When was the last time you ever gave yourself a nice, leisurely chunk of hours to peruse the latest edition of the AP Stylebook? To check out its new sections, re-familiarize yourself with core sections and discover new ones like Health & Science, Polls & Surveys, and… Emoji.
Unless you’re a proofreader, a diligent editor or a journalism professor, the answer to this is either, maybe “a decade or two ago,” or maybe never. But if you haven’t done a deep dive into the AP Stylebook in more years than you can remember, you’re doing your writing — and your audience — a disservice. The AP sets the tone and standards for written journalism, and while not every publication adheres, most take their cues from it.
As we head into the start of a new school year and (hopefully) productive Q4, here’s a list of the latest, most interesting and helpful AP Stylebook updates you may have missed.
Catch up with these important AP Stylebook updates:
New chapters and sections
More than defining standards for how the media should discuss new cultural and societal themes, AP Stylebook’s new sections actually signify that a topic is in the cultural mainstream and will likely remain so. Passing fads and quirky subcultures don’t get their own section — they might merit a word or two. A section means this subject is here to stay.
New Health & Science chapter
The 2019 edition of the AP Stylebook contains an entire new chapter governing health and science journalism — mainly dedicated to overarching guidelines on reporting. e.g., how to vet and cite sources, and how to evaluate studies before using their findings in reporting.
Polls & Surveys chapter
The 2018 AP Stylebook added an entire chapter on how to write about polls and surveys — reflecting not only many people’s obsession with political theater, but also the aftermath of a global scandal where innocent-looking Facebook-promoted surveys were used to harvest people’s personal data. It contains style guidelines and some broad advice about how credible certain survey methodologies are.
The guideline most obviously based on hard-learned lessons from the 2016 election was, “poll results that seek to preview the outcome of an election must never be the lead, headline or single subject of any story.” It is also the ruling most members of the media tend to ignore.
Expanded blockchain guidelines include instructions on how to refer to cryptocurrency, guidelines on when to capitalize digital currencies, and a basic primer on what blockchain and cryptocurrency actually are, and how they are related.
The 2019 edition has an expanded section on hyphens — the essential guideline being, less is more. If you’re having to multi-hyphenate words to make a “correct” sentence, restructure the sentence. Specifically, the guide stipulates that hyphens in “double e” words, including prefixes, are no longer necessary. Hyphens should not be used in dual heritage terms like “Asian American.”
Big hyphen news from recent years include the removal of hyphens from ‘livestreaming’ and ‘coworking.’ (Note, MS Word’s own spellcheck still hasn’t gotten the memo.)
2018 put an end to the discussion of whether emoji have a place in modern language. The AP determined they do — adding not only an entry explaining what they are, but a longer section in “quotations in the news” that talks about how to treat them in news writing. Their rules are a bit stodgy and probably get laughs from a typical high school English class, but hey, it’s a start.
The 2017 edition introduced new guidance on how to write about drug addiction and dependency, which editors compiled with input from many clinicians and researchers in the field. In addition to calling out problematic and outdated terminology and recommending phrases that “separate the person from the disease.” Mental health and addiction/recovery professionals and affected communities welcomed the changes.
Upending what we learned in school
For self-identifying grammar nerds, the AP’s pragmatic approach to grammar rule modifications can be disconcerting — every time a big new rule change is published, you see little pods of grammarians hotly debating the change on social media. It can be tough to toss out rules you internalized at the earliest age and used faithfully — but language evolves, and so must we.
In 2019, the AP ruled that split infinitives are not only OK, but in many cases add to the clarity or impact of a sentence. This ruling actually conceded a common-sense consensus that most grammarians had come to years prior.
The 2019 ruling that it’s okay to use the % sign together with a numeral did not go over quite as well — many copy editors just have a hard time getting used to the look of it in copy.
As far as contentious grammar rulings go, though, nothing can really match the 2014 uproar when the AP decreed that ‘more than’ and ‘over’ are interchangeable. There are still people who refuse to accept this one and probably always will.
Hot button rulings
The AP has never been shy about wading into controversial issues and putting forth opinions that may alienate certain groups. See above, on the fracas over the % sign.
But on a serious note:
In 2019, the AP took a strong stance on race issues by declaring that on occasions when racism is a factor in a news story, the words “racism” and “racist” should be used, instead of softer and more ambiguous phrasing like “racially tinged” and “racial undertones” that the New York Times and other mainstream publications prefer.
Gender and Sex
In 2017, the stylebook officially accepted the use of “they” as a singular pronoun, although with caveats that it should be limited, as it could confuse readers in many contexts. The guidelines also stipulated that gender and sex are two different things, and that gender and sex should not be written about as only falling into two categories (don’t use both, neither, opposite sex, etc.).
Editors stopped short of adding the other variety of new pronouns such as xe, xir, xem that have been introduced recently, however.
Haven’t gotten enough yet?
Has this overview of the last few years of AP changes gotten you curious how much else you’ve forgotten? Check out the “Ask the Editor” section on the site, which is updated daily with real user queries and editor answers. Almost all the answers link back to one or more pages in the digitized guide, accessible only to current members