2020 AP Stylebook changes: Person-first language, and the great ‘pled’ debate

The release of a new print edition of the Associated Press Stylebook has always been a highlight of many editors’ May, especially when it is accompanied by a session at the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, when AP editors announce the major changes.

This year was a little different: The in-person ACES conference, like so many others, was replaced by a day of virtual sessions, including the AP style session, on May 1. (Full disclosure: this columnist is a member of the ACES board.)

Few of the style changes announced this year might be considered “major”—at least not like the “over/more than” year, which still reverberates. Perhaps the biggest change is that the Associated Press will no longer print a new version of the stylebook every year, and what they do print will be slimmer.

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As Colleen Newvine, the project manager for the stylebook, explained during the style session, sales of the print book have fallen off as more people have migrated to the AP Stylebook Online. Many people did not buy a new hard copy every year, in any event. “We think we can serve our loyal print fans by printing the spiral-bound every other year,” Newvine said.

The print version was also getting unwieldy, Paula Froke, the lead stylebook editor, said. Over the years, AP has added topical chapters to consolidate advice for specific content, like business, food, fashion, data journalism, health and science, and polls and surveys. “Something had to give,” she said. Because AP no longer has dedicated food and fashion reporters, those two chapters will no longer be in the book: the information in them will be incorporated into the online stylebook, but not in separate chapters.

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Many of the changes in style continue AP’s move toward what is called “person-first language,” which uses descriptions rather than labels. Calling someone a “senior” or “elderly” is “identity-first language,” for example, because it says nothing about the specific person, and one person’s idea of what constitutes “elderly” might not be another’s. Mentioning someone’s age, when relevant, can replace the label. So the stylebook now prefers “older adults” or “older person,” Froke said, acknowledging that those terms are also imprecise.

As the stylebook frequently mentions, using specifics for the individual is less likely to fall into stereotypes or offend. (We also believe that labels can be hurtful and misunderstood.)

One twist to that: the entry previously labeled “disabled, handicapped” has been changed to be simply “disabilities.” That entry, which advises being specific about the type of disability, has now added this section:

When possible, ask people how they prefer to be described (when the description is relevant).

Some people, for example, refer to themselves as a disabled person or simply disabled, using identity-first language.

Others prefer person with a disability, using person-first language. In describing groups of people, use person-first language.

One change that led to a spirited discussion in the ACES session was adding an entry on “homeless.” “Homeless is generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence,” the new style guide says. “Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun the homeless, instead using constructions like homeless people, people without housing or people without homes.” Those changes came, Froke said, because of requests by a city official and stylebook users. “When we tried to provide a specific definition for what homelessness entailed,” she said, “we found that government agencies don’t always agree.”

In the chat discussion accompanying the session, ACES members debated whether there was a better way to describe “the homeless.” Among the suggestions were “unhomed,” “people experiencing homelessness,” “street involved,” and “houseless.” Froke noted that most of those terms were jargony. Writers and editors should be aware of having good intentions but bad outcomes, she said, “coming up with a different problem that people don’t understand.” She added, “I think in many cases it’s possible to write around it.”

The AP style section was not all seriousness, though. Froke spoke of two entries that were revised because of input from audiences.

Whenever the @APStylebook account tweeted that the past tense of “plead” was “pleaded,” not “pled,” Twitter erupted. In response, last fall, the stylebook simply removed the phrase “Do not use the colloquial past-tense form, pled.” And Twitter erupted again. Because the advice about “pled” had been in the stylebook for so many years (our 1977 copy has it), it “hadn’t been on our radar,” Froke said. So “the outcry caused us to take a look at the arguments and say, ‘You know, you’re right.’” AP prefers “pleaded,” as does its dictionary, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, but no longer bans it. “We just took away that schoolmarmish admonition not to use pled. If you want to use pled, we don’t care.”

When AP added the food section to the print stylebook in 2011, it did not include an entry for “preheating”; that was added in the 2016 edition. (“Avoid use of the term,” it said. We said something similar.) Twitter reacted unkindly to that term as well, last Thanksgiving. That term will no longer appear in the stylebook, either online or in the foodless print edition.

“The point here is not the extent of the pushback that we got, but rather the logic of what a lot of these folks were saying,” Froke said. Yes, “preheat” is redundant, “but it’s also extremely much used. And that’s what’s understood by regular people, regular readers.”

And unlike some changes, “I was actually very happy,” Froke said, “because it bolstered my own thought that I always had to roll my own eyes about what was in our book. It was actually a moment of great pleasure for me to do that. It violated all of my grammarian word usage sense of being.” 

Newvine added, “The stylebook editor having to roll her own eyes at the AP Stylebook is a good point of conversation.”

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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.

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