When to ‘whoomp’: A Highly Useless Guide to the English language

By Jan Freeman

Who would have thought, with the old media giants keeling over like Disney’s overheated dinosaurs, that a journalistic inside joke would become the talk of the twitterverse? But so it is. A month after the Fake AP Stylebook began tweeting parody usage and style tips – “ ‘Teaspoon’ and ‘tablespoon’ measure volume. ‘Coffee spoon’ measures life” – it has thousands more followers than the real AP Twitter account.

Founders Mark Hale and Ken Lowery are as surprised as anyone at their instant success. “We had no plans other than making each other laugh,” they told Boston media blogger Dan Kennedy, who took the story international in a recent column for the Guardian.

You can understand their modest expectations; a stylebook isn’t an obvious source of laughing matter. Whether it’s the widely used Associated Press version or an in-house manual, like the Globe’s or the New York Times’s, the typical stylebook is an alphabetized collection of pithy instructions meant to ensure that a publication is consistent in its spelling, punctuation, and all the little variables of language: “OK, OK’d, OK’ing, OKs Do not use okay.” “Chain saw Two words.” These handbooks don’t waste space on theory; their function is to supply a quick answer to an editor’s urgent questions.

But ponder a stylebook in the light of day, when you’re not on deadline, and you can see how its curt dictates could invite mockery. I opened my (real) AP Stylebook (2002 edition) in the middle and soon found some promising candidates for comic, Fake AP-style revision:

“hell But capitalize Hades.”

“light, lighted, lighting Lit is acceptable as the past tense form.”

“LSD Acceptable in all references for lysergic acid diethylamide.”

“moon Lowercase. See heavenly bodies.”

(I’m working on a gag involving the Devil’s trademark lawyers; the others I leave to your imagination.)

The Fake AP entries start like a straight-faced “rule” and then add a laugh line, sometimes sharp, sometimes broad, sometimes a bit raunchy:

“While it’s tempting to call them ‘baristi’ because of the Italian roots, the plural of ‘barista’ is ‘journalism majors.’ ”

“Do not use ‘Whoomp! There it is!’ unless it actually is there.”

“Before using public domain works in your story, wash your hands. Other people have to use them too, you know.”

“Use ‘verbal’ to compare words with some other form of communication (‘poor verbal skills’), use ‘oral’ to be more popular.”

So is this the future of journalism – the new ironic Twitter take on the old reliable rules, the wireless generation dancing on the grave of the ancients of the print era? Not quite. Yes, fake AP Stylebook is cooler than stodgy old real AP, which charges for Web subscriptions and has been reduced to begging for compliments from its followers. And Twitter is an ideal vehicle for bite-size usage tips – fake or real. But mocking usage authority is an American tradition, not a sign of impending anarchy.

The ink was barely dry on “Modern English Usage,” H.W. Fowler’s 1926 classic, when James Thurber began satirizing it in the New Yorker. “A common rule for determining whether ‘who’ or ‘whom’ is right is to substitute ‘she’ for ‘who,’ and ‘her’ for ‘whom,’ and see which sounds the better,” wrote Thurber. “Take the sentence, ‘He met a woman who they said was an actress.’ Now if ‘who’ is correct then ‘she’ can be used in its place. Let us try it. ‘He met a woman she they said was an actress.’ That instantly rings false.”

Until a few years ago, Dave Barry’s humor column regularly featured “Mr. Language Person” dispensing zany grammatical advice: “ ‘Should of’ is a predatory admonition; as such, it is always used as part of a herpetological phrase. Example: ‘Maurice never should of took no snake to no funeral.’ ” The Times’s William Safire had his “Fumblerules” – “Don’t use no double negatives,” “No sentence fragments.” And way back in the 1970s, the UPI stylebook included an entry that would make a perfect Fake AP tweet: “burro, burrow A burro is an ass. A burrow is a hole in the ground. As a journalist you are expected to know the difference.”

And Fake AP, like all parody, is also an homage, a tribute to the reach of the real AP Stylebook. Without that audience of copy editors, there could be no copy editor humor. Nor do the Fake AP founders scoff at the notion of ink on paper; they’ve signed up with an agent and hope to sell the project as a book. A book with (if they’re lucky) a real editor and proofreader, and maybe a reward in real money – none of which is forthcoming from Twitter.

That doesn’t mean print and its funny old folkways aren’t on the road to extinction. But the success of Fake AP Stylebook, paradoxically, may show that there’s a bit of life in the old beast yet.

Editors’ note: This article was published in the  Boston Globe on November 22, 2009 and reprinted with permission from the author. The tweets can be found at

http://twitter.com/#!/fakeapstylebook.

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