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Gators could be taking over non-backyards

May 12, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

I tried to warn you about global warming. Didn't I try to warn you? But did you listen to me? Oh, no. And now what's happening? That's right, they're fishing alligators out of the Potomac.

According to news accounts, two baby gators have been caught (the most recent by a 5-year-old boy) at Riverbottom Park near Williamsport, leading the Washington County Humane Society to conclude that the foot-long reptiles were searching for their own personal print of General Lee crossing the Potomac.

No, that's not right. Actually, the H-Society naively believes they were "dumped" there, and didn't migrate naturally as part of the global warming trend. Fools. And that means they are probably still laughing at me for setting those palm-tree seedlings out in my backyard.

Of course this is controversial, and I realize that a number of you are going to call or write in, angrily stating your opinion that, in this particular instance, "backyard" should really be two words.

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I would agree with that. But our opinion is trumped by the new 2005 Associated Press Stylebook, which has handed down the edict that backyard is "one word in all uses."

In case you are unfamiliar with the AP Stylebook, it is a weighty production put out every year or so by a panel of journalists whose earnest, and probably drunken, intent is to stick it to their fussy old college English professor, Mrs. Marmlestein, by changing as many of her tired old "rules" of grammar as possible.

The AP Stylebook tells a reporter lots of things he needs to know, such as the correct spelling of milquetoast (not milk toast). It also has some very helpful and unique ideas about grammar and usage. For example, have you ever wondered whether there should be a hyphen after "non" in words such as "non(-)practitioner" or "non(-)suicidal"?

The AP Stylebook clears this up with a quickness:

"...in general, no hyphen when forming a compound that does not have special meaning and can be understood if not is used before the base word. Use a hyphen, however, before proper nouns or in awkward combinations, such as non-nuclear."

Clearly, this entry is very useful to anyone striving to learn why newspaper stories often make no sense whatsoever. This "non" deal makes you wonder if the AP was really looking out for the best interests of the reader, or if it found itself with a carload of Ns and Os in its Scrabble tray one night, and wanted an excuse to make "nononomatopoeic."

I don't worry too much about AP style changes, because there's always a good chance that in a year or two they'll change it back. Some of this, admittedly, is the fault of large corporations that can't figure out how to spell their own names, and here I am speaking specifically of Kmart.

Since I've been in the business, it's been K Mart, K-Mart, K mart, K-mart and Kmart. And that's not to mention the 10-minute window in which they referred to themselves as "Big K."

It will be interesting to see how long the AP holds on to "Web site," when to the rest of the printed world it's "website." I gather, as an organization, they're kind of suspicious of change. If they'd been forecasting weather in Noah's day, they wouldn't have changed the forecast from sunny until day 28 of the flood.

Mixed in with the grammar and stuff are these little pronouncements of right and wrong that, as Huck Finn would say, are interesting, but tough. The AP says that "all issues are controversial," so the phrase "controversial issue" is redundant and should never be used. Makes me wonder what the AP's stand is on the issue of child health.

But the real flaw of the AP Stylebook isn't that it got me onto a tangent about grammar when I'd intended on writing a column of alligator jokes, it's the supposition that newspaper style should be as rigid and unadaptable in Maine as it is in Arizona. This is bad for humor writers in particular, who need to be unrestrained so they can recount this actual, or probably actual, conversation:

Junior: "Mommy, I caught an alligator."

Mommy: "That's nice."

Junior: "No, really, I caught an alligator."

Mommy: "Um hm, now if you don't mind, mommy's trying to read."

Junior: "I have the alligator right here."

Mommy (turning around): "OK, that's nice, now why don't you and the alligator go see whaaAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEE!"

That's the kind of nimble wordsmithing you won't find in any book, and the last thing I need is the AP standing over my shoulder telling me "Um hm" is one word.

Backyard my foot.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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