Tahlequah Daily Press

June 23, 2014

Striking the hyphen, and other journalistic maneuvering


TAHLEQUAH — A couple of years ago, my office phone rang. With no greeting or fanfare, the caller indignantly said, “Did you know they’ve taken the hyphen out of ‘fundraiser’?”

It was Dana Eversole, of course; for those of you just emerging from a decades-long residency under a rock, she’s a professor of what they now call “media studies” at NSU. Once upon a time, the department was “journalism,” though, and no one except a journalist – or someone who teaches the discipline at the collegiate level – would have a clue what she was talking about.

Dana had just gotten the latest copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, dubbed by newspaper journalists “the bible,” with a little “b.” AP style is not a paean to journalistic narcissism; it was developed to provide consistency so readers would “get the message” without wasting too much time thinking about it. For instance, there is only one accepted AP spelling for any given word. English professors might square off over the preferred spelling of “judgement” or “judgment,” but journalists are constrained to the latter.

Punctuation is extremely important in journalism. Oh, what a difference a comma can make when it comes to sentences like these: “Men who are idiots should never be elected to office,” or “Men, who are idiots, should never be elected to office.” I will save the argument over which statement is more accurate for another column – and I’ll give you plenty of time to Google “Oxford comma.”

What had raised Dana’s ire that day was the further erosion of the hyphen in newspaper lexicon. For years, AP had insisted the word was “fund-raiser,” and suddenly, we had to learn a new way of doing business. When a hyphen goes the way of the dodo, all of us on the “news” side know why: It’s because someone on the sports side couldn’t keep things straight, so he or she coaxed the powers-that-be at AP into chunking it out as unceremoniously as the constitutional amendment enacting Prohibition.

Sports writers are always blamed for the demise of proper punctuation. Note that “sports writer” is two words in our world, and the stylebook insists: “This is an exception to Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” Elsewhere we are told: “For situations not addressed by the stylebook, refer to Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” Whatever.

Dana had also called me a few years earlier to tell me that thanks to a change in the then-current Stylebook, we were improperly abbreviating phone extensions – as in (918) 456-8833, ext. 19. “You’re supposed to spell it out now,” she said. I thought I detected a smugness in her tone, so when we got new stylebooks this year, I couldn’t wait to call her and tell her that not only is the “ext.” abbreviation back in vogue, but area codes are no longer encased in parentheses.

“Now, we have to use hyphens – you know, like 918-456-8833,” I told her.

“Oh my God,” she said. “Next thing you know, they’ll be making us use periods instead of hyphens, like they do online – you know, 918.456.8833.”

It’s interesting how journalists claim the stylebook “makes” us “do” things – kind of like our parents did when we were little, and the devil when we were in college. Of course, there is no circuit-traveling AP slavemaster cracking a whip, and as far as we know, we aren’t being monitored by some shadowy group of operatives bent on world grammatical and punctuational domination. But we can’t be sure.

What we do know is that despite the overarching and long-standing claim that consistency is the goal, there are elements in the stylebook that don’t make sense. For instance, though some of us have for years been praying for a change, the words “baby-sit,” “baby-sitting” and “baby-sat” continue to sport hyphens, while “baby sitter” appears as two words. I figure it’s because those two-worded “sports writers” seldom have cause to discuss either “baby-sitting” or “baby sitters.”

Sometimes, the AP gods can’t seem to make up their minds. When it comes to Cherokees, Creeks and other indigenous peoples, AP has vacillated between “Native American” and “American Indian.” One year’s stylebook sheepishly admitted these folks weren’t really “Indians” (thank you, Chris Columbus), and thus “Native American” would henceforth be used. At some point, however, someone complained that “Native American” could mean anyone who’s not a “naturalized” American, so we reverted to “American Indian.” Finally, the AP gods threw up their hands and told us to pick one and stick with it. Oh, and use the tribal name if you can figure it out.

We at the Press don’t have the 2014 stylebook; until our publisher bought us the 2013 version, our latest tomes harkened back to 2006, which in stylebook terms is practically the Stone Age. But one of my co-workers discovered last month that in the new book, the long-standing practice of abbreviating state names following the name of a city has been rendered null and void. We are now expected to spell out the state names in all body copy – for “consistency,” in deference to “international considerations.”

Having preached for decades that journalists use AP state abbreviations and not the more confusing two-letter postal abbreviations, I was at such a loss I just mumbled, “Let’s ignore it for the time being.” Then, about a week ago, I received what I interpreted to be an enraged text from our sports editor: “Did you know that the AP changed its stance on state abbreviations?!?” I admitted I did. He text-groused: “I didn’t know that until just now. I don’t understand why the AP has to change things just to change things. Makes zero sense.”

I related this exchange to our publisher, who said, “I understand why. They want to sell a new version of the stylebook every year.” In other words, they want “consistency” in their revenue stream.

I’ll try to swallow this sacrilege with as much aplomb as I can muster. But so help me, if they add an apostrophe to the possessive pronoun “its,” I’m gonna strangle whatever sports writer did the deed.