A Place for Two-Letter State Abbreviations

While reading an inflight travel magazine on my vacation, I came across an ad for a resort in Traverse City, MI. Do you recognize the abbreviation MI?

Is it Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, or Missouri? I am not familiar with Traverse City, so the ad kept me guessing. It wasn't until I had Internet access after the flight that I found the location of the resort.

The full-page ad had plenty of room to spell out Michigan on the same line with Traverse City. Why use MI and confuse potential customers?

See if you know which states in the U.S. these two-letter abbreviations represent:

  NE
  AL
  CO
  IA
  MA

You may have recognized them instantly, but many adults have spent more time reading email and text messages than noticing state abbreviations on envelopes. Like them, your international business readers may not easily recognize on that list Nebraska (not Nevada), Alabama (not Alaska), Colorado (not Connecticut), Iowa (not Indiana), and Massachusetts (not Maine or Maryland).

Customers seeking a restaurant, hotel, or business in Nevada don't want one in Nebraska, so be sure to make your location clear to potential customers and visitors by spelling out the state name.

The place for two-letter state abbreviations is on envelopes between the city and the zip code. They were created to fill that spot, and that is where they belong.

Guideline: In business writing and journalism, when you refer to a state in text (rather than a chart), always spell it out. That way, your reader will recognize Virginia right away rather than having to translate VA.

Guideline: In business writing, when you refer in text to a city-state combination, such as Orlando, Florida, spell out the state name if you follow the guidelines of The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago) or The Gregg Reference Manual (Gregg). I strongly prefer the spelled-out style because it eliminates confusion about the name of the state.

However, if you are a journalist or business writer who follows The Associated Press Stylebook (AP), you will abbreviate the state using the traditional state abbreviations below. Some of them are the same as the two-letter postal abbreviations. However, notice that these abbreviations have periods, and in some the second letter of a two-letter abbreviation is lower case.

Ala.    Alabama
Ariz.   Arizona
Ark.    Arkansas
Calif.  California
Colo.  Colorado
Conn. Connecticut
Del.    Delaware
Fla.    Florida
Ga.    Georgia
Ill.     Illinois
Ind.    Indiana
Kan.   Kansas
Ky.     Kentucky
La.     Louisiana
Md.    Maryland
Mass. Massachusetts
Mich.  Michigan
Minn. Minnesota
Miss.  Mississippi
Mo.    Missouri
Mont. Montana
Neb.   Nebraska
N.H.   New Hampshire 
N.J.    New Jersey
N.M.   New Mexico
N.Y.   New York
N.C.   North Carolina
N.D.   North Dakota
Okla.  Oklahoma
Ore.   Oregon
Pa.     Pennsylvania
R.I.     Rhode Island
S.C.    South Carolina
S.D.    South Dakota
Tenn. Tennessee
Vt.     Vermont
Va.     Virginia
Wash.  Washington
W. Va. West Virginia
Wis.    Wisconsin
Wyo.   Wyoming
 
Did you notice the absence of a few states? Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Ohio, Texas, and Utah are not abbreviated in AP style. Neither is the District of Columbia. Chicago abbreviates Texas as Tex.  

I bet you are wondering which style is preferred for slides, tables, and other places with limited space. Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviations. AP and Gregg prefer the abbreviations listed above, but Gregg acknowledges the growing popularity of the two-letter postal versions. My Microsoft spelling and grammar checker flagged the abbreviations above, suggesting the two-letter postal versions.

When you need to abbreviate the names of Canadian provinces and territories, use the two-letter abbreviations of the Canada Post, which are appropriate in both English and French:

AB   Alberta
BC   British Columbia
MB   Manitoba
NB   New Brunswick
NL   Newfoundland and Labrador
NS   Nova Scotia
NT   Northwest Territories
NU   Nunavut
ON   Ontario
PE   Prince Edward Island
QC   Quebec
SK   Saskatchewan
YT   Yukon

To my mind, the only place for two-letter abbreviations of states, provinces, and territories is in addresses. I follow that principle so my readers will not be confused for a moment by MA, MO, CO, ON, OR or AK.

What rules do you follow for rendering the names of states, provinces, and territories?

Lynn
Syntax Training

11 COMMENTS

  1. I’m with you strongly on this one, Lynn. Most print journalists will be, as you pointed out.

    Other abbreviations: Without an AP Stylebook in front of me, I can’t confirm this, but I generally abbreviate “road” and “street” only when the address is complete with street number: 123 Green St., Philadelphia, or Green Street, Philadelphia.

    Does the US Postal Service still advocate for mailing addresses on envelopes to leave off the comma between the city and state?
    Joe Smith
    123 Green St.
    Philadelphia PA 19103

    And what do you think of “Bucks and Chester counties” versus “Bucks and Chester Counties”?

    I really appreciate your posts, Lynn — especially when we agree!

  2. Whoops! You caught me with my OCD showing. I memorized all of the two-letter state and province codes so long ago, I don’t even think about it. Thanks for the heads-up. I’ll have to keep it more in mind.

    I’ve actually encountered something similar in editing for a chemical engineer – he reads the periodic symbols as words, something difficult to manage if you haven’t memorized the periodic table!

  3. Word/content space (whether in an e-mail, poster, advertisement or billboard) is valuable – generally too valuable to take up with spelling out a state. I also agree with Karla as along as we are talking about a promotional or advertisement piece AND the target audience is in the U.S. With that said, if I am writing a traditional business letter, then I will follow Gregg guidelines. BTW – USPS doesn’t like ANY punctuation as it is hard for their computers to read for the automatic sorting (it’s not a “style” issue for them). It’s also easier for their sorting machines to read in all CAPS (at least that is what I read a couple of years ago).

  4. I memorized the two letter state abbreviations while working for a mail order company years ago. I recognize that not everyone knows these codes. The post office also prefers the following abbreviations be used with no punctuation:

    AVE – Avenue
    ST – Street
    CT – Court
    BLVD – Boulevard
    CIR – Circle
    FWY – Freeway
    STE – Suite
    APT – Apartment

    In fact, the USPS has a list of Official USPS Abbreviations on their website at:
    http://www.usps.com/ncsc/lookups/usps_abbreviations.html

  5. Hi, Karla, Cookie, Grapholalia, C.R., Jennifer, and Stephanie. Thank you for your insights.

    Karla and C.R., I find it helpful to consider what my readers do know rather than what they should know. My principle for all business writing is to give readers what they need. If I think some of them may not know an abbreviation, I am going to spell it despite space limitations.

    Cookie, AP does agree with your rule of abbreviating “Street” only in a complete address. It agrees with your rendering of “counties” too. Good memory!

    Grapholalia, I loved your example of the chemical engineer and the periodic table.

    Jennifer and Stephanie, you might be interested in my test on how to address an envelope. It’s here on the blog at http://www.businesswritingblog.com/business_writing/2007/03/how_to_address_.html (If you can’t click the link, just search this site for “address an envelope.”) The US Post Office is more flexible than we think, at least for regular mail.

    Thanks to all for enriching the discussion.

    Lynn

  6. This situation came up recently at my work. Our style in the past was to abbreviate New Mexico as N. Mex. The request to change it to N.M. was met with great resistance by my co-workers. My thought was clearly it should be NM, the government postal abbreviation ( but I am new and not in an editorial position). In the end the text was re-worded so that the full “New Mexico” would fit.

  7. Lynn, thanks for making this point. I am surprised to learn that those who comment on your blog think these abbrevations are taught at school; let me try you with some I learned.

    Berks.
    Herts.
    Bucks.

    These are abbreviations for English counties, and are usually used in addresses sent to the UK. The first, for example, is the usual postal abbreviation for Berkshire.

    Oddly enough the rest of the world does not learn these, just as those outside the USA do not learn the abbreviations for American states. As an immigrant to the USA, I think it is my duty to learn these abbreviations and I am working on it because two years ago I chose to make the USA my home, but to simply believe that the rest of the world learns these at school, seems strange. The world is a big place and many companies are international. Surely it is important to know how to address a worldwide audience?

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