Why style changes

While the market was recovering in 2013, the prices in cities like Las Vegas and San Francisco recorded a year-over-year gain of over more than 20 percent. 

“Humor an old lady,” I told the student who wrote that sentence. “When you’re talking about numbers, make it more than.”

As of last week, she doesn’t have to. At the American Copy Editors Society conference in Las Vegas, it was announced that AP Style — the one we follow at the CUNY J-school — now allows over to be used interchangeably with more than. The announcement brought gasps, tweets and a number of blog posts this week on why this change is either heretical or long overdue. Most of the gasps came from classically trained journalists (like me) who were taught that over was used for position (There’s a cabinet over my desk) and  more than with numerical values, as in more than 20 percent.

“Why do they change style?” moaned the student, who had clearly made some effort to learn AP’s.

Because language is a living thing. It changes and evolves, and style needs to change with it.  Luckily, The AP Stylebook Online  makes it easy to keep up. When you sign in, it takes you to a page whose first entry is “search” and second is “New entries, recent changes and popular topics.” Among the new topics are G-7 (formerly G-8), selfie and pimiento versus pimento.  Recent changes include underway rather than under way and, of course, more than/over. A little farther down is a customized section for the CUNY J-school.

The online stylebook is updated frequently, whenever changes in usage become common and accepted enough to dictate that longstanding policy be reconsidered. That’s why I recommend it over an old-fashioned printed stylebook, which may have a new edition only once every few years.

Like the student, journalists are not always comfortable with style changes, especially when they’ve had the older rule drummed into their heads for 20 years by, say, a tyrannical assistant managing editor. I still bristle when I hear access used as a verb (a usage that came in with the computer age); when one thing impacts another, I want to scream. AP would seem to agree, though perhaps not so strongly. An entry from the online stylebook’s “Ask the Editor” feature:

 Q. I thought “impact” was only to be used as a noun, but I recently saw it used as a verb as well. What is the AP position? – from Leesburg, Va. on Mon, Nov 01, 2010

A. Webster’s lists impact as a verb, usually with on, noting the verb usage is objected to by some. In most cases, a substitute can be used.

An excellent suggestion: when in doubt, find another verb.

Language changes quickly, style more slowly. Each change is style is a major decision by the news organization. As you strive to be up-to-the-minute in your reporting, don’t get ahead of style. Otherwise, you may need to learn an English idiom: over my dead body.






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