Big changes to AP Stylebook come from two tiny bits of punctuation: % and –

First in a series

Two punctuation marks account for the biggest changes to the Associated Press Stylebook this year. The tiny hyphen is being removed from many places where it was once used, and % — the percent symbol — is coming into its own.

The AP Stylebook goes through a big update every spring with the release of a new print version. The marketing for the new book always speaks of “more than 200 new and modified entries,” but only a few changes tend stand out in a given year: lowercasing the “i” in “internet” (2016); removing the hyphen from “email” (2011); the acceptance of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun in certain cases (2017).

This year is an exception — many changes stand out. Multiple blog entries will be needed to get through them all before the May 29 release of the 2019 edition.

The changes are already in place in the online version of the book, and editors now must decide whether and how quickly to implement them. Every publication is different, with its

The cover of the 2019 Associated Press Stylebook, set for release in late May.

own style quirks. Even though the AP Stylebook is the main style guide for much of the news business and those in the fields of marketing, public relations and corporate communication, it only strictly applies to those who write and edit for the Associated Press. Others are free to embrace whatever portions of the book they prefer.

Many said no way when AP did away with state abbreviations in copy (2014), for example. (The thinking is that state abbreviations such as Mich., Ala., Fla. are not easily recognizable to an international audience — or often a domestic audience. Personally, I’m happy to not have to think about which state is which.)

The biggest annual AP Stylebook changes are traditionally announced at the annual conference of ACES: The Society for Editing. This year’s conference took place in Providence, Rhode Island, at the end of March, and a roomful of editors gasped, groaned, and cheered their way through a presentation by Stylebook lead editor Paula Froke.

The wow moment

ACES, also known as the American Copy Editors Society, started out as an organization of news journalists, and its conference attracts many editors who rely on AP Style. The Associated Press has been a guest at this conference for years. I was there in the front row, waiting for this year’s “wow.” There were several, but one in particular brought an audible gasp.

The new book’s guidance says: “Use the % sign when paired with a numeral, with no space, in most cases.” An exception is in casual use, such as “a zero percent chance.”

I’ll take a closer look at this change in my next post.

The use of the percent symbol is probably the biggest change, but there are many important changes in how we use hyphens — they are removed from ethnic American designations such as Asian American, removed from many compound modifiers, and removed from prefixes that form a double “e.” The book also adds guidance on when to call a racist act racist — one item in new umbrella category of race-related coverage. Other notable changes: data usually takes a singular verb, accent marks are now OK in names if that’s the person’s preference, the parenthetical “sic” should be avoided, and there is no rule (really) against split infinitives. I’ll explore these other changes in coming blog posts.

The 2019 edition publishes May 29, but the updates are already reflected in the subscription-based online AP Stylebook.

Here is an article on the changes from the ACES conference. The AP Style Blog also has a short summary.  And Merrill Perlman took a good look at the AP Stylebook changes, starting with this column on AP’s focus on terms and news coverage having to do with race and racism. All of Perlman’s blogs for Columbia Journalism Review can be found here.

For tweets about the session, you can search the hashtag #ACESAPStyle. There are a lot of them.

Trivia question: How should we refer to someone from Ecuador?

A farmer on a horse looks at the Tungurahua volcano eruption - December 10, 2010, in Banos, Cordillera, central Ecuador.

A farmer on a horse looks at the Tungurahua volcano eruption on December 10, 2010, in Banos, Cordillera, central Ecuador. (Photo by Kseniya Ragozina)

As a freelance copy editor, I follow the guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook in perhaps a third of my professional work. I also edit using The Chicago Manual of Style, the Publications Manual of the American Psychological Association, other style manuals, or no preferred style manual at all in some cases. The AP’s book is always close at hand, though, because it is one of the most useful reference books available for carefully considered questions of language, culture and current events.

There is a little-know field on the website of The Associated Press Stylebook that lets users outside AP offer suggestions for updates for the style guide. I’ve dug my way through various layers to find it, and I’ve offered my thoughts on various minor questions of language and usage. The most recent was one of the more inconsequential, I thought, but it was also a relative no-brainer. AP Stylebook took my suggestion, even thanked me in a tweet. So, now, those who follow AP Style should say Ecuadorian rather than Ecuadorean, as was previously advised.

This seems trivial, and it certainly is. But setting style and sticking with it provides readers with clarity and signals to them we care about getting things right. Despite AP’s preference over the decades, Ecuadorean never was used as much as Ecuadorian, and Ecuador’s English-language tourism website uses Ecuadorian.

This illustrates a strength of the AP Stylebook over other reference sources — it responds quickly when it needs to. It was updated almost immediately after I brought Ecuadorian to the Stylebook editors’ attention. Every spring, the book publishes anew with scores of changes and additions. Between editions, the online version updates as needed. Some recent additions include advice on reggaeton, the musical style, and on the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement (the initialism USMCA is acceptable on first reference with a definition, but spelling it out is preferred).

I’ve had many writers and copy editors tell me they avoid the AP Stylebook because they don’t edit for news. But I wonder why they would ignore a reference book created with thoughtful advice on how we use language. If we don’t edit in AP Style, we don’t need to follow the advice, but on pesky issues of language, I prefer all the advice I can get.

I’ll be writing more about the AP Stylebook (and other style guides) in this space, and I hope both nonusers and aficionados find my thoughts useful. If you have any comments or questions, please let me know.

At some point, I may find that suggestion field again so I can share it with you all.