Stylebook for Slate: Help us break from AP style regarding tase, BCE, or Court.

Help Slate Decide Its Next Style Change

Help Slate Decide Its Next Style Change

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Aug. 5 2015 2:55 PM

Help Slate Decide Its Next Style Change

The future of our stylebook is in your hands.


Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH/Shutterstock.

The Slate copy desk glimpsed the end of civilization on March 20, 2014. This was the day we learned the Associated Press Stylebook—the guide most media outlets use for style and usage rules—was eliminating the distinction between over and more than when counting. Prior to the change, writing “there were over 30 people at the picnic” was incorrect. After the change, it was suddenly acceptable in publications everywhere. Some Slate staff rejoiced: “Finally,” wrote one staffer; “WHOOOOOOO!” wrote another. Others felt the rule had been just fine as is: “To the barricades for this one!” one editor responded. On Twitter, #MoreThanMyDeadBody trended.

In the end, Slate decided not to yield—instead declaring an exception to the AP change in our house style guide. Copy editors are rule-followers by nature. It’s our duty to enforce clarity and consistency, even when we really don’t have strong feelings about a rule in question (though you’ll find we often do). When AP announces its changes—some are smart and savvy, and others foreshadow the downfall of mankind—we go through our own stages of grief, passing from outrage to confusion to acceptance.

Once in a while, however, we defy AP’s rules before any announcement is even made. The decisions to do so are done only with careful consideration, typically in response to changes in mainstream usage. (Or, alternatively, when editor Dan Kois nags us so much we give in.) Below are three rules we’ve debated going rogue on. This time, before we make our next style change, we’d like the input of Slate Plus members. Vote for your favorite below or suggest others in the comments, and we’ll follow up with what we decide.

Option No. 1: To allow tase as a verb.

What we’d say now: The police officer used a stun gun on the suspect before handcuffing him.

What we’d change to: The police officer tased the suspect before handcuffing him.

The current rule (via the Associated Press Stylebook):

Taser Trademark for stun gun. (Acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle.) Use the generic form if the brand is uncertain. Don’t use verbs like tasered. Exception: When verb forms appear in direct quotations, use lowercase.

Why go rogue?: “Use a stun gun” is clunky, but it’s factually accurate: All Tasers are stun guns, but not all stun guns are Tasers. But ever since “Don’t tase me, bro,” went viral, the word has stuck in the common lexicon. It’d be just the latest example of a brand name that became a catchall term for a product or action, such as Googled for online searching or dumpster for the large trash container.

* * *

Option No. 2: To dump B.C. and A.D. for B.C.E. and C.E.

What we’d say now: The GIF runs in sequence, from 2348 B.C., “The Deluge,” through A.D. 1828, “End of the General Peace.”

What we’d change to: The GIF runs in sequence, from 2348 B.C.E., “The Deluge,” through C.E. 1828, “End of the General Peace.”

The current rule (via the Associated Press Stylebook):

B.C. Acceptable in all references to a calendar year in the period before Christ. Because the full phrase would be in the year 43 before Christ, the abbreviation B.C. is placed after the figure for the year: 43 B.C.

A.D. Acceptable in all references for anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. Because the full phrase would read in the year of the Lord 96, the abbreviation A.D. goes before the figure for the year: A.D. 96. Do not write: The fourth century A.D. The fourth century is sufficient. If A.D. is not specified with a year, the year is presumed to be A.D.

Why go rogue?: A.D. and B.C. carry a religious connotation, and B.C.E. and C.E. (which  refer instead to the Common Era) are considered politically correct. But the entire Western dating system is still tied to Christianity and the birth of Jesus, and even if we changed the era designations, changing the entire calendar system to match is slightly beyond our power.

* * *

Option No. 3: To capitalize Court on references to the Supreme Court, even when the word stands alone.

What we’d say now: The court declared a fundamental right to same-sex marriage in a broad, progressive opinion. 

What we’d change to: The Court declared a fundamental right to same-sex marriage in a broad, progressive opinion. 

The current rule: Institutional names are capitalized when cited in full (Supreme Court) but lowercase when the full name is replaced by a shortened, generic term (court).

Why go rogue?: Of all the conversations I’ve had with Slatesters and strangers about grammar and style, this one comes up the most often. It’s standard practice in legal circles to capitalize court in reference to our nation’s highest judicial authority, and many feel this rule should be standard across journalism—including Slate.

Staff writer Mark Joseph Stern, perhaps Slate’s most vocal supporter of this rule change, argues that court should be capitalized to differentiate it from “inferior courts” and to assert its supremacy, just as we capitalize Constitution in reference to highest law in the U.S. He adds: “This capitalization doesn’t just make good legal and logical sense. It makes for easier reading. If I’m talking about a Supreme Court decision that reversed a lower court’s decision, I have to keep talking about ‘the Supreme Court’ and ‘the lower court.’ If I could capitalize Court, I could just talk about how the Court reversed the earlier ruling, cutting out a lot of words.”

But this change comes with the risk of opening the floodgates on capitalization: Would we capitalize, say, committee when using a one-word term to stand for the House Foreign Affairs Committee? Would president need to be always uppercase to refer to our country’s leader? Pretty soon You’d have Random Capitalization everywhere, which may be every Copy Editor’s Worst Nightmare.

So what do you think, members? Which one of these is a long overdue style change? Which of these are bunk? Vote for your favorite below or suggest others in the comments, and we’ll let you know what we decide.