Patti Tasko calls it a "huge fight": Canadian
Press (CP) versus the town of Lac La Biche, Alta. No blood was
shed, no one was killed, and there were certainly no sex
scandals. But calls came into CP, including one from the mayor,
with people riled up about one thing: the spelling of the town's
"Half the town had claimed it was spelled
one way, and half the town claimed it was spelled the other way,"
recalls Tasko, editor of The Canadian Press
Stylebook, momentarily squeezing her eyes shut while
shaking her head.
The dispute was over nothing more than
the capitalization of "la" in Lac La Biche. "It was ridiculous,"
she says. "I actually had someone drive down to Lac La Biche and
tell me what was on the sign. A local newspaper claimed it was
spelled one way and our people said, 'I saw the sign going into
In her CP office in downtown Toronto,
she pulls a 1998 Stylebook from her shelf
and points out "Lac la Biche." She then flips open the
17th and most recent edition, and, sure
enough, the second L is capitalized, having been changed in the
previous edition. Shutting the book she says, "People can be
quite fervent about this stuff."
The proof of
that statement has become self-evident. While some wouldn't give
a second thought to the spelling of John Smith in one paragraph,
then John Smythe three paragraphs down, many editors are firm on
their opinions about style. The rules of style are constantly
changing - and sometimes broken - but the importance of
establishing a basis for standards and clarity
"Communication is so important; it's
part of business and lifestyle," says Tasko. "The written word
has become increasingly important in the last 20 years, and it's
important to do it correctly."
always count herself among such fervent supporters of style. When
she became the senior supervising editor of CP in 1993, one of
her responsibilities was to become editor of the
Stylebook. Though she admits it was the
least attractive aspect, she's grown to love the wackiness that
comes with her job description.
people who care passionately about style when most other people
would think, 'Who cares?'"
do care, as she has discovered over the
years. Those who worry about writing have had rules instilled in
them, and Tasko believes adhering to them can later develop into
a passion. "It's a tradition you want to maintain," she says.
"Scientists are just as precise about their world as we are about
ours. People are rule conscious."
also be misinterpreted. While "fuck" has appeared in the
Stylebook, which instructs not to use "the
prissy device of replacing some letters of the offensive words
with hyphens," the latest edition of The Canadian Press
Caps and Spelling, released in the summer of 2005,
included "fuck" for the first time. This prompted several phone
calls from radio stations, believing obscenities were acceptable
for everyday use because it was now in the
"It was misconstrued!" Tasko insists. "I
will even read to you what it says in here!" Then, opening her
copy, she shows that beside "fuck" reads
"avoid with few
"I saw journalists using 'f-word,'
and I said, 'Why are we doing this? It's a common vulgarity,'"
reasons Tasko. "It just needed guidance and that's why I finally
put it in."
But making updates is about more
than just reacting to flack. Caps and
Spelling is released every other year, but updating
the Stylebook is more complicated. Former CP
Stylebook editor Peter Buckley calls it "a
long, picky, careful process." Tasko will often consult with two
others to complete the triumvirate of experts: Katherine Barber,
editor-in-chief of the Canadian Oxford
Dictionary, and Warren Clements, editor of
The Globe and Mail Style Book. (That's
"style book." Two words.)
CP looks at style's
usage in society and changes it accordingly. Language, says
Tasko, is intuitive, so she issues rulings that are natural. The
Internet in particular, she says, has helped to make language
A word such as "e-mail" has
gradually evolved from its original usage, although there were
different opinions. "It was eventually going to change that way,
with a dropped hyphen," says Katherine Barber. "Language moves
toward what is most efficient. Why type the extra keystroke for
the hyphen if it's not necessary and everyone understands the
word without it?"
Clements, however, preferred
that keystroke for the sake of consistency. "There are so many
other applications of the 'e-' format," he defends. "It would
look odd to drop the 'e-' just for e-mail and not for other
words, like 'e-business' or
Tasko also sided with Clements.
"I'm not sure why I did. It's probably wrong," she says,
laughing. "But I just wasn't quite ready to go there. I was going
by what I saw."
Most decisions are made
according to usage - within reason. "People have their own little
quirks, and if you actually indulged people's quirks, you'd have
style that would be impossible to maintain," adds
The first Stylebook
appeared in 1940 when CP was recognized as a suitable
organization through which to make style rulings. While CP does
not keep a record of its users, more than 5,000 copies of the
Stylebook and Caps and
Spelling each are sold annually, not just to
journalists, but also various businesses, non-profit
organizations and the government, to name a few. It has become
more than a journalism manual and is now a general tool for all
"It's a mammoth project to
create a style from scratch, so we provide the expertise and do
the legwork instead. Our marketing people call it 'the bible,'"
says Tasko, before quickly clarifying herself. "That's 'bible,'
For Bill Walsh, a copy chief at
The Washington Post in the U.S. and author
of Lapsing Into a Comma and The
Elephants of Style, it's important to differentiate
between style, grammar, syntax, spelling and other matters of
"There are some very smart
people who believe that usage is what it is," he writes in an
email interview. "As far as I know, no English-speaking country
has an official board handing out decrees on what's right and
wrong. It all comes down to finding a consensus on what doesn't
look or sound stupid - at least for now."
in the 1940s, CP was popular for banning words. Tasko says she
reads earlier editions of the Stylebook when
she needs a laugh. Running her finger along a list of banned
words in 1947, she reads aloud: "finalize," "quite" and
"motivated" - words found in today's
People frequently ask her to ban
words, she says, "but words haven't been banned in about 40
years. You do get weirdly controversial issues where you only
think there's one right answer, but sometimes there are just no
obvious answers and you have to decide, 'This is how we're doing
One controversial issue involved "Nfld.,"
the abbreviation of Newfoundland and Labrador. Before the
province's name was officially changed to "N.L." in 2001, Tasko
received weekly emails from Labradorians who were upset that CP's
style dictated using the placeline "Nfld." even if a story took
place in Labrador.
But Tasko purposely waited
until late 2005 to change the placeline. "With style, you hate to
be changing it. Any decision I've made quickly, because I didn't
see where it was going, I've often needed to overrule it later
because usage has gone a different way."
prime exception is "9-11." Both CP and the Associated Press (AP)
dictated the proper style as "Sept. 11" after the event occurred,
and though it is still the preferred style, when "9-11" became
more widely used, CP's reporters would not change "9-11" ("9/11"
for AP) in a quote to "Sept. 11."
When a change
is necessary, Tasko reaches for the
Stylebook to check for rules, and then
decides whether or not the rule still works. If so, she applies
it; if not, she creates an exception, although exceptions are
kept to a minimum. From there, Tasko tracks down common usages of
the word, also consulting AP style, ensuring it's not offensive
or unclear. "Then it goes into the book," she says. "Then
sometimes it comes out of the book later," especially if there's
an error. "The last thing you want in a style book is a typo,"
says Peter Buckley. "You have to make sure nothing is
Or perhaps, in Tasko's case, added.
She reluctantly points out a page near the back of the latest
Caps and Spelling edition, on which a large
pen mark circles the word
"That's so embarrassing!" she
exclaims, burying her head in her hands. "That's definitely going
to change in the next edition."