Stylebooks are indispensable tools for writers, from journalists at the New York Times to independent bloggers. And for many writers, “stylebook” means only one: the version put out by The Associated Press.
“The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law,” usually referred to as simply the AP Stylebook, celebrated its 60th anniversary last year. Describing itself as “the definitive resource for journalists,” the AP Stylebook provides guidance on spelling, usage, punctuation and style. (1) As you might imagine, this task requires flexibility; the current edition does not much resemble the first in content, even if its goals remain the same.
The print edition is updated periodically, most recently in 2013. However, the AP Stylebook is also available online, allowing for up-to-the-moment updates and direct answers to subscriber questions.
With a few exceptions, I use the AP Stylebook as a guide for my professional publications. Our firm’s online Stylebook subscription makes it simple to look up a name or a point of style. As part of that subscription, we receive periodic email updates of major changes. A recent one serves as an interesting sampling of what is on the minds of journalists and those who read their articles.
Curious nonsubscribers can typically see a selection of the major changes through the Stylebook’s social media channels, including Twitter and Facebook. Both accounts suggested followers use the hashtag #ACES2014 (referring to the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference, where recent AP Stylebook changes were unveiled). Many of them did. When a stylebook is this widely used, any changes are bound to draw reactions ranging from sighs of relief to indignant protests.
The change that seems to have created one of the loudest outcries this year was tucked into the middle of the email we received, and was relatively brief: “more than, over: Acceptable in all uses to indicate greater numerical value. Salaries went up more than $20 a week. Salaries went up over $20 a week.”
For those readers not interested in the intricacies of stylebook grammar, previously “more than” was used with numbers and “over” was designated for the physical relationship of objects. Supporters say the change reflects a shift in the way people actually use language; detractors claim that it is an excuse for sloppiness. Mike Shor, a professor at the University of Connecticut, tweeted of the change, “More than my dead body!” David Ingram, a correspondent for Reuters, replied to him saying simply, “Reuters style is unchanged.” (2)
From the reactions, you might imagine nothing in the latest round of style changes was more important than the over-more than debate. But while the grammatical shift may have been the most controversial, other updates reflect more significant changes in our society and in the shorthand we use when we discuss newsworthy topics.
A change that is much more likely to affect my own blog directly, for example, is an update to the Stylebook’s guidance on “bitcoin.” The Stylebook formerly directed writers to capitalize the word when discussing the concept but to use lower case when discussing an individual unit of the cryptocurrency.Going forward, the grammatical distinction – and the capital letters – can be dropped.
We will also probably take advantage of the fact that LGBT can now be used on first reference to indicate “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.” Other abbreviations also received a promotion to first-reference status in this round of updates. ID can now be used interchangeably with “identification,” though it should still not be used in place of the verb “identify.” And HPV can be used on first reference for “human papillomavirus.” The Stylebook does note, however, that “HPV virus” is redundant.
We are likely to continue to see new and updated meteorological terms appear within the Stylebook’s pages. This round of changes adds three: “polar vortex,” “storm surge,” and “derecho,” a large and usually rapidly moving straight-line windstorm. Besides HPV, new medical entries include MERS (acceptable on second reference for Middle East respiratory syndrome), in vitro fertilization and bird flu. Not all the changes, of course, are so timely; the Stylebook recently added an entry simply clarifying the style of “first aid” (or “first-aid” as an adjective).
Some new entries, as you might expect, reflect the rapid pace of technology and the effects of social media on journalists. The existing chapter “Social Media Guidelines” added emoji, Internet radio, Snapchat, Vine and selfie (which was Oxford Dictionaries’ international Word of the Year for 2013). The Stylebook also clarified how to conjugate the verb “to dis,” for journalists who were wondering.
Each new update, whether small or large, suggests that enough journalists have needed clarification on a point to make it worth including. Updates can also reflect changes to entries that have become outdated or even offensive as times and viewpoints shift. Tracing Stylebook changes offers a look at how newswriting reflects the development of the society it reports on. Whether it is the relatively innocuous switch from “e-mail” to “email,” or last year’s more politically loaded decision to drop “illegal immigrant” as an acceptable way to describe an individual, the AP Stylebook is a window on changes in the way we speak – and the way we think.