First Person

Don’t forget these changes to the AP Stylebook

March 31, 2015

The Associated Press Stylebook announced some changes last week at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. (Full disclosure: This columnist, as president of the ACES Education Fund, is a member of the ACES board.) While none of the changes are as momentous as last year’s “over/more than” proclamation, they reflected an increased sensitivity to how language can be polarizing.

For example, the AP will now prefer “animal welfare activist” to “animal rights activist.” Everyone does not agree that animals have the kinds of “rights” that people have, but it’s clear that the activists are looking out for the animals’ “welfare.”

AP also added an entry on suicides, which says, in part:

Generally, AP does not cover suicides or suicide attempts, unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are particularly unusual or publicly disruptive. Suicide stories, when written, should not go into detail on methods used.

Avoid using committed suicide except in direct quotations from authorities. Alternate phrases include killed himself, took her own life or died by suicide.

One of the stylebook editors, David Minthorn, explained some of the reasoning to Poynter:

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Committed in that context suggests possibly an illegal act, but in fact, laws against suicide have been repealed in the US, at least in certain states, and many other places,” Minthorn said, “so we’re going to avoid using that term on our own, although it’s a term that authorities widely use and we will use it while quoting authorities.”

That’s one problem. The authorities use it, so writers tend to repeat it. And if one writer uses it outside of a quotation, many will, and the less-sensitive term will persist.

The AP also advised that “Affordable Care Act” “should be used sparingly. Polling indicates that not all Americans know the law by its formal name.” Instead, AP says, “Use President Barack Obama’s health care law or the health care law on first reference. ‘Obamacare’ in quotation marks is acceptable on second reference.”

But putting “Obamacare” into what amount to scare quotes makes its usage seem snarky. The coinage, which began as a derogatory term for the law, has entered mainstream usage. Fueling the flames by highlighting the controversy of the name, even unintentionally, seems ill-advised.

On the other hand, AP is finally cracking down on sports slang and clichés:

A team losing a game is not a “disaster.” Home runs are homers, not “dingers,” “jacks” or “bombs.” A player scored 10 straight points, not 10 “unanswered” points. If a football team scores two touchdowns and the opponent doesn’t come back, say it “never trailed” rather than “never looked back.” In short, avoid hackneyed words and phrases, redundancies and exaggerations.

And yet, in February, AP added this entry:

parking the bus: A phrase used to describe how a team packs its defense to protect a lead or a draw.

It ain’t easy maintaining a stylebook. Or following one.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.