When my career began, I served internships at three major daily news organizations, found part-time work at a fourth and fifth, and full-time work at a sixth. Each stop required learning subtle variances in publication style.
My first gig out of school was with The Sporting News. Once, when my editor asked why I did something a certain way, he interrupted my answer and said, “Oh! Were you using AP style?”
Then, two weeks ago, the world changed. Countries trembled. Grown men wept. Clergy made their peace.
The Associated Press Stylebook changed its style on Web site to website.
With emotion comparable to Walter Cronkite’s JFK announcement, people around the globe united to figure out how to deal with such important news.
Web site/website was a huge deal on Twitter, of course. Then again, so is Justin Bieber, and which TV show you’re watching RIGHT NOW!
AP made a couple of other changes as well, none of which are worth mentioning. Because, really, AP style is pretty silly.
AP style, in the larger picture, is not only a minor player in journalism, it’s irrelevant.
Regarding style, only grammar matters. Regarding jargon, only clarity of writing matters. Regarding a story itself, what matters is sourcing, accuracy, the ethical acquisition of information, timeliness and, of course, grammar and clarity of writing.
Web site vs. website isn’t a useful argument, it’s a distraction. Who cares? Which of these sentences is more clear (hint: they’re equally clear):
- MegaTech’s website went down Thursday for five hours, costing the company $10 million in lost profit.
- MegaTech’s Web site went down Thursday for 5 hours, costing the company $10 million in lost profit.
The first sentence used correct AP style. The second exercised the old usage for website and used the numeral “5″ instead of writing it out as “five.” Would a reader have even noticed? Or cared? Probably not.
Now, instead of focusing on AP style, let’s focus on grammar:
- MegaTech’s Web site went down Thursday for 5 hours, costing the company ten million dollars in lost profit.
- MegaTech suffered $10 million in losses because its website went down Thursday.
The first sentence, which breaks at least three AP style rules, gives the reader accurate information. The second sentence uses correct AP style, but, technically, is incorrect. The fact that MegaTech lost $10 million has nothing to do with it being a Thursday, which the sentence implies. Thursday belongs after “losses,” not at the end of the sentence.
Grammar, not the use or misuse of AP style, is what makes or breaks these separate statements. In 99 percent (heck, probably 100) of journalism and communications schools and scholastic journalism programs, AP style is emphasized over grammar, when it should be the other way around – especially if the ultimate goal is to produce reporters who produce accurate, well-written stories for mass consumption.
Some parts of AP style are absurd. Two points in particular: the abbreviation of state names, and sports guidelines.
From birth, it seems, U.S. citizens learn to abbreviate state names using postal abbreviations from the U.S. Postal Service.
It can be slightly confusing when you’re eight years old. Four states start with the letters “Mi.” But just as we learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide, we learn state abbreviations.
But, God forbid that be good enough for The Associated Press. Instead of WA for the state of Washington, it’s Wash. Instead of TN for Tennessee, it’s Tenn.
California, apparently too confusing as CA, became the longer and arbitrary Calif. I’ve lived in St. Louis, Chicago, Iowa, Texas, Arizona and Washington D.C., and never once have I met anyone confused by the CA abbreviation for California.
Wait, what is this strange “CA” after Sacramento?! Does it stand for Cairo? Canada? Cancun?!
The AP Stylebook just barely predates modern USPS state postal abbreviations, but which came first is irrelevant. Elementary school students learn the USPS way. As a result, instead of learning how to diagram a proper sentence, journalism students learn how to re-abbreviate state names.
(NOTE: An earlier version of this post incorrectly noted that postal service abbreviations predate the AP Stylebook. The Stylebook is older. This post has been edited and partially rewritten to reflect that.)
I won’t go into this too much; I could write 5,000 words. Let’s just hit two examples:
1. Bicycle. According to AP style, the proper way to write the word bicycle is to write bicycle. Okay, everyone got that?
2. College bowl games. To quote the AP Stylebook: “Capitalize them: Cotton Bowl, Orange Bowl, Rose Bowl, etc.”
In other words, the AP Stylebook is telling its followers to capitalize proper nouns. That’s not style, that’s grammar. The stylebook says “playoff” as a noun and adjective is one word; as a verb it’s two – play off. … That’s not style, that’s grammar.
Of course, the AP Stylebook is essential to the journalist’s library (or at least the AP’s cash flow). Why else would it list at $18.95. Or better yet, you can buy the AP Stylebook iPhone app for $28.99.
But which app do you think is more useful to a Major League Baseball writer:
- The $30 AP style app that tells you “outfielder” is one word
- The $15 “MLB.com At Bat 2010″ app that provides you with live play-by-play of every game, updated statistics of every player, standings, news and schedules, plus video highlights of every game
Here’s where I become a hypocrite. I teach AP style, and I will continue to teach it. For one, it’s my job and I respect my supervisors. Second, I believe discipline is a factor in success. Journalists have to believe in something. If it’s not going to be grammar, it might as well be AP style, something – anything – that helps a student think about not just the message of their story, but the method in which they create that message.
Ultimately, AP style is unnecessary (as is the Reuters style guide. Free, by the way, here; I actually kind of dig the Chicago Manual of Style). There is no greater consumer benefit that comes from AP style. Grammatical rules and the standards of outside forces, such as the USPS, already exist. But at least it’s something to help teach the discipline of writing until journalism schools see the light and re-prioritize to put grammar and clarity ahead of what is essentially an outdated “how-to” book.
Find Dave Schwartz on Twitter @daveschwartz.