Knight Center
Knight Center


Language Evolves: A timeline of how terms come and go from the AP Stylebook

The Associated Press’ decision to drop the term “illegal immigrant” last week made headlines and sparked debate on both sides of the political spectrum. Another style decision that turned heads? Dropping the hyphen from “e-mail.” “That caused quite a stir,” AP Deputy Standards Editor and AP Stylebook co-editor David Minthorn remembered wryly.

As language changes everyday, dictionaries and style guides like the AP Stylebook, the foremost reference for U.S. broadcast and print reporters, race to keep up. The term “illegal immigrant” is a good example of how a word formally enters the lexicon or, in this case, leaves it.

“There has to be an evolution in the language or a clear need for adding or amending terms,” Minthorn told the American Copy Editors Society in a 2010 interview. Minthorn co-edits the AP Stylebook along with Sally Jacobsen and Darrell Christian. The Knight Center spoke with Minthorn to better understand how the Stylebook takes the pulse of the news media and decides which words make the cut. As part of this feature, check out a timeline of select changes to the style bible organized by the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

The deputy editor pointed out that the Stylebook first added “illegal immigrant” in 2004 and since then, its definition has been tweaked four times before its eventual removal last week.  “As the term became more ‘front burner’ in political discussion, our definition became more nuanced,” he said.

Last fall, statements from former Washington Post reporter and “undocumented” activist Jose Antonio Vargas and an open letter by Dr. Jonathan Rosa of the University of Massachusetts Amherst criticizing the AP’s 2011 Stylebook entry on the phrase re-ignited debate over its use. Critics charged that the term was dehumanizing and politically motivated.

Minthorn photo

David Minthorn, deputy standards editor for the Associated Press. AP photo courtesy of Benny Snyder

Despite the formal authority granted to the Stylebook by its adherents, Minthorn described the process of adding and changing terms as fairly democratic. The AP takes thousands of suggestions every year from its reporters, news partners, and the public, often in questions posted to news agency’s Ask the Editor blog, which Minthorn maintains. 

For a more controversial term, like “illegal immigrant,” Minthorn said the organization considered feedback from its editors, some of who cover immigration, and took a vote. “It wasn’t unanimous but there was a strong majority,” he observed.

The AP said in its press release on the change that advocates did not motivate its decision. “We don’t try to get out in front of language evolution. We tend to be more reflective of language as it’s applied,” Minthorn said, “We’re trying to reflect reality.”

While the Stylebook dictates the proper placement of a hyphen, it also influences how the media speaks about large groups of people, from those with mental illness to people who enter a country illegally. “We want to avoid labels for people. Often it takes more words to describe an action […] but it’s more precise,” he said.  

The AP joins the Society of Professional Journalists, ABC News/Univision and, most recently, USA Today in renouncing the term.

Inspired by the recent additions to the Stylebook and the up-coming release of its 2013 edition in May, the Knight Center compiled a timeline of major changes with the AP’s writing guide. Click here to flip through the collection and see everything from “email” to “illegal immigrant,” “Ms.” to “Islamists.” 

Let us know if there are any sea changes in the Stylebook we missed in the comments section below.

Correction, April 11: This post incorrectly reported David Minthorn's title as AP deputy style editor. His title is deputy standards editor. 


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