AP Stylebook update: A sign of our times

People are freaking out over an update to the AP Stylebook, the equivalent of canon law for journalists. AP Style now tells us that “more than” and “over” are interchangeable. It’s as if Big Brother has just suggested that what was true yesterday, is no longer true today.

Not all people are freaking out, of course. But a lot of people are, especially journalists, and also English majors. The people who love word craft are visibly upset. You can tell by tracking #ACES2014 on Twitter.

For the uninitiated, until this update, “more than” was used when referring to numbers. “Over” was appropriate when talking about the physical relationship of two objects.

On this issue, you could divide the world into three categories of people. There are those who believe that words are tools and that if you are going to craft something substantial you must use the right tool. You wouldn’t pound a screw in with a hammer, would you?

Then there are those who are aware of these nuanced differences, but they believe that words are flexible and democratic. I count myself in this category. While I prefer to build something eloquent, I don’t always get there. And I’m not above using a blunt object when I can’t find my drill.

Finally, there are a lot of people completely unaware or unmoved by this debate. They have a toolbox, they use it when they need it, and it gets the job done.

Whichever category you are in, it is impossible to not see this alteration of standards as a sign of the times.

“It is a license to cut corners,” Tim Stephens wrote in a lively conversation on my Facebook page. A former newspaperman, he’s now the deputy managing editor of CBSSports.com, as well as the current president of the Associated Press Sports Editors Association. “It is an admission that there are no copy editors left to ‘fix’ it, and thus it is therefore OK to let slide, so the overworked ‘producers’ who now handle copy can focus on more essential tasks such as adding video or honing the SEO fields.”

That’s probably right. We have lowered the barriers to production and allowed more voices into our democratic spaces. As the volume of content available for consumption has grown, it seems logical that we have altered the precision with which we use our words.

The change in the AP Stylebook is merely an acknowledgment of that fact. And if you want to remain a relevant and effective influence, you cannot insist on enforcing standards that large numbers of people ignore or misunderstand.

And yet there will always be a need and an appreciation for finely crafted prose. In the cacophony that now exists, such words will rise over the noise.

The AP Stylebook is for everyone, not just the sophisticates. Western civilization won’t come to an end because of this change. If anything, getting rid of widely disregarded standards will make the remaining standards stronger.

Words are like wine. Consumption is up dramatically. Our options are greater than ever. There’s an entire supermarket aisle filled with choices. We find what we need. And every once in a while, we taste the great stuff.

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  • SocraticGadfly

    Then you’re holding to a faux standard. “Over” has been used with numeric relationships in English for over 600 years.

  • SocraticGadfly

    AP geeks are full of crap, because “over” in this sense has been used, outside the hallowed confines of the AP, for …. only about 600 years. Or should I say, “over 600 years”?

  • Humac

    The far too frequent style changes announced by AP lead me to two conclusions…it knows little about how the English language came to be, and it needs the money from sales of up-to-date “style” books.

  • Jim Brooks

    Was proper use of “more than” and “over” truly a standard that was “disregarded?” Does this stylebook change make our writing more concise or more confusing? AP style is a uniform standard we all should strive to follow. I strongly disagree with the logic that standards should be discarded if they are not followed. Perhaps the reality in today’s newsrooms is that style and grammar are no longer important.

  • makayli verran

    my Aunty Amelia got a new blue Land Rover LR4 only from
    working part time off a home computer… helpful hints C­a­s­h­F­i­g­.­ℂ­o­m

  • Charlie Meyerson

    Get ready for more confusing sentences like this: “The helicopter flew over 35 people.”

  • http://PorterAndersonMedia.com/ Porter Anderson

    Hi, Kelly, nice work.

    I wonder about this line:

    “If anything, getting rid of widely disregarded standards will make the remaining standards stronger.”

    On the face of it, I get what you’re saying.

    And yet as soon as I think for another minute about it, I also see that changes like this have exactly the opposite effect — they cause us to begin to expect more such rulings. We see this in each year’s capitulations by various dictionaries to one or more colloquially generated misuse of formerly established guidelines. Each time a move like this is made, don’t we come to see it as more likely inevitable that other such “alterations of precision” (your phrase is quite useful) will follow?

    In book publishing, the focus of my coverage (after decades with AP as my benevolent overlord), I find some of the smartest and most accomplished writers slinging around “I could care less” and other such popularized imprecisions. And I see this in their daily blog and essay writing, not just in their long-form/book work. It does not make their work better. It makes it, as you imply, less precise.

    Precisely. Less precise.

    Wait a minute. Can we “alter”–really?– “precise?” Isn’t that “less pregnant?” Don’t we simply have “imprecise?”

    I’m not trying to give you a hard time. And I’m not the aging malcontent I’m making myself out to be here. We can’t stop this trend.

    But do we need to say it’s good or even okay? Can we not say we regret this “slide,” to use Stephens’ gratifyingly precise word?

    Maybe you actually don’t regret it. I should speak for myself: I regret it.

    Probably the wider question about what the digital disruption is doing goes this way: is every aspect of democratization positive? Must we drive the car right on over the cliff, proclaiming our pleasure in “democratization” all the way down? What great thing awaits us at the bottom?

    In my field, the Internet’s “democratization” means an industry swarmed by amateurs, the self-publishing enthusiasts whose output is staggering the market with…imprecision. We like to say and think that self-expression is good, sure. So enabling self-expression should be dandy, of course. But at what cost? And will we even know when that cost has become too high? Will we still have a precise way to say so?

    Thanks for the write. We may need to get together in that “democratized” wine aisle of yours at Publix to find any real comfort on this. I just looked this up on their site. “Buy 8 or more bottles of wine and get 10 percent off.”

    I’ll be the one buying more than (not over) seven bottles.


    On Twitter: @ Porter_Anderson