Language Corner

The incorrect way to use the word ‘author’

April 2, 2018

What is the difference between “author” and “writer”?

Only one can be both a noun and a verb.

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The noun “author” first appeared in Middle English around the early 14th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, with two similar meanings: a creator, inventor, founder, or constructor of something; or a writer of books or other works.

And though the verb form of “author,” meaning to be the “writer” of something, first appeared about 1597, the OED says, its usage was “rare” between the 17th and 20th centuries. “This usage has been objected to by some commentators,” the OED says in typical understatement.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is adamant, saying that “author” and “co-author” should be used as “nouns only, not as verbs.” The Associated Press is equally adamant in its “author” entry: “A noun. Do not use it as a verb.”

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Most news organizations follow AP style. And yet…

The Holland Sentinel in Michigan allows columns and letters to the editors to be “authored by more than one person.” The Sentinel-Tribune in Bowling Green, Ohio, used “authored” multiple times in a discussion of books written by Ohio State University extension employees. The Miami Herald wrote about letters “authored” by “imaginary people” seeking to sway an election. And so on. People are “authoring” where they are supposed to be “writing.”

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By far, the most common verb use of “author” is in government and reporting on government. As Bryan A. Garner says in Modern English Usage, “Some journalists and lawmakers have taken to using author in reference to a politician who sponsors legislation.” Garner notes, however, “This seems irresponsible, given that few legislators today actually write the bills they promote.”

But it seems to fit the OED’s 1598 citation of “author” to mean “To be the cause, source, or origin of; to instigate; to create.”

Garner also cites H.L. Mencken, who said the resurgence of “author” as a verb is related to the movie industry. “To say that a given author writes a given script may be inaccurate, for a great deal goes into it besides the mere writing of the text.…So to author was born,” Mencken wrote in 1963.

The American Heritage Dictionary has a useful Usage Note: “The verb author was once criticized as an unnecessary or pretentious synonym of write. Nowadays, many people aren’t aware of this usage proscription at all,” the dictionary says.

AmHer’s Usage Panel has become increasingly (and quickly) accepting of “author” as a verb: In its 1988 survey, 74 percent rejected it in the sentence “He has authored a dozen books on the subject,” but by 2017, only 34 percent disapproved.

But make the sentence in question “The senator authored a bill limiting uses of desert lands in California,” and the Usage Panel’s acceptance rate soars: While 64 percent rejected it in 1988, only 27 percent voted it down in 2017. (Full disclosure: In 2012, we wrote about the same subject, with less conviction. Then we joined the Usage Panel. In the 2017 survey, we rated both those sentences “somewhat acceptable.” No cause and effect is implied or should be inferred.)

To adhere to style, “authors” of books and written material should “write.” But to adhere to growing usage, legislators can “author” bills, which doesn’t imply they “wrote” them, just that they’re in on the creation of them.

Multiply the “author” into “co-author,” and the sand shifts again. “Coauthor has been considered more acceptable as a verb,” Garner writes, “perhaps because cowrite seems deadpan.” “Author” as a replacement for “write” is only at Stage 3 at Garner’s five-stage Language-Change Index, the equivalent of a rank amateur. But “coauthor” as a replacement for “cowrite” is at Stage 5, fully professional.

If you spend more time deciding whether to hyphenate “co-author” than thinking about whether it can be a verb, welcome to the modern world. Just beware of stylebook enforcers wielding delete keys.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.