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AP Stylebook Updates: Singular 'They' Now Acceptable

Although the new print edition won't be out until May 31, 2017, the Associated Press sent out an email update announcing that these changes are effective immediately.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
March 24, 2017

AP Stylebook 2017 updates

Every year, editors announce big stylebook changes at the American Copy Editors Society (ACES) annual meeting. It's where we first heard in 2011 that the Associated Press would no longer use a hyphen in email and in 2016 that the Associate Press would lowercase internet. Yesterday, the Chicago Manual of Style announced it would adopt these two styles as well, and now today, the AP is leading the charge again with these changes:

Gender-Related Entries

The presenters, Paula Froke (special liaison editor) and Colleen Newvine (product manager), saved the biggest news for last, but we'll start with it here:

singular they: The AP Stylebook now allows writers to use they as a singular pronoun when rewriting the sentence as plural would be overly awkward or clumsy. Example: The Obama administration told public schools to grant bathroom access even if a student's gender identity isn't what's in their record.

The style also allows writers to pair they with everyone in similar situations.

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun. Be sure that the phrasing does not imply more than one person.

his, her. AP style used to be to use he when gender is not known. This entry now refers to the entry on they, them, their.

homophobia, homophobic. Acceptable in broad references or in quotations to the concept of fear or hatred of gays, lesbians and bisexuals. In individual cases, be specific about observable actions; avoid descriptions or language that assumes motives. (The previous version of the Stylebook recommended against using these words.)

LGBT. LGBTQ. Acceptable in all references for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning and/or queer. In quotations and the formal names of organizations and events, other forms such as LGBTQIA and other variations are also acceptable with the other letters explained.

gender. The editors began the presentation by unveiling a huge new entry on gender including new entries on cisgender, intersex, transgender, and more.

Other Entries

autonomous vehicles. Do not use the term driverless unless there is no person on board who can take control in an emergency. They may be called self-driving cars. Describes cars or truck that can monitor the road and drive for an entire trip without intervention from a human. For vehicles that can do some but not all of the driving, such as some Tesla models, use the terms semi-autonomous or or partially self-driving.

baby bump. Avoid.

Columbus Day. Added Indigenous Peoples Day reference, plus a separate Indigenous Peoples Day entry: A holiday celebrating the original inhabitants of North America, observed instead of Columbus Day in some U.S. localities. Usually held on the second Monday of October, coinciding with the federal Columbus Day holiday.

courtesy titles. In general, do not use courtesy titles except in direct quotations. When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, as in married couples or brothers and sisters, use the first and last name. The presenters gave the example that it would still be proper to refer to Mrs. Trump and Mrs. Obama if the courtesy title is needed for clarity.

cyberattack. One word. Often overused. A computer operation carried out over a device or network that causes physical damage or significant and wide-spread disruption. The presenters said they consulted with cybersecurity experts who felt strongly about the "physical damage or significant and wide-spread disruption" part.

Deferred Action for Child Arrivals program. Use the acronym DACA sparingly and only on second reference. Do not use DREAMers or dreamers to describe DACA recipients. These are separate programs and the DREAM Act never passed.

esports. As with frequent flyer, the AP consulted people in the esports industry before deciding the recommend spelling should be esports without a hyphen.

fact checks, fake news. Holding politicians and public figures accountable for their words often requires reporting or research to verify facts that affirm or disprove a statement, or that show a gray area. Fact-checking also is essential in debunking fabricated stories or parts of stories done as hoaxes, propaganda, jokes or for other reasons, often spread widely on the internet and mistaken as truth by some news consumers.

Fake news may be used in quotation marks or as shorthand for the modern phenomenon for deliberate falsehoods or fiction masked as news circulating on the internet.

However, do not label as fake news specific or individual news items that are disputed. If fake news is used in a quote, push for specifics about what is meant. Alternative wording includes false reportserroneous reportsunverified reports, questionable reportsdisputed reports and false reporting, depending on the context. 

flyer, flier. AP changed the spelling from frequent flier to flyer after reviewing airline industry websites and determining this was the spelling most commonly used in the industry. The audience seemed happy about this change. Flyer is also the spelling for paper handouts, but flier is still proper for the phrase take a flier, meaning to take a big risk.

incident. A minor event. Don't use this word to minimize major happenings. Anything that causes death, injury, notable damage and the like is not an incident.

Oxford Comma (aka serial comma). The new Stylebook emphasizes that clarity is the bottom line. Although the normal style is to avoid the serial comma, use one if it is needed for clarity. This is not a style change, but a clarification because the editors noted that some writers were confused.

reform. Not a synonym for change.

virtual reality, augmented reality. Because virtual reality is quite widespread now, the Stylebook allows VR on the second reference. Augmented reality is still uncommon, so continue to spell it out instead of shortening it to AR.

More. In some cases, the presenters noted that there will be new entries, but they didn't share the entire entries. Expect to see new information on these topics when the new AP Stylebook is released: immigration (they will bring immigration-related entries that were scattered throughout the book together into one entry), cliches, television sets (based on input from the technology editor), and Uber and Lyft.

Thank you to all the people at #ACES2017 who tweeted from the presentation and to ACES for livestreaming (one word!) the presentation.

The new print AP Stylebook will be available May 31, 2017. Note that the AP Stylebook is updated every year, but the Chicago Manual of Style is updated less often. The last Chicago update was in 2010.

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