by Michael Sweeney, Professor; Associate Director for Graduate Studies
(Note: Versions of this page have been linked to editing sites at dozens of American universities. The author is a writer for the National Geographic Press and a former copy desk chief at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.)
As you read the AP Stylebook, pay extra attention to these 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.
• 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.
• 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 B-52 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 B-52 CD’s off my desk, but did not threaten me, you are a burglar. 3. Robbery: If you see me carrying my B-52 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.
• Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — There are two “t’s” in Latter. Note the hyphen and the lower-case “d.”
• City Council — Capitalize when referring to a specific City Council, even if the name of the town is not given. Mayor Doug Thompson will ask the City Council to spend more on patrolling near campus.
• 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 are 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.
• 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,” then 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 a 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. If this causes you problems, let’s talk.
• 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.”)
• 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 89, or even U.S. 89. Capitalize Utah Highway 33, but notice that you lowercase the “s” in state Highway 33.
• Inc. — Do not precede it with a comma
• Islam — Read not only every entry for Christian churches, but also the entries for other religions. That way, you’ll avoid a mistake made by an Ohio paper when it ran a column referring to Muslims worshiping “their God.” Muslims, Jews and Christians worship the same God.
• it’s, its — “It’s” is a contraction that means it is, or it has. “Its” means “belonging to it.” Whenever you must choose one or another in a sentence, try inserting the phrase “it is” or “it has.” If one of those pairs makes sense, then use it’s. I use funny word associations to remember things like this. Technically, they are called mnemonic devices (as in the movie, Johnny Mnemonic). When I see the word “it’s,” I tell myself “the apostrophe means ’to be.’”)
• Jewish congregations — Jews have temples and synagogues, not churches. Jewish rabbi is redundant. Jewish synagogue is redundant.
• lay, lie — Not as tricky as it might seem. The way I remember the difference is that “lay,” in the present tense, requires an object; in other words (pardon me) you can only “lay” something. The word “lie” in the present tense means recline on a horizontal plane. Examples in the present tense: I lay the book on the table. Now it lies there. In the past tense, lay becomes laid, and lie becomes lay. Examples: I laid the book on the table yesterday. It lay there for several hours before my brother picked it up.
• local — A word you almost never need. “He was taken to a local hospital” is silly. Just say “He was taken to a hospital.” Better yet, name the hospital. Similarly, change local schools to Cache Valley schools, or schools in Cache County, or some other phrase that is specific. Remember, specific is better than vague.
• majority, plurality — As you know, a majority is at least a tiny bit more than 50 percent. A plurality is the largest percentage of something that is divided at least three ways, and yet is below 50 percent. Example: If Ronald Reagan wins 48 percent of the vote, Jimmy Carter wins 44 percent of the vote, and John Anderson wins 6 percent of the vote, then Reagan has a plurality, not a majority.
• marshal and Marshall — Commonly confused. Double the “L” in a proper name.
• Mass — Capitalize when referring to the celebration of worship in the Roman Catholic Church. This is a common error.
• military titles — Glance at this entry. Realize that most military titles that appear immediately before a person’s name are abbreviated, and all are capitalized. Realize that it will speed your search for the proper abbreviation if you know which branch of the service to look up.
• millions, billions — Try to avoid long numbers with lots of zeroes, as in 7,000,000,000. Instead, say 7 billion. Also remember how to tell the difference between 1 million and 1 billion when you’re looking at such a number. 1 million has seven digits, just as the word “million” has seven letters. 1 billion has 10 digits, which I remember by comparing it to a 10-dollar “bill.” (Hey, it’s a mnenomic device that works for me, OK?)
• months — Never abbreviate months when they do not immediately precede a date. Example: We got married in September last year. However, when the name of a month immediately precedes a date, abbreviate it — but only if the month’s name is six letters or longer. Example: We got married on Aug. 6 last year. But, we were divorced on March 5.
• numerals — This entry, on Page 144, is a common source of confusion. Remember the rule of thumb, “Other Uses,” on Page 146, which says, “For uses not covered by these listings: Spell out whole numbers below 10, use figures for 10 and above. Typical examples: They had three sons and two daughters. They had a fleet of 10 station wagons and two buses.” Now, having mastered the rule of thumb, read the exceptions to the rule on Pages 144-46. And remember, ages and dimensions, already covered in these handouts, are exceptions.
• plurals — Note the unusual rule on Page 164 that when you form the plural of a proper noun that ends in a “y,” you usually add an “s,” as in Kennedys, Grammys, Emmys.
• possessives — The main AP exception to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style involves forming the possessive of a singular proper noun that ends in “s.” AP says merely add an apostrophe. Examples: Otis’ cookies, Amos’ ice cream, Charles’ chips. And here’s a reminder of something I’m sure most of you already know: To make something that is singular into a possessive, add ’s; to make something plural into a possessive, first make sure it is plural, usually by verifying that it ends in an “s,” and then add an apostrophe. Here’s a nonsense sentence that illustrates the idea: One dog’s bone is worth two dogs’ ears.
• quotations in the news — Do not change words in quotation marks. Those quote marks tell the reader, “This is exactly what was said.” Quote marks always appear outside a period, comma, semicolon and colon. When a full-sentence quotation is introduced or followed by attribution, place a comma between them. Examples: I said, “What the heck is going on?” . . . “It’s the state fair,” he said. One exception to the rule is that quotations that are in the form of a question do not need a question mark and a comma — merely a question mark. Example: “What’s going on?” he asked. [Note the lower case “h” in he.] When using a sentence fragment as a quotation, do not set it off with a comma unless the sentence requires one for proper grammar. Example: He said he felt “sicker than a dead frog[no comma here]” after he drank too much tequila. [Note that the only words he actually said were “sicker than a dead frog.” The rest of the sentence is a paraphrase, not a quotation, and thus does not have quote marks.]
• Satan — He’s uppercase, but devil is not. Neither is satanic. (Ozzy fans, take note.)
• savings and loan association— It is not a bank. You cannot call it a bank.
• Scot, Scots —People from Scotland are NOT “Scotch.” That’s a drink, when lower case.
• second reference — Well-known abbreviations are acceptable on second reference. Thus, Internal Revenue Service can become “the IRS” the second time you refer to it. Avoid using unfamiliar abbreviations. If you are writing about the Left-Handed Dogcatchers Association, do NOT refer to it as LHDA on second reference. Instead, call it “the association” or “the group.” And don’t think that putting parentheses around an odd abbreviation makes it OK to use repeatedly. It still looks funny. Here’s an example of what to avoid: the Left-Handed Dogcatchers Association (LHDA) met last night. The LHDA decided to catch some left-handed dogs.
• state names — Spell out all names of states in sentences unless they are preceded by a city, county or military base name. Then, according to the chart on Page 195, you abbreviate all state names EXCEPT the two states outside the Lower 48 and all continental states that have five or fewer letters in their names. Examples: I lived in Oklahoma. I lived in Tulsa, Okla. I lived in Iowa. I lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
• temperature — Use figures unless the temperature is zero. Examples: It’s minus 5 degrees. I hope it warms to 9 or 10.
• titles —Capitalize formal titles immediately before a name, and do not separate the title from the name by a comma. Examples: I saw President Obama. I got to meet Prime Minister Brown. Titles that appear after a name or standing alone are ALMOST NEVER capitalized. If you’re wondering about those exceptions, see AP, “nobility.” Also note that sometimes, a person’s title is set off by commas. In those cases, it is lower case. If you’re wondering when to use a comma between title and name, read the handout on “appositives,” or just listen for the natural pause when you say the sentence aloud. If you pause, use a comma. Examples: The president, (PAUSE) Barack Obama, (PAUSE) ate a burger. President (NO PAUSE) Obama got indigestion.
• United States — AP says it’s now OK to use U.S. in all references.
• vice president — No hyphen.
• weapons —Unfortunately, copy editors need to know something about weapons because they are mentioned in many stories. Know the difference between a revolver and an automatic. Know correct style for a .45-caliber pistol.
• weather term — Recognize that blizzard, cyclone, gale and hurricane have specific meanings.
• years — To indicate a decade, add an “s.” to the first year in the decade. Example: In the 1960s, I did a lot of things I don’t remember. If you abbreviate this, do it this way: In the ’60s, I did a lot of . . . Remember that years are never spelled out. Even at the beginning of a sentence, use a figure: 1968 was a good year.
Under A Guide to Punctuation
comma — Place a comma before and after the following when they appear in the middle of a sentence:
1. A year, if it follows a month and date. Example: I was born on Nov. 6, 1958, in Madison, Wis.
2. A state, if it follows a city or county name. Example, I was born in Madison, Wis., on Nov. 6, 1958.
3. An appositive, which means a word or phrase that says the same thing as a word or phrase next to it. Example: I saw my boss, John McFeely, in the hall. (My boss and John McFeely are identical.) However do not place a comma after a title that precedes a name. Example: Executive Editor John McFeely died today.
1. accommodate (two c’s, two m’s)
2. adviser (AP likes an “e” in it)
3. afterward (no “s” at the end)
4. all ready (everyone is prepared; all are ready) and already (completed action)
5. altar (table in church) and alter (modify)
6. amid (has no “st” at the end)
7. among (has no “st” at the end)
8. busing (transporting by bus) and bussing (osculating, i.e, kissing)
10. canceled, cancellation (these are AP’s preferences)
12. cemetery (the vowels are “e’s”)
13. embarrass (two “r’s” and two “s’s”)
14. harass (only one “r.” My old boss told me to remember it this way: her ass.)
15. homicide (not homocide)
16. indiscreet (meaning imprudent)
17. indiscrete (meaning separated into parts)
18. judgment (there is no “judge” in judgment)
22. Marshall, marshal, martial (a person’s name, a military rank, and an adjective meaning military)
23. National Organization for Women (not “of” women)
25. officeholder (one word)
27. principal (meaning primary or major, as in the title of the high-ranking school official)
28. principle (a fundamental law or doctrine)
29. privilege (no “d”)
31. subpoena (pronounced “suh-PEEN-a”)
32. Vietnam (one word)