AP Style Cheat Sheet: 12 Common Mistakes

Load up those backpacks and stock up on supplies— it’s back-to-school time again! While you may not be sharpening your No. 2 pencils to head back to the classroom, we can all take a few minutes to sharpen up our writing skills!

To kick-start this 2012-2013 school year, here is a list of 12 common AP Style mistakes to keep in mind (and, feel free to pass this note under the desk to an office buddy):

1. Numbers. It’s no secret PR people and numbers often aren’t friends, but we can remember this rule: Write out numbers one through nine, and use figures for 10 and above. Spell out a number if it starts a sentence (unless it’s a year, such as 2012).

2. There, their, they’re. Grammar aficionados unite over this one! It makes us cringe when we see it in an email – or anywhere—which is all too often. Basic difference: There indicates direction (Our office is there.); their is possessive (Their office is next to ours.); they’re is a contraction for they are (They’re moving into the office next door.).

3. Commas in a sequence. Oh, the often-debated, even-more-frequently-misused (drumroll please) Oxford Comma. When writing a list, DON’T include a comma before the conjunction in a series (I like eggs, toast and bacon for breakfast.), but DO put a comma in front of the conjunction if an integral part of the sequence contains a conjunction (I had coffee, fruit, and a ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast.).

4. Its/it’s. Another pet peeve for grammar nerds is getting this incorrect. Use “it’s” as a contraction for “it is.” Do not use it as a possessive. The company is holding its anniversary event, and it’s going to be amazing.

5. Titles. Only capitalize formal titles when they precede an individual’s name. If the title falls after the name, then it’s lowercase. So: President Barack Obama is running against Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.

6. Website, web site. If your AP Stylebook is dated 2009 or earlier (‘fess up, folks), then you may not be aware of this change: In 2010, AP finally made “website” one word (as some of us may remember, it was previously “Web site,” but it’s better to forget that particular spelling ever existed).

7. Like or such as. This one’s actually easy to understand—harder to remember. So, here’s an easy way to remember it:  If you can substitute “for example” into a sentence, then use “such as.” Use “like” to compare things. Example: She has a computer like mine.

8. Toward/Towards. Repeat after me: Never say towards. It’s not a word. Toward never ends in an “s.” While we’re at it, the same goes for forward, backward, upward, downward, etc.

9. Commas and periods always go inside the quotation marks. “No further explanation needed,” we said. “Just do it.”

10. Who or Whom. Prepare for a flashback to middle school sentence diagramming to explain this common mistake. Both words are pronouns. Who refers to the subject of a clause (aka, a sentence) and whom refers to the object of the clause. Here’s a trick: Answer the sentence using the word him (or he). If him works, then the correct usage is whom. For example: Whom did you visit? Tip: I visited him (not I visited he). If he works, then the correct word is who. Example: Who sent this email? Tip: He sent the email (not Him sent it).

11. Email. Another recent change: Drop the hyphen in email (before 2011, AP Style said to write e-mail).

12. Seasons. It’s almost fall! Notice that “fall” is lowercase. Seasons, although a top-notch conversation starter, are never capitalized.

What AP Style rules are hardest for you to remember? If you haven’t updated your AP Stylebook since college journalism class, or are one of those people who reads the newest version for fun (you know who you are), the 2012 version is available for purchase here.

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