Say It Ain’t So, John McPhee!

Galley proof from Harper's magazine.

I am a big fan of New Yorker magazine, regarding it, along with the New York Times, as the gold standard of print media. It’s publications like these that determine and change usage and correctness. I know, the use of commas has been curtailed, but I still put the Oxford comma before the “and” in a series. I am fairly conservative when it comes to questions of usage ( “shined” as a past tense grates on my ear. It may change to that some day, but not today for me).

I think it’s basic to italicize books titles and other longer works. Short stories, song titles and shorter poems go inside quotation marks. So, imagine my surprise when I read an article by the incredible New Yorker writer John McPhee about revision and copy editing (“Draft No. 4” on p. 32 of the Aril 29, 2013  issue) which included these sentences: “Book titles are framed in quotation marks. The names of magazines are italicized…The names of ships are italicized…”(p. 37). This, McPhee wrote, is House Style at the New Yorker.

Huh? I hadn’t noticed quotes around book titles in nearly forty years of reading the magazine, but I checked a couple of book reviews and there they were. I have been driven crazy by Facebook’s lack of italics for book titles, so, according to the New Yorker, I could have saved my mental energy.

Language changes, and that’s good, else we would be speaking Anglo-Saxon with a vocabulary of ten thousand words as opposed to the million or so that present-day English sports. I just wish someone would have told me about this change!

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