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American Journalism Review
Quran or Koran?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Quran or Koran?   

Newsrooms grapple with style standards for Arabic words.

By Andy Zieminski
Zieminski (azieminski@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


For nearly 25 years, the Associated Press Stylebook adhered to "Koran" and "Mohammed" as the correct way to spell two commonly used Arabic words. Then, in 2000, it opted instead for "Quran" and "Muhammad," and in the 2003 print edition it added an entry for "al-Qaida." The changes reflect a balancing act taking place not only at the AP but also in newsrooms around the country. In an e-mail interview, Stylebook Editor Norm Goldstein wrote: "We try to come up with a spelling that is understandable to United States readers and as close as possible to the actual pronunciation." But as editors from San Antonio to Detroit explained to AJR, the arbiters of style don't necessarily agree.

Dan Puckett, copy editor, the San Antonio Express-News:
New variations create confusion, says Puckett, who disagrees with the AP's decision to change some of its established spellings. "I've heard people get bogged down in 'Quran' with a 'Q,' saying, 'How do you pronounce this?'" Puckett, a former chairman of the St. Petersburg Times' stylebook committee, feels Americans are less likely to mispronounce "Koran" because it's more familiar.

Kay Siblani, executive editor, the Arab American News:
Siblani, who runs a bilingual paper serving the Arab American community in Southeast Michigan, dislikes when people refer to the Islamic holy book with an emphasis on the first syllable, as in "Koe-ran." "It's like saying 'A-rab' or 'Sa-dam,'" she says. "It's sort of like an intentional denigration." As for the spelling, she says newspapers should use one that better reflects the original pronunciation Qur'an.

Alex Cruden, chief editor of the copy desks, the Detroit Free Press:
"We try to be clear and consistent for all readers and at the same time try to be sensitive to the smaller groups," says Cruden, whose newspaper circulates in an area heavily populated by Arab Americans. "Sensitivity is important if there's a perception that a publication doesn't get it, which can be conveyed by a certain spelling." The Free Press used to use "Koran," but a year or two ago, its style changed to "Quran." He offers an analogous example: "Some groups call themselves Hispanic and some Latino. Same with Indians and Native Americans. Our style is to call them whatever they call themselves."

David Jrolf, night editor, the Boston Globe:
The Globe, Jrolf says, uses a range of criteria "what we see in the media, public documents, what our foreign desk tells us" to determine its style. It uses the "Koran" spelling because "we have an American audience," Jrolf says. "We have to use what would be most common to our audience." The spelling of "Shi'ite," however, relies on a different rationale. "We were told it's more accepted in the Middle East with an apostrophe," Jrolf says. And "Al Qaeda" went through several incarnations before 9/11, when it appeared at different times as "al Qaeda," "al-Qaeda," and "Al-Qaeda." The paper finally opted for Al Qaeda.

Ray Hanania, freelance columnist:
Hanania, a Palestinian American who writes a syndicated column on the Middle East, would like to see an industry-wide standard for the spelling of Arabic words to alleviate misunderstandings. "If I spell 'Mohammed' [as opposed to 'Muhammad'] in my story as a non-Arab columnist," he says, "the readers who happen to be Arabs or Muslims or both are going to take a meaning out of it that the writer didn't intend." But given the diversity of the Arab-speaking world, he acknowledges that a universal style would be difficult to achieve: "Nobody in the Middle East is going to start..an Arab World stylebook."

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