Ask the Editor Frequently Asked Style Questions

Welcome to Ask the Editor, a forum on writing, style and phrasing issues that go beyond the pages of the AP Stylebook. AP editor Paula Froke fields questions of widest interest posed by subscribers to the online AP Stylebook. Here is a sampling of frequently asked questions, with examples of AP style used in answers.

Abbreviations, acronyms (24/7; NATO; laser; U.S.; No. 1 ...)

Q: In a news story, can you start a sentence with an acronym?
A: A few examples: Radar, Laser, NATO, OPEC.

Capitalization (proper nouns: America; proper names: Democratic Party; popular names: Indy 500; compositions: books, movies, operas ...)

Q: Why is atheist not capitalized while Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, etc., are?
A: We follow Webster's on that term, which is lowercase.

Q: Great Depression is capitalized and so is American Revolution. How about Civil Rights Movement?
A: AP lowercases civil rights movement.

Dates, time, eras (July 4, 2008; 9 a.m.; the Great Depression ...)

Q: When referring to a time span, I never know when to use a dash to separate the two times (ex. 2-5 p.m.) and when to use the word "to"?
A: 2-5 p.m. is preferred

Q: Should the names of decades be capitalized when written out?
A: Use Arabic figures to indicate decades of history: the 1920s, the '80s ...

Figures, numerals, dimensions (7-year-old boy; three years ago; 1 percent; third grade; size 9; 6-by-8-foot rug; 5 ounces; 68,000-square-foot facility...)

Q: Is the age of an inanimate object expressed in numerals or spelled out?
A: Always use figures for people, animals and objects: 3-year-old house.

Q: In denoting area, which is correct for numbers under 10 -- 5 acres or five acres?
A: AP uses the numeral for acres, even when less than 10, as a dimension: 5 acres.

Geography, addresses (state names, regions: Mideast; Northwest; northeast Minnesota; 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; Fifth Avenue ...)

Q: If we're speaking about regions of the state, should it be South Louisiana, North Louisiana and Central Louisiana?
A: Lowercase the compass point - central Louisiana -- unless it's a widely known section, as in Southern California or South Florida.

Grammar (essential vs. nonessential clauses; pronouns; subject-verb agreement ...)

Q: I'm confused on the use of "that" and "who" when talking about groups.
A: Use "that" for a thing, "who" for the personal pronoun, although "that" also fits some human references

Q: For a subject/verb agreement, how should I treat "one or more features?
A: In this instance, use a plural verb.

Formats (italics, lists ...)

Q: My AP Stylebook always lists examples in italics, so it's difficult to see if italics are part of the style. For example, are newspapers italicized?
A: AP doesn't use italics in news stories. That includes newspaper names and magazine references. No italics. The stylebook uses italics for examples only.

Q: Is there a standard AP style for bulleted areas of text?
A: AP uses dashes, not bullets, for lists in news stories that follow a colon. After each dash, capitalize the first letter and use periods at the end of each section.

Possessive versus descriptive

Q: A months confinement or a month's confinement?
A: a month's confinement, per the QUASI POSSESSIVES section of the "possessives" entry

Q: Veteran's Benefits, Veterans Benefits or Veterans' Benefits?
A: Veterans benefits, lowercase and not a possessive, is usually a descriptive term.

Punctuation (commas; quotation marks; colon; semi-colon; ellipsis ...)

Q: Is clarity essentially the only rule determining when a serial comma should be included?
A: In a simple series, AP doesn't use a comma before the last item. For a series of complex terms, though, use commas after each for clarity.

Q: What is AP's style on the military's don't ask, don't tell policy?
A: "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Singular/plural (collective nouns ...)

Q: Do music groups take singular verbs, as do collective nouns, or plural verbs, as with sports teams?
A: AP Stylebook entry on "collective nouns" says band names take plural verbs. The Fantastic Shakers have won many awards

Q: Is it staff has or staff have?
A: Normally staff is a collective taking a singular verb,

Spelling (one word or two; hyphenation; noun phrases; prefixes; suffixes)

Examples: boardroom; hot plate; fast-food; pressure washing service; co-founder; countrywide.

Sports terms

Examples: strikeouts, scorecard, goal post, Home Run Derby, general manager (lowercase)

Titles (academic; courtesy; professional; military; occupational; political; religious)

Q: Would "crew chief" and "team owner" be capitalized before a name?
A: AP lowercases those descriptive titles.

Q: Why is "doctorate in psychology" not capped, but "Bachelor of Arts" is?
A: As a descriptive term, doctorate in psychology is lowercase. Bachelor of Arts is capitalized as an academic degree, as are B.A. and Ph.D. See "doctor" for an explanation of Dr. as a title for medical doctor on first reference.

Writing, phrasing, usage (word choice; clarity; subjunctive mood; ethnic-racial; profanity; slang ...)

Q: Is the proper phrase "If money were no object" or "If money was no object"?
A: The phrase suggests a contingency unlikely to come true, so use "were" for the subjunctive mood.

Q: Is clarity essentially the only rule determining when a serial comma should be included?
A: Commas in a series are for clarity and prevention of ambiguities. In a simple series, AP doesn't use a comma before the last item. If the elements are complex, uses commas for all.

Q: How do I deal with a vulgarity from a movie that is integral to the article I'm writing?
A: A partial spelling with hyphens in place of some letters would convey the meaning. AP flags such cases atop the story with an editor's note.

Online and technology (the web; the internet; URL; computers; e-commerce …)

Q: Others use one word for internet-related terms. How about AP?
A: AP style is email (changed from e-mail), but other e- words are hyphenated: e-commerce and e-book. Our amended style is website (one word, lowercase w), along with other compounds: webcam, webcast, webmaster.

Q: How does AP treat programming language when used in general text?
A: AP stories use PHP, Ajax, XML, FTP ... search engine optimization ... click-through rate ... pay-per-click.

Q: How about using e- as a prefix for new terms in the tech and business worlds?
A: AP uses hyphenated e- for generic terms such as e-commerce and e-strategies. One exception: email (no hyphen, which reflects majority of usage). For company names, use their preference: eBay.

News media (datelines; headlines; newswriting …)

Q: Which states are never abbreviated in datelines?
A: Eight states are never abbreviated in datelines or text: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah.

Q: Do you capitalize a conjunction in a headline?
A: AP headlines cap only first word and proper names or proper abbreviations.

Q: If you have a hyphen in a headline, is the word after the hyphen capitalized?
A: In AP headline style, only the first word and proper nouns are capped.

Other terminology (business; food and beverages; legal and justice; medical; ethnic and nationality; politics; religion …)

Q: When referring to your company in internal (or external) communications, which is correct: Corporate or corporate?
A: corporate (adj.) is lowercase.

Q: There seem to be differing opinions on whether or not to capitalize the names of grapes used to make wine.
A: AP lowercases wine varietals such as cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and caps regional names such as Bordeaux, Sauternes and Chablis.

Q: Should diseases also known by acronyms such as PTSD be capitalized?
A: Lowercase for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, hepatitis C, etc. See "diseases" entry for further guidance.

Q: If using "member of Congress" instead of congressman/congresswoman, should "member" be capitalized?
A: member is lowercase, as are congressmen and congresswoman. See the "legislative titles" entry for rulings.

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