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In Style: The Associated Press Makes Some Changes

The editors of The Associated Press Stylebook recently announced some changes to the Bible of copy editors. Among their pronouncements: e-mail would lose its hyphen, and cell phone would lose its space. Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review, gives us the full rundown.

Two weeks ago, you could have written an "e-mail" to your friend in "Calcutta," checked for a response on your "smart phone" or "hand-held," then answered a call from her on your "cell phone."

But by the end of the week, you would have had to write an "email" to your friend in "Kolkata," checked for a response on your "smartphone" or "handheld," then answered a call from her on your "cellphone."

That is, if you follow Associated Press style.

Two editors of The Associated Press Stylebook, Darrell Christian and David Minthorn, announced those changes, and many more, at the annual conference of the American Copy Editors Society. "Language evolves," @APstylebook announced on Twitter.

And, as happened at last year's conference, when they announced that "Web site" would become "website," the crowd went wild.

"At last!" seemed to be the majority opinion, at least for "email." Some, like Gawker, asked for more changes, such as lowercasing "Internet" and "Web." ("Not yet," the AP Stylebook editors say.)

The overlying principle, Minthorn and Christian said, is to bring AP style more in line with the way people use language. But if you've learned one thing from reading this column, it's that the way people "use" language is not always consistent, or logical.

The same goes for AP style.

The stylebook editors said that "email" was already standard with writers and the public, and that preserving "e-mail" was "impossible to enforce." But the same isn't true of "e-book," "e-commerce," and other "e-whatever" forms, which keep their hyphens. And there's now an entry for "waxed paper," while every brand uses "wax paper."

The stylebook editors also said they wanted to be more in line with how dictionaries spell words, which is why they made "cellphone" one word. But to the new entry "wineglass," one Twitterer responded: "Cannot handle wineglass. Not without winebottle."

Webster's New World College Dictionary, the AP's dictionary, still accepts only "e-mail" or "E-mail." And while AP now has an entry on "drive-thru," WNW prefers "drive-through." (AP previously had an entry for "drive-in.") AP: "hotline"; WNW: "hot line." In fact, the online version of the AP Stylebook, which incorporates all the changes, still lists more than thirty exceptions to WNW.

One other major change is the elimination of parentheses around area codes in domestic telephone numbers, which dates to when people had to dial area codes only when it wasn't their own. More and more, you have to dial an area code even to call across the street. (One reason for not adding "1" to all domestic phone numbers is that not everyone has to dial a "1.")

None of this is meant to complain about the changes or criticize apparent inconsistencies. It's merely to point out that, no matter how much you try to make language usage universal, there's going to be a dictionary, style guide, or usage guide that just has to be different.

And if everyone were the same, why would you need columns like this?

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday March 31st 2011, 1:50 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
Nowadays it is not very easy to communicate with someone because the new language is "tricky".younger teanagers understand that kind of writting, but for the others ;none.

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Grammar goodness at last year's American Copy Editors Society conference.
Should we pluralize "e-mail" as "e-mails" (regardless of the hyphen)?
Merrill Perlman helps sort out some dictionary confusion.