Maddening, Myopic AP

by Charmaine on March 19, 2009

As a high-tech editor, I usually adhere to Associated Press style, despite the fact that the AP Stylebook is a poor fit for technical language. I alluded to this two posts back, so I thought I’d elaborate.

I’m following many journalists on Twitter who are lamenting the continuing demise of the newspaper industry. There’s a lot of talk about how newspapers were slow to react to the Internet, digging their heels in and resisting change.

And this is how I feel about AP. It’s as if they have no idea how popular they are. They’re the Amazon of style guides and yet they refuse to even consider style issues that wouldn’t show up in newsprint.

Here’s a prime example. While at Texas Instruments, I tackled a controversy among communicators concerning the hyphenation of numbers and units of measurement.

Because the entries in the AP Stylebook were most unhelpful, I turned to its Ask the Editor column, which truthfully has saved me many times when someone asks about timeframe or time frame, or worksite or work site.

I thought very carefully about how to word my question. I had to think like a newspaper editor. Apple had just released the iPhone, so I thought about what the editors of a technology section might come across. I googled the iPhone specs and picked one to use as an example. The other example came from Texas Instruments.

Here’s my exact question and AP’s ridiculous non-answer answer:

Q: About your Aug. 30 answer re: spaces but no hyphens with numbers and measurement abbreviations, how would you treat 32 bit edge triggered D type flip-flop or 20 Hz frequency response (an iPhone spec)? The AP stylebook entry for kilobyte calls for no space (64KB, a 400KB file). Please standardize the treatment of numbers and measurements, both stand-alone and as modifiers. — from Dallas, Texas on Tue, Nov 06, 2007

A: Good suggestion to update the entries. In meantime, for easier reading, we’d advise against stacking the terminology.

What kind of answer is this? First, why does AP need me to prod them to update their entries? Second, what makes AP think that editors have a choice in “stacking” the terminology? If the flip-flop (and yes, this is an actual technical term referring to a two-state device used for data storage and transfer) has these characteristics and they’re all important, should editors begin haphazardly deleting them for the sake of easy reading? After all, engineers can’t decide what parts to buy unless they know the specs; otherwise the part might not work in their design.

The other thing that infuriates me about this response, of course, is the fact that the AP editor ignored the question. If the entire sentence read, “The new iPhone has a 20 Hz frequency response,” how is that stacking the terminology? Would it have been that difficult to say yes, use a hyphen, or no, it’s clear in this instance that hertz is modifying 20, not frequency, and therefore you don’t need a hyphen?

And this is why AP drives me crazy.

(By the way, I hyphenate numbers and units of measurement when they modify a noun, although I could be persuaded to eliminate hyphens and spaces completely.)

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