Language Corner

New AP Stylebook guidelines, influenced by #MeToo, hurricanes, and online polls

May 7, 2018
Image via Unsplash.

Last week, we discussed the change in the Associated Press Stylebook that allows a “collision” between one moving object and one stationary object. This week, we’ll talk about some other recent changes in the Stylebook.

Introducing style changes at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing has become something of a tradition. In the past years, some of those changes have been momentous (in the style world, at least), such as taking the hyphen out of “e-mail” or allowing “over” to indicate quantitative relationships as well as spatial. (Full disclosure: This columnist is a member of both the ACES executive committee and its Education Fund scholarship arm.)

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When stylebooks were available only in print and updated once a year, changes could be “announced” with greater fanfare. But with the electronic stylebook, entries are updated much more frequently, though the printed book itself is still just printed annually. Most of the changes we discuss here have been in effect for a few weeks or months, but may not have been noticed.

As one example, the AP announced a new chapter on surveys and polling before the ACES conference, consolidating information that had been scattered throughout the stylebook and updating some entries. One change is that, according to the lead stylebook editor, Paula Froke, some online polls where people choose to participate might be considered reliable, though they would need to be rigorously vetted.

The old entry said that these polls, called “opt-in” polls, “cannot be considered representative of larger populations because panel members are self-selected.”

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Even so, Froke emphasized, “the mere existence of a poll isn’t enough to make news.”

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Responding to increased coverage of #MeToo, the AP also revised its guidelines for terminology surrounding the movement, preferring “sexual misconduct” to “sexual harassment.” “Harassment has legal but broad definitions,” Froke said, and sometimes “harassment” may be too mild for the behavior being alleged. She urged that the reporting specify the behavior under discussion, and to use “sexual misconduct” in more broad-based instances.

Similarly, AP now advises caution on using terms such as “victim” and “survivor.” As we wrote in 2015, the words label people, whereas the condition that affected them should bear the brunt. Froke noted that the terms can be “imprecise, with shades of meaning,” such as describing someone who escaped from a mass shooting without injury in the same manner as someone who was injured. Rather than say “a victim of the shooting,” AP advises:

Be specific if there is room for confusion: The ceremony honored people wounded in the mass shooting, not The ceremony honored victims and/or survivors of the mass shooting. The play told the story of those killed in the hurricane, not The play told the stories of the hurricane’s victims.

Speaking of hurricanes, AP has come out against the practice of naming storms other than hurricanes and typhoons: “Major storm names provided by government weather agencies, the European Union or the World Meteorological Organization are acceptable. Do not use names created by private weather agencies or other organizations.” (We discussed this practice by the Weather Channel in 2012.) AP also says that wildfires should not be given names, especially if they refer to an area unfamiliar to most readers. “Use descriptors to identify a fire,” the entry now reads. “For example: the deadly fire burning near San Diego.”

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People who work together for the same task or company are “co-workers,” the AP says. But if those people individually rent shared space in a building, they are “coworking,” without the hyphen. That created some consternation among the editors in the audience, who wanted to know why the distinction was being made.

“The emerging usage is coworking,” Froke said. Since they are two types of activities, keeping the hyphen in “co-worker” “draws the divide between those two types of definitions.”

Language is quirky, and trying to adapt to what people want can be quirky, too. Froke noted how the large discount chain based in Bentonville, Arkansas, has several times changed the way it wanted its name rendered: Wal-mart? Walmart? Wal-Mart? Wal*mart? So Froke announced a new style guideline: The company would henceforth be known as “Wal**mart!” It took a few moments before some in the audience realized she was kidding.

One change AP did not make. “No, we are not making health care one word,” Froke told a packed (and disappointed) room at the ACES conference in Chicago. “Love it or hate it.” While industry documents often render it as “healthcare,” she said, most government documents still use two words, and AP’s Washington editors advised keeping it that way for now.

But Steve Kleinedler, an editor for Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one the AP uses, offered an out: “We follow what people do,” he said. “If everyone decided tomorrow to make healthcare a compound…”

We’re willing to bet that by next year, we will be writing how “healthcare” is now acceptable by the AP.

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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.