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 dot.com), 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.