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Totemic tomes

Earlier today I came across a tweet from @APStylebook: Several of you have tweeted photos proudly showing off your new 2010 books. I retweeted, “God how sad.”

There are books on language that inspire devotion. W.H. Auden was so fond of the Oxford English Dictionary that he not only browsed in it but occasionally took a volume to bed at night. Many people have a sentimental, if seriously misguided, attachment to Strunk and White, despite the heroic efforts of Geoffrey K. Pullum to have all extant copies burned by the public hangman. And Fowler’s Modern English Usage, dated and arbitrary and cranky as it can be, still contains a fund of sound advice and is entertaining to read.

But the AP Stylebook? I was an English major for a long time, and I never knew of any colleague experiencing tachycardia at the prospect of an update of the Modern Language Association’s handbook. The Chicago Manual of Style is bringing out a sixteenth edition, I hear, but I don’t foresee gray-haired editors cavorting in the streets and embracing all and sundry in their rapture.

The AP Stylebook is a very useful book in a limited sphere, the area of settling on a particular way of writing something for the sake of consistency when there are two or more acceptable options. It offers advice on when and how to abbreviate words, what words should be capitalized, whether to write a number as a word or a numeral, and other information of use to journalists. It gives the spellings of various companies and governmental agencies. And it gives advice on English usage, some of it sound, some of it dated, some of it inconsistent, some of it plain wrong.

Yes, wrong. It retains an entry supporting the superstition that an adverb must not fall between the auxiliary verb and the main verb, a bogus rule that was exploded, for one, by Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer. In 1965. Plainly, the editor cannot be hurried about changes.

I suspect that it is nearly all copy editors, because no one else in the business appears to pay much attention to the AP Stylebook, who account for the enthusiasm for a new edition. This worries me. It’s just a stylebook. It’s not the Pentateuch. It’s not the only way to write. And I can only say with great reluctance that a burst of enthusiasm for it is unlikely to proceed from much sophistication about the language. Don’t give your heart to it, dear ones. It’s fickle.



Posted by John McIntyre at 6:24 PM | | Comments (9)


In a career where morale is so low, it's tempting to turn any perk, any badge of community we get into a fetish.

It's not the style these stylebook "fans" worship and promote. It's its sign of membership to the guild of damned souls.

The AP style book lost me when it told me I had to write a number as a word. You know what AP? I visited 3 stores today! Shorter and still completely understandable. Twitter supports me. Take that!

Hangmen burning books! The trade unions are sure to have something to say about this.

I don't think we have to worry. Most students certainly don't understand any writing styles as far as I can tell. I get a mix of MLA, Chicago, and AP. I have tried to explain APA style in three media history classes. That really confused the students!
But they do love that Oxford comma!
I simply ban the use of the semicolon. I have had five students in 16 years understand how to use a semicolon properly except when using one as an emoticon. ;0)

I knew an editor who used semicolon correctly in a memo to her staff. She said she went into an operation with a colon and came out of it with a semicolon.

The best thing about the AP Stylebook is that it stays open to the pages it's opened to. Without it, the lack of standardization in newspapers would be distracting.

While I would be unlikely to take a photo of myself with my AP Stylebook, never mind tweet it to anyone, I do admit to a small affection for the book.

When I first became interested in journalism in high school, the AP Stylebook was my key to the club -- with it, I could make my copy consistent with the rest of the newspaper and not annoy my editors. I found it a fascinating little book then, with all of its arcane bits of knowledge, usage, style and grammar. It helped me decipher this new world I was writing in.

Then I discovered there were other stylebooks. This was just one among many. And yes, it had errors.

But still, that first AP Stylebook was one of the tools that helped me feel like a journalist then, as much as my first press pass and my reporter's notebook. Just trappings, yes, but when you're a greenhorn, the trappings help more than you'd think.

So, yes, I have an affection for the book. It keeps me from throwing it across the room sometimes.

I think the burning would be left to Oscar Werner and his colleagues, with Julie Christie (both of her) looking on.

Or do I mean Oskar?

As a former college paper associate editor (and future website editor), I would often need to throw the stylebook at colleagues who didn't quite get it right. The book helped me feel like a journalist and gave me that weird kind of sense of grammatical superiority that I guess editors get.

If the AP made an AP style audiobook, I would probably put it on as I drift off to sleep.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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