ABC language report
Tracking change through older news style guides
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.