On a recent trip to New York City, I visited The Strand bookstore. The store is a treasure trove of new, used and rare books.
One of my finds was a New York Times stylebook published in 1962. The author is Lewis Jordan; he was the first editor at the Times to compile various style guidelines into one volume. He wrote in the foreword:
If style rules do more than call attention to the need for precision in writing, they must inevitably improve it and thus open the way to clear communication. A piece of writing that is properly spelled and properly punctuated is off to a good start.
This stylebook undoubtedly helped editors at the time. But how does it look 54 years later? Here are some its musty recommendations:
- It mentions companies (Mohawk Airlines, the DuMont television network and Gimbles department store, among others) that no longer exist.
- It mentions technology that’s obsolete: Have you used an Addressograph or a Dictaphone lately?
- It lists obscure royal titles such as Dowager Marchioness.
- It advises that split infinitives “should generally be avoided.”
- It discourages “boost” as a verb and condemns “hike” when used as a synonym for “raise.”
- It suggests spellings and word choices that are peculiar now. For example, this statement would follow its guidelines: “I like catchup on my french-fried potatoes. Good-by.”
Other guidelines, however, hold up well. Entries on “gauntlet” and “proved,” for example, are similar to what you would see in stylebooks today.
I enjoyed reading this stylebook. It’s a time capsule of recommendations on spelling, abbreviations, capitalization, word choices and other matters. It’s also a good reminder that style isn’t stagnant.
Style, like language itself, evolves over generations. What made sense in 1962 may not make sense in 2016. And what we write and edit today may seem odd to readers in 2070.