The AP Rules That Are out of Style

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By Jon Lavietes, Senior Associate

Like it or not, most reporters are bound by the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook, a lengthy list of style, usage and grammar guidelines that has served as a de facto standard in journalism for many decades (although there are several exceptions, including the New York Times, which has its own style guide, as well as a decent-size minority of other outlets that prefer the Chicago Manual of Style).

Many of the AP Stylebook’s standards expedite the writing process by serving as an arbiter for situations in which there are several ways to convey the same thing. There’s no need to decide whether to write a number as a digit or a word, spell out “United States” or abbreviate it, or put periods in “p.m.” The Associated Press has already ordained the particulars.

Each year, the Associated Press makes adjustments to keep up with the times. A couple of years ago, it decided that we no longer needed to capitalize the word “internet.”  Two years before that, the organization finally permitted the masses to use the word “over” synonymously with “more than.”  These were triumphs for common sense, even if they arrived later than common sense would dictate.

I suspect many writers and PR pros find some of the 638 pages worth of rules irritating, but I also imagine that their fast-paced, high-stress, long-hour jobs make starting a campaign against any of them a low priority. Not that I’m twiddling my thumbs looking for things to do, but I thought I’d take a moment to run down my wish list of changes I would like to see the AP make. So, AP, if you’re listening, I’d like you to…

…Institute the Serial Comma

Arguably the AP Stylebook’s most commonly known staple, writers are forbidden from using a comma after the penultimate item in a series. Known as the serial comma, series comma, Oxford comma or Harvard comma, you’re not allowed to add a comma before “or” or “and” in a list, with a few exceptions (one of which — when “and” or “or” is part of one or more items in the series — is exhibited in the third sentence of this post).

Recently, the news service left the door ajar for instances in which “omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation,” a reasoning that is just as silly as it sounds. You know what would reduce confusion and misinterpretation? Using the Oxford comma in all appropriate instances! It reads better, it is easier to understand and it simply makes more sense. Fewer exceptions result in fewer errors and misunderstandings.

…Mandate Postal Code State Abbreviations

According to AP rules, when you list a city and state, you do not use the standard two-letter postal code after the comma. Rather, you use the AP’s bizarre, rigid,  arbitrary, inconsistent and confounding list of abbreviations. Eight states (Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah) are never abbreviated. Some are truncated to five letters (“Calif.”), others four (“Colo.,” “Conn.” and “Mass.,” to name a few) and several to three (“Fla.” and “Kan.,” among others). About one-third retain the traditional two-letter abbreviation, although the second letter is lowercase and followed by a period (“Ky.”) An extra period is inserted in most two-word states, and the second letter is capitalized in these instances (“N.Y.”).

Again, why create unnecessary confusion when you can standardize all 50 states plus our nation’s capital with the simple postal codes we have come to know and remember? Why force writers to memorize the abbreviations or navigate exceptions and disparities? Use postal codes and folks can redirect their time and efforts to more substantive things — like hitting their deadlines!

And while we’re at it, why not use the state abbreviation in all situations. As of now, the AP demands that the state be left off for most major U.S. cities. Many of these you can probably guess, such as “New York,” “Los Angeles,” “San Francisco,” “Houston,” “Las Vegas” and “Phoenix,” among several others. However, if you thought “Reno, Nev.,” “Austin, Texas,” “Columbus, Ohio” or “St. Paul, Minn.” have earned this distinction, the Associated Press apparently feels these cities aren’t big-time enough.

…Allow Us to Use the Percent Symbol

There is one area where the AP Stylebook leaves no ambiguity: you are NEVER permitted to use the symbol for percent (i.e., “%”). In an industry where surveys are routinely issued on behalf of clients, this gets very annoying when delineating results in press releases and pitches.

Yes, I realize that I’ve argued for fewer exceptions in my first two pleadings to the Associated Press. However, in this situation, instinct and common sense overrule definitiveness. I understand using “percent” when it is not accompanied by a numeral, or spelling out “percentage.” But can you remember ever reading a letter from your friend or any informal text in which the writer spelled out the word “percent” rather than simply putting “%” after a number? Neither can I.

It turns out many PR folks either don’t know or don’t care about how you are supposed to treat percentages in PR and journalistic writing. You don’t have too search PR Newswire, PRWeb, Business Wire or Marketwired far and wide to find organizations ignoring this rule.

…Standardize Entertainment and Pop Culture Title Rules

Okay, so I’m now going to revert back to a less-is-more philosophy. As it stands now, AP says you have to put titles of books, movies, recordings and television shows in quotation marks, while magazines, newspapers and reference works simply get italicized. Why not pick italics or quotation marks and apply it to all formats? After all, they’re all enrichment and/or entertainment, so why not give them the same treatment?

So what do you say, AP? I realize you are probably too busy to consider my requests. However, take the time to implement these simpler and more intuitive guidelines, and we too can focus our time and energy on more important things.

Do you have an AP Stylebook change you’d like to see? Drop us a line or connect with us via social media (see widgets at the top-right corner of this page) to tell us yours.