Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On AP Style and changing language

Joe Grimm of the Jobs Page and former long-time recruiter for the Detroit Free Press (now editor in residence at Michigan State), is the latest to weigh in on the need to double-check your shibboleths at the door, especially when it comes to AP Style.

His follow's John McIntyre's recent observation that many of the former distinctions are melting away.

Here is my September Common Sense Journalism column on the same sorts of issues.

What is style exactly?

by Doug Fisher

Recently came one of those e-mails of frustration about newspaper style, especially AP's. Summer, when such worries should be put away, is almost over, and we're heading back to class and the office. So I thought it might be helpful to share some of the conversation (with the writer's permission). Questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Can you help me on a couple of mysteries about stylebooks? Reuters' putting its Handbook online highlights the question of why other U.S. media are so miserly about sharing their stylebooks.

For AP, the book makes money. Reuters, not so much. Reuters style has not become the industry-wide standard AP has in the U.S.

A smart British linguist said several years ago house style made no sense except as a way for publishers to distinguish themselves in competition. … Are these simply articles of faith, like so much else of the crass brand of prescriptivism that journalists are inculcated in?

A lot of such research needs to be done but probably never will be with little funding. … AP is still grounded on what could be transmitted over "the wire" and about brevity. … Other publications adopted AP style mostly for production reasons -- since they were using AP copy to a large extent, it made sense not to deviate. …

The first AP Stylebook was a thin volume in 1953. Many news conventions go back to the powerful editors of the late 1800s and early 1900s … about when H.W. Fowler was writing about "The King's English" … and many things became "rules" instead of guides.

Style is the publication's, and the publication can do whatever it wants. It's really pointless arguing about it. … What I tell students is that style … in many cases comes down to picking one of two or more equally supportable alternatives. Consistency does have its place, though not to the exclusion of all else.

We teach AP … because our graduates are likely to encounter it. But … if you work for a boss who wants you to spell "the" as "hte," that's a style decision, and you do it.

Journalism styles are among the most conservative, right? They make Bryan Garner look like a punk poet. (Now, really: If Times reporters humored Phillip Corbett by using "careered" as a verb in covering car crashes, all they'd do is persuade even their elite readers that they'd made more errors, no?)

You confound a bit style and usage. Garner is a valuable chronicler of modern American usage. Usage is in constant flux. It's what we argue about most. …

Style steps in and says, in essence, OK, but we can't argue about this all day, so here's how we're going to do it (though it should be reviewed frequently).

Then, there is idiom. Has "could care less" become such idiom that it can be easily substituted for "couldn't care less"? … And let's not start on "begs the question." These disputes end up in stylebooks, too, to no one's satisfaction.

So, we are under orders to cling to something like the idiom of the Saturday Review circa 1958, if only the style weren't so much more idiosyncratic than that.

You are not under orders to use any style except that of the person signing your paycheck.

I'm not sure the linguists even realize it, but they're replacing the writers of "you morons split an infinitive" letters to the editor as the squeakier wheels in editors' lives. And we all know how decisions are made by the fearless newsroom defenders of all that is right.

Usage, grammar, etc., have always changed. … A 1970s book on grammar for journalists, for instance, says a semicolon should be used in front of "so" as a conjunctive adverb. If you did that now, people would look at you funny. It clearly has passed into wider use as a straight conjunction.

Change – comparatively glacial change – in all those "rules" has accelerated because of the Internet. It's not that language wasn't changing. It's that Mrs. Graber could teach the same things in third-grade English – and numerous professors could teach the same things in numerous writing and editing classes, and numerous editors could enforce the same things year after year – because change was hard to monitor and measure. Now it is easy, unleashing what seem like endless debates.

As an editing professor, I have to do a "reality check" before each semester to see what might have changed (things like the acceptance of "gone missing"). … There will probably come a day when AP will not be the dominant style. We'll see what evolves then.

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