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Spare me the stylebook fundamentalists

A student told me this week that the journalism school in which he is studying has a universal quasi-religious devotion (my formulation) to the Associated Press Stylebook.

Struggling to keep this side of apoplexy, I pointed out that the AP Stylebook is a stylebook, one of many, each with different perspectives, merits, and uses. And it is a book of guidelines for writers and editors. Fire from heaven will not consume you if you write okay for OK, or hotline as two words. The AP Stylebook does not partake of the authority of the Deuteronomic Code. It has no statutory force in the United States of America and its protectorates. Its editors—I have met them—give every appearance of being mortal.

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Moreover, it offers some advice that is dated and unsound, giving rise to scoffers and scofflaws. I am one, having had the temerity to lecture the editors about their manual's shortcomings here and here.

In 2014 the editors discarded the utterly discredited over/more than distinction (which I had advised them to do here), and there was weeping and wailing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments throughout the land.

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What this ludicrous spectacle—people pinning their professional qualifications and integrity on having enforced a meaningless distinction—points out is that AP Stylebook fundamentalists are more dogmatic than the AP Stylebook itself.

I was instructed years ago always to write a half-mile, because "AP says so." But as my formidable colleague Bill Walsh points out, it says no such thing. You are free to write half a mile, but if you write a half-mile, AP wants you to hyphenate. That is all.

Similarly, opponents of the Oxford comma might be taken aback to read the entry on commas and find that AP is perfectly fine with using the final comma in a series if it is advisable to avoid ambiguity. And writers and editors who reflexively omit, or strike out, that as a conjunction might take the time to look at the actual entry and see how often AP says that it is necessary.*

This tendency to turn mere guidelines or preferences into mechanically applied Rules crops up generally when grammar and usage are discussed. It is particularly regrettable when the use of the stylebook becomes a matter of blind obedience rather than judgment.

* It would be mildly interesting to discover how many journalists operate on what they have been told the AP Stylebook says rather than what they have read in the AP Stylebook.

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