Street Corner Soapbox

Categories:      Opinion
Wednesday, April 17th, 2013 at 6:58 AM

Have you heard the news? No – not President Barack Obama's cuts to Social Security, or gay marriage, or the death of Shain Gandee. I'm talking the really exciting news! That's right! The Associate Press Stylebook made some controversial changes!

You know the AP Stylebook. It's used as the main guide for English usage by newspapers across the country. Even this very one you hold in your hands! So, change is a big deal. And you're probably familiar with the fury surrounding the Stylebook changes.

No, I'm not talking about the AP editors' decision to no longer use the term, “illegal immigrant.” That's a no-brainer. Immigrants, as people, can't be “illegal.” It's just simply inaccurate. “'Illegal' should describe only an action,” wrote Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll on the AP blog, “such as living in or immigrating to a country illegally.” Makes sense to me.

“It's not the language that's evolving, it's the political scene,” said Michelle Malkin on Fox News, “and the overtaking of...mainstream, supposedly neutral organizations by people who are transparent activists.” That is, the Associated Press is abetting liberals' evil plot to humanize...well...humans.

Apparently accuracy is also the goal of a liberal plot. But then reality always did have a well-known liberal bias.

Likewise, the AP Stylebook discourages using “Islamist” to describe Islamic militants or extremists. That's because an “Islamist” is someone who favors “reordering government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam,” and not necessarily a terrorist, wrote the AP editors. Instead, when talking about Islamic extremists, the AP Stylebook prefers being specific, and referring to the particular group they're associated with. “Those who view the Quran as a political model encompass a wide range of Muslims, from mainstream politicians to militants known as jihadi.” Again, true.

“I really think that the editors at news organizations today are the political operatives,” said Rush Limbaugh on his radio show, in reaction to the changes. “What we've got is actual Democrat Party apparatchiks in the news disguised as journalists.” Apparently accuracy is also the goal of a liberal plot. But then reality always did have a well-known liberal bias.

No, I'm talking about the real controversy in the AP style changes. I'm talking about the decision to make “under way” a single word without a space between “under” and “way.” Underway!

Copy editors are furious.

“I can't be the only one who is outraged that AP is changing its style from 'under way' to 'underway,' am I?” tweeted one. “AP just changed 'under way' to one word,” tweeted another, “the newsroom is in an uproar.” “Style changing 'under way' to one word is the worst thing that's happened to AP Stylebook,” tweeted a third.

A fourth simply tweeted, “What the hell, AP?”

Why the fuss? “It's the difference between a prepositional phrase and an adjective,” wrote a copy editor friend on Facebook. “While the difference in meaning is small, ignoring it diminishes the ability to make fine distinctions in our language.”

From where I'm sitting, the distinction is not only small, but meaningless. I'm fine with the change. That's because it simplifies the language, without losing its meaning. The old usage demanded we always use “under way” except when using the term as an adjective “in a nautical sense: an underway flotilla.” Now it's one word. Boom!

English is an evolving language. “Underway” is not the only word to evolve from a phrase. “Curfew,” for example, grew out of couvre feu – “cover fire,” in French – a phrase medieval watchmen used to tell townspeople to put out their fires at night. Or “aboveboard,” which evolved from its 1500s use by gamblers who demanded players keep their cards visible above the playing table.

The furor over the changes, I think, stems not from any real objection to the new terms, but to the idea of change. Ideologues and copy editors alike prefer to have control over the language, and change undermines control. The former want to keep words favorable to their politics at the cost of accuracy; the latter want to impose order over an ever-changing language.

But here's the thing. Language is the reflection of its people. It's a living, breathing entity that changes with the beliefs and habits of its users. While we might not like everything that comes our way – irregardless! Impact as a verb! – we journalists should always promote clarity and accuracy. Tell 'em the truth in plain words.

So, way to go, AP. Change is underway.

Jay Stevens can be contacted at, and you can follow him on Twitter at @Yaj_Snevets

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