By Pam Blair, CCC

Pam Blair

As COVID-19 spread worldwide and altered life as we knew it, our language also changed. We needed words and phrases to describe things we had never thought about before 2020, such as social distancing and contact tracing — terms not part of our everyday language prior to the pandemic. Now, you cannot avoid hearing them or daily updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anyone know of Dr. Anthony Fauci before 2020? Today, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases is a virtual cult figure. We learned he has no future in baseball as we watched him throw the ceremonial first pitch wide left at the Washington Nationals Major League Baseball season opener last year. But given his media exposure, we may recognize Dr. Fauci more than the friends and family members we have quarantined from for the past year. We see him more.

To keep up with terms we now use in this new world, The Associated Press (an independent news cooperative, by the way) added a coronavirus guide to its stylebook — the source media outlets worldwide, including Pioneer, rely on to ensure they properly and consistently use words and phrases. The guide covers terms from A as in antibodies to Z for Zoom.

After reviewing the coronavirus guide, we identified 3 key takeaways for communicators navigating pandemic-triggered language changes.

Defining COVID-19

The guide starts with a 351-word definition for coronavirus and the term’s acceptable use, sharply distinguishing between coronavirus (the virus) and COVID-19 (the disease). For those who prefer a shorter explanation, coronavirus is a family of viruses named for the crownlike spikes on their surfaces. They can cause the common cold or more severe diseases. A new coronavirus that appeared in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, causes a respiratory illness called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019. Its technical name is SARS-CoV-2, but AP says to avoid that unfamiliar term.

Because the meaning is clear, AP says referring to the coronavirus is acceptable in stories about the current pandemic — even though the phrasing incorrectly implies there is only one coronavirus. The term is also OK in references to the pandemic and the virus itself: coronavirus cases, coronavirus tests, coronavirus variants, fears of catching coronavirus. However, when referring to the disease, use COVID-19 treatments, COVID-19 patients, COVID-19 deaths, recovering from COVID-19. The shortened form COVID is OK in headlines and direct quotes about the disease.

Avoid Jargon & Redundancy

In the interest of communicating clearly to nonmedical people — and to avoid ethnic labels or judgments — AP says not to use the following terms:

  • Anti-vaxxer. If necessary in a direct quotation, explain it is someone who opposes vaccinations.
  • Asymptomatic. Use no symptoms or without symptoms.
  • Cases. People should not be referred to as cases. Correct: “Fifty people tested positive for the virus. Fifty cases of the virus were reported.” Incorrect: “Fifty cases tested positive for the virus.” Incorrect and redundant: “50 positive cases.” Because most people with the virus are not hospitalized, and some may not seek care, avoid using “patients” to refer to all people with the virus.
  • Pandemic. Because it is an epidemic that has spread to multiple countries or continents, “global pandemic” is redundant.
  • Pathogen. Use virus or bacteria, or the generic/informal terms germs or bugs.
  • Virus variant. Avoid using the numbers given to variants, such as B.1.1.7 for the one first found in Britain, or country labels, such as the South Africa variant. Instead, say “the variant first detected in South Africa.”

Do Not Hyphenate or Enclose in Quotes

You may be tempted to put terms associated with the coronavirus and COVID-19 in quote marks, as often is done with new, unfamiliar terms. Sadly, these terms are clearly understood, so no quote marks are needed.

Additionally, none of these terms are hyphenated, even when used as modifiers: contact tracing, curbside pickup (but note pick up as a verb is two words), distance learning and distance learning class, and infectious disease specialist.

Social distancing and socially distancing follow the same rules of no hyphens or quote marks, including the modifier social distancing precautions. There is no need to define, because the term is widely understood. The shortened versions “distancing” or “distanced” are acceptable on second reference if clear given the context.

Final Word of Caution

The Associated Press Stylebook is much like the English language: There are always exceptions, and proper use is subject to change.

For example, while AP discourages using Zoom as a verb, it is good with mask being used as a verb: They are required to mask while in the building. We masked up and went for a walk. AP also calls for a hyphen in mask-wearing. Ditto for hand-washing. Just when you thought you could forgo hyphens ….

Oh, and in case you wondered, how do you construct the possessive of virus? It is virus’s.

Have a grammar question for our editorial team? Email PUR.