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.