Ask the Editor: Highlights

Ask the Editor is a forum on writing, style and phrasing issues that go beyond the pages of the AP Stylebook. AP Stylebook editor Paula Froke fields questions posed by subscribers to AP Stylebook Online. Below is a sampling of recent questions Paula has answered.

Click on a topic below to learn more about AP style:

Question from Middletown, Delaware, on Dec. 11, 2023

Although a common acronym for our business writing, I'm assuming AP would say to spell out computer numerical control for CNC on first reference? 

Answer

We would, yes. If it's so commonly known among your readers that spelling it out on first reference would look silly, then don't spell it out. But if at least some of your readers might not understand, then it's best to spell it out.


Question from Washington, District of Columbia, on Oct. 12, 2023

Hi! Thanks for the thorough AI guidance. Wondering whether you're considering allowing AI on first reference. I know style evolves (internet used to be Internet, email used to have a hyphen). So, thinking most readers will understand AI on first reference. Thanks again.

Answer

Not at this time. But certainly that's something we'd consider in the future. 

Remember, a lot of people have trouble with AI without the periods, thinking we're talking about some guy named Al. And it's harder if there's not a spelled-out first reference.

Also, just because you and I understand AI on first reference doesn't mean my mom, my sister, and many other readers are as attuned.



Question from Little Rock, Arkansas, on Oct. 11, 2023

On first reference of an interstate, do you need to put the abbreviation in parentheses as you would an acronym when it's going to be used again? For example: "Interstate 49 (I-49) will be closed at Exit 21." Or can you just say Interstate 49 on first reference and I-49 on second reference?

Answer

We don't put abbreviations in parentheses. Our style would be Interstate 49 on first reference and I-49 on second reference.

Question from on Sept. 15, 2023

Hello, is PB&J acceptable for the sandwich? How about on first reference?

Answer

Yes, in our style it's acceptable on all references.


Question from Los Angeles, California, on Aug. 31, 2023

Do you still consider ESG an acronym that needs definition on first reference, or can it stand alone in all instances?

Answer

If your specific audience understands it, then you don't need to define it. As for me, I had no idea what it meant until I looked it up. I imagine that's the case for many general-audience readers. And remember, it's not in your interest to confuse or annoy your readers. But your specific audience may well be different in what readers understand without explanation.



Question from Sterling, Virginia, on May 16, 2024

If you are writing about an association, and quote its president, would it be President Name said or president Name said. The association's full name would not be in front of the title. ...

Answer

Capitalize the title of President when it immediately precedes a name. She said she would ask association President Peter Pringle ...
But note the lowercase in this construction: She said she would ask the association president, Peter Pringle, ...


Question from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Feb. 28, 2024

My Legal department changes "the company" to "the Company" in our internal communications. For example, "We have an experienced team that works collaboratively to support the Company in its goals." 

I understand it's common practice in a legal document, but we argue to no avail that it's unnecessary in an intranet story or internal email because "company" is a common noun. I see one previous similar question, but can you help us put this to rest by confirming in this example that the common noun shouldn't be capitalized? Thanks so much!

Answer

The corporate world does love its capital letters. But you are correct: In our style, the word company standing alone is lowercase because it's not a proper noun. You may be fighting a losing battle, however. It's pretty common for companies to do their own thing when it comes to capitalization. We, however, strongly agree with you.


Question from Charlotte Hall, Maryland, on Feb. 02, 2024

Is the illness Lung Cancer capitalize?

Answer

No. Here's the entry: 

diseases 


Do not capitalize diseases such as cancer, emphysema, leukemia, hepatitis, etc.
When a disease is known by the name of a person or geographical area identified with it, capitalize only the proper noun element: Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Ebola virus disease, etc.
Other than in direct quotations, avoid such expressions as: He is battling cancer. She is a stroke victim. Use neutral, precise descriptions: He has stomach cancer. She had a stroke. They are being treated for malaria.

Question from Portland, Oregon, on Jan. 31, 2024

For paid family and medical leave, do you advise lowercasing it or capitalizing it when it's used as a descriptive term and not part of an official name? I assume if it's part of an official program or department name, then we would capitalize it? 

Answer

Lowercase as a descriptive term. Uppercase in a department name. Capitalize the Family and Medical Leave Act. As for individual programs, determine whether it's necessary to use the formal name (which often can be clunky) or if a shorter, descriptive approach could work.


Question from Overland Park, Kansas, on Dec. 05, 2023

Title case question: When writing about no-see-ums (the insects also known as biting midges), are all three words capitalized in title case? Is it No-See-Ums or No-see-ums?

Answer

Lowercase no-see-ums, according to both Webster's New World College Dictionary and Merriam-Webster.


Question from Washington, on Jan. 31, 2024

What is the accepted way to reference a decade in AP style? Is it to spell it out (ex. 1960s) or can it be shortened (ex. '60s)?

Answer

Either is fine. The longer form is more formal and the shorter more informal, so use what's appropriate for your piece and your audience.


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

.

Question from Casper, Wyoming, on Sept. 11, 2023

Hello Paula!

I have a question that is driving me crazy. Here is the sentence in question:

The event will begin with a social hour and cash bar, followed by dinner at 6:30 p.m. Cavigelli’s presentation will start at 7, followed by a live auction at 7:30.

The director of this event wanted :00 after 7. When I explained that that was not AP Style, she responded with an email that included a photo of her 2017 AP Stylebook and this comment: “My copy doesn’t specify that 7:00 is objectionable.  Please list it as either p.m. or :00.”
Help! Which is correct, per AP?

Thank you!

Answer

There's a line between following AP style to the letter, and doing what's necessary to keep the customer satisfied (within reason).

It's true that we don't say 7:00 is objectionable. But when we say our style is 7 p.m., it's implied that our style is not 7:00 p.m.

The good news: She gave the option of including p.m. and I think that's a reasonable option. In our heart of hearts, we think the p.m. is pretty apparent (the presentation wouldn't start at 7 a.m. following a 6:30 p.m. dinner). But including the p.m. dresses up the stand-alone 7 a bit and wouldn't strike most people as odd. 

So how about: 

The event will begin with a social hour and cash bar, followed by dinner at 6:30 p.m. Cavigelli’s presentation will start at 7 p.m., followed by a live auction at 7:30 p.m.

Or if the organizers are really in love with :00, then go with it. We need flexibility ...



Question from KANSAS CITY, Missouri, on April 14, 2023

Would there be a comma after 2021 in this: "between February 1, 2021 and February 22, 2023, the ..."
Thanks.

Answer

Yes, a comma after 2021. Also: In AP style, we abbreviate most months when used with a date. So our style is: between Feb. 1, 2021, and Feb. 22, 2023, the ...


Question from Austin, Texas, on Nov. 15, 2022

I see your entry on time but would like clarification. Which style would be best for this type of sentence: Join us from 9-11 a.m. OR Join us 9-11 a.m.
I typically like to use "from" and "to" when I use one or another. But I also like sticking to your style and using a hyphen. The "from" in the first example seems to make the sentence flow better.

Answer

Yes: Join us from 9-11 a.m. But, we also are just fine with no hyphen. See the end of the below section from the times entry. So you easily could write: Join us from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.

Use figures except for noon and midnight. Use a colon to separate hours from minutes: 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3:30 p.m., 9-11 a.m., 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.


Question from on Oct. 19, 2022

Is it necessary to include the year on an invitation for an upcoming event if it's obvious the event is in the current year?

Example:  You are invited to attend the Christmas Pageant on Friday, December 16.  or You are invited to attend the Christmas Pageant on Friday, December 16, 2022.


Answer

Don't include the year if it's the current year. Here's the entry:


years 


When a phrase refers to a month and day within the current year, do not include the year: The hearing is scheduled for June 26. If the reference is to a past or future year, include the year and set it off with commas: Feb. 14, 2025, is the target date. Use an s without an apostrophe to indicate spans of decades or centuries: the 1890s, the 1800s.
Years are an exception to the general rule in numerals that a figure is not used to start a sentence: 2013 was a very good year.


Question from Warrenton, Virginia, on May 13, 2024

Can you start a sentence with the numeral with the word million such as...
“$44 million to treat an operation...
or do you write it out..."Forty-four million dollars to treat an operation...

Answer

We spell out numbers when they start a sentence. But it's much better to rephrase to avoid that situation. Assuming it's not exactly $44 million: about $44 million, at least $44 million, almost $44 million, more than $44 million ... whichever is accurate could be used to start the sentence.


Question from on May 13, 2024

How would you talk about the data mentioned in this sentence? "We adjusted the original adult definition of complexity from adults with > 4 out of 10 specified health conditions to adults with >4 out of 8 conditions."

Would you keep the symbols? 

Answer

We use figures for ratios (1 in 4 voters). But I wouldn't consider your example a ratio. So I'd use words: adults with more than four of eight conditions. And we definitely wouldn't use the > symbol.


Question from Wilmington, Delaware, on April 29, 2024

This is one the silliest work arguments ever. For Star Wars Day (ugh), the correct style would be "May the Fourth be with you" because numbers less than 10 are spelled out, right? 

Answer

I can see how this would turn into a work argument; I'm sure it would turn into a Stylebook team argument as well, if I were to raise it with the rest of the team. But I'm going to go it alone on this one.

Yes, we spell out numbers under 10 in general. But there are lots of exceptions.

We also  generally spell out ordinals (such as fourth) but there are exceptions to that, as well. Dates aren't listed as an exception because we typically don't write May 4th (instead, just May 4.) See below for that section of the numerals entry.

I think I'd go with May the 4th be with you. That's in keeping with our general guidance on dates. It's also how the Star Wars folks style it themselves. 


Ordinals

Numbers used to indicate order (first, second, 10th, 25th, etc.) are called ordinal numbers. Generally spell out first through ninth: fourth grade, first base, the First Amendment, he was first in line. Use figures starting with 10th. Use figures for ages: 4th birthday. Also: 3rd Congressional District; 2nd Precinct.

Question from Mitchellville, Maryland, on Feb. 27, 2024

Which is correct: 2 years or two years

Answer

Two years. Unless it's an age, in which case it's 2 years old.
We have owned our car for two years. Our car is 2 years old. (Weird? Yes.)


Question from Lawrence, Kansas, on Jan. 21, 2024

I do not see guidelines on how to treat %/percent within a direct quote under the most recent style change. If a source says the word "percent," and that is used within a direct quote, should it be "%" or "percent"?

Answer

If it's a spoken quote, use the % sign. If it's a written quote, use the style used by the writer. The guidelines are in this section of the quotations in the news entry:

When quoting spoken words, present them in the format that reflects AP style: No. 1, St., Gov., $3. But quotes should not be changed otherwise for reasons of style. If the speaker says towards, do not change it to toward.

When quoting written words, retain the style used by the writer; do not alter the written words even if they don’t match AP style.


Question from Minneapolis, Minnesota, on Oct. 30, 2023

Hello, my question is concerning comma usage in when introducing poem, book, and podcast episode titles. I've searched your site and have not come across clear direction, and appreciate any clarity you can provide using the examples below:

When introducing a poem title:
Option A
Benjamin Gucciardi reads his poem, "The Rungs."
Option B
Benjamin Gucciardi reads his poem "The Rungs."

And in referencing the episode title of a podcast:
Option A
This poem was featured in Benjamin's conversation with April, "The Poetry We're Reading Now."
Option B
This poem was featured in Benjamin's conversation with April "The Poetry We're Reading Now."

Answer

These fall under the category of essential or nonessential phrases. Read the full entry for details.

In your first example, the answer depends on whether Gucciardi has one poem, or more than one. If he has only one poem, the name of the title is nonessential and thus the comma is used. If he has more than one poem, the name of this one is essential and there is no comma in that construction.

In your second example, it depends on whether he has only one conversation with April. In that case, use the comma.

If he has more than one conversation with April, no comma.

I know this can be confusing. But I think the entry spells it out reasonably well.



Question from Washington, District of Columbia, on Sept. 30, 2023

Question about a subhed in a news story. Wording as published is:
On Florida’s Gulf Coast, a loose coalition of activists, officials and Trumpworld celebrities is building the world they want to live in
Seems odd to me to have to use a singular verb for coalition when the sentence is clearly about many people and the world they want to live in. Certainly it wouldn't be the world it wants to live in. Are there exceptions to the singular rule for certain constructions using words like coalition?

Answer

I have pages of notes about this, focusing on the concept of notional agreement and the principle of proximity. Grammarians have differing views. We don't address it thoroughly in the Stylebook, yet. But in short: You'd have plenty of support in using the plural are for the verb. I'm among those in support.



Question from Fortville, Indiana, on Sept. 29, 2023

I would love to get your thoughts on a question that comes up frequently at my organization regarding the use of the word "talent." The answer to this question is helpful, but suppose for reasons outside your control you needed to use this word to refer to multiple individuals. Which of the following examples would you prefer?
These three talents have the strongest performance. (Pluralize talent with an "s")
These three talent has the strongest performance. (Collective noun taking singular verb--this seems weird.)
These three talent have the strongest performance. (Treat plural of "talent" like "deer")

Answer

Could you possibly let the people outside your control know that the AP Stylebook editor strongly (VERY strongly) recommends against this use, and can't find support for it in major dictionaries? There's a distinct fingernails-on-chalkboard effect. I could go on. And on and on.

OK, but if you have to use it, I guess I'd choose the first option. Definitely not the second. Maybe the third. It's hard to say what correct usage is for something that's not correct usage however you do it ...





Question from Fargo, North Dakota, on Sept. 14, 2023

"Their passion and focus on agriculture are evident and apparent." 

Ignoring any other potential problems with this sentence, my proofreading team feels the "are" should be changed to "is." It sounds really odd to us otherwise. However, when two nouns are joined by "and," the verb should be plural. Is "are" here incorrect? Would you change it? (Assuming rewording isn't an option.)

Thank you! 

Answer

It depends on on whether you view passion and focus as one concept (taking a singular verb) or two distinct concepts (taking a plural verb). In your example, I agree that the are simply sounds odd (not that sounds odd is a technical term, but it matters). And certainly passion and focus can be viewed as one concept. So I agree: Use the singular is.

On another note, I question whether you need both evident and apparent. How about one or the other? The two together are redundant. (Maybe that's one of your other potential problems!)


Question from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Aug. 31, 2023

I have a question regarding plural subjects that act as a singular idea and the verb they take. As an example sentence: “The increasing severity and frequency of weather events have had a profound impact on the community.”

Grammatically, “severity and frequency” are a compound subject, so the sentence requires a plural verb. But “severity and frequency” also function as a singular idea. Would “has” being more appropriate verb in that sentence, or is this down to a judgment call?

Thank you!

Answer

It's a judgment call. In your example, I'd question whether severity and frequency is really a single idea. If  it is a single idea, indeed you would use a singular verb. But they strike me as separate ideas. I also think it could be argued either way. Definitely a judgment call!

Question from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 10, 2024

Re: using the serial comma in a list of complex phrases -- what constitutes a complex phrase? Is it the number of words? I know to use the comma when a phrase contains a conjunction, but the example in the commas entry doesn't fall into that category. Is this a "use your judgment" thing? 

Answer

Yes, it's a "use your judgment" thing. There's not a set number of words. This example from the guidance is about as long as I would go for something classified as not complex:  She goes to school, plays league soccer and takes private dance lessons.

Question from Tokyo, on June 07, 2024

Hi, can you advise on whether to hyphenate or close up "border-wide"? 

It seems logical to follow nationwide, countrywide, etc. But Merriam-Webster has "corporate-wide."

Answer

Our style is borderwide, as described in the -wide section of the suffixes entry:

-wide No hyphen for commonly recognized terms such as citywide, countywide, statewide, storewide, worldwide. But use a hyphen — or don’t use the construction at all — when combining with a proper noun and/or when the unhyphenated form would be awkward or hard to read, such as hospitalwide, NASAwide, Europewide. Often, it’s better to rephrase.

Indeed, Merriam-Webster hyphenates corporate-wide but not citywide or statewide or nationwide. I suspect that their editors' reasoning is similar to ours: Best to avoid such constructions altogether; in this case, they choose to accept it but with a hyphen for more clarity.

Either can be correct. It's a matter of which you prefer.


Question from Chicago, Illinois, on June 06, 2024

Hello, Paula and team! I'm dealing with some references to law firms and our writers and editors are trying to punctuate them, bless their hearts. 

If a company retains an attorney from the firm Buns Glutes Thighs & Calves, which is the firmest firm around (cough), do we use that name as is? Or is that a styling that we would ignore, and add the commas? Thanks (including from my inner 12-year-old).

Answer

OK, I needed a 12-year-old's humor today! We'd use the name as is, no commas. But yes, bless the punctuation-loving hearts.


Question from Houston, Texas, on May 28, 2024

I've been writing about hail a lot lately and wanted to get some guidance. How do you hyphenate hailstone sizes? For example, is it tennis-ball-sized hail or tennis ball-sized hail? I've seen it both ways in stories.

Answer

Tennis ball-sized hail, following this guidance in the hyphen entry:

MULTIPLE COMPOUND MODIFIERS: If the phrase is easily recognized without hyphens, use a hyphen only to link last element: They hope to spark consumer interest in department store-based shopping. She said assistant vice president-managed courses should include real estate licensing-related materials. (Again, rephrasing may be a better option.)


Question from Bloomington, Minnesota, on May 17, 2024

https://www.apstylebook.com/ask_the_editors/44741 refers to another entry that has since been archived. Is the advice still current?

Answer

That advice (no hyphen in multidevice) is still current. All of the entries on prefixes, which had been listed separately, are now grouped together in one prefixes entry. The entry notes a few changes as we move to Merriam-Webster as our primary dictionary. (Measurement-related prefixes such as centi- and milli- are listed individually in the book.)

Same with all suffixes entries, which are now grouped together in one.


Question from Bradenton, Florida, on April 09, 2023

Does AP prefer jelly bean or jellybean?

Answer

We much prefer chocolate. For the sugary treat that you're asking about, Webster's New World College Dictionary prefers the two-word version:

jelly bean  a small, bean-shaped candy with a soft, jellylike center and a hard sugar coating: also written jellybean n.


Question from Corvallis, Oregon, on July 19, 2022

The official stylebook entry for FAQ says just that — FAQ. That entry was created in 2002. But an Ask the Editor response from 2020 says FAQs. Which is correct? Thanks in advance.

Answer

It's FAQ for one set of questions/answers: Please read the FAQ on track racing. If you have separate FAQs on different topics, it's FAQs: Please read the FAQs on track racing and mountain bike racing.


Question from Longmont, Colorado, on April 08, 2022

How should I pluralize PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substance)?

Answer

Our style is PFAS for both the singular and plural. Here's the entry.


Question from Kansas City, Missouri, on May 01, 2024

Is it placemaking or place-making?

Answer

Use the hyphen, following this guidance in the suffixes entry:

-maker, -making No hyphen in commonly used words such as automaker, automaking; dealmaker, dealmaking; drugmaker (but drug-making); filmmaker, filmmaking; moneymaker, moneymaking; policymaker, policymaking; speechmaker, speechmaking. An exception: decision-maker, decision-making. Also: coffee maker. Avoid contrived combinations such as difference-maker and magic-maker. But if using less common terms such as those, include the hyphen. No hyphen with proper nouns, such as iPhone maker.


Question from Indianapolis, Indiana, on Nov. 08, 2023

Could you help us understand why AP Style chooses to format health care as two words when Webster's New World College Dictionary (online) uses the one-word format as the default entry (providing two words as the alternate format)?
healthcare  n. the prevention and treatment of illness or injury, esp. on a comprehensive, ongoing basis: also written health care.
Just curious about the reasoning for sticking with two words, especially when many in the field format it as one word.

Answer

Safe to say that there are as many who prefer the two-word version as who prefer the one-word version. Merriam-Webster, a dictionary separate from Webster's New World, prefers two words. So does American Heritage Dictionary.

I don't know why the decision was originally made to go with two words; it was before my time on the Stylebook team. Since then, we have revisited a number of times and each time decided to stick with two words in the absence of an overriding reason to change and given the great support for the two-word version.

We will continue to discuss periodically.


Question from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 24, 2023

Is it "complements of the chef" or "compliments of the chef" ?

Answer

It's compliments of the chef.


Question from Northport, Alabama, on Sept. 28, 2023

Is free-throw hyphenated, or not, in free-throw lane and free-throw line?
The “basketball” entry includes spellings of frequently used words, including “free-throw line” (hyphenated). 
The “free throw lane” entry says, “a rectangular area under each basket between the free throw line and the end line ... ” (no hyphens in either). 
Thank you!

Answer

The first entry you note is indeed a Stylebook entry. As you note, we use the hyphen.
The second entry is actually from Webster's New World College Dictionary, which you can get as part of your Stylebook Online subscription. The dictionary doesn't use the hyphen.

You can choose which version you prefer. Both are correct; they are just different styles.


Question from wyoming, Michigan, on Aug. 28, 2023

I see the entry for saute does not have an accent mark. But Webster's does. It's my understanding that accent marks are saved for names, primarily. I know entree is also one I see both ways. Which is correct for saute and which is correct pertaining to entree? 

Answer

It's not a matter of correct vs. incorrect; it's a matter of style. AP uses accent and other diacritical marks only in people's names. Webster's New World College Dictionary uses them for some other words as well. Your choice on which you want to use.


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