Is the AP Stylebook Archaic?

A manual that insists on ‘fund-raising’ and ‘non-profit,’ and only allowed ‘email’ as opposed to ‘e-mail’ months ago? John McWhorter says rules are so arbitrary.

06.20.12 9:12 PM ET

Now and then—such as, currently, now—one hears of changes made to The Associated Press Stylebook. Yes, there is someone making sure that journalists are all on the same page, so to speak, on matters of format, punctuation, and assorted aspects of grammatical convention.

Convention is the key word here. To the extent that the Stylebook has included facts along the lines of who the leader of Uzbekistan is, the usefulness of a “convention” to identify the right person is clear. However, as you’d expect, its editors are realizing that this kind of information is now available online. Now, the justification for all writers conforming to the rules is dim at best.

It is useful to recall a figure like Ward McAllister, a man of means during the Gilded Age who took it upon himself, in service to Lady Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, to designate certain families as part of “The 400” who were invited to her mansion’s ballroom. There was no logical line to be drawn, other than the one that McAllister felt randomly in his kishkes based on his visceral likes and dislikes. A major strain was a distaste for the Midwestern nouveau in particular. Today the list of the 400 looks largely arbitrary.

The AP Stylebook’s guidelines are too often as fussy as the 400’s concern with where salad forks were to be placed, and no more logical. One is not to spell out numbers referring to age, but to spell them out otherwise—until ten, at which point we are to use numerals. (So I guess I just flubbed and should have written 10.) The 5-year-old boy carried books for twelve blocks is wrong—and if some journalists wrote it that way while others did not, then, it would be … well, yeah.

One will have one’s preferences, of course, just as people among Lady Astor’s set thought of wine frappé as sophisticated. (Although not with too much foam.) The question is whether society would fall apart if some writers wrote 12 blocks while others wrote twelve blocks. The fact that we feel beholden to rules like this is evidence of the eternal conservatism of human nature.

It is why, for example, English’s remnant handful of irregular plurals include high-usage words like men, women, and children. In Old English there were hundreds of plurals like this—books used to be beek—but they leached away in favor of the handier s. Speakers subconsciously resist change in the words that are more part of our everyday routine; it’s no accident that the plural for radish isn’t rhodish.

In the same way, journalists exist under a tolerated regime telling them that “October 18th” is a mistake and the proper form is “Oct. 18th” even though otherwise one is to write out “October.” The Stylebook would appear to be as uncomfortable with the nouveau as Astor and McAllister were. A guide to style for writers producing up-to-the-minute prose 365 days a year just got around to allowing the spelling email as opposed to e-mail in March? When for so many of us, downloading has been a near-daily activity since the Clinton administration, why is the Stylebook just getting to download now, not to mention streaming?

Or, reminiscent of the to-day spelling of today still current among the people gliding around Lady Astor’s ballroom, the Stylebook still preaches fund-raising and non-profit as the proper spellings. (Iced cream, anyone?) There is, in all of this, an air of happenstance.

But in the end, the editors do yield to the times under duress. In the newest edition they have given up on the idea that it’s a mistake to write Hopefully, changes will come sooner rather than later, since as hopefully is an adverb we are to analyze it as modifying the verb. Perhaps this sentence suggests that the changes are somehow harboring hope. Certainly this has always been an arbitrary interpretation—notice that no one has ever had trouble using certainly in the way I just did. Some adverbs can modify a sentence rather than a verb alone. No one thinks Supposedly, he just came as suggesting that the man arrived in a mysteriously hypothetical frame of mind.

Linguistic tradition dies hard—harder than naked classism. We cannot expect  journalists to revolt against the AP Stylebook. Yet the fact remains that rejecting a sentence like “On November 17th, a six year old boy earned fifteen gold stars” as unacceptable is as eternally quaint as someone in 1879 sticking up their little finger sipping a wine frappé.