Adviser Advisory

Letterpress StyleThe mark of a real journalist, I learned long ago, is knowing the proper spelling of adviser.

It stands out because until stepping into journalism, most neophytes have learned the other spelling. In high school, clubs and activities have advisors.  In college, more of the same, usually with academic progress monitored by a faculty advisor.

Against that background, adviser seems, er, a little undignified. But it’s an ironclad rule in journalism. The entry for the word in The Associated Press Stylebook says it flatly :

adviser Not advisor.

How did this come about? What motivated the AP to go against the grain of most official titles?

I think I know. It’s very simple: In the alphabet, e comes before o.

It goes like this: Suppose you’re making a dictionary and you discover that both adviser and advisor have been used for a long time. In the Oxford English Dictionary, you find the earliest example of adviser (with its present-day meaning) dated 1575, advisor 1589.

Though you’d like to give just one proper spelling for each word, the evidence says both are proper, so you list them both. But you can’t list them simultaneously, one on top of the other. So what’s the logical thing to do? Put them in alphabetical order. And that makes adviser always first.AP-style-II

OK, now you’re a journalist. Lexicographers may have to allow multiple spellings for a word, but journalists can’t. To avoid distracting your readers, you need a uniform style. And so you say that the first spelling in a dictionary is the one to use, even if the others are OK.

I think that’s how the AP choice of adviser came into being. Simple as that. But once entrenched, it has become a shibboleth for journalists. AP’s online ”Ask the Editor” includes this 2012 exchange from Portland, Ore.:

Q. Do you have any plans to revisit “adviser” as preferred over “advisor”? Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition lists “advisor” first and gives “adviser” as second choice. Also, the -or spelling seems to be widely preferred outside of the journalism world, so a lot of copy comes to us with “advisor” and must be changed (not to mention the issue of official job titles also tending toward -or). Seems like the tide is turning toward the -or spelling.

A. AP sticking with adviser. We use the “or” spelling if it’s in a formal title or a recognized certification.

I think it also has to do with the journalist’s healthy skepticism about the prestige of official titles. Come on, an adviser is just somebody who gives advice, not specially qualified by virtue of being called an advisor. You can rub it in each time you write the word and at the same time show that your hands are clean, it’s just the way we journalists have to write it.


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