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Rosie Right

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Follow what rules?

Those of us who love words know what a pleasure it is to think about the subtleties of their graceful use. But sometimes it is a great comfort to be a copy editor bound by the rules of a particular Stylebook. We at Style use the Associated Press Stylebook, and when that book gives us a firm answer, we go with it.

For example, the use of the words imply and infer are clearly delineated in the Stylebook: "imply, infer: Writers or speakers imply in the words they use.

"A listener or reader infers something from the words."

But if we stop to think about whether this rule is an absolute we should always live by, our certainty begins to waver. Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, to Rosie's surprise has two-and-a-half pages of small print about the proper usage of these words, and while the discussion includes an admission that more than 50 usage books go with the same rule as the AP, Webster's proceeds to tell us that infer is sometimes used in the sense of imply — especially in speech — without need for correction. Indeed, some dictionaries now include this description. In Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, we find this meaning (the third) of infer: "to indicate indirectly; imply (in this sense sometimes regarded as a loose usage)." An example of this usage is: "... to be a literary man infers a certain amount of — well, even formal education" William Faulkner 1959.

Rosie, however, does not want her readers to infer that they should no longer follow the clear rule.

There is another interesting, if esoteric, usage example to which Rosie doesn't intend to give much thought — other than to admire its originality. Linda Henry in the newsletter Copy Editor describes "the 'exceptional which,' as created half a century ago by The New Yorker's copy editor Eleanor Gould and editor William Shawn. The `exceptional which' is intended to solve the problem of what to do when the more distant of two nouns in a sentence is modified by a restrictive clause, which, of course, would otherwise be introduced by that." The New Yorker's solution: Use the which without a comma, as in "He was elated by the reversal of the judge's decision which he saw in the news that day."… "The which without the comma signals the reader that the reversal was in the news that day" not the decision."

Rosie's comment: Help!



Let Rosie hear from you by mail, Style Weekly, 1707 Summit Ave., Richmond, Va. 23230; by telephone, (804) 358-0825; or by e-mail, repps@styleweekly.com.

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