My highly esteemed colleague fev has an inspired suggestion that I fear the Associated Press Stylebook will ignore: a Whatever entry.
He was inspired by a question about whether to use active voice or passive voice. The correct answer is whatever. Use what fits the purpose. A secondary inspiration came from my post yesterday on that/who.* The answer there, too, is whatever. Write what is apt for the subject, the occasion, the audience, the overall tone.
I read a tweet this morning from a colleague wondering about buying the 2011 edition of the AP Stylebook, because it has so many changes. I haven’t looked at it myself yet, but my shrewd guess is that most of those changes are insignificant.
Stylebooks are useful for regularizing practice in spelling, capitalization, abbreviation, and a host of other mechanical details so that the reader is not distracted by inconsistent practice. And you want to maintain consistent practice for the ease of your readers. But it is a mistake to make idols of stylebooks, expecting them to substitute for judgment.
During the [cough] hiatus [cough] of 2009-2010, when I took this blog to Blogspot.com, I wrote that “now that I am free of the shackles of Associated Press style, I am reverting to the Oxford comma.” And you may have noticed that since my return to these precincts, I have continued to use the Oxford comma. I have spelled out numbers higher than nine. I have used the apostrophe s for possession with singular nouns ending in s. These are, to AP Style fundamentalists, high crimes and misdemeanors.
No one seems to have noticed. Or if anyone noticed, it was not a big deal. Certainly no one has complained that my apostasy has made these posts more difficult to read. Whatever.
By all means, consult stylebooks for guidance. Consult usage manuals and authorities on language. Consult the prose your read. Consult your own tastes and preferences. Then do what seems appropriate for the subject, for the publication, for the audience, for your own sense of rightness.
You need not fear that in the dead of night you will hear hobnailed boots on the stairs and pounding on the door as the AP Style Geheime Staatspolizei come for you.
*You are welcome to follow the exchanges between Martha Brockenbrough and me at the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, but the sardonic comments from readers on my post are also worth your time.