Language Corner

The AP and the latest style

April 29, 2021

If you have a printed copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, even the 2020 edition, you’re out of date. In fact, if you haven’t looked at the AP stylebook online since April 23, you’re already out of date. 

At this time of year, the AP usually announces some of its more important style changes at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. Those changes would often cause a stir, because they would be intended for that year’s print stylebook and would first appear in the online stylebook after the ACES announcement. (Full disclosure: this columnist is a member of the ACES executive committee.)

But, as with so much else these days, things are different. No new AP print edition will appear this year: as AP said last year, it is switching publication of the print book to every other year, and it will not include every entry. And AP reserved fewer of its changes for the virtual ACES conference, opting instead to make many more changes that applied to coverage of quick-moving news events—including the pandemic and social-justice movements—during the year.

So, if you hadn’t noticed, “Uighurs” became “Uyghurs,” to better reflect the transliteration from the Arabic alphabet; injuries can be “sustained” or “received,” not just “suffered” (though just saying “she was injured” is shorter); and it’s fine to use “PPE” on second reference for “personal protection equipment,” a term so newly familiar that it wasn’t even in the 2020 print edition.

The 2020 print edition does include “coronavirus” and “COVID-19,” which just squeaked in before publication. But the online stylebook has a host of new and revised entries on the virus, among other things that we will cover later.

A new entry explains that “vaccine” and “vaccination” are often interchangeable. That entry was responding to many queries to the “Ask the Editor” feature of the online stylebook, Paula Froke, the lead stylebook editor, told ACES. It notes that a vaccine is not a drug, a medicine, or a serum, and it should not be called an “anti-COVID-19” or “anti-coronavirus” vaccine; drop the “anti-.” But “anti-vaxxer” should be avoided except in quotes, the stylebook says, especially because it is used mostly by people in favor of vaccinations.

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The “epidemic, pandemic” entry was revised to alter the definition of a pandemic as “an epidemic that has spread worldwide”—a definition rarely used outside of the AP, Froke said. It has been replaced with “a pandemic is an epidemic that has spread wider, usually to multiple countries or continents, affecting a large number of people.”

The stylebook now advises against using numbers given to variants of the current coronavirus, such as B.1.1.7 for the one first identified in Britain. And it also recommends against using country labels like the “South African variant,” keeping in line with the World Health Organization’s move from assigning geographic, individual, or animal names to diseases to avoid stigmatization. Instead, the stylebook advises, use wording like “the variant first detected in South Africa.”

A new “Pandemic Economy Topical Guide” differentiates between a “furlough,” when people are “let go by an employer but considered on a leave of absence,” and a “layoff,” which is considered a permanent end of that employment.

Another business-related entry explains the difference between a “recession” and a “depression”: “A recession is a falling-off of economic activity that may be a temporary phenomenon or could continue into a depression.” It notes that the National Bureau of Economic Research is responsible for formally declaring a recession. And another entry now allows calling the March 2020 coronavirus relief the CARES Act, because that’s what people have been using, but advises limiting use of American Rescue Plan for the March 2021 bill, because it is not yet a common term. But the stylebook says, “Do not refer to any of these as a stimulus, a stimulus package, etc. The measures had been intended to replace money lost in the collapse of the economy, rather than to stimulate demand.”

In nonpandemic matters, the stylebook continues to evolve its guidance for covering race and ethnicity.

One new entry changes “anti-Semitism” to “antisemitism.” Froke said the “conversation bubbled up over the past year or two,” and cited a decision by the Anti-Defamation League, among others, to change its spelling as a big influence. The entry notes that critics of the hyphenated-and-capitalized style suggested “it could give credence to the idea that Jews are a separate race,” and also notes the racist motives behind calling Jews “Semites”: “The term was coined in the 19th century by the German writer Wilhelm Marr, who opposed efforts to extend the full rights of German citizenship to Jews. He asserted that Jews were Semites — descended from the Semitic peoples of the Middle East and thus racially different from (and threatening to) Germany’s Aryans. This racist pseudoscience was applied only to Jews, not Arabs.”

The overview to the “race-related coverage” entry has additional wording: “Be aware that some words and phrases that seem innocuous to one group can carry negative connotations, even be seen as slurs, to another.” (The guide offers “thug” as an example.) The stylebook also added some definitions of “systemic racism,” “structural racism,” and “institutional racism.”

Since the most recent print edition, the AP decided to capitalize Black, but advises using an individual’s identity, if known. (Froke said that while “white” remains lowercase when used as a racial identifier, “that’s subject to further discussion down the road.”) The stylebook now capitalizes “Indigenous.” Of “brown” as an identifying label, it says, “Avoid this broad and imprecise term in racial, ethnic or cultural references” because “Interpretations of what the term includes vary widely.” “People of color” is acceptable in “broad references to multiple races other than white,” the stylebook advises, though many people object to the term in part because it “lumps together into one monolithic group anyone who isn’t white.” And it advises, as so many entries now do, to “Be specific whenever possible.” 

New entries define “Pacific Islanders” (“the Indigenous people of the Pacific Islands, including but not limited to Hawaii, Guam and Samoa”). AP suggests avoiding the acronym “AAPI,” for “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders,” because, it says, the acronym is not yet familiar enough with people from outside those communities. And the race-related coverage entry says, “do not describe Pacific Islanders as Asian Americans, Asians or of Asian descent,” unless the person identifies as such. “Avoid using Asian as shorthand for Asian American,” the stylebook advises. 

The stylebook includes a new entry on “ableism,” a form of discrimination comprising “the belief that typical abilities — those of people who aren’t disabled — are superior.” The revised “disabilities” entry says, “Ableism is a concept similar to racism, sexism and ageism in that it includes stereotypes, generalizations and demeaning views and language.” While the disabilities entry is “a work in progress,” Froke said, its updated wording warns against lightly using terms like “moronic,” “psychotic,” “demented,” “blind,” “falls on deaf ears,” and the like. That entry also now adds, “Words that seem innocuous to some people can have specific and deeply personal or offensive meetings to others. Consider alternative phrasing.”

Some in the audience wondered about the uppercasing of COVID instead of rendering it as “Covid” or “covid” as it appears elsewhere. Froke said the original decision to make it uppercase was in part because that was the health community’s preference, and to keep it parallel with SARS and MERS and in line with other acronyms in the AP stylebook. The health community seems to be still using COVID more than any other rendering, she said.

“I can’t say it will never change,” Froke said. Even so, “The minute we change, half of you will love it and half of you will say, ‘Oh, my God, you changed just for the sake of change.’”

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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.