Why a stylebook should be a guide, not a rulebook

A small result of the recent earthquake in Nepal was a change in the number of news agencies referring to its capital, from “Kathmandu” to “Kathmandu”. (The pronunciation is the same, the “th” acting like the “th” in “thyme.”)

The Associated Press actually acted before the quake, sending out a notice of the change on March 24. Last week, The New York Times followed suit, citing the change in the PA as well as the change in the fifth edition of the dictionary used by both organizations, Webster’s College of the New World Dictionary.

In fact, they’re all about 60 years behind. As this Google ngram shows, the vast majority of book citations since the mid-1950s have been in “Kathmandu”:

Since these are quotes from books, we can make an educated guess that the rapid rise of “Kathmandu” is linked to the Nepalese revolution of the early 1950s, which made Nepal known to the world. It was the spelling favored by the natives and the British, but not the Americans, in dictionaries and style books, until recently.

As we have seen, the spelling of non-English names often differs from publication to publication, depending on their own style books.

A stylebook is intended to give a publication a standardized set of references where there are choices of spelling, grammar, identification, and tone. Is it “website” or “website”? A matter of style. Can you write this four letter word, or do you use hyphens to replace the wrong part (Taurus–), write around (a barnyard epithet) or go all Watergate on it (expletive deleted)? This is the style. Whether or not to use a serial comma, as we’ve said many times, is a matter of style, not grammar, except when not using one creates confusion.

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But as we also said, a stylebook should be a guide, not a rulebook. Knowing why the stylebook chooses one way or the other can help writers and editors decide if a particular style applies in a particular case.

For example, the PA changed its style about a year ago to require that, with few exceptions, state names be spelled after city names in articles. Instead of “Columbia, Mo.” it should be “Columbia, Missouri. This change has caused a lot of consternation, as a full name takes up space, and we all know what “Mo” is. means, right? But knowing why the PA made the change can be a guide for writers or publications on whether to follow it: “This change will improve the consistency and effectiveness of national and international stories, eliminating the need to spell all state names in an international copy, and abbreviate them to a national copy, ”said the notice announcing the change.

In other words, the change was made to save AP the time it takes to edit a story one way for a national audience and another for an international audience. It had nothing to do with language, usage or comprehension.

A publication can decide to ignore this style rule and continue to abbreviate states after cities, although this creates more work for someone locally, who needs to edit the AP copy to abbreviate state names. Most posts already have local style guidelines – how to refer to neighborhoods, for example, or whether to omit the mayor’s first name – even if they use AP or another stylebook as a basis, so this takes precedence. Indeed, many American publications have chosen to continue to abbreviate the names of states.

A couple of times we’ve heard from editors that their posts don’t use accents, italics, or bold “because AP doesn’t use them.” But AP does not use them because not all the computer systems of its recipient publications can translate them; the stylebook says, “they can cause copies to be cut off for some subscribers.” This prohibition includes other special characters such as asterisks[]bullets (•) and square brackets ( ). But there is a good chance that the editing

the system can handle these characters, so citing the AP style is not a good reason to avoid them.

As with most “rules”, knowing why a rule exists can help you decide if it is a good or bad rule, or when to follow it. For example, if you are quoting songs by Cat Stevens or Bob Seger, omit the “h” from “Kathmandu” for the story.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than it does today? Help us by joining CJR today. Merrill Perlman managed the copy offices in the newsroom of theNew York Times , where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at@meperl