AP Stylebook Adds Entry On ‘Husbands, Wives’ to Account for Married Same-Sex Couples

A little over a week ago, the AP decreed that references to married same-sex couples should refer to each person as the other’s “partner” rather than “husband” or “wife”:

“Media blogger Jim Romenesko today published an internal AP memo saying that “husband” or “wife,” in reference to same-sex couples, “may be used in AP stories with attribution,” adding, “Generally AP uses couples or partners to describe people in civil unions or same-sex marriages.” Quickly, an AP spokesman sent Romenesko a revised memo with somewhat more restrictive guidelines, saying, “Such terms may be used in AP content if those involved have regularly used those terms… or in quotes attributed to them.”

The announcement immediately sparked some controversy and concern, including this spot-on criticism from Gawker’s Robert Kessler:

This particular style choice makes a jarring “separate but equal” standard for married couples. As we learned with segregation, a separate standard is inherently unequal.

But yesterday, the AP announced an addition to its online stylebook that reverses this decision. The new entry reads:

husband, wife Regardless of sexual orientation, husband or wife is acceptable in all references to individuals in any legally recognized marriage. Spouse or partner may be used if requested.

It’s very possible that AP reconsidered its initial decision after the backlash against the “partners” argument. Regardless, it’s clear that the news organization has realized it must change with the times, even if that change is unprecedented:

“The AP has never had a Stylebook entry on the question of the usage of husband and wife,” said AP Senior Managing Editor for U.S. News Mike Oreskes. “All the previous conversation was in the absence of such a formal entry. This lays down clear and simple usage. After reviewing existing practice, we are formalizing ‘husband, wife’ as an entry.”

The change will also appear in the next print edition of the stylebook. AP is generally the authority on journalistic style and media language use, making this a pretty big deal.

About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a recent college graduate working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.

  • Edmond

    I guess I don’t quite get this, and I’m a gay man in a domestic partnership. What is a “Stylebook”? Is that a wedding thing? Why couldn’t you use “couples” or “partner” for heterosexuals, from time to time? Why wouldn’t “husband” just mean “a married man” and “wife” “a married woman”, whether gay or straight? The context of journalism should dictate the terms used, and it seems that they should change throughout the text of an article, mostly to avoid repetition.
    Modern, electronic “journalism” seems to eschew style and consistency ANYWAY, so it hardly seems like it matters.

    • Cecelia

      It is the volume for all media and journalistic writing. It is the “AP”, or in the biz’ the “Style Guide”.

      The AP Guide gets updates yearly and is considered the standard and “go-to” when looking for proper formats and grammar etc.

    • Cecelia

      It is the volume for all media and journalistic writing. It is the “AP”, or in the biz’ the “Style Guide”.

      The AP Guide gets updates yearly and is considered the standard and “go-to” when looking for proper formats and grammar etc.

    • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

      There are perhaps half-a-dozen major prescriptive standards for writing. AP is one. Strunk-and-White and Chicago are the only others that spring to mind as likely to have reason to address the question of referring to same-sex spouses.

      If you don’t understand how language conventions can impact thought, you should probably re-read Orwell’s 1984.

      • Edmond

        Thanks, both of you, for your replies. Cecelia, especially, for adding to abb3w’s “prescriptive standards for writing” with “for all media and journalistic writing”.

        So I take it, as the AP is generally the informative source for much journalism, this is intended to inform (or dictate conformity?) how most articles are written. I’m thinking CNN and the New York Times, etc.

        I guess my question then is, does this REALLY inform how future articles will be written, epecially in comparison to how they’re written NOW? Have I not ALREADY seen the words “couple” or “partners” used from time to time to describe heterosexuals, or am i just crazy? And, if their original standard had stood without criticism, would I have NEVER have seen “husbands” or “wives” appear to describe gay couples? Is the AP just fooling themselves in thinking that their dictation would dominate how these terms appear and are used? Or am I fooling MYSELF, in thinking that they’re fooling themselves?

        And yeah, my question was ALSO about what this “Stylebook” thing WAS, because I really didn’t know.

        And yes, I understand how language conventions can impact thought. What I don’t understand is how ONE organization can hope to (or believe it does) control these conventions, simply by publishing a guide to their usage. I have no idea how often journalists actually refer to such a guide, but I hardly think it’s going to stop anyone from describing ANY couples in the way that is most comfortable during the actual writing, whether for the sake of properly representing those couples, or for the sake of smooth, non-repetitive writing that doesn’t overuse words like “couple” or “husband” too often within one paragraph.
        And again, in a world where “journalist” is increasingly synonymous with “microblogger” or “iReporter”, is such a guide even relevant?

        • Stev84

          The AP is one of the largest two news organizations in the world (the other being Reuters). They write articles and thousands of newspapers print them for payment, so they they don’t have to write their own stuff. That alone gives them tremendous reach.

          And yeah, their styleguide is that influential. Any English-language journalist knows what “AP style” means. It may not be binding, but writers are under the authority of editors who can tell them to change things. It’s true that this one change probably wouldn’t have changed the whole industry overnight, but in the long term, who knows?

          • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

            And, at the other end of the supply chain… the AP has lots and lots of readers. While the impact there is merely normative influence, rather than prescriptive, the exposure still influences readers’ expectations about written communications and thus shapes readers’ view of the world.

        • http://www.facebook.com/loufcd Louis Shackleton

          To address your penultimate paragraph, perhaps it would be more useful to think of a style guide in terms of a consensus rather than one organization imposing its will on everyone else. It’s not really about how people speak to each other in real life, but about how professional journalists write for clarity and consistency across the discipline. Think about dictionaries, for a moment. I could write my own, or I could just check Oxford or Webster’s or dictionary.com. There’s no law that says I have to use any of those, but if I want to be on the same page as everyone else who speaks English, that’s pretty much where I’m going to go.

          If I’m the senior editor at a newspaper, do I really want to take the time to write my own rules on how thus and so grammar or vocabulary should be handled at my paper? Why would I, if someone else has already done it? It’s reinventing the wheel. The Associated Press wrote one already, and most journalists just go with that.

          At 45, I just graduated from college (UNCW whoohoo!) with a bachelor’s in Biology. In most of my core curriculum classes, we were required to use the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) style guide for writing papers. It’s the standard for undergraduate papers in most fields at many schools for about the same reasons as the AP is for journalism. I only wish we had such a standard in the sciences.

          While on paper my department “required” us to purchase and use Pechenik’s _A Short Guide to Writing About Biology_, in practice our papers were styled and formatted to reflect existing papers in an appropriate journal for our topic. There is one standard used by Science, a different one used by Nature, something different for Cell, etc. Even within sub-disciplines, every journal has its own way of doing things. The formatting at The Auk is different than the formatting at The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, and they’re put out by member organizations of the same umbrella organization. It’s a real pain in the ass. A standard style guide arrived at by consensus of all (or even most) journals would be a god-send (if you’ll pardon the expression).

          Ok, I think I’m rambling now, but also think of the AP style guide like the Pirate’s Code. “…the Pirate’s Code is more of a set of what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Mr. Edmund.

          • Cecelia

            Well said Louis, and kudos on the degree! Well done sir!

            And yes, the AP is not a dictate, but if you want to work in journalism, you use it.

            (when I was putting myself through flight school, I worked as a stringer for a while. I still get yearly updates to the ol’ AP guide!)

            • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

              Chicago Manual of Style user here! (of course, heh)

              it’s important to remember that being a stringer for the AP means you could be anybody. if the editors like your stuff, they’ll publish and pay you for it. some folks like to write, but didn’t go to journalism skool. so they may not be aware, as they submit stories, of guidelines that help AP produce consistent content.

              personally i think style manuals are sort of silly, but whatever. they’re dying off, in terms of importance, in the age of self-publishing and blogging and youtube.

              the vry fakt tht ewe kin r33d this an unnerstand it is proof of that. we all have to read writing like that every day, if we use the interwebs. style manuals will go the way of the dinosaur, and change and become dramatically simpler.

      • Cecelia

        Geezus abb3w, lighten up. I didn’t think Edmond was doing anything other than ask a few questions.

        You freaking people are wound tighter than a bow string and just twitching to be reactionary.

        Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    • AxeGrrl

      Why wouldn’t “husband” just mean “a married man” and “wife” “a married woman”, whether gay or straight?

      Exactly. I got into an argument with an anti-ssm person and he said for a gay male couple to use the word ‘husband’ would be a violation of the definition. *eyeroll*

      How incendiary to refer to a male spouse as ‘husband’!

      Some of theses peeps are really scraping the bottom of the barrel to dig up these nonsenical ‘objections’

      • Cecelia

        But in the AP and format world, they quabble and pick at ANY change regardless of content. With the AP change, it most likely has little to nothing to do with any bias or LGBT issue as it does with the petty farts who make up the AP rules themselves.

        Don’t get me started on the “serial comma” debate…. :(

  • C Peterson

    “Husband” and “wife” are archaic terms that we could well afford to leave to literature, in any case. Many unnecessarily gendered words are disappearing, and aren’t missed. Certainly, in a journalistic context, “spouse” is far better than either “husband” or “wife”, regardless of the sexual orientation of the marriage partners.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke

      i like the terms from “a handmaid’s tale.” OfFred. OfMark. why does a woman need her own name, anyway? /kidding

      • C Peterson

        Or just “You!” Works for half of humanity, and nothing has to be remembered.


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