PR writing corner—reviewing the latest changes to the AP Stylebook

by | May 22, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

So apparently blondes no longer have more fun—at least not according to the Associate Press Stylebook, a sort of bible for newspapers and other word nerds (of which I am proudly one). AP just came out with its latest revisions to the Stylebook, and without so much as an apology to Rod Stewart’s 1978 album title, they have banished “blond” as a descriptor for females of the blonde persuasion. Also gone is “brunette,” now just brown hair.

AP continually works to keep its Stylebook modern, regularly issuing updates to reflect changing times

Its latest dispatch includes revised entries for climate change (“the more accurate scientific term” than global warming) and disabilities (“avoid descriptions that connote pity, such as afflicted with, battling or suffers from). It also tells us not to use “mistress” to describe a woman involved with a married man, and has a long list of guidelines for writing about addiction. And use “blond,” regardless of gender.

Some of the latest entries are evolutionary—the plus symbol (+) “is acceptable when it is pronounced as part of a company, brand or event name”—and others are, shall we say, non-urgent (“preheat: Acceptable to refer to heating an oven to a specific temperature before cooking.”)

But importantly, the Stylebook revisions provide a magnifying glass on cultural changes

The update offers 991 words of guidance on how journalists should handle race-related coverage—for example, steering reporters away from such terms as “racially charged, racially motivated, racially tinged,” which it calls euphemisms that convey little meaning. Recognizing the significant role firearms play in modern America, the editors give us 14 paragraphs on how to write about various kinds of weapons (“Avoid assault rifle and assault weapon, which are highly politicized terms that … convey little meaning about the actual functions of the weapon.”). There are new entries on “first responder(s)” and “homeless, homelessness.”

Nursing homes have become front-page news in the era of COVID-19, but we’re told we should no longer refer to their residents as the frail “elderly,” or even “senior citizens.” Instead, they should be called “older adult(s), older person/people.” The Stylebook also now includes distinct instruction for describing sexual abuse and sexual assault.

Some of AP’s new guidelines seem like common sense or basic courtesy

For example, avoid using “handicap” to describe a disability, and don’t brand someone an “addict”—instead, choose phrasing like he was addicted (or) people with heroin addiction.” Other entries make you wonder what made the issue contentious enough that it needed a separate AP Stylebook entry—such as how to distinguish between the Vodou religion in Haiti and Voodoo as it’s practiced in Louisiana.

But the longest all-new entry in the Stylebook update says a great deal about where we are as a society: 11 paragraphs and 22 specific examples under the heading “gender-neutral language.” As America wrestles over how to recognize women’s equal footing after so many decades (centuries) of male-dominated institutions, AP has taken a close look at how words can play a part. Gone are old-school terms like businessman, city fathers (but we can still recognize the nation’s seven Founding Fathers), manpower, man-made, and salesman, supplanted by business owner/businessperson, city leaders, crews (or staff, workforce, or workers), human-made (or human-caused), and salesperson.

Mercifully, there are some tortured versions that AP rightly rejects. Call the student a freshman or first-year student, but please not “freshperson” or “freshwoman.” And no need to revise lyrics for Frosty the Snowperson. As the Stylebook notes, “In general, use terms that can apply to any gender … (but) balance these aims with common sense, respect for the language, and an understanding that gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language is evolving and in some cases is challenging to achieve.”

Challenging, indeed—and some things simply will not yield unflinchingly. Sorry, AP, but I’ll always hear it as “… one giant leap for mankind”—not, as you suggest, for humanity, humankind, humans, human beings, or people.

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Jon Peck

Jon Peck is Vice President of Messaging at Sachs Media Group.

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