Archived Story

N.Y. Times style vs. Associated Press style

Published 9:39am Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Column: Pothole Prairie, by Tim Engstrom

Sometimes I write about the old journalism books I have on my shelves. Often the older ones are better than the newer ones because they show more conventional ways of writing, which is great for understanding the latest trends in writing.

Today, let’s peruse through my New York Times Manual of Style and Usage from 1976.

Style guides dictate the aspects of writing not bound by the rules of grammar. For instance, newspapers will write “23 chickens,” while literary books will write “twenty-three chickens.” But you savvy, die-hard newspaper lovers already know this.

As you also know, the Albert Lea Tribune and most daily newspapers follow Associated Press style. The New York Times does not. It follows its own style, most notably with the use of courtesy titles. By that term, I am speaking of Mr., Ms., Mrs. and Miss, which appear in Times stories but not in the content of AP members. Of course, in 1976, the term Ms. was used less often.

Here is the entry in my N.Y. Times book:

Mr., Mrs. and Miss are to be used in news stories not only for citizens of the English-speaking countries but also for citizens of other countries who do not have royal, noble, military, religious or other titles of the kinds that replace the foreign equivalents of Mr., Mrs. and Miss.

The foreign equivalents — M., Mme., Mlle.; Herr, Frau, Fräulein; Señor, Señora, Señorita; Senhor, Senhora, Senhorita; Signor, Signora, Signorina, etc. — may be used when desired for special effect, but not in the normal reporting of news. They may also be used in quoted matter if the passage quoted was originally written or spoken in English. But in translating ordinary quoted matter from a foreign language into English, the foreign honorifics should be rendered as Mr., Mrs. and Miss.

The entry goes on and on. In almost all uses, the titles are used in second and subsequent references. Hence: Golda Meir, the former Prime Minister of Israel, is taking her first real vacation in years. Mrs. Meir is spending it …

The titles are not needed for people of pre-eminence who are no longer living: Lincoln, Churchill, Einstein, Picasso, Woolf. Mr. is not needed for sports figures, except when sports stories appear in news sections or in some parts of an obituary (which in the New York Times are staff-written) of a sports figure.

You get the picture.

In AP style, people on second and subsequent references go by their last name. I would be simply Engstrom. Of course, in letters and columns on the Opinions page, we allow some measure of variance to preserve tones of voice intended by the writers, as long as first reference has first and last name.

Another difference is job titles. In AP writing, a job title in general reference is lowercase, even for heads of state: The sports editor was past his deadline. The president struggles in his second term. It is capitalized if before a name not separated by a comma: Sports Editor Micah Bader spoke to the Noon Kiwanis Club. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. A title is bestowed on a position, so in some cases, the job is more of a description. At the meeting, carpenter Michael Davis hammered out an accord. Each year, farmer Lucas Brown plants his crops. See?

The New York Times is somewhat the same but has rules allowing exceptions. References to the president of the United States in AP are lowercase, but in N.Y. Times capitalized. The plane carrying the President of the United States landed. The President signed the bill into law. The same goes for specific references to heads of other countries, such as the Prime Minister of Austria or the Chancellor of Germany.

One day in the 1990s, the then-managing editor at the Ames Tribune, Jeff Bruner, asked me if I wanted an old New York Times stylebook. I have no idea who it belonged to, but the owner scribbled in it. One scribble gives the phone number for Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Cheever, who died in 1982.

One of the scribbles I am grateful for is in the S-section. The manual owner wrote:

Sized — If it’s specific (pint-size jar) don’t use the ‘d.’ If it’s abstract, use the ‘d’ (king-sized).”

A New York Times newspaper clipping tucked in the manual is about China. It is dated Feb. 4, 1979, and shows place names, party leaders and pronunciation of the Pinyin system alphabet. The chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party back then was Hua Guofeng. I recognized one name listed among five deputy chairmen, Deng Xiaoping, who is credited with taking the country toward a market economy. Even in 1979, without holding the top office, Deng was the de-facto leader.

Here are a few more entries in the manual:

editor in chief. No hyphens.

tornado. A violent whirlwind. Do not use cyclone, which is ambiguous. The maritime equivalent of the tornado is the waterspout.

pint. The United States liquid pint is equal to 16 United States fluid ounces, 0.83 British imperial pint or 0.47 liter. The British imperial pint is equal to 20 British fluid ounces, 1.20 United States pints or 0.57 liter.

Malagasy (sing. and pl.). The people of Madagascar. The adjective is Malagasy. Ordinarily, do not refer to the country as the Malagasy Republic.

earth, moon, sun. Lowercase, except in the rare instances when they are referred to as astronomical bodies, usually in conjunction with other such bodies and without a the proceeding: How do Mars and Earth fit into that pattern? The absence of the, of course, is not the test for capitalization, as down to earth and move heaven and earth demonstrate.


Tribune Managing Editor Tim Engstrom’s column appears every Tuesday.

  • Dustin Petersen

    The headline reminded me of this story from The Onion:

    4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence

    NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.