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!

Student guest post: It’s time for euphemisms to kick the bucket

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 17th of those posts. Molly Sprecher is a junior double-majoring in reporting and English and Comparative Literature. She works as a digital intern for the General Alumni Association and as the publicity editor and assistant photo editor for the Yackety Yack yearbook. She also freelances as an event and landscape photographer.

If there’s one thing I know as an English and Comparative Literature major, it’s how to draw out the word count with beautiful, fluffy, meaningless chatter. You give me a phrase, and I’ll tell you one with three more adjectives and at least 25 more syllables.

But journalism values brevity and honesty, appealing to the shortening attention span of consumers overwhelmed with options. My professor for MEJO 358 (Opinion Writing), Angelia Herrin, gave me a reality check this semester when she told me I was such a clever writer that I seduced myself into not realizing I wasn’t writing about anything.

Journalists are often criticized for the practice of concisely, objectively reporting the news, and accused of not caring about the subjects they report on. Viewers see indifference and distance in journalists’ blunt style. In any other segment of public life, death is a four-letter word (please excuse the euphemism). But in the news, it is commonplace, and according to The Associated Press Stylebook, the only acceptable choice.

But journalists’ rejection of euphemisms and fluff phrases is a testament to their dedication to telling the public the truth. Such as, Howard Schultz is a billionaire, not a “person of means,” and “alternative facts” are just lies. Editors delete phrases that have little concrete meaning, like “passed away,” “powder your nose,” “vertically challenged” or “au natural,” not just because they are awkward, but also because they don’t serve to inform the public, which is a journalist’s primary responsibility. Changing the wording doesn’t change the facts, but can skew public perception.

The AP Stylebook recently announced that the phrases “racially charged” or “racially motivated” should be replaced with “racist.” Herein lies another instance of giving up what is comfortable in favor of what is. Downplaying the significance of what journalists’ report on would be a disservice to those reported to.

To say that someone died, was racist or is homeless is to recognize the shared humanity of the audience. The people in the news are human beings, not abstractions to decorate with pretty phrases.

This distinction is more important than ever as society takes on the challenge of practicing inclusive language in a diversifying community. Editors must be aware not only of what the stylebook says, but also of the preferences of the public. Tip-toeing around these sensitive phrases only serves to alienate or condescend to the community involved.

While increasing budget cuts and online options call for cutting word count, it is still important for journalists and editors to remain cognizant of any attempt to create a language buffer between ideas and the audience. Avoiding the issue won’t make it stop existing, it will just make the line of communication between journalists and the public that much more convoluted.

In journalism, both the public and the individual matter. No, we cannot report on every single person. But we can show that we see their humanity in word choice. Your grandmother died; she didn’t pass away. Her employee was fired, not let go or between jobs. He is a member of the LGBTQ community, not batting for the other team. They are victims, not collateral damage.

Hard facts and objective reporting, instead of eliminating emotion, can be humanizing and help end the “other” perception of marginalized groups. The AP Stylebook’s transition to “racist” as an accepted phrase is a step in the right direction.

As journalists, we have promised to pursue and report only the truth. We have not promised flowery language, only that we will not shy away from difficult issues, and that we will respect what we have the responsibility to report. Disregarding meaningless phrases only sacrifices denigrating important issues, not our journalistic integrity nor our human sympathy.

Student guest post: Style changes debut at ACES conference

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 15th of those posts. Johnny Sobczak is a UNC-Chapel Hill junior from Fayetteville, North Carolina. He is majoring in journalism, with a concentration in reporting, and minoring in global cinema. He writes for the Durham VOICE. He is most strongly interested in the film industry and writes about film on his personal blog. He hopes to pursue a career in film journalism after college.

Anyone involved in the journalism industry knows AP style like the back of his or her hand. From reporters to editors, it’s the standardized style and usage maintained by American journalists that work in connection with The Associated Press. Every year since 1997, ACES: The Society for Editing has held a conference to improve their editing skills, learn about style and usage trends, and meet fellow editors from across the country. One of the conference’s most interesting and discussed events is the AP’s reveal of the changes to the stylebook.

The most significant change this year was the addition of a new section that will attempt to improve race-related coverage by pulling together similar, scattered entries, updating AP guidance, and attaching more importance to the topic, according to Paula Froke, lead editor of the AP Stylebook. My colleague writes about those race-related style changes here, so I want to discuss a couple of the other notable changes made for 2019. As a student reporter and editor, my colleagues and professors are constantly debating the merit of AP Stylebook choices. It’s important to not only know the style, but the reasoning behind the choices, and I think most of the AP’s changes are for the better.

One of the AP style choices that has always baffled me was the decision to forego the % sign. To me, journalistic writing is about conciseness and communicating information as effectively as possible, so spelling out “percent” in every instance seemed antithetical. To remember it, I began forcing myself to type out “percent” in every context, whether it was a text to my mom or a Twitter message to a friend. Thankfully, the AP has come around and is now allowing the use of the % sign when paired with a numeral, with no space, in most cases. In casual uses, the word will still be preferred, such as in “he has zero percent chance of winning.”

The hyphen is another point of contention that has been cleared up this year. As most of my fellow students know, the use of the hyphen with modifiers can be tricky business. The previous rule made phrases like “third-grade teacher” and “first-quarter touchdown” standard. Now, the AP is suggesting that no hyphen is necessary if the modifiers are commonly recognized as one phrase, such as “chocolate chip cookie” or “early morning transaction.”

I feel like this is another example of a good, common sense move to improve clarity. Of course, this still means using the hyphen when it’ll help make things easier to understand for the reader. Recently, I was editing a piece and was about to leave out a hyphen for “small business owner.” My editing professor reminded me that we wouldn’t want any readers thinking the business owner was small in stature, so I opted to leave it in. The elimination of superfluous hyphens is also being extended to combinations with double-e construction, such as “reelect” and “preexisting.”

As I have grown increasingly familiar with AP style, I think it’s fair to say I’ve at times also grown increasingly frustrated. Some of the style choices might seem arbitrary or confusing, but the ultimate goal of the AP is to recognize which are most troublesome and improve as much as possible each year. These new style changes are just two of many that will make my work, and the work of journalists across the country, a little bit easier.

Student guest post: AP addresses nuances of race, identity

Students in MEJO 557, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this site this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Mitra Norowzi is junior majoring in Journalism and English. She freelances at InHerSight and works as an editorial assistant at academic journal Southern Cultures.

When it comes to editing for AP style, I like to take the “Pirates of the Caribbean approach” – as the character Hector Barbossa says, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

This has been especially true for me when making editing decisions relating to identity. When I served as an editorial intern at InHerSight during the summer of 2018, I was tasked with cobbling together a style guide for our content since the editorial side of the site was relatively new. Because InHerSight tackles workplace inequality through an intersectional feminist lens, it was extremely important that our style guide reflected that. I used The Associated Press Stylebook as a starting point, but I had to make my own calls on some terms including:

Use LGBT+ instead of LGBT or LGBTQ. This was a difficult call, but after reading a lot of discourse on the subject, I decided that LGBT wasn’t as exclusive as I would have liked, but while some often add a “Q” for “queer” at the end as an umbrella term for everyone else, I saw that many members of the community were not comfortable with this term. Historically, “queer” has been used as a slur against the gay and transgender communities, and it’s true that many individuals are choosing to reclaim the term, but I didn’t think it was my place to cast it onto everyone when it still invokes pain and violence for some people.

Don’t use “people of color” if you mean Black Americans or African Americans. Many issues do not have the same contexts or consequences for people of different minority groups, so avoid using umbrella terms if you’re really only talking about one specific group. Additionally, don’t be afraid to use “Black Americans.” After all, “African Americans” implies that the group of people is of African descent, but some Black people might not have recent or significant ties to Africa.

Use Latinx instead of Latino and Latina. Beyond unnecessarily gendering a group, Latino/a only takes into account binary genders, excluding those who identify outside the gender binary.

I had to declare these rules for the site because in this arena, I didn’t feel the 2018 AP Stylebook’s entries on identity were nuanced enough. So, I was really excited to see that the updates for the 2019 edition offered much more thoughtful options. This is what the revised entry for “race-related coverage” now says:

Reporting and writing about issues involving race calls for thoughtful consideration, precise language, and an openness to discussions with others of diverse backgrounds about how to frame coverage or what language is most appropriate, accurate and fair. Avoid broad generalizations and labels; race and ethnicity are one part of a person’s identity. Identifying people by race and reporting on actions that have to do with race often go beyond simple style questions, challenging journalists to think broadly about racial issues before having to make decisions on specific situations and stories.

I really think this entry nails it. AP does list some more specific changes to make, but I appreciate that overall. It encourages writers and editors to evaluate their race-related language on a case by case basis. I think having a rigid, unyielding approach to something as dynamic as race is a recipe for disaster, so I like that AP is moving away from that. Here’s a quick summary of the more specific updates when it comes to race.

Race: Think about whether including a racial descriptor is necessary. Often it’s not, but there are some cases, like when police are searching for a suspect, where a physical description is appropriate. However, once a suspect has been apprehended, including their race is no longer appropriate.

Racist or racism: Casting someone or something is a pretty serious statement, but basically the AP says, if the shoe fits. If you can identify specific racist doctrines, you need to label them as such. No waffling around with euphemisms like “racially charged” if the subject is clearly, objectively racist.

Black(s), white(s): While the terms “blacks” or “whites” are acceptable as plural nouns or adjectives, do not use them as singular nouns.

Dual heritage: No hyphen.

African American: No hyphen. Not necessarily interchangeable for all black people. For example, some black people prefer “Caribbean American.”

Asian American: No hyphen. It’s an acceptable term, but be more specific by identifying someone by their country of origin if possible — for example, saying Chinese American rather than Asian American.

Caucasian: Avoid using this term unless it’s in a quote.

People of color, minority: Generally acceptable to use to describe people that are not white in the United States. Avoid using the acronym POC or calling someone a minority unless it’s said in a quote.

Transracial: Just don’t use this term.

Latino/Latina: Although some prefer the new term “Latinx,” only use this term in direct quotes or in the names of people or organizations who request it, and provide a brief explanation of what it means. For groups of women, use “Latinas,” and for mixed groups use “Latinos.”

Hispanic: Follow a person’s preference. Be more specific by identifying someone by their country of origin if possible.

American Indians, Native Americans: Both are OK in reference to two or more members of different tribes in the United States. For individuals, identify them as members of specific tribes.

Reverse discrimination: Just use “discrimination” instead.

Generally, I think these changes are a marked improvement, and many mirror the changes that some editors have already made. Although I disagree with AP’s decision to limit use of “Latinx,” I approve of the updates and the nuanced approach to race that AP is recommending.