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Twelve Common Mistakes of AP Style

I remember when I filed one of my first bylines for a newspaper only to get my inbox slammed with emails from my editor in chief. It wasn’t about my prose, reporting, or lede, but that I neglected to abbreviate September. Why should a month be abbreviated with a date, I thought. Why should I write “Sept.” when it looked like a typo for “step”? Regardless, I was abusing AP style, journalists’ bible, my later drilled-in-my-head writing fashion that – long after my bylines were put to bed – I’ve caught rolling off my pen in greeting cards and fluttering off my fingertips in text messages.

It’s no easy feat mastering the rules of news writing, especially the nearly 400-page AP Stylebook. Editors often update the guide to reflect new changes in style and to stay current with trends. Most recently, the book announced it changed “e-mail” to “email,” a move that followed last year’s union of “Web site” to “website.”

Following are some of the more common blunders (in no particular order) and some simple tricks to make sure your writing is buttoned AP stylish.

1.       More than, over. More than is preferred with numbers, while over generally refers to spatial elements. The company has more than 25 employees; The cow jumped over the moon.

2.       State abbreviations. AP doesn’t follow standard ZIP code abbreviations – e.g., MA for Massachusetts. Each state has its own abbreviation – e.g., Mass. for Massachusetts; N.Y. for New York; Calif. for California; Fla. for Florida and so on. However, eight states – Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah – aren’t abbreviated in datelines or text. Omit state abbreviations in datelines for well-known U.S. cities such as Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, etc.

3.       Titles. Only capitalize formal titles when they precede an individual’s name. If it falls after, lowercase. Mayor John Appleseed signed the proclamation; John Appleseed, mayor of Leominster, Mass., attended the banquet.

4.       Numbers. Write out numbers one through nine; use figures for 10 and above. Jodie bought three apples, six pears and 12 mangoes. For percentages, use numerals with “percent,” not “%.”

5.       Because, since. Use because to denote a specific cause-effect relationship: I went because I was told. Since is acceptable in casual senses when the first event in a sequence leads logically to the second, but wasn’t its direct cause. They went to the show, since they had been given tickets. A good tip is to use since for time elements. Since the product’s 2010 launch, it has sold more than 1 million copies.

6.       Months and seasons. When using a month with a specific date, abbreviate only Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov. and Dec., and spell out when using alone or with just a year. Hint: The months never abbreviated fall chronologically and are five letters or fewer – March, April, May, June and July. The seasons – winter, spring, summer and fall – are never capitalized.

7.       Toward/Towards. Toward never ends in an s, same for forward, backward, upward, downward, etc.

8.       United States, U.S. An easy way to remember the difference: United States as a noun; U.S. as an adjective. The United States is a country; I travel with my U.S. documents.

9.       That, Which. AP says to use that and which in referring to inanimate objects or animals without names. Use that for essential clauses, important to the meaning of the sentence. I remember the day that we met. Use which for nonessential clauses, where the pronoun is less necessary, and use commas. The team, which won the championship last year, begins its new season next month.

10.   Farther, further. Farther refers to physical distance. John walked farther than Jane. Further refers to an extension of time or degree. She will look further into the problem.

11.   Street addresses. Street, avenue and boulevard are only abbreviated when with numbered addresses. Road and other related causeways such as court, drive, lane, way, etc. aren’t abbreviated. 123 Public Relations Blvd., 12 Brady St., 26 Media Ave., 1 Championship Road.

12.   Composition titles. Magazine and newspaper titles aren’t italicized; just capitalized. For composition titles such as books, video games, films, TV shows, works of art, speeches, etc., use quotation marks. She read The New York Times before she watched “Inception” and “Friends.” My favorite book is “The Kite Runner.”

Once you’ve conquered the above listings, be sure to check out some of AP’s more interesting rules (written here in AP style, of course) – boo-boo, bull’s-eye, dot-com (not, gobbledygook, G-string, hanky-panky, Kmart (no hyphen, no space, lowercase m), hell (not capitalized), OK; OK’d, pooh-pooh, T-shirt, U-turn and more. To stay current, follow AP Stylebook on Twitter, @APStylebook.

Read more from Steve Vittorioso
  • Maria Perez

    Great post. I am an AP Stylebook junkie. I’ve read it cover to cover and use it as my editorial bible. (Looked up “bible” in the AP Stylebook before writing that last sentence. LOL) There are some entries I don’t agree with, so I may have to start my own book, The Maria Stylebook. I think it’ll be a huge hit. ;-)

  • Maria Perez

    And of course, in my first comment, “The Maria Stylebook” should have been in quotes. LOL ;-)

  • Carrie

    Unfortunately, the U.S./United States rule changed in the 2010 Stylebook. It says U.S. is acceptable as both a noun and adjective.

  • K. Y.

    Maria, I believe that you were correct the first time around. Stylebooks fall under “catalogs of reference material,” and their names are rendered without quote marks. At least, the Associated Press does not put its own stylebook’s title in quotes. ; )

  • http://n/a Carol

    Whether to write out numbers or use the figures has always been confusing to me. I knew when to use farther but I never knew when further was appropriate. This is a very interesting and informative post.

  • christopher

    and it would be “since the product’s 2010 launch,” not “since the products 2010 launch”…

  • SM

    spatial, not spacial ;)

  • http://ÿþ Jacqulyn Lauter

    It’s going to be end of mine day, except before finish I am reading this wonderful piece of writing to improve my knowledge.

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  • Crystal Spies

    Im obliged for the article post. Cool.

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  • sado

    Great site. A lot of helpful information here. I am sending it to several friends ans additionally sharing in delicious. And obviously, thank you on your effort!

  • Ian

    Great thanks@!

    I didn’t realise you needed a comma preceding “and”??

    …is less necessary, and use commas.

    • TD Maxon

      Not always. Only when what follows “and” is an independent clause.

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  • Tom

    Oh for the day. I didn’t have an electronic inbox when my editor corrected an Associated Press style point in my writing. He marched over to my desk, leaned over the IBM Selectric typewriter, slapped me with a day-old newspaper and barked: I’d love to see that witness talking ON THE PHONE. I can see him now STANDING ON THE PHONE?
    Then he laughed, and later at the corner bar he repeated that story over and over and over again. I had to have my buddy text me on my cellular. Wait a minute, I didn’t have a cellular phone. It was the pay phone in the back. The bartender called me back there and I was talking ON THE PHONE when my city editor slapped me again with the afternoon edition, just off the press. Oh, those were the days.

  • Jason

    Here in Wine Country there’s an interesting style debate. Are wine variatels capitalized? A friend who placed second in a national newspaper editing competition in college says only when the producing winery is mentioned. “I drank a glass of merlot.” “Jane says she loves Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay.” Thoughts?

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