The dangers of the newest addition to ‘The AP Stylebook’

What you should keep in mind if you opt to use AP StyleGuard.

Thanks to a new software program called AP StyleGuard, human intervention to improve written content is no longer necessary. All editors, please clean out your desks and report to Human Resources for your exit interview in five minutes; HR staff will provide information about career-change counseling on request.

That’s a joke, folks.

But StyleGuard is fact, not fiction. According to a press release from The Associated Press, the plug-in “is similar in functionality to Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar proofing tools and intuitively checks Word documents for the AP Stylebook‘s fundamental spelling, language, punctuation, usage, and journalistic style guidelines.”

That’s all well and good—just another layer of technological assistance for writers, like spell-checking functions—but every editorial enhancement like this increases the possibility of two unfortunate outcomes:

1. Upper management will assume that such tools obviate or reduce the need for flesh-and-blood-and-red-ink editors.

2. Writers will become less diligent about taking responsibility for the quality and clarity of their prose.

Call me biased, but I strongly believe that the classic editorial-review protocol—writer, editor(s), proofreader—will never go out of (ahem) style. The latter stages can be (and often are) omitted, but at the expense of editorial excellence. As an editor and writer, I know all too well, from both perspectives, how the lack of an editing stage can have a deleterious impact on prose, or at least result in published errors.

Also, I know that tools can become crutches if they supplant rather than supplement human judgment. Spell-checking and grammar-checking programs, StyleGuard, and similar innovations to come will never replace the writer’s own critical eye (or an objective second opinion), and there is some evidence that using them can cause one’s own editing skills to deteriorate.

Not only that, but less skillful writers can over-rely on such tools, accept their sometimes flawed corrections without question, and otherwise ignore their shortcomings.

Do I use spell-check? Of course. No sensible writer (or editor) should bypass the opportunity for its assistance. But I overrule it regularly, and I carefully peruse my prose (admittedly, sometimes not carefully enough) before I submit it for publication.

Would I use StyleGuard? Of course—if I adhered to Associated Press style. (And if I used a PC; it’s not compatible with Macs.) But I don’t. It’s ideal for writers who do so, thoroughly or with few exceptions. But AP style is highly formulaic, allowing for little flexibility or ambiguity. Compare it with the much more complex (and therefore, for me, much more useful) guidance of The Chicago Manual of Style. Because Chicago often offers alternatives—and is much more detailed—it’s ill suited for a regimented software program.

By all means, buy AP StyleGuard if it suits your needs. But don’t uninstall your brain.

This article first appeared on

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