Huzzah! New AP Stylebook Sets New Standards for Common Tech Terms

Maybe you have to be a writer or editor to get excited about the latest release of the AP Stylebook. The AP Stylebook is the bible for professional writers, providing standardized usage and definitions for common terms. It provides a standard for things like comma usage, hyphenation, capitalization, datelines for cities, and other commonly used terms. It also helps me settle a lot of arguments with clients about how to write press releases and where to put the punctuation marks.

ap-320piI am particularly excited about the 2011 release of the AP Stylebook because, for the first time, they have provided standardized usage for a variety of technical terms. Now I now no longer have to argue with clients about the proper spelling of email versus e-mail or Web site versus website. According to Mashable, there are at least 42 new terms that have been included to define common technological terms, social media terms, and TLAs (three-letter acronyms).

Now we know that, according to the Associated Press, proper usage is email and website as one word, smart phone is two words, and e-reader is hyphenated. And now we can use “fan,” “friend,” and “follow” as both nouns and verbs. (I can’t wait to see if they have decided that other changes are acceptable, like using “grow” as an active verb – “to grow a business” – which is one of my pet peeves.) They have also added unfollow, unfriend, and retweet to the lexicon. According to a preview offered by MarketingProfs, some of the terms that are now standardized include:

    • check in (v.), check-in (n. and adj.)
    • download
    • end user (n.), end-user (adj.)
    • Foursquare
    • geolocation
    • Gowalla
    • Internet-connected TV
    • iPad
    • Link shortener
    • social media optimization
    • stream
    • tag
    • tablet computer
    • Tumblr
    • WAP

AP has also tackled the alphabet soup of technology acronyms, including those used in texting (another new verb) and instant messages. They define ROFL, BRB, G2G, and even POS, which I thought meant point-of-sale but apparently means “parent over shoulder”; a term younger IMers and texters use to indicate that parents are approaching.

I have already pre-ordered my print copy of the 2011 AP Stylebook, and I am sure it will be more comprehensive than its forebears. For some time I was using Wired Style published by Wired magazine a number of years ago as my guide, but I found it to be extremely poorly organized and incomplete. Like most writers, I suspect I searched publications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal looking for common usage – their editors are very diligent about maintaining consistent editorial usage and standards. AP needs to get their guidance from somewhere.

E.B. White (co-author of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, which is still the “must have” book for any writer who cares about his or her craft) noted that English is an evolving language, “The language is perpetually in flux; it is a living stream, shifting, changing, receiving new strength from a thousand tributaries, losing old forms in the backwaters of time.” As the language evolves and technology changes usage and brings new terms into use, someone needs to find a way to codify these terms so the rest of us can make sense of them. Like the OED, the AP Stylebook provides a lifeline for the rest of us who are trying to maintain standards of usage in the face of change. Everyone needs standards. Just as the IETF relies on standards like TCP/IP, SMTP, and HTML to form the common language of the Internet, we need similar standards for English usage to promote clearer understanding.

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The Death and Rebirth of the Press Release

Coneheads-movie-01 I have always considered BrandWeek to be an insightful publication, and I spotted a recent piece by editor Todd Wasserman aimed directly at the PR community, “Just Hitting the Wire Now: Your Press Release Sucks.” In it, Todd makes some very valid points about the wooden language the PR profession has adopted to try to get their point across in news releases. As he says,

“These days, the odd, stilted prose lurking in most anything issued by the PR department stands out more than ever because few people talk or write with much formality anymore. Yet in Press Release Land, people converse like the narrators of Eisenhower-era educational films. Of course, strip away that Conehead syntax and you realize that these automatons aren’t saying much anyway.”

To make his point, Wasserman deconstructs an AT&T press release, pointing out that after you get past the verbal flourishes and the complex sentence structures, there’s really no news in the news release in any case. Why not just state your case? Why can’t you just say, “Sales fell last quarter by 5%” or “We think our new product is easy to use”? His point is that journalists in general hate press releases, and that they will uncover the real story in the release no matter how hard you try to hide it, assuming there is a story to be told.

“Journalists generally hate press releases, and for good reason. The quotes in them are so bizarrely written that they bring a false note to any story. Yet, if the quote was in plain English, reporters might be more apt to cite it.”

I don’t think so. I have never seen a journalist worth his salt take a quote from a press release. Beside, the major point that Todd is missing is that press releases are no longer written for journalists, and they haven’t been for some time. Although reporters can still get all the background details they need from a news release, even if they have to read around the superlatives and obfuscation, news announcements are aimed at a different audience.

Let’s consider the evolution of the press release.

Originally, in the days before e-mail and the Web, press releases actually were written for reporters. They were handed out at news events, distributed at trade shows, and I even remember spending countless hours stuffing envelopes to mail releases to press contacts. Then things changed. With the coming of the Web, consumers, prospects, and shareholders no longer waited for the press to digest and regurgitate press releases. Now they go right to the source, using Google or Yahoo or Bing to hone in on the news they want. Of course, the journalist’s role as interpreter is still essential; their job is to remove the obfuscation and reveal the true meaning under the painted prose. But for those who write them, press releases have become an effective tool to present their message directly to their audience. The form has evolved so even when you have to report bad news, you try to put a happy spin on the tidings to please your market.

So while the basic framework of the press release has remained intact, the content has evolved. Quotes aren’t supposed to be quotable; they are for posturing or injecting your opinion into a document that is supposed to be largely factual.

It has also become commonplace to use more adjectives and superlatives in news announcements, injecting phrases like “first” or “biggest” or industry jargon like “best of breed.” This is part of the evolution of the press release as sales tool. Many of my clients now look at press releases as a means to reach customers and contacts, not the press. So they want to see some sizzle in the copy, even if it detracts from the facts.

And these days, the news is being driven by the Web, and news release writing is being shaped by search engine optimization and key word search. In theory, a well-written press release is more searchable and SEO-friendly than a badly written release, but that doesn’t prevent the marketing team from adding key phrases and key words to try to improve search, which just obscures things even further.

Which brings me to probably the primary reason that press releases are so badly written; because they are written by committee. No matter how solid your training as a writer or journalist, no matter how lucid your headline, no matter how concise your lead, you know that somewhere along the chain of approval someone with a different perspective or agenda is going to introduce a different slant, add an adjective, or find some way to spin the message. The more sensitive the information, such as a drop in sales or a less-than-sterling product announcement, the harder the committee will attempt to bury their disappointment in obscure language.

I would like to think that the art of writing a clear, concise, informative news announcement is not dead. Even though the press release has taken on a wide range of new responsibilities, I hope that the form still retains value as a way to disseminate objective information to people who truly need to know. However, I also know that as long as the press continues to have an impact on society, my clients will continue to use press releases as a means to spin the news and tell their story in their own way with their own rules.

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Where’s the Grammar Sheriff When You Need Him?

I had two interesting grammatical revelations from my stepkids this week. The school systems are failing our kids and contributing to the erosion of English grammar. It’s not just the advent of text messaging and e-mail and “quick, qwerty” communications. There is something more fundamental going on here. Kids are not being taught the basics of grammar and sentence construction, and if they are being taught the basics, the schools are not reinforcing those lessons with solid writing assignments.

My stepdaughter is in her freshman year at college, and was trying to get her mid-term paper completed for her writing class. I told her I would be happy to look it over before she submitted it. When I read it, I was amazed that a college freshman had such a weak grasp of basic grammar and sentence structure. I know that she’s a very hard worker and not the best writer, but even so, she needed to submit a solid admissions essay to get into college, so I wondered why this paper seemed to be so poorly written? Most of the problems were things that have become second nature to me, such as subject/verb agreement, starting sentences with a conjunction, and a myriad of other simple rules that were drilled into my head at an early age.

Now consider her younger brother who is a very gifted writer with a natural grasp of language and grammar. He has aspirations to become a professional journalist; whatever that role looks like in the future.  However, his high school stands in his way. He can’t write for the school paper without first completing a series of prerequisite writing courses, so even if he wanted to try his hand at journalism, he will have to wait until the end of his senior year.

We need to encourage students to write, not discourage them. And we need to work with them to help them understand the structure of language and how and why the rules are applied. I taught English as a second language for a time and know it can be difficult to master the English language. The key is to practice using it, and not by texting or sending funny e-mails, but with true writing projects that will help you master grammar. Maybe it’s time to bring back Grammar Rock.

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Writing with Style: Why “The AP Stylebook” Still Matters

As a continuation of my most recent blog post, part of following the rules of being a good journalist, or a good PR writer, is understanding how to apply AP style. The AP Stylebook is the “journalist’s bible,” just as the Chicago Manual of Style is the bible for book editors and the MLA Style Manual is essential for scholars. Writers have been using style manuals for as long as they have been writing, not only to enforce the rules of good grammar, but to help codify usage in order to promote a common understanding and avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

I received an e-mail yesterday from a good friend and associate whom I had not heard from for a while. It was a short message, and I understood the frustration expressed between the lines:

“Does anyone follow AP style guidelines anymore? It seems that most people have no idea what they are and don’t care about them anyway. I can remember when any company (especially a public company) was fanatical about following AP style guidelines.”

It’s too true. With the explosion in electronic communications, everyone is writing more, whether it’s e-mail, blog posts, Facebook posts, or text messages. As a result, a lot of the rules of good grammar and style are going out the window in favor of shortcuts and TLAs (three-letter acronyms). Although recent research says that texting does not affect student’s writing, I have to believe that the sheer volume of written communications that we all have to deal with every day is blurring the lines between casual writing and formal or business writing. That’s why we all need to be reminded of the rules and adopt style guides, especially today.

As a PR professional, I care about style guidelines, and I have always followed the AP Stylebook. When I get into a discussion about the use of commas or why to spell out percent with a client, I can point to AP style as my authority. It saves a lot of needless discussion, and actually promotes good writing. (And if you are on the go, there is even an iPhone app that gives you access to AP style anywhere, anytime.)

So whether you are writing press releases, white papers, case studies, reports, or anything for public review, use a stylebook. In addition to the AP Stylebook, I have a few other sources that can help you become a better writer:

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style – Although this writer’s guide dates back to 1918, it still offers some great writing tips and helps clarify some of the most common grammatical mistakes. If you haven’t looked at your Strunk and White for a while, it might be time to get reacquainted.

Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing – I must confess that I am a fan of Mignon Fogarty, whose nom d’ecrit is Grammar Girl. I listen to her podcasts from iTunes and she has offers good advice on how to deal with common writing challenges, and I follow her on Facebook. You might also want to check out her new book, The Grammar Devotional.

Wired Style: Principles of English Usage in the Digital Age – I am not sure that this book is still in print, but Wired magazine professes to be a harbinger of all things digital, and if you are writing about technology you want to have some kind of stylistic source. Wired Style doesn’t cover everything, and it disagrees with other sources (e.g. email which is preferred by Wired, versus e-mail , which is preferred by AP), but it’s a place to start. When it comes to technical terms, I look to credible sources, such as Wired, InformationWeek, or the New York Times, and look for a precedent for usage.

And don’t rely too heavily on your electronic grammar checker. At one time, as an experiment, I decided to take a paper I was working on for my Master’s degree in literature and submit it in two forms; one that I manually reviewed and edited, and one that I ran through the computer grammar checker. She told me that the errors introduced by the grammar checker would have meant a failing grade. If you want to be a better writer, learn the rules, use common sense, and think before you type.

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Often Encountered Grammatical Offenses

Papa Hemingway at work
Papa Hemingway at work

During my lengthy and checkered career I have worked with words in a variety of ways – as proofreader, editor, typesetter, and most often, writer. I come from a long, literary family of editors and writers. Both my mother and my aunt were proofreading books well into retirement. But I am not a great grammarian. When it comes to writing, I consider myself more mechanic than artist, and I am normally able to assemble the pieces correctly and without instruction. However, I also keep copies of Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook close at hand, and am a fan of Grammar Girl’s podcasts.

Even the best writers should be reminded of the rules from time to time, which is why I wanted to share some insights from a recent blog from Bob Cramblitt of Cramblitt & Company he calls “10 Creepy Writing Things.”  Granted, English is a living, breathing language and usage is changing at Internet speed, but there are some rules worth preserving, which is why I want to share Bob’s list.

1. Avoiding the annoying quotation marks. Quotations are for attribution, not for emphasis.

2. Improper use of the apostrophe. Know thy possessives! And know the different between singular and plural possessives.

3. Morphing nouns into verbs. Bob doesn’t want to be incented, and he gives the nod to Seth Godin who talks about the difference between investments and investing, paint and painting, and gift and giving.

4. Avoiding passive voice. It’s not that difficult. It’s all about identifying subjects and nouns and providing an agent for each action.

5. Misleading headlines and jump leads. Anyone in news or PR has been guilty of producing poor headlines, and I recently saw a few beauties at the Newseum in Washington DC.

6. Typographical errors, which actually seem to proliferate with the use of spell checkers. You have to read the copy for context because spell checkers can’t do that. (And I will confess that I am one of the worst offenders when it comes to proofreading my own material.)

7. The 50-word sentence and the 20-line paragraph. This seems to be a particularly common offense in technology PR. Brevity is bliss, and if you doubt it, try re-reading Hemingway.

8. Indirect sentences stacking up like planes over SFO. It’s a writing approach I have used upon occasion to try to build excitement and drama. Alas, it doesn’t work.

9. Excessive use of adverbs and exclamation points! Enough said.

10. Jargon overload. Another common trait in technology PR where TLAs rule. (That’s geek jargon for three-letter acronyms.) Every specialty has its terminology, but good writing shouldn’t require a code-breaker and should be clear to everyone.

There are many other rules that we all live by, one way or another. English is inexact, and no one stylebook is perfect. For example, even though it runs counter to AP style, I tend to keep the serial comma before conjunctions because I find it lends clarity, particularly when discussing a complex series. Some habits die harder than others.

What are your pet grammatical grumblings? I’d like to know.

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