What does it all mean? Depends on what you mean – and when


What does it all mean? Depends on what you mean – and when

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

As a language and grammar nerd, I’ve always been fascinated by people who use the right word or phrase to maximum effect – and how an incorrect or misspelled word can entirely undo that effect by jolting the observant reader to focus on the goof rather than the message.

Language is supposed to be governed by rules. Those of us who serve as editors strive to enforce them consistently, if not rigidly to the point of absurdity (after all, the point is to communicate). However, as the above passage from Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass” recognizes, sometimes the meaning of words – and even the rules governing them – can change.

Language evolves naturally, of course, but modern technology has turbocharged that process: Proper punctuation has all but disappeared on social media, and many words have lost or changed their meaning (“dialed” a phone lately?). What once was considered correct may now be a minefield as we continually strive to avoid terms that, intentionally or otherwise, can genuinely offend others.

Which brings me to the AP Stylebook, the official guide for most American newspapers and countless other organizations (including Sachs Media) that generally follow its tenets. It’s the Stylebook that tells us, for example, whether to use “Legislative Session” or “legislative session” (hint: it’s the latter) or how to navigate hyphenation when writing something like, “He uses common sense when creating commonsense expectations” (hint: no hyphens).

The editors at AP regularly issue revisions to stay current. Last month, they put out a significant update to guide writers on a range of subject areas falling under the umbrella of “inclusive storytelling.”

The new and updated entries provide a fascinating insight into how our culture has changed over time. With new or updated entries covering such hot-button topics as race, gender/sex/sexual orientation, and religion, this latest guidance is designed to help writers and editors eradicate once-common words and expressions that confuse, confound, or – most importantly – offend.

So, for example:

  • When writing about disabilities we should not use words that suggest pity, such as “afflicted with,” or “battling or suffers from” any disability or illness, or that a person overcame her disability.” People should not be described as “wheelchair-bound” or an Alzheimer’s “victim.”
  • Because growing numbers of people don’t identify as “he” or “she,” moving forward AP will also use “they/them/their” to describe individuals who use those pronouns.
  • Writers should be careful in using the term “people of color” to describe non-whites, because many people of various races object to the term “for various reasons, including that it lumps together into one monolithic group anyone who isn’t white.”

These few examples reflect how much, and how rapidly, our use of language changes. Terms that may not have even been in use a decade or a generation ago – “people of color” or “nonbinary,” for instance – are now sufficiently entrenched in the language to warrant their own updates. For a word person like me, it’s fascinating to watch how the language evolves along with society.

As the AP editors themselves put it in their latest update: “In a lot of ways, the Stylebook is a history book of sorts, a real-time reflection on the times in which we live.”