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Hey, AP Stylebook users, they're just guidelines

A comment on Facebook responding to one of my posts recommending revisions in the Associated Press Stylebook raises a couple of issues worth examining: 

Here's what bugs me: the idea that a style guide should, or is claiming to, apply universally. That's not the purpose of a style guide. Every book, magazine and company should have its own style guide - often based on AP or Chicago, sure, but tailored to that project's needs. To say the AP stylebook is "wrong" doesn't make sense. By definition, it follows its own rules. Other entities choose to follow those rules or not.

The first point is easy to dispose of: The AP Stylebook does not purport to be a universal rulebook. It merely goes after consistency in usage to achieve clarity for the widest possible audience. In that, it is not like the Chicago Manual of Style, which is particularly concerned with scholarly publication, or the scientific and medical technical stylebooks. 

The problem, which is not at all the fault of the editors, is the tendency of some journalists to adopt an unflattering dogmatism, brandishing AP Stylebook "rules" and treating the book as if it were the universal arbiter of language.* Following it slavishly is not healthy, because, while the AP Stylebook does contain what can legitimately call rules of grammar and usage, it mainly focuses on conventions. It is, and the editors acknowledge this, often no more than advisory.

In the second part of the comment, the commenter has got the wrong end of the stick, as the Brits say. You can indeed say that the AP Stylebook is "wrong," because its rules and guidelines do not exist in isolation. 

To make texts readily comprehensible to the broadest possible audience, the stylebook must be attuned to the language that audience uses. David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, the stylebook editors who regularly appear at conferences of the American Copy Editors Society,** are quite explicit that they revise and adjust entries as patterns of usage change. They caused a minor sensation among the mossbacks a couple of years ago when they rejected the silly bugaboo about hopefully as a sentence adverb. 

Indeed, as much as I have attempted to press them about the changes I think advisable, there are a number of shibboleths and crotchets that you will not find in AP. It allows none as a plural. It does not anthropomorphize ships and storms. It doesn't tell you that you can evacuate buildings but not people. It doesn't forbid due to in the sense of because of, like in the sense of such as, or since in the sense of because. Good for it. 

So, in the areas I have written about in the past week, there is room for the stylebook editors to incorporate better-informed advice about current educated usage, even if it conflicts with what your eighth-grade English teacher told you or how you were instructed by the city editor or copy desk chief in your first job at the Gooberville Daily Hectograph

  

 

*Sometime I should look into the matter of journalists' lack of curiosity about the technical details of their craft. Journalists' two primary sources of information about English usage appear to be the AP Stylebook and Somebody Told Me Once. Stroll through a newsroom and you're apt to see on the desks dictionaries that look like eighth-grade graduation presents and AP Stylebooks from a decade or two back. It's highly unlikely that you will see copies of Garner's Modern American Usage or Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, perhaps the two most useful current books on usage. (Were you expecting that I would eventually cite every entry from both in these posts, saving you the expense?) 


**And who, I must say, endure with good humor the chaffing they receive from this quarter. 


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