A guide comparing Associated Press style and Chicago style for editors, writers, teachers, students, word nerds, and anyone else who gives a dollar sign, ampersand, exclamation point, and pound sign about style.

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), then it helps to clarify how the reality of their media dictates style.

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.

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.)

I'm toying with the idea of having a little prize for people who help me catch typos on this blog or have awesome suggestions on how to make articles better. Stay tuned!


  1. I think of AP as "disposable" U.S. English and CMOS as classy, "put it on your bookshelf for reading again" publication.

    I wonder... Which style is most familiar to foreign U.S. English readers?

    As a language arts teacher for 24+ years in high school and for a community college, AP was very difficult to get used to. So many petty but annoying differences in convention. I liked your general description of those differences here.

    Chicago and Turabian, MLA and APA are very similar, with just a few things distinguishing them from each other. AP seems to sit out there all by itself, hunched over its plate and choking down its beans and bread fast as it can at its own table, ready to make a quick get-away out the back door before someone uses it to line a bird cage or gut a pumpkin on.

    1. That is a rather apt analogy. I prefer the CMOS, personally, but working in an environment where all the mid-level decision-makers are accustomed to AP, that's where my job is headed.

      I think we’ll be seeing more institutions favoring AP, as many graduates with Journalism degrees find themselves working in advertising or other non-journalism fields. So, despite AP being an outlier, it's becoming more mainstream, and, I suspect, will eventually overtake many of the others in popularity.

      Or perhaps is this just my own experience.

  2. I hear you, Seven of Swords. Most of my authors turn in copy written in a combination of Chicago and AP and then twitch oddly when I begin to point out the differences. If I give them the option they generally choose AP--no matter how strongly I hint and nudge towards the "more proper" style. Maybe it's because I can't seem to decide which I truly prefer.