Seeking Shelter from the Storm of Today’s Word Usage

 “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” *

‒ Nelson Mandela

This quote is a favorite among language teachers who want their students to see the value of learning a second tongue. I find it useful in persuading public relations professionals that abiding by the ins and outs of The Associated Press Stylebook can win them better visibility – even acceptance — for the words they employ with journalists on behalf of clients.

When journalists realize that your news releases, captions, advisories and emails reliably carry the imprimatur of AP style, your relationship with them is enhanced. You’re saving them time by getting to the point. You’re writing from a simple perspective, enhancing their understanding. You’re proving to them that you know what you’re writing about — and can credibly field questions about your client’s new product, earnings statement, executive moves or acquisition.

On the Same Wavelength

You’re speaking their language. Given the declining state of English usage today, AP style probably qualifies as a second tongue. Think of this voluminous book, and its online companion, not as a burden to memorize but as a place to take shelter. Good writing is an open-book test.

There are rival publications for news writers, such as The Reuters Handbook of Journalism. Online supplements such as After Deadline, a companion to the New York Times’ guide, are fun-to-read windows into how editors think.

At Fahlgren Mortine, we use AP style because it has the broadest reach in journalism and academe, and it’s comprehensive. As its current full name suggests, The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law is about more than words. It’s a dictionary, a textbook, an encyclopedia, a legal guide, a gazetteer.

Passion and Practicality Combined

The Mandela quote will amuse those who believe news people to be heartless. Substitute “passion” and you’re on the same path, the communications wavelength for people who report, write and edit news for a living.

But there is a serious side to stylebooks. When the AP replaced its decades-old, pamphlet-sized style guide in 1977 with the behemoth that we know today, it was called The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. The title said it all: Screw up your copy and management might have to spend big money for lawyers, with your reportorial reputation in the balance.

Passionate About Hyphens 

I brought my own passion about words to the AP, and found plenty more among my colleagues. The hefty version of the guide was just a few years old when I was invited by AP Stylebook Editor Christopher French to join a small group of fellow editors to discuss revisions for the next edition. The site was the Pig ‘N Whistle, a scruffy New York Irish bar below street level and just off Rockefeller Plaza, a two-minute walk from AP headquarters at 50 Rock.

An occasional fist of protest would shake the table, causing Guinness half pints to heave over their rims and onto our notebooks, as we discussed why Hades was capitalized and hell was not.

Clear Opinions in a Cloud

As blue clouds of cigarette smoke coursed around our heads, we debated the merits of hyphenating teen-ager. (AP included the hyphen due to some sort of internal conspiracy, I was advised. A decade later, it was removed and remains out.) There’s no such thing as cacti or news anchors or tennis racquets in the AP world, only cactuses, anchormen, anchorwomen and rackets. No one dared show so much ignorance at these meetings or at our workplace, the General Desk, to utter Canadian, instead of the correct Canada, in reference to the geese.

Less than half the age of some combatants, I was the newest and most junior team member of this pub squad. I was on the wrong side of several arguments, including teen-ager. My brother Tim, who is a colleague at Fahlgren Mortine, back then was a political correspondent for the hated rival United Press International. I laid low.

Some of my beer-stained colleagues were veterans of disbanded treaty talks that were supposed to have produced a heralded joint AP-UPI stylebook – or was it a UPI-AP stylebook? You get the picture. UPI demanded whiskey and teenager. To AP it was whisky and teen-ager.

This scrap took place at about the same time that Jimmy Carter persuaded Egypt and Israel to sign a peace treaty that survives to this day. No such luck when the talks involved taking sides in a war over words.

Nelson Mandela as quoted in “At Home in the World: The Peace Corps Story” by Penny Getchell, Janet Getchell, John Cayne, Ron Keeney, and Rose Green Anderson. 1996. Peace Corps Books.  


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