Language Corner

From cyberattacks to fake news: notable recent changes in AP style

April 3, 2017

Last week, we wrote of a major style change by The Associated Press and The Chicago Manual of Style, allowing “they” as a singular pronoun in some circumstances. More on that later.

More on that later. Lost in the hubbub of that change were other style changes announced by the AP, whose style manual is used by many if not most news organizations.

Most of them are far less earth-shattering, but still useful.

For example, AP has included guidelines on what a “cyberattack” is and, more importantly, what it is not.

A cyberattack is “A computer operation carried out over a device or network that causes physical damage or significant and wide-ranging disruption,” the new entry says. “The term is routinely overused.”

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For example, “A computer intrusion that causes damage—i.e., to machinery at a steel mill—or injury or death is unquestionably a cyberattack.” Theft of data on its own, AP says, is not necessarily an “attack” unless “its theft or release causes panic or dramatic financial losses,” such as the sudden publication of millions of credit card numbers or medical records. Similarly, nuisance intrusions, like defacing a website or temporarily denying access to it, would not rise to the level of “cyberattack” unless, for example, it prevents “millions of customers and businesses from making payments or receiving money for an extended length of time.” Instead, something like that should be considered vandalism, the way graffiti on the building would be.

Other AP entries look to similarly tamp down hyperbole. An “incident,” for example, is a “minor event,” the stylebook says. “Anything that causes death, injury, notable damage and the like is not an incident.” The new entry lines up with “mishap,” which AP already cautioned against using when death or injury was involved.

Then there’s a new entry, “fact checks, fake news.” Torn straight from the headlines, as they say.

Holding politicians and public figures accountable for their words often requires reporting or research to verify facts that affirm or disprove a statement, or that show a gray area.

Fact-checking also is essential in debunking fabricated stories or parts of stories done as hoaxes, propaganda, jokes or for other reasons, often spread widely on the internet and mistaken as truth by some news consumers.

The term fake news may be used in quotes or as shorthand for the modern phenomenon of deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet.

However, do not label as fake news specific or individual news items that are disputed.

In all cases, the goal of fact-checking is to push back on falsehoods, exaggeration and political spin. Be specific in describing what is false and back up those descriptions with facts.

All these new entries require a writer or editor to think about which guidelines apply in a specific situation. But many people just want to know what to do, and don’t want to have to think.

Which brings us to last week’s announcement that both AP and Chicago are accepting the singular “they” in certain circumstances.

It was, of course, broadly misinterpreted. Many tweets, shares, and comments indicated many people think how wonderful it is that they can use “they” in a sentence like “everyone has their own views of grammar,” or how awful it is that “they” can now be used in that sense.

Neither is true. Both manuals eased the prohibition on “they” as a singular pronoun when referring to people whose gender is not known, or when speaking generically with a singular like “everyone.” AP notes that “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.” (Emphasis added.)

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In other words, if you resort to the clumsy “every person should pay attention to his or her teacher,” try rewriting it to something like “you should pay attention to your teacher,” or “all students should pay attention to their teacher.” If you absolutely can’t come up with something equivalent, only then can you resort to “every person here should pay attention to their teacher.” And we’ve already proved you can rewrite it.

Chicago’s Carol Saller told the ACES audience that she knew the “they” entry would be misinterpreted, and so cited the relevant passage in the forthcoming 17th edition:

They and their have become common in informal usage, but neither is considered fully acceptable in formal writing, though they are steadily gaining ground. For now, unless you are given guidelines to the contrary, be wary of using these forms in a singular sense.” (Emphasis added.)

Both manuals encourage the use of “they” only when an individual does not identify themself as “he” or “she.” It’s a gender identity issue, not a grammar one. (Chicago allows “themself,” but AP still wants “themselves.”)

But because (regrettably) people rarely think of nuances in grammar, only “right” or “wrong,” we’re betting it won’t be long before all uses of “they” as a singular will be acceptable for everyone, no matter their grammatical bent. After all, we’ve been using it that way for hundreds of years; it’s only in the last hundred years or so that it has been considered inappropriate. In this case, returning to the old ways would be a good thing.

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.