How about Montana: MA or MT?
Arkansas: AK or AR?
Would it be more clear if I suggested Mich. for Michigan, Mont. for Montana, and Ark. for Arkansas?
If you already have all the postal abbreviations memorized, the two-letter postal code system may not cause any confusion. But do all your readers have those distinctions nailed down?
That’s why I’d recommend going with the AP Style for state abbreviations as part of your company’s stylebook – with some exceptions we’ll get to. First, a bit of history.
Where those confusing post office abbreviations come from
For much of its existence, the postal service used a less-ambiguous system for identifying a state. Up until 1963, the mail system’s list of abbreviations was nearly the same as that of the Associated Press – Mich., Mont. and Ark., for example, was what you were expected to write following the name of the city on a letter.
But all of that changed with the advent of the Zone Improvement Plan.
Not familiar with it? It’s better known as the ZIP Code.
The idea was that the postal service would get a letter to you faster if it just had five numbers after the name of the city and state to know where it was to go. Here’s the dirty little secret of that switch: The postal system really didn’t care that much about the state abbreviation. The ZIP Code number was the more important determinant in figuring out the writer’s meaning.
Why the AP approach makes more sense
So why would your organization use the postal service system for state abbreviations — with all its ambiguity — instead of the AP system, or alternatively, the Chicago Manual of Style?
I can think of two reasons:
- Those using the postal system abbreviations in a business context don’t want to be bothered memorizing another system.
- The postal style somehow seems more modern.
In many organizations, those charged with enforcing style codes would get a lot of resistance to the AP system for Reason No. 1. But we should make decisions based on what’s helpful to readers, not writers.
As for Reason No. 2, I’m not sure that in an era of GPS coordinates and global communications, a system devised more than 50 years ago by a federal agency is exactly modern. In fact, in 2014, the AP recommended switching back to the full name of a state in many instances to reflect an increasingly international audience. Do we really expect someone in Berlin to know the difference betweenIA and ID?
About those exemptions: If you’re citing an address in your copy, use the postal service’s system: Write to the governor at 250 State Capitol Bldg. Little Rock, AR 72201.
I’d probably skip the AP rule about not naming the state that major cities are in, just for clarity’s sake. The AP Style Book says, for instance, that Minneapolis doesn’t require a state name. But in my travels, I’ve met plenty of Americans — to say nothing of those living outside the U.S. — who think Minneapolis is somewhere in Indiana.
Just think about it
Look, I wouldn’t expect anyone to risk a job fighting over state abbreviations. There are plenty of other style and grammatical battles to fight that are more important.
I bring all of this up because I think those of us who make our living as communications pros should think about whether what we’re doing is actually improving communication. We don’t have to be absolutists about this, but we at least should figure out what steps we can do to help our organizations reach their audiences.
Michael Blumfield is an independent communications consultant living in St. Paul, Minnesota. More precisely, he lives in ZIP+4 Code 55102-3108. No need to send a letter – contact him email@example.com or 612-419-4405.