Starting today, you will no longer read about e-mail or Web sites in The Washington Post. Or open-mike nights or Wal-Mart. Here, as in much of the written-word world, you will see email and website and Walmart. Microphones will be mics.
Why did we wait so long to make the changes? As the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual, I’ll tell you why: because the new spellings were wrong.
Mic arose from confusion over the difference between an abbreviation and a short form. Walmart arose from confusion over the difference between a name and a logo. The hyphenless email arose in a process seemingly familiar but actually unprecedented. (But website is fine. I don’t know why I made such a big deal about it all these years.)
Funny thing about language: Wrong doesn’t necessarily stay wrong. “Error is the engine of language change,” as David Shariatmadari wrote in the Guardian, “and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm.” What’s more, yesterday’s vigorously defended norm can be today’s laughingstock. “WaPo’s shortened version of ‘microphone’ is ‘mike’ not ‘mic’. Has everyone gone crazy here?” our own Chris Cillizza tweeted in 2013. When I announced these style changes, another Twitter user wrote, “wait, it’s 2015 and there are still people who write e-mail?”
Not everyone is on Twitter, of course. For every online Post reader snickering at mike, there might be a longtime print subscriber baffled by mic. Because it would be impractical to edit each article separately for online and print audiences, we err on the conservative side. And, at the risk of inviting vigorous internal debate, I think The Washington Post, at least in hard-news stories, should read like the “publication of record” that it is. If I see a lead paragraph that would sound ridiculous in Walter Cronkite’s voice, that gives me pause. “POTUS got called out for walking back his pivot on the Grexit”? No.
But there comes a point when atoms of language change start to form molecules. Mic doesn’t exist in isolation. Some now-common phrases — mic drop, hot mic — would look downright anachronistic with the old spelling. That reality was what finally persuaded me to drop the mike from the Post stylebook.
Still, mic is an aberration. Words like that aren’t pronounced like that. A bicycle is a bike, not a bic. Bic, as in the pens, rhymes with Mick. So do hic and Nic and pic and Ric and sic and tic and Vic. That’s how short forms work: They’re intended to be pronounced, and so they’re spelled phonetically. You don’t just start subtracting letters until you’re left with something approximate. A refrigerator is a fridge; frig is a mild curse word that rhymes with pig.
Electronic recording devices, from the cassette recorders on which my brothers and I imitated Johnny Carson to more modern contraptions, have microphone jacks labeled MIC. It’s an abbreviation, never intended to be pronounced as a word, like Chas and Robt and Wm in a phone book.
Nevertheless, enough people made the error that mic gradually crept into the language. If you search the Nexis database for “open mike night” and “open mic night,” you’ll find three mics alongside 343 mikes in all recorded English-language news before 1993. The numbers stay lopsided in favor of mike into the early years of the 21st century, until mic finally overtakes it in 2005. Was it really that crazy for a newspaper to reject the mistaken spelling?
As a purist, I’m still not happy about mic. As a pragmatist, I feel I have to accept it. At least at work, that is. On my own time, you could say I’ve built a second career on ranting against language developments I consider unfortunate. In my first book, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” I called email “an abomination.” That was 15 years ago, but I’m still surprised anyone ever thought to write the word that way.
While it’s true that commonly used two-word or hyphenated compounds often solidify into single words over time, that had never before happened with a compound based on a single letter. We had T-shirts and X-rays for a long time before electronic mail showed up, but we still aren’t writing about tshirts and xrays.
For whatever reason, though, e-mail quickly became email as America went online. For years I braced for the day when a higher-up at The Post would banish the hyphen, especially after the Associated Press, the arbiter of style for most other U.S. publications, followed its 2010 website change with a 2011 move to email. But the order never came. A reporter would make the suggestion every once in a while, and the Twitterverse occasionally weighed in, but my bosses and their bosses seemed content with the status quo. I resolved to resist at least until the New York Times followed the AP’s lead. When that happened — on both terms, two years ago — I knew the change was inevitable.
As The Post has prepared for its move to a new building this month, I decided it was a good time to propose this batch of changes. Publication style is largely about consistency and polish, which in turn can represent credibility — if we can’t decide whether we use gray or grey, can you trust our attention to detail in stories about campaign finance or nuclear weapons? But it’s also about not looking weird, not distracting readers. E-mail, Web site, mike and Wal-Mart had begun to do so.
In 2008, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. changed its logo. Instead of WAL-MART in all caps with a star in place of the hyphen, it went with Walmart, conventionally capitalized, followed by an asterisk-like star. But the company remained Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Rather than start writing about Wal-Mart and its Walmart stores, The Post chose to stick with the corporate name for both the company and the outlets. That new logo must have made an impression, because readers sure did notice the disconnect between the bright-blue signage and the intrusively hyphenated black-on-white Post rendition. They complained to reporters, and reporters complained to me. I told the reporters to tell Wal-Mart to change its name already.
It didn’t, but I found a loophole that allowed me to go with Walmart, now the predominant usage, in good conscience. The Post no longer routinely uses Inc., Corp., Co. and the like in company names. So we could keep Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on the rare occasion when we’d spell out the name, while otherwise referring to the company and its stores by the name everyone knows.
There was one change, though, that I knew would cause controversy. For many years, I’ve been rooting for — but stopping short of employing — what is known as the singular they as the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun. (Everyone has their own opinion about this.) He once filled that role, but a male default hasn’t been palatable for decades. Using she in a sort of linguistic affirmative action strikes me as patronizing. Alternating he and she is silly, as are he/she, (s)he and attempts at made-up pronouns. The only thing standing in the way of they has been the appearance of incorrectness — the lack of acceptance among educated readers.
What finally pushed me from acceptance to action on gender-neutral pronouns was the increasing visibility of gender-neutral people. The Post has run at least one profile of a person who identifies as neither male nor female and specifically requests they and the like instead of he or she. Trans and genderqueer awareness will raise difficult questions down the road, with some people requesting newly invented or even individually made-up pronouns. The New York Times, which unlike The Post routinely uses the honorifics Mr., Mrs., Miss and Ms., recently used the gender-neutral Mx. at one subject’s request. But simply allowing they for a gender-nonconforming person is a no-brainer. And once we’ve done that, why not allow it for the most awkward of those he or she situations that have troubled us for so many years?
I was a little surprised that the singular they has drawn stronger online reaction, both positive and negative, than the other style changes, especially because we are approaching it pretty cautiously. The stylebook entry retains the old advice to try to write around the problem, perhaps by changing singulars to plurals, before using the singular they as a last resort.
Even as we switch from distracting “normal people” (as Washingtonian magazine put it) with e-mail to distracting freaks like me with email, I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.