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State Abbreviations: Use Traditional or Go Postal?

In this quick guide to state abbreviations, I will cover the differences between AP style and Chicago style and—just to prolong your state of confusion—when to use the common two-letter abbreviations created by the United States Postal Service.

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases and just lean on these basic guidelines:

  • In running text, AP and Chicago both spell out state names.
  • For mailing addresses, AP and Chicago both default to the two-letter postal abbreviations.
  • For all other abbreviations, AP uses its own state abbreviations and Chicago prefers postal abbreviations (but has its own state abbreviations should that style be more appropriate for your publication).

If you’re writing a research paper or dashing off a blog post, you can probably ignore all the exceptions and special cases.

Did that little appetizer leave you wanting more? If so, I love you. And please read on for an expanded version of the brain-twisting details.

AP (online, fee required)

  • Spell out state names in running text.
  • Abbreviate state names when used in (1) datelines on stories (e.g., KOSHKONONG, Mo.), (2) photo captions, (3) lists, (4) tables, and (5) short-form listings of party affiliation (e.g., D-Calif.). Refer to AP’s “datelines” entry for use of certain well-known city names alone.
  • Use two-letter postal abbreviations only in mailing addresses which include a zip code: “To complain about AP style, write to The Associated Press, 450 W. 33rd St., New York, NY 10001.”
  • For headlines, the new rule says to avoid abbreviating states whenever possible, and the old rule—in case you can’t avoid abbreviating—said to lose the periods when using abbreviations which consist of two capital letters: NY but Ky.

Chicago (10.28)

  • Spell out state names when they stand alone in running text: “I don’t see why Kansas and Arkansas can’t make their names rhyme.”
  • Spell out state names when used with the name of a city (except for DC): “I was born in New York, New York—please stop singing.”
  • Two-letter postal abbreviations are preferred over traditional abbreviations when state names are used in bibliographies, tables, lists, blah cetera.

U.S. Postal Service

Following are the differences between AP and Chicago style in how state names are rendered in their respective “traditional” abbreviations. (Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.)

Surprise! Abbreviations are not always used.

Aside #1: If your quality expectations are sufficiently lax, as are mine, you might enjoy Wikipedia’s version of how state abbreviations evolved and come up with your own explanation for why there are different notions of what’s traditional. Don’t bother consulting the stylebooks’ official dictionaries for the proper abbreviations: Those are more descriptive than prescriptive, and having more options will only confuse you.

Aside #2: The two-letter U.S. Postal Service code is listed parenthetically after the complete state name, but you probably figured that out.

Aside #3: Note that none of the two-word abbreviations have a space after the first period, e.g., N.Mex. and R.I.

Note to those who thought they were being smart by skipping straight to this list: Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviations over traditional abbreviations; all options are listed below. Use Command-F or Ctrl-F to perform searches. That’s right, it’s ugly for a reason.

 

Alabama (AL)

  • Both: Ala.

Alaska (AK)

  • AP: Alaska
  • Chicago: Alaska or Alas.

Arizona (AZ)

  • Both: Ariz.

Arkansas (AR)

  • Both: Ark.

California (CA)

  • Both: Calif.

Colorado (CO)

  • Both: Colo.

Connecticut (CT)

  • Both: Conn.

Delaware (DE)

  • Both: Del.

District of Columbia (DC)

  • AP: District of Columbia
  • Chicago: D.C.

Florida (FL)

  • Both: Fla.

Georgia (GA)

  • Both: Ga.

Hawaii (HI)

  • Both: Hawaii

Idaho (ID)

  • Both: Idaho

Illinois (IL)

  • Both: Ill.

Indiana (IN)

  • Both: Ind.

Iowa (IA)

  • Both: Iowa

Kansas (KS)

  • AP: Kan.
  • Chicago: Kans.

Kentucky (KY)

  • Both: Ky.

Louisiana (LA)

  • Both: La.

Maine (ME)

  • Both: Maine

Maryland (MD)

  • Both: Md.

Massachusetts (MA)

  • Both: Mass.

Michigan (MI)

  • Both: Mich.

Minnesota (MN)

  • Both: Minn.

Mississippi (MS)

  • Both: Miss.

Missouri (MO)

  • Both: Mo.

Montana (MT)

  • Both: Mont.

Nebraska (NE)

  • AP: Neb.
  • Chicago: Neb. or Nebr.

Nevada (NV)

  • Both: Nev.

New Hampshire (NH)

  • Both: N.H.

New Jersey (NJ)

  • Both: N.J.

New Mexico (NM)

  • AP: N.M.
  • Chicago: N.Mex.

New York (NY)

  • Both: N.Y.

North Carolina (NC)

  • Both: N.C.

North Dakota (ND)

  • AP: N.D.
  • Chicago: N.Dak.

Ohio (OH)

  • Both: Ohio

Oklahoma (OK)

  • Both: Okla.

Oregon (OR)

  • AP: Ore.
  • Chicago: Ore. or Oreg.

Pennsylvania (PA)

  • Both: Pa.

Rhode Island (RI)

  • Both: R.I.

South Carolina (SC)

  • Both: S.C.

South Dakota (SD)

  • AP: S.D.
  • Chicago: S.Dak.

Tennessee (TN)

  • Both: Tenn.

Texas (TX)

  • AP: Texas
  • Chicago: Tex.

Utah (UT)

  • Both: Utah

Vermont (VT)

  • Both: Vt.

Virginia (VA)

  • Both: Va.

Washington (WA)

  • Both: Wash.

West Virginia (WV)

  • Both: W.Va.

Wisconsin (WI)

  • AP: Wis.
  • Chicago: Wis. or Wisc.

Wyoming (WY)

  • Both: Wyo.

Chicago also lists other U.S. territories, only two of which have traditional abbreviations (Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands). None of these are abbreviated in AP style, except in mailing addresses.

  • American Samoa (AS)
  • Federated States of Micronesia (FM)
  • Guam (GU)*
  • Marshall Islands (MH)*
  • Northern Mariana Islands (MP)
  • Palau (PW)
  • Puerto Rico (PR)*: P.R. or Puerto Rico
  • Virgin Islands (VI)*: V.I. or Virgin Islands

*Check entry in the Associated Press stylebook for more details.

You can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.

Final tip: It might help to know that AP’s standard abbreviations are shorter than (or the same as) Chicago’s for all U.S. states except Alaska and Texas. Well, we might as well throw in District of Columbia. And, if feeling generous, Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands. Or, in favor of keeping your brain less cluttered, you can bookmark this page and forget everything you just read.

Capitalization After Colons: One Sentence or More?

Understandably, many editors are confused about when to capitalize the element directly following a colon. The strategy I happen to use is pretty brain-free, which is to say that it follows AP style. Lucky for us, AP and Chicago agree on one thing before they part ways.

AP (p. 366): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence.

  • These are some of my favorite things to have for dinner: ravioli, Ethiopian food and breakfast.
  • She told me her secret ingredient: It was butter.

Chicago (6.61): Lowercase the first word unless it is a proper noun or the start of at least two complete sentences or a direct question.

  • I finished reading my friend’s first draft: it was painful.
  • We can do several things this weekend: We can watch King’s Speech. We can do our taxes. Or we can have a tequila party.

AP and Chicago agree on one thing before they part ways.

In my work, I come across some pretty bizarre colon usage which I’d like to eradicate. Therefore, please commit the following to memory:

  • Don’t use more than one colon in the same sentence.
  • Don’t add anything else to a sentence after you’ve finished introducing the element(s). For that, I prescribe a pair of em dashes to set off the element(s) instead.
  • Lose the colon before a subtitle, or secondary title, when the title is displayed on a book cover (or movie poster); by convention, the colon is understood.
  • Don’t use a semicolon instead of a colon to introduce a clause.

A note about colons and spaces: Although I, too, was raised to put two spaces after periods, colons, exclamation points, and question marks by a typewriting teacher who was alive during the Great Depression, it is no longer correct to do so, especially in this age of beautifully typeset materials. The fastest way to clean extra spaces from your copy is to use Microsoft Word to “find” two spaces and “replace” them with one space, and then repeat until two spaces cannot be found.

Though AP only gives the colon a scant 7 column inches of space compared to Chicago’s 2 pages’ worth, it goes out of its way to tack on a little note barring the combination of a dash and a colon. I guess emoticons can’t have noses anymore.

:- )
: (

Here’s a bear who’s surprised to be upside down:

0 :3

The empty martini glass that the bear dropped a second earlier:

()>-0

The olive that rolled under the couch to be discovered next spring:

o

And that, my friends, is how you avoid capitalization altogether.

Initials: Tips for Remembering Style

You’d think that a post covering initials would be about seven words long, but, as always, Chicago has a lot to say.

Chicago: Periods, space! Except when . . . crap.

  • L. R. R. Hood (10.12)
  • FDR (initials used alone, 8.4)
  • MJ (entire name abbreviated, 10.12)
  • President O. (name abbreviated, 7.62)
  • J.-P. Sartre (hyphenated name, 8.7)
  • H.D. (special case for pen name, 14.73)

AP (p. 142): Periods, no space. I win!

  • L.J. Horner

Chicago separates initials with a space, like you would with a spelled-out name.

Here’s a tip on how to remember this basic distinction (space or no space):

  • Chicago separates initials with a space, like you would with a spelled-out name.
  • Due to the nature of newspapers and web pages, AP runs initials together to prevent them from accidentally breaking across two lines.

For Chicago style, to keep the initials together (with space intact), either manually insert a line break before or after the set of initials—preferably before, to keep the entire name together—or use a nonbreaking space between the letters.

AP runs initials together to prevent them from accidentally breaking across two lines.

At least AP and Chicago are both in agreement about not dividing initials, so let’s end on that high note.

Different Goals, Different Styles: Why AP and Chicago Are Not Friends

AP and Chicago have very clear yet conflicting intentions, often producing diametrically opposed styles.

If I think of AP as governing “fast content” (newspapers, online articles) and Chicago as governing “slow content” (books, some periodicals), you can see how the different styles grew from different needs.

The different styles grew from different needs.

Main differences in concerns and goals:

  • Layout: With newspaper columns (and online articles), you cannot always control where the break comes at the end of the line, whereas book and magazine publishers can fiddle with kerning, tracking, horizontal scaling, and soft returns, like, forever. Why this matters: Spaces around an em dash will allow it to break across two lines instead of dragging the words before and after it to the next line. Graphic designers working on a magazine article can, instead, manually insert a break after the dash and take their time making things look purdy.
  • Deadlines: Most dailies and many weeklies are constantly under deadline. Having several nuanced style options to choose from will make the editors kill themselves, and that level of clarity is seen as excessive. The other camp, however, has more time to clarify a thought and nitpick its presentation.
  • Compatibility: Ever get an e-mail with weird characters throughout? For copy to travel well—say, from final draft to wire to computer to publication—it must stay intact through its incarnations, with all intended letters, spaces, and punctuation in place. This places a premium on plainness, such as favoring characters over attributes (e.g., quote marks vs. italics). Non-journalistic content generally travels between fewer points and in the same form.

Otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

Maybe I just made all that up, but it sounds good, right? To me, it explains a whole lot, and otherwise kooky style rules come out looking quite reasonable when given the right context.

That’s me being positive.

The Serial Comma: Lovers and Haters

Ah, the serial comma: to do or not to do. In this example, which is correct?

  • I like to pet kittens, puppies and bunnies.
  • I like to pet kittens, puppies, and bunnies.

Before fists start flying, let me say that, in my experience, there’s a clear divide between two camps regarding use of a comma before the conjunction in a series of three or more items. “Highbrow” publications in one corner and, in the comma-hating corner, newspapers and most of my friends.

There’s a clear divide between two camps.

I reviewed a not-random sample of literature to prove my point, and here are the results:

Serial comma:

No serial comma:

Variety made up its own language—excuse me, slanguage—so maybe it made up its own rules for punctuation as well. And we wonder why there are so many errors in ad copy.

AP’s stance is to omit the serial comma except when it prevents misreading, and Chicago’s stance is to always include it—for the same reason.

Here’s what AP and Chicago have to say.

AP (p. 366): What? A comma where? No. Absolutely not. Well, sometimes.

  • I like to pet kittens, puppies and bunnies.
  • I had orange juice, toast, and yam and kegs for breakfast.

(This is the cruelty-free version of AP’s classic “ham and eggs” example.)

Chicago (6.18): Hells, yeah! Bring it.

  • I like to pet porcupines, pufferfish, and cacti.
  • I had rocks, glass shards, and sticks and stones for breakfast.

In short, AP’s stance is to omit the serial comma except when it prevents misreading, and Chicago’s stance is to always include it—for the same reason. Chicago, being twice as long as AP, has twice as much to say on this subject and offers several more variations of proper serial-comma usage on which the AP is mum (6.18–6.21).