Arrant Pedantry

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On a Collision Course with Reality

In a blog post last month, John McIntyre took the editors of the AP Stylebook to task for some of the bad rules they enforce. One of these was the notion that “two objects must be in motion to collide, that a moving object cannot collide with a stationary object.” That is, according to the AP Stylebook, a car cannot collide with a tree, because the tree is not moving, and it can only collide with another car if that other car is moving. McIntyre notes that this rule is not supported by Fowler’s Modern English Usage or even mentioned in Garner’s Modern American Usage.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage does have an entry for collide and notes that the rule is a tradition (read “invention”) of American newspaper editors. It’s not even clear where the rule came from or why; there’s nothing in the etymology of the word to suggest that only two objects in motion can collide. It comes from the Latin collidere, meaning “to strike together”, from com- “together” + laedere “to strike”.

The rule is not supported by traditional usage either. Speakers and writers of English have been using collide to refer to bodies that are not both in motion for as long as the word has been in use, which is roughly four hundred years. Nor is the rule an attempt to slow language change or hang on to a fading distinction; it’s an attempt to create a distinction and impose it on everyone who uses the language, or at least journalists.

What I found especially baffling was the discussion that took place on Mr. McIntyre’s Facebook page when he shared the link there. Several people chimed in to defend the rule, with one gentleman saying, “There’s an unnecessary ambiguity when ‘collides’ involves <2 moving objects.” Mr. McIntyre responded, “Only if you imagine one.” And this is key: collide is ambiguous only if you have been taught that it is ambiguous—or in other words, only if you’re a certain kind of journalist.

In that Facebook discussion, I wrote,

So the question is, is this actually a problem that needs to be solved? Are readers constantly left scratching their heads because they see “collided with a tree” and wonder how a tree could have been moving? If nobody has ever found such phrasing confusing, then insisting on different phrasing to avoid potential ambiguity is nothing but a waste of time. It’s a way to ensure that editors have work to do, not a way to ensure that editors are adding benefit for the readers.

The discussion thread petered out after that.

I’m generally skeptical of the usefulness of invented distinctions, but this one seems especially useless. When would it be important to distinguish between a crash involving two moving objects and one involving only one moving object? Wouldn’t it be clear from context anyway? And if it’s not clear from context, how on earth would we expect most readers—who have undoubtedly never heard of this journalistic shibboleth—to pick up on it? Should we avoid using words like crash or struck because they’re ambiguous in the same way—because they don’t tell us whether both objects were moving?

It doesn’t matter how rigorously you follow the rule in your own writing or in the writing you edit; if your readers think that collide is synonymous with crash, then they will assume that your variation between collide and crash is merely stylistic. They’ll have no idea that you’re trying to communicate something else. If it’s important, they’ll probably deduce from context whether both objects were moving, regardless of the word you use.

In other words, if an editor makes a distinction and no reader picks up on it, is it still useful?

25 Responses to On a Collision Course with Reality

  1. Stan Carey says:

    I agree that it’s a bogus rule, and a particularly stupid one at that. Slow clap for Bill Bryson and Theodore Bernstein, who helped propagate it. Debunking the distinction at Macmillan Dictionary Blog in 2013, I wrote: All it takes is for one authority to invent a rule, whereupon eager rule-collectors will accept it, repeat it, and proselytise for it, and misinformation will collide with the fear of being wrong.

  2. Kim says:

    Most elegantly stated, Mr Carey!

    I have a standard response to a busybody who questions my usage: “If you’re an agent of the Language Police, where’s your badge?”

  3. Grammarphile says:

    You think it’s a bogus rule, primarily because you don’t agree with it.
    It seems to be a logical rule to me. We can argue opinions ad infinitum, but the rule stands.
    You might think it’s silly to get a ticket for running a red light at three in the morning when there are no automobiles in sight; nevertheless, you’re violating the law, and you never know there might be another automobile running through a green light at the same intersection; there’s your collision.

    • Grammarphile:

      You think it’s a valid rule, primarily because you agree with it.

      It seems to be an illogical rule to me. We can argue opinions ad infinitum, but the rule does not stand.

      Seriously, though, whence does this rule derive its validity? What are the first principles from which this rule follows? Who was the authority who made this an inviolable law?

      In your traffic light scenario, the law is created by a legislature elected by the people, and it serves a clear purpose: to promote an orderly flow of traffic and to prevent accidents. If I run a red light, even at three in the morning when there are no other cars in sight, there are clear consequences: I might cause an accident, and if a police officer sees me, I can get a ticket.

      If I violate the rule that says that collide has to involve two moving objects, what are the consequences? Nobody who has not worked for a newspaper or who has had the misfortune of picking this rule up from someone who has will even notice. Nobody will be confused. Even the people who are aware of the rule won’t be confused; they’ll just be bothered that the rule was broken, and they’ll only be bothered because they’ve been taught to be bothered by a folklore of usage that has no basis in reality.

      So tell me, why does the rule stand?

  4. Those of us who think it’s a bogus rule think so because it is a rule that does not exist outside the realm of a small, and dwindling, group of editors. It is like the “over/more than” distinction invented by newspaper editors and unknown to the remainder of the English-speaking world. Words mean what people make them, and people have been making objects collide with both stationary and moving objects for a good long while.

    The point of the red-light example eludes me, unless Grammarphile imagines that some bogus stylebook stricture has statutory force.

  5. Jan Freeman says:

    For some reason, only the citation part of my comment was posted. Here’s the whole thing, I hope.

    While researching the collision issue, I found this in an 1884 Digest of US court proceedings. Made me suspect that the original peevers — at the peak of their inventiveness at the time — decided the “technical” seafaring usage should prevail over what was already, as the note acknowledges, “common usage.”

    State law for management I. Nature o? The Liability.
    1. Meaning of the term. “Collision,” in the nautical acceptation of that term, imports the impinging of vessels together, while both are being navigated. Common usage, however, applies the term equally to cases where a vessel is run afoul of, when entirely stationary, or is brought in contact with another by swinging at her anchor. [Jacob. Sea L., 320, note; 1 (Condy’s ed.) Marsh. Ins. c. 12, § 12; Abb. Ship. 238.] S. Lut. of N. Y., 1847, Th« Moxey, Abb. Adm. 73.

  6. Iva Cheung says:

    The distinction makes zero sense from the standpoint of physics. There are only two frames of reference in which either object is stationary. In all other frames of reference, both objects move.

  7. Tom Freeman says:

    All motion is relative anyway, so even on pedantic grounds the rule falls to pieces.

  8. Iva and Tom: True enough from a physics standpoint, but I think we can safely say that most people’s frame of reference is the surface of the earth. From that point of view, a tree and a parked car are not moving, while a car that is being driven is.

    Still a stupid rule no matter your frame of reference, though. Why would we ever need a word that means “x hit y, and both were moving against a standard frame of reference”? And even if we did need such a word, why wouldn’t we need a complementary word that means “x hit y, and only one of them was moving against a standard frame of reference”? If it really is ambiguous, then restricting collide in this way only solves half the problem.

  9. So much silliness is perpetuated by copyeditors in the name of avoiding ambiguity! I’ve been hearing for years that without the which/that distinction and the serial comma great confusion might result. Recently I proofread a trade biography written and edited in BrE (British English). Along with the expected differences in spelling, punctuation, and idiom, it didn’t observe the which/that distinction or use the serial comma. Though I speak, write, and edit in AmE (American English) and generally do observe the which/that distinction and use the serial comma, I encountered no more ambiguities than I do in the usual AmE proofread. It was a useful reminder.

  10. Grammarphile says:

    “So tell me, why does the rule stand?”

    Obviously my red-light example was used in the figurative sense. Particular rules can be ignored at times, but in certain circumstances there might be unknown consequences.
    Yes, I do think it’s a valid rule; albeit, perhaps not consequential, but nevertheless a rule that can be adhered to or ignored.
    It’s your prerogative to ignore it, and that same prerogative stands for those who follow it. Where’s the problem?

    “All it takes is for one authority to invent a rule, whereupon eager rule-collectors will accept it, repeat it, and proselytise for it…”
    And all it takes is for one authority to debunk a rule and all the debunkers will unanimously and vigorously attack the rule.

    “…and misinformation will collide with the fear of being wrong.”

    What fear are you referring to? I don’t think there is anyone who would be afraid to say: “I lost control of my automobile and collided with a tree.” Let’s be honest, people are manufacturing many more serious solecisms with nonchalant fearlessness.

    • Particular rules can be ignored at times, but in certain circumstances there might be unknown consequences.

      This is a pretty hand-wave-y justification. If we’re going to invent a rule and defend it, there should be a solid rationale behind it. Otherwise there’s no limit to the number of baseless rules we might create.

      Yes, I do think it’s a valid rule; albeit, perhaps not consequential, but nevertheless a rule that can be adhered to or ignored.

      An inconsequential rule that can be ignored isn’t much of a rule, is it? In what sense is it even a rule at all? Again, this is handwaving; either there are consequences or there aren’t.

      It’s your prerogative to ignore it, and that same prerogative stands for those who follow it. Where’s the problem?

      As I said in my post, and as Gordon said below, it creates unnecessary work for writers and editors. Editors have a finite amount of time to work on something. If they try to fix writing that isn’t broken, at best they’ll have wasted a little time making the piece conform to some arbitrary standards. At worst, they’ll miss other errors that they should have paid attention to or will actually introduce errors. Good writing is hard enough as it is. How do we think that throwing a few more hurdles in writers’ way will help anything?

      And all it takes is for one authority to debunk a rule and all the debunkers will unanimously and vigorously attack the rule.

      You say that as if it’s a retort, but I’m not really seeing how it helps your argument. If someone invents a bad rule, others will promulgate it, but if someone debunks a bad rule, others will join in debunking it. Is that a bad thing?

      Let’s be honest, people are manufacturing many more serious solecisms with nonchalant fearlessness.

      So? The fact that other people are inventing worse rules does not mean that this is not a bad rule, nor does it mean that it’s not worth debunking it. So which is it: is this an inconsequential invented rule that you can safely ignore, or is it a valid rule that should be followed to avoid some sort of linguistic collision? You can’t have it both ways.

  11. Gordon says:

    Perhaps the best way to help you through this, Grammarphile, is to replace this alleged rule with one you know to be nonsense: Thou Shalt Not End a Sentence With the Word “Wheelbarrow”. Now, apply your same arguments:
    “It’s your prerogative to ignore it, and that same prerogative stands for those who follow it. Where’s the problem?” Wasted time and energy! People spending time reworking perfectly cromulent sentences, time they could instead use making real improvements to their turgid clunking syntax.
    ” …a valid rule; albeit, perhaps not consequential, but nevertheless a rule …”. Yep, like that.
    “… in certain circumstances there might be unknown consequences” if the rule is broken. Absolutely true. Butterfly effect and all that. I’d think, however, that ignoring a silly, pointless, clearly-invented-out-of-nothing rule is more likely to lead to good consequences.
    ” … people are manufacturing many more serious solecisms with nonchalant fearlessness.” Grammatical pseudo-rules manufactured with hyperchalent timidity are OK then? Not a lot of those ones about. Seems to me that grammar peevers have a very solid – and unwarranted – sense of certainty.

  12. Grammarphile says:

    “Grammatical pseudo-rules manufactured with hyperchalent timidity are OK then?”

    I have no idea what that sentence means. Have you invented a new word, “hyperchalent”?
    Regardless, you’re not forced to obey the rule; no harm done. If others feel the necessity to obey it, again, no harm done; let’s leave it at that.

    • Regardless, you’re not forced to obey the rule; no harm done.

      That’s not true of every editor. If an organization uses the AP Stylebook, then they’re forced to use this rule. Even if no harm is done to text, teaching and enforcing the rule is a waste of time, which copyeditors in news organizations cannot afford. “No harm done” is a weak rationale at best. I could invent any number of completely baseless rules that don’t do any apparent harm, but that doesn’t mean they’re valid rules or that others shouldn’t try to debunk them.

    • Gordon says:

      I agree that the meaning of this word is just a minor issue. True, but there’s a bigger point: what do we base our rules on? This rule is based on someone simply declaring it to be a rule. It isn’t a rule based on etymology, or on logic, or on usage (of these, usage is the real decider). Many – most—good writers don’t observe it, even when they are taking pains to achieve a correct, precise, formal style.
      If we observe this rule just because someone said it, we’ll find ourselves adjusting our writing to all kinds of silliness. We can’t talk of a “healthy” breakfast – it has to be “healthful”. We can’t start a sentence with “and” despite the example of thousands of celebrated writers. We won’t use “host” or “contact” as verbs. We’ll pronounce the first syllable of questionnaire as /kest/ rather than /kwest/. There are hundreds of these hurdles. We get bogged down. Rather than aiming to achieve the best communication, we waste our time and energy our energy avoiding bugaboos.

  13. ERIN BRENNER says:

    I believe that’s what John McIntyre calls a dog whistle edit: https://www.copyediting.com/should-you-be-a-dog-whistle-copyeditor/.

  14. rcalmy says:

    Something I get curious about when I hear this “rule” is what are people supposed to write instead?

    If I had written “The car collided with the tree,” and someone I had to obey told me to fix it, I would probably gravitate toward “The car hit the tree,” or “The car struck the tree.” But if potential ambiguity is so awful as to make “collided with” incorrect, then surely both of these are problematic as well. It could be argued that both “hit” and “struck” carry implications of intent. Or if we’re getting really extreme in how much potential ambiguity we wish to avoid, they also carry implications of fisticuffs.

    Understand that I find none of the sentences objectionable. I just don’t understand how you can argue that the “collided with” one is bad without being forced to apply similar logic to the others. Does anyone have any suggestions on how to “fix” the sentence that don’t run into this sort of consistency problem?

  15. Grammarphile says:

    “That’s not true of every editor. If an organization uses the AP Stylebook, then they’re forced to use this rule. Even if no harm is done to text, teaching and enforcing the rule is a waste of time, which copyeditors in news organizations cannot afford. “No harm done” is a weak rationale at best.”

    How are they forced to use the rule if copyeditors or proofreaders fail to notice the breach?
    I wrote a complaint to the New York Times because a journalist wrote etymologist when he should have written entomologist, because he was referring to a spider. It was not a typographical error, it was obviously ignorance by the journalist and perhaps by the copyeditor, who either was not familiar with the words or was not performing his diligent duties.
    How many proofreaders or copyeditors are going to catch the ‘collision’ rule? I would think very few indeed.

    • rcalmy says:

      If no one in fact ever enforces the rule, then I would agree that the rule is doing no harm. But if no one ever enforces it, why bother having it in the style guide?

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