Fetch me a switch, AP Stylebook
After I administered a little love tap to @APStylebook yesterday for their tweet saying that gray is the spelling of the word for the color, they sent out this contrite follow-up:
Further on gray: AP's primary reference is the Webster's New World College Dictionary, which prefers that spelling.
Not so fast, @APStylebook.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary, “the official dictionary of the Associated Press,” is a real dictionary produced by real lexicographers. Real lexicographers do not “prefer” spellings. Webster’s New World lists main spellings, “alternative spellings,” and “variant spellings,” not “preferred spellings.”
This is not mere playing with terms. Alternative spellings are understood to be roughly as widespread as the main spelling (the first spelling listed). It is an entirely arbitrary choice, for example to pick ax over axe, or the reverse. Moreover, variant spellings may be appropriate for certain regions, occasions, or contexts.
Referring to “preferred” spellings risks falling into the common misunderstanding that the first spelling listed is the one the dictionary has legislated as the spelling of the word. Actually, it is merely the most common version of the word the lexicographers have encountered.
Once again, a spelling the AP Stylebook prefers is not necessarily the “right” spelling; when there are alternatives or variants, it is merely the form arbitrarily selected to permit uniform practice. That is all.