Because That's What the Stylebook Says
For no particular reason, I've been -pretty relieved to see April give way to May. Maybe it's because the pollen was so -pervasive last month, or because my -husband had a bout of "tick bite fever," or because the tax refund we filed for on April 15 wasn't going to get us that dream trip to Vienna.
Or maybe it was all those unsettling world and -national headlines that dominated the news in April: 29 coal miners trapped and killed in West Virginia. The adoptive mother who sent her -"problem child" back home on a plane, alone, to Russia. The oil rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The Goldman Sachs congressional hearings. The Icelandic volcano that -paralyzed international air travel.
And The Associated Press' decision to change its official style from "Web site" to "website."
Uh ... what was that last one?
Maybe you didn't catch that bit of "news" - especially with everything else that was going on in the world. And it probably wouldn't mean much to you anyway if you're not involved in writing or editing news. But here at The Pilot, where I'm the resident proofreader, any announcement The AP makes regarding changes to its stylebook - the industry standard for grammar, punctuation and usage - is cause to take notice. Especially for me, since my job requires me to ensure that The Pilot's news pages conform to AP style. But is it newsworthy?
I can't say The AP's decision triggered that much excitement here in the newsroom. The reactions ranged from the simple ("It's about time") to the philosophical ("That's how everybody writes it anyway") to the resigned ("Now I have to undo the last four months of teaching my journalism students that AP style is 'Web site, two words'").
Not everybody in the world of written English felt as underwhelmed, however. When AP's stylebook editors announced the change at the American Copy Editors Society national conference in mid-April, the room erupted in cheers and applause.
So why is this change newsworthy, if it is? The basic purpose of a stylebook, whichever one an organization chooses to use, is to ensure consistency. And consistency helps ensure the other elements that add up to good writing: clarity, accuracy, creativity. The things that readers expect in a -publication and don't always find, but which they deserve. Consistency is key to all this.
Consistency also is essential to -establishing standards in any endeavor, occupation or art form, and language is no exception. We take language standards -pretty seriously at The Pilot, and we strive to achieve those standards. Using a -stylebook helps us do just that.
There's often more than one "correct" way to write something in English. E-mail or email? Web site or website? Canceled or cancelled? All of these are "correct." Having so many ways of saying the same thing is part of the beauty - and the -capriciousness - of English. It's a dynamic, constantly evolving language, reflective of changing times, of changing technology. AP's announcement is somewhat of a reminder of this evolving aspect of English, and of language in general. To my way of thinking, that's pretty newsworthy.
When I'm proofing pages at The Pilot, my dog-eared copy of The AP Stylebook is never far from my side, something my co-workers are keenly aware of. Every so often, I'll hear the managing editor calling a question out to me from across the newsroom: "Is 'good will' one word or two?" (Depends on whether it's a noun or a -modifier. That's what the stylebook says.)
My pal Martha, who enters my -proofreading changes into the page files, asks why I've deleted ellipses at the end of the quotes in a story. (Because the stylebook says so.) More often than not, the editor and I find ourselves in discussions that -positively border on the banal: Is it insure, ensure, assure? Awhile or a while? Why is "Realtor" spelled with an upper-case "r," but president and pope aren't upper-case? What's the plural of BlackBerry? We look and sound like an odd couple of Talmudic scholars, hovering and arguing over the ancient books in search of truth, clarity and, well, consistency.
It's not to say we don't make mistakes. We know when we do; it's hard to hide from a printed page. And if we don't catch a mistake, chances are pretty good our readers will. Believe me, we try pretty hard. As English continues to evolve, so do we.
Mary Novitsky is a proofreader at The Pilot. Contact her at email@example.com.
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