Poets, declared Percy Bysshe Shelley two centuries ago, are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Shelley exfoliates on this remarkable conclusion in a subtly argued essay, “The Defence of Poetry,” written at the height of the Romantic movement with its adulation of poets and poetry. (Shelley’s occupation might have helped account for his grandiose claim: He happened to be a poet himself.)
Shelley got to that conclusion by imagining poets to be the creators of the human imagination. Be that as it may, in the present day the unacknowledged custodians and true legislators of our standard language are not elected officials — nor poets, for that matter, nor language pundits, nor teachers, not even the authors of usage guides.
No, instead, though largely unsung and unacknowledged, the present-day legislators who show us the best ways to proceed through the ever-changing landscape of language are the editors of newspaper stylebooks: The Associated Press Stylebook in particular and similar ones, like The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Their edicts are enforced by copy editors at newspapers and magazines, who make sure that journalists adhere to the authority of the stylebooks.
And their objective is unobtrusiveness. Rather than stir controversy by lamenting new expressions and usages, or by championing the latest language fads, AP style aims to make words and usages unobtrusive, so that readers of a story in any of the 1,400 U.S. newspaper members of the AP won’t be distracted from the message the story conveys.
The AP Stylebook, available by subscription online, also includes numerous entries about grammar and punctuation. Again, the aim is not to provoke controversy but to guide writers to the least obtrusive choices.
And the editors of the AP Stylebook are well aware that language changes. So the Stylebook changes too, as often as necessary, to keep up with the least obtrusive way of saying something. Every few months the editors send Stylebook subscribers a detailed report on what they have changed.
The latest summary arrived April 27. It began with detailed discussion of two words unfortunately too common in the news nowadays: survivor and victim. “Use these terms with care,” the editors warn, “because they can be imprecise and politically and legally fraught.” The aim is to have AP writers and editors use these words so consistently that readers, in turn, will have a clear idea of what they mean.
The AP Stylebook explains: A survivor is one who has managed to live through a serious threat. Some survivors emerge from the threat unscathed, the editors note, while others are permanently damaged by illness or injury. What all survivors have in common is the threat, on the one hand, and the escape, on the other.
Even more potential confusion comes with victim, “because it can variously mean someone killed, injured or subjected to mistreatment such as sexual misconduct.”
Not everyone who suffers illness or injury considers themselves victims, the editors note. And to call one party in a sexual misconduct case the victim implies that the other party is the perpetrator. So “consider calling the person making the allegations an accuser instead of a victim if shorthand is needed, to avoid implications of guilt on the part of the accused.”
Instead of “sexual harassment,” AP prefers “sexual misconduct” because “it encompasses a broader range of sexual misbehavior and does not run the risk of diminishing some of the alleged acts.” Better still, “be as specific as possible in describing the kinds of behavior that is being alleged or admitted.”
Because unobtrusiveness (along with consistency) is an important aim of AP style, changes in the style are rarely exciting. There was some commotion a year ago when the stylebook for the first time allowed they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as in “The person feared for their own safety,” to avoid identifying the person’s identity. But the stylebook tempers this change by saying rewording “usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority; gender-neutral use of a singular they is unfamiliar to many readers.”
Another significant change a year ago was the decapitalization of “internet.” The unexciting explanation was that the lowercase initial was “increasingly favored in popular usage.”
The April 27 update covers a couple of dozen other matters, among them everything from the DREAM Act to Eskimo (avoid unless paired with a group’s ethnic name in Alaska: Inupiat Eskimos, for example), chronic traumatic encephalopathy, storm and fire names, BASE jumping, and coworking.
And there’s a note that 3D now has no hyphen. Goodbye, little hyphen! We don’t need your help anymore.