Let the AP Stylebook explain it all to you …

For many people – not just journalists but also business and tech writers – the Associated Press’ AP Stylebook is something of a Bible when it comes to adhering to proper presentation of the written English language.

There are other style guides out there – FranklinCovey is another popular resource – but the AP Stylebook has been the “go-to source” for so many decades, it’s hard not to think of it as the ultimate arbiter of what’s considered “proper” in written communications.

This vaunted reputation is why so many people take notice whenever new revisions to the AP Stylebook are released.  The most recent ones, published within the past few months – all 991 of them – are in some cases eyebrow-raising.

Reading through them, it appears that the Associated Press has gone all-in on “keeping up with changing times” by tackling a wide range of sometimes-provocative topics.  Here are some examples:

  • AP is weighing in on environmental terminology, contending that “climate change” is a more accurate scientific term than “global warming.”
  • References to people with disabilities should now exclude descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “battling” or “suffers from.” Moreover, referring to a disability as a “handicap” is no longer appropriate.
  • The word “mistress” should no longer be used to describe a woman involved in a relationship with a married man (although rendering judgments about “paramour” or “kept man,” common references to the male version of the same, are noticeably absent from the guidelines).
  • On ethnic/racial topics, the term Black is now preferred over “African American.” What’s more, the term should always be capitalized whenever used.  (No similar pronouncement is made about capitalizing the word “white” in the same context.)
  • When it comes to age demographics, “senior citizen” and “elderly” are no longer appropriate terminology. Instead, the reference should be to “older adult” or “older person.”

But the most extensive new guidelines in the updated AP Stylebook are the 11 paragraphs and 22 specific examples presented under the heading “gender-neutral language.”

Banished are terms like “businessman,” “manpower,” “man-made,” “salesman” and “mankind.”  In their place are “businessperson,” “crews,” “human-made,” “salesperson” and “humanity.”

“Freshman” is now also frowned upon – but at least the replacement term isn’t the awkward-sounding “freshperson,” but rather “first-year student.”

While AP is to be commended for attempting to keep current on cultural changes, let’s hope that its efforts don’t devolve into the level of parody; some may think that it already has.

But I do have one question:  When will AP finally acknowledge that the entire world is using U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for state names – and has been doing so for well-nigh decades now?

These days, it seems that nobody other than AP is writing “Ore.” for “OR,” to cite just one example among 50.  Tenaciously holding on to outmoded state abbreviations — when no one else is doing so — seems almost like a nervous tic on AP’s part.  (Or is “nervous tic” yet another descriptor we can no longer use?)

What are your thoughts about the newest AP Stylebook guidelines?  Right on the money … or blunt overkill?  Please share your views with other readers here.

3 thoughts on “Let the AP Stylebook explain it all to you …

  1. Within the past three years or so, I’ve observed a sharp increase in profanity appearing within mainstream print publications. Presumably their writers and editors consult the AP Stylebook regularly, but I have consulted the Stylebook and can confirm that it doesn’t offer any specific guidance on what sorts of profanity are appropriate, or not.

    Not so long ago, profanity of any kind was completely taboo. No one needed a guidebook to remind them of that.

    I think this trend is evidence that the AP Stylebook is devolving — not into parody, but irrelevance.

  2. The trick here is to maintain truth while diminishing pointless insult.

    Where we get into trouble is when we deliberately change words to obscure the truth. A politically correct San Francisco schoolteacher chided me recently for saying “illegal aliens” instead of “undocumented workers”. My passport had expired at the time, and so I was “undocumented”. But I didn’t break into the country illegally, which is what this description is designed to hide.

    Is a burglar an “undocumented visitor”? Yes, well …

  3. I presume that the premises of the stylebook are predicated principally upon American English rather than British English or any other accepted and recognised English usage.

    That said, you select some interesting cases here.

    • AP is weighing in on environmental terminology, contending that “climate change” is a more accurate scientific term than “global warming”.

    Good; it is indeed more accurate.

    • References to people with disabilities should now exclude descriptions that connote pity, such as “afflicted with,” “battling” or “suffers from.” Moreover, referring to a disability as a “handicap” is no longer appropriate.

    The first of these is fair enough insofar as it goes, I guess, even if only to the extent that those who have contracted the conditions concerned are implicitly “afflicted with” them and likely to be “suffering from” them, although “battling” them is arguably less appropriate because dealing with a disabling disease is not analogous to participation in war.

    The second, however, seems rather silly, since a “disability” reduces or makes more difficult the disabled person’s ability to do certain things and that is surely a “handicap”.

    • The word “mistress” should no longer be used to describe a woman involved in a relationship with a married man (although rendering judgments about “paramour” or “kept man,” common references to the male version of the same, are noticeably absent from the guidelines).

    That’s all very well except, it seems to me, for two things; firstly, no explanation appears to be given as to why that particular usage of them term is to be frowned upon and, secondly, because no “more appropriate” substitute appears to be recommended.

    • On ethnic/racial topics, the term Black is now preferred over “African American.” What’s more, the term should always be capitalized whenever used. (No similar pronouncement is made about capitalizing the word “white” in the same context.)

    This one is a real minefield!

    Whilst this recommendation seems to take on board the obvious fact that by no means all non-whites are “African American”, the term “Black” is equally uninformative and, frankly, misleading; we all know what the colour black is, yet even the darkest skinned humans whom I have ever seen – a couple of Congolese – were not “black” per se.

    I’m unsure what term/s should be used to denote different skin pigmentations, as this is a complex issue, so I wonder whether referring instead to the nationalities or racial origins of people might serve as a less inadequate substitute for the attempt to find the most effective descriptors here.

    Yes, if “Black”, then “White”, but the mere consistency of capitalisation is no aid to descriptive accuracy!

    • When it comes to age demographics, “senior citizen” and “elderly” are no longer appropriate terminology. Instead, the reference should be to “older adult” or “older person”.

    None of these is appropriate, really; the problem with those to be replaced is broadly identical to that of both recommendations here in that they omit to clarify “senior” to whom” and “older” than what or whom – and “elderly” is meaningless.

    Banished are terms like “businessman,” “manpower,” “man-made,” “salesman” and “mankind.” In their place are “businessperson,” “crews,” “human-made,” “salesperson” and “humanity.”

    Fair enough, except that “humanity” already has an accepted and established meaning as a beneficial human quality so does not always mean “the human race”; “humankind” is the best substitute here and is indeed already in widespread use.

    “Freshman” is now also frowned upon – but at least the replacement term isn’t the awkward-sounding “freshperson,” but rather “first-year student”.

    This, too, is fair enough.

    It still, however, leaves other examples such as “chairperson” in place of “chairman”, whose clumsiness and inelegance when used to describe a female occupying such a rôle has on occasion given rise to the ridiculous substitution “chair”, which leads to the question as to which of us occupying such a rôle would be comfortable with being described as a piece of furniture?

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