State abbreviations for congressmen

This morning, I noticed in an AP article a reference to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis. For all other state abbreviation uses, everyone has for 50 years been used to the standard postal 2-letter code. Why does the media not refer to Paul Ryan as R-WI?

Is this a stodgy style-guide J-school thing of generational inertia that the news media doesn’t dare to budge on? Or has Congress declared that those are the official designations of their members and they refuse to budge on them? Or are they both in a stare-down, refusing to blink for fear of alienating each other by stepping on their turf?

The AP stylebook uses alternative abbreviations for the states rather than the postal codes. So it is Wis. and not WI for Wisconsin, Calif. not CA for California, and so on.

Understood. But the AP style guide has a separate paragraph to specifically address this particular use of state designations. Is that because the media is unwilling to change its style, or because Congress has adopted it as the official designation?

You’ve got to remember that the people on the Dope are the exception. Most people know very little about anything, and they’re not curious enough to seek out the information. We know that “AL” means Alabama, but I can absolutely guarantee you that a lot of people think it means Alaska.

With the longer abbreviations, more people know what state is meant.

Growing up with a father in the newspaper business… I learned that reporters are encouraged to write so the least intelligent person reading their story will understand what is being said.

So they go to college and learn a lot of big words, then get a job as a reporter, and are told to not use big words because some of their readers will no be able to understand their story!

And along with that, not using acronyms or using longer acronyms would be more understandable than a 2 letter acronym. i.e. Calif. would be understood by more people than CA would be.

And then there is “PA” (Pennsylvania)!

The media is not a thing and is not synonymous with the Associated Press.

Most style guides are extremely conservative. And for good reason. They’ve spent decades training their staff - and their readers - what certain abbreviations mean. Changing that is a huge disruption. Writers would fail to write it the new way, editors would fail to catch the mistakes, and readers would rise up to complain that they don’t understand what is going on. It doesn’t matter how seemingly obvious the change is; change is hard. And any change to AP style affects literally hundreds of millions of people.

And what do newspapers do with all the archived material? Go back and change it? Leave it in two ways?

Style guides are there for a reason. Continuity is a big one. Changes sometimes must occur, but they are kept to a minimum. This particular change gains nothing in information. So why do it?

I surprised that Tenn made the list, but not Penn. I used to see it often, and sometimes Penna.


I prefer the AP style to the USPS two-letter abbreviations. Seems more traditional and classier, somehow.

In ye olden days, when our founding fathers were just bubbling babes, it was common to use the first letter and the last letter of a name as an abbreviation for the name. Thus, Va for Virginia, Pa for Pennsylvania, Ms for Massachusetts, Ct for Connecticut, etc. Those abbreviations are so old (pre-Revolutionary War old) that it’s pretty much assumed everyone knows them.

States admitted to the Union later didn’t always get that treatment, because the usage changed. That’s why you don’t see Tennessee abbreviated “Te”, despite the fact that it was admitted very soon after the start of the nation. Mind you, Kentucky is Ky, which shows that there was mixed usage still.

The USPS abbreviations are really only for postal purposes, e.g. to be put on addresses. Many people don’t know that, but the best editors do, as in the AP style.

I live in Arkansas (AR) and people often use AK or AR.

Now I find that argument unconvincing. Sure, the two-letter codes were introduced for postal purposes. But what is there to stop the general public from using them for other purposes? There would be nothing inherently wrong with that, and I’m pretty certain the USPS would not mind.

The beauty of the USPS two-letter codes is that it boils down the 50 states plus D.C. to a mere two characters, which is the absolute minimum even theoretically necessary for uniquely identifying these areas in an alphanumeric character set with ten digits plus 26 letters. At the same time, they are mostly (though mybe not in all cases) intuitively intelligible, and they are aligned with the provinces of Canada to avoid duplication (they might even be aligned also with the states of Mexico, though I’m not sure about that). It’s quite a well-designed system, so why not use it beyond the purposes of the mail services?


All the above are official USPS codes for the areas they have primary postal responsibility … I can see why these aren’t used in media … 'cause you’d have so many people confusted …

MP - Northern Mariana Islands
AS - American Somoa
TT - Trust Territory of the Pacific
AP - Armed forces/Pacific
FM - Federated States of Micronesia

I guess it will be very rare to run into a Congressman or Senator from these areas.

Meet Amata Coleman Radewagen, Congressional delegate from American Samoa

Gregorio Sablan from Northern Mariana Islands

Not to mention Madeleine Z. Bordallo, from the territory of Guam (postal abbreviation GU) and Stacey Plaskett from the U.S. Virgin Islands (VI)

That’s a good point … but I was addressing the AP style guide point … why they try not to use NE … as Nebr. has wider understanding … especially abroad …

To be precise they are non-voting Delegates and not Representatives.

At first, the abbreviation for Nebraska was NB. It was quickly changed to NE, no doubt because it was found confusing with New Brunswick.

The CA for California is often confused with the ISO Alpha-2 CA for Canada. Yes, they are a different set of abbreviations, but it’s not always obvious which one is meant.

We’re not talking about the general public. We’re talking about newspaper editors, who have to be worried that their readers won’t know whether AK means Alaska or Arkansas unless they happen to live in one of those states.