Monday, March 12, 2012

APME News: Spelling, grammar and style: some surprises

By  Tom Kent                                
Text messages these days are rife with “cre8ive” spelling. Punctuation seems a lost art. Yet when people read AP copy, they seem to be getting more critical of spelling errors, typos and lapses of grammar.

Maybe it’s because with all that grammatical casualness out there, people who care about language look to people like us to defend the basics of style and clarity.

The number of emails criticizing us for spelling and style lapses is up sharply. Readers cite issues such as our spelling “Porsche” as “Porche”; a gratuitous reference to a 67-year-old man as “elderly”; and our rendering “volcanologist” as “vulcanologist” (the reader noted the story was about “volcanoes, not Star Trek conventions”).

We also see growing public interest in the Stylebook. The @AP_Stylebook Twitter account has reached more than 100,000 followers. “Ask the Editor,” Dave Minthorn’s Q&A column on the Stylebook site, answers 2,500 questions a year. Dave and fellow Stylebook editors Darrell Christian and Sally Jacobsen are now rock stars in the world of grammar and style, speaking to overflow crowds at journalism conventions and lighting up the blogosphere when they make such declarations as “‘website’ is one word.”

Spelling and grammar clearly go hand-in-hand with reader respect. Websites riddled with misspellings and grammar errors consistently rank lower on Google than well-edited sites. That’s not because Google uses spelling to rank sites. It’s because people who have something worth saying have long tended to say it well.

What does all this mean for AP’s journalists in a world of limited staffing and a high volume of news?

A survey last month by the Standards Center offers some surprises. When we’re working the fastest, we seem to make the fewest slips. There aren’t a lot of errors in APNewsAlerts or NewsNows (though lapses there hurt the most). More frequently, we see problems in longer writethrus of spot stories, and, surprisingly, in enterprise that wasn’t urgent at all.

We often find that if a story has one typo, it has another. Look for it in the lower half of the story, where editors’ attention can flag.

Actual misspellings are few, testimony to our use of spell check. Instead, we make mistakes spell check can’t catch. We confuse words like “overt” and “avert” (we usually know the difference; we’re just in a hurry); write “were” instead of “we’re” (again, just finger trouble); drop words (“since cold spell began”); and repeat words (“essential for other nourishing other fish”).

Style is another matter. This is less a question of writing too fast, and more a question of simply not knowing our style. When we write about “the 1st foreign deal” or refer to the “Sept. 11, 2001 attacks” (our style calls for a comma after the year) we give ammunition to those who delight in proclaiming that “AP doesn’t follow its own style.”

There aren’t many shortcuts to knowing AP style. Spell check catches many things; beyond that, there’s the Stylebook itself and the Stylebook lookup on the home page of Some of the most common errors these days involve “cyber” (almost always a compound, like “cybersecurity”); “health care” (two words as a generic); “hard line” (n.), “hard-liner” (n.) and “hard-line” (adj.); and “adviser.” (We write “adviser” with an “e,” not an “o,” except for some formal titles.)

Punctuation counts, too. We look illiterate when we write, even quoting someone, “The downside of that is that everyone's praying for a flood, well floods can be bad too." (We must quote people’s speech exactly, but we reserve the right to put the commas and periods where they ought to be.)

We’ve launched the slick new version of our mobile app. It’s a good time to rededicate ourselves to the importance of spelling and style in a world where they often seem to be in jeopardy. It will bring us rewards in clicks, credibility and respect.

Tom Kent is a deputy managing editor at the Associated Press, and its standards editor.

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