Words: Stylebooks (Updated)

I’ve been thinking about stylebooks, the guides and manuals that set out rules for members and employees who speak and write for government agencies and corporations. Stylebooks are more important and influential than most people realize: in codifying rules for communication, they also define cultural norms … and sometimes even help establish them.

Which should give you a hint I’m writing today about a sensitive topic: capitalizing Black.

By way of background, when I was in the Air Force my guidance came from Tongue & Quill. When we wrote official documents or prepared briefings, we checked T&Q to make sure we were doing it right: using the proper format for letters and slides, knowing when to capitalize words and when not, making bullet lists, using acronyms … even punctuation, should the basics we learned in school temporarily elude us (hey, it happens to everyone).

In the mid-1980s I was posted to the Joint Staff (properly capitalized … I checked), where I worked alongside members of the Marine Corps, Navy, and Army, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Central Intelligence Agency. Since each service and agency had its own set of rules for speaking and writing, rules which sometimes conflicted, we were told to use the Associated Press Stylebook as our common guide. The AP Stylebook sits on my desk today, and I consult it whenever I have a question or forget a rule.

This is from a post I wrote in 2014:

When I worked for the US Special Operations Command in the 1980s, I learned that the most important skill a staff officer can have is the ability to write clearly. Each officer at USSOCOM was issued an AP Stylebook, along with a 9mm Baretta pistol and holster. We kept the pistols in safes when we weren’t using them; the style guides were on our desks and in use around the clock. You were far more likely to have someone waving a style guide at you than a pistol. Which made the more important and lasting contribution to our nation’s military readiness? My money’s on the AP Stylebook.

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1984 & 2009 AP Stylebooks

In spite of Google’s handiness and ease of use, my standard (save for serial commas) is still the AP Stylebook. I bought a new edition a couple of years ago. I found that I prefer the 1984 edition, the one I was given at USSOCOM. The spiral binder is what makes it … when it’s open the pages lay flat and you can type without having to hold the book open with one hand (you can probably guess I just had it open to the “lay, lie” entry).

Sometimes AP gets it wrong, as it does with the serial or Oxford comma, the one before the conjunction at the end of a series of items, as in “the flag is red, white, and blue.” AP would have us write “the flag is red, white and blue.” I say AP can piss up a rope. Even when I wrote official documents for the Joint Staff, I always used serial commas, and to my recollection no one ever called me on it.

I’m in my 70s now, and when I write the only organization I represent is pwoodford.net, so I reckon I can be a curmudgeon and disagree with the AP Stylebook on a point or two.

Most recently (last month, in fact), AP adopted the capitalization of “Black” when referring to people in the context of race, ethnicity, or culture. AP’s reasoning, similar to that of major newspapers like the New York Times, is that black people share a sense of history, identity, and community that warrants uppercasing the “B” in Black. Since other racial and ethnic groups have names that are already proper nouns, like Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans, capitalizing Black confers a certain parity (I thought “African American” addressed that issue, but the term has fallen out of favor). As to those who say “Why don’t we capitalize ‘white’ then?,” the linked AP article says they’re debating that now and should come to a decision soon.

I’m torn on this one. The common sense of history, identity, and community of Black people in the Americas is one of enslavement, brutality, theft of land, and denial of rights by white oppressors, and hell yes that needs to be respected and never forgotten. Yes, but …

An immediately apparent argument against capitalizing “white” is that white people don’t share a common ethnicity or culture. One of the arguments against “African American” is that not all Black people trace their lineage to Africa. And apart from a shared history of oppression, is there really a common Black ethnicity and culture? Then there’s this: capitalizing Black enshrines the concept of race, which in my view needs to go away forever. And this: for newspapers and publishers to suddenly decide to capitalize “Black,” in the wake of a re-energized and sweeping Black Lives Matter movement, feels a bit like giving a hardworking and essential employee a grand title … without the raise that should go with it.

So: part of me says no, part of me says yes. I suppose in time I’ll side with the AP on capitalizing Black, but it’s going to trip me up for years to come.

Update (7/21/20): The AP has announced its decision on capitalizing “white”:

After changing its usage rules last month to capitalize the word “Black” when used in the context of race and culture, The Associated Press on Monday said it would not do the same for “white.”

The AP said white people in general have much less shared history and culture, and don’t have the experience of being discriminated against because of skin color.”

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.

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4 thoughts on “Words: Stylebooks (Updated)

  • I think capitalizing “Black” is just another attempt by white people to congratulate themselves on being “woke.” “Well, we capitalize ‘Black,’ what more do you want?” As you say, the raise.

    As for “lay” and “lie,” it’s a difference that’s dying. I mean really, “lay,” which has a perfectly good meaning all its own as a transitive verb, is also the past tense of “lie?” I’m always amazed that (sorry) people can learn English at all, let alone, like Joseph Conrad and Tom Stoppard, can learn it so well that they become masters of English style. I think usage in general is shifting in favor of logic, so that “lay,” for example, will come to cover all aspects of meaning of reclining upon or placing in such a position, while “lie” will denote only the speaking of falsehoods. It will feel strange to thee and me, but we can’t really argue with the logic.

  • Sorry, for once I didn’t proof. Yes, that “car” should be “attempt.” Please remove that random quote after “example.” Please delete the double ” of” and the phrase “the and me” should read “thee and me.” That’ll larn me not to proof.

  • Firstly. I hate the use of ‘black’ and ‘white’ (capitalized or not) for the races because both words, particularly black, have connotations, related to the absence of light or not and which predate Europeans going into Africa. Second, what blacks there are in the US whose ancestors are not from Africa unless they are from Papua New Guinea or Australia (and how many are there of those in the US)? Third, the above shared experience definition excludes more recent immigrants from Africa (whose ancestors may have sold the others into slavery, in fact), Finally and most significant in my view, it is not beneficial to define a people only in terms of victimhood. I doubt if you asked Jewish representatives that they would depict themselves solely as being victims. American Blacks invented or excelled at jazz, blues, mo-town, gospel music, hip-hop (no laurels from me for this one but still…); tend to be the top athletes and have contributed impressive scientists – George Washington Carver and Neil Degrasse-Tyson and too many top musicians to mention. I am sure that there is more than I don’t know about or can’t recall at the moment.

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