Ongoing lexical fascism

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Over at Lingua Franca, where I do weekly blog posts for The Chronicle of Higher Education, I tried to refer to some ongoing research other day, and called it that, and I was slapped down by my editor (she knows the New York Times style manual prohibitions far too well), quoting a remark by the managing editor: "If I see someone using ongoing in The Chronicle, I will be downcoming and he or she will be outgoing."

Lexical fascism! They would fire me for using ongoing as an adjective? Thank goodness for Language Log, I thought, where lexical liberty survives. So I'm back over here today, choosing my own words, ruminating resentfully on this stylistic bullying.

I did a little research and found that the managing editor's witticism was not just borrowed from another editor, but inaccurately targeted. The original of the bon mot came from the Wall Street Journal’s famous editor Bernard Kilgore, who, after seeing several occurrences in the paper of a compound participle-derived adjective he didn't like, sent down a memo from his 4th-floor office to the 3rd-floor newsroom that said: "If I see 'upcoming' in the paper one more time I will be downcoming and someone will be outgoing." It is quoted in a letter from former WSJ copy editor Ted Stanton, and in Crusaders, Scoundrels, Journalists, edited by Eric Newton (see this review for the quote), and in Worldly Power: The Making of the Wall Street Journal by Edward E. Scharff (see this review in the LA Times). All sources agree that Kilgore's target was upcoming.

Since the Kilgore witticism was not directed at ongoing, it cannot be used as a legitimate excuse for crushing my lexicodemocratic rights. But of course, the same kind of word-raging fascists who hate upcoming also hate ongoing, so I'm not going to win this one. There's a whole gaggle of -ing-final compound adjectives I simply won't be able to use over there in Washington DC, though I can use them here at Language Log Plaza in Philadelphia.

Sensible copy-editing experts have no problem with ongoing. John McIntyre defends the word, citing a nice little piece of research on it by Stan Carey.

It's funny how these irrational word-rage objections to specific coinages become unquestionable long-term policy, and survive until decades past their use-by dates. Everyone agrees that language does change, but editors insert blocks to linguistic change here and there. The personal peeves of an editor become house style, and house style dictates years of newspaper copy, and back files of newspaper copy get incorporated into linguistic corpora, and linguists investigate language through those corpora, so eventually editors' peeves actually become scientific fact about the way the language is used. Editors really do have some power to change the world.

Update: Brett Reynolds just did what I would have done if I was smart enough to trust The Chronicle less: he did a Google search for ongoing limited to And do you want to know what he got? (I'm really feeling worse now.) He got over 800 hits! So 800 people got away with it (or some N < 800 people got away with it more than 800 times in total), and I was the only one that got caught and blocked. One unlucky guy caught in the speed trap that let 800 maniacs drive on through. I am so mad I could spit.

[I'm not feeling very outgoing after suffering this lexical downtreading, and if any thoroughgoing editor-upholding comments were downcoming I might be upthrowing, so I haven't opened comments.]


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