Overthinking ‘the’ English language


What in the world were they thinking?

Oh wait, I guess I said that wrong. I’d hate to have the entire world feel bad.

Back when I was a newspaper editor we used to live by the Associated Press Stylebook. Have a question about “Middle East” or “Mideast?” Consult the stylebook. When to capitalize President and not capitalize president? Consult the stylebook. When to use “above” or “over?” Consult the stylebook.

Well, last week the AP … to henceforth be known as AP, I guess … issued a new rule. It decided we should all avoid using “general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses. And use these descriptions only when clearly relevant.”

I’m not sure about how college educated people feel about this, but I would guess human beings who live in France might be scratching their heads. In fact, I’m sure they are. In response to AP’s latest, the French embassy in Washington, D.C., shared an image of it changing its name from “French Embassy U.S.” to “Embassy of Frenchness in the US.”

I love those Frenchies. Such a sense of humor.

Sometimes I think the editors of the world – excuse me, English language snobs who live on planet Earth – spend too much time thinking about other people’s work and not doing enough work themselves. I’m sure some of the reporters who worked with me when I was an editor would agree.

The idea behind language is to communicate. I’m not sure, for instance, how saying “the mentally ill” is any more demeaning than saying “people with mental illness” or saying “the poor” is so much worse than saying “people with incomes below the poverty line.” Those longer descriptions are more wordy and more complicated, two things that surely always lead to better communication.

Closer to home, this could cause all kinds of problems. The Ohio State University made a big deal out of that “The” with the capital “T” a few years back. Now what are we going to call it? Is it back to “Ohio State University? I’m betting the Columbus Dispatch doesn’t drop the “The” from Ohio State – or from “The Columbus Dispatch” for that matter.

So, when a reporter is talking about, say, the Italian or the Polish community, the reporter should say people of Italian or Polish descent living and working together? Or maybe you’re writing about the athletes at Troy High School you end up writing something like, young men and women with athletic ability who attend Troy High School?

I understand not talking about groups of people in a demeaning way. The AP was trying to do a good thing. I’m not sure this idea helps. Well, actually, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.

This just seems like too many people are sitting around the newsroom – I did it again, the office where journalists work and sometimes waste time – overthinking a problem.

The Associated Press eventually apologized for the whole French thing, saying it was inappropriate to put the French – or maybe we should say people who live in or identify with France – in with examples of dehumanizing “the” references. It might have been a good idea just to disavow the whole thing and blame it on “the gremlins” (group of bad-luck inducing supernatural beings?) in the newsroom.

Old former editors like me love to grouse about things like this mainly because we know we made so many mistakes in our day that it does us good to see someone else follow in our footsteps. I know if I was in charge of the AP Stylebook (a frightening thought) I would use this potentially derogative term to describe further discussion on the topic: The End.

David Lindeman is a Troy resident and former editor at the Troy Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected].

No posts to display