Gongol.com Archives: January 2023

Brian Gongol

January 29, 2023

News Use your words

Despite its occasional lapses into the ridiculous, the AP Stylebook serves a useful purpose. As a guide for journalists in newsrooms all over North America and beyond, it creates a set of rules that resolve the inevitable conflicts posed by a complex language like English. In standardizing and, to an extent, codifying the use of language, the AP Stylebook makes it possible for people with different backgrounds to find common agreement about what they're discussing. ■ Even when we disagree with others, it's important to have a common base of language from which to differ. That's a value that has become harder to recognize as more and more written conversation takes place not in centralized locations, like Associated Press news articles, but across the vast reaches of the unregulated Internet. ■ On one hand, it's a wonderful thing that so many individuals have basically unfettered access to their own "printing presses". But the absence of a common set of standards for how words are to be used makes it difficult for people to come to reasonable conclusions about the debates that inevitably emerge. ■ Conducting heated debates without open agreement about the rules of the language is like debating the speeds of race cars without resolving the units of measurement first. If one person is using miles per hour, another is using kilometers per hour, and a third chooses meters per second, there's no way they can reach an understanding on the merits. ■ No single source needs to have a monopoly on setting the standards for language, but it would be useful if people could identify themselves based upon the stylebooks to which they adhere. The New York Times has a stylebook. US News, too. There's a Washington Post version, and a [University of] Chicago Manual of Style. Or one could consult the BBC News Style Guide or The Economist Style Guide, for an overseas flair. ■ The point is that it's too easy to talk past one another when we don't even agree on what words are supposed to mean. Dictionaries can only go so far, saying little or nothing on important matters regarding connotations, weighted language, and the boundaries on appropriate use. Those just aren't the kinds of conflicts that Merriam-Webster can resolve. ■ But it would be useful if people could come to common agreement about what they mean by things like "capitalism" or "socialism", "public health" and "balanced budgets", "democracy" and "authoritarianism". What we need is not one style book for the Internet age, but a few of them, all of which could compete with one another for legitimacy. ■ And the more that people adopted them openly, the more legitimacy they would obtain. Lots of people try to signal some of what they mean with their words by identifying with a party or a creed in their social-media profiles, but it might do more good if they'd only tell the rest of us which stylebook they're using.

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