How does the Associated Press update its style guide?

The Associated Press Stylebook, which news organizations across the country look to for stylistic guidance, has dropped the term Web site in favor of website. How does the AP decide when to update an entry?

By committee. The AP Stylebook has three editors who review suggestions for new and updated entries. Revision requests tend to come from AP reporters, Facebook or Twitter users, and readers who e-mail the AP’s “Ask the Editor” feature, which answers questions about usage. The editors meet about once a month to discuss revisions and try to reach a consensus on which ones to accept. They’ll typically consult people inside and outside the AP who are familiar with the phrase. For example, for a technology term like smart phone (two words, not one), they’ll talk to their tech reporters. If it’s a Palestinian term like intefadeh (not intifada), they’ll consult their regional bureau. If the three editors can’t reach an agreement—which happens fairly often—they’ll bring in the AP’s executive editor and four managing editors to help decide. The deliberation process can take anywhere from a few minutes to a few years. Updates get added to the AP’s online stylebook on a rolling basis—subscribers get e-mail updates notifying them of new changes—and are then included in the annual print edition every May.

The primary factor determining whether or not a phrase gets added is common usage. If the editors see a phrase cropping up a lot in the news, they’ll include it in the Stylebook. The Stylebook added the term “Twitter” in June 2009, for example, noting that the “verb is to Twitter or to tweet.”  Other times, the AP will have to adjust its policy because a company changes its official name. Wal-Mart, for example, recently told news organizations to use “Wal-Mart Inc.” for the company and “Walmart” for its stores. When it comes to names of people, the AP will typically go with the person’s preference. For example, they spell the name of the Libyan leader as “Moammar Gadhafi” (dropping the “El-“), since that’s how he once signed a letter.

The AP will occasionally retreat from its changes. Their decision to make mike the official diminutive for microphone in March faced such strong objections from the broadcast wing of the AP that they quickly changed it to mic, the industry standard. * Their recent switch from abbreviating states—like Calif., Ill., and Mass.—to spelling them out—California, Illinois, and Massachusetts—received jeers at this year’s conference of the American Copy Editors Society. They have since put the change on hold for further review.

Most newspapers and magazines defer to AP style on usage questions. But papers reserve the right not to adopt new changes. For example, the Dallas Morning News writes “cellphone” as one word, even though the AP writes it as two. Slate, meanwhile, capitalizes references to the conservative “Tea Party” movement despite the AP handbook’s recommendation of lowercase. Some news organizations, like the New York Times and Bloomberg, have their own complete style guides that are entirely separate from the AP’s. For example, the Times spells the name of the terrorist group as “Al Qaeda” instead of the AP’s “al-Qaida”; it uses “Mr.” and “Ms.” before a person’s last name on second reference; and it adds periods between the letters of “J.F.K.”

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Explainer thanks Darrell Christian of the Associated Press and Chris Wienandt of the Dallas Morning News.

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Correction, April 19, 2010: This article incorrrectly stated that the AP switched its official spelling from mike to mic and back again. (Return to the corrected sentence.)