Assortative peeving

« previous post | next post »

Girls With Slingshots for 12/23/2014:


  1. D-AW said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 2:04 pm

    Not having my MWDEU to hand, I wonder: which are the style guides that say the ingredient in the name of a dish shouldn't be capitalized? And what weird logic is drafted in support of this?

  2. jim said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 2:32 pm


    It's probably patterned after the French. They would put the name (the "adjective" in this case) after the ingredient, and they would use capitals sparingly, even in titles.

  3. Keith Ivey said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

    It's not that the ingredient shouldn't be capitalized, D-AW. It's that the names of dishes shouldn't be capitalized. Do you write "French Toast"? And if so, why not write "Scrambled Eggs and Bacon"?

  4. Brett said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 2:47 pm

    @D-AW: Why would they be capitalized? The name of a dish is not a proper noun, although it may (like "oysters Rockafeller") contain a proper adjective. Capitalization of a dish name (in various forms) could be used on a menu for formatting reasons, but not in running text.

  5. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    D-AW: Note that she specifies that the oysters should be lowercase and plural but not possessive. Oysters isn't a proper noun, so it shouldn't be capitalized. No weird logic needed here—that's a pretty basic rule of English capitalization.

    There are some differences of opinion when it comes to proper nouns or adjectives in the names of other things. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, lowercases things like french toast and brussels sprouts because those proper adjectives or nouns aren't literal; that is, french toast isn't really toast from France, so there's no need to treat it as such. But I don't know what other style guides say. I'm sure there's some variation.

  6. Adriano said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

    As far as I know, newspaper headlines in English are very often capitalized. And menu lists hanging at restaurants look very similar to those posters near newsagent's, where you can read newspaper's main headlines.

  7. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 7:44 pm

    From the AP Stylebook:
    Lowercase words that are derived from a proper noun but are no longer dependent on it for their meaning: french fries, herculean, manhattan cocktail, venetian blind.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 9:17 pm

    A few minutes corpus work with the google books n-gram viewer shows that "ordered a Manhattan" (more idiomatic to my ear with "cocktail" omitted) is much more common in all sorts of prose (including fiction written in a fairly informal/vernacular style) than "ordered a manhattan," and likewise the NP "Manhattan cocktail" is much more common than "manhattan cocktail." The AP Stylebook does not necessarily reflect reality except, perhaps, as to the contents of specific publications editorially tyrannized by its adherents. "Ordered a martini" or "margarita" are in recent years much more common than "ordered a Martini" or "Margarita" but it used to be otherwise — it is foolish to think there are exceptionless general rules here. As to the cartoon at the beginning, it turns out that 1990 was the year (in the google books corpus, subject to whatever caveats are appropriate) the trendlines crossed most recently, such that "oysters Rockefeller" became more common than "Oysters Rockefeller." The peeving lady must not be very old.

    It's worth noting that the ability to make google n-gram searches either case-sensitive or case-insensitive, as you like, is rather a useful feature.

  9. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 9:24 pm

    FWIW, "the name of a dish is not a proper noun" sounds a bit ipse dixit, and gives me that [citation needed] feeling. I suspect there may be variations of practice in capitalization precisely because not everyone has the same intuition for the category in general, or the same intuition from dish to dish (or, as seen above, cocktail to cocktail). I wouldn't assume "scrambled eggs" and "eggs/Eggs Benedict/benedict" and "Egg McMuffin" are all part of some larger internally-consistent class of "NP's naming egg-based dishes" that gets uniform treatment by all or most Anglophones.

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 29, 2014 @ 9:30 pm

    Last bash for now at the AP Stylebook's thesis: "glass of scotch" has quite recently (late 1990's) overtaken "glass of Scotch" in frequency of usage, but "scotch" remains dependent on the underlying "proper" noun/adjective for its meaning, i.e. in the U.S. and most other countries whisk(e)y not actually distilled within the borders of Scotland cannot lawfully be marketed as "scotch," so it's quite different from french fries or brussels sprouts.

  11. D-AW said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 1:33 am

    J. W. Brewer's second comment accords with my view. I'm not sure how I would have capitalized this particular dish name before learning that this was a "thing," but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have bothered me to have seen it written either way. I don't think I would capitalize scrambled eggs, but I might capitalize Chicken Cordon Bleu or Poire Belle Helene (might even write Poire belle Helene) or Tournedos Rossini. Now of course my intuition is spoiled by this post, but I think it has something to do with names of some elaborate, invented, or renowned dishes or recipes resembling titles in some respects.

    Btw, NYT (to take one source) has a few instances of "Oysters Rockefeller" among the more common "oysters Rockefeller": ("The dish known as Oysters Rockefeller…" 26.11.01; "For years Oysters Rockefeller has appeared on the menu…" 25.12.73; "Several famous oyster recipes were created in New Orleans, including Oysters Rockefeller…" 14.1.90; etc.).

    NYT also has "chicken cordon bleu", "chicken Cordon Bleu", and "Chicken Cordon Bleu", although this last one appears when referring to the title of the recipe for the dish, rather than to the dish itself. It has "poire belle Helene" and (oddly) "poire Belle Helene", but not "Poire Belle Helene". It also has one or two "Tournedos Rossini".

    Not that NYT should be taken as authoritative on this – but it isn't without authority…

  12. George said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 8:29 am

    I find the idea of 'making' O/oysters A/anything abhorrent. They're just perfect as they are.

  13. Ralph Hickok said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 9:06 am

    I see no point in looking for universal "authority" for a stylebook. A stylebook is its own authority; in fact, the reason for its existence is to function as an authoritative reference work.

    I do online editing of scholarly writing, ranging from journal papers to full-length books, and I have worked with many different stylebooks (some of which would require me to write "style books"). Each has its own quirks, but I don't see how anyone can point at something in a stylebook and say, "That's wrong." If the stylebook says that something should be written in a certain way, the stylebook is right, by definition, in that particular publishing realm. If an author wants me to use APA style, I should not use MLA style, and vice versa. But neither is "right" nor "wrong," and looking at the Chicago Manual of Style to decide which is "right" will only lead to further confusion, in many cases.

    Years ago, I worked for a newspaper that had its own stylebook, which had been put together primarily by the publisher himself. One of its tenets was "Eschew obfuscation," believe it or not. More than one new reporter went rushing to the unabridged dictionary in the city to decipher that one. That particular stylebook also said that "massmeeting" should be written as one word. Was that wrong? Not if you worked for the New Bedford Standard-Times in the 1960s.

    Let me try to make a couple of points that I've tried to make here before. First, following the stylebook is part of a copyeditor's job description. He/she doesn't make the rules, but merely follows them (or should follow them). A rigid adherence to the stylebook is not a deficiency to be railed at, but a consistency to be praised.

    A good copyeditor also recognizes that there are situations in which a style rule should not be followed. There's a tale, probably apocryphal, that when Bob Hope's autobiography, "Have Tux, Will Travel," was published, an NYT copyeditor changed it to "Have Black Dinner Jacket, Will Travel" because the Times did not allow "tux" or "tuxedo" to appear in its hallowed pages. I once got angry at a copy editor who changed "admitted" to "said" in one of my feature stories because the stylebook had a very specific rule about when "admit" could be used; but that was meant to apply to police and court stories, not to a light-hearted piece about a high school science fair.

    There are a lot of style rules that I (and many other copyeditors) consider just plain silly. At the aforementioned newspaper, we often went directly to the publisher and asked/suggested/recommended that a rule (such as the one about "massmeeting") be changed. We were actually successful a couple of times, but usually not.

    Second, following style is not the copyeditor's main preoccupation. The reason for its existence, as far as I'm concerned, is to reduce the amount of time required to deal with the nitty-gritty of editing. The copyeditor doesn't have to continually think about whether a certain word should be capitalized or whether a number should be spelled out or written as a numeral; such questions are answered by the stylebook and handling them "correctly" becomes second nature.

    Having a stylebook as a guide (and having much of it built into the editorial reflexes, so to speak) gives the copyeditor more time in which to deal with the most important part of the job: Ensuring that the document is clearly written and as easily understandable as it can be.

  14. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 11:45 am

    I don't really disagree with most of Ralph Hickok's perspective, but would add (a) the point that a stylebook is, within its realm, its own source of authority, is precisely the reason why it is not a particularly useful or reliable authority outside its own realm, since its practical function is, one might say, more to make certain that certain questions are, within that realm, settled definitively than to make certain that they are settled correctly; and (b) there's always a lurking meta-question about why "consistency" is even a desirable goal as to any particular issue. If, in fact, the practice of normal well-educated AmEng prose writers varies in terms of how they do or don't capitalize [C/c]hicken [C/c]ordon [B/b]leu, why should it be considered a problem in need of a solution for the columns of the New York Times or the New Bedford Standard-Times to reflect that variation rather than impose a necessarily arbitrary uniformity? There may well be a good answer to that question in any given instance, but I don't have a sense most stylebook generators and users necessarily spend enough time thinking through "why do we really need a uniform rule for this particular issue in the first place"? And the case for consistency, on any given issue, may be stronger when you're talking about two different straight news stories (perhaps under different bylines) running in the same newspaper versus op-eds or movie reviews or other genres where a more "personal" authorial voice is expected in the same paper. And when you're talking about two different books that happen to be published by the same publisher the case for consistency between them on an even wider range of issues seems even weaker. Who exactly is it who will get upset or confused if Miskatonic University Press publishes in the same year book A which consistently uses numerals for "15" and book B which consistently spells it out as "fifteen"?

  15. Nathan said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 12:30 pm

    So if a stylebook is more about consistency than correctness, just what is its practical value? What purpose does a house style serve? If a word crime is merely one of inconsistency with house style, then why even change what the writer has written? Rather than saving time, it would seem to waste it.

  16. Brett said,

    December 30, 2014 @ 2:10 pm

    @Nathan: At the most basic level, the consistency is most desired for its aesthetic value. However, aesthetic decisions can make a real difference in how easy a text is to read and follow—although I don't know whether the kinds of questions that style guides concern themselves with are likely to make this kind of difference.

    I also want to point out that (good) style guides really are about more than consistency. The AP guide has comments are usages that have been found to be confusing and about how people in the news may be trying to slant a story through their own choice of words ("illegal" being one I remember).

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 4:34 am

    Like J. W. Brewer, I'm mostly sympathetic to Ralph Hickok's point of view on this, but it seems quite clear that there are cases where "rigid adherence to a stylebook" is "a deficiency to be railed at". In an article for a rather well-known journal, I once wrote probably the most plausible [explanation] is one based on physical changes in the inner ear, but cortical changes can by no means be ruled out. The copy editor (I certainly hope it wasn't Ralph Hickok!), rigidly adhering to a stylebook that prescribes commas around adverbial phrases, changed this to probably the most plausible [explanation] is one based on physical changes in the inner ear, but cortical changes can, by no means, be ruled out. To me, that reads like telling someone to come in while closing the door in their face. We compromised on cortical changes cannot, by any means, be ruled out, but it's hard to disagree with Nathan's comment that this whole procedure wasted time rather than saving it.

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 31, 2014 @ 7:48 pm

    In honor of this thread, before catching my train from Manhattan back to the suburbs this evening I stopped at the Oyster Bar in the bowels of Grand Central Terminal and ordered what they describe as OYSTERS ROCKEFELLER. The entire menu is in all-caps, so they artfully avoid taking sides on capitalization controversies, thus avoiding alienating any customers who might feel strongly about the issue in any given direction.

  19. Terrycollmann said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 8:28 am

    JW Brewer, the need for consistency is to stop each copyeditor a particular piece of copy passes by changing everything to suit their own preferred style: each change not only adds to the time taken to process the copy but, far worse, adds to the probability of an error being introduced into that copy. Each time Oysters Rockefeller gets changed to oysters Rockefeller there is a small but finite chance it will be altered to pysters Rockefeller

  20. Ralph Hickok said,

    January 1, 2015 @ 11:02 am

    @Bob Ladd:
    Wow! As I said, I've worked with many different stylebooks and I've never come across that particular quirk. If I did, my inclination would be to take it lightly. I simply cannot go along with making a change that destroys the writing's flow, which this certainly does. It's likely that I wouldn't have been able to work very long for that particular journal.

    @J. W. Brewer (and Nathan):
    I didn't bring up the AP Stylebook as any kind of authority in this matter; it was meant as an answer of sorts to the very first commenter. Now that I look back at that comment, I see that I really didn't read it properly and my response was not to the point.

    As for the question of consistency, it's something that I've thought about and discussed with other editors. I definitely agree with Brett that there's an aesthetic component. After all, publishers of all kinds pay a great deal of attention to, and spend a fair amount of money on, typography and design for the sake of aesthetics. Is that time and money wasted? A document lacking consistency of style loses some aesthetic value, in my mind.

    Beyond that, stylist inconsistency also gives a sense of sloppiness, at least to me. If a publication doesn't care about consistency, does it care about accuracy in other matters? Perhaps I believe in consistency only because of my background in journalism, but I suspect that other readers with different backgrounds might feel the same way.

    As for authorial voice: It seems to me that, for example, adding a hyphen to a compound adjective doesn't have any more effect on authorial voice than correcting an author's misspelling or grammar, and that's what almost all stylistic changes amount to. Would changing "fifteen percent" to "15%" change the tone of an op-ed piece by Paul Krugman or in any way affect what he is saying?

    In my experience, book publishers do not use the same style for all of their books. I've had five books published by five different publishers, and they've all proceeded in much the same way. Somebody (I don't know what title this person might have) reads the manuscript and develops a style sheet specifically for that book. This is an overlay, so to speak, on the publishing house's general style guide, but it does mean that a unique style is developed to suit each book.

RSS feed for comments on this post