2/26/2008

All told, you're better off with 'NAFTA' in caps

Mr. Rewrite just read an article saying this: "All totaled," a political candidate has received so much money from such and such a person.

The writer meant to say, "All told."

Here's the deal:
All told, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is an idiom meaning "with everything considered." Paul Brians' Common Errors in English Usage notes that all told comes from an old meaning of tell: to count. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes that this definition explains the title bank teller (counter). So the phrase literally means "all counted."

Those paid to know better botch this in a couple of ways. Here they are, with links to Google News examples:
  • All totaled: This seems reasonable, as totaled speaks to counting. But it isn't correct.
  • All tolled: There's a temptation to view this phrase as akin to the tolling of a bell, which is incorrect.
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Special thanks to Tom in Texas for spotting Mr. Rewrite's typo in Saturday's post. To show his gratitude, Mr. Rewrite will provide an usually fast hearing for Tom's rant about The New York Times' handling of certain acronyms:

In reading the NY Times editorial on the presidential primary race in Ohio, I noticed (consciously for the first time) that The Times no longer prints acronyms in caps. How long has this been going on? Is it the accepted style now? Here is the sentence from the editorial that set me off to write to Mr. Rewrite:

The Democrats need to articulate a coherent vision for how this country can compete in and benefit from a globalized world. Taking rhetorical axes to Nafta is not only pandering, it is bad policy and counterproductive.

Nafta? And just a few paragraphs up the page, the editors made this reference to Doha :

Would the Clinton administration really stand by its call for a “timeout” on trade deals even if that were to scuttle the Doha round of negotiations aimed at helping the world’s poorest countries?

How many readers spent their mornings trying to decipher the acronym DOHA ? Of course you and I know that it’s the capital of Qatar and site of World Trade Organization talks. But the average Democrat trying to pick up a morning dose of liberalism from The Times wouldn’t know Doha from dooh-dah. Putting NAFTA in caps helps us to understand that Doha is different simply because it’s not DOHA .

Mr. Rewrite agrees that Nafta makes Doha confusing, but this appears to be a long-standing Times rule that's applied consistently. According to the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, when an acronym serves as a proper name and exceeds four letters, the Times capitalizes only the first letter. Examples include Nafta (AP, Mr. Rewrite and Tom would write NAFTA) , Nascar (NASCAR) and Unesco (UNESCO).

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