AP Style of the South
by Mark Andrews
Sep 20, 2011 | 1727 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When learning my trade from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists and long-time newspaper editors at the University of Alabama, it was constantly drilled into my thought process that maintaining the voice of a source is one of the most important elements to good news writing. You should be able to hear the person you’re reading about.

However, what is the correct and universally agreed upon way a writer addresses the proper punctuation and spelling for the Southern terms we all know but have not been officially recognized by the reporter’s go-to source for proper news writing?

The Associated Press Stylebook sets the standard for how legitimate and accredited news organizations spell out the news. For example, it provides the proper context and spelling for when one abbreviates a state and lets reporters know what cities do not need to be clarified by identifying the state, like Atlanta. It also provides arbitrary, yet necessary, nuggets of information. For example, clarifying to reporters that you don’t capitalize “french fries,” but you do capitalize “French toast.” In other words, the AP Stylebook conflicts with everything your English teachers taught you growing up, and you always have to double check because there really is no rule of thumb for its rules.

Despite having entries for many common and uncommon terms, it fails to address much of the language I’ve grown up using and have had to use in my writing. Just because Meriam-Webster gives a word a certain spelling or punctuation doesn’t mean it’s the AP’s preferred use.

Formerly covering the news in Catoosa County, I often found myself reporting on exchanges during meetings between the public and city and county governments. A common phrase used on both sides was “gawt-dern” when someone would get upset. If someone tried to understand another, he might begin by saying, “I reckon what he means is ...”

The book clarifies a few spellings for the “swear word” versions of emotional phrases similar to “gawt-dern,” but suggests to avoid strong language. Why is there not a universally agreed upon spelling to harness the angry, Georgian veteran on disability with three kids who feels his property taxes are too “gawt-dern” high?

Coming across a term like “horse mess” might confuse an otherwise intelligent journalist from the North when trying to gather information from a Southern publication. (“Was there an accident involving a horse on rural Southern road?” Is this ‘horse mess’ some sort of Southern cuisine soon to be highlighted by ‘Vanity Fair?’”)

Around here, however, there is no question as to what a person is referring to when they’re “fed up with all the horse mess” in Washington or in their own [figurative] backyard.

If I’m quoting someone and they say, for example, “DOT” but are explicitly referring to the Georgia Department of Transportation you would place in brackets [Georgia Department of Transportation]. This is how you maintain accuracy of the statements, facts and meet AP Style rules. Before journalism school, I assumed this was an act of reporters putting words in their sources’ mouths, but I later learned these were rules for news writing and simply made the information accurate.

If I’m talking to an elementary school student in the late spring about his favorite part about summer and he says, “I love catching lightning bugs,” should “lightning bugs” be replaced with the synonymous term “fireflies” and placed in brackets? Neither of the terms are listed, so AP doesn’t cover that either.

While the book is updated yearly, there are relatively few drastic changes. Journalists and nerds alike rejoiced when AP this year opted to drop the dash from “email” and clarified the spelling as well as validated the term “e-reader.” Just a few short years ago I had to explain in articles that an e-reader was a device used to read the electronic version of books and other publications.

The book also has come under fire from some who feel the guidelines are too liberal, for example, referring to those responsible for the 9/11 attacks specifically as “hijackers” rather than “Islamic terrorists.” This parallels with an outcry from mainstream conservative commentators blaming journalists for being “scared” or “politically correct” and not using the term “Islamic terrorists.” However, there is no entry for “Islamic terrorists” in the AP Stylebook and the Glenn Becks of the world aren’t journalists, otherwise they’d know the reason why this term isn’t used when referring to 9/11 — it’s incorrect, according to AP Style, not some radical political agenda shared by every professional journalist from San Francisco to Cartersville.

On the other end of the spectrum, the book also tells reporters to avoid the inclusive “his or her” but to refer to individuals specifically with the masculine “he” unless you are using a direct source. For example, if I’m describing how a kindergarten class rotates throughout the room during new learning exercises, I’d say, “A student will move from his pod to the next, every time the bell rings,” versus “his or her” pod.

When writing this column I stumbled upon learning some of the Southern terms I grew up with are universal. When visiting my Nanny’s house growing up as a child in Alabama, she would sing she loved me, “a bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck.” The Associated Press Stylebook defines both a bushel and a peck, validating them as units of measurement in the reporting world while giving me a memory to call home about.

As for the rest of our language, the cost of gas may be higher than a dern cat’s back before there’s an AP section recognizing all the gems of contributions Southerners are making to the news writing world.

Mark Andrews is the education reporter for The Daily Tribune News.