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A Word, Please: AP Stylebooks are treasure troves of ‘What’s new,’ present and past

A Word, Please: AP Stylebooks are treasure troves of ‘What’s new,’ present and past
“However, this year, ‘What’s new?’ got me thinking in reverse. I wondered: What’s old in ‘What’s new?’ That is, what was new in previous editions of AP’s style guide and have those changes stood the test of time?” (Burbank Leader)

I got my 2019 Associated Press Stylebook in the mail the other day and, as I suspect most editors do, I turned immediately to the “What’s new?” section up front.

This handy reference tells you at a glance what’s changed since the last AP guide. Some changes deal with broad language issues, like an entry in this year’s guide for “Medicare for All,” with a capital M and a capital A.

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Other changes don’t hold much interest to anyone but editors, like a 2019 change that says we should stop spelling out “percent” when it comes after a number and just use the symbol: 20%.

Still other changes are downright adorable, like how, this year, AP decided to warn editors that “Santa Claus” and “Santa” are both “nice,” but using “Claus” on second reference is “naughty.”

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However, this year, “What’s new?” got me thinking in reverse. I wondered: What’s old in “What’s new?” That is, what was new in previous editions of AP’s style guide and have those changes stood the test of time?

To find out, I headed to my bookshelf, where I have an incomplete collection of AP Stylebooks past. Here’s some of what was new in newspaper editing when these guides came out.

The earliest edition on my shelf was published in 1993. It contains no “What’s new?” section, perhaps suggesting that 25 years ago, editors had sufficiently long attention spans to find out for themselves.

Fast forward to the second-oldest edition on my bookshelf, published in 2004. Its “What’s new?” section is a trip down memory lane. That’s the year the stylebook added an entry for SARS. Remember that? Severe acute respiratory syndrome, which has since ceded the spotlight to H1N1, Zika, Ebola and measles.

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In 2011, AP added a whole section on social media, including entries for the terms “friend,” “follow” and “like,” as well as “geolocation,” “geotagging” and, interestingly, “Gowalla.” Apparently, Gowalla was “a location-based service” that now, we can only assume, is frolicking with CompuServe and Napster in the great cyberspace in the sky.

Some of “What’s new?” deals with issues in reporting and editing.

For example, in 2013 “What’s new?” begins “A new entry on mental illness includes guidelines on when references are relevant, particularly in stories involving violent crime, and how they should be reported.”

There were also lots of new language entries that year, many of them a window into what was making headlines. Those new and revised entries included the one-word “landline,” the two-word “horse meat” and the word “populist,” which, interestingly, had emerged as a notable term sometime after my 2011 guide was printed.

The 2015 guide is another peek into the demands that our changing culture places on editors. “Druze” and “Wicca” were added to the Religion chapter. Manolo Blahnik, Christian Louboutin and guayabera were added to the Fashion chapter.

And there appeared this new guidance: “The phrase ‘committed suicide’ should be avoided except in direct quotations from authorities because it may imply an illegal act.”

A controversial grammar ruling made headlines when the 2017 edition kicked off its “What’s new?” section with: “We now allow the use of ‘they’ as a singular pronoun in limited cases. However, we stress that it is usually possible and always preferable to rework a sentence instead.”

AP continued to wade into grammar controversy this year with the note: “We now say that splitting the infinitive or compound forms of a verb is often necessary to convey meaning and make a sentence easy to read.”

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Like any stylebook, AP’s rules apply only to people who choose to follow that style. You’re not bound by them. But AP is pretty influential, meaning it can be a clue to where the English language is going. Should be interesting to see what the 2020 edition will have in store.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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