A North Carolina town’s wise choice

carrboro-logoA new government recently took power in Carrboro, North Carolina — at least in name. The town, which is home to about 20,000 people, is now ruled by a Town Council instead of a Board of Aldermen.

The Carrboro council is typical of local governments in North Carolina, consisting of six members and the mayor. For the past 50 years, this group was known as the Board of Aldermen. Today, five of those seven people are women, which made the -men element of the name awkward.

That’s because alderman has its origins in Old English, meaning an “elder or wise man.” Its earliest use dates to before the 12th century, according to Merriam-Webster.

“Some of us who’ve been sitting on this board have really felt the pinch of being referred to as aldermen,” board member Randee Haven-O’Donnell said, as reported by The News & Observer in Raleigh. “I’m saying that because folks don’t realize that the gender neutral matters.”

Carrboro’s move from Board of Aldermen to Town Council has gone over well with the town’s residents.

“We have not heard any negative feedback about our name change,” said Mayor Lydia Lavelle in an email interview. “In fact, I have heard positive comments from folks that this will make it more clear for people to understand what we do now, and I agree.”

The change in the board’s name reflects a trend nationally to include more inclusive word choices. For example, council members in Berkeley, California, voted in 2019 to revise the city code to make its language gender neutral.

It’s also an issue on the minds of editors, including those who work with writing about government and policy.

The Associated Press Stylebook has numerous entries about word choice and gender. For example, it suggests firefighter over fireman. It recommends representative over congressman for members of the U.S. House.

The stylebook allows chairperson or chair if that’s what an organization says it prefers. It shuns divorcee.

Until recently, the stylebook was OK with man and mankind when both men and women are involved and “no other term is convenient.”

Perhaps for future editions, the stylebook’s editors could group these scattered entries into one larger one as they have with umbrella entries on gender identity and race-related terms. That would make those guidelines easier to find and apply, and it would send a message that this type of editing is essential.

Such a change, like the one in Carrboro, would be a wise move.

This post also appears in the spring 2020 edition of Tracking Changes, the quarterly journal of ACES: The Society for Editing. The journal is one of the many benefits of ACES membership.

Student guest post: What to do when AP style fails on coverage of mental illness

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 13th of those posts. Meredith Radford is a junior in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, with a double major in journalism and political science. She is a writer for the City, State and National desk of The Daily Tar Heel, and a server at Carolina Coffee Shop, a historic Chapel Hill restaurant. In her free time, Radford enjoys listening to podcasts about politics and true crime, visiting coffee shops and spending time in nature.

A few weeks ago, I was editing an article for our class about eating disorder recovery, and I was confronted with a problem. The AP Stylebook does not address eating disorders or how to talk about them.

The first time The Associated Press added an entry on mental illness was in 2013. The change came shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where many questioned the mental health of the shooter, causing a lot of subsequent conversation about mental illness in the media.

This guidance gives basic rules about mental illness as a whole. It says to avoid talking about someone’s mental health unless it is “clearly pertinent” to the story and to not assume mental health issues of someone without proper evidence of up-to date-diagnoses. It also advised against relying on a “history” of mental health issues to explain someone’s actions.

The entry also says to use specific disorders when possible and lists some examples, but it does not go into any more detail about specific diagnoses. The terms in the story I was editing for which I needed guidance, anorexia nervosa and binge eating disorder, were not at all mentioned. There is no entry on eating disorders in the stylebook.

The only other entry I was able to find that involves mental health is on suicide, which focuses on not covering suicide or suicide attempts unless the person involved is a well-known figure or the circumstances are “unusual or publicly disruptive.” The entry also says not to talk about the methods used, unless it is announced publicly by police or family, and it talks about how to cover medically assisted suicide. It does not cover discussing mental illness involved with suicides.

My concern about the lack of clear guidelines on covering mental illness is that journalists and editors will shy away from discussing them at all, because they are unsure of how to do it correctly.

One in five adults and one in six youth in the United States experience mental illness each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Newsrooms across the nation use AP style religiously, and if they’re anything like I am about checking the style guide, they probably become alarmed and unsure when the AP has virtually nothing to say about a topic.

Mental health of any kind is something that should be written about with care, accuracy and consistency. The AP style guide needs detailed recommendations on discussing mental illness in order for that to happen.

Luckily, there are other organizations that have tackled the complexity of writing about mental health.

After I edited that story, my professor sent me information published by the Academy for Eating Disorders, which gives information about what different diagnoses look like and facts about eating disorders generally. The guidelines say that patients with eating disorders have “the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric disorder,” and emphasize the seriousness of all eating disorder types.

While this information doesn’t specifically tell us how journalists should cover EDs, it does give us helpful information on what they are and how seriously they should be treated.

Another source is the Disability Style Guide from the National Center on Disability and Journalism. This guide addresses mental illnesses of all kinds along with other disabilities, many of which also are not covered in the AP style guide. A cool thing about this guide is that it compares its own guidance with the AP style guide suggestions. This guide, however, does not cover eating disorders specifically.

The National Institute of Mental Health is the resource the AP lists along with their entry on mental illness for reference. The NIMH website has additional resources on specific mental health topics, as well as research and statistics on the topic.

As journalists and editors, we must do plenty of research on the subjects we cover to make sure we are being accurate and clear, but also sensitive to the seriousness of certain subjects, particularly mental health.

My hope is that the AP will extend its entries on mental health soon. But until then, editors will need to use resources outside of their AP Stylebook in order to cover mental illness accurately and with care.

Student guest post: Post-pandemic, AP should release in-depth coronavirus style guide

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 12th of those posts. Ashley Mills is a senior broadcast and electronic journalism major at UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a copy editor with UNC’s Media Hub and script editor at Carolina Week. In her free time, Mills enjoys baking, writing and watching Carolina basketball.

In February, I was working on an assignment in class in which we were to make a Wakelet page on the topic of our choosing. My partner and I chose to put together a page on the coronavirus.

At the time, it was just starting to appear in the United States. It was referred to as “the new coronavirus” or “the novel coronavirus.” On the AP stylebook’s website, there was not an entry on it. There was just a general “coronaviruses” entry and one “Ask the Editor” response.

Less than a month later, the AP published a coronavirus topical guide, giving guidance to writers and editors on things like the difference between quarantine and isolation and what social distancing is. Just “the coronavirus” is now acceptable on first reference; there is no doubt on which coronavirus is being discussed.

In a way, we editors are lucky to have so much guidance in such uncertain times. I know I’ve had to check the topical guide every time I’ve edited a story lately.

Coronavirus is dominating the news, and it will likely continue to do so for months to come. It is the duty of journalists, including editors, to give the most accurate, consistent information possible to the public so that they can protect themselves.

Nothing like this was available for crises like the Vietnam War, the Cold War or other historic events. There was no Twitter or Facebook making information is immediately shareable.

It wasn’t until the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that the AP released a Sept. 11 Style and Reference Guide. There were entries on the attacks in the stylebook, but nothing to the extent of the guide. This guide was released to make sure that facts presented are consistent throughout stories across different news organizations about the tragedy.

Things were included like a specific death count: 2,753 in New York, 40 in Pennsylvania, 184 at the Pentagon.

And a down to the minute timeline: “at 8 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 takes off from Boston’s Logan International Airport… at 8:46 a.m. American Airlines Flight 11 crashes into north tower of World Trade Center.”

In the future, a guide like this could be released on the coronavirus pandemic.

And the AP should create and release one, once the pandemic ends, with accurate numbers that all news organizations should cite. Experts are saying the coronavirus could kill 100,000 or more Americans. That’s over 30 times the number of people killed in the Sept. 11 attacks.

It is impossible to compare the pandemic to 9/11, but both have changed the world and will continue to for years to come. 9/11 led to increased security not just in airports, but everywhere. Though likely not to the same extent, coronavirus could have a similar impact, with higher standards for cleaning and people requiring a larger berth of personal space.

After this crisis is over, stories about the pandemic won’t stop. In 10 years, perhaps, interns around the world will be assigned to write a story about the anniversary of the pandemic. They will need accurate facts and figures: death counts and timelines and how many ventilators were needed.

The AP can provide that, as they did with their 9/11 guide. The current coronavirus guide is great for right now, while we’re still in the thick of it, but a more detailed guide will be needed in the future.

The internet makes it easy to share and spread misinformation, and with a detailed coronavirus style guide, we can do our part to provide accuracy.

Student guest post: When AP style meets geopolitics, a world of troubles emerges

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the eighth of those posts. Stephen Kenney is a junior double majoring in journalism and political science at UNC-Chapel Hill. He works as an editor for The Daily Tar Heel. In his free time, Stephen enjoys reading, long-distance running and spending time with God.

It seemed like such a harmless change. In August 2019, Kiev became Kyiv. The Associated Press had suddenly staked out its position on a decades-long geopolitical battle.

As the top source of guidance for the world’s leading news agencies, The Associated Press Stylebook holds great power over consumers’ outlooks on global issues. After all, audiences look to journalists to make sense of the world around them.

Most news consumers have no idea that Kiev derives from Russian and that Kyiv is Ukrainian. Instead, they read the news and take in information as it is given.

Therein lies the AP Stylebook’s power. News consumers often have little outside understanding of global conflicts and take cues from the press. The news narrative, then, shapes geopolitical opinions.

For instance, the international community has been divided for years on how to classify the mass killings in Armenia during the early 1900s. The Associated Press joins only 30 countries in the world that recognize the event, referring to it as the “1915 Armenian genocide.”

At the end of the day, each country’s classification of the events in Armenia is nearly irrelevant. People come to their own conclusions based on media perspectives. And that media, usually, follows AP style.

Many believe AP rules impose Western mindsets on the rest of the world. Undoubtedly, Russians see the name change for Ukraine’s capital as The Associated Press bowing to American interests. Editorial independence must remain of paramount importance.

Venezuela provides a clear example of The Associated Press crafting its own standards. Juan Guaidó, viewed by Western powers as the country’s rightful president, is cast as “an opposition leader who has declared himself interim president.” AP style instead declares Nicolás Maduro as the country’s leader.

The AP’s decision leads to large-scale societal effects. When readers see references to Maduro as “Venezuela’s president,” they are more likely to view him as a legitimate ruler. Additionally, they will view Guaidó’s claim to power with a more critical eye.

Most of AP style’s readership has little outside knowledge of the crisis in Venezuela. They have no idea how legitimate Maduro or Guaidó’s reign is. Instead, these rationally ignorant consumers follow the AP’s opinions as facts when the truth may be more complicated.

Because of its great power, The Associated Press must be careful when defining geopolitical terms. Impartiality is impossible when two groups hold diametrically opposed opinions. However, clarity and editorial independence can be pursued to carefully address turbulent issues.

Clarity comes first and foremost. Why should AP style refer to a situation this certain way? High-stakes political situations deserve comprehensive and carefully reasoned answers. Wishy-washy statements will not suffice when tensions and emotions run hot.

The Associated Press has failed in this regard. While some situations receive the seriousness they deserve, countless others hold little more than a sentence of rationale. The AP blandly labels the 1915 Armenian genocide as such because it is “usually described” that way. Such emotionally charged issues deserve more transparency than this.

The Associated Press fares more positively on editorial independence. No government’s policies match up perfectly with AP style. It boldly states its opinions on international issues without consulting any national entities.

To maintain respectability, The Associated Press must continue to pursue independent thought on world issues. The AP cannot become beholden to governmental interests, and its best path to maintain relative impartiality is by following its own clear standards.

At a certain point, news agencies must take a stand. The media influences how people view salient global issues and must do so responsibly. Clarity on decisions and maintenance of editorial independence are necessary steps to navigate the global minefield.

Student guest post: AP Stylebook neglects terminology for sex work

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the fifth of those posts. Anna Farmer is a junior majoring in journalism and minoring in Hispanic studies. She is a waitress and bartender at Sup Dogs in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In her free time, she enjoys lifting weights and journaling.

In the United States, we often define ourselves in terms of our occupation. In fact, 55% of American workers say they get a sense of identity from their jobs.

The Associated Press Stylebook includes entries on various jobs, from chauffeurs to secretaries to governors. The purpose of these entries is to ensure that writers and editors understand the best usage for these terms and to clarify any uncertainty about what they refer to.

The entry for military titles lists off all of the rankings for each branch of the military and the appropriate abbreviations. Government and emergency service jobs receive similar treatment.

However, if a writer or editor is trying to find the right term for a sex worker, they could only consult a single entry in the stylebook: prostitute. The AP does not define the term; it only suggests that we avoid phrasing that includes “child,” “underage” or “teenage.”

A government-sponsored study conducted by the Urban Institute found that sex work brings in around $290 million a year in Atlanta alone.

It is estimated that there are 1 to 2 millions prostitutes in the United States. This figure does not include people involved in other forms of sex work, such as stripping or acting in pornographic films.

Despite the size of the industry, the presence of sex workers is often ignored. The invisibility of this population has allowed misconceptions and prejudices to fester in our society, shaping policy that affects people’s lives and liberty.

Countless studies of sex workers have shown that they suffer high rates of violence, and the law offers them little, if any, protection. In cases of sexual assault of prostitutes, many states allow the defense to use the plaintiff’s history of sex work as evidence against them.

The entry in the Stylebook does not ensure media use the term prostitute appropriately, and the lack of entries on other forms of sex work exacerbates the confusion surrounding the industry.

For example, there are over 4,000 strip clubs in the United States, but the Stylebook does not clarify if the preferred terminology for someone who works at one of these clubs is “stripper” or “exotic dancer.” This leaves journalists in limbo, where they must decide for themselves how to refer to this group.

When writing about marginalized populations, knowledge is critical. If journalists do not have the vocabulary to talk about sex work, they will either choose to not cover the subject, or they will cover it in a way that misrepresents the profession.

The AP considers the stylebook to be a “definitive resource for writers.” The fact that its editors neglect to include terms for sex work devalues media coverage of this massive industry. If it’s not important enough for the AP, is it actually important at all?

While the AP states that the original goal of the stylebook is to help journalists be “clear, fair and concise … no matter what the news is,” they continue to exclude the language that is necessary to cover this topic.

The 2020 version of the stylebook will be released in May. It is hard to imagine that we will see improvements on the entry for prostitution or additions for the other types of sex work.


A new name and a new style


A UNC-Chapel Hill employee updates the signage on Carroll Hall, home to what is now called the Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

In early September, I woke to big news about where I teach.

The School of Media and Journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill had a new name: the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. The change came with a $25 million donation from alumnus Walter Hussman Jr. and his family.

My first thought: “Wow, what a great gift for the future of journalism!” My second thought: “Well, we’re going to have to update our stylebook.”

The journalism school has a stylebook that’s a supplement to The Associated Press Stylebook. It covers material about the university, the Triangle region and North Carolina.

Here is the guidance on the journalism school’s name change:

UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media: Formerly the School of Media and Journalism. On second reference: UNC Hussman School or the school. In features stories and other informal instances, it may be referred to as the j-school.

I offer a big “thank you” to the Hussman family for supporting our school and investing in journalism. I also offer a smaller “thank you” to them for the reminder that style isn’t stagnant. As times and names change, so must our stylebooks.

Don’t pass me by


The AP Stylebook plays an important role in my editing courses at UNC-Chapel Hill. Students use it to take quizzes and complete assignments, and they may consult either the print or online version of the stylebook.

My goal is not for students to memorize style entries but to have them learn how to identify potential problems and use a reliable resource to resolve them. Everything is open stylebook.

In class, we discuss how and why style guidelines evolve. Each year, the stylebook changes. One of the signature events of the national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing is the announcement from AP editors about new, deleted and revised entries.

The headline-grabbing updates this year included a new entry on race and a change from percent to % in most uses. These changes, which went into effect immediately, were topics of conversation at the conference and on social media.

I overlooked one update, however, and it affected my class, at least in a small way.
Shortly after the conference, my students edited and posted stories to the Durham VOICE website, which covers news in a section of Durham, North Carolina. One of the stories mentioned “passersby,” and I docked the student editor a few points for not making it “passers-by,” as the stylebook has long recommended.

After class, the student asked me about the grading of her assignment. She showed me that the freshly updated digital version of the stylebook has “passerby” as one word. My print edition of the 2018 stylebook still had it with a hyphen, of course.

The student and I weren’t on the same page anymore. After verifying that the AP editors had made this update, I refunded the points to the student and thanked her for pointing out the change.

Here’s a rule to remember: Don’t let your stylebook pass you by.

This post also appears in the summer 2019 edition of Tracking Changes, the quarterly journal of ACES: The Society for Editing. The journal is one of the many benefits of ACES membership.

Dealing with data

Data is a character who appears in “Star Trek” TV series and movies. People differ on whether the noun “data” should take a singular or plural verb.

A colleague recently expressed surprise that the latest edition of the AP Stylebook recommends using a singular verb with the word “data” in most instances. He asked: Isn’t that word plural? Is AP wrong?

The short answers are yes and no. Let’s take a look at the data.

Merriam-Webster defines “data” as “factual information (such as measurements or statistics) used as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or calculation.” The dictionary’s entry for the word notes that it is technically a plural form for the word “datum” but singular or plural in construction. M-W says “data” may take a singular or plural verb.

Stylebooks help writers and editors decide what to choose when we have such options. That guidance builds consistency whether we are working on a book manuscript, a magazine or a company website. It would be distracting to see “data is” in one paragraph of a news story or press release and “data are” in the next.

Here’s what the entry in the 2019 AP Stylebook says about “data” and verbs:

The word typically takes singular verbs and pronouns when writing for general audiences and in data journalism contexts: The data is sound. In scientific and academic writing, plural verbs and pronouns are preferred.

Most, but not all, U.S. news organizations use AP style. Some have their own style.

Regarding “data,” The Washington Post uses the singular verb: “Their bipartisan bill would also require the companies to regularly disclose the ways consumers’ data is being used.” The New York Times does likewise: “The data shows how personal it is.”

Beyond journalism, the Chicago Manual of Style says either verb is fine with “data.” I asked my Twitter following, which consists mostly of editors and writers from an array of disciplines, what they recommended. Here are the results of that informal poll:


A few responded: “It depends.” That’s essentially what the AP entry says too.

If the use of singular verbs and pronouns with “data” bothers you because of the word’s plural heritage, consider other English words imported and modified from Latin. “Agenda” comes from the singular “agendum.” Today we apply a singular verb to it without a second thought.

In my editing classes, I share with my students a love of language and a recognition that words and meanings evolve. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. As we write and edit, we should consider the context of the piece and use resources such as stylebooks and dictionaries to make smart choices.

So it is with “data” and other matters. That’s my agenda.

Book review: Dreyer’s English

cover of Dreyer's English

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York, NY. Random House, 2019. 279 pp. $25.00. ISBN: 978-0-8129-9570-1

Many people, including journalism students, want firm rules on how to write and edit, but English is messy with gray areas and endless debates over commas. That’s where stylebooks and other usage manuals step in, offering clarity and guidance.

“Dreyer’s English” isn’t a stylebook that represents an organization as The Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style do. It certainly has the characteristics of one, with sections of advice on punctuation, word choice, redundancy and other matters that writers and editors care about.

What sets this book apart from others on writing and editing? As indicated by its title, “Dreyer’s English” is a style manifesto of one editor: Benjamin Dreyer.

Dreyer is copy chief at Random House, and he has edited writers such as E.L. Doctorow, Frank Rich and Shirley Jackson, author of the short story “The Lottery.” He has worked at Random House since 1993 in nonfiction and fiction.

Editing those writers (among others) makes Dreyer ideally qualified to take on the task of writing this book, which offers a look at the inner workings of a publishing house. His background, coupled with a sense of humor, makes “Dreyer’s English” feel like an AP Stylebook with wicked one-liners. In a section on word choice, for example, Dreyer takes on business jargon: “It feels like a terribly short walk from ‘onboarding’ a new employee to waterboarding one.”

Like any editor, Dreyer has strong views on many language topics. Among them:

  • He still takes “literally” literally, calling it the “Intensifier from Hell.”
  • He is holding on to “whom” despite talk of its decline: “Until someone can come up with a better word, we are stuck with it.”
  • He is an advocate of the Oxford comma: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.”

Yet Dreyer is a flexible editor, and he cheerfully acknowledges that his preferences may not be yours. He is all right with “alright” on occasion. He suggests that “enormity” can mean more than “monstrous evil” but advises avoiding it in positive contexts such as “the enormity of her talents.” He’s getting more comfortable with the singular they.

The section on punctuation, presented in a list format, neatly describes how using a comma, semicolon or period can alter the pace and tone of writing. Dreyer also offers a helpful tip for students who struggle with appositives with a guideline he calls the “only” comma. And he illustrates the difference between an em dash an en dash.

Dreyer also provides helpful guidance on fact checking. Journalists and public relations practitioners will want to turn to his lists of frequently misspelled names, companies and organizations. Apocryphal quotes from famous people, a bane of journalistic writing, are also addressed. Be wary of words of wisdom attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker and Mark Twain, among others.

In a chapter on editing fiction, Dreyer goes in depth on the need for continuity of characters and timelines. Street names, historical references and vocabulary must match the time period. Readers will notice such errors.

As in journalistic writing, redundancy can weaken fiction. Dreyer warns against “the angry flaring of nostrils” and “the quizzical cocking of the head,” among other wordy constructions. And he once encountered this doozy: “He implied without quite saying.”

So where does all of this guidance take us? In Dreyer’s view, editing is about serving the writer. It’s a collaboration for the benefit of the reader. He writes:

An attentive copy editor should become attuned to and immersed in the writer’s voice to the point where the copy editor has so thoroughly absorbed the writer’s intentions that the process turns into a sort of conversation-on-the-page.

“Dreyer’s English” would work well in a variety of courses in journalism and English departments. For example, in a class on book publishing, “Dreyer’s English” would be perfect in tandem with Carol Fisher Saller’s “The Subversive Copy Editor.”

Beyond the classroom, “Dreyer’s English” will appeal to writers and editors alike. It is a worthy addition to the library of any lover of language.

This review also appears in the Summer 2019 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.

Eating well with style

The Durham Farmers’ Market is one of several farmers markets in the Triangle area of North Carolina.

Two recent tweets have had my mind working — and my stomach growling — about some food-related style choices.

  • First, Merriam-Webster tweeted a link to this post about “farmers market” versus “farmer’s market” versus “farmers’ market.” The one near my home calls itself the Durham Farmers’ Market, going with the plural possessive. That’s fine, but when writing about such places in general, I prefer “farmers market,” using the argument that the farmers gather there but do not own the space. The AP Stylebook makes the same recommendation.
  • Second, BuzzFeed tweeted that it was changing its style from “doughnut” to “donut.” For fun, I conducted a Twitter poll to see what my followers thought, and “donut” prevailed by a comfortable margin. I also prefer that spelling, which strikes me as more contemporary. The AP Stylebook sticks with “doughnut” in its latest edition.

I look forward to eating a donut soon at the farmers market. Yum!