The Arizona Republic newsroom, ca. 1988
For 25 years, working at the newspaper, I had a holy scripture. It was my bible. And it was just as strict and just as puzzling as Leviticus or Deuteronomy. It told me how to spell certain words, how to punctuate, how to think. It told me, for instance, that “baby sitter” is two words, but that “baby-sitting” requires a hyphen. It told me that third-graders were not students, but instead, they were “pupils.” And that in street addresses, it was required to abbreviate “Street” as “St.” but ordered me never to shorten “Road” to “Rd.” Never.
It was the Associated Press Stylebook, and the version that first guided my work was the 1988 edition. In it were many notable proscriptions and admonitions. I was not to spell “gray” as “grey.” Unless it was in “greyhound.” That the past tense of “dive” should be “dived” and not “dove.” That donuts didn’t exist; they were “doughnuts.”
There could be no 12 a.m. or 12 p.m. They were “midnight” and “noon,” although which was which was entirely the problem with the “a.m.-p.m.” formulations. (Is 12 a.m. noon or midnight?) Noon is technically neither morning nor afternoon, but the non-existent mini-instant between the two.
“Last Tuesday” should be the “past Tuesday,” unless, of course, time ended and it really was the last one.
These and many other formulations became second-nature to anyone working in journalism. Some of these may have changed since 1988 — usage changes and the AP takes that into account, even if ever so slowly: They are always playing catch-up. (“Ketchup,” by the way should never be “catchup” or “catsup.”)
Even a decade after retiring, I still have lodged in the noggin all these rules and prescriptions and when writing this blog, I tend naturally to notice whether I’ve put my period inside or outside the close-parenthesis, depending on whether the parenthetical remarks are inside a longer sentence, or in a separate sentence of its own. Anyone who has written for a newspaper will likely have the same grammatical Jiminy Cricket whispering in his ear to get it right.
Yet, I grew up spelling “grey” with an “e.” And some of the rules in the stylebook seemed so arbitrary. With my Norwegian background and its Germanic language, I always favored butting words into each other rather than separating them as two words, or with a hyphen. What could be wrong with “babysitter?” It seemed natural.
But I was disabused by my copy desk chief, who explained to me — the way a patient adult has to explain to a toddler having a tantrum — that the point of AP style was never to enforce a “correct” English style, but merely to make sure that we didn’t see on the same page one column with a “grey” and another with a “gray.” “It’s so we don’t look like idiots,” he said. It was not to choose the “right” style, but to choose a consistent one. And AP style was what newspapers everywhere agreed would be the version to provide that.
Still, there were times that the Stylebook asked us to do patently dumb things that would, indeed, make us look like idiots. In Arizona, where I was working, Mexican food was really good — and really Mexican (not just Taco Bell) — remember this was 1988 before Mexican supplanted Italian or Chinese as the foreign cuisine of choice — and we knew the differences among the many types of chile peppers — jalapeño, chipotle, anchos, etc. — but the Associated Press was telling us we should spell the word as “chili.” We would have looked like fools to our readers, who knew better. So, our management slyly gave us permission to overrule the stylebook and spell the word as it should be. “Chile.” The AP Stylebook eventually caught up with us, and now allows “chile” to describe the capsicum peppers.
Most recently, AP relented on “pupil” and “student,” so first-graders are permitted to be students. It is a slow process.
Much of the stylebook does concern itself with correct grammar and proper spelling, just to make sure we writers didn’t accidentally write “discrete” when we meant “discreet,” or forget how many double letters you have in “accommodate.” But most of the important issues concern just how our newspaper would deal with the fuzziness of certain locutions. Is a minister “Rev. So-and-So” or “the Rev. So-and-So?” Can we use “CIA” in a story without having to first explain it as the Central Intelligence Agency?
I thought that non-journalist readers might enjoy a little peek into the old stylebook for a few of my favorite choice entries, starting with the letter “A.” These are all directly from the 1988 edition of the AP Stylebook.
A.D. Acceptable in all references for anno Domini: in the year of the Lord. Because the full phrase would read in the year of the Lord 96, the abbreviation A.D. goes before the figure for the year: A.D. 96. Do not write: The fourth century A.D. The fourth century is sufficient. If A.D. is not specified with a year, the year is presumed to be A.D.
From addresses Spell out and capitalize First through Ninth when used as street names; use figures with two letters for 10th and above 7 Fifth Ave., 100 21st St., 600 K St. N.W. Do not abbreviate if the number is omitted: East 42nd Street, K Street Northwest.
all right (adv.) Never alright. Hyphenate only if used colloquially as a compound modifier: He is an all-right guy.
ampersand (&) Use the ampersand when it is part of a company’s formal name: Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. The ampersand should not otherwise be used in place of and.
ax Not axe. The verb forms: ax, axed, axing.
baloney Foolish or exaggerated talk. The sausage or luncheon meat is bologna.
barbecue Not barbeque or Bar-B-Q.
collide, collision Two objects must be in motion before they can collide. An automobile cannot collide with a utility pole, for example.
Comprise Comprise means to contain, to include all or embrace. It is best used only in the active voice, followed by a direct object: The United States comprises 50 states. The jury comprises five men and seven women. Never use comprised of.
controversial An overused word; avoid it.
crawfish Not crayfish. An exception to the Webster’s New World based on the dominant spelling in Louisiana, where it is a popular delicacy.
cupful, cupfuls Not cupsful.
decades Use Arabic figures to indicate decades of history. Use an apostrophe to indicate numerals that are left out; show plural by adding the letter s: the 1890s, the ’90s, the Gay ’90s, the 1920s, the mid-1930s.
demolish, destroy Both mean to do away with something completely. Something cannot be partially demolished or destroyed. It is redundant to say totally demolished or totally destroyed.
different Takes the preposition from, not than.
doughnut Not donut.
engine, motor An engine develops its own power, usually through internal combustion or the pressure of air, steam or water passing over vanes attached to a wheel: an airplane engine, an automobile engine, a jet engine, a missile engine, a steam engine, a turbine engine. A motor receives power from an outside source: an electric motor, a hydraulic motor.
en route Always two words.
ensure, insure Use ensure to mean guarantee: Steps were taken to ensure accuracy. Use insure for references to insurance: The policy insures his life.
even-steven Not even-stephen.
Fannie Mae See Federal National Mortgage Association.
Fannie May A trademark for a brand of candy.
farther, further Farther refers to physical distance: He walked farther into the woods. Further refers to an extension of time or degree: She will look further into the mystery.
fulsome It means disgustingly excessive. Do not use to mean lavish, profuse.
[“F” is also home to a host of confused pairs and the stylebook makes sure we understand the usage difference between “fewer” and “less;” “figuratively” and “literally;” and “flaunt” and “flout;” and “flounder” and “founder;” and “forgo” and “forego.” It is a minefield of potential oopses.]
gamut, gantlet, gauntlet A gamut is a scale or notes of any complete range or extent. A gantlet is a flogging ordeal, literally or figuratively. A gauntlet is a glove. To throw down the gauntlet means to issue a challenge. To take up the gauntlet means to accept a challenge.
ghetto, ghettos Do not use indiscriminately as a synonym for the sections of cities inhabited by minorities or the poor. Ghetto has a connotation that government decree has forced people to live in a certain area. In most cases, section, district, slum, area or quarter is the more accurate word. Sometimes a place name alone has connotations that make it best: Harlem, Watts.
girl Applicable until 18th birthday is reached. Use woman or young woman afterward.
glamour One of the few our endings still used in American writing. But the adjective is glamorous.
go-go [This was the 1988 edition, after all.]
grisly, grizzly Grisly is horrifying, repugnant. Grizzly means grayish or is a short for for grizzly bear.
gypsy, gypsies Capitalize references to the wandering Caucasoid people found throughout the world. Lowercase when used generically to mean one who is constantly on the move: I plan to become a gypsy. She hailed a gypsy cab.
half-mast, half-staff On ships and at naval stations ashore, flags are flown at half-mast. Elsewhere ashore, flags are flown at half-staff.
hang, hanged, hung One hangs a picture, a criminal or oneself. For the past tense or the passive, use hanged when referring to executions or suicides, hung for other actions.
hangar, hanger A hangar is a building. A hanger is used for clothes.
hurricane Capitalize hurricane when it is part of the name that weather forecasters assign to a storm: Hurricane Hazel. But use it and its — not she, her or hers — in pronoun references. And do not use the presence of a woman’s name as an excuse to attribute sexist images of women’s behavior to a storm, for example such sentences as: The fickle Hazel teased the Louisiana coast.
imply, infer Writers or speakers imply in the words they use. A listener or reader infers something from the words.
injuries They are suffered or sustained, not received.
innocent Use innocent, rather than not guilty, in describing a defendant’s plea or a jury’s verdict, to guard against the word not being dropped inadvertently.
jargon The special vocabulary and idioms of a particular class or occupational group. In general, avoid jargon. When it is appropriate in a special context, include an explanation of any words likely to be unfamiliar to most readers. See dialect.
junior, senior Abbreviate as Jr. and Sr. only with full names of persons or animals. Do not precede by a comma: Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. The notation II or 2nd may be used if it is the individual’s preference. Note, however, that II and 2nd are not necessarily the equivalent of junior — they often are used by a grandson or nephew. If necessary to distinguish between father and son in second reference, use the elder Smith or the younger Smith.
ketchup Not catchup or catsup.
K mart No hyphen, lowercase m. Headquarters is in Troy, Mich.
lady Do not use as a synonym for woman. Lady may be used when it is a courtesy title or when a specific reference to fine manners is appropriate without patronizing overtones.
late Do not use it to describe someone’s actions while alive. Wrong: Only the late senator opposed this bill. (He was not dead at that time.)
lectern, podium, pulpit, rostrum A speaker stands behind a lectern, on a podium or rostrum, or in the pulpit.
malarkey Not malarky.
May Day, mayday May Day is May 1, often observed as a festive or political holiday. Mayday is the international distress signal, from the French m’aidez, meaning “help me.”
milquetoast Not milk toast when referring to a shrinking, apologetic person. Derived from Caspar Milquetoast, a character in a comic strip by H.T. Webster.
minus sign Use a hyphen not a dash, but use the word minus if there is any danger of confusion. Use a word, not a minus sign to indicate temperatures below zero: minus 10 or 5 below zero.
mishap A minor misfortune. People are not killed in mishaps.
Negro Use black or Negro, as appropriate in the context, for both men and women. Do not use Negress.
No. Use as the abbreviation for number in conjunction with a figure to indicate position or rank. No. 1 man, No. 3 choice. Do not use in street addresses, with this exception: No. 10 Downing St., the residence of Britain’s prime minister. Do not use in the names of schools: Public School 19.
non-controversial All issues are controversial. A non-controversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.
From obscenities, profanities, vulgarities Do not use them in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. … In reporting profanity that normally would use the words damn or god, lowercase god and use the following forms: damn, damn it, goddamn it. No not, however, change the offending words to euphemisms. Do not, for example change damn it to darn it. … If a full quote that contains profanity, obscenity or vulgarity cannot be dropped but there is no compelling reason for the offensive language, replace letters of an offensive word with a hyphen. The word damn, for example, would become d – – – or – – – –.
OK, OK’s, OK’ing, OKs Do not use okay.
opossum The only North American marsupial. No apostrophe is needed to indicate missing letters in a phrase such as playing possum.
palate, palette, pallet Palate is the roof of the mouth. A palette is an artist’s paint board. A pallet is a bed.
pantsuit Not pants suit.
poetic license It is valid for poetry, not news or feature stories.
pom-pom, pompon Pom-pom is sometimes used to describe a rapid-firing automatic weapon. Define the word if it must be used. A pompon is a large ball of crepe paper or fluffed cloth, often waved by cheerleaders or used atop a hat. It is also a flower that appears on some varieties of chrysanthemums.
From Prison, jail Do not use the two words interchangeably. … Prison is a generic term that may be applied to the maximum security institutions often known as penitentiaries and to the medium security facilities often called correctional institutions or reformatories. All such facilities confine people serving sentences for felonies. A jail is a facility normally used to confine people serving sentences for misdemeanors, people awaiting trial or sentencing on either felony or misdemeanor charges, and people confined for civil matters such as failure to pay alimony and other types of contempt of court.
punctuation Think of it as a courtesy to your readers, designed to help them understand a story. Inevitably, a mandate of this scope involves gray areas. For this reason, the punctuation entries in this book refer to guidelines rather than rules. Guidelines should not be treated casually, however.
raised, reared Only humans may be reared. Any living thing, including humans may be raised.
ranges The form: $12 million to $14 million. Not: $12 to $14 million.
ravage, ravish To ravage is to wreak great destruction or devastation: Union troops ravaged Atlanta. To ravish is to abduct, rape or carry away with emotion: Soldiers ravished the women. Although both words connote an element of violence, they are not interchangeable. Buildings and towns cannot be ravished.
reluctant, reticent Reluctant means unwilling to act: He is reluctant to enter the primary. Reticent means unwilling to speak: The candidate’s husband is reticent.
restaurateur No n. Not restauranteur.
Saint John The spelling for the city in New Brunswick. To distinguish it from St. John’s, Newfoundland.
San‘a It’s NOT an apostrophe in the Yemen capital’s name. It’s a reverse apostrophe, or a single opening quotation mark.
Satan But lowercase devil and satanic.
sex changes Follow these guidelines in using proper names or personal pronouns when referring to an individual who has had a sex-change operation: If the reference is to an action before the operation, use the proper name and gender of the individual at that time. If the reference is to an action after the operation, use the new proper name and gender. For example: Dr. Richard Raskind was a first-rate amateur tennis player. He won several tournaments. Ten years later, when Dr. Renee Richards applied to play in tournaments, many women players objected on the ground that she was the former Richard Raskind, who had undergone a sex-change operation. Miss Richards said she was entitled to compete as a woman.
Solid South Those Southern states traditionally regarded as supporters of the Democratic Party.
SOS The distress signal. S.O.S (no final period) is a trademark for a brand of soap pad.
St. John’s The city in the Canadian province of Newfoundland. Not to be confused with Saint John, New Brunswick.
straight-laced, strait-laced Use straight-laced for someone strict or severe in behavior or moral views. Reserve strait-laced for the notion of confinement, as in a corset.
straitjacket Not straight-jacket.
teen, teen-ager (n.) teen-age (adj.) Do not use teen-aged.
that, which, who, whom (pronouns) Use who and whom in referring to people and to animals with a name. John Jones is the man who helped me. See the who, whom entry. Use that and which in referring to inanimate objects and to animals without a name.
Truman, Harry S. With a period after the initial. Truman once said there was no need for the period because the S did not stand for a name. Asked in the early 1960s about his preference, he replied, “It makes no difference to me.” AP style has called for the period since that time.
tsar Use czar.
UFO, UFOs Acceptable in all references for unidentified flying object(s).
Uncle Tom A term of contempt applied to a black person, taken from the main character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” It describes the practice of kowtowing to whites to curry favor. Do not apply it to an individual. It carries potentially libelous connotations of having sold one’s convictions for money, prestige or political influence.
unique It means one of a kind. Do not describe something as rather unique or most unique.
United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers of America The shortened forms of United Rubber Workers and United Rubber Workers union are acceptable in all references. Capitalize Rubber Workers in references to the union or its members. Use rubber workers, lowercase, in generic references to workers in the rubber industry. Headquarters is in Akron, Ohio.
United States Spell out when used as a noun. Use U.S. (no space) only as an adjective.
versus Abbreviate as vs. in all uses.
Vietnam Not Viet Nam.
volatile Something which evaporates rapidly. It may or may not be explosive.
war horse, warhorse Two words for a horse used in battle. One word for a veteran of many battles: He is a political warhorse.
whereabouts Takes a singular verb: His whereabouts is a mystery.
whiskey, whiskeys Use the spelling whisky only in conjunction with Scotch.
X Y Z
X-ray (n., v. and adj.) Use for both the photographic process and the radiation particles themselves.
yam Botanically, yams and sweet potatoes are not related, although several varieties of moist-fleshed sweet potatoes are popularly called yams in some parts of the United States.
youth Applicable to boys and girls from age 13 until 18th birthday. Use man or woman for individuals 18 and older.
ZIP codes Use all-caps ZIP for Zone Improvement Program, but always lowercase the word code. Run the five digits together without a comma, and do not pt a comma between the state name and the ZIP code: New York, N.Y. 10020.