Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Now the treatment begins

Calm yourself. Help is at hand.

Earlier today this tweet went out from APStylebook on Twitter:

RT @emilynichols: there is little more beautiful than a freshly minted AP Stylebook. 2009! Is it wrong that I want to curl up and read it?

My re-tweet, one of a number of similar responses, simply began: God how sad.

Jason Wilson followed up to inquire:

Is this another sign that it's time to start organizing AP Stylebook interventions? This could be a new career for you.

Indeed it could. The doctor is IN.

The first thing to establish — you civilians can listen in to the session — is that The Associated Press Stylebook is not part of the Pentateuch. It is a handbook on certain conventions of writing, such as capitalization and abbreviation, along with advice on English usage and names of agencies and companies, and other miscellaneous information useful to journalists. It is not of divine origin or inspiration.

As such, it is one handbook among many: The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage; which chooses the opposite of AP usage in nearly every instance; the far more comprehensive Chicago Manual of Style, widely used in book publishing; the manual of the Government Printing Office for the manual productions of the federal government; and specialized handbooks for scientific and medical publications — none of which appear to induce ecstatic states when they publish new editions.

The point of such a stylebook is to establish consistency in practice to spare the reader distraction. So when there are two or more ways to write something — capitalized or lowercased, abbreviated or spelled out, a number written as a numeral or a word — a stylebook arbitrarily chooses one form. The AP Stylebook does not say that other choices are wrong, and some of the things it does say are not even right.

Now that APStylebook is on Twitter, it gleefully spreads such bursts of gush as the one above, to my mystification. The World Almanac is also on Twitter, but its readers don’t tweet that they stayed up all night reading this year’s edition. Perhaps it’s a copy editor phenomenon. Who else, after all, look into the AP Stylebook? (There’s precious little evidence that Associated Press reporters do.) Perhaps only a copy editor could quiver in delight at the prospect of discovering that rip off is preferred as a verb, rip-off as a noun; that heroes is the plural of hero (This is new?); that Pledge of Allegiance is capitalized — all part of the feast spread before the reader of the 2009 edition.

A further part of the excitement on the copy desk is the scope a new edition will give exegetes to convert guidelines into Rules. One example: When I was first at The Sun, my work was checked by a copy editor who was adamant that half a mile had to be changed in all instances to a half-mile, because AP said so. It was years later that Bill Walsh confirmed my suspicion of this dictum by writing in Lapsing into a Comma that no, both expressions are correct, and AP merely means that you have to use a hyphen if you pick the latter.

Now you have the pathology. Here is the treatment. You do not have to surrender your beloved AP Stylebook, which, for good or ill, is embedded as the house style of numerous publications. But the road to health lies in growing beyond it. Buy Brother Walsh’s book. There’s a new edition out of Garner on Usage, which you should find particularly well-informed and helpful. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage will fill many gaps in your education, particularly if your degree is in journalism.

Take a deep, cleansing breath. Get up from the computer and walk to the nearest window. Look out. There is a wider world there than is circumscribed by the AP Stylebook. Try to keep a little perspective.


  1. The AP Stylebook's Twitter feed mystifies me too. I read its updates in a state of pained amusement, as though playing a masochistic children's game: can I bear yet another self-congratulatory scoop, culled from what seem to be neverending searches for evidence of Stylebook-devotion?

    The book itself has its uses, but as you point out, it is one of many such publications, and one that compares unfavourably in certain cases.

  2. Though MWDEU is available on line, MWCDEU (Concise) can be bought in paper, and although it is abridged, it is also updated.

  3. @APStylebook is the model of what's wrong with Twitter. Ask it an actual AP style question and it whines about how it's too busy to help people. Gush generically about the actual book and it goes out of its way to publicize it.

    It doesn't even post updates to AP style guidelines, which would go a long way toward redeeming its value. Only paying subscribers get those, one e-mail per item but always three or four within a day, spaced out between minutes or hours like water torture but with words.

  4. This tweet --

    RoxanneCooke Oh come on, it's a nerdy editor thing!

    -- tells me that I could have made the point more clearly above. If you aspire to or are comfortable with nerdity, there are much more complex and sophisticated avenues for it than the AP Stylebook. Show a little ambition.

  5. When the 15th edition of Chicago came out, I was interested to see what the differences were, but curl up and read it? Heavens no. I may be a nerdy editor, but I still have a life. And Chicago is actually a pretty good style guide, while AP is, in my humble opinion, dreck.

  6. I have never seen "The Jerk," but I've seen the clip in which Steve Martin's character is overcome by joy at the arrival of the telephone directory. "The new phone books are here!" he screams, waving one around like a revival preacher with a Bible. Can't imagine why I thought of that just now.

    The AP Stylebook is handy, but it's hardly the final word, and it's not nearly has helpful as it could be. Many is the time that I've sought its guidance on a point of usage or grammar and found it mute.

    Also, "bursts of gush"? Nice.