A Mightn’t Wind Blows at the Journal

There’s a noticeable tic showing up in Wall Street Journal copy in recent months.

All of a sudden, the very non-American word “mightn’t” is spreading through the paper like kudzu. For instance, in this story today on the faltering Legacy Loan Program:

But, at the same time, administration officials say they believe the program to purchase toxic securities mightn’t be as integral to a recovery as it once seemed. Markets seem to have stabilized and banks appear more able to digest losses associated with the troubled securities.

And I’m not the only one to notice it. The Big Money’s WSJQuips has caught on, too. I’m sure many other Journal readers have, as well.

But the burning question is: Might this trend have something to do with the paper’s newish Australian ownership and editorship? Or mightn’t it?

To find out this pressing question, I went to the tape: Dow Jones’s own Factiva.

It turns out “mightn’t” has appeared in the Journal 133 times in the last six months. That’s up from thirty-three times in the previous six months and just eight in the year before that.

For a control group, I used the paper’s hated rival, The New York Times, unfortunately known internally at the WSJ as “Brand X.”

You shan’t be surprised to learn that the New York Times, despite being portrayed in The Paper as a hotbed of pretentious foreign-language speakers, has resisted the mightn’ts. It’s only printed the word five times in the last two years, despite printing many more total words than the Journal.

So, I think it’s safe to say, the Aussie invasion has turned the Journal into a hotbed of mightn’tism. Alas, I’ve yet to see an uptick in cricket stories.

There’s not much of a deeper lesson here, although I think it’s a harmless illustration of how influence spreads in an organization. Stretching a bit more, it may betray the paper’s overemphasis on reaching ultra-cosmopolitan Davos Man types.

It’s probably a better idea for the paper to be written and copy edited for its overwhelmingly American readers in the provinces.

UPDATE: See Journal legend Barry Newman’s comment below. He reports that “mightn’t” has actually been WSJ style all along, a holdover from the linotype days.

It appears “mightn’t” has just re-emerged vigorously from hibernation.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.