IL or Ill.? Why we use the state abbreviations we do

News-DemocratDecember 2, 2013 

Q. Why does the BND use the old abbreviations for states instead of the two-letter postal abbreviations? Soon there won't be many of us still around who remember the older abbreviations.

-- Jeff Peterson

A. If they're observant and curious, readers probably wonder about a lot of things we do.

Why, for example, is it August 1989 but Aug. 29, 1989? Why is it that a robbery happened on Main Street but when we use an exact address it's 134 Main St.? Why is it Mother's Day and Father's Day but Presidents Day (no apostrophe)? And why do we still use those ancient state abbreviations?

The reason is simple: In addition to the Bible I use in church, I have another bible I follow religiously here at work -- the Associated Press Stylebook. It is crammed with style and spelling rules designed to make all stories uniform.

Think of it like rules in sports. Can you imagine the chaos if every baseball team played by its own rules? The Cardinals, for example, might say two strikes constitute an out while the Cubs made five balls a walk.

Well, journalists need rules, too. We don't want one story using President Obama on second reference while another simply uses Obama, which is AP style. We don't want some writers typing Alzheimer's Disease while others use Alzheimer's disease, which is AP style.

That's why I capitalized Bible earlier when referring to the religious text while lowercasing it when I used it in a nonreligious sense. It's all spelled out in the AP Stylebook -- including, on Page 233, the requirement that we use the old-fashioned state abbreviations except when publishing a full address that readers might use.

"You just need to have some reference that makes it all consistent," Norm Goldstein, who edited the stylebook for nearly two decades, once told the Common Sense Journalism blog at the University of South Carolina.

According to Goldstein, the AP Stylebook started in 1953 at 60 pages. It cost $1, wasn't alphabetized and dealt only with matters in which the AP set a specific style. The AP assumed users had a solid knowledge of language and a good reference library.

But in 1977, Lou Boccardi, the AP's executive news editor at the time, wanted more of a reference work that included examples of spelling, subject-verb agreement, etc. Since then the book has grown to more than 400 pages with sections devoted to sports, business, and punctuation.

If you look at the Editor FAQ section on www.apstylebook.com, you'll realize that no issue is too trivial. Why capitalize Catholic and not atheist? (We follow Webster's dictionary.) Should we write 2-5 p.m. or 2 to 5 p.m.? (2-5 p.m. is preferred.) Do the names of individual music groups -- e.g., the Beatles -- take singular or plural verbs? (They're plural.)

And, as you might imagine, the stylebook is constantly evolving as new words and situations arise. Recently, for example, the AP told us to use Wal-Mart as the official name of the company but Walmart when talking about the company's stores. It also issued spelling decisions on flu-like, off-site and nonconference, among others.

"We'll get an e-mail, we'll get a phone call, we'll get a note or letter," Goldstein said in explaining how changes are initiated. "A newspaper editor will question how we spell Hezbollah, for example, and we'll go back to our own correspondents in the Middle East and make sure that what we are using is right. And very often when the news first comes up we will have some differences in spelling. So we'll go back to them and make a decision on how we want to spell it."

The explosion of social media has raised questions whether in this new age of funny spellings and abbreviations while texting (a new verb that AP allows us to use) hard-and-fast style rules might be relaxed. NW (no way). AP says it maintains the same standards no matter how it distributes its information.

You might be surprised to learn that stylebook changes can be controversial. Last spring, for example, the AP ruled that we can no longer use the term "illegal immigrant." While an action (immigration) can be illegal, a person is not illegal. AP banished the term because it became offensive to some like "colored" or "retard." (If you're wondering, the AP prefers "black" over "African-American.")

So, we continue to use the same state abbreviations that were drilled into me at the University of Missouri 40 years ago. And we probably will continue to do so until younger editors change our bible to read, "Thou shalt do it the post office way."

Today's trivia

Who had more career interceptions than touchdown passes: Ken Stabler, Joe Namath or Jim Hart?

Answer to Sunday's trivia: Even though it's hotter than blazes there, Hades has one heck of a river system with five major waterways, according to Greek mythology: the Archeron (river of sorrow), Cocytus (lamentation), Phlegethon (fire), Styx (hate) and Lethe (oblivion or forgetfulness).

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call (618) 394-3579.

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