Five-Minute Stylebook

10% of the rules cover 90 percent of style questions


Capitalize formal titles when they appear before names.

  • Example: The message was sent to former President Vladimir Putin.

Lowercase titles when they follow a name or stand alone.

  • Example: Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, fired his foreign minister.

Lowercase occupational or descriptive titles before or after a name.

  • Example: The story was written by columnist Joe Bob Briggs.

Refer to adults in news reports by first name and family name the first time they appear in a story.

  • Example: Timothy Caboni and by family name only on later references Caboni.

Children 17 or younger are usually referred to by first and last name on first reference and first name only on later references. Children in “adult situations” — common examples are in international sports and serious crimes in which they are charged as adults — are referred to by family name only on later references.

To avoid confusing two people with the same family name, such as husband and wife or mother and son, use both names (first and family) on later references.

  • Example: A story mentioning Timothy Caboni and Kacy Caboni should usually refer to them as Timothy Caboni and Kacy Caboni even after they are introduced if there’s any chance of confusion. Sometimes a title can be repeated to make the distinction (Timothy Caboni could be “President Caboni” or “the president” on later references; Kacy Caboni could be “Mrs. Caboni”). Only rarely, in some feature stories, will you want to refer to adults by their first names on later references.

Do not use courtesy titles (Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., Dr.) in news reports except in direct quotes or for clarity, such as in the previous example.

Abbreviate military and police titles before names according to a standard reference list, such as the one in the AP Stylebook. Don’t abbreviate titles when they stand alone or follow a name. Exceptions are allowed for widely used initialisms. Exceptions are allowed for widely used initialisms.

  • Example #1: Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the general.
  • Example #2: The fugitive CEO was captured at dawn.


Most stylebooks will have a list of dateline cities that are assumed to be understood without having the name of the state (Boston, New York, Los Angeles) or country (Baghdad, London, Cairo) attached. Follow those guidelines with the usual exceptions for common sense if needed (Books that are popular in London, Kentucky, might not be popular in London, England).

Do not abbreviate the names of U.S. states except:

  • In datelines, credit lines, or short forms of party ID: Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. In those cases, abbreviate state names of six or more letters only, (Note: the two noncontiguous states, Alaska and Hawaii, are never abbreviated.)

Do not abbreviate such designations as “street” when they stand alone without a numbered address. Only three of these are abbreviated — “street,” “avenue” and “boulevard” — and they are only abbreviated when they appear with a numbered address. (This rule is usually referred to as the STAB (street, avenue, and boulevard rule.) Do not abbreviate “south” or “north” indicating a part of a road unless it appears with an address.

  • Example #1: South Eighth Street
  • Example#2: 221 Abbey Road


Capitalize proper nouns; lowercase common nouns.

Capitalize trademarks  or use a common noun as a substitute.

  • Example #1: I drank a Pepsi.
  • Example #2: I drank a soft drink.

Use abbreviations on first reference only if they are widely known. Otherwise, spell out the names of agencies on first reference. If an abbreviation would be confusing, use a common-noun substitute on later references. When in doubt, err on the side of clarity. Abbreviations are not as familiar as you think they are. As much as possible, avoid using acronyms.

  • Example #1: CIA agents helped overthrow the prime minister of Iran.
  • Generally, don’t abbreviate units of measurement (pounds, miles, hours, etc.).
  • Example #2: The U.S. Agency for International Development; USAID
  • Example #3: The State Peace and Development Council; the council or the junta


Use only the day of the week for events within a week of publication.

  • Example #1: The summit ended Monday.
  • Example #2: The negotiators will meet Thursday.

Use “last” or “next” only if needed for clarity.

  • Example #1: The summit ended Monday, and the negotiators will meet again next Monday.

Never abbreviate days of the week. Use “today” to refer to the day of print publication. Do not use “yesterday” or “tomorrow” except in direct quotes. On the website, use only days of the week (not today, yesterday or tomorrow).

Use month and day to refer to events happening a week or more before or after publication. Use cardinal numbers, not ordinal numbers, for dates

  • Example #1: The summit began July 11. The seminar will be held March 3.

Don’t use the year unless the event is more than a year before or after publication

  • Example #1: He died March 17, 1999. The currency will be introduced Jan. 1, 2012.

Do not abbreviate a month unless it has a date. Do not abbreviate months of less than six letters.

  • Example #1: January; Jan. 1
  • Example #2: March; March 12, 1998

Use lowercase “a.m.” and “p.m.” to indicate morning, afternoon and night. Use “noon” and “midnight” rather than the unclear “12 a.m.” or the redundant “12 noon.” Always use figures for time in this form: 8 a.m., 10:30 p.m., 1:45 a.m. Do not leave in the zeroes, as in “8:00 a.m.”

For time spans, use this format: 1 to 4 p.m. (not 1-4 p.m.)

Follow time-date-place order: Martial law was declared at noon Friday in JesseHall.

  • Example: Trials of collaborators will begin at 2 p.m. Oct. 14 in New York.

There is no such time as 12 p.m. or 12 a.m. It’s noon or midnight.


The basic rule: Spell out numbers under 10. Use figures for 10 and above. The main exceptions are listed below.

Spell out any number, except a year, that begins a sentence

  • Example#1: Twelve students attended.
  • Example #2: 1999 was an important year.

Use figures for ages, dates, weights, heights, ages, times, addresses and percentages.

For most numbers of a million or more, use this form, rounded off to no more than two decimal places. If the exact number is important, write it out.

  • Example #1: 1.45 million
  • Example #2: the $18.1 billion budget
  • Example #3: He received 1,253,667 votes compared to 988,401 for his opponent.

Spell out numbers used as figures of speech.

  • Example: Coach Rick Stansbury said it felt like the team could have scored a million points during Monday’s game.

Spell out fractions less than 1 when they stand alone. Otherwise, write them as mixed fractions or decimals . Generally, use a 0 to precede a decimal smaller than zero.

  • Example #1: Use one-half cup of flour.
  • Example #2: 1 1/2 cups of flour
  • Example #3: 1.5 liters of water
  • Example #4: 0.75 kilograms
  • Convert metric measurements to English ones.

A few more tips to remember

Avoid the use of exclamation points. Few things are spoken with the emphasis that should be reserved for an exclamation point. This includes children saying really cute things. A period will do the job.

Do not use brackets. Use parentheses. [This is a bracket. Do not use.] (This is a parenthesis. Do use.)

Do not include “U.S.” before Army, Navy, Marines or Air Force when referring to service members from the United States. It’s not needed because, after all, it’s illegal for a U.S. citizen to serve for another country.

Do not use “http://” with Web addresses. It’s not needed. Be sure to check if “www.” is needed as well.

Do not use “1-” before any telephone number; 800-888-8888 will suffice.

  • Do not use “Dr.” before a name except in Life Stories. Columbia is crawling with folks who have a doctorate – whether academic, medical or dental. It’s much better to explain what kind of doctor he/she is in context
  • Example: Sara Smith, an orthopedic surgeon.

Always write headlines for advice columns (Dear Abby, Smart Money, etc.) based on the answer to the first letter.

Source: Fred Vultee, amended 2009 by Maggie Walter and Allison McGee; amended 2011 by Maggie Walter