Don’t Use “Pants” for “Pantaloons”: 19 Surprising Rules Copyeditors Used to Enforce

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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

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March 28, 2014 - 12:00pm
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