Language Corner

AP announces new policy over the term ‘collision’

April 30, 2018
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The Associated Press has changed the laws of physics. Sorta, kinda.

At the annual introduction of new style guidelines presented at the conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, Paula Froke, the lead editor for the Associated Press Stylebook, said AP would no longer require that two bodies must be in motion for a “collision” to happen.

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A collision of hands broke out when this was announced, because copy editors.

Some explanation is in order. For decades, the AP has insisted that, as its previous entry said, “Two objects must be in motion before they can collide. A moving train cannot collide with a stopped train.”

As is true of so many style rules, this was more honor’d in the breach than in the observance, as Shakespeare would put it.

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For example, here is a safety report from the Stanford Daily that shows three apparent violations of the stylebook, assuming the Daily follows it:

Wednesday, Mar. 7

  • Between 11 a.m. and 10:15 p.m., a vehicle collided with a parked vehicle in the Stock Farm South Parking Lot.
  • At 4:35 p.m., a vehicle collided with a fixed object at the intersection of Serra Street and Campus Drive.
  • At 4:40 p.m., a vehicle collided with a parked vehicle at 600 Serra Mall. (Emphasis added.)

But at the time that was written, it actually complied with the AP Stylebook, perhaps inadvertently, because the rule had been dropped on Feb. 21, according to the online stylebook. Apparently, no one noticed.

Maybe copy editors aren’t as attentive as they should be …

Froke said the change was made because users had complained that it was outdated. Truth is, that’s been true for a long time. As we wrote in (ahem) 2009:

Dictionary definitions of “collide” have no requirement for the number of objects that must be in motion. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the choice of many news organizations, says merely that “collide” means “to come into violent contact; strike violently against each other; crash” or “to come into conflict; clash.” The objects merely must come together with force.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage believes that a string of newspaper editors beginning with William Cullen Bryant in 1877 may have foisted this usage on an unsuspecting readership.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage maintains the distinction, for now: “Only two objects in motion can collide. If the phrase collided with seems to fix blame, avoid it by using this construction: a truck and a bus collided.

So how does that change the law of physics? Have you forgotten Newton’s three laws?

The First Law of Motion states that the motion of an object can change only through force of inertia. The Second Law of Motion says that the greater the mass, the more force is needed to move it. And the Third Law of Motion states that for every reaction, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

As a ThoughtCo post says, Newton’s laws mean the outcome depends on whether an object “collides” with something that is stationary or something that is moving. So under the old AP style guide, collisions were “elastic,” meaning both objects were moving, and both objects bounced apart. But now, collisions could be “inelastic,” where only one object bounces back. That would be when a car hits a wall, or a train hits a stalled car.

It’s nice to see that the AP has gotten more “elastic” over the years.

Next week, some more style changes. As Colleen Newvine, the AP product manager, told the ACES crowd: “We’re not expecting any audible gasps.”

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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.