Should the U.S. government write liter or litre? Mi/h or m.p.h.? Bullshit or b-------?
Trillions of words pour out of federal typewriters every year. Some would say words are what the government makes best. From the vainglorious claims of politicians to the stupefying regulations of tax codes to the delicately negotiated language of treaties, the words flow on and on.
Standing in the middle of the word stream, watching it with mixed bemusement and professional concern, is Robert C. McArtor, the chairman of the government's Style Board and thereby, in theory, the man who tells all government where to put its hyphens, what it can do with its abbreviations and how to spell.
In fiscal 1979, 2.9 billion publications were issued by the Government Printing Office where, on the seventh floor of Building 3 of its 33-acre North Capitol Street site, McArtor considers such matters as whether the House hearings on Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Myers should record the congressman's exact words when he told FBI agents, "Money talks, bullshit walks."
"With the Myers hearing, I made the mistake of ordering the profanity taken out. I guess that shows my age," McArtor, 54, mused. "It seemed to me it was very uncongressmanlike." McArtor was overruled by a superior in the GPO.
"I'm really only a small cog," McArtor said. In fact, although he is the government's Style Board chairman, he is no professional grammarian and it may come as no surprise to readers of government words that the government doesn't seem to assign writing style a high priority.
For McArtor, a former linotype operator, style is only a part-time job. In fact, the Style Board hasn't met in close to two years because its six members are split between the day and night shifts and any meeting would be on overtime -- perhaps unrecompensed overtime -- for some of them. A meeting is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 17 with the most pressing agenda item likely to be consideration of printing a new edition of the GPO Style Manual.
The most recent edition appeared in 1973 and McArtor's personal copy is crowded with updates and changes to be considered for the next edition penciled in the margins.
McArtor has been with the GPO for 20 years. He is a full-time assistant foreman in the proof room, but he also has been chairman of the Style Board for a dozen years.
"There's a war going on between liter and litre," McArtor said in wonderment a few days ago. "People in quite high places are involved."
"I have had letters accusing me of upsetting our balance of trade. Actually, that gave me great pause; who am I to upset the balance of trade?" said McArtor, who is sticking to the "er" spelling. "I guess we've resolved this thing pretty permanently, at least temporarily," he said with a smile.
Although the pro-litre forces claimed that other nations would be more likely to trade with the United States if it adopted their spelling, McArtor's position was reinforced by a survey he discovered which found that worldwide more people spell it liter.
The liter-litre war (and its fellow controversy over meter and metre) doesn't command the headlines of the Iraq-Iran war and it is not nearly as dramatic as the bomb that burst over the GPO in 1905 which, one historian wrote, had "effects reverberating throughout the English-speaking world."
President Theodore Roosevelt dropped that bomb when he ordered that the government follow the simplified spelling of 300 words as proposed by a committee financed by Andrew Carnegie. If Roosevelt had won, "though" would be "tho," "through" would be "thru," "fixed" would be "fixt" and "expressed" would be "exprest" in all government publications.
The New York World -- which like most newspapers opposed the changes -- satirized simplified spelling with a Thanksgiving proclamation reading:
"When nearly three centuries ago, the first settlers kam to the kuntry which has bekom this grat republick, tha confronted not only hardship and privashun, but terible risk of their lives. . . . The kustum has bekom nashnul and hallowed by immemorial usaj."
The battle raged for more than three months until Congress, resorting to its always effective weapon, laid the matter to rest by voting to deny funds to the printing office unless traditional spelling was preserved.
The waves of other controversies are only gentle ripples when they reach McArtor's desk. And the GPO Style Board tends to go along with the changing times. Feminism brought "Ms." to the Style Manual over a number of grumbling protests, but the Style Board didn't respond to a plea that it approve "Se" as an all-purpose third person singular pronoun replacing "he" and "she."
McArtor has in his files a letter from Rep. Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) complaining that the word "black" is not capitalized when it refers to black people. That one will be considered for the next edition of the manual, but government publications are so littered with initial capitals that, McArtor thinks the government's printed record is in danger of looking like pages written in German.
Everyone with any sort of title wants his title capitalized, McArtor observes. "You've got to try to draw a line somewhere." One place no line will be drawn, of course, is where it might offend Congress. Thus, when a representative refers to "My great state" the GPO will print it "My great State."
McArtor remembers receiving a failing mark on a paper he wrote for a George Washington University course because he put a comma before the word "and" in a list of three items. His teacher was outraged and undoubtedly didn't know that the comma was correct according to the GPO Style Manual.
When government workers cannot find something in the manual they have been known to call McArtor.
He also gets letters from around the nation asking for help and he deals with them -- as with the phone calls -- as best he can given his other duties. Sometimes people contact him to complain that they don't like his style manual, McArtor said. "That's all right. Sometimes making these decisions is a little like playing God."
How, for example, should the government spell the name of imprisoned Soviet dissident Anatoliy Shcharansky when McArtor has in hand a copy of a letter written by the dissident's wife in which she spells the name three different ways?
What discourages McArtor more than such conundrums is when people ignore the manual. "I don't mind people now knowing things. But hey, how about looking them up."