Washington Post / Getty Images
Washington Post / Getty Images

19 Surprising Rules Copyeditors Used to Enforce

Washington Post / Getty Images
Washington Post / Getty Images

Last week, a cherished usage distinction was killed in a shot heard round the copyediting world. During a session at the American Copy Editors Society, AP Stylebook editors announced that it would from now on be acceptable to use “over” for “more than” when referring to quantity.

In other words, according to AP rules, it's no longer incorrect to say, “over 500 editors fainted at the news.” If you can’t imagine how anyone could find that phrasing objectionable, you are not alone. “Over” has been used to mean “more than” for hundreds of years. But the insistence that “over” was only to be used for spatial and not numerical relationships had been a feature of American newspaper editorial standards since the 19th century, when William Cullen Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post, compiled his Index Expurgatorius, a precursor to the modern style guide.

The Index Expurgatorius was basically a list of words that got on Bryant’s nerves. He disapproved of the too casual “bogus” and “humbug,” but also the too precious “residence” and “debut.” Some of his directives passed into in-house style guides at other publications and became general newsroom habits, enshrining what was, in many cases, one man’s opinion. Many of Bryant’s guidelines have long since fallen away, as the over/more than distinction now has. Here are 19 rules from the Index Expurgatorius that no one would take a red pen to today:

1. Don’t use “beat” for “defeat”

2. Don’t use “call attention” for “direct attention”

3. Don’t use “conclusion” for “close” or “end”

4. Don’t use “decade” for “ten years”

5. Don’t use “donate” at all

6. Don’t use “collided” at all (it's now acceptable to use "collided," but only if both objects are in motion)

7. Don’t use “fall” for “autumn”

8. Don’t use “graduates” for “is graduated”

9. Don’t use “hardly” for “scarcely”

10. Don’t use “issue” for “question” or “subject”

11. Don’t use “leniency” for “lenity”

12. Don’t use “notice” for “observe”

13. Don’t use “pants” for “pantaloons”

14. Don’t use “prior to” for “before”

15. Don’t use “progress” for “advance”

16. Don’t use “reliable” for “trustworthy”

17. Don’t use “retire” as an active verb

18. Don’t use “sensation” for “noteworthy event”

19. Don’t use “taboo” at all

Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?

Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at

How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages

“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.


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