I’ve been a little tardy in updating my AP Stylebook, but I now have the current, 2007 edition on my desk. Perusing it shows that the concept of “hard and fast rules” is as ambiguous in grammar as it is in politics.
For example, expounding on when to use the abbreviation “U.S.” vs. “United States,” my trusty 2004 version of the journalist’s bible proclaimed, “Spell out when used as a noun. Use U.S. only as an adjective.” The 2007 edition has eliminated any mention of this rule.
Similarly, the guide from four years ago provided a choice of “fund raising,” “fund-raising” and “fund raiser,” depending on how the words were used in a sentence. Last year’s version, however, says that “fundraising” and “fundraiser” should be “one word in all cases.”
While AP still capitalizes “Web” and insists against all good reason that “Bachelor of Arts” must take caps as well, I think the lesson here is not to take our words for granted. They can be altered in form, meaning and impact by both events and time.
Look at the political fireworks arising from the “just words” debate over Sen. Obama’s speechifying vs. Sen. Clinton’s claims of experience.
Look at Sen. McCain’s subsequently retracted-and-then restated pronouncement that Shiite Iran has been training Sunni Al-Qaeda.
Words assume a rainbow of hues depending on not just how they are used in a sentence but also the context in which they are used in the public forum. When we communicate, we need to be certain, first, that our choice of words means the same thing to our audience that it does to us and, then, that they will stand up over time as our society changes and as Tim Russert pulls our video from his time vault.
When we joyously announce a major expansion into China as a way to keep our prices down, does that message actually turn customers against us as they struggle to hold onto jobs across America?
Are we surprised to discover that the criticism we leveled at a competitor eventually complicates our merger talks with that same company?
Words endure forever now, online, on screen and on air. Business leaders should strive more than ever to speak to our times in terms that will continue to ring true when those times have changed and our cultural stylebook has evolved.
–by Steve Friedman