A Guide to AP style (courtesy of Mike Sweeney, Utah State University, and Bill Walsh, Washington Post, author of, “Lapsing Into a Comma,” McGraw Hill, 2000)
Why AP Style?
You must know Associated Press style if you intend to get a job in print journalism. The stylebook is widely used and contains much that will prevent writers from making errors of fact, grammar and punctuation.
A publication's use of a particular style provides consistency, accuracy, and tone. For example, the styles of “The New York Times” and “Rolling Stone” differ significantly.
The AP style falls somewhere in between, aiming at a general audience with a tone that is neither too elite nor too common. Although you won't find an explanation of the logic of AP style in the stylebook, it has been my experience that AP likes information presented so that it is:
2. Clear to anyone with a high school education.
3. As tight as can be, given No. 1 and No. 2.
4. Inoffensive, unless there is an overriding reason, something central to a significant news story.
As you read the AP Stylebook, pay extra attention to the following entries:
* a, an -- You use the article "an" in front of words that sound as if they begin with a vowel, regardless of how they are spelled. So, you would say it is an honor to be here today. (Hear the flat-A sound that begins the word? It sounds as if it should be spelled AWN-or.) Or, if you already know this rule, you could say this is a useless exercise. (Hear the "y" sound in "useless?")
* academic degrees -- Put an apostrophe in bachelor's degree and master's degree. This is to show possession. The degree belongs to the bachelor or master (that's you). Even when shortened to bachelor's and master's (no "degree" afterward), you keep the apostrophe.
* addresses -- Abbreviate the words street, avenue and boulevard (think S-A-B), but only if they appear after a numbered address. Also abbreviate compass directions, but only if they appear with a numbered address. So, you'd write 50 S. Court St., but if you leave off the house number, you'd write South Court Street. Got it? Never abbreviate drive, highway, place, or any of the other words that might follow an actual street name such as Court, Union, Ventura, Lombard, Pennsylvania or whatever.
* affect, effect -- Ninety-nine times out of 100, if the word you use is a verb, spell it with an "a," and if it is a noun, spell it with an "e." In these two usages, affect means to influence and effect means the result of an action -- and those are by far the most common uses. Examples? Student: How will this affect (try substituting the word "influence") my grade? Teacher: I don't know what the effect (try substituting the word "result") will be.
* a.m., p.m. -- Recognize that 8 p.m. tonight is redundant. So, write 8 tonight, or 8 p.m. today. Better still: 8 p.m. Monday.
* Anglican Communion -- This is the first church in the AP Stylebook. Read every church entry carefully. Each religion has its own lexicon, and if you screw it up you make enemies.
* anticlimactic – Note the middle “c;” anticlimatic would mean “against the
weather,” and it would be hyphenated (anti-climatic).
* area people – What or who are those? “local” is prefered, as in “local residents.” You could also use Rome-area residents, but not “Rome-area citizens.” People are
citizens of countries, not cities or counties or states.
* arrested for – “Brian Carroll was arrested for bank robbery” means Carroll robbed a bank and was arrested for it. If he didn’t, it’s libel. Better: “Carroll was arrested on a charge of bank robbery” or “arrested in connection with a bank robbery.” In some places, the charge isn’t made until and unless an indictment is handed down, so be careful.
* assure, ensure, insure – The three are close in meaning, but not identical or
interchangeable. “Ensure” means “to make sure.” Before starting, he ensures that the baby is buckled in. “Assure” is used when someone is “assured” of something >> “After ensuring that the baby was buckled in, he assured the mother that things
were fine.” >> “Insure” has to do with insurance.
* ATM – automated teller machine, not “automatic.” And because “machine” in the acronym, writing “ATM machine” would be redundant. Same with PINs and ISBNs. Similarly, “HIV virus” is redundant, because the acronym stands for human immunodeficiency virus.”
* attorneys and lawyers – a lawyer practices law, an attorney represents a client. A lawyer, therefore, becomes an attorney when he or she takes on a client. Think of the distinction between a “rescuer” and a “lifeguard.” A lifeguard doesn’t become a rescuer until someone needs rescuing.
* Bible -- Capitalize when you mean the black book in American hotel rooms everywhere. Lowercase when you use the term as slang for an authoritative source. Example: Elements of Style is my bible.
* burglary, larceny, robbery, theft -- Ooooo, tricky. There is a difference between a burglar and a robber, and you have to know it. Your stylebook gives you a definition of these terms, so let me give you examples of how to use them, all taken from the same scenario. 1. Larceny: If I leave my Charlie Parker CD's on the floor outside my office door and you take them -- without breaking into my office and without threatening me, then you have committed larceny, also known as simple theft, and you are a thief. 2. Burglary: If you break into my office (or even pass through the unlocked door without my permission) and take the Charlie Parker CD's off my desk,
but did not threaten me, you are a burglar. 3. Robbery: If you see me carrying my Charlie Parker CD's and are overcome by an uncontrollable urge to possess them (hey, I wouldn't blame you), and you demand them from me and make a real or implied threat, you are a robber. 4. Sometimes you see the phrase "aggravated robbery" in newspapers. The term means that the robber not only made a threat but also displayed a weapon, such as a gun or knife. This person is still called a robber.
* cache, cachet – “cache” is pronounced “cash,” and it means “hiding place” or “what is hidden there.” It is also used to refer to computer memory. “Cachet” (cash-
AY) describes a badge of quality or prestige.
* careen, career – “careen” means to “tilt to one side,” while “career” means to “swerve speedily.” When people write careen, they usually mean career. A ship
careens, but cars typically career.
* chaise longue – not “lounge.” It’s French (“long chair”).
* choice between x and y – Note the “and.” It is not “or,” because of the use of
“between.” Take out “between” and you can use “or,” as in “choice of x or y.”
* City Council -- Capitalize when referring to a specific City Council, even if the name of the town is not given. Mayor Ronnie Wallace will ask the City Council to spend more on patrolling near Berry College. If a city council is generic, it is down. Do not use “councilman” or “councilwoman” unless the Council itself uses those titular designations. Use the lowercased “council member.”
* Cliffs Notes – not “Cliff’s Notes” or “Cliff Notes.”
* co- -- Sometimes it's followed by a hyphen, and sometimes it's not. When the prefix is part of a word indicating occupation, hyphenate, as in co-worker, co-owner. There are no hyphens when the letter "o" is doubled, as is cooperate and coordinate.
* collective nouns -- In the United States, nouns such as team, Congress, committee and group take singular verbs, such as "is." These collective nouns also take the pronoun "it" instead of "they." So, if you're confused about whether a word such as "team" is an "it" or a "they," try making up a sentence using the word followed by "is" or "are." You wouldn't say "The team are playing well." Try this, instead: "The team is playing well. It may win this game." That's correct.
* composition titles -- I don't care whether you italicize or put quotation marks around composition titles. What I want you to notice is which words in the titles of books, plays, movies and TV programs are capitalized, and which are not. AP's rule is this: Capitalize the first word of any title. Capitalize all words that are four letters or longer. Do not capitalize the articles "a," "an" and "the." Do not capitalize conjunctions or prepositions, unless they are four letters or longer. Examples: The Elements of Style; Gone With the Wind ("with" is a preposition, but it is capitalized because of the four-letter rule). So, what do you capitalize? The first word, any word four letters or longer, and all nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives and pronouns.
* comprised of – To comprise means “to contain or embrace.” Nothing is ever
“comprised of something. “The jury comprises seven women and five men.”
* days or dates? -- Not apparent in the AP stylebook, but it ought to be. The common rule for publications is to use the days of the week -- Monday, Tuesday, etc. -- when referring to events within seven days, before or after the publication date. When writing about events more distant, use months and dates, such as "April 30" and "June 5." Do not use both. Do not use yesterday, today and tomorrow -- if a story were delayed before publication, the time elements would be wrong.
* dimensions -- Use figures for all numbers that indicate height, weight, width, etc., even for numbers less than 10. Example: The book weighs 2 pounds.
* directions and regions -- Capitalize words such as North and South if they refer to places you can stand and say, "I am standing in the -------." That means they are nouns referring to regions, and AP says capitalize them as such. When referring to compass directions, such as "I am walking north," lower case them.
* essential clauses, essential phrases -- If you use the word "which" to introduce a phrase or clause, precede it with a comma. Do not precede the word "that" by a comma. Use "which" to introduce non-essential phrases and clauses, which can be eliminated from a sentence without changing its essential meaning (such as in this sentence). See? If you drop the clause "which can be eliminated, etc.," then the remaining sentence still has the same meaning -- Use "which" to introduce non-essential phrases and clauses. Use "that" when you want to use a phrase or clause that cannot be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning (such as in this sentence). If you eliminate the essential clause from that sentence, you are left with "Use 'that' when you want to use a phrase or clause." That gives a clearly different meaning than the original sentence, because you know by now that you want to start some phrases and clauses with "which," and thus the sentence is illogical.
* entitled – You may be entitled to see any play you want, but a play is titled something. Thornton Wilder’s play is titled “Our Town.” And note that there is no comma after “titled.”
* fewer, less -- Use fewer for things that you can count. Example: I have fewer quarters than you do. (You can count, "One quarter, two quarters, three quarters.") Use less for things you cannot count. Example: I have less cash than you do. (You don't say, "One cash, two cash, three cash.")
* foundering and floundering – To founder is to sink. To flounder is to struggle
clumsily, like a flounder would out of water. If a company is going under, therefore, it is foundering. If it is merely bungling things, it might be floundering.
* a “from” needs a “to” – “He defended his title six times during his 1964-1967
reign.” That works. “He was the champion from 1964-1967.” That doesn’t. Time
spans can be expressed conversationally (from 1964 to 1967) or as units, as in the two examples, but these forms should not be mixed. Units are recommended.
* governmental bodies -- Read this entry carefully to determine when to capitalize names of agencies and departments.
* highway designations -- These bedevil many journalists, but they're easy. Capitalize U.S. Highway 411, or U.S. 75. Capitalize Georgia Highway 33, but notice that you lowercase the "s" in state Highway 33.
* impostor – perhaps the most commonly misspelled word in the language. Note the “o.”
* Inc. -- Do not precede it with a comma
* individuals – Don’t go there. Use “people” or a “person.”
* Internet and intranets – Internet is a proper noun, so it goes up, while intranets are common; they go down.
* ironic – Most uses of the term “ironic” are incorrect. It means more than coincidental, just as “tragic” means more than merely “bad.” For there to be irony, the relationship has to be the opposite of what was expected. Example: He was killed in a car crash on his way to a safe-driving award ceremony. That’s ironic. Ironically,
Bob Frank just wouldn’t stop talking. (He wasn’t frank.) For something to be tragic, whatever fell had to have been quite high, or had the potential to be quite high. Example: The race car driver (ironically) lost his legs in an accident driving home on the highway, tragically ending his career at its zenith.
* Islam -- Read not only every entry for Christian churches, but also the entries for other religions. Note that a follower of Islam is a Muslim, a change from previous