CMS Fridays: At The Very Least, Buy An Associated Press Style Guide

Is it 9 or nine? What’s the proper abbreviation for California? When should I use a semi-colon?

These are all questions that might be asked during the migration of a content management system, or writing text for a new site.

How do you establish style? Consistency is another key to effective writing, and readers do notice typos and style inconsistencies (I know, I get the emails from friends when I have them here). There’s nothing that is more glaring than when certain items are used incorrectly. It’s even more frustrating when the defaults (i.e. “am” for instance, for time) doesn’t match a consistent style.

At the very least, run out and buy a few copies of the Associated Press Style Guide. For $10 at your local bookstore, or about the same at Amazon, the book is the bible for style and capitalization (please don’t compare this site to the Style Guide, I’m not getting paid to do this). This style guide is used by thousands of journalists to answer such questions as the proper spelling and usage of punctuation for such terms as Dr Pepper, ball point pen, and Popsicle.

Throw a few copies of this book around, and the authors will at least get close to what it should be. Consistency is the key.

Here’s the top 10 Associated Press tips as stolen from

  1. Use a person’s full name and title the first time you mention him or her in an article. For example, write Don Swanson, professor of communication, not Prof. Swanson. Once people have been fully identified, refer to them by last name only. There are exceptions, so always check the AP stylebook.
  2. Spell out abbreviations or acronyms on first reference. For example, use Passaic County Community College the first time you refer to the college in a story. You may use PCCC on any references made after that. Another example would be to use DAR only after you have spelled out Daughters of the American Revolution on first reference.
  3. Abbreviate months when used with days, and use numerals (1, 2, 3, etc.) not ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd, etc.). Exceptions are March, April, May, June and July — write them out, don’t abbreviate. For example, write Sept. 2, 2008, not September 2nd, 2008. But, when using only the month and year, spell out the month.
  4. Generally, spell out the numbers zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and higher. Note, however, that numbers used at the beginning of a sentence are spelled out. Example: Five hundred twenty-four students attended. It is better, however, to rewrite the sentence so that it doesn’t begin with a number. Example: Attending the event were 524 students from local colleges. Years are one of the exceptions. For example: 2008 was a bad year for investors.
  5. But use numerals even for ages younger than 10. This is another exception to the aforementioned number rule. When used like an adjective, say X-year-old, including the hyphens. Otherwise, don’t use the hyphens. For example: the 5-year-old girl kicked her brother, who is 8 years old.
  6. Spell out the word “percent” but use numerals for the actual number. Examples: Participation increased 5 percent. Nearly 28 percent of all students don’t like algebra. Exception: use may use the % sign in headlines.
  7. To indicate time, use figures and lowercase letters (9 a.m., 6 p.m.). Put a space between the figure and the letters. Exceptions are noon and midnight. Do not say 12 noon or 12 midnight — it’s redundant.
  8. Capitalize formal titles used before a name. For example, write Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Very long titles may be shortened or summarized unless they are essential to the story, but the shortened form should not be capitalized (for example, you may use spokesperson instead of Vice President for Public Affairs and Communications). Use lowercase when formal titles follow a name (e.g., Hillary Clinton, secretary of state). General titles, such as astronaut Neil Armstrong and actor Matt Damon, are lowercase.
  9. Capitalize formal titles and names of people, places or things to set them apart from a general group. These include proper nouns such as Mike, Canada, Hudson River, and St. John’s Church. But use lowercase for common nouns (i.e. nouns not coupled with a proper name), such as the river or the church. Also, put a word in lowercase when you have more than one proper noun sharing the word. Example: Ocean and Monmouth counties. Capitalize the first word in a sentence. Refer to the dictionary or AP Stylebook, if needed. When in doubt, use lowercase.
  10. Do not use courtesy titles such as Mr., Miss, Mrs., or Ms., except in direct quotes or where needed to distinguish between people of the same name. Using courtesy titles may be polite. And the New York Times uses them in its articles. But it is not AP style.

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