Six AP Style Mandates That Seem Wrong–but (Apparently) Aren’t

Posted on May 25, 2010

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Despite mentally dredging up as many lessons from senior English as possible, I still can’t come to grips with some of the style points that the AP Stylebook—the editor’s bible—says are correct. For what it’s worth, here are six commandments from the stylebook that may seem wrong or senseless—but they’re right:

• To form the possessive of singular nouns (not names) that end in s, add ‘s—UNLESS the word that follows begins with an s. So it’s correct to say “the mattress’s age,” but it’s “the mattress’ springs.” Go figure—it’s still a bunch o’ s sounds at the end.

• Degrees like “Bachelor of Arts” and “Master of Science” are capitalized, even though they don’t refer to any individual’s specific degree: “Some day I might pursue a Master of Arts degree.” Sounds like a common noun, but it isn’t. On the other hand, the terms “bachelor’s degree,” “master’s degree” and “doctorate” are lower case. And “associate degree” is lower case but not possessive. Give up and just refer to the stylebook.

• In a series of numbers, all of them that are below 10 should be spelled out, while those 10 or higher should be expressed in numerals. So, believe it or not, it’s correct to write: “I own three sheep, 10 pigs, five horses, one turtle and 25 pitchforks.”

• When referring to America’s chief of state, the word “president” is always lower case unless it is used as a title before his name. The correct form is: “I was honored to meet the president during our White House tour.” So maybe your company president feels better about being typographically demoted.

• Many compound modifiers are hyphenated before a noun, but not after it: “I work as a full-time employee,” but “I work full time.” HOWEVER, when the verb in the sentence is a form of “to be,” the compound adjective is retained after the verb: “The ill-equipped explorer encountered trouble,” and “The explorer was ill-equipped.” The idea is to keep the hyphen to avoid confusing this meaning with the idea that the explorer became ill when he was equipped.

• For the titles of speeches, books, movies plays, poems, broadcasts, etc., the stylebook says to capitalize the principal words (what does that mean?), including prepositions and conjunctions of four or more letters. So “With” is capitalized in a title, but “for” is not. BUT capitalize a word of fewer than four letters if it is the first or last word of a title.

Of course, all this is subject to the whims of AP editors, who, it must be said, keep a close ear to their member publications and public usage. Just recently, after years of proclaiming “Web site” the proper form, the stylebook’s editors capitulated and now prefer “website.” The same thing happened a year or two ago when the stylebook began allowing the abbreviation “U.S.” to be used as a noun, not just an adjective. (Oh, but in headlines, it’s “US” without periods—dunno why.) All I can say is good luck, happy hunting and thank you AP for keeping us editors employed.

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