Reflections from a student at ACES: Should we lead or represent usage shifts?

Last weekend, North and South Korea neutralized flaring border tensions. The so-called Islamic State destroyed a historic temple in Syria. The European migrant crisis intensified.

Meanwhile, at a conference held at the Portland Hilton, less action ensued. However, what did happen will influence how almost every major media source in the U.S. maintains public dialogue.

The author at the Oregonian tour during the 2016 ACES conference in Portland.

The author at the Oregonian tour during the 2016 ACES conference in Portland.

That’s because holed up in the heart of “Portlandia” was the national conference for the American Copy Editors Society, including spokespersons from Merriam-Webster, the Associated Press, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Washington Post, et cetera. At the annual ACES conference, the AP announces updated rules for its stylebook, and editors discuss and adopt informal style and usage changes.

This year, I was fortunate enough to witness the changes — and listen to some of the dialogue — as a University of Oregon junior in the ACES newsroom. I came away with several reflections.

The undertone of dialogue surrounding singular “they” was one of many reasons why this conference had an undeclared theme: How, and whether, editors should shape dialogue.

Carol Saller, author of “The Subversive Copy Editor,” offered this bit of advice during the conference: “There are no universal, immutable style and grammar rules.” Cue cringes from entrenched editors.

At the conference, Samantha McCann of Solutions Journalism Network encouraged editors to shape discourse in order to address social problems. Meanwhile, freelance copy editors Ashley Bischoff and Sarah Grey co-hosted a breakout session, called “What’s the Word,” where Grey encouraged editors to include all races, genders and sexuality in dialogue if possible — an “if we don’t include, we exclude” philosophy.

Bischoff cautioned to avoid words like “crazy,” “insane” or “lame,” as they could denigrate those with mental illnesses. Catch the reverse adjective/noun order? That was also part of the multiple conference discussions. Don’t say a “blind woman.” Say “a woman who is blind.” Blindness should not define the proverbial woman. Don’t say “wheelchair bound.” Say “in a wheelchair.” Why imply that a difference is a disadvantage?

Or don’t say anything at all about race, sexuality, age and so forth, unless it is ingrained in the context of the story. Why emphasize differences unnecessarily?

Not everyone agreed. During one of the breakout sessions on inclusive language for gender, race and disabilities, one audience member asked Grey how to reference Caitlyn Jenner’s star-studded past. Should editors write “Caitlyn Jenner is an Olympic gold medal-winning decathlete,” or “Caitlyn Jenner, when known as Bruce Jenner, won the 1976 gold medal Olympic decathlon”? How do you reduce confusion for readers? Grey’s advice was to bury the “Bruce” and just mention “Caitlyn” — in pop culture terms, make sure “Bruce Jenner” is less alive than Miley Cyrus made “Hannah Montana.” The response left several editors shaking their heads.

At one of the breakout sessions, a number of panel members discussing sexist language urged equality: Don’t say “he” in place of a gender-generic singular pronoun. Either pluralize everything, include everyone or use the singular “they.” Also, don’t clump people into denigrating groups. That is, other than “old, white men,” according to several more progressive copy editors. As they explained, they saw negative references to those on top as an equalizer. The argument sounded similar to something the character of Sam White would say in “Dear White People”:

Dean Fairbanks: “Your show is racist.”

Sam White: “Black people can’t be racist. Prejudiced, yes, but not racist. Racism describes a system of disadvantage based on race. Black people can’t be racist since we don’t stand to benefit from such a system.”

This isn’t to say that everyone at the conference was ready to turn the tables on entrenched media dialogue. At an ACES after-party, full of my “singular they” enthusiasm, I bumped shoulders with a number of prominent editors, and realized something, word-of-mouth style: Few newspaper editors were going to make dramatic changes. Many of the freelance editors and language devotees were entranced by the notion of change, but the further up the editorial food chain, the less likely for zie/sie/ey/ve/tey/e to see the light of day.

Singular “they” may have been the word of the year for 2015, but count on seeing most copy editors pluralize surrounding nouns and verbs for context when using “they,” or finagle sentence structure to escape singular usage.

A number of editors weren’t happy about the perceived cheapening of other rules, too. AP announced in its upcoming stylebook “internet” will be lowercased. Some perceive “internet” as a proper noun, instead of a casual point of reference. Why lowercase it and keep “World Wide Web” uppercased, just because these usages are popular?

Kory Stamper, an editor with Merriam-Webster, explained the dictionary is increasingly closing prefix hyphenations. Again, some editors aren’t happy with the advances. Does cutting out English language nuances make it easier for lazy people not to care about language?

Many editors at the conference also reflected that the pace of change in language style and usage is accelerating. A lot. With the growth of media communication via the (lowercased) internet, grammar and language usage are both being scrutinized and picked over by a diverse global audience. It’s easier for writers and editors to be more aware about language deficiencies than when style guides were the only Holy Grail. Even during the conference, #ACES2016 and #notatACES were hashtags to be reckoned with. Let me count the ways my data stalled during Twitter newsfeed updates.

I’m not one to proclaim whether the internet is enhancing awareness about such knotty issues as gender pronouns, although through this conference, I know a few Google Analytics aggregators at MerriamWebster.com who might be better informed than I. From personal experience, I can say I have been encouraged to step outside of my narrow perspective through the web-based dialogue that surrounds the issues I follow. I doubt I’m alone.

Despite varied editorial disagreements, what happens in the aftermath of the 2016 ACES conference is based on one choice: Will editors reflect discourse or define it? Are usage upgrades encouraging some editorial doublethink, to quote Orwell?

While listening to Stamper’s keynote address at the ACES banquet — a.k.a., the short-lived reign of the Academy of English — I realized, in many ways, English is not neatly defined. In an effort to demonstrate what was “pure English” for all the good ‘ole grammar sticklers, Stamper removed pesky French silent vowels ingrained in English. She quoted English prior to the Norman Conquest, which was barely comprehensible to the modern eye, yet, in its time, was touted as the pillar of respectable form.

After emphasizing how much the English language has changed, Stamper boiled down the rules of English to one: Do no harm.

As I watch editors lead a usage revolution, and those with whom the Force of Nostalgia is strong, I wonder: Can we do harm by being too eager to change rules? Can we also do harm by omitting change and failing to represent the world we live in?

I doubt copy editors will ever come to a consensus on these issues. Perhaps Saller would say that’s the beauty of language, as long as we’re not sticklers.

Whether or not major news outlets bend to the weight of the singular “they,” the eyes of the global community seem to be more fixed on language and usage than ever before. And that global community is asking us to do no harm.