language corner

Says Who?

"According to" is a basic, uncomplicated phrase of attribution. But mischievous spirits hover.
January 1, 2008

Immediately to the immediate point: “According to” is a basic, uncomplicated phrase of attribution. As the revered Professor John B. Bremner of the University of Kansas put it in his dazzling Words of Words (1980), “‘The city is going broke, according to the mayor,’ has the same meaning as ‘The city is going broke, the mayor said.'” Period.

But mischievous spirits hover.

Kirk Arnott, an assistant managing editor of The Columbus Dispatch, e-mailed to say he’d been taught somewhere that “according to” applied to documents, not speech.

And that jogged a memory, shared with peers (but explicitly addressed by Bremner), that “according to” cast doubt on the information involved.

No. In both cases, any such idiosyncratic meaning the writer/editor intended would be opaque. The reader would need — a footnote! Consider:

— For centuries, “farther” and “further” meant either literal distance or figurative. Then an arbitrary pronouncement in 1906 quite unhelpfully gave “farther” to the literal, “further” to the figurative. Suddenly, puzzled readers needed — a footnote!

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— The British authority H.W. Fowler wrote in his 1926 classic A Dictionary of Modern English Usage that “lucidity and ease” might be enhanced if “which” were banished in favor of “that” in restrictive clauses (the cards that were green failed to run). Purely arbitrary, and the British have ignored him to this day. But some influential American editors thought it sounded nice. Thus, a big chunk of American journalism adopted an unhelpful complication requiring — a footnote!

Morals of the tale:

Resist unhelpful rules, old or new, requiring footnotes.

As all of us editors would urge, don’t overdo “according to.”

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Evan Jenkins wrote the Language Corner column for CJR through the Fall of 2007.