PR Pros, Get Your 2020 AP Stylebook Updates!

By Joseph Priest, APR

It’s that time of year again, when copy editors, journalists, language professors, English teachers, and, yes, public relations professionals find out the latest updates to an indispensable resource that guides the way we write – the Associated Press Stylebook.

In recent years, the editors of the AP Stylebook have announced these changes at the annual conference of 
ACES: The Society for Editing (formerly known as the American Copy Editors Society), which is usually held in March or April. The announcement has become something of a tradition at the conference that is regularly one of the biggest sessions and always draws a jam-packed room.

This year, though, there was no room full of people or audible group groans as the updates were announced. Instead, as if with so many other events this year, the in-person ACES conference that was planned for Salt Lake City was replaced by a day of online sessions.

An image promoting some of the sessions and sponsors for this year’s virtual ACES: The Society for Editing national conference.

These sessions, of course, included the AP Stylebook changes, and on May 1 a group of about 1,000 editors gathered virtually to get the lowdown on some of the latest changes happening in our language.


The AP Stylebook session at last year’s ACES: The Society for Editing annual conference, in Providence.

The session at this year’s condensed annual conference, held virtually and led by Paula Froke (top right), executive director of Associated Press Media Editors and editor of the AP Stylebook, and Colleen Newvine (bottom right), Associated Press product manager, AP Stylebook, and introduced by Neil Holdway (middle right), secretary of ACES, and assistant managing editor, copy desk, of the Daily Herald (Chicago).   

With all that has been happening this year with COVID-19 and other crises, this year’s AP Stylebook session, thankfully, lacked some of the controversial updates that have marked past AP Stylebook sessions. Some of those previous changes have been earth-shattering, like taking the hyphen out of “e-mail,” allowing “over” to indicate quantitative relationships as well as spatial ones, and permitting “they” to refer to a singular subject.

Here’s a rundown of some this year’s updates that may be helpful for PR pros to know:

  • Capitalization of “Black” - This just in! On the occasion of Juneteenth, on June 19, the AP Stylebook made the momentous announcement that its style is now to capitalize “Black” in a racial, ethnic, or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity, and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa. The announcement followed a long discussion that the stylebook’s editors had been having among other editors, news leaders, and various external organizations, and the change also followed one that had recently been made by such news outlets as NBC News, The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Seattle Times, and the Gannett newspaper chain, including USA Today. The editors are continuing to discuss within the U.S. and internationally whether to capitalize the term “white.” In addition, the AP Stylebook now capitalizes “Indigenous” in reference to original inhabitants of a place. The changes, which are consolidated in the stylebook’s race-related coverage section, align with the long-standing capitalization of other racial and ethnic identifiers, such as Latino, Asian American and Native American. More specifically, the use of the capitalized “Black” recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that, especially in the U.S., the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone. Important to note, neither “Black” nor “white” should be used as a singular noun, except when clearly relevant and needed for reasons of space or sentence construction: “The authors of the book wrote separate sections to address the special challenges that Blacks, whites, Latinos and Asian Americans faced during the 1900s.”
  • No more print versions - One of the biggest changes announced is that the AP will no longer print a new version of the stylebook every year. Not surprisingly, sales of the print book have fallen off as more people have migrated to the AP Stylebook Online, and many people do not buy a new hard copy every year.
  • Gender-neutral language entry - Another big change is a new entry on gender-neutral language, which is intended to use descriptions rather than labels. The gender-neutral language entry “aims to treat people equally and is inclusive of people whose gender identity is not strictly male or female.” The entry says further that writers and editors should “balance common sense, respect for the language, and an understanding that gender-neutral or gender-inclusive language is evolving and in some cases is challenging to achieve.” The entry cites examples like using “search” instead of “manhunt” or “door attendant” instead of “doorman,” but it also cautions against using contrived-sounding constructions like “snowperson” or “freshperson.”
  • “Older people” - A particular case in point that was cited is referring to someone as “senior” or “elderly,” which is “identity-first language” because it says nothing about the specific person, and one person’s idea of what constitutes “elderly” might not be another’s. Mentioning someone’s age, when relevant, can replace the label. So the stylebook now prefers “older adults” or “older person,” acknowledging that those terms are also imprecise. The new “older adult(s), older person/people” entry started with discussions between the stylebook team and the American Geriatrics Society. The society had worked on research that found many people associate the terms “elderly” or “senior citizen” with negative stereotypes.
  • “Homeless” - A similar point is how is how “homeless” is best used as an adjective: “’Homeless’ is generally acceptable as an adjective to describe people without a fixed residence. Avoid the dehumanizing collective noun ‘the homeless,’ instead using constructions like ‘homeless people,’ ‘people without housing’ or ‘people without homes.’”
  • “Climate change” - Another change is that “climate change” is now defined as a more accurate term to describe rising global temperatures: “The terms ‘global warming’ and ‘climate change’ are often used interchangeably, but climate change is the more accurate scientific term to describe the various effects of increasing levels of greenhouse gases on the world because it includes extreme weather; storms; and changes in rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and sea level. Global warming, the increase of average temperature around the world, is one aspect of climate change. The terms ‘climate crisis’ and ‘climate emergency’ are used by some scientists, policymakers and others, and are acceptable.”
  • “Mistress” - Stay away from “mistress”: “Do not use this archaic and sexist term for a woman who is in a long-term sexual relationship with, and is financially supported by, a man who is married to someone else. Instead, use an alternative like ‘companion,’ ‘friend’ or ‘lover’ on first reference, and provide additional details later.”
  • Plus symbol - “Disney+” is now acceptable: The symbol is OK to use when it is pronounced as part of a company, brand or event name: “Disney+,” “Apple TV+,” “ESPN+” or “CompTia Network+.”
  • “Preheat” - It’s also now OK to “preheat”: “Acceptable to refer to heating an oven to a specific temperature before cooking.”


Any questions, suggestions or criticisms for this year’s AP Stylebook updates? Any from years past? Would love to know anything on your mind. Please send them to [email protected].  


Merriam-Webster Inc. Editor-at-Large Peter Sokolowski kicked off this year’s virtual ACES: The Society for Editing online national conference with the session "The Invention of the Modern American Dictionary."


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