| 03.20.2018

Incoherent professionalism – Why journalists write the way we do


The evolution of language is a combination of stagnation and resourcefulness that defines each generation in a way that confuses those who have come before it and appears comical to those who follow it.

Writing styles are created and used to lessen the negative impacts of a changing language and increase common understanding, but it is with mixed results.

The AP Stylebook claims that AP Style is a set of guidelines for good writing. I am going to negate this claim while keeping in mind that no writing guide can easily keep up with changing language. The problems with AP Style I address have plagued many generations, not just our own.

AP Style overuses periods, interfering with its goal of brevity, overuses Latin phrases, interfering with its goal of plain speech and omits parts of the English language for various reasons, generally impeding clarity.

A good sentence need only be read once. But, AP Style includes rules that distract from this goal. AP Style demands words like “that” and punctuation marks such as the Oxford comma be omitted for the sake of brevity, but I think this brevity only applies to the writer or editor who has already read the whole sentence. Someone else reading a sentence for the first time could easily get lost, and not because people use the word “that” a lot in normal speech.

Nishant Mohan

The brevity that a reader wants applies to time – time to read, or in the case of AP Style, reread – while an editor wants brevity of space to fit all the news on the same number of pages each day.

When omissions of “that” and the Oxford comma make a sentence difficult to understand, they can be worked around by rearranging the sentence. But should they be rearranged at all? These changes often create awkward sentences or, at the least, require more work of the writer.

Good writing should prioritize clarity first, then brevity and then convention as a fallback.

Usually, what is most clear is based on common convention, while AP Style enforces elitist terms and distinctions between words. As much as I would like the word “acronym” to mean a word created from the first letters of each word it represents – as opposed to “initialism,” an abbreviation meant to be pronounced letter-by-letter, this distinction does not exist anymore except for the purposes of specific conversations.

As language has evolved, many of these kinds of distinctions still apply, but only within the jargon of certain fields. Good writing should be as universal as possible.

I think the reason for holding to things like AP Style rules comes down to immature professionalism. Everyone wants their career to be a mystery to outsiders. Everyone wants their little club, and journalists are no exception.

But journalists are led astray from their job of good, useful communication by sticking to rules that are “good” for reasons mysterious to outsiders, and likely to themselves. Journalism is a profession that can no longer afford this level of academia.

Nishant Mohan can be reached at  arg-opinion@uidaho.edu  or on Twitter @NishantRMohan

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