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2017, explained by additions to the Vox style guide

Tanya Pai heads the standards team at Vox, focusing on copy editing, fact-checking, inclusive language and sourcing, and newsroom standards and ethics issues. She’s also a founder of Language, Please, a free resource for journalists and storytellers focused on thoughtful language use.

It’s hard to believe 2017 has had the same number of days as every other year. Between Donald Trump’s tumultuous first year as president, the biggest demonstrations in US history, devastating natural disasters, deadly mass shootings, white supremacist rallies, and one hell of an Academy Award mix-up (yep, that was this February), the sheer volume and crushing pace of news sometimes made it feel like the year would last a decade.

As Vox’s copy chief, I’m tasked with determining our house style around subjects like these: whether we use “awards ceremony” or “award ceremony,” for instance (the former), and whether it’s okay to use “woman” as an adjective (yes).

The terms I’ve added to the style guide over the course of the year are a window onto the stories that dominated Vox coverage — in politics, in culture, in world affairs — and how our discussions around them have evolved.

Republicans ram through a massive tax bill

Donald Trump Signs Tax Reform And Jobs Bill Into Law At The White House
Trump signs the tax bill into law.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When Republicans swept the White House and both houses of Congress, they finally had their long-awaited chance to overhaul the nation’s tax code. And while their rallying cry might have been the phrase “tax reform,” it’s worth taking a closer look at the term.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, the word “reform” means to “make changes in (something, typically a social, political, or economic institution or practice) in order to improve it.” And while the GOP tax plan undoubtedly makes changes to the US tax system, whether those changes amount to overall improvements is debatable.

The Tax Cuts and Job Act was passed in a rushed, secretive, rather slapdash process involving no bipartisan outreach and polled dismally; is expected to increase the deficit by $1.5 trillion; and does not meaningfully simplify the tax code as Republicans had long promised.

The law introduces massive permanent corporate tax cuts, temporary individual cuts, and tax breaks for pass-through businesses such as, for instance, the Trump Organization, owned by our current president and his family.

It creates some big winners and some very big losers — with some of the most vulnerable populations falling into the latter category. We decided, therefore, that it would be more accurate to refer to it as a tax cut or tax overhaul plan, or simply a tax plan, in order to avoid implying a net positive (or negative) from the legislation.

Tensions with North Korea inch toward a boiling point

It’s been a scary year in US–North Korea tensions, and given the uptick in related news, we updated our style guide to address some commonly used terms in stories about the region. For instance: We capitalize Demilitarized Zone (DMZ on second reference) and Korean Peninsula; we also specify that North Korean names are typically written as three words (Kim Jong Un), while South Korean names are written as two (Moon Jae-in).

We capitalize Twitter, whose use by President Trump has featured in the rising tensions with North Korea, though we lowercase “tweet”; intercontinental ballistic missile” can be abbreviated as ICBM after first reference.

As for “Little Rocket Man,” President Trump’s preferred epithet for North Korea’s leader, we capitalize it as Trump did, and use quotes — though here’s hoping we won’t have to trot out the term too often. (We’d lowercase “dotard,” though.)

The #MeToo movement spurs a national reckoning with sexual harassment and assault

#MeToo Rally Held Outside Of Trump Tower In Manhattan Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

It’s mind-boggling to contemplate, given the tidal wave of accusations of sexual misconduct against powerful men this year, but the current #MeToo moment kicked off in earnest just in October. That month, the New York Times and the New Yorker both published exposés on Harvey Weinstein, and a subsequent tweet from actress Alyssa Milano suggesting the #MeToo Twitter campaign went viral.

In just a few short months, women and men across industries — from Hollywood to hospitality, journalism to politics — have spoken out about their own experiences with harassment and assault at the hands of powerful people, shining a national spotlight on the power imbalances and culture of impunity that exist in so many places.

The movement has implicated more than 100 people so far, many of whom have faced professional, legal, or reputational consequences, and it shows no signs of slowing. It’s part of the reason Merriam-Webster chose “feminism” as its word of the year.

The question arises of what terms to use when talking about sexual harassment and violence, and those accused of it. When is something sexual harassment versus sexual assault? When is the more general term “sexual misconduct” more appropriate? As Vox’s Constance Grady wrote in an in-depth essay on the inadequacy of the language we currently have available to talk about these concepts:

It is confusing and flattening in ways that make it hard to talk about sexual violence without either trivializing it, obfuscating the systems that enable it, or getting so specific as to become salacious or triggering. So whenever I talk about sexual violence, I feel like I’m translating: taking the acts that actually happened and trying to cram them into the language that I have available to describe them.

It’s a thorny topic, and one we’ll be watching closely as the movement continues to develop.

We learn what the heck a special counsel does, exactly

A picture of Robert Mueller
Besides stare soulfully into the distance.
Brooks Kraft/Getty Images

Hardly a week has gone by since special counsel Robert Mueller began his investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible connections to Russia without some tantalizing tidbit trickling out and making headlines. Whether you have faith in his investigative abilities or believe the probe is a corrupt leftist plot, you’ve most likely learned something this year about just what a special counsel is and does.

Unlike official titles such as president or national security adviser, which are capitalized when directly preceding a name, “special counsel” is considered “an occupational description,” per the AP, and thus is lowercase. Same goes for “special prosecutor” and “independent counsel,” other options for conducting an independent investigation into Trump and Russia; my colleague Jenn Williams broke down the differences here.

So many health care terms crop up

“Health care” was in our style guide before this year — but we did add related terms, such as “essential health benefits” and “cost-sharing reduction subsidies,” which frequently featured in stories about Republicans’ many attempts to repeal and replace (or “clean repeal,” or “skinny repeal”) the Affordable Care Act.

Though Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said the GOP will “probably move on” from ACA repeal in 2018, the recently passed Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has huge implications for the health care system, including repeal of Obamacare’s individual mandate, which could mean 13 million fewer people insured over the next decade — so these and similar terms are likely to crop up in health care–related stories in 2018 and beyond.

We (and the AP) embrace the singular “they”

In March, the AP Stylebook announced that it had updated its guidelines to allow “they” as a singular pronoun in certain cases. Per the AP:

Arguments for using they/them as a singular sometimes arise with an indefinite pronoun (anyone, everyone, someone) or unspecified/unknown gender(a person, the victim, the winner)…

In stories about people who identify as neither male nor female or ask not to be referred to as he/she/him/her: Use the person’s name in place of a pronoun, or otherwise reword the sentence, whenever possible. If they/them/their use is essential, explain in the text that the person prefers a gender-neutral pronoun.

Vox’s style leans away from gendered descriptors (we use chair rather than chairman/woman, for example) and toward reflecting the changing conversation and understanding around gender identity, expression, and orientation. While the year’s news stories sometimes suggested steps backward in this regard, we’re sticking with the move toward greater inclusivity and reflection of individual preferences.

Milkshake Duck becomes an inescapable meme

Memes are so plentiful and pervasive nowadays that I hesitate to try to crown any single one the meme of the year, but if I did, Milkshake Duck would be a strong contender.

If you’re one of the people who’s steadfastly refused to Google the term, a Milkshake Duck is a viral favorite with a problematic past (see: Keaton Jones, Ken Bone, Gary From Chicago). The term is now in our style guide because it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon; as Vox’s Aja Romano wrote, “Everyone’s said and done stupid shit on the internet, and thus anyone could become a Milkshake Duck at any moment.” (It’s even graduated to verb form: Milkshake Ducking.)

If you combined all the year’s transcendent highs and crushing, often absurd lows in a blender, the result would probably be something like a Milkshake Duck ... milkshake.

CRISPR/Cas9 awes scientists with its potential


We currently have an Environmental Protection Agency head who’s a climate change denier, an energy secretary who’s fixated on bailing out coal plants despite no evidence that that’s necessary or advisable, and an administration whose official platform kowtows to faith-based groups on matters of health — not to mention some troubling censorship issues at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies.

But despite all this, science has bounded ahead with huge achievements this year — take, for instance, the historic Cassini spacecraft mission and the discovery of more exoplanets that could potentially harbor life, or the World Health Organization’s triumph against plague in Madagascar.

One of the biggest and potentially most significant stories remains the developments in CRISPR/Cas9, a trickily named technology that involves using gene editing, which can fix genetic mutations and diseases (among other uses) and has staggering implications for myriad areas of science. (Vox’s Eliza Barclay explained more here.)

Horrific violence in Myanmar shines a spotlight on a lesser-known conflict

Another country has been thrust into the international spotlight of late, after by all accounts horrific human rights abuses against the Rohingya Muslim population. Vox’s style guide includes guidance on the spelling of Myanmar’s capital city (there are many variations, but we use Naypyidaw) and of its leader (Aung San Suu Kyi, or Suu Kyi on second reference).

As for whether to use the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to describe the brutality against the Rohingya, much of the world agrees it’s past time — but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems to dissent.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi introduces the world to porgs

The Last Jedi Lucasfilm

Let’s end on a lighter note! When the trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi dropped in October, porgs — a big-eyed, puffin-like addition to the Star Wars universe — made an instant impression.

And though some outlets (like the A.V. Club) disagreed, we thought the choice to lowercase “porg” was obvious: Per the Lucasfilm Story Group’s Pablo Hidalgo, these adorable creatures were the Star Wars world’s answer to puffins, another (obviously lowercased) charismatic minifauna, so it only makes sense to treat the name of their fictional analogue the same way.

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