David Minthorn is the grammar and style expert for the Associated Press
By Paul Farhi,
In its modern, digital forms, writing has become something like an untended garden. It’s overgrown with text-speak and crawling with invasive species like tweets and dashed-off e-mails. OMG, it’s a mess.
So think of David Minthorn as a linguistic gardener, doggedly cultivating this weedy patch in the hope of restoring some order and maybe coaxing something beautiful out of it.
Minthorn’s mission is the maintenance of English grammar, the policing of punctuation and the enforcement of a consistent written style for one of the world’s largest news organizations. As the Associated Press’s deputy standards editor, he’s the news wire’s word nerd, the go-to guy for settling all manner of niggling usage questions. Is it “e-mail” or “email”? “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Tea Party” or “tea party”? According to Dave Minthorn, it should be the latter in each case.
His distilled wisdom is the AP Stylebook, the bible for correspondents and editors and a best-selling volume in its own right for the past three decades. Minthorn and two colleagues, Darrell Christian and Sally Jacobsen, are the Stylebook’s editors. They spend all year arguing about what to include, updating the book to take account of new words and phrases such as “geotagging,” “unfollow,” and “Internet-connected TV.”
For the past four years, Minthorn has also been the author of AP’s “Ask the Editor” feature, in which perplexed writers from all walks of life (and all corners of the globe) seek his counsel on such pressing matters as the placement of commas and the appropriate use of an apostrophe. Since taking over the column from its founder, Norm Goldstein, Minthorn has answered more than 8,000 of these queries, offering brief but definitive responses to questions such as:
●“What is the plural of meatloaf? Meatloafs? Meatloaves? It isn’t in the dictionary.” Minthorn replied that AP’s style is “meatloaves,” noting that this “makes sense because the dictionary lists loaves as the plural of loaf, the food.”
●“Is it redundant to call the language Mandarin Chinese? Nobody uses the term Cantonese Chinese.” Mandarin is sufficient, Minthorn decreed.
●“Is the short form of microphone mic or mike?” The informal form of microphone is “mic,” he responded. (The Washington Post, which has its own word-usage and style committee, disagrees, sticking with “mike,” no matter what the manufacturers print on your electronic devices.)
In fact, Minthorn is frequently asked how bulleted items, like those above, should be presented in a letter or formal presentation. (We’re not sure we did it right.)
“I feel a little bit of an obligation to answer as many of these questions as I can,” says the mild-mannered Minthorn. “I don’t get to all of them. But I try my best. People really want to know.”
“We get hundreds of suggestions a year [for changes]. We adopt the ones that we think have reached a critical mass.”
All told, Minthorn, who is 69, exerts a subtle yet profound influence on the way words appear online and in print. His judgments guide AP’s dispatches, which is no small thing. The New York-based news service, a nonprofit cooperative owned by member news organizations, has 3,700 employees in 300 bureaus around the world. On a given day, it claims, its work is seen by half the world’s population. Because of this ubiquity, Minthorn’s Rules of Order are about as close to a universal code of English usage as there can be.
And like any code, this one has its own breed of code-breakers. The somewhat Olympian pronouncements by AP have led to a Twitter phenomenon called “The Fake AP Stylebook,” whose existence may be the only way a lot of people know there is such a thing as the AP Stylebook. Making fun of some of the tenets journalists hold dear, “Fake AP” has tweeted commands such as telling writers always to use the word “allegedly” to avoid accusations of bias: “the allegedly wet water,” “the allegedly poisonous poison.” Even those who enjoy the humorous wordplay, though, probably look to the real AP Stylebook when word decisions have to be made.
“You can imagine the sense of assurance you get when Dave Minthorn himself is doing the editing on a memo or a story for the wire,” says his immediate boss, Tom Kent. “It’s like doing math and having Einstein check your work.”
The most common “Ask the Editor” question is about the use of italics and quotation marks when citing books, movies or TV shows. Does one use them on some titles but not others, or not at all? Minthorn’s answer: AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them.
The questions Minthorn fields from the public come from just about everywhere and everyone. Newspaper copy editors write to him, as do public-relations executives, students, teachers, corporate and military types, librarians and “just plain word nuts.”
And, yes, they can be a little nutty about this stuff. Minthorn, Christian and Jacobsen kicked up quite a ruckus recently when they agreed to refer to electronic mail as “email” instead of “e-mail.” The pro-“e-mail” faction protested the hyphen-ectomy, but the AP style mavens declared that the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second. “We spend a lot of time debating these things,” Minthorn says. (The Washington Post prefers “e-mail.”)
Conversely, the punctuation gods ruled that the proper form of “bed and breakfast” is “bed-and-breakfast,” a change sure to please the hyphen lobby. Go figure.
You’ll get an argument, too, about the plural of “octopus.” Minthorn’s preference: “octopuses.” Fans of “octopi” will probably take exception.
Whatever his pronouncements, Minthorn doesn’t rule merely by fiat or whim. He has 42 years of experience as an AP correspondent and editor, so he’s hardly a novice at this. Besides, it’s not just his say-so. Minthorn consults references such as the American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language, the Concise Oxford Dictionary, Roget’s Thesaurus and “The Elements of Style,” the classic Strunk and White volume that is the Torah, New Testament and Koran for writing style.
When a reader asked him whether female softball players are basemen, Minthorn did some legwork before answering. Webster’s was of no use, so he investigated how AP’s sports department refers to women in other sports. In women’s basketball, he learned, when a team switches out of zone defense it is said to be playing man-to-man. Hence, the Minthorn-ian judgment: Position players in softball are basemen.
This may all seem arcane and trivial to a world moving rapidly away from linguistic formality — C U L8tr, m8 — but not to Minthorn. “We take this very seriously,” he says. “We’re not a bunch of old fogies sitting around in our ivory tower. We’re alive to changes and new ideas. We have a real sense that new words and changes in language reflect the culture and give us an inkling to where society is headed.”
AP’s senior managing editor, Michael Oreskes, argues that precision and clarity and “other hallmarks of proper style” are vital in an age in which rules seem to matter less and less. “Times of change are when standards matter most,” Oreskes says. “The faster the eye flits across the words, the more vital it is that language be immediately and abundantly clear. The world of journalism is lucky to have Dave. He is an asset for the whole profession.”
Minthorn’s love of words springs from boyhood. He attended the Lakeside School in Seattle, where two memorable teachers, Frederick Bleakney and George Taylor, instilled in him the joy of writing and reading. Naturally, he went on to get a degree in English (Whitman College, ’64) and a master’s in journalism (University of Oregon, ’65).
Along the way he picked up an appreciation for more than just the finer points of English. During his long career at AP, he spent 16 years as a foreign correspondent, including 12 in Germany (where he met his wife). He became fluent in that language and now regularly tweets breaking-news alerts in German.
“Everyone has a passion,” says Oreskes. “Dave’s is writing that cannot be misunderstood. He is a true believer in the power of the well-used verb, the properly ordered infinitive and the non-dangling participle. He sets rules so the rest of us will rise to them.”