rule overall so that I could go back to my boss and tell her one way or the other. I knew it would come up with other terms.

So I decided to split the difference. This is what I asked:

Q. Would the initialism of advanced driver assistance systems be ADAS or ADASs? Broadly, does the fact that the term will always be a plural (“systems”) affect the application of an “s” to the initialism?

And this is the answer:

A. AP stories spell out the term on first reference, then use brand names or variations of self-driving on second reference instead of the abbreviation.

There are so many things wrong with this answer. First, I don’t care what “AP stories” do, especially when the percentage of answers in the Ask the Editor column that advise questioners to do whatever the hell they want is rising. Don’t believe me? Exhibit A:

Q. Would an article written for an online publication, such as a blog entry, fit within the AP definition of a composition title? from Newport News, Va. on Mar 18, 2015

A. Render blog titles as spelled by the blogger. If you are the blogger, you may decide how to present the title.

“You may decide”? Are you kidding me? If it were up to me to decide, why would I be asking you?

Second, thank you, but I do not need a refresher on the rule for acronyms/initialisms. If I know your site intimately enough to figure out how to submit a question to Ask the Editor, I think I can find my way around the site enough to know the rule.

Third, advanced driver assistance systems is a thing. Like, it’s not a brand name. A quick look at the first page of Google results would have told you that. Using “self-driving” as a “variation” of “advanced driver assistance systems” isn’t gonna cut it.

I am not expecting Mr. Minthorn or whoever answered my question today to know the technology behind this particular term intimately … which is why I then asked for clarification on the overall rule, which the answer completely ignores.

When Mr. Minthorn receives questions about terms with which he is unfamiliar, he always points that out in his answer, as if his individual worldview matters somehow. It comes across as defensive. In my case, I don’t think he’s familiar with advanced driver assistance systems, but instead of pausing to think about how to interpret existing AP rules (EXISTING … I am not asking for new rules, nor are most questioners) in real-world contexts, what I got instead is a third alternative that I didn’t ask for and isn’t quite related to my question at all.

It is not just me. This happens over and over. Just look through the Ask the Editor questions. You will see many, many instances of questioners having to submit their questions again … with language ranging from “you didn’t answer my question” to “perhaps I should clarify.” It never gets any clearer, and the editor never apologizes. The closest he gets is “Thanks, we’ll correct the discrepancy.”

Mr. Minthorn, I am begging you. Answer the freaking question. Take the exiting AP rule to which the question applies and figure out how to interpret it. If you don’t understand the question, ask the person to submit another question, clarifying.

We are your customers. My company pays for at least 100 licenses to the AP Stylebook. If you did not want to answer style questions related to high-tech language or corporate communications, you should have refused to sell the licenses to my company. But you didn’t, and you’re not helping. You’re really, really not helping.

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Hating on Editors

by Charmaine on October 17, 2012

Although I spend a lot of time on the AP Stylebook Online website, I do keep up with Internet memes and mashups and controversies, and I love to read comments.

This post about “Why It’s Hard Being a Grammar Nazi” over on BuzzFeed was (like lots of things on the Internet) cute. It’s about 30 images of misspellings and improper uses of the possessive apostrophe – really egregious stuff.

But I was quite surprised at some of the comments. Not the first few: those were the typical ones you find at the bottom of any grammar-related post, where people just have to bring up obscure, flagrantly ignored rules that drive them batty. These comments are usually mixed up with ones that say “language evolves, get over it” and then someone will want to start yet another debate about the Oxford comma.

There are trolls and sarcasm bombers, of course, but one commenter, in all seriousness, called grammar Nazis “conservative misanthropes who only delight in finding exercise for their pitiful pet school of study.” He also said that we “perform [our] work out of a sense of mean spiritedness.”

This person received 14 likes to his original post and a slew of support. Wow.

I’m truly insulted that someone out there thinks that my career as an editor – my “pitiful pet school of study” – is harmful to society, and that by nature I’m cruel-minded.

Further down, he tried to clarify that “grammar Nazis aren’t editors” because the former are “nitpicking bullies,” but I truly don’t understand the difference (please enlighten me if you do). If you placed any one of the images in the BuzzFeed post in front of me, I’d edit it. If I were driving past a sign with a misplaced possessive apostrophe, I’d mention it to my companions. I wouldn’t get out of my car and deface such a sign with a giant Marks-a-Lot, but I also wouldn’t stop anyone who did.

The vast majority of errors on signs and cakes are made out of ignorance, not defiance. I fail to see how correcting someone who made an error out of ignorance (which by definition means that they are unaware) is bullying, especially because I don’t believe editors ever come across this way. Most of us really are cerebral librarian types.

As for refusing to accept that language evolves, yes, editors often do resist when existing rules are swept away in a tide of Tweets, status updates, blog posts, e-books, college essays, email blasts, and so on. Few continue to resist after the stylebooks have weighed in, however, and such obstinacy when you’ve agreed to follow a particular style for a client is essentially malpractice.

When the stylebooks are silent, my colleagues and I have gone with majority usage as reflected on the Internet. For reals. So how is that not respecting the evolution of language?

I say on my About page that the only thing I’ve ever wanted to be is an editor. It may sound unusual, but no one raises an eyebrow at the Olympic skater who started at age 3. I’ve never thought of myself as a misanthrope or mean-spirited because I get paid to do what I love and what I’m good at. I’m saddened that there are people out there who think my occupation, which has so defined and delighted me, is not only unnecessary but detrimental … and to what, I’m not sure.

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10 Style Changes the AP Should Announce at ACES 2012

by Charmaine on February 10, 2012

At the last two annual meetings of the American Copy Editors Society, the Associated Press announced major changes to highly unpopular “AP Stylebook” entries. Last year, they reversed their position on email, cellphone and smartphone; the year before, they gave in to the prevalent usage of website over Web site.

With the 2012 meeting taking place in my hometown (April 12-14), I started wondering what the AP might do this year. And hey, if they need any suggestions, I have a few ideas:

  1. Add an entry that addresses the use of italics. I don’t care that the AP doesn’t use italics because “they don’t transmit through news wires.” Seriously, do we need to keep a rule around because we’re still, what, transmitting news via telegraph? What is this, Daylight Savings Time? Just stick an entry in the Stylebook about when to italicize, addressing the use of italics for emphasis and for titles. If you want to insist that newspapers do not use italics, go ahead. But if you get to use italics in your own stylebook to distinguish examples, you have no business pretending that they don’t exist.
  2. Speaking of pretending that something doesn’t exist, add an entry that addresses the use of bullet points. It’s not particularly intuitive to place guidance about bullet points in the “dashes” entry. Plus, the idea of placing a period at the end of extremely short bullet points does not sit well with many people. When we write shopping lists, we don’t punctuate them. Short bulleted lists have the same intent as shopping lists and should be treated identically.
  3. Begin phasing out abbreviations in text that require periods (such as months, state names and No. for number), either removing the periods or spelling everything out. I recently learned in a global authoring workshop that any periods that occur within a sentence are read by automated translators as a sentence break. These “segments” are separated, sometimes out of order, and thus it’s difficult for human translators to reassemble them. Abbreviating for space isn’t often necessary anymore (except on Twitter, dang it). Why not make adjustments that make document translation easier?
  4. Standardize the rules of capitalization for headlines and composition titles. Making such a distinction between the two is confusing enough, but you’re also asking Stylebook users to remember that a composition title is a “book title, computer game title, movie title, opera title, play title, poem title, album and song title, radio and television program title, and the titles of lectures, speeches and works of art.” But not blogs. No, blog titles go in quotes. By the way, that list you just read? Put all of those things in quotes too, “except the Bible and books that are primarily catalogs of reference material. In addition to catalogs, this category includes almanacs, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, gazetteers, handbooks and similar publications.” I subscribe to several gazetteers, don’t you? But I digress. Don’t put popular websites and smartphone apps in quotes. Wait, except for “FarmVille.” That does go in quotes. What were we talking about? Oh, yeah, capitalization. Look, AP, just agree to upstyle or downstyle all titles, defining a title as simply that thing that comes first in a document and is sometimes centered. Keep the “composition titles” entry specific to whether or not you use quotes, and be more consistent with that, too. Most people are going capitalize composition titles.
  5. Standardize the abbreviation of measurements. It’s confusing to spell out pounds, feet and inches but not kilobyte, megabit or terabyte.
  6. Speaking of measurements, entries for treating measurements that modify nouns are desperately needed. The “numerals” and “dimensions” entries in the AP Stylebook advocate using spaces, while the “kilobyte” entry says no space. Consistency, people! And does the hyphenated modifier rule apply to measurements or not? I think that the AP would probably lean toward no hyphens, and here’s why: They do not use a hyphen with the word “percent” because they believe the meaning is clear without it. If you apply that reasoning to all mathematical values, then there is no need to put hyphens in measurements, because there’s no possibility that a reader would think that these numbers are just hanging out in sentences all random-like.
  7. Face “the reality of wide usage” (I quote Mr. Minthorn) and consider changing 3-D to 3D, ultra as a compound word to ultra as a hyphenated prefix, using “data” with a plural verb to using “data” with a singular verb, pushup and situp (back) to push-up and sit-up … I could go on …
  8. Recommend a preferred verb for directing readers to a website. Should it be “visit,” “see,” “click,” “go to” or something else? Make an executive decision, somebody, please.
  9. Reverse the rule on not using acronyms immediately after the spelled-out version of said acronym. Authors love acronyms, and people skim more than read. So why not be clear here? Expecting readers to mentally assemble an acronym – sometimes several paragraphs or pages after The Words Whose First Letters Make Up That Acronym appear – is a bit much.
  10. Acknowledge the reality of wide usage of your Stylebook by businesses and individuals other than those in the publishing industry. Be flattered by this reality, and in return, consider the needs of those who work in corporate communications departments, or in hospitals, or at a video game developer. These employees may not have chosen the “AP Stylebook” as the default style; it may be a legacy thing. Now they’re stuck trying to apply your style to their specific language issues, and they need help. Help them. Be inclusive! Stop using “haven’t seen the term” or “simply recast the sentence” or “AP doesn’t” as excuses.

What AP rules would you like to see changed?

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Period Pieces

by Charmaine on January 23, 2011

We’ve become immune to the stylistic appropriation of periods for dramatic pause in titles and taglines.

It’s gotten to the point where I hear a little voice in my head — an overly dramatic one that doesn’t for a second actually mean or believe what it’s saying — whenever these egregious sentence fragments find themselves beneath my gaze. Here are several examples of subtitles from an employee publication. They’re all real, and I think it’s saying something that I didn’t have to edit a single one of them to hide the name of the client:

  • Small group. Significant impact.
  • Changing behavior. Reaping the rewards.
  • Two teams. One common goal.
  • Looking outwards. Growing internally.
  • Taking risks. Moving forward.
  • Fueling the future. Driving opportunities.
  • Power Management: Structured for growth. Positioned for the future.
  • Five business units. Unlimited opportunities.
  • Gaining access. Gaining knowledge.
  • Electing the best. Recognizing excellence.
  • Together. Overcoming every challenge.

Maybe I’m so annoyed because these are supposed to be subtitles, not advertisements. (I have been known to be overly sensitive to the encroachment of advertising into editorial.) Without the period, subtitles like “Moving forward” or “One common goal” would have gone right past me. Even a comma between the phrases wouldn’t have kept me up nights, but for some reason the periods here just smack of smarm.

Perhaps this trend echoes the rather recent adoption of periods to mean a dramatic or commanding tone when spoken, like “It. Happened. Again.” or “Get. Over. Here. Now.”

Slightly different but just as aggravating is this tagline:

  • Experience. Wellness. Everywhere.

I get it. It’s three separate taglines and yet still works as a complete sentence (a command sentence at that). But let’s go along for the ride and treat each one-word sentence as a singular concept thus applied to the company.  “Everywhere” might come off as a tad creepy (and probably inaccurate), while unfortunately the sole concept of “Wellness” applied to a health insurer might prove ironic. I kind of like “Experience,” which does double duty here as both a noun and a verb, but this word has been so overused in business contexts that would take quite a bit of evocative imagery for it to mean anything.

They’re a former client, and were absolutely delightful to work with, so enough finger-pointing.

Take a look at this Sony website. The tagline for their entire site is “make.believe” but they don’t even have a period after “believe.” Is this like India.Arie or something? A little way down the page is “Hip. Trendy. VAIO.” Although these are, like the other examples, sentence fragments, at least they’re not also doing double duty as a faux complete sentence.

I don’t suppose we can put the periods back in the punctuation box to play with only when we’re at the end of a thought. But do watch for confusion between what’s an ad and what’s just bad.

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It’s About Time(s)

by Charmaine on July 7, 2010

I am not one to claim any expertise in math, but a gripe from a very tech-savvy friend is leading me to declare a new rule:

Only use “times” — or if you must, “x” — when indicating increases, never when indicating a decrease.

Let’s pick on Wired first. From this cover story:

Most of the software we use today has its origins in the pre-Internet era, when storage was at a premium, machines ran thousands of times slower, and applications were sold in shrink-wrapped boxes for hundreds of dollars.

Anyone in high tech is used to seeing performance increases illustrated by a number and an “x”: it means that the current version of the part in question (and here’s another familiar techy term) is “orders of magnitude” faster than a previous version.

Faster … remember that. We’ll come back to it.

The author of the Wired article wanted to emphasize, even exaggerate (nothing wrong with that) the difference between ye ole computers of the 1960s and 70s and today. But “times” is throwing everything off, because times means to multiply. You can’t multiply and get a product that’s less than what you started off with. But that’s exactly what the author is asking you to do, because it’s “times slower.”

Since when is anything times slower?

AP’s directive on using decreasing adverbs is to use “fewer” for individual items, “less” for bulk or quantity. Yet this still doesn’t really help the author of the Wired article. If I had edited this story, I would’ve rephrased “thousands of times slower” to something rather innocuous but still accurate, like “much slower,” “orders of magnitude slower” or “at a fraction of the speed of today’s processors.”

Unfortunately, attempting to actually quantify “thousands of times slower” as a fraction would still read awkwardly. Imagine this construction: “… machines ran one-one-thousandth times slower.” Ugh.

You might be able to get away with using percent, since we’re all familiar with percent used to indicate a decreased price in a sale. But by the time you get up into the thousands, as in the quantity cited in the example, and then add in the “slower” adverb, that’s just as awful: “… machines ran 1,000 percent slower …”? No thanks.

Now this one, from a blog:

A study by Larva Labs (the developers of the excellent Slidescreen app) estimates that Apple has paid out 50 times more money to developers than Google has.

(I should note that the author edited this: it originally read 50x.)

My big quibble here is why the author didn’t just offer up the quantity, since he was talking about money. Let’s say Google developers make $1,000 and Apple developers make $50,000. Now isn’t that impressive? And isn’t the disparity between the two payouts still remarkable?

Perhaps the author was manipulating the amounts to make his point. It’s possible that Apple has paid out a gazillion dollars to a gazillion developers, whereas Google has paid out a gazillion dollars to 10 developers. That makes Google far more generous, but the statement proffered by the blogger would still be accurate: Apple would have paid out 50 times more money to developers than Google.

Don’t get tripped up by “times” – avoid this expression unless the most impressive way to describe the increase (not decrease) would be to explain it as a multiple.

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Last Friday, representatives from the Associated Press stood in front of those attending the annual meeting of the American Copy Editors Society and made the editorial style equivalent of bringing down the Berlin Wall.

So what’d they do? Without coming out and saying so in so many words, they admitted that they’ve been just a tad out of touch lo these many years, and that “website” is indeed the correct spelling — lowercase “w,” one word — to refer to the virtual place where you are reading this right now.

This recap says it better than I could, and of course I am in favor of the decision. I have to admit it will actually take some conscious effort on my part to type “website” and not feel like I’m in the wrong.

But I’m still pissed, and here’s why. Because instead of acknowledging a stubborn streak as far-reaching as the ash cloud of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano, AP actually said (with a straight face? I wasn’t there, so I can’t say) that this change reflects their sensitivity to reader and user feedback. From the Poynter article:

Today’s two style-related announcements show the importance of user feedback, said Colleen Newvine, head of market research for the AP and product manager for the Stylebook.

“Although style listings are not an ‘American Idol’ popularity vote, it is important to us to listen to our readers and our users.”

As someone who has submitted multiple questions to AP’s Ask the Editor forum (no longer viewable without a subscription to the AP Online Stylebook), it’s been my experience that the answers AP gave me were frustratingly obtuse and indicated not just a lack of reading comprehension but the opposite of what I would call “listening to our readers and our users.”

The number of years it took to change their mind about “Web site” only proves my point. Just browse through Ask the Editor (if you can) and you’ll see repeated queries about how website should appear, both from those innocent to the answer and those looking for a fight. But AP’s answers to these questions don’t make pertinent points about why Web site is (to their sensibilities) correct. The standard replies are either “AP uses Web site (two words)” or “AP style is Web site.” Thanks so much for the illumination.

Yes, I’m happy for “website.” But I’d still like more information about AP editors’ thought processes on this and any other hot style topic.

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Problems with Virtual Entrances

by Charmaine on September 29, 2009

Yesterday I was checking one of my Twitter feeds on my iPhone. Because I use the free version of the application, advertisements appear at the top of the feed.

Naturally, I can’t get it to come up now, so I’ll have to use my amazing powers of recall. The ad was asking me to consider upgrading to the professional edition, “Now Available on the App Store.”

How awkward does this sound to you? Because it sounds really awkward to me.

However much your iPhone experience may resemble a virtual reality, you do not literally go into Web sites on Safari or into applications like the new one from Starbucks: you view them. Perhaps that’s why the copywriter recoiled at the idea of browsing “in” the App Store.

But English is English is English, and if the software or Web site is called a “store,” you have no choice but to go into it, because suddenly the reader is envisioning themselves on the roof of a TJ Maxx. And nobody wants that.

People go onto Web sites, yes, but they into applications, and unless they’re roofers or superheroes, they most certainly go into stores. That’s just the way it is. Don’t go trying to mix it up.

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A Capital Offense

by Charmaine on September 15, 2009

Upstyle/downstyle rules make my head hurt. I’d love to explain them to you, especially in a somewhat coherent manner, but even I get confused.

Upstyle is the traditional way of capitalizing most words (sans articles and prepositions) in a title; downstyle means to cap only the first word and proper nouns.

The problem is that the Associated Press doesn’t quite want to define what constitutes a title, so instead they’ve established different rules for “composition titles” (upstyle) and “headlines” (downstyle).

So what’s the problem? The muddled way in which AP answers questions about it in its “Ask the Editor” column.

For example (bold is mine):

Q: Subheads follow AP headline style, capitalizing only the first word and proper nouns, correct? If so, are they punctuated (unlike the main headline), ending in a period? – from Key Largo, Florida on Mon, Jan 07, 2008

A: Headlines on AP wire stories capitalize the first word and proper nouns. Subheads — which are rare — would follow the same style. Headlines for AP stories online use both “up” and “down” style. In “up” style, virtually all words are capitalized. In “down” style, the first word and proper nouns are capitalized. Headlines are punctuated as needed. Commas, semicolons, apostrophes and single-quotes for quotation marks are frequent, but no periods at the end.

Let me parse this out. “Headlines for AP stories online use both up and down style” means that anything goes. This is a rather odd decision from an organization that attempts to set rules.

Here’s another one:

Q: If AP style for headings is to capitalize only the first word and proper nouns, then why are the headings on the home page of www.apstylebook.com handled differently? “John Doe’s Stylebook and Notes,” “Popular Topics,” “Ask the Editor,” “Site Settings and Account Management” are all capitalized in what I consider to be the more traditional, academic style. Please clarify, as our web team – from Seattle, WA on Thu, Apr 12, 2007

A: The style you refer to is primarily for headlines in newspaper copy. There’s more leeway with shorter “headers” such as you describe.

Interpretation: AP does have an inner monologue guiding the use of upstyle and downstyle. Unfortunately, their only clue to this monologue is that the header has to be “shorter.” Shorter than what exactly?

And one more:

Q: We are trying to decide how to handle capitalization of headings on our school district Web site. You state that, “AP style for headlines (and subheads) is to capitalize only the first word and proper nouns.” However, on your home page, the headings “Search,” “Linda Robertson’s Stylebook and Notes,” “Popular Topics,” “Ask the Editor,” and “Site Settings and Account Management” are all – from Redmond, WA on Fri, Jul 20, 2007

A: The headline style applies to the text format for AP news stories. Web site headlines and labels have other typographical requirements.

And just what are these other typographical requirements? That’s hard to say, since Ask the Editor answers are almost always briefer than a tweet.

Wait! I have to include this one, since I’m the one who asked it:

Q: An initial-capped subhead in a paper reads, “What Will it Mean in the End?” Given AP capitalization rules about principal words, shouldn’t words essential to the thought in the head (like “it”) also be capitalized? – from Dallas, TX on Fri, Jul 13, 2007

A: AP capitalizes only the first word and proper nouns of a headline. Others are of course free to follow their own style on headlines.

So here’s their deal. You can use upstyle or downstyle for headlines, especially if the headline is shorter, falls into an “other typographical requirements” category, or if you just feel like doing whatever you like.

Strangely enough, if I’ve promised a client that I will edit according to AP style, doing whatever I like doesn’t quite feel right, especially with something as prominent as the header.

So here’s what I do. I downstyle most headlines, depending on what it is. If it’s a brochure, downstyle. If it’s a white paper and clearly a “composition,” I’ll think about keeping it upstyle, since that is almost always how it will come in.

Whichever style I use, I match the subheadings to the headlines for consistency.

I downstyle labels in graphics and tables, unless I am not actually making the changes. If a designer is executing my proofreading marks and a table is particularly text-heavy and upstyle, the risk of introducing more errors — certainly errors of consistency — is too great a risk.

Yet all of this leaves me unsettled. I suggest that AP abandon the idea of downstyle completely; it’s not what most people learned growing up, and these bizarre “if .. then” rules are quite difficult to follow. Upstyle FTW!

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And You May Ask Yourself …

by Charmaine on July 1, 2009

I used to be afraid of David Byrne from Talking Heads. It started with his jerky, spastic moves in the “Once in a Lifetime” video, and then the oversized suit just sent me over the top.

Anywho … as your talking-head-in-residence, you may find yourself in a situation where you aren’t sure whether to use “may” or “can,” as in the following examples:

“Other operations may be remotely monitored and adjusted manually.”

“With this online tool, you will not receive a paper check stub. Instead, you may access a secure online tool.”

To me, these sentences — from a white paper and a benefits newsletter, respectively — reveal a timidness on the part of the author (something I seem to have a low tolerance for, given my call for authors to step out from behind the passive voice in an earlier post). “May” traditionally indicates that you are seeking permission, while “can” indicates capability or possibility. In these  sentences, the context clearly indicates the conveyance of possibility, not pleading.

Read the sentences again and then question them using “may”: “May I remotely monitor and manually adjust other operations?” “May I access a secure online tool?” I don’t know — may you?

In these instances, no, you may not —  but you certainly can.

Unfortunately, some sentences aren’t quite so easy. What about this one?

“Medical nutrition therapy addresses situations in which a change in eating habits may significantly improve your health.”

Although it’s true that a change in eating habits “may” — as in might, or perhaps — improve your health, it’s also true that a change in eating habits “can” — as in could possibly — improve your health.

All things being equal in this situation, it’s time to turn to the author’s intent. Is the communication attempting to persuade readers of the benefits of medical nutrition therapy? Then it’s probably wise to use “can.”

Alternately, does the overall tone seem more guarded? Is medical nutrition therapy but one of many solutions discussed? In that case, you’re probably fine leaving it as “may.”

Still, I wouldn’t be blogging about this if I wasn’t spending quite a bit of time canning “may” and inserting “can,” because even in a sentence that clearly implies possibility, “can” doesn’t sound egregiously wrong. Let’s take this sentence:

“College seniors facing an unsure job market may look to graduate school as a way to wait out the recession.”

And replace “may” with “can”:

“College seniors facing an unsure job market can look to graduate school as a way to wait out the recession.”

They both read fine to me. In other words, you can’t go wrong with “can.”

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Forgive My Absence

by Charmaine on June 13, 2009

In early/mid April, did you notice a marked increase in misspelled words? A plethora of passive voice constructions? A severe upswing in uppercased acronyms? It was me (or should I say a lack of me) as I was thrown smack dab out of commission with what my husband calls a “life-threatening bacterial infection” and what I like to call “that illness that put me in the hospital for 12 days, about which I have no memory.”

I exaggerate: I remember all but four days. What matters most is that I survived — not only with all of my extremities, but with my editor’s sensibilities and sensitivities intact. I’m back to blogging, tweeting, and bristling when I see an apostrophe used to indicate a plural.

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