Language Corner

AP hyphen outrage continues with guidance update

October 1, 2019

A few weeks ago, CJR wrote about a disturbance in the force caused by what was perceived as sudden and inexplicable changes in the Associated Press Stylebook’s hyphenation guidelines. Even though the guidelines were not sudden, and even though AP explained them thoroughly, people were upset.

Among those guidelines was to omit a hyphen in a compound modifier “if the modifier is commonly recognized as one phrase, and if the meaning is clear and unambiguous without the hyphen.” One example—the one that gave many editors fits—was “first quarter touchdown.”

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Well, angry mob, your voices were heard. AP announced on Twitter that it would reverse its decision:

But were you satisfied? Of course not: 

In fact, even after the Twitter reversal, the myth persisted that AP had laid down “laws” about the use of hyphens:

The apparent problem is that AP refuses to set down “rules.” As the stylebook says, using hyphens “can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense.” Judging by many of the Twitter reactions to the change to the changes, people want “rules.”

“Rules” are easy to follow; “guidelines” require you to stick your neck out and decide based on what the orchid-loving detective Nero Wolfe would call “intelligence guided by experience.” It means you have to believe in your own decision-making abilities.

AP indeed calls for using judgment. As the stylebook says: “Think of hyphens as an aid to readers’ comprehension. If a hyphen makes the meaning clearer, use it. If it just adds clutter and distraction to the sentence, don’t use it. If the sheer number of hyphens in a phrase, or confusion about how to use them, can daunt either the writer or the reader, try rephrasing. It’s a guide about how to use hyphens wisely, not it’s a how-to-use-hyphens-wisely guide.”

That advice continues throughout the entry on hyphens: “Again, try to judge what is most clear and logical to the average reader”; “use a hyphen if confusion could otherwise result”; and, of course, the nuclear option: “Often the better choice is to rephrase, even if it means using a few more words.”

AP also deleted earlier tweets about the “first quarter rule” so people could not cite them.

By the way, if you use the print version of the stylebook, you’re already way out of date. Not that we are shilling for AP, but the online version costs about the same as the print edition, is searchable, is updated frequently, and includes the helpful “Ask the Editor” feature, where you can pester them about your own gremlins. Like writing in your stylebook? You can do that online as well, creating your own personalized list of things that you want to do.

Slate, which called the AP Stylebook “that fusty old guide to grammar and punctuation that most news publications have relied on for decades,” used the occasion to talk about why people react with such vehemence to changes most people wouldn’t even notice. “Grammar and punctuation and diction rules exist to uphold consistency, which in turn helps writing become clearer to the greatest number of possible readers,” Seth Maxon wrote. “As fewer and fewer people seem to agree on not just the truth, but the very meaning of language, it’s a tool that’s more valuable than ever.” The changes “made us question our faith. Institutions and rules are crumbling everywhere we look, and now, this too succumbs to anarchy? The AP Stylebook represents not just a set of laws about right and wrong, but the idea that something, anything, can be trustworthy and endure.”

And when it looks like the institution is crumbling, people react as if the world were ending.

Creating our own grammar—and words, and usage—is how language changes. If you want “rules,” make them for yourself, but be prepared to defend them. En-garde!

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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.