In most countries, people drive on the right side of the road. But in some countries, people drive on the left. Neither way is wrong. Just pick one and stick with it so I don’t get a surprise when I pull out of the garage.
That’s also how it is with stylistic choices in writing. You have two or more ways you could present something, so you pick one and stick with it. Shall we put periods inside quotation marks or outside? Is the Miami Heat basketball team singular or plural? How do we spell the name of the former Libyan president: Gaddafi? Qaddafi? Kadafi?
As with most other aspects of writing, you should base your decision on what makes life easiest for your readers. Use their usage when you can.
But people keep changing the way they use the language. Over the years, “base ball” becomes “base-ball” and then “baseball.” Every once in a while we to adjust our stylistic choices to keep pace. It’s tricky, because one usage might change while a very similar usage doesn’t.
Earlier this week, The Washington Post decided to make some official changes. Bill Walsh, a Post copy editor and very smart language guy, explains in detail here.
Some of the changes were inevitable. In less than 20 years, “Web site” has morphed into “website.” It shouldn’t have, but you might as well yell at the tide to stop coming in. So if you’d like to know about the Flight 93 National Memorial, there’s a website (one word) that explains how the crash site (two words) became a national historical site (three words).
Similarly, “e-mail” officially has become “email” at the Post. There’s even less excuse for that, as it’s a short form for electronic mail. An atomic bomb is not an abomb, and a Caesarian section is not a csection. Besides, “émail” is French for “enamel.” But this won’t confuse the French, as they call an e-mail a courriel.
Worst of all, however, is that the Post has declared that a microphone is no longer a mike. From now on, it’s a mic. The culprit here is the label MIC on the little hole for a microphone jack. That’s not much of a reason. Even Walsh acknowledges that short forms are intended to be pronounced, and so they should be written phonetically. “You don’t just start subtracting letters until you’re left with something approximate,” he writes.
That’s why, if your friend Michael sends you a photo of his new bicycle, you wouldn’t write back, “Gee, Mic, that’s a nice bic.” That’s also why your refrigerator is a fridge, not a frig.
“Mic” started to appear in writing in he early 1960s. But “mike” goes back to the dawn of microphones in the 1920s. So “mic” loses on pedigree too.
But, as Walsh points out, sometimes mob rule wins out over good sense. He uses nicer words, pointing out that “mike” used to dominate, but “mic” caught up about 10 years ago, and each year widens its lead. If the day comes when most people call a bicycle a bic, you have to hold your nose and use the word they are most likely to recognize.
So if I were to write an article for The Washington Post, I would write it in Post style. Well, that’s not quite accurate. I’d write the story the correct way, and then change it to conform to Post style before I turned it in.