Looking Forward to Three New Stylebooks

WebmasterNews, The Blog

by Barbara Gastel, MD, MPH | Professor
Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences
Texas A&M College of Medicine

April arrived—and with it a newfound freedom. For the first time in nearly a decade, I had only one blog post per month to write.

Since 2008, I had prepared at least a post per week for AuthorAID, a project to help researchers in developing countries to write about and publish their work. Now, in keeping with longstanding plans to include more voices, I was cutting back. 

Seven days into April, I received email from Brazos Valley IABC President Jennie Lamb. “I’d like to invite you to write a guest post for our chapter’s blog,” she wrote. Well, so much for newfound freedom. But I like blogging. I appreciate BVIABC—and all that Jennie does for it. And I liked the topic that Jennie proposed. So here goes.

Jennie asked me to summarize and comment on style changes that, according to reports from the recent national conference of ACES: The Society for Editing, would appear in the next editions of the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style.

For a style manual enthusiast like me, the invitation was not to be resisted. Style manual enthusiast? Yes, I admit it. I enjoy browsing through style manuals. When a colleague emails me a knotty style question, I like comparing various style manuals’ takes. I gleefully accepted when the editors of the next edition of the AMA [American Medical Association] Manual of Style asked me to be a peer reviewer. (No, I’m not violating confidentiality; the manual lists its peer reviewers. And yes, at this moment I should be peer reviewing a chapter, not drafting this post.)

Indeed, I once literally almost lost my head in the quest for a style manual. The story: In summer 2003, I eagerly awaited publication of the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. On learning that it had arrived at the College Station Barnes & Noble, I quickly reserved two copies—one for myself, and one to give as a gift.

When I went to claim the books, though, I realized that I had a problem: A broken ankle had put me on crutches, and I was using a canvas bag around my neck to carry possessions. The bag lacked space for the two hefty volumes, and placing even one in the bag looked as if it might dislocate my neck. Fortunately, an attentive clerk noticed my plight and carried the books to the car.

So, what about the new stylebook editions?

According to the ACES blog, the print version of the new AP Stylebook edition was becoming available on May 31. Perhaps the most newsworthy change: The new edition of the stylebook allows, though does not encourage, use of they as a singular. It states: “They/them/their is acceptable in limited cases as a singular and-or gender neutral pronoun, when alternative wording is overly awkward or clumsy. However, rewording usually is possible and always is preferable. Clarity is a top priority . . . .”

Although this new policy may rile some, to me it seems reasonable and balanced. On the one hand—as well discussed by Amy Einsohn in The Copyeditor’s Handbookthere’s long precedent for and an increasing trend toward such use. On the other hand, recognized norms exist for pronoun-antecedent agreement, and deviating from them may unsettle many readers.

So, I come down about where AP does. At least for now, in formal writing I’ll still use conventional pronoun-antecedent agreement. In part, the reason is to avoid distraction: I want readers to focus on my content, not to be distracted by thinking I have the grammar wrong.

In less formal settings, though, I’m now more relaxed about the matter. In grading students’ work, I’ve become more flexible about this issue, though I still raise it. In a quote for a news release, I might now be more likely to let such usage remain, especially given its prevalence in spoken language. And recently I used their in some email referring to a student whose gender I couldn’t  discern from . . . their . . . name.

Other changes in the new edition include clarification that the stylebook does not prohibit use of the serial comma, advice to reserve cyberattack for incidents causing major damage, and use of the spelling flyer (rather than flier).

The 17th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style is due out in September, according to the ACES blog, which included points from Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A. (By the way, I recommend Saller’s book The Subversive Copy Editor.)

The changes in the new edition of the Chicago manual—in addition to a more vibrantly colored cover—include revised and expanded advice regarding the singular they, inclusion of a format for citing Twitter tweets, more information about Creative Commons licenses, and more about citation management software. Also, Chicago style will now be to use internet (lowercase) and email (without a hyphen).

Since publication of its latest edition, the AMA Manual of Style too has gone to internet and email. Similarly, it now calls for website rather than Web site. Among other changes noted on its updates page are several regarding statistical information and its presentation. More information on what the 11th edition will bring seems likely to become publicly available in coming months.

I look forward to seeing the new editions of these three stylebooks—though I doubt that this time I’ll risk my neck for any of them.        


Barbara Gastel, a professor focusing largely on communication of science, coordinates the master’s degree program in science and technology journalism at Texas A&M University. Her main professional interests include science editing and international science communication.

The Blog at bviabc.com publishes articles written by local professionals engaging in professional communications and IABC members from around the world.