Dog-whistle editing

Writers should be wary of 'rules' that draw a distinction without making a difference.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Former president George W. Bush shakes hands with supporters at a campaign rally during the 2004 presidential election.

Have you ever been guilty of "dog-whistle editing" – of your own writing or someone else's?

Drawing a blank? Well, then, maybe you've heard of "dog-whistle politics." That's the use of political language – "messaging" – that means one thing to the general public but something different or more specific to the audience the communicator is really trying to reach.

The analogy is the (literal, actual) dog whistle, so high pitched that humans can't hear it, though it brings Fido running. The term is always pejorative: It's what the other side does. For example, see Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López's book, out this January, "Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Have Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class."

Another example is George W. Bush's puzzling (to some) criticism, during the 2004 presidential campaign, of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. To the general audience, this 1857 case, in which the court held that African-Americans had no citizenship rights, is a prime example of a bad high court decision. To those whom Mr. Bush was whistling to, it was a prime example of the reversibility of court decisions. Bush wanted to remind certain target voters that returning him to the White House would give him the opportunity to appoint justices who would vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, to cite a none-too-random example.

John E. McIntyre, former copy desk chief of The Baltimore Sun, extended the concept of "dog whistle" from politics to editing a few years ago. In his blog, "You Don't Say," he advised, "Don't listen for whistles that only dogs can hear."

Mr. McIntyre describes himself as a "moderate prescriptivist," which presumably means he feels that there are still rules worth following and that he's willing to say so when he sees one. But the distinction between "like," used to convey resemblance, and "such as," used to introduce an example, is not one of them.

He quoted an important idea promoted by the great usage expert Henry Fowler: "When the language develops useful distinctions of meaning ... scrupulous writers strive to maintain those distinctions." Imply and infer, for instance, are not synonyms, and careful writers and their editors maintain the distinction between them. "But a good deal of advice about language," McIntyre went on, "attends to distinctions that are so minuscule as to be a waste of time to uphold."

One arguably dog-whistly distinction I maintain is that between exhibit and exhibition. An exhibition is the whole show; an exhibit is one item within. But this issue benefits from having two readily retrievable sample usages etched deep in thought, or my thought, at least: Mussorgsky's famous piano suite, a favorite from childhood, is "Pictures at an Exhibition," not "at an Exhibit." And every TV viewer knows it is Exhibit A in court.

Erin Brenner, writing at a few weeks ago, cited McIntyre and the dog-whistle principle in a discussion of alternate versus alternative. The strict view is that alternate refers to things that "take turns," so to speak ("The committee meets on alternate Tuesdays"). But if your reference is to options or substitutes, alternative is the word. Ah, but legions of motorists over the years have been advised to "seek alternate routes." In this case, the readily retrievable sample usage doesn't support the "rule." And so the "rule," Ms. Brenner reports, is losing traction.

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