Every profession has its tool of the trade. Carpenters are equipped with a hammer and nails. Teachers use a chalk board or smart board when they work with their students. Journalists rely on the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook. A copy of the AP Stylebook aka the “journalist’s bible” has been at every journalist’s desk since the 1950s. Today, editions are also available online and as an app on your smartphone, making it a tool just as essential to reporting the news as a pen, notebook, computer, digital recorder, or camera. So when an update or exception is made to the AP Stylebook, it becomes breaking news itself.
Earlier this year a few words caused a big uproar in the world of journalists and professional writers everywhere. The AP Stylebook changed its stance on the long debated writer’s rule of when to use “more than” and when to use “over.” The AP now says that it is okay to use “over,” as well as “more than” when referring to quantity. The twittersphere exploded over this exception both in favor and against.
The type of reaction received after making “over” and “more than” interchangeable is nothing new to the AP Stylebook co-editors. They receive countless requests for updates and exceptions to be made each year. They spend significant time and careful consideration on every update and exception that is made to the AP Stylebook, but know they can’t please everyone. As our language evolves, the writing resources we use must evolve with it. While these updates and exceptions may not always be welcome news they help all of us accurately communicate and report the news in a culture that is continually changing.
So, how are these updates and exceptions determined? Who is tasked with making such influential decisions? This is the job of our interviewee – co-editor of the AP Stylebook David Minthorn and his fellow co-editors Sally Jacobsen and Paula Froke. This week as we continue our series on Words and Words Choice, David shares with us why it is important for the AP Stylebook to evaluate and update its guidelines, typical requests for updates and exceptions that he receives, and he’ll get to the bottom of the AP’s controversial ruling mentioned above on using “over” and “more than” when referring to a quantity. We welcome his insights.
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The AP Stylebook has come to be known as the “journalist’s bible.” What was the original purpose of the AP Stylebook?
The preface for the 1953 edition states that the book “is for the guidance and benefit of those engaged in preparing the AP report.”
The explanation that follows remains relevant today.
“Presentation of the printed word should be accurate, consistent, pleasing to the eye and should conform to grammatical rules.
“The English language is fluid and changes incessantly. What last year may have been very formal, next year may be loosely informal. Word combinations, slogans and phrases are being added to and becoming part of the language. Alphabetical identifications are widely accepted.
“Because of constantly changing usage, no compilation can be called permanent. Nor can any one volume be infallible and contain all the wisdom and information of the ages. When there is doubt, consult an authoritative source and stay with it. The effort in this book has been to provide applicable examples to as many problems as space permits.”
What do you think its biggest contribution has been?
The Stylebook has evolved from that compact first edition of 60 pages primarily for newspapers to the current handbook of 500 pages covering essential writing and editing guidance and news values for all platforms of news presentation. Over the years, the AP Stylebook’s annual editions have benefited greatly from suggestions by a wide range of readers and users. In updating the Stylebook, the editors keep in mind the overriding goals of AP reporting: to be accurate, balanced, prompt, clear and concise, no matter what the news or where it happens.
How often does the AP Stylebook get updated?
AP Stylebook Online, available by annual subscription, is updated throughout the year with new terms and revisions, including amended definitions as needed. These updates are incorporated into the printed edition published each year in late May or early June.
When the AP Stylebook makes an update or exception it is breaking news. Generally, what factors are considered in determining what to update?
The overriding factors are relevance to the news and ensuring accuracy and clarity in AP news reports. Updates generally fall into three categories: New terms added for coverage of breaking news or major issues; revised entries or guidelines to update existing terminology; and new topical sections bringing together various entries previously listed individually in the A to Z alphabetical section. Religion Guidelines added this year includes about a dozen new terms, for a total of more than 200 entries in the section.
Revised entries often generate high interest. An example this year was AP Stylebook team’s ruling that over may be used in numerical references along with more than. Previously, over was limited to spatial relationships, as in “the plane flew over the city.” For expressing greater numerical values, more than was the approved term: e.g., Salaries went up more than $20 a week. The change permits over in such contexts: Salaries went up over $20 a week.
So over did not replace more than in referring to greater numerical value in AP Style. Rather, the terms are given equal footing in numerical references. We’re simply following dictionary definitions of the words, dropping a grammatically baseless prohibition that entered the U.S. journalistic canon in the 19th century.
What type of reaction does the AP Stylebook receive from journalists and other professional writers when it makes an update?
Generally two or three updates of the dozens made each year garner a lot of comment — praise and criticism. A few examples. In the 2010 Stylebook, website became one word, lowercase, reflecting popular usage. However, other terms using Web, shorthand for World Wide Web, remain unchanged with two words: e.g., Web page, Web feed. In 2011, email became one word for simplicity, an exception to other electronic terms spelled with hyphens: e-book and e-commerce. In 2012, the Stylebook amended a longtime entry to accept hopefully as a sentence adverb in line with dictionaries: Hopefully, we’ll be home before dark. In 2013, the Stylebook entry on illegal immigrant was replaced by illegal immigration: illegal refers only to an action, not a person. Also, the 2013 entry on mental illness, with guidelines on usage in stories on violent crime, was another significant update.
Two changes this year got a lot of attention. I’ve mentioned over and more than. A second change generating a lot of attention was the decision to spell out state names with cities within news stories, rather than abbreviating the state. For example, we’ll now write Madison, Wisconsin, instead of Madison, Wis. This change will ensure that location spellings conform to a common standard. Many AP stories are transmitted overseas, where U.S. state abbreviations aren’t well-known. Spelling the states clarifies these names. AP stories written overseas and sent simultaneously to U.S. domestic services have been spelling out state names for some time.
Why is it important that the AP Stylebook evaluate and update its guidelines on a regular basis?
With the flow of daily news, new coinages, expressions and spellings involving newsmakers come into play virtually every week and sometimes more often. Some new terms have a short life and lose relevance rather quickly; others have staying power and retain lasting significance. AP Stylebook’s editors work year-round to stay abreast of evolving language and usage. Our task is to decide which terms with definitions merit inclusion in the Stylebook to help AP report the news with accuracy, speed, credibility and readability.
Other publications dedicated to words also make annual updates such as Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries with their “word of the year.” Does the AP Stylebook pay attention to the updates made by other publications? How much do the “words of the year” and additions in other publications influence the AP Stylebook’s updates?
The AP Stylebook’s primary reference is Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. The publishers are planning a Fifth Edition later this year. We’ll pay very close attention to updates in that dictionary. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is our backup dictionary, along with Concise Oxford English Dictionary. We did note that “selfie” was prominently featured in the Oxford dictionary group’s 2013 words of the year. Coincidentally, the term for a self-portrait taken by a smartphone and posted on the Web was added to the online AP Stylebook and will appear in the 2014 printed edition not enclosed in quotes. While the term has been around in social media since 2004, selfie became very prominent in the news over the last 12 months as famous personalities got involved.
What are some of the more popular requests for updates and exceptions that the AP Stylebook receives?
The spelling changes to website — one word– and email — no hyphen — were a reflection of popular sentiment and common usage. Over several years, we received many requests from the public and from within the AP staff to amend those spellings. Finally the time was right, so we changed the Stylebook’s spellings to reflect reality. Those who objected probably stuck with the old spelling. It’s their right. AP Style isn’t imposed on anyone outside the AP.
As the 4th Estate moves more to online and digital mediums, are you seeing this shift reflected in the updates the AP Stylebook makes?
I mentioned the prompt updates of the AP Stylebook Online once the editors agree on a change that affects AP’s coverage of breaking news and major issues. We encourage our staff to consult the online book, which is the most up-to-date version at any time. The printed book is a compendium of all the updates in the previous 12 months, so it’s highly useful in its own right and highly portable. Also, Stylebook Mobile is a universal iOS app for iPhones and iPads. The need for these electronic editions grows with our increasingly digitalized communications. The content of the Stylebook reflects online and digital mediums, from the expanded guidance of the social media chapter to the call each year for suggestions via apstylebook.com.
With the rise of online journalism and citizen reporters, do you see the AP Stylebook guidelines being lost with these non-traditional outlets?
Not at all. The Stylebook editors tweet and post daily AP Style tips. We hold monthly AP Style chats on Twitter featuring AP specialist reporters — politics, science, sports, book publishing, fashion, food, etc. All these topics have specialized vocabularies for reporters and editors in all platforms, including online and citizen reporters. Also, there’s Ask the Editor, the online Stylebook’s help site. I answer some 3,000 queries a year from Stylebook users seeking advice on writing and editing that often goes beyond specific Stylebook entries. If anything, the interest in AP Style is expanding every year.
Last year was the AP Stylebook’s 60th anniversary. This major milestone was celebrated with a print edition, which includes more than 90 new or updated entries and broadens the guidelines on social media. Where do you see the AP Stylebook headed in the next 60 years?
We’ll take it one year at a time. The public’s need for breaking news, in-depth reporting and nonpartisan analysis has never been greater. The AP Stylebook’s lexicon of terminology provides a framework for reporting the news accurately, consistently and objectively. Usage constantly evolves, new words come into the language. Language rulings from a credible and authoritative source will always be needed. The methods and devices used to convey AP Stylebook updates are certain to evolve in ways we can’t yet envision. But the basic mission outlined in 1953 remains unchanged.
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We use our copy of the AP Stylebook religiously and encourage new writers to do the same. Pick up a copy of the latest edition in print, online, or on your phone and see where it can take your writing. Or, share with us some other must have writing resources that you can’t do without.
Liz Faris, Account Manager
Collaborative Services, Inc.