You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

The AP Stylebook is not uniformly crackpot

The Baltimore Sun

Pam Robinson, my old comrade-in-arms from the earliest days of the American Copy Editors Society, asked a while back whether I ignore or flout all AP style rules, and I said, “Only the dumbest ones.” That was flippant; Pam, and you, deserve a more thoughtful approach to dealing with style guides.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the Associated Press Stylebook is not a rule book but a collection of conventions and guidelines.

And I generally follow them, though in the thick of editing I sometimes muse how heavy the going would be for the reader if instead of 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals I allowed into print Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, or even U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit or U.S Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (the last being the formal name of the court).

The entries on whether to use words or numerals for numbers are maddeningly complex, but they are every bit as complicated in the Chicago Manual of Style, because the conventions about numbers are so varied. You’re just going to have to know your Roman numerals for monarchs, popes, and Super Bowls.

Most AP entries are reasonable enough, clear and useful, and The Sun uses AP as the basis for its house style, which I dutifully apply in routine editing.   

Publications do exercise local option on style entries. The Sun, when I first landed on the copy desk in 1986, routinely used courtesy titles throughout news copy, leaving the copy desk to insert military ranks, ecclesiastical titles, Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., and the lot in wire service copy. (Now we reserve them for obituaries.)

And on this blog, partly out of contrariness and partly to gauge readers’ attention to style points, I have freely varied from AP. I use the Oxford comma, which AP recommends only in cases necessary to avoid ambiguity. In ordinary senses I use words for numbers up to a hundred, while AP does so only for one through nine. No one since I initiated this blog in December 2005 has castigated me for violating AP’s sacred dicta, and I doubt that most readers have even noticed where I strayed.

It’s always good sport to rag on the stylebook editors, which I have not hesitated to do when the stylebook advises something that is stupid and indefensible. Most recently it was over the gormless insistence that collide may only refer to a smashup when two or more bodies are motion, that a moving object could not be said to collide with a stationary one. There was enough hue and cry online that the stylebook editors announced that they would take the entry under advisement.

Deepest scorn, though, should be reserved for AP’s addled “split verb” rule, an internally inconsistent entry that has no foundation in standard grammar or common usage and is no more than a flimsy fetish of American journalists, thoughtlessly taught and witlessly followed. Anyone who would also like to condemn it is welcome to chime in.

Stylebooks, again, are guidelines. Do not follow them over a cliff. You are writing and editing for the reader, not the stylebook, and you are expected to use your tools intelligently, not mechanically. If following a style point ends up producing something ungainly or unclear, don’t do it. If a style point seems out of date, don’t be shy about getting up to date. If a style point appears to be a mere fetish about grammar or usage, investigate, inform yourself, and keep within idiomatic and common usage.

Also, let the editors of the AP Stylebook hear from you. You follow the stylebook; the stylebook editors say they are following what you are doing. They say they want to know what works for you and what doesn’t, so don’t be reticent. Apart from their unaccountable adherence to the “split-verb” nonsense, they seem to be reasonable people.

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