One of the questions that frequently seems to come up about AP Style writing rules is how to handle abbreviations and acronyms. Unfortunately, this is not one of the areas where the Associated Press Stylebook has a clear, hard and fast, rule.
Instead, the AP Stylebook entry for abbreviations says that abbreviations and acronyms can be used if they are common enough to be well known publicly. In that instance, then the abbreviation or acronym can be used on second reference. Second reference means the second time the item is used. The first time an item is used, it would be spelled out fully.
However the AP Style Guide also notes that certain abbreviations or acronyms are common enough to be used on first reference, that is without having been spelled out first. CIA, and FBI are both examples of this type. Writings need not spell out Central Intelligence Agency first.
One common mistake is that AP Style does not offer a way to inform a reader of what the appropriate abbreviation or acronym is within the construct of a standard sentence. That is to say, that AP Style rules do not permit the use of noting the abbreviation in parenthesis or set off by dashes in a sentence following the first reference.
Of course, nothing prevents and author from constructing another sentence or adjusting the original sentence construction to note the acronym or abbreviation. Technically, however, using the abbreviation later in the work would then violate the original rule about not using abbreviations or acronyms that are not commonplace enough to not need explanation.
Which brings us to the final question. What abbreviations or acronyms are common enough to be used, either on first or second reference?
The answer to that question, is to look up the specific term or phrase being used.
NATO, for example, is acceptable for use in all references, that is there is no need to spell out North Atlantic Treaty Organization the first time it appears in the piece.
The National Organization for Women (the AP Stylebook makes and additional note that is it not “of” women) is acceptable on second reference meaning that you’ll have to type out National Organization for Women the first time and then you can use NOW each time thereafter.
The most difficult issue arises regarding contemporary abbreviations and acronyms. New legislation is particularly troublesome, especially because politicians go through so much trouble to deliberately name their legislation so that it can be referred to via a positive sounding acronym. Military actions are another sticking point.
Because these acronyms are created on the fly, their inclusion in the AP Styleguide is not likely. In these cases, consider how common the term has become. Ask yourself would your grandmother, your mother, your sister, and your daughter all know the term? If so, go right ahead and use it. Just make sure it’s on second reference, just to be sure.