Swimming in the Press Pool: The AP Killed my E-Mail

They took away my hyphen, and I am filled with rage.

We had been moving toward this end gradually, almost imperceptibly — like a trickle of water scouring delicate features off a rock face over thousands of years, or relentless waves that over decades can wash away an entire beach.

Or, in this case, a hyphen.

“Language evolves,” declared the AP Stylebook’s official Twitter feed at 9:30 a.m., March 18. It continued: “Today we change AP style from e-mail to email, no hyphen.”

email graphicOh, those dolts.

For journalists like me, the Associated Press Stylebook is a sort of Bible — a reference work just as essential as a dictionary, whether in paper or digital form. In the same way that dictionaries standardized spelling, newspapers’ style guides (the AP’s is by far the most widely used among American media outlets) cover details of grammar, punctuation, and word usage to make all stories read better and look less sloppy. Style guides are there to make sure the address “101 N. Sixth St.” in one story doesn’t appear as “101 North 6th Street” in a follow-up article; to make sure everyone abbreviates “Louisiana” the same way; to make sure we all use the same name when we write about Osama bin Laden. (It’s supposed to work the same way for Gadhafi/Qaddafi/Kaddafi/Gadaffi/Gadaf the Beige, but for a variety of reasons, that never quite worked out.)

So the Stylebook’s purpose is noble, but — just like some of the stranger spellings found in any dictionary — many of its rules can seem maddeningly arbitrary. To wit: “Street,” “Avenue,” and “Boulevard” are always abbreviated when they appear as part of an address (“342 Maple St.”), but “Road,” “Court,” and “Drive” are always spelled out. Also, “Street,” “Avenue,” and “Boulevard” are also always spelled out if they appear as part of a street name that’s not part of an address (“I live on Maple Street”).

It’s just as well that the AP Stylebook doesn’t see language as something to be fixed and cast in amber, in the way the Académie française regards French as some sort of fragile antique table that shouldn’t be sullied by something as base as a hot dog. The Stylebook has adapted and grown up as language has changed, particularly as technology continues to spawn neologisms at a frantic rate. “Smartphone” was a necessary and recent addition to the Stylebook’s official lexicon. I even saluted the Stylebook’s eventual acceptance of “website,” which is a perfectly evocative and descriptive compound word and a vast improvement over the stuffy, proper-noun-infused “Web site” that it replaced.

But sometimes the Stylebook is just wrong, and “email” is one of those times. Yes, I know two-thirds of the world’s English-writers had already dropped that hyphen years ago; that doesn’t make it right. Without a hyphen to indicate that first “e” should be set off and pronounced separately, “email” looks like it should be pronounced “emmale” or “eh-male.” We don’t wear tshirts or take xrays or slip the dealer a cnote. And to make this even more maddening, the AP insists on keeping that darn hyphen on e-everything else: e-commerce, e-book, e-reader, e-business, email. It lands with a thud.

(While we’re at it, I’m also not a fan of Apple’s style of using iEverything in its product names, which are pronounceable only because a decade ago tech businesses all agreed that DroppingSpacesAndRandomlyCapitalizingWords made for great product names. And don’t even get me started on the Flickr/Tumblr/Scribd/Scanr/DrppdVwls trend for tech startups from a few years back.)

This dropped-hyphen fiasco just joins the list of the Stylebook’s other errors, such as its misguided frowning upon the serial comma. Perhaps I’m biased by my predilection for leaving my prose looking like it’s been peppered by a shotgun full of commas, but I have long maintained that adding that comma before the final “and” or “but” in a series offers clarity, improved legibility, and precision.

Apparently I ought to write those Stylebook editors an angry email.

Article © 2011 by Michael Duck