A Matter of AP Style
By Merrill Perlman
Columbia Journalism Review
April 4, 2016
ONE SURE SIGN OF SPRING is the sighting of new entries for The Associated Press Stylebook.
For the past few years, changes in the AP Stylebook have been announced to coincide with the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. (Full disclosure: This columnist is a member of the ACES board.)
AP caused some consternation—or relief—when it announced that “internet” and “web” would be lowercased as of June 1. “They have become generic terms,” says Tom Kent, the AP standards editor for the AP and one of the Stylebook’s editors.
Other changes did not elicit the same emotion, and the outcry over “internet” and “web” did not approach the wailing and gnashing of teeth that accompanied AP’s acceptance of “over” for non-physical distances.
AP now recommends that writers avoid using the word “prostitute” when a child is involved, as in “child prostitute,” “teenage prostitute,” and so forth, because it implies that the child “is voluntarily trading sex for money,” Kent says, and a child, by definition, cannot do so. Also, the word “mistress” has no male equivalent, Kent notes, and means different things in different parts of the world, so the AP now recommends avoiding the term and using “companion,” “friend,” or “lover” if applicable. “Whenever possible,” the new entry says, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred: ‘The two were romantically (or sexually) involved.’ ”
Two other changes strike close to our hearts. One new entry, “accident, crash,” echoes something we wrote some time ago:
accident, crash: Generally acceptable for automobile and other collisions and wrecks. However, when negligence is claimed or proven, avoid accident, which can be read by some as a term exonerating the person responsible. In such cases, use crash, collision or other terms.
Some crashes are merely accidents, but in others, as we wrote, “ ‘accident’ implies happenstance and some lack of responsibility.”
Our personal favorite is an acknowledgment, actually made in a December AP update, that terms like “two-alarm fire” are, as Kent says, “meaningless” without a sense of context. We said that years ago.
Avoid referring to a fire in terms of the number of “alarms,” which may mean little to a distant reader. Depending on the city or town, a two-alarm fire could involve widely varying numbers of firefighters. Instead, specify the number of firefighters or quantity of equipment.
Other changes include making “dash cam” one word (though “body cam” remains as two), not using “spree” in a negative context like “killing spree,” and making sure that people understand that “exponential growth” means progressively larger (5 percent this year, 10 percent next, etc.) and not just fast growth.
Next week, we’ll discuss what AP did not address, but others did: the singular “they.”