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Ryan Johnson, Published March 26 2014

Johnson: I’m over journalism’s latest Associated Press Style scandal

Heads literally rolled in the journalism community with last week’s announcement of a controversial writing style change.

Language is constantly evolving, with words coming and going to reflect the modern-day usage and way we speak. Hence our relatively new ability to use the word “literally” to say something that isn’t actually true, such as “my brain literally exploded thinking about the insanity of using saying this clearly defined word to mean figuratively.”

The same is true for the language of journalists, who from their first assignment are told to honor the tried and true bible of our writing style – the Associated Press Stylebook.

Some of the annual revisions are celebrated in newsrooms large and small, such as a change a few years ago that finally allowed me to write “website,” not “Web site” – and made it possible to not sound like a tech-fearing relic of the past in my articles.

But when so much of the job revolves around grammatical prowess and the goal of following firm writing rules to make our text as seamless and constant as possible, there’s a tendency for some mild overreaction when the rules are changed.

Case in point: Last week, the AP gurus announced a loosening of the way we describe numerical value.

Before, saying something like “there were over 5,000 people at the concert” earned you shame in this profession – the proper style is “there were more than 5,000 people,” of course.

Despite decades of casual conversation that made the two interchangeable, we wordsmiths clung to the past, determined that with enough continued usage in our newspapers, we could turn the tide and make everyone outside of journalism finally see the light.

It doesn’t make much sense to say “over” in this context – when we’re talking about numerical value, there is no physical “over” or “under,” only “more than” and “less than.”

The response was swift and snarky, true to the profession. “More than my dead body!” wrote one clever Twitter punster. News of the audible “gasps” from writers and editors in the audience for the AP’s big announcement made the rounds online.

We can mourn the loss of our firm grammatical standards that have guided us since the beginning of time, or at least since last year’s AP Stylebook was released.

Or, we can all take a deep breath and realize it’s not the end of the world.

The rules change constantly, whether we’re a newspaper reporter or just a person writing their life’s story down on their Facebook page.

“Selfie” didn’t exist until a few years ago; now, even my grandmother takes selfies and posts them to Facebook, and Oxford Dictionaries decided it was 2013’s word of the year.

As our language continues to evolve, arguably at an increasingly fast pace to keep up with abbreviations, spelling changes and entirely new everyday vocabulary that comes up through our love of social media, texting and short, quick communication, we’ll be faced with more drastic revisions to our beloved AP Stylebook that has guided our usage of numerals, addresses and titles since the beginning of time.

As far as this over/more than controversy is concerned, I’m literally over it. Or is it more than it?


Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587