Persuade me to follow the rule

We have an expression among copy editors: Don’t follow the stylebook out the window. That is, don’t be so rigid in your enforcement of style rules that you make changes that aren’t in the best interest of the reader or the writer.

The Associated Press Stylebook entry on “convince” and “persuade” is a rule that I sometimes choose to ignore because it doesn’t seem to cover every instance. The stylebook, which we use at The News & Observer, says, “You may be convinced that or of something. You must be persuaded to do something.” The rule appears to forbid the use of “persuade” with “that” or “of.” In fact, however, such constructions are acceptable. What is not acceptable, according to usage experts, is using “convince” with an infinitive (a verbal that combines “to” and the base form of a verb, such as “to do.”)

Theodore H. Bernstein in “The Careful Writer” writes that, although “convince” should not be used with an infinitive, “persuade” can be used with “that” or “of.” Bryan A. Garner in his “Dictionary of Modern American Usage” agrees that “persuade” can be used with “that.” Bill Bryson in “Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words” writes that “persuade” may be followed by an infinitive but “convince” may not. (I added the emphasis.)

The difference is that “convince” means to bring about a conclusive belief, also a definition for “persuade,” but, in addition, “persuade” means to win someone over to a course of action, as Wilson Follett’s “Modern American Usage” puts it. You can persuade another person to take an action, but you can’t convince him. You can convince another person that your argument is correct, and you can also persuade him that your argument is correct. The AP Stylebook doesn’t seem to recognize the second use of “persuade.”

I always change “convince to” to “persuade to,” but I don’t always change “persuaded that” to “convinced that.” “Persuaded,” as Bernstein says, implies a shifting situation. “Convinced” seems more static. So if you hold one point of view, but then receive evidence that causes you to change your point of view, you may be “persuaded that” the second viewpoint is correct. You may also be “convinced,” but, to me, a subtle difference in the writer’s voice is evident and worth maintaining. It seems to me altogether correct and appropriate for a writer to say, for example, “The trauma of the Sixties persuaded me that my generation’s egalitarianism was a sentimental error.” (Camille Paglia, quoted in The Columbia World of Quotations.

It seems correct for a speaker to say, “Today we know that World War II began not in 1939 or 1941 but in the 1920s and 1930s when those who should have known better persuaded themselves that they were not their brother’s keeper.” Hubert H. Humphrey, quoted in The Columbia World of Quotations.

Another copy editor could argue that “convinced” would work just as well in those situations and would follow the AP Stylebook. I think, though, that sometimes we have to follow our ear and our minds rather than the stylebook.

This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.