Language — and Editing Rules — Constantly Evolve

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By Melanie Padgett Powers


There’s always an audience gasp when the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook editors announce their changes for the year. I don’t think anything illustrates “word nerd” more than that gasp. A few years ago, the gasp occurred after AP editors said they were allowing AP Stylebook users to say “over” when referring to numbers, not just “more than,” as in “over 800 people attend the conference every year.” A year or so after that, the gasp happened when the editors announced they would no longer capitalize “internet.”


These legendary editing gasps happen each year during a session reserved for the AP Stylebook changes at the annual meeting of ACES–the Society for Editing (formerly known as the American Copy Editors Society). I’ve attended this gathering — the leading conference for copy editors and other types of editors — since 2015. Most of the AP changes are easy-to-understand updates, but ACES overall is full of nuance and debate. While it’s fun to pretend-argue over whether “internet” should be capitalized or not, ACES is so much more than that.


Language continuously evolves, reflecting our ever-changing society. The editors I know through ACES are the first to point out that our duty as editors is always to the reader: Always make the choice that simplifies the sentence and the paragraph for your audience. Your job is not to follow an established set of rules, without question, just because they’re rules.


Editors who attend ACES tend to be “descriptivists.” They aim to study how people use language and then record rules and grammar around that. In my experience, it tends to be non-editors who hang onto arcane rules that “should be” followed. These people are “prescriptivists.” They follow rules because they are rules — or because their third-grade teacher told them so long ago. Think of your co-worker who swears you should never end a sentence with a preposition (hogwash) or your friend who tells you splitting an infinitive is wrong (poppycock).


Editors at ACES have also taught me the importance of inclusive language, which is just that: including all your readers. Inclusive language is language free of words, phrases, or tones that reflect prejudiced, stereotyped, or discriminatory views of particular people or groups. It does not exclude people — whether deliberately or inadvertently — from part of a group. It’s one of the reasons so many of us at ACES support “singular they.” Singular they is inclusive, easier to read and understand, and serves all readers best.


One of AP’s changes this year was a direct result of one editor pushing AP to be more inclusive. As of March, AP no longer hyphenates “African American” (as a noun or adjective) or other words that reflect dual heritage, such as Asian American and Mexican American.


In 2018, Henry Fuhrmann, a veteran copy editor formerly at the Los Angeles Times, wrote a blog post for the Conscious Style Guide called “Drop the Hyphen in Asian American.”


Fuhrmann said, “Those hyphens serve to divide even as they are meant to connect. Their use in racial and ethnic identifiers can connote an otherness, a sense that people of color are somehow not full citizens or fully American: part American, sure, but also something not American.”


The AP credited Fuhrmann and his blog post this year with its decision to drop the hyphen.


The AP has also thoroughly updated its section on race, creating a “race-related coverage” section that gathered together multiple entries on race from throughout the book. AP also created a new entry, “racist, racism,” that says now, in part, “Do not use racially charged, racially divisive, racially tinged, or similar terms as euphemisms for racist or racism when the latter terms are truly applicable.” AP provides an example: “He is charged in the racist massacre of nine people at a black church,” not “the racially motivated massacre of nine people at a black church.”


The AP also made a much-applauded change to begin using accent marks or other diacritical marks on people’s names, like Beyoncé. The AP only says to use such marks when people request them or with people who are widely known to use them. Many editors don’t think that goes far enough, but it’s a start. AP editors point out that they do not oppose using accent marks, but their antiquated wire transfer equipment has trouble maintaining such marks. In short, it’s a tech fail, not a language choice. Therefore, I believe that associations — which likely don’t have the same tech issue — should consider using them.


If you follow the AP Stylebook at your association, I urge you to look for the changes every spring. I’ve had discussions with association editors who were firm in their beliefs about certain AP style rules that had actually been changed in recent years. To keep informed, I encourage you to buy an updated stylebook every year, or better yet, subscribe online. Either version is only about $20–26 each year, depending on your choice. You can also subscribe to the AP’s free monthly newsletter and follow the account on Twitter to keep up on the changes and trends.


As for the 2019 gasps in the AP session? There were two big ones: The AP changed its style to say you should use the % symbol when paired with a number, no longer using the word “percent.” So, it would be “the report showed 80% of members cherish the association magazine.” The other gasp — with a few loud cheers from yours truly — was when AP said “data” is now considered singular, as in “the data is sound.”


Melanie Padgett Powers is the owner of MelEdits, a freelance writer and editor, and a member of the AM&P Board of Directors.


Learn More

To learn about other AP updates and debate editing rules and language trends, join Melanie as she moderates the “Nerd Out on Editing” roundtable on Wednesday, June 26, from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., during the AM&P Annual Meeting.