What is AP Style, and why do we use it?

First, what is style? A style guide refers to the long list of grammar and punctuation rules to keep one’s writing consistent and clear. When should certain words be abbreviated or capitalized? Are book titles in italics or quotation marks? All these choices become a publication’s house style, which is often based on one of the “big four” style guides: the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) are typically used for newspapers, magazines and books, while the American Psychological Association (APA) and Modern Language Association of America Handbook (MLA) are more often used for scientific and scholarly writing.

AP Style is favored by almost all newspapers, magazines and online outlets in the United States. So, for those in the business of communicating with these outlets and pitching them stories, writing in AP Style is a must — for several reasons.

First, a quick summary of some general AP Style rules:

  • In most usage, spell out numbers one through nine, then use numerals for 10 and above. But always use numerals for ages, money, measurements, temperature and addresses.
  • Use a person’s full name on first reference, then afterward use last name only (unless full names are required for clarity, when discussing people with the same last name).
  • For specific dates, abbreviate months with six or more letters; use numerals for days, without any “nd” or “rd” or “th”; and do not abbreviate days of the week. (“They are set to meet on Friday, Aug. 18.”)
  • Use hyphens when needed to avoid ambiguity, such as in compound adjectives that don’t contain an -ly adverb (use a hyphen for “real-time data” or “energy-efficient home,” but not for “badly damaged car” or “fully informed voter”).
  • Use commas only when they are needed for clarity. That means no beloved Oxford comma unless it helps avoid confusion (“I admire my parents, George Clooney, and Cleopatra.”).
  • Use abbreviations like “Ave.,” “Blvd.” and “St.” in addresses, but spell out those words when referring to a formal street name without a number. All similar words (alley, road, drive, etc.) are spelled out and never abbreviated.
  • Only capitalize a formal title (president, administrator) if it appears directly before an individual’s name.
  • Not all cities require listing the state in which they are located in (AP has a list of these well-known “dateline cities,” like Las Vegas or New York). For cities that require mentioning a state, the AP Style abbreviation should be used rather than the Postal abbreviation.

Adhering to AP style shows journalists we speak the same language, and, more importantly, tells them at a glance whether a press release or media advisory can be easily copied and pasted. Saving time has become a top priority, as shrinking newsrooms have been enduring a decades-long crisis, with each reporter juggling more and more tasks. This is due to complicated economic factors involving hedge funds and the way news consumption has changed over the past two decades — but that’s a story for another blog.

Aimed at creating a standard that allows for easy reading, AP Style leans toward consistency, clarity, accuracy and brevity. Newspaper publishers have limited space, and correcting errors was very costly back in the days of linotype. Just like the news, though, AP Style is constantly evolving. In the Imagine Communication’s public relations department, we keep our style instincts fresh by reading the AP’s regular email bulletins about how certain names or concepts in the news cycle are best treated.

Part of our value as communications experts is the time we have spent steeped in AP Style. Journalists can tell often from the first sentence whether something has been written in AP Style and has been reviewed by a professional editor. Delivering up material that stands out as time-saving and trustworthy is one way we get our clients noticed and covered.

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