The Associated Press style is the go-to style for journalism and news writing. It covers magazine writing, too. The AP style (as it's known in the trade) is quite different from The New York Times style or Chicago Manual of Style. If you're new to news writing or switching from one to another, you'll want to keep this AP cheat sheet handy and refer to it when in doubt.
These are the rules for common abbreviations following AP style:
- Use only the most commonly recognized abbreviations: The most common,—such as NASA, FBI, and CIA—can be used on all references. Less well-known, but still common ones—such as OSHA and NATO—can be used after you spell out the full name on the first mention. In most cases, however, the stylebook suggests using a generic reference such as "the agency" or "the alliance" for all references after the first.
- Don’t put unfamiliar abbreviations in parentheses after the first reference: “The American Copy Editors Society (ACES), for example, would either be repeated as the full name on subsequent references or replaced by a generic reference, such as "the society."
- Use an apostrophe and spell out academic degrees: “She holds a bachelor’s degree.” Use abbreviations for degrees only when you need to include a list of credentials after a name and set them off with commas: “Peter White, LL.D., Ph.D., was the keynote speaker.”
- Abbreviate junior or senior directly after a name, with no comma to set it off: "Justin Wilson Jr."
- Spell out the names of all states when used alone: “He lives in Montana.” Abbreviate state names of seven or more letters when used with a city name, with commas before and after the abbreviation: “Pittsburgh, Pa., is a great weekend getaway spot for people who live in Youngstown, Ohio.” You’ll find the list of acceptable abbreviations under State Names in the hardcover and digital version of the AP Stylebook.
- Be sure to use the stylebook abbreviations, and not the U.S. Postal Service abbreviations for states: The exception is if you are providing a full address, including ZIP code: “Send contributions to Relief Fund, Box 185, Pasadena, CA 91030”.
- Spell out the name of a month when it is used without a specific date: “August is too hot for a visit to Florida.” Abbreviate months with six or more letters if they are used with a specific date such as "Sept. 28." Always spell out those with five or fewer letters: "May 15." You can find the list of preferred abbreviations under Months in the AP Stylebook.
- Spell out titles used alone: “She was the first female senator from her state.” Abbreviate and capitalize most titles when they are used directly before a name: “Sen. Boxer posed hard questions for Rice.” To determine if a title is abbreviated, look for an entry for it in the AP Stylebook or check the listing under Titles.
- Spell out titles with names used in direct quotes: The exceptions are Dr., Mr., and Mrs. “Governor Pawlenty is obviously no Jesse Ventura,” she said.
- Spell out all generic parts of street names (avenue, north, road) when no specific address is given: “The festival will be held on South Charles Street.” When a number is used, abbreviate avenue (Ave.), boulevard (Blvd.), street (St.), and directional parts of street names: “The suspect was identified as Michael Shawn of 1512 N. Mission St.”
- In writing news stories, never abbreviate:
- The days of the week
- Percent as %
- Cents as ¢
- The word "and," unless the symbol & is an official part of a name
- Christmas as Xmas
The AP Stylebook uses what’s known as downstyle—that is, words are lowercased unless a rule says to capitalize them. If you can’t find a rule for capitalizing a word in the stylebook, use it in lowercase. The most familiar capitalization rules are:
- Capitalize common nouns such as party, river, and street when they are part of a proper name for a place, person or thing: For example, the Libertarian Party, the Ohio River. But lowercase these common nouns when they stand alone or in subsequent references: “The party did not have a candidate for president,” “She nearly drowned in the river.” Lowercase all plural uses of common nouns: the Libertarian and Green parties, the Monongahela and Ohio rivers.
- Lowercase the names of the seasons unless they are used in a proper name: the Summer Olympics.
- Capitalize the word "room" only when used with the number of the room or when part of the name of a specially designated room: Room 315, the Lincoln Room.
- Lowercase directional indicators: The exception is when they refer to specific geographic regions or popularized names for those regions. For example, "the Northeast" or "the Midwest."
- Lowercase formal titles that appear on their own or follow a name: In the latter case, they should be set off by commas. Capitalize formal titles that come directly before a name: “The students were delighted when they heard they would meet President Obama.” Never capitalize job descriptions: shortstop, police officer, attorney, and so on.
The AP Stylebook entry for numerals is deceptively short. A close look reveals plenty of rules hiding among the cross-references. The most common are:
- In general, spell out numbers one through nine: Use figures for numbers 10 on up. However, there are many exceptions that always take figures. Most, but not all, involve units of measurement.
Common exceptions include:
- Addresses: 7 Park Place
- Ages, but not for inanimate objects: The 4-year-old cat, the four-year-old car
- Cents: 8 cents.
- Dollars: $3. Notice that AP style does not include a period and two zeroes when referring to an even dollar figure
- Dates: March 4. Notice that dates take cardinal numbers, not ordinal numbers (don’t use 4th)
- Dimensions: 5 foot 2, 5-by-9 cell
- Highways: Route 7
- Millions, billions: 6 billion people
- Percentages: 1 percent. Notice that percent is one word.
- Speed: 8 mph.
- Temperatures: 2 degrees.
- Times: 4 p.m. Notice that AP style does not include a colon and two zeroes when referring to an even hour.
- Spell out numbers used at the beginning of a sentence: “Ten thousand people marched on the capital.” Exception: Never spell out years: “1999 was a terrible year for technology companies.”
- Use commas to set off each group of three digits in numerals higher than 999. Exception is for years and addresses: "12,650."
- Use decimals (up to two places) for amounts in the millions and billions: Do this if no precise figure is required: "$3.74 billion."
- Add an "s" but no apostrophe to a number to make it plural: “She kept rolling 7s.” The same rule applies to decades: the 1980s. Use an apostrophe on a decade only if cutting off the initial figures: the ’80s.
Punctuation and Miscellaneous
For the most part, AP style follows the same rules of punctuation taught in grade school. However, there are some important exceptions:
- Don’t use a comma before a conjunction in a simple series. A simple series is defined as one in which no elements contain the words and or or: “The dinner choices were chicken, cod or beef.” Use a comma for series that include elements containing and or or: “The menu offered a choice of bacon and eggs, pancakes, or waffles.”
- Use a semicolon to clarify a series that includes a number of commas: Include a semicolon before the conjunction. "Parts for the carrier are made in Tampa, Fla.; Austin, Texas; and Baton Rouge, La."
Other Common Style Rules
Here are some more AP style guidelines to follow:
- Use a person’s full name on the first reference: On subsequent references, use only his or her last name with no title. Second and following references to a married couple should refer to them as Mr. and Mrs.: “Mr. and Mrs. Oakes will honeymoon in Las Vegas.” In stories in which two people share the last name, use full names on each reference.
- Time: Express as a figure followed by a.m. or p.m. "8:33 p.m." You do not have to add other words (e.g., night, morning, and so on) to distinguish between day and night. Use "noon" or "midnight" rather than 12 p.m. or 12 a.m.
- Use hyphens to link all the words in a compound adjective: “The five-volume report called for cleaning up the area over a 10-year period.” Do not use a hyphen if the construction includes "very" or an adverb ending in "–ly": "a very big project, barely legal procedures."
- To form a plural of a single letter, use "s" and an apostrophe: “All the B’s lined up to the right.” To form a plural of multiple letters, add "s" with no apostrophe: “She mastered her ABCs in little time.”
- To form the plural of words made out of a group of letters, add the letter "s": CDs, ABCs, TVs.
- Titles: Books, movies, recordings, television shows, and similar works are set off in quotation marks, with all principal words capitalized: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Memory Almost Full,” “Grey’s Anatomy.” Titles of magazines, newspapers and reference works get no special treatment: Newsweek, The Boston Globe, The Associated Press Stylebook.
- According to AP: It's website, email, and ZIP code.