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You can’t teach a dog new tricks, and the same often holds true for copy editors.
We’re a critical bunch, naturally adverse to changes to grammar and style rules after decades of upholding them and acting as the last line of defense between creative copy and an audience eager to find an embarrassing error. I believe the young kids call these people “Grammar Nazis”? I digress…
So when the Associated Press Stylebook update and American Copy Editors Society Conference hit every spring, people like me clench their teeth, cross their fingers and hope the higher powers don’t mess with beloved tradition. Inevitably, they do mess with beloved tradition and set off nerdy online and intra-newsroom grammar debates I enjoy as much as a glass of Islay scotch.
For those not as inclined to such fussy academic quarreling, I present some key AP Style and English grammar changes that will make writing in your professional life much easier.
New AP Stylebook Rules
Percent vs. % – It is now acceptable to use “%” instead of having to write out “percent.” There should be no space between the numeral and the symbol. If the percentage is less than one, place a “0” before the decimal. Correct: “A survey shows 99.9% of Allison+Partners employees agree The Beatles are the greatest rock band of all time. Who cares what the 0.1% think?”
Hyphenated race – Race designations, such as African American, Asian American, Italian American and so forth, no longer require hyphens.
Casualty/Casualties – do not use the word “casualty” or “casualties” because AP deems the word “vague and can refer to either injuries or deaths. Instead, be specific about what is meant. If authorities use the term, press for specifics. If specifics aren’t available, say so: Officer Riya Kumar said the crash resulted in casualties, but she did not know whether those were injuries or deaths.”
Cocktail – it is no longer acceptable to use the word “cocktail” to describe a mixture of drugs. It’s now proper to write “drug combination,” “drugs” or “medications.”
Suspect – do not use the word “suspect” to describe “a person of unknown identity who definitely committed a crime. In other words, don’t substitute suspect for robber, killer, rapist, etc., in describing an event, even if authorities phrase it that way. Correct: Police said the robber stole 14 diamond rings; the thief ran away. Incorrect: Police said the suspect stole 14 diamond rings; the suspect ran away. Conversely, don’t substitute robber, killer, rapist, etc., when suspect is indeed the correct word. Correct: Police arrested the suspect the next day. Incorrect: Police arrested the robber the next day.”
Grammar change from the American Copy Editors Society
Split Infinitives – In a nod to the spoken word, it is now OK to split an infinitive in professional writing. For those who took naps in English 101, an infinitive is the “to form” of the verb. To go. To eat. To sleep. The old rule was to always place an adverb after the verb and never between the “to” and the verb. An example from Star Trek: “To boldly go where no man has gone before…” is now correct. Formerly, a copy editor would have corrected that phrase to read “to go boldly.” Split infinitives are now acceptable, meaning the written word will sound better to the ear.
In a related note, most contemporary grammarians now give their blessing to end sentences with prepositions. The great Sir Winston Churchill himself once mocked someone who criticized him for ending a sentence with a preposition by saying: "That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!"
The “never end a sentence with a preposition” rule is arbitrary. It’s a rule a British essayist popularized centuries ago based on language roots in Latin, where it is not possible to end a sentence with a preposition. Scholarly English grammarians who wished to apply Latin rules to English (a square peg in a round hole if there ever was one) should not dictate how we write today. If we have to rewrite sentences to avoid putting prepositions at the end, it can read and sound awkward. It’s better to go with what sounds better.
These are all rules you can live easily with.
Jacques Couret is editorial manager for All Told.