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10 Style Guidelines from the AP Stylebook

In marketing and communications work (and often in publications work as well), I use AP style the most often along with other internal client style preferences. Every year, the AP Stylebook releases a new updated guide, but many of the major rules stay the same.

Are you using AP style for a piece of writing? Here are ten guidelines to follow.

Punctuation

1.       Use a single space after a period: This rule is pretty universally accepted in all major style guides by this point, but since it is a major typographical switch in our lifetimes (I’m a millennial who first learned to type two spaces), it’s worth noting. If you find it’s a difficult habit to break, type as you normally would and then do a “find and replace all” to turn all those double spaces into singles.

2.       No serial (aka Oxford) comma: The biggest tell-tale sign that a document is written in AP style (usually) – no comma following and or or in a list of three or more things (however, I have worked for clients who mostly followed AP style except used the serial comma). People have strong feelings about this little punctuation mark, and personally I prefer it, but if you’re strictly following AP, don’t use it.

3.       Use the % symbol rather than spelling out percent: I’m including this because it’s one of the big changes that came out of the 2019 update. AP style used to only advise using % in tables, but now it’s accepted in body copy as well.

4.       Do not hyphenate African American and other dual heritage terms: This change also came out in 2019 and was inspired by an article written by Henry Fuhrmann entitled “Drop the Hyphen in Asian American.”

Capitalization

5.       Headings vs. composition titles: Technically, AP style has two different methods of capitalizing what most people would call a title. They define composition titles as those for books, movies, plays, poems, albums, songs, operas, radio and television programs, lectures, speeches, and works of art. Headings would be before an article (think newspaper). Titles for magazine articles, blog posts, etc., seem to be a gray area, so just be consistent.

  • In headings, lowercase each word except for the first word, proper nouns, and the first word after a colon

  • In composition titles, capitalize each word (including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters) except:

    • Articles (a, an, the)

    • Prepositions of three or fewer letters (for, of, on, up)

    • Conjunctions of three or fewer letters (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet)

    • Unless one of these words is the first or last word in a title

6.       Capitalize formal titles before a name but lowercase if it’s a standalone word: While editing, I often lowercase titles that don’t immediately precede a name as well as job titles that aren’t actually formal titles. I’m not sure why these are so often capitalized – perhaps to show respect? – but it’s not necessary. And it doesn’t matter how prestigious the title: I met Pope Francis vs. I met the pope.

Numbers

7.       In general, spell out one through nine; use numerals for 10 and above: Why are numbers so confusing? Probably because there are so many rules. This is the rule-of-thumb guideline for AP, but of course there are exceptions, including:

  • Always use numerals for ages, dates, and money

  • Always use numerals in tables and charts

Abbreviations

8.       Abbreviate Jan., Feb., Aug., Sept., Oct., Nov., and Dec. when including a date, but otherwise spell out: This is a space issue because these months are so long. For example, you would write Jan. 1, 2020, but just January or January 2020. Note that September is the only one that has a four-letter abbreviation.

9.       Spell out states, even when following a city: This is also a recent rule change, and probably for the best because it seems like many non-journalists weren’t aware of AP’s uniquely spelled state abbreviations. Note that this is true even for the long ones such as Massachusetts.

Formatting

10.   Put composition titles in quotation marks: Unlike other style guides that distinguish type of publication in choosing quotation marks or italics, AP puts almost all of them in quotes.

 

Keep in mind that, like many grammatical “rules,” these are just guidelines to ensure the writing is consistent in one document or across one brand. Depending on the topics your organization covers, AP may have additional guidelines to follow, but these tend to come up again and again in many different kinds of writing on many different topics.

The AP Stylebook regularly posts style tips on their Twitter and Instagram pages and has a regular #APStyleChat on Twitter. They also present on the major changes in the upcoming edition at the annual ACES: The Society for Editors conference, which is a well-tweeted session.

Megan Rogers