Expert Commentary

Associated Press style basics

The basics of Associated Press style from Boston University's College of Communications.


The Associated Press was founded more than 150 years ago and now has thousands of employees working in more than a hundred countries for a readership that numbers in the millions. AP style is designed to address the challenges of the organization’s large size and readership. It had to be easy for reporters and editors to use and also produce stories that are clear and concise.

To achieve these goals, The Associated Press Stylebook is intentionally compact and direct, giving up comprehensiveness in exchange for brevity. While this can leave many reporters’ questions unanswered, the problems most frequently encountered are addressed.

This article is a summary of AP style. Below you’ll find information on numbers, time and dates, locations, phone numbers, punctuation, capitalization and titles, and the Internet. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it will get you started.


One through nine are spelled out, 10 and above are figures (Arabic numerals). If a sentence begins with a number, it should be spelled out or the sentence rewritten. The exception is a numeral that identifies a calendar year. Use figures in tables.

Percentages: Use figures and the word percent.

Million, billion: Always use figures and spell out the words million and billion.

Time and dates

Month, day: Use numerals for days without st, nd, rd or th and abbreviate the months August through February when used with a date: “Feb. 12 was particularly cold.” Do not abbreviate the months March through July: “March 12 was rainy.” Always spell out months with no dates: “October is her favorite month.” Do not separate months and years with a comma: “He left for Bhutan in October 1937.” Set off years with commas when there is a specific date: “The mortgage was paid off April 1, 1998, and they threw a party that night.”

Time: Use lowercase a.m. and p.m., with periods. Always use figures, with a space between the time and the a.m. or p.m.: “By 6:30 a.m. she was long gone.” If it’s an exact hour, no “:00″ is required. If a time range is entirely in the morning or evening, use a.m. or p.m. only once: “6:30-10 p.m.” If it goes from the morning into the evening (or vice versa), you need both: “10 a.m.-2 p.m.”

Cities and states

Datelines: Put the city name in capital letters, generally followed by the state or country, and then a long dash. Certain large cities can stand alone; see the AP Stylebook for a listing.

State names: When used on their own, spell these out: “Massachusetts is on the Atlantic Ocean.” When there’s a city or party affiliation, abbreviate: “Cambridge, Mass., is a hip place”; “D-Mass.” There are eight states that are never abbreviated: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah. Two-letter forms of state names are used only with zip codes: “Send mail to 79 JFK St., Cambridge, MA 02138.”

Phone numbers

Area codes and country codes get no special treatment and aren’t preceded by a 1 or plus sign. Use hyphens between groups of numbers: “He dialed 617-123-4567 and crossed his fingers.”


Hyphen: Hyphenate compound adjectives only if required for clarity: “fastest-growing company”; “high-level discussion.” Don’t use hyphens with commonly understood terms, adverbs that end in ly and between figures and units of measure: “greatly exaggerated claims”; “2 percent rule.” Do not use a hyphen with a compound modifier after the noun: “The driver was well paid.”

Dash: Dashes set off a series within a phrase: “Of the many breakfast options — omelets, waffles, pastries — he only wanted coffee”; indicate a break in thought: “Felipe’s is a popular eatery — in Harvard Square”; or attribute a quotation to an author: “‘You must do the thing you think you cannot do.’ — Eleanor Roosevelt.” When using text editors that don’t support dashes, use two hyphens for each dash.

Comma: In lists of three or more items, do not use a comma before the conjunction: “The recipe called for flour, butter and foie gras.” Exceptions are made if the elements in the series are complex phrases or if the series includes an element with a conjunction: “He doesn’t eat anything but pizza, Twizzlers, and macaroni and cheese.” Use a comma to set off a person’s town of residence, age and other such information: “Tom Menino, Boston, was a popular speaker”; “Jean Dupont, 32, was released yesterday.”

Period: Use only one space after the end of a sentence. Period.

Colon: Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it’s followed by a complete sentence. Colons go outside quotes unless they’re part of the quoted material.

Apostrophe: An apostrophe indicates possession. Add an ‘s to all single nouns and names, even if they already end in an s: “My boss’s vacation begins tomorrow.” For singular proper names ending in s, use only an apostrophe: “Kansas’ crisis.” For plurals of a single letter, add an apostrophe and an s: “Mind your p’s and q’s,” “the Oakland A’s.” Do not use apostrophes for decades or acronyms: the 1990s, CDs.

Quotation marks: Periods and commas go inside quote marks: “‘Reginald, your hairstyle makes me nervous,’ she said.” The position of dashes, semicolons, exclamation and question marks depends on what’s being questioned or exclaimed: “Was she right to say, ‘Your shoes are a joke’?”

Parentheses: AP style suggests avoiding parentheses when possible, and instead rewriting text or using dashes or commas to set off the information. If parentheses are required the rules are: If the parenthetical is a complete, independent sentence, place the period inside the parentheses; if not, the period goes outside.

Capitalization and titles

Works: Things such as books, movies, paintings and so on get title-style capitalization and quotation marks: “He couldn’t put down ‘The AP Stylebook'”; “Her favorite album was ‘Love Is Hell.'”

Individuals: Capitalize a person’s title only if it precedes his or her name and isn’t modified: “Chief Executive Officer Leon Redbone”; “Leon Redbone, chief executive officer of Swizzle Stick, Inc.”

Everything else: When in doubt, use sentence-style capitalization and roman type. This applies to website buttons, press releases and most PowerPoint decks.

The Internet

The words Internet and Web are capitalized: “She spent a lot of time on the Web”; “Their Internet-access speed was excellent.” Other Web-related terms have a variety of treatments: website, Web page, Web 2.0. Note that AP adjusts its style to reflect current usage — not long ago they considered Web site to be two words, but now recommend website — and given the fast-changing nature of the Web, such adaptations are certain to continue.

Email: One word, no hyphen. Related words are generally hyphenated: e-reader, e-commerce.

URLs: In general-purpose text, addresses are given in the same typeface as the text in which they appear: “The address is”

Website names: Use title-style capitalization and roman type: “He loves the Journalist’s Resource.”

Tags: capitalization, punctuation


About The Author