GJR book review: Language evolution slays once-sacred cows in AP Stylebook

The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law                                                                                      

Editors: Darrell Christian, Paula Froke, Sally Jacobsen and David Minthorn                                                          

Publisher: The Associated Press, New York, 2014                                                                                                 

Paperback: $20.95, 514 pages

Broadcast and print journalists who buy new Associated Press Stylebooks every year to keep up with ever-changing grammar rules in their chosen profession probably have grumbled at one time or another about unlearning what once seemed carved into stone.

But for the 2014 spiral-bound edition, published in late spring, the AP editors handed down style decisions that turned otherwise normal grumbling into full-throated outrage.

Consider the following five new rules:

  • For longtime AP Stylebook owners, a decision announced March 20 to eliminate the distinction between “over” and “more than” in stories was not unlike waving a red flag at a charging bull – and the news was received just about as warmly. Before that news broke, “over” had been relegated to spatial relationships (“The plane flew over the city,” for example), while “more than” was used to denote amounts of things.
  • Almost as angst-ridden was the reaction to the April 8 decision that “underway” is now one word in all uses. Previous stylebooks had told us that it was “two words in virtually all uses.” The 1987 version of the AP Stylebook went so far as to say that it is “one word only when used as an adjective before a noun in a nautical sense: an underway flotilla [italics in original].
  • Remember the practice of abbreviating state names in stories? That rule has been cast aside in this year’s stylebook, too. The AP wire noted on April 23, that “effective May 1, the AP will spell out state names in the body of stories,” while “datelines will continue to use abbreviations.” The reason given was thus: “The change is being made to be consistent in our style for domestic and international stories. International stories have long spelled out state names in the body of stories.”
  • On April 2, the Associated Press changed the “illegal immigrant” entry. In a blog post that same day, Paul Colford, the AP’s director of media relations, detailed how the AP stylebook “no longer sanctions the term ‘illegal immigrant’ or the use of ‘illegal’ to describe a person. Instead, it tells users that ‘illegal’ should describe only an action, such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.” Colford’s source for his information was Kathleen Carroll, AP senior vice president and executive editor. Carroll, he said, added that “also, we had in other areas been ridding the stylebook of labels. The new section on mental health issues argues for using credibly sourced diagnoses instead of labels. Saying someone was ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’ instead of schizophrenic, for example. And that discussion about labeling people, instead of behavior, led us back to ‘illegal immigrant’ again. We concluded that, to be consistent, we needed to change our guidance. So we have.”
  • On April 17, Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon took note of the new AP approach to the word “hopefully,” writing this: “Hopefully, copy editors will find another spike on which to impale sentences. Says an update to the AP Stylebook: ‘The traditional meaning is in a hopeful manner. Also acceptable is the modern usage: it’s hoped, we hope [italics in original]. Correct: “You’re leaving soon?” she asked hopefully [italics in original]. The old rule: ‘It means in a hopeful manner. Do not use it to mean it is hoped, let us hope or we hope.’ ”

One of the co-editors of the AP Stylebook is David Minthorn, who also serves as AP’s deputy standards editor. In a 2010 interview with the American Copy Editors Society, he had this to say about the ever-changing nature of the reference work, which he and fellow co-editors Darrell Christian and Sally Jacobsen update yearly: “There has to be an evolution in the language or a clear need for adding or amending terms.”

Anyone who has owned different AP Stylebook versions over the past decade or so has witnessed this evolution. The term “email,” for example, originally had a hyphen after the “e” when that term took root in the early days of the World Wide Web. (In fact, the 2000 edition was the first time the Associated Press included a dedicated Internet style guide in its stylebook.)

But even with all those previous changes in mind, it should be noted that over one journalist has uttered this line about the new 2014 stylebook rules: “More than my dead body!” As the transition to all these new rules gets underway, GJR subscribers can hopefully remember that these are not illegal changes. In fact, according to the AP editors, these sentences are (almost) entirely correct.

At least for now.

John Jarvis is a former managing editor of Gateway Journalism Review. The 27-year print journalist is a publications editor for Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s University Communications group.

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