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.
- 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.
- AP: Alaska
- Chicago: Alaska or Alas.
District of Columbia (DC)
- AP: District of Columbia
- Chicago: D.C.
- AP: Neb.
- Chicago: Neb. or Nebr.
New Hampshire (NH)
New Jersey (NJ)
New Mexico (NM)
New York (NY)
North Carolina (NC)
North Dakota (ND)
- AP: Ore.
- Chicago: Ore. or Oreg.
Rhode Island (RI)
South Carolina (SC)
South Dakota (SD)
West Virginia (WV)
- AP: Wis.
- Chicago: Wis. or Wisc.
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.