Inside the World of the AP Stylebook

February 1, 2010

A group of editors gathers at the Associated Press offices in New York. After lengthy discussions, they’ve decided to change the longtime spelling of Caesarean section to the more commonly used cesarean section.  Also on the list of recent changes: Taser, which is a trademark for a stun gun — this generic form should be used if the brand name is uncertain. CEO is now acceptable in all references for chief executive officer, even on first mention.

Ever wonder who decides what is Associated Press style and what isn’t? How new words enter the AP Stylebook and why others are amended?  To learn more about how this well-revered style and usage guide came to be the industry standard for newspapers and also many broadcasters, magazines and PR practitioners, PR Tactics spoke with two representatives from The Associated Press Stylebook.

David Minthorn, a longtime editor of the AP Stylebook who also fields “Ask the Editor” questions online and is entering his 41st year with the AP, and Colleen Newvine, who is product manager for the AP Stylebook and also oversees its  Twitter account (@APStylebook), offer insight into the world of  AP style and tips for all writers and professionals.

Do you think that content moving online is watering down the idea of hard-and-fast style — with more people blogging and microblogging and using PDAs?

David Minthorn: Our answer is always: AP has the same standards for both types [and] distributions of news.  With social media terms, there are a few that are in vogue — and last year the Stylebook added a texting section and has opened the floor to social media suggestions.

Colleen Newvine: [People are] so committed to proper language use that even when they only have 140 characters, they want to follow AP style.  We had a good conversation on the AP Stylebook Twitter account about the fact that news people feel passionately that using AP style online and on their blogs helps to convey a sense of seriousness and professionalism.

What’s the best way to get acquainted with the AP style and familiarize yourself with the Stylebook?

Minthorn: AP style seems to be quite ubiquitous at college campuses or journalism departments in news and public relations.

We also provide some instruction in basic AP style on our Web site.  The Stylebook has an index in the front, which has about 150 terms that are critical for knowing AP style.

Newvine: There’s no shortcut to learning AP style. I had a copyediting professor who quizzed us on, “Next week will be A through E.”

But what a lot of people might not appreciate is that AP style changes every year as language evolves and news events happen.  A lot of people may feel like, “Oh, I learned the AP Stylebook back when I was in college in the early 1980s — I’ve got it covered.” But style does evolve. So it’s important to spend time with the Stylebook every year — we have a “What’s New” page in the front — take a look and see what the new listings are and what’s changed.

How do you decide those updates and how frequently are they amended?

Minthorn: We wrestle with a lot of issues that come up and we don’t make changes lightly or add things haphazardly.  There has to be an evolution in the language or a real need for it. In a typical year, we’re probably changing two or three dozen terms.

Newvine: One of the advantages of Stylebook Online is [we review] the listings and [make] sure that the Stylebook is keeping up with news and writing demands. We make those changes in Stylebook Online throughout the year.

What have been other popular suggestions for new social media entries?

Newvine: One of the questions I’ve seen people raise is if they’re quoting someone from Twitter, should they put the @ sign in front of the Twitter name.  We’re still trying to figure out these things. Do you use someone’s full name, do you use their Twitter handle, do you put @ in front of it?

Is there a specific error that you commonly see with AP style?

Minthorn: We get many questions about spellings and hyphenation, compound words, when it’s proper to hyphenate words.  That’s quite common.  We have clear guidance on that in the Stylebook. But there are many words that are used as modifiers [and] people are constantly asking whether a word should be hyphenated or not. Our general policy is — our guidance, I should say — the fewer hyphens the better. But in fact, the way the language is evolving now, you see a lot of modifiers tacked in front of nouns — and for clarity, hyphenation is often called for.

Why are style and the art of writing important?

Minthorn: The logic of a stylebook is that it allows you to have a quick go-to reference. It saves a lot of time and, of course, there are such things as correct grammar and punctuation. The language needs to have standards. It also should be receptive to change and we should acknowledge that some terms come into popularity and have a real place in the language. But there is this framework of terminology and proper grammar and punctuation that we can provide help on.  It allows people to get on with the real business of writing, which is putting words on paper and in the best way possible.

What makes good writing?

Minthorn: Clarity and readability and engaging style. Those are important issues along with standardization of terminology, which is covered by the Stylebook.

Newvine: I liked what Dave said: If you have the standardization of style, then you don’t have to put a lot of energy into that. As a writer, you can focus on finding good interview subjects, crafting a well-told story and writing in a way that makes a compelling story without trying to figure out, “Do I put a hyphen here or does this need a comma?”

Minthorn: Most writing — including journalism writing or PR writing — is under time pressure.  That’s a great bonus of having a standard style — everyone can share it and issues can be looked up quickly.

Do you have any last takeaways for other writers and professionals?

Minthorn: Some people are passionate about style and sometimes people get emotional about the issues that we deal with. So it’s useful for people to understand where AP’s coming from on style and why we hold the line on some issues and we’re also open-minded. We have a lot of masters on style.  We take our responsibilities as the standard of the news industry seriously.  We like to get input.

Newvine: In my experience,  journalists responded well to press releases that were written in  AP style. It signaled to them that you understood their craft.  And it also made it easier for them to work with that without having to start from scratch. The consistency of language doesn’t just benefit [journalists] that value extends into a lot of fields where good writing matters.


Recent changes and new entries to the AP Stylebook

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. This is the official name of the company, which has headquarters in Bentonville,  Ark. Use Walmart when referring to the retail stores.
fair trade

text, texting, texted Acceptable in all usages as a verb for to send a text message.
nonconference No hyphen.
half day (n.), half-day (adj.)
off-site Hyphenated.  Also: on-site
removal of punctuation, characters It’s acceptable in instant-message and texting conventions to remove punctuation and characters, most often vowels, to save time typing or thumbing in letters.

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


Pat Feeney says:

I've searched everywhere for a copy of the 2010 AP Stylebook. Any idea where I can purchase?

Oct. 20, 2010

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