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The elements of (AP) Style

Like thousands of newspapers across America, Virginia Lawyers Weekly uses The Associated Press Stylebook as our source for rules regarding punctuation, phrasing, spelling and general usage.

Note that, per AP, there is no Oxford comma after “spelling” in the preceding sentence.

While there are some other similar resources, The AP Stylebook is the Bible for journalists. A journalist can’t be prosecuted for breaching a section of the Stylebook; he or she will just look uninformed and sloppy.

Think of the Blue Book and you have the idea. While we publish a paper for lawyers, if there is a conflict in style points between the Blue Book and the Stylebook, the AP wins. We are not writing a brief for a court.

There are other lawyerly writing rules that we don’t follow in the paper. Many if not most briefs will short-title or provide an acronym for parties to make things simpler. With this device, the name is provided, then the acronym is placed in parentheses with quotation marks. Example: The Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc. (“JHTSI”).

We’ll try to work in the acronym. Look at page x and you’ll see a digest that refers to “the Jackson Hewitt Tax Service Inc., or JHTSI….

This device doesn’t always work. Just recently a longtime reader sent me an email taking us to task for using the acronym “DCA” for Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney in a digest. He said he’d never seen that term and had to dig it out of the digest to make sense. I promptly agreed – we missed putting in the explainer parentethical.

I acknowledged that I had never heard of “DCA” either. After poking around in the case, I found its origin. Judge Russell of the Court of Appeals had coined the acronym; our digester merely followed the judge’s lead, perhaps thinking it was a common term.

The legal-journalistic parallels continue. While numerous news organizations follow AP Style, there will be local rules that are adopted to fill a hole, or simply to provide a better phrase for the audience.

Here’s one we have: We always capitalize the “Northern” in “Northern Virginia,” and we have to fix the N when the term shows up in AP copy we use in our News in Brief section. Same for Southwest Virginia.

And finally, just like legislative improvements made by the General Assembly, there are yearly changes to The AP Stylebook that the AP announces each March.

This year’s big moment of upheaval: The AP approved the use of the percent sign (i.e., 74%) instead of spelling out the word (74 percent).

That one will take a little getting used to, but there it is. Dig into this stuff, and you’ll see that journalists noodle over rule changes just as much as lawyers do.

Some AP changes make sense. For years, stories were written about “Web sites,” two words with the “web” capitalized. In 2010, the proper wording under the rule became “website.”

A year later, the hyphen in “e-mail” was toast. “Email” works quite nicely. But beware, if you write about “e-commerce” or review a new “e-reader,” the hyphen is alive and well.

2017 was a dark year for AP Style. The drafters approved the limited use of “they,” a plural pronoun, as a singular pronoun. Call it a camel’s nose under the tent or a crack in the dike.

The new rule: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable.”

So this rule is supposed to get around the admittedly clunky “he or she,” which is a way to avoid the use of just “he” (which is sexist) or peppering in “she” (which works but you have to keep track of it).

It still hurts your ears: “Ask someone if they can help you.” The problem is that over time, you will see fewer and fewer people putting in the thought and effort necessary to reword the clumsy sentence. Resistance may be futile.

Back in 1975, a wag named Joel Weiss wrote in Forbes magazine that a new pronoun was needed to address the “he or she” issue. He proposed a new contraction that combined the whole gamut of “he or she or it.”

His suggestion? “H’orsh’**.” OK, you can see where that was headed.

Just consider that a commentary on use of the singular “they” rule.

Paul Fletcher