Bob Dunning

Bob Dunning: Our writing style reaches a state of confusion

By From page A2 | April 24, 2014

When you work for a daily newspaper of general circulation in the Most Relevant City in North America, consistency and uniformity are a must.

You can’t call it “UC Davis” on the front page, “Cal-Davis” on the editorial page and “Aggie State” on the sports page.

The Holy Bible for this sort of thing is the esteemed AP Stylebook, which is a thorn in the side to some journalists, but a steady and reliable friend to many others.

In keeping up with the times — or The Times — the Associated Press will occasionally, like every hundred years or so, make changes to its stylebook as usage of the language evolves.

The edict on the use of state names came down yesterday, addressed to busy editors all over the globe.

“Effective May 1,” it began, “the AP will spell out state names in the body of stories. Datelines will continue to use abbreviations.”

A dateline commonly tells you from where the story originated, even if the name suggests it’s about when the story was written.

“Currently, most state names are abbreviated in stories. The change is being made to be consistent in our style for domestic and international stories. State abbreviations will continue to be used in lists, agate, tabular material, nonpublishable editor’s notes and credit lines. They will also be used in short-form identification of political party affiliation. Photo captions will continue to use abbreviations, too.”

As luck would have it, after 45 years of pounding the same keyboard, I have finally memorized the abbreviations of all 42 states and no longer need a handy stylebook at my side.

And if you were taught to believe there are actually 50 states in this great country of ours, think again.

According to the AP: “The names of eight states are never abbreviated in datelines or text: Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Utah.”

Sounds a bit like a question for Trivia Night at the local pub: “Name the eight states that are never abbreviated, even in times of earthquakes, floods or the Super Bowl.”

If you have trouble remembering the rule, the AP provides working journalists with a handy “Memory Aid” that states: “Spell out the names of the two states that are not part of the contiguous United States and of the continental states that are five letters or fewer.”

That assumes, of course, that all journalists know what “contiguous” means, and that even those who do know the definition also know which two states aren’t contiguous.

For me, these new rules mean I will finally have to learn how to spell “Massachusetts,” instead of the very convenient “Mass.,” which, as a Catholic, was always easy to remember because of the large concentration of Catholics in and around Boston.

Even more confusing for the average journalist (see photo above), the postal code abbreviations are often different from those dictated by the AP Stylebook.

For instance, the above-referenced “Mass.” is “MA” if you’re addressing a letter, just as the AP’s “Ore.” is “OR” for the post office and “Calif.” is “CA.”

Plus, the post office doesn’t seem to care which states are contiguous and which ones aren’t. Abbreviate them all, even those with five letters or fewer.

If that’s not enough, the AP adds a “miscellaneous” category that begins “Use New York state when necessary to distinguish the state from New York City.”

Frank Sinatra, apparently, still holds the copyright on “New York, New York.”

Adds the AP: “Use state of Washington or Washington state when necessary to distinguish the state from the District of Columbia.”

And then, just to be absolutely certain everyone is on the same page here, the AP notes: “Washington State is the name of a university in the state of Washington.”

Go Cougs.

— Reach Bob Dunning at [email protected]

Bob Dunning

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