And you thought the AP ruckus was just about style

Read Poynter’s Storify of reactions to the AP Stylebook “over”/”more than” revision, and you get a quick class in change management, especially about the emotional impact of change.

I’ve always taught leaders that change involves two key challenges: learning and letting go.

This time, for legions of teachers, editors, and grammar fans, it’s about unlearning. It’s about changing a standard of quality. And that is truly painful. It’s like telling people that effective immediately, the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard is as melodious as a harp.

For word nerds (a term I use with great affection), it’s also about letting go of a part of their expert identity. Those who’ve made a commitment to studying language, memorizing its rules, and protecting its integrity have been correcting and coaching others for years — either as vocation or avocation. They’ve righteously talked or tussled with writers about “more than” and “over” — citing the AP Stylebook as the argument settler. Now the argument is over. Wrong is now right. On this one, everyone’s now the expert.

Expertise is a powerful commodity. In fact, research says that competence and mastery are potent intrinsic motivators. (Watch Daniel Pink’s video — it’s had nearly 12 million views.)

Human beings love to do what they do well. When you tell people their mastery doesn’t matter  — even if it’s just letting go of a lone, longstanding grammar point — you see the reaction. Twitter erupts in lamentations from the experts. There’s also laughter from those who’ve been on the receiving end of “over”/”more than” copy edits, as they’ve miraculously become more competent. What a lesson in the emotions that accompany change.

It doesn’t help that this change simply happened. When change is imposed, resistance rises. When people feel they are part of the process, they adapt more quickly.  Even if they don’t get a vote,  people at least want a voice — a chance for input and insight.

When they don’t get that voice before change occurs, they can get plenty loud afterward. The torrent of comments on Twitter and elsewhere proves that point. It’s creative, clever, rebellious, passionate — and I love it. It’s what wordsmiths do best when challenged by change; they craft their own narratives around it.

I also love the idea that individuals and organizations are talking about what they’ll do next. Will they adapt the AP style? Reject it? Why?  With what process? With whose input?

Imagine that: Another exercise in managing change. Learning. Letting go. Look what the AP started.

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  • Dana

    I suspect 1984 would have been more believable if discussions over which words to remove from Newspeak happened in this vein.

    We don’t need to pare down the language. People need to learn how to read and write.

  • Dana

    This is not evolution. Evolution happens unconsciously, not by dictation from some elite class of experts.

  • makayli verran

    my Aunty Grace got a nearly new blue Kia by working part
    time from the internet. look at this now C­a­s­h­F­i­g­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Andrew Kantor

    The AP has been wrong about the serial comma for years, so this is just a case of ignoring it and sticking with Chicago.

  • iway ken

    It’s like giving in to people who refused to learn the difference.

  • Jody Strauch

    I’ll say it again as my comment has disappeared: It’s like giving in to people who refused to learn the difference.

  • Emeritus

    English is a living language and it evolves. AP can either come along for the ride or get left in the dust

  • Charlie Meyerson

    Hey, AP: “The helicopter flew over 35 people.”

  • SFMH57

    Jill’s right about the issue of the *proclamation* of this by what we’ve considered *the* authority. That strikes a sour note. And she also correctly cites the issue of the role many of us have happily played for, probably, most of our lives, with or without a paycheck, which is that of the “protector of the integrity of the language and its use.”