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AP doesn’t impose style; house style reflects readers

The best written works contain clarity, consistency and elegance. These are the goals of style books.

My first AP Stylebook was a 1976 edition acquired in 1979 when I started high school. I read every entry. I didn’t memorize it, but I at least knew where to look up whatever question I had. Over time, my knowledge of the book diminished rather than increased, but nowadays my online subscription means searching is just as fast as it was when I was 15.

Jojo Malig, an editor in Manilla, Philippines, wrote a column for the Poynter Institute’s website in which he asked several editors about the necessity of multiple style books, such as the Chicago Manual of Style and house style guides. I suggested that local style guides are an important supplement to the AP Stylebook or whatever style book a publication uses as its main guide.

We sometimes forgot that a style guide is first an internal instrument. For the Associated Press, the goal of the book is that all AP copy has a uniform approach to word usage at the time it’s transmitted. That doesn’t mean AP stories can’t be changed once they reach a local newspaper or that we all have to stop hyphenating “e-mail” because AP says so.

I was in Phoenix in March when the AP Stylebook editors announced the “e-mail” to “email” change and several other updates. One of the more important points at that announcement was a comment that might have been missed in all the excitement. The AP’s Darrell Christian said, “We don’t impose our style.” Local style books are important, he said.

The English language is history’s greatest example of crowd-sourcing. No one controls it. If you want to go against AP and keep writing “drive-through” instead of “drive-thru,” and if you think you have an etymologically solid basis to be “racked with pain” instead of AP’s “wracked with pain,” then go ahead. The important thing is to be consistent. And that’s why house style guides are needed.

There are plenty of peccadilloes in English, and so there are many variations in the way style guides treat certain questions. Publications try to reflect their audiences, so a Yahoo guide might try to be more hep for the Internet savvy and the APA guide might be more staid to reflect its use among researchers. We should have different style guides because audiences are different, especially for specialty publications. Regional and local differences in understanding and word choice call for differences in style books. I love the Guardian style guide for its useful entries and reasonable approach, but I only recommend it with caution to anyone outside England.

I tend to write in AP style. But as an editor, I am careful to follow whatever style is called for. So I may follow the APA Styleguide or Chicago Manual of Style for scholarly papers. They all have their benefits; they all share the goal of clarity. Seeing different approaches has deepened my understanding of usage issues, and when I give advice on Twitter, I consult many sources. I subscribe to AP and Chicago electronically. I sometimes use, which is a great tool to see differing approaches among a bunch of online style guides. The style books don’t always have all the answers, and sometimes they’re just wrong about how a word is used (they can decide for themselves how a word ought to be used, but claiming that it is used in a certain way is a different matter). I also consult “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” “Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage” and the “Oxford English Dictionary,” among other sources. But all that research is for general advice or for issues not documented in the style guide of choice when I’m editing.

Any style guide worth its salt should make it clear that it is offering suggestions for usage that might not make sense in every situation. There is no shortage of nuance in language. The purpose of style guides is to sort out these nuance issues, so go against style at your peril. But remember the goals: clarity, consistency, elegance. Style guides are just among the tools we use to help us achieve these.

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