A Word, Please: Chiding the New Yorker's preening style

A recent headline tweeted by the New Yorker magazine caught my eye: "American immigration policy has fuelled an unlikely industry in El Salvador."

I couldn't resist. I retweeted the headline with the comment: "Fuelled? What is this? The Yorker?"

Even though I have a lot of respect for the New Yorker's reporting, I'm not a subscriber. If I could capture why in one word, it would be "fuelled." This kind of fussy pretentiousness is a little hard for me to get past.

But even sane people might do a double-take at the New Yorker's little editing quirks, which also include "traveller" and (get this) "focussed," along with whatever ship's anchor its editors set on top of the comma key.

To be clear, "fuelled" wasn't a typo. I wouldn't bother pointing out a little slip like that on Twitter. Anyone can make a mistake and, you know, glass houses and all.

Instead, "fuelled," "traveller," "focussed" and similarly silly spellings are official New Yorker style.

Here's their copy editor, Mary Norris, explaining the matter in a 2013 blog post.

"To judge by letters from readers, the doubling of consonants in such words as 'traveller' and 'focussed' is a subject of undying interest. If Noah Webster were alive today, he would probably have written in to complain about our orthography. Webster favored simplifying the spelling of American English, and although we follow him on most points, this is where the founding editors of the New Yorker departed from Webster. Quoth the style book: "When alternatives are possible, use double 'p' in words like 'kidnapped,' double 's' in words like 'focussed,' and double 'l' in words like 'marvellous' and 'travelled.'" No kidnapper ever focussed so marvellously on this well-travelled territory. (And no copy editor ever backspaced so assiduously to poke in the second "s" and "l" to override the autocorrect.)"

What, you may wonder, were the New Yorker's founding editors thinking when they laid down this law? No one knows. They didn't give a reason. Apparently, they didn't give a hoot about the march of time, either.

Most publications' style guides are updated regularly. Until just a few years ago, I was under orders to hyphenate e-mail, to capitalize the I in internet and the W in web, and to avoid using "over" to mean "more than." No more.

Language changes. Modern publications change with it. And there's a lot less inter-editor squabbling about those changes than you might guess. Publications just appoint someone with good judgment to make the call and most copy editors are happy to fall in line. The only thing that's really important is that the person making the judgment calls is still alive.

For the record, "fuelled," "traveller" and many similar spellings are acceptable in American English. The dictionary allows them. But, as anyone who's done a good deal of reading knows, the double consonants are more popular in British English than American. Hence my snarky tweet about the Yorker.

The Associated Press Stylebook specifically calls for one L in traveler and traveling. The guide doesn't have entries for "fuel" or "focus." But they have this guideline: Anytime a word isn't in AP's style guide, turn to the dictionary.

When the dictionary gives more than one option for how to spell something, editors customarily use the first one listed. This practice ensures we're all on the same page and that we don't end up with "traveler" on page one and "traveller" on page two, or with "fueled" on page one and "fuelled" on page two.

And because the spellings "fueled" and "traveler" are listed first in the dictionary, those are the spellings you see in most American publications.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "The Best Punctuation Book, Period." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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