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A Word, Please: You’re entitled to make this distinction

A copy editor recently posed an interesting question to colleagues on social media: Should he continue trying to maintain a distinction between “entitled” and “titled”? Or should he start allowing “entitled” to refer to the name of a book, movie or other work?

It’s an esoteric issue, to say the least — rooted in a disparity between editing styles.

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The Associated Press Stylebook has, for decades, issued this simple and clear advice regarding the word “entitled”: “Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled. AP’s examples of correct usage: “She was entitled to the promotion” and “The book was titled ‘Gone With the Wind.’”

Pretty straightforward stuff, provided you don’t follow the Chicago Manual of Style. This guide, which is used by most book publishers, doesn’t register an opinion one way or the other.

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So the user must turn to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which is the dictionary the Chicago guide defers to for all matters not specifically discussed in its pages.

Can you guess what’s coming?

“Entitle: verb 1. to give a title to (something, such as a book), 2. to give a right to (someone).”

In other words, unless you’re editing in AP style, you can indeed write “The book was entitled ‘Gone With the Wind.’” But should you? I have some thoughts.

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I get a lot of flak for my “permissive” views on usage. But I don’t call it permissiveness. I call it journalism. If official sources — dictionaries — say “irregardless” is a word, which they do, I would be wrong to say otherwise.

If those official sources say “literally” can be used in a less-than-literal way, which they do, I’m obligated to report the facts, unpleasant as they may be.

If dictionaries say “entitled” can mean “titled,” that’s a fact I can’t deny. You can do all these things.

But “can you” and “should you” are different questions. And they apply differently to different audiences. So when an editor asks if he should preserve a distinction between “entitled” and “titled,” my answer may surprise some: yes.

When I work in Associated Press style, which governs much of the editing work I do, I have little choice. I’m already bound to AP rules, which forbid “entitled” for “titled.”

But even when I’m editing in Chicago style or just writing for myself, I still eschew “entitled” to mean “titled.” My reason: a firm belief that precise, specific words are better than broader ones.

In popular usage “entitled” has two meanings. “Titled” has only one. (Obviously, we’re setting aside less common definitions like to “title a deed of land” to someone.)

A word with multiple meanings leaves itself open to multiple interpretations. That can lead to confusion, and even if that confusion is short-lived, why use ambiguous words that can point your readers in the wrong direction even for a moment?

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In language, precision is a virtue. A more specific word is always preferable to a vague one, if for no reason other than it helps the reader visually.

It’s almost always better to say “Rolls-Royces and Bentleys filled the parking lot” than “Cars filled the parking lot.” It gives the reader a lot of bonus information that brings the story to life. “He reached for a weapon” isn’t as visual or visceral as “He reached for a loaded .357 Magnum.”

Choosing “titled” over “entitled” probably won’t get you the same impact as that .357 Magnum. But it follows the same principle: Specific words with targeted, specific jobs are usually better than vague ones.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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