Language Corner

AP updates guidance on mentions of race, accent marks, and more

April 8, 2019

As promised, this week we will discuss more changes in the Associated Press Stylebook, as announced at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. But first, one more change that falls in the new “race-related coverage” entry.

The previous stylebook entry on “race” simply gave circumstances in which mentioning a person by race or ethnicity was pertinent. Among those were “groundbreaking or historic events,” suspects being sought by the police or in missing person cases if detailed descriptions were available; and “reporting a demonstration or disturbance involving race or such issues as civil rights or slavery.”

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But as Paula Froke, the stylebook’s lead editor, told the crowd at ACES, those circumstances were both too broad and too narrow. The new advice, while including the circumstances previously mentioned, also says this: “Include racial or ethnic details only when they are clearly relevant and that relevance is explicit in the story.” That matches the advice that has been in The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage for years: “race should be cited only when it is pertinent and its pertinence is clear to the reader.”

In other changes, the stylebook now includes an entry for “suspect.” Many journalists were using “suspect” when no person was named; “an unknown suspect gained entry into the victim’s residence,” for example, or “police are looking for three suspects who allegedly tried to rob an employee at a farmers market.” Those are not suspects, but “burglars” or “robbers,” unknown people who committed crimes. Once someone is arrested, though, they can be named as a “suspect.”

Some of the changes aren’t that serious. Many editors attending the AP presentation were elated that AP is now allowing the use of “%” with figures instead of requiring “percent.” Instead of “the stock rose 3 percent,” copy that follows AP can now read “the stock rose 3%.”

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Thus continues the evolution of “percent.” In the early part of the 20th century, a common rendering was “per cent.,” two words with a period after the “cent,” possibly because it was abbreviating the Italian “per cento.” The first formal AP stylebook, in 1953, called for “per cent,” and that stuck at least through the 1970 stylebook. By 1977, though, it had come together as “percent.” That’s common in the United States, though British English leans towards “per cent.” “Percentage point” is still written out, and it still should not be confused with “percent.”

For once, AP is a leader rather than a follower on this change: The Times stylebook still calls for “percent” except in headlines, tables, and charts. The Chicago Manual of Style says, “In nontechnical contexts, the word percent is generally used; in scientific and statistical copy, the symbol % is more common.”

One reason for not making the change earlier relates to AP’s client base. Because news organizations have different computer systems to receive AP copy, the material transmitted by the AP must be digestible by them all. In the past, AP warned against sending “nontransmitting symbols” like “*,” “@,” “~,” and the like. Though some systems still can’t digest those, “%” can generally get through now, Froke said.

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Until now, the AP also advised against transmitting any accents for the same reason. That wall now has a crack: a revised entry allows “accent marks or other diacritical marks with names of people who request them or are widely known to use them, or if quoting directly in a language that uses them.” There is still the caveat that some systems won’t accept them, and it is not blanket permission to use accents on words in English that have them or need them for pronunciation. As the “Ask the Editor” feature says: accents are for “people, not places, things, foods, weather systems or anything else. So, no accent mark in entree, cafe, decor or jalapeno. (Of course, as always, you can do it differently if you choose.)” Yes, Beyoncé, no “résumé.”

Two other small changes to the AP style guide that may have big impact:

Split infinitives are okay! (Er, OK!) The previous entry said: “In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb (to leave, to help, etc.) or compound forms (had left, are found out, etc.” It continued: “Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey the meaning.”

The new entry says this: “In many cases, splitting the infinitive or compound forms of a verb is necessary to convey meaning and make a sentence easy to read. Such constructions are acceptable.” But: “If splitting a verb results in an awkward sentence, don’t do it.”

The myth that splitting an infinitive is somehow wrong is one of the hardest to kill. Perhaps it will now wither.

In another nod to sanity, the AP finally acknowledges that “data” can be singular. For years, the “data” entry said, “A plural noun, it normally takes plural verbs and pronouns,” but acknowledged that “data” could be a singular when regarded as a unit.

The new entry says: “The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.”

Finally, the AP has also come around to the belief that using “sic” is rarely advised. The old entry called for it to “show that quoted material or person’s words include a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage.” But as we’ve said, “sic” “can come off as snarky, giving a sense of “we know better,” at the expense of the original author.”

The new AP advice on “sic,” which now appears only in the “quotations in the news” section, is simple, mostly: “Do not use (sic) to show that quoted material or person’s words include a misspelling, incorrect grammar or peculiar usage.” If it has to be explained, explain it outside the quotation, or just paraphrase the quotation.

And AP has gone more our way on the use of intrusive parentheticals in quotations. “In general, avoid using parenthetical clarifications in quoted material,” the updated entry reads. “If such a clarification is needed, it’s almost always better to paraphrase. If the quote is essential, include the unclear word or phrase before the parenthetical clarification; deleting it creates questions in a reader’s mind.”

We can’t claim credit for those, but you’re welcome.

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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.