The Associated Press Stylebook has been the gold standard for arbitrating style for journalists and for other professional writers for decades. However, that gold may be tarnishing with age — and AP may be recognizing this — as the wire service guide recently made some changes to the time-honored bible for writers.
It all started in March, when AP changed its rule to allow use of “over” to also mean “more than.” Some said the change was overdue, but most traditionalists disagreed that it was more than due.
More recently, AP has decided to spell out states completely (when used with a city, town, village or military base). Previously, the AP had its own unique manner of abbreviating states’ names — unique in that it was a third way — neither completely spelled out nor abbreviated with two capital letters in accordance with U.S. Postal Service practices. Hence, Arizona was known to AP initiates as “Ariz.” Ariz. also might be Frank Zappa’s previously unknown daughter.
Keeping in mind the scarcity of ink and column-inch resources inherent to 20th century print, it would have made the most sense for AP to have followed the lead of the Postal Service in 1963, when that respected national institution took to the two-letter path to make room on the envelope for its new ZIP code. Or, when given a second chance to do so in circa 2014; a time when a tweet stops at 140 characters and a text at 160, every letter literally counts. But that’s OK, AP, go ahead and say to spell them all out. After all, we’ve blindly followed you for this long.
AP generally arbitrates for the sake of consistency, which tends to support clarity. Except when it doesn’t. Hence, when every taxpaying American knows MO from MD, for consistency but not clarity did AP stick to its timeworn abbreviating practice up to now.
So if change is in the air at AP HQ, might I suggest a few additional moves?
AP continues to insist on not requiring the state name after some well-known cities. Some are famous and some are infamous, which, according to fictional philologist Ned Nederlander, means “more than famous.”
As mentioned, in the heady 1900s, it made good sense to save ink and space resources, and omitting “Calif.” after “Los Angeles” or “Wisc.” following “Milwaukee” helped. Heck, it would have made sense to include dozens more cities than the current 30. Barring obvious “me-toos” like Columbus, Anywhere, or Springfield, Everystate, other passed-over metros include Wichita, Sacramento, Scranton and Orlando. Oklahoma City stands alone but Buffalo doesn’t? Where’s the logic? Where’s the love?
Since you can’t do for all, you shouldn’t do for any, AP. All the current rule does is compel retired English teachers to write to our editors to complain that we forgot to include “California” after “San Francisco” in the article — but of course, not “CA.”
Percent vs. %
Percent, yes; %, no, says AP. Really? This one speaks for itself — in fact, 92% of the people sitting with me in this coffee shop as I write this agree with my position. Keep it simple, clean and clear, AP. With that assertion, I fully expect the counterargument that it’s a slippery slope toward text-speak journalism: “POTUS 2 meet @ embassy 2day …”
The guidance for how to write months is one of a number of examples of AP being consistently inconsistent with its guidance. Month only? Spell the whole thing out. Month and a date? Abbreviate to three letters and add a period. Unless you’re using March, April, May, June or July. But if used in a table, again abbreviate to three letters, but this time, omit the period. Period.
This is just as goofy as that “i before e except after c” baloney we learned about in third grade, which no one but your third grade English teacher — the same one now writing letters to the editor — really understands. To all the weird beige foreign deities out there — am I right?
What if we picked a single rule — the best, clearest and easiest-to-remember-and-use rule — and applied it in all uses? I nominate the way they say to do it with tables. Can’t we just do it that way, in all uses, AP?
Numbers — Where the Exceptions Are the Rules
Numbers less than 10, spell out. Easy enough. Except for all the exceptions. Like for money. Or time. Or ages. Naturally.
But wait, there’s more! Dates, highways, speeds and dimensions — if the digit is less than 10, then use the number, not the word. Oh yeah, this applies to percents as well: 6 percent. Not six percent. And certainly not six%.
Of course, AP — or the AP (both are correct, according to AP) — is in the business of arbitrating. But people don’t much care for decisions made that seem arbitrary — decisions that seem willy-nilly, to use National Institute of Standards and Technology jargon. People want to understand — if not also agree with — the logic behind a decision. The case for the changes I’ve called for — admittedly, they are tops among my own AP pet peeves — are frustrating to me because they don’t seem to have any good sense behind them.
Ironically, given AP’s understood goals of consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity, I’d suggest that many more changes are needed. In short, I strongly encourage these new change agents running amok at the AP to further enact their current biases, with the following broad objectives:
- Adopt style that is conventional and common in daily use and in business or professional writing — veer yours toward the lingua franca of every other environment beyond the newsroom.
- Adopt a less-is-more approach to arbitration decisions. Jan not Jan. or January. TX not Texas. % not percent.
- Adopt a less-is-more approach to the degree to which you are compelled to arbitrate at all. We don’t pay for Stylebooks by the word count, so don’t feel compelled to over-arbitrate terms like “health care” (not “healthcare”). Please; we can think out here in J-land / PR-ville, if you’ll let us.
- Keep keeping up — not just by adding new words, but by adjusting style accordingly. Kudos on email and website, nee e-mail and Web site. Consistency is great, and language is fluid.
Seeing that the AP Stylebook is a bible to so many, I fully expect to be charged with heresy and burned at the stake for this essay. If so, I hope there’s an enlightened Obits editor there to tweak AP’s nose, by abbreviating my home state the way that the Postmaster General and 300 million Americans would best understand it: simply “KS.”
*No State Necessary
Jeffrey M. Bishop, APR, has been practicing public relations for almost 20 years for the U.S. Air Force, in the corporate setting and now with the federal government. He is an active local leader for the Boy Scouts of America, and is a member of PRSA’s Transitioning Military Public Affairs Task Force’s Moving Veterans Forward project, a national effort to help recently-separated public affairs service members with career transition and employment support. He publishes short fiction and line art at ScurryTails.com and blogs at ChurchDeconstructed.com.