Cheryl Iverson on Style.

Some years ago, when I was working in pharmaceutical advertising (and later editing articles for medical journals), I had to get familiar with the AMA Manual of Style, and the more I used it the more I liked its mix of useful guidelines with good sense (not to mention the frontispiece of a fortune cookie split open to show a strip of paper reading “Your great attention to detail is both a blessing and a curse”). Now I learn, from this interview posted at the AMA Style Insider, that the mix is due to the amazingly sensible attitudes of its longtime editor, Cheryl Iverson:

Cheryl Iverson does not peeve about her grammatical peccadilloes as one might imagine of a woman who has spent her career editing, overseeing editing, and serving as the AMA Manual of Style committee chair for the last 3 editions—she continues as co-chair of the 11th edition, a work in progress. Although one might say that she doesn’t have any major pet peeves when it comes to grammar, she does admit, “I still get aggravated at the incorrect use of apostrophes like I – t- apostrophe – s. Those are not things that I would be willing to treat lightly.”

But concerns about splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a proposition, “some of those rules that people learned in grammar classes in grade school 50 years ago,” would be better off forgotten. She speculates that people who no longer understand the reason for the rule will either avoid the use or argue adamantly about using, say, different from rather than different than when in the end it doesn’t matter if meaning is clear. “That’s what I think. It’s good that we’ve gotten away from these old rules without understanding where they came from, which makes it hard for people to know when to bend a rule or when to disregard a rule.”

However, such discretion at the start of her career was discouraged.

“When I was a new copyeditor, the stylebook was the Bible. It was all about ‘If you want to publish in our journals, this is what we do.’” The mandate was so deeply impressed on her that it wasn’t until her short stint at the University of Chicago Press in the books department that she began to rethink the approach.

First, while editing a small book on ancient Egyptian irrigation systems, she assiduously looked up all the city names mentioned in the manuscript and changed them in accordance with her source, an effort that left the author less than pleased. “He wanted them all reinstated. He said that there is controversy about some of these names. ‘I don’t care if your source used X. I want Y.’”

The exchange made Iverson pause. “I stopped to think that consistency is far more important in a journal article because all of these articles that are edited by different people are grouped together, whereas a book stands alone, so if your author wants to use something quirky, that’s just that author and it’s just in that book.”

The vise grip of the conforming to the immutable-style-rules directive loosened again when an author challenged a style point, again while she was at the University of Chicago Press. So she brought her question to her supervisor and said, “I looked everywhere in the manual for this. I can’t find it. … This author wants to have such and such.”

“Cheryl,” the boss responded, “the manual is not a Bible. It’s just a guide.”

Iverson’s experience as a young copy editor is not uncommon. “When people are new, they want to know, What’s the rule? What’s the rule about? They want there to be a rule because rules help them”—especially when trying to explain their editing decisions to authors. “But then when you have been editing a while you’re more mellow. I don’t think it is a bad thing in other words. I don’t think it is a bad thing [to relax the rules] as long as you don’t get sloppy and let errors get through.”

If only more copyeditors had that attitude, the profession wouldn’t have such a grim reputation!


  1. the profession wouldn’t have such a grim reputation!

    My daughter, marry a copyeditor?! Never!

  2. Belly laugh. Thanks.

  3. cuchuflete says

    But concerns about splitting an infinitive or ending a sentence with a proposition, …

    Some of us might prefer to end a proposition with a hug.

  4. Heh. Good catch!

  5. As to different from/than, I’m indifferent, but different to is a barbarism employed by people who have lost the plot.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    I think “different to” in Br. Eng. has a Latin analogue:
    Genus et formam definiunt hoc modo: Genus est notio ad pluris differentias pertinens; forma est notio cuius differentia ad caput generis et quasi fontem referri potest.
    Cicero, Topica 31
    Here there is pertinens + ad + acc; I think the sentence may be informed by an analogous *differens + ad + acc., where ad means “up to” in this context. I put the *, because I can’t find an unambiguous Classical Latin example, although you can find the exact construction in Mediaeval Latin.

  7. “Different to” chaps my hackles, or whatever, but when I run Google Ngrams, it’s a different universe, where the use peaked in Victorian times and has practically vanished, and American English shares the same peaks and troughs as British English. I know better than this. “Different to” is all over the place in, which features a lot of Australian, part of the commonwealth which includes David Mitchell’s televised rants.

    Did I spend my whole life with “different to” and only notice it when David Mitchell came along?

  8. I grew up in England and have lived in the US for 40 years, and I can no longer remember how I feel about ‘different to.’

  9. Cosmopolitanism at work!

  10. John Cowan says

    Does that make David L a rootless cosmopolite? 🙂

  11. I am ruthlessly and cosmically polite (most of the time).

  12. Richard Hershberger says

    The story about Egyptian place names sounds infuriating. I am reminded of the story about the baseball history book where the copyeditor helpfully miscorrected the numerous instances of “Ban Johnson” (the first president of the American League–“Ban” was short for “Bancroft,” but no one called him that) with “Ben Johnson.” I think the story is likely apocryphal, but only because I have never been able to pin it down, not because it is inherently implausible.

  13. I find “different to…”, like “on accident”, to be charmingly idiosyncratic. These are prepositions, after all. They are expected to be fickle and inconstant.

  14. The story about Egyptian place names sounds infuriating.

    Yes, but apparently it ended happily and taught her a valuable lesson.

    I find “different to…”, like “on accident”, to be charmingly idiosyncratic.

    Me too.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I’m not sure how I feel about capital-B Bible for things which are not the actual Bible.

    ‘[T]he stylebook was the Bible’ strongly suggests to me that they used the actual Bible as the source of their style – and I don’t think that is what they mean.

    All the OED’s quotations for sense 2 ‘A textbook, an authority (of religion, politics, etc.)’ use bible with a small b, although I don’t suppose that proves anything.

  16. ktschwarz says

    No, it doesn’t; that entry is from 1887, and anyway the OED generally doesn’t much concern itself with capitalization or hyphenation, except to note that variations exist. Those things fluctuate too much and too fast for its time scale.

    Current dictionaries almost all agree on lowercase for not-the-actual-Bible; AHD is slightly less definite with “often bible”. Of course, this question is exactly the kind of thing stylebooks are for; e.g., the AP Stylebook specifies “Lowercase bible as a nonreligious term: My dictionary is my bible.”

    However, that said, I think there’s a case here for capitalizing “the stylebook was the Bible”, since it seems to me to be a metaphorical reference to the actual Bible, meant to bring the actual Bible to the reader’s mind. If you don’t capitalize it, isn’t “the stylebook was the bible” just a pointless tautology? (Other extended uses, such as “the bible of the social-media movement”, “the bible of tortured adolescence in America”, “the bible of the old-car hobby” seem to me to be farther from invoking the Bible itself, since they don’t go on to draw attention to how such books are or aren’t different from *the* Bible. But I wouldn’t claim there’s any hard-and-fast line.)

    Also, if this was a spoken interview, the intonation would suggest whether “Bible” was thought of as capitalized. The blog doesn’t say whether it’s a transcription from speech, but the spelled-out “I – t- apostrophe – s” suggests that it is.

  17. ESL teachers still say that “different from” is correct and “different than” is wrong, so when I noticed a thread on a forum on a language-learning side where a teacher was explaining this, I expected “…than” to be learners’ mistake. Which surprised me, because this use of “than” is impossible in Russian:)

  18. “I still get aggravated at …”

    Some of us still experience a frission of distaste when encountering this usage. The AMA Manual is silent on the matter (as we’d expect), but it does distinguish aggravate and irritate with medical conditions.

  19. i don’t think i can articulate the distinction right now, but “different than” and “different from” mean slightly different things to me. and sondheim’s “nice is different than good” marks that version’s absolute correctness, to me).

  20. rozele: Could it be that for you, one of “different from” and “different than” is symmetric, the other not? By symmetric, I mean that the two sides can be switched indifferently.

  21. In its print version at least the AMA Manual discusses several uses of the en dash (pp. 352–3). But nowhere in the examples or nearby text does it show a proper en dash. Each time it is rendered as a hyphen, along with other hyphens. Hugely confusing for the innocent.

    Elsewhere (at p. 349, but not indexed!) AMA gets it right – at least according to Chicago practice, which I deplore. Two of those examples:

    non–Q-wave myocardial infarction

    Unlike Chicago it doesn’t want an en dash in date or page ranges (p. 349). No rhyme or reason.

    In its very definition (p. 344) it speaks of “internal punctuation marks” as if we will all immediately understand:

    8.3 Hyphens and Dashes. Hyphens and dashes are internal punctuation marks used for linkage and clarity of expression.

    Does internal here mean “punctuation not used to mark the end of a sentence” (in which case it tells us very little), or does it mean “word-level as opposed to sentence-level punctuation” (in which case the em dash is wrongly included as internal)? I find no explanation in the glossary, and no pointer in the index.

    In discussing em dashes (p. 352), AMA does not even hint at the common UK-and-other preference for spaced en dashes. So much for catholicity and educating the user.

    Arrant bumblers. I hope the 11th edition (which is now out, in fact: 2020) fixes some of these things. A band of intrepid and unpaid pioneers, myself not least among them, did better in building the Wikipedia Manual of Style main page.

  22. Keith Ivey says

    One oddity with usage of hyphens is that most styles want to avoid hyphens with un- but require them with self-, which causes a problem when the prefixes are used together. Generally this seems to be handled by using no hyphens or dashes, giving unselfconscious (rather than un-self-conscious or un–self-conscious) as the opposite of self-conscious.

  23. Could it be that for you, one of “different from” and “different than” is symmetric, the other not? By symmetric, I mean that the two sides can be switched indifferently.

    Some observations:
    (1) there is also “other than”.
    (2) the Russian adjective drugoj means both “other” and “different”.
    (3) we say A otlichajetsya of B “A differs from B” rather than “A is different from B”. “Than” doesn’t work here.
    (note that otlichajetsya and drugoj are different words (and in this meaning “different wordS” is raznyje slova))

    (also the Russian verb contains a prefix ot- “from-“, and such repetitions: “on-put hat on head”, “for-pay for Internet” are normal for Russian – but this has little to do with English. The prefix in “differ” is Latin…)

  24. ktschwarz says

    Keith Ivey: ah yes, the conundrum of “un(-)self(-)conscious”. This was considered in depth by Stan Carey a while back: Non-life-threatening unselfconscious hyphens. I agree with him that “unself-conscious” would suggest “conscious of unself”!

  25. “Self-unconscious”?

  26. PlasticPaddy says

    Such a state may have been experienced by the unfortunate Dr. Jekyll or have cast a shadow over one of Mr. Hyde’s orherwise pleasurable evenings.

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