The history of The New York Times stylebook

Photo by Andy Robinson

The Associated Press didn’t call its advice a “stylebook” until 1950. As we saw in the past couple of weeks, the AP’s early iterations of guidelines concentrated on the mechanics of typesetting and transmission rather than language and usage.

The New York Times, though, was an early adopter. It started calling its guidebook a “style book” sometime before 1928. (Our library of Times stylebooks goes back only that far, and that one is “revised.”) And, unlike the AP, the early Times stylebooks spent about half its length on consistency in spelling, grammar, and usage. The other half dealt with how to typeset certain content, as in this: “Indent all agate hanging matter under real estate a nut quad.” Try telling that to a web developer today.

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Unlike AP’s early guides, there was no grandiose statement of purpose or journalism in the early Times stylebooks. That came later. But The Times was not above taking a bite out of the hands that fed it: “The style does not apply strictly to advertisements,” the 1928 stylebook says. “Judgment must be used, and allowances made for the intelligence (or lack of intelligence) and evident intention of the advertiser.”

Like the AP’s guidelines over the years, the Times Style Book kept getting bigger. From a 70-page pamphlet in 1928 to a 99-page 5 x 7 booklet (with a dozen extra pages for revisions) in 1937, it went hardcover in the 1950s. (Full disclosure: This columnist worked on the 1999 revision of what is now called The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.)

As expected, style guidelines reflect their eras. In 1928, The Times advised lowercasing “bolshevism,” but wanted “Bolshevik,” “Bolsheviki,” and “Bolshevist”; omitted the period in “per cent.” (Whoever used that?); used “&c.” for “etc.”; and hyphenated the nouns “break-down,” “hold-up,” “round-up,” “strike-out,” and “walk-over.” But “layout,” “lookout,” “tryout,” “setback,” and a few others were listed as exceptions.

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“Approved spellings” from 1928 included “aeronaut,” “calibre,” “fungous” for the adjective but “fungus” for the noun, “theatre,” and “unforgetable.” It kept with the AP on not doubling the consonant in “totaled” and “canceled,” but wanted the double consonant in “kidnapped.”

Times—and The Times—change, and the spelling list of common words in the 1950 edition more than tripled. “Aeronaut” flew away, “caliber” was Americanized, all mentions of fungus had cleared up, and “unforgettable” had remembered its second “t.” As for “theatre,” it appeared only in the shadow of “theatregoer.”

Among the new words in the 1950 edition were “telecast,” “tête-à-tête” with all its accents, “sea bass,” “infra-red,” “outré” for “exaggerated” but “outre” for “beyond.” (“Outre” appeared again in the 1956 edition, but was gone by 1962, when the manual also became self-indexing, and far fewer spellings were included. Was it a typo?)

In 1950, The Times restored its earlier practice of using periods in abbreviations of government bureaus and the like, as in “F.B.I.” “The experience of several years, in which periods in such abbreviations have been omitted, leads to the conclusion that the former rule produced confusion and oddities, both in headlines and text, which were unintelligible to readers.” Confusion would reign, for example, if the World Health Organization appeared without periods in all-capitalized headline this way: “WHO IS CALLED RESPONSIBLE FOR ENDING POLIO.” The Times is one of the few publications to still use all-capital headlines.

That convention of using periods in initialisms has remained unchanged, as have some other points of Times style. “Tranquillity” has one “l” fewer in much of the world, but it has kept that spelling in The Times since at least 1928. A “mustache” has never had an “o” in The Times, and “archaeology” has always kept its diphthong, though never rendered as “æ.”

Even a modern (human) browser of the 1928 edition would recognize The Times from the typography alone. There, on Page 53, is a variation of what The Times still calls an “A head,” the lead article on the print page. Though the modern version has fewer decks, and those typefaces have been redesigned somewhat, it’s still what makes The Times, The Times. 

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.