More than forty years after Libya’s leader seized power, there is still no consensus on the spelling of his name. CNN and MSNBC prefer “Gadhafi”; the New York Times and Fox News use “Qaddafi”; the Washington Post prefers “Gaddafi” and the L.A. Times, “Kadafi.” The inconsistency has been especially obvious recently as headlines focus on events in Libya.
It’s a basic tenet in writing: be consistent. That’s why we have stylebooks (aka style books, style guides, style sheets). Unfortunately, there are a lot of different stylebooks out there, so writers generally follow the dictates of their employer or medium. Most newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters follow the Associated Press stylebook. Book publishers prefer the more formal and scholarly Chicago Manual of Style. Medical journals often adhere to the American Medical Association’s style, which addresses content not usually found in lay publications.
If one’s sources and references disagree, the fall-back position has always been “just adopt one, and then be consistent throughout.” Perhaps our news sources did this years ago and still adhere to their original decision (“house style”) so as not to complicate their own operations. Whatever the reason, it’s enough to drive writers and editors crazy. And as if that weren’t enough, stylebooks, like language itself, are constantly evolving (just two days ago, AP changed its style from “e-mail” to “email”).
These “instruction manuals” for English usage may directly contradict what the average American is taught in school. The AP sometimes takes liberties with common usage in order to save valuable space in newspapers (single quotes in headlines, etc.). The AMA, with a nod to scientific notation, drops a lot of periods in abbreviations (including the annoying “Dr” instead of “Dr.”).
As for the AP and its spelling of Gadhafi, a detailed rationale appears on Facebook. Any source that can’t top this exhaustive examination of the issue should consider adopting AP’s spelling.