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Hate the style, not the stylebook

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NOVEMBER 03, 2016

According to the Associated Press Stylebook, the ever-sacred text that any copy editor worth their salt strictly adheres to, brackets cannot be used as punctuation because “they cannot be transmitted over news wires.”

This rule dates back to the pre-computer era, when news services like AP had to send their articles out to the masses through telegraph wires instead of online. Obviously, the technology now exists for AP to transmit even fancy, show-offy punctuation marks such as brackets. But the rule remains because this is news, damn it, and news has standards. News cares about tradition.

Except, of course, when it doesn’t. AP style is always changing for modernity’s sake. Upon learning this summer that “internet” was no longer to be capitalized, I immediately told all my journalist friends. We were outraged, to say the least — how could a rule we all held so dear be so quickly annihilated?

But the truth that we all, as copy editors, have to accept — whether we like it or not — is that AP style is simultaneously painfully old-fashioned and irritatingly new-fangled. No matter how much we gripe, AP will always have rules so old that no one who works there now was alive when they were made as well as rules so new that they upset even the most modern of Millennials.

And, really, grammar in general is the same way. It is still frowned upon, for example, to end a sentence with a preposition in formal writing, even though nowadays in informal writing that’s something we see a lot of.

At the same time, though, our rules are constantly modernizing; for example, it’s become more and more acceptable to say “everyone can have what they want” instead of “what he or she wants,” both because it acknowledges non-binary genders and because it looks way better.

And in a world where people pay increasingly less attention to grammar, a world permeated with texting abbreviations and split infinitives, we need that dual quality of grammar now more than ever.

If grammar weren’t constantly modernizing, it would be a pain in the ass for us to communicate in the rapid way we now do, but if it didn’t stay at least somewhat obscure and old-fashioned, all distinctions between formal and informal writing would fade away. These strange old customs are part of what keeps presidential speeches from sounding like Twitter DMs.

So, as much as we feel like we’re at the mercy of a system whose rules change (or not) in arbitrary ways and at arbitrary times, we have to realize that these changes (or lack thereof) are vital for the maintenance of the English language as the well-oiled machine we know it to be.

And when I, as a copy editor, find myself irked about some new AP commandment I must now incorporate into my credo, I’ve got to remember to hate the game and not the player. Don’t hate the AP Stylebook; hate grammar itself.

Contact Nick Schwartz at 

LAST UPDATED

NOVEMBER 03, 2016


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