ABC language report

Tracking change through older news style guides

Tiger Webb

Newspapers occupy an important, if slightly odd, position in English usage. Written-down news would have to be one of history’s most plentiful text types. It is edited, yet ephemeral. It is for a general audience, but of a high standard: errors are usually rare enough to be remarked upon. So how is it composed?

Style guides, which in theory guide choices of usage in newspapers, can be hard to track down. While the Guardian’s may be publicly accessible, and the Economist’s available for purchase as a book, the majority of newspapers — both presently, and throughout history — do not exactly show their working when it comes to usage. (With rare exceptions: the Kansas City Star, whose style sheet Ernest Hemingway once said was foundational to his prose, has digitised a 1915 edition.) This leads the style scholar to wonder: how do we know what issues newspaper editors considered worthy? Did these issues change over time?

But researchers — at least, those with an Associated Press (AP) Stylebook subscription — are in luck: that august newsgathering organisation has recently digitised a collection of documents from its early history, dating from 1900-1977. Provided, per the AP, “as a courtesy to language lovers”, the documents — which include proto-stylebooks, as well as some general guidance for writers — are a fascinating look at journalism codifying itself.

What is the Associated Press?

“The Associated Press is distinctively and essentially a news gathering and news distributing organisation,” a 1909 note on AP’s scope read. “Outside of that field it has absolutely no interest, but in that field its interest is supreme.” At that early stage, most of the organisation’s rules are editorial, not grammatical: AP correspondents do not estimate attendance figures at town hall meetings, must not use telegraphy to send personal messages to one another, must report baseball scores accurately, and so on.

One of the earliest pieces of usage advice in these documents is a 1909 warning for correspondents against including informalities in their reporting. “Be careful to avoid the use of slang phrases,” it says, which could pass for advice in any modern newsroom. Other early usage guidance is less familiar to the modern reader: in reports of trap shootings, for example, “birds” and “kills” should be avoided in favour of “targets” and “breaks”.

Bromides and ballyhoos

AP were pioneers of journalism’s so-called “inverted pyramid” model, where the most material facts were front-loaded at the start of a piece. This led to at least one problem: trying to fit too much in. “The long, introductory, ‘suspended sentence’ should be avoided,” one 1911 handbook said. Of interest from an early date were bromides: cliches, essentially, thought to hinder forceful and accurate expression.

Some example bromides given in a 1931 document would be familiar to modern audiences: county X went to the polls, it was a devastating flood). Others, such as high-powered car, do not prominently feature today. Even between archived AP documents, the cliches du jour seem to chop and change: a 1959 guide takes bitterly contested, delicate operation, and uneasy truth to task. All the talk of high-powered cars, it seems, must have gone away.

From a displaced modern perspective, some AP guidance seems baffling. Why does a 1930 note state that narcotics should be used in favour of drugs? Or that the word papacy should be avoided at all costs? Others, though are very familiar: we also see such classic usage disputes as transpire (which should mean exhalation, not breathing), anticipate (which should not be interchangeable with expect), and fulsome (which has pejorative, not meliorative, connotations).

Grammar? In my style guide?

In my experience, journalists have a fairly fraught relationship to grammar: theirs is generally expected to be of a high standard, but most learn it on the job. Accordingly, explicit guidance on syntax or morphology is rare in these documents for reporters. One exception is anxiety around “the indefinite tense” (e.g. such-and-such a thing has happened). Once allowed in AP copy, it was skunked after 1909 on the grounds that it could be ambiguous. “Hereafter,” one guide said, “news items must state explicitly the day of the occurrence.”

Also of concern to AP’s early editors are what one guide calls “broken-back” sentences, when quoted material is presented as a qualified flat statement, as in prohibition has proved a great success, said John Smith. Such sentences, I am happy to report, remain contentious a century later: some view them as less “active” than an alternative where the reported speech is syntactically subordinate to the reporting verb (e.g. John Smith says prohibition has proved a great success).

Other grammatical advice shows a certain journalistic flavour, which unkind detractors could call inexact. “Where possible, verbs should be … colorful,” one 1959 guide to writing says. Leads, the most important part of news writing, are said to be “inactively phrased, with soft, static verbs”. What a “colourful” or “hard” verb is exactly escapes me. If you know, please write in and tell me.

 These documents also contain the surprise intercession of Rudolf Flesch — of the partly eponymous Flesch-Kincaid readability tests — in the affairs of the Associated Press. A campaign for plain language, spearheaded by Dr Flesch, sparked a series of documents intended for AP writers on same. “Don’t use words that are not generally used in everyday conversation,” Dr Flesch wrote in the preface to a 1951 encyclical. “The AP isn’t in the business of increasing people’s vocabulary.”

Style isn’t the only thing these documents show has changed over the years. There is also a wealth of information on turn-of-the-century news values: according to a early list of types of news not wanted by the Associated Press, writers were informed that: shipwrecks must only be reported if the vessel exceeds $10,000 in value, the appointment of railway officers is only of note past a certain rank, and reports of sexual assault are only of interest to AP “when the perpetrator is pursued by a mob”. Well. On that last score, at least, I’m glad some things have changed.

Reports of death greatly exaggerated

Tiger Webb

As the ABC’s language research specialist, I am occasionally confronted with the Kafkaesque news that I have ceased to exist. ‘There used to be an organisation called SCOSE’, an audience member recently wrote in an email to me, ‘which allegedly looked after the standards of English on air at the ABC’. Used to be? Ouch.

While it’s true enough that the Standing Committee On Spoken English (or SCOSE) is no longer with us, that doesn’t mean nobody is keeping the usage lights on at Aunty. Since 2016, a roughly identical committee has met monthly to consider questions of English pronunciation, grammar and usage. Our new name, ABC Language, is a touch less imperious than the old one. It also serves as a reminder that, increasingly, the work our committee deals with doesn’t just disappear into the broadcast ether, but sticks around eternally online.

Unlike me, the complaint tradition in English shows no signs of fading. Australians seem particularly convinced there was once some prelapsarian grammatical Eden, and that we should get back to it quick-fast. In the 1960s, letters to the ABC’s pronunciation clerk pined for the halcyon days of our Depression-era broadcasts. Some 30 years later, the punters all wanted Arch McKirdy back on the air.

Pronunciation is a recurrent theme. Probably the most frequent single complaint concerns what linguists call the intervocalic alveolar flap – which happens when the /t/ sound in words like butter or water is realised closer to a /d/ sound. ‘Such ignorance makes it impossible to take any discourse seriously’, writes one complainant, who also calls the flap lazy. Complainants often assume something is new because they have noticed it; directing them to reference works showing Australians likely flapped at Federation never seems to convince them otherwise. Incidentally, ‘laziness’ is arbitrary here: the /t/ and /d/ sounds take roughly equivalent effort to produce. Is English lazy for using pen when German Kugelschrieber would do?

It should be mentioned, though, that many issues reaching my desk aren’t so frivolous. Biopic shouldn’t rhyme with myopic, rain event is surely a poor replacement for rainfall, mistaking ordnance for ordinance can lead to explosive results. Variant pronunciations of Aboriginal Australian terms, or for the names of murdered journalists like Jamal Khashoggi, are rightly seen by many as insensitive. So, too, are unplanned moments of levity, as in a news report that said a man suffers from dementia as well as his family.

Historically, it has suited the interests of language mavens to pretend theirs is a solitary drudge. (Even the apostrophe in Fowler’s modern english usage masks that two brothers commenced that work!) At the ABC, we have the good fortune to work with reporters, subeditors – and, yes, managers – who think about language in a passionate, articulate way. In this, we are assisted at all times by the public, who hold us to a far higher standard than they do the commercial networks. So please: keep the emails coming. We’re not dead yet.