This style guide is a framework to help all entry and article content contributors who write for BlackPast.org. It provides rules and guidelines to help make the process of providing that content easily understandable. Think of it not as a group of rules you have to memorize when you write an entry or article. Instead use it as you would a dictionary. If you are uncertain about style, grammar, or punctuation, consult this guide.
This is a living document, meaning that it will change as circumstances dictate. Its basic rules are drawn from the Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, and the Associated Press Stylebook among other sources although some rules here supersede all other guides. Academics, book authors and students are most likely familiar with Chicago, while mass communication professionals, including journalists, citizen bloggers, social media users and members of the general public will be acquainted with AP Style. This style guide draws from both. If you encounter some issue not addressed in this guide, Chicago, or AP, or in recommended dictionaries (below), please contact us at BlackPast. We will update this style guide regularly to reflect new information, new developments, and new rules.
If you have not done so, please familiarize yourself first with “How to Write for BlackPast” at https://www.blackpast.org/how-write-blackpast-org/.
Table of Contents
BlackPast Specific Rules
General Usage Rules
Specific Rules for the BlackPast Music Library
Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases
Note: In case of alternate spellings, use the first spelling listed.
Webster’s New World
Webster’s New World College
Oxford University Press
BlackPast Specific Rules
Many of the following entries were adapted from the 2020 AP Stylebook’s section on race-related coverage.
Acceptable for Black people in the U.S. The terms are not necessarily interchangeable. Americans of Caribbean heritage, for example, generally refer to themselves as Caribbean American. Follow an individual’s preference if known and be specific when possible and relevant. Minneapolis has a large Somali American population because of refugee resettlement. The author is Senegalese American.
Do not use the term Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), which some see as more inclusive by distinguishing the experiences of Black and Indigenous people, but others see as less inclusive by diminishing the experiences of everyone else.
Acceptable, when clearly relevant, to describe people with more than one racial heritage. Usually more useful when describing large, diverse groups of people than individuals. Avoid mixed-race, which can carry negative connotations, unless a story subject prefers the term. Be specific if possible, and then use biracial for people of two heritages or multiracial for those of two or more on subsequent references if needed. Examples: She has an African American father and a white mother instead of She is biracial. But: The study of biracial people showed a split in support along gender lines. Multiracial can encompass people of any combination of races.
Use the capitalized term as an adjective in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense: Black people, Black culture, Black literature, Black studies, Black colleges. Use of the capitalized Black recognizes that language has evolved, along with the common understanding that especially in the United States, the term reflects a shared identity and culture rather than a skin color alone.
Black Lives Matter, #BlackLivesMatter
A global movement launched after the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin with a goal to eradicate systemic racism and white supremacy and to oppose violence committed against Black people. Either Black Lives Matter or the Black Lives Matter movement is acceptable. BLM is acceptable on second reference.
Black(s), white(s) (n.)
Do not use either term as a singular noun. For plurals, phrasing such as Black people, white people, Black teachers, white students is often preferable when clearly relevant.
Generally acceptable to describe males or females younger than 18. While it is always inaccurate to call people under 18 men or women and people 18 and older boys or girls, be aware of nuances and unintentional implications. Referring to Black males of any age and in any context as boys, for instance, can be perceived as demeaning and call to mind historical language used by some to address Black men. Be specific about ages if possible, or refer to Black youths, child, teen, or similar.
Caucasian Avoid as a synonym for white, unless in a quotation.
colored Use Negro or colored only in names of organizations or in rare quotations when essential.
contributor: This runs under the BlackPast entry and sources. Example:
The three categories of signatures are:
Academic Historians—individuals who teach or have taught at an institution of higher education including all community or junior colleges, four-year institutions, and post-graduate institutions.
Student Historians—individuals who are currently students at an institution of higher education including all community or junior colleges, four-year institutions, and post-graduate institutions.
Independent Historians—all contributors to BlackPast who are not in either category above.
No hyphen for terms such as African American, Asian American, and Filipino American, used when relevant to refer to an American person’s heritage. The terms are less common when used to describe non-Americans but may be used when relevant: Turkish German for a German of Turkish descent.
Do not use indiscriminately as a synonym for the sections of cities inhabited by minorities or poor people. Ghetto has a connotation that government decree has forced people to live in a certain area. In most cases, section, neighborhood, district, slum or quarter is the more accurate word.
June 19, the traditional commemoration date of the emancipation of enslaved people in the state of Texas. The holiday also has been called Juneteenth Independence Day or Freedom Day. President Abraham Lincoln first issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves free in Confederate territory on Sept. 22, 1862, but the news took time to travel. June 19, 1865 is the date when word of the proclamation reached African Americans in Texas.
Some words and phrases that seem innocuous to one group can carry negative connotations, even be seen as slurs, to another. Be sensitive to your varied audiences and their different perceptions of language and the larger world. For instance, many people see thug as code for a racial slur; Black boy has a loaded history and should be avoided in referring to Black males of any age; unarmed Black man could be seen as assuming the default is for Black men to be armed.
minority, racial minority
The term is acceptable as an adjective in broad references to multiple races other than white in the United States: We will hire more members of minority groups. Be sure the term is accurate in each circumstance, since what constitutes a racial minority varies by location. Be specific whenever possible by referring to, for instance, Black Americans, Chinese Americans, or members of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington.
Negro Use Negro or colored only in names of organizations or in rare quotations when essential.
obscenities, profanities, vulgarities
Do not use them in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. Try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific word or phrase. For example, an anti-gay or sexist slur; a racial slur or epithet. In some stories, it may be better to replace the offensive word with a generic descriptive in parentheses, e.g., (vulgarity) or (obscenity).
people of color, POC
The term is acceptable when necessary in broad references to multiple races other than white: We are recruiting more people of color. Nine playwrights of color collaborated on the script. Be aware, however, that many people of various races object to the term for various reasons, including that it lumps together into one monolithic group anyone who isn’t white. Be specific whenever possible by referring to, for instance, Black Americans, Chinese Americans or members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida. In some cases, other wording may be appropriate. Examples: people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds; diverse groups; various heritages; different cultures.
The top of a BlackPast entry should have the person’s name on one line in bold; follow with their birth and death years using full years and a hyphen:
Jane Evans Jones (1920-2001)
If a person is living, use a dash: (1970–).
A doctrine asserting racial differences in character, intelligence, etc., and the superiority of one race over another, or racial discrimination or feelings of hatred or bigotry toward people of another race.
Deciding whether a specific statement, action, policy, etc., should be termed racist, or characterized in a different way, often is not clear-cut. Such decisions should include discussion with colleagues and/or others from diverse backgrounds and perspectives. It is often more useful to describe a person’s words or actions. Depending on the specifics of what was said or done, alternatives may include xenophobic, bigoted, biased, nativist, racially divisive, or in some cases, simply racial.
A term sometimes used to describe bias or perceived bias against majority groups. Limit its use to quotes; generally just discrimination will suffice to describe such allegations or practices.
slaves, enslaved people
The term slaves denotes an inherent identity of a person or people treated as chattel or property. The term enslaved people underlines that the slave status has been imposed on individuals. Many prefer the term enslaved to separate people’s identity from their circumstances. Others prefer the term slave as a way to make a point of the circumstances. Either is acceptable.
BlackPast entries should have three sources at the end, punctuated like this: First author’s name, “Article Name,” Publication name, publication URL; Second author’s name, etc. If source is a book: Author’s name, Book’s title, (place of publication: Name of publisher, date of publication); (or period if it’s the last source). All authors’ names should be listed first name then last name.
systemic racism, structural racism and institutional racism
These refer to social, political and institutional systems and cultures that contribute to racial inequality in areas such as employment, health care, housing, the criminal justice system and education. Avoid shortening this use to simply racism, to avoid confusion with the other definition. Also, the correct term is systemic, as opposed to systematic.
URL shortener https://bitly.com For online BlackPast sources, bitly.com and tinyurl.com are recommended sites for shortening URLs. Here’s how to do that:
- Highlight and copy your URL.
- Paste it into the appropriate box on the homepage of either site (scroll down slightly on bitly.com). These should be obvious.
- Click “shorten” on bitly.com, or “Make TinyURL!” on tinyurl.com.
- Then click “copy” on either site.
- Test URL in a new browser window. If it doesn’t work, use the original URL to go to website, copy that URL and then repeat this process.
General Usage Rules
academic honors: summa cum laude, magna cum laude (not italic)
academic degrees: bachelor’s degree or bachelor’s; master’s degree; but MBA, MD, JD are also acceptable.
Use abbreviations Ave., Blvd., and St. only with a numbered address. Example: 2418 Main St.
Spell out and capitalize such designations when they are part of a formal street name without a number. Example: The store is located on the corner of 22nd Street and Rainier Avenue.
Use figures for months and years; for example: She is 89 years old; his daughter is 4 months old.
When expressing an age as an adjective before a noun or as a substitute for a noun, use hyphens. Examples: A 7-year-old girl. The team was comprised of 7-year-olds. The girl is 7 years old. The age of the girl is 7.
Do not use an apostrophe when rounding off ages. Example: He is in his 30s. The girl is in her teens.
a.m., p.m. Lowercase, with periods.
book titles See composition titles.
capitalization In general, avoid unnecessary capitals. Companies, other organizations and government agencies tend to overcapitalize; consult AP or Chicago when in doubt. The general rule is to capitalize first letters of proper names.
Lowercase, spelling out numbers less than 10. Use ordinal figures to express the number 10 and all numbers greater than 10. When used as an adjective, hyphenate. Examples: the first century, the 20th century, a 17th-century costume, a second-century artifact
For proper names, follow the organization’s practice. Example: 20th Century-Fox
Capitalize as a formal title before a name. Do not capitalize titles as a casual, temporary position. Examples: Ford Motor Co. Chairman James Hooper, meeting chairman Robert Jones, Phyllis Smith served as chairperson of the meeting.
To avoid sexist language, use chair or chairperson whenever possible.
college and university courses, majors, departments and schools
Lower-case the first letter unless it starts a sentence or is a proper noun, for example: architecture, English, literature, chemistry, education, voice performance; introduction to physics, advanced sociology, African American Studies.
Civil Rights Movement
composition titles I
Italicize the names of books, movies, operas, plays, videos, record albums, brochures, television shows (including online programs from Netflix, Apple, etc.), lectures, speeches, and works of art.
Examples: Visit the location where Booker T. Washington wrote Up From Slavery. The horror movie Get Out was filmed in Alabama. While in D.C., visit the Smithsonian to view Kehinde Wiley’s President Barack Obama.
The Bible and books that are primarily catalogs of reference material (including almanacs, directories, dictionaries, encyclopedias, handbooks, and similar publications) are not italicized.
composition titles II
Put quotation marks around titles of poems, songs, newspaper and magazine articles, and episodes of television programs. Examples: My favorite Motown song is “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Maya Angelou read her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration.
When appropriate, abbreviate words such as Company (Co.), Corporation (Corp.), Incorporated (Inc.), and Limited (Ltd.). (See corporation, below, for more information). Capitalize first letter of all words in a company title.
Abbreviate as Corp. when a company or government agency uses the word at the end of its name. Example: Microsoft Corp. Spell out when it occurs elsewhere in a name. Example: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Spell out all months and use numerals, without ordinal designation (no -st, -nd, -rd, or -th). Examples: The tour leaves June 7. The trip runs from January 19 through February 11.
days of the week Do not abbreviate.
Use Arabic figures to indicate decades of history. Indicate plural by adding the letter s, with no apostrophe. Examples: 1890, the 1890s, the mid-1930s
directions and regions
In general, lower-case north, south, northeast, northern, etc., when they indicate compass direction; capitalize when they designate regions.
Examples: He drove west. The storm is moving east. (compass directions) It will bring showers to the East Coast. The South stays hot from May to November. She has a Southern accent. He went out West to seek his fortune. (regions)
With names of nations: Lowercase unless they are part of a proper name or are used to designate a politically divided nation. Examples: northern France, eastern Canada, the western United States, Northern Ireland, South Korea
Use figures and spell out inches, feet, yards, miles, kilometers, etc. Hyphenate adjectival forms before nouns. Consider adding metric in parentheses if needed. Examples: He walked 4 miles. It is 13 miles from Huntsberg to Merrysville. The 500-foot drop is frightening. The coyote came 6 yards from our front door.
District of Columbia
Abbreviate as D.C. when used in conjunction with Washington; spell out when used alone on first reference. D.C. always is preceded and followed by a comma, except when ending the sentence. In subsequent references, refer to the city as the District, not as D.C. Example: Visiting Washington, D.C., can be exciting. In and around the District of Columbia are many fine museums.
earth refers to dirt or phrases like down-to-earth; use Earth for the planet.
email This is here simply for the spelling. A hyphen is no longer used.
Capitalize when referring to the architectural style or to corporate or government bodies that use the word as part of their formal names: The center has a charming Federal edifice. Send the package via Federal Express to the Federal Trade Commission.
Lowercase when used as an adjective to distinguish something from state, county, city, town, or private entities: The federal government has designated the land as a scenic area. A federal judge ruled the airline must comply with federal regulations.
Capitalize and abbreviate as Gov. when used as a formal title before a name in regular text. Example: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee urged everyone to wear a mask during the pandemic.
Do not capitalize or abbreviate in general usage. Example: The governors of all 50 states met to discuss highway issues.
historical periods and events
Capitalize the names of widely recognized epochs in anthropology, archaeology, geology, and history. Example: the Bronze Age, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance
Also capitalize widely recognized popular names for periods and events.
Examples: the Boston Tea Party, the Civil War, the Great Depression
With names of persons, abbreviate and do not precede by a comma. Example: Joseph F. Kennedy Jr.; Joe Jr.
In other cases, spell out. Example: Senior citizens get a discount at the Woodland Park Zoo.
Use Rep., Reps., Sen., and Sens. as formal titles before one or more names. Spell out and lowercase in other uses. Never precede a name with Congressman or Congresswoman, unless quoting. Add U.S. or state before title to avoid confusion.
Example: U.S. Sen. Feinstein spoke to state Sen. Smith. Several state senators attended the briefing.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day
metric Because BlackPast is read worldwide, include metric measurements in parentheses after English ones if the reference is to a nation other than the United States. For example: The family moved 50 miles (80 kilometers) south after the end of the Congo Civil War.
Abbreviate when used as a formal title before a person’s name; spell out and lower-case first letter if used as a substitute for a person’s rank. Examples: U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Marilyn Smith will visit the base. The major general is on a tight schedule.
millions, billions, trillions Spell out, and use figures in all except casual uses. Examples: The city has 2 million inhabitants. The building cost $6 million. I wish I had a million dollars.
months Spell out in all usages. Examples: October rather than Oct., February rather than Feb.
Spell out one through nine when depicting a sequence in time or location; use figures from 10 on, except very large numbers, which may combine figures and words. See millions, billions, trillions
When numbers and figures are used in the same sentence or paragraph, follow the appropriate rule for each: Buildings in the project range from five stories to 109 stories.
See ages, century, dates, decades, distances
Capitalize the proper names of nationalities, peoples, races, and ethnic groups and tribes. Examples: Arabs, Arabic, African, African American, British, Chinese, Cherokee, Hausa, or Zulu. Never use yellow or red as racial characterizations.
number no., nos. (# could be confused with hashtag)
Always use figures and spell out percent. Do not use a hyphen, even when using a percentage as an adjective. When listing a range, include percent with each figure. Examples:
You’ll save 10 percent when you show your membership card. Get a 20 percent discount at all metro-area locations. The theater offers discounts from 5 percent to 12 percent.
States names are always spelled out. When used with a city or town name, do not abbreviate. Do not use two-letter all-cap abbreviations (TN, WA, etc.); these are used by the U.S. Postal Service for ZIP codes. When used with a city or town, precede and follow the state name with commas. Once a city and state are mentioned in an entry, the city alone can be used. Examples:
On your next trip to California, stop in Monterey. In Cincinnati, Ohio, you can visit the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. I can recommend some good restaurants in Cincinnati.
titles and names
Titles, in general, are capitalized only when they are used directly before a name.
Examples: He had an audience with Pope Francis. He had an audience with the pope. She spoke with the president of United States.
theater / theatre Theater is the generic American spelling. Check websites for spellings of proper names.
United States, U.S. Use the abbreviated form only as an adjective.
website Also, webcam, webcast, webfeed, webmaster, webpage, webmaster, but web address, web browser. Cap first letters in World Wide Web.
Use commas before and after year when it follows a specific date. Do not use commas when used alone or after a month only. For example: The party is scheduled for December 15, 2021, at the president’s home. The project is scheduled to start in March 2003. We held our millennium celebration in 2001.
Specific Rules for the BlackPast Music Library
album names: Italicize (see composition titles above)
audio and video clips Each entry in the Library must include a YouTube link to the major hit or representative performance of an artist. List these YouTube links at the bottom of your entry under your signature. It should appear as follows: Slick Rick, “Children’s Story,” 1988, Hip-Hop, https://youtu.be/HjNTu8jdukA.
awards Check spelling and capitalization on award’s website. Examples: Grammy Award, American Music Award, Dove Award, Stellar Awards, Soul Train Award, Pioneer Award
band names Treat as any other proper name, for example: The Temptations
charts Billboard Hot 100 chart, Billboard Top Ten, Billboard R&B chart. Check chart’s website.
Events: Treat as a proper name: the New Jack Swing 4ever (NJS4E) event
Genres rhythm & blues, R&B, classical, rock ‘n’ roll, rap, rapper; check dictionary for others
Hall of Fame: treat as other proper names, i.e., Vocal Group Hall of Fame; Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. When in doubt, check the respective website.
Song titles Use quotation marks, i.e., “Hello Stranger” (an exception to both AP and Chicago)
Record labels: Check company’s website. Examples: Kudo Records, Diddy’s Bad Boy record label, Epic records.
Record sales: Actual record sales are the best way to gauge the popularity or importance of a song. Always use this guide for sales: Gold, 500,000 units sold, Platinum, 1 million or more records or albums sold, multi-platinum, over 2 million units sold. Example: Carl Douglas’s hit song, “Ku Fung Fighting” went multiplatinum, selling more than 11 million records worldwide.
Use only when it is part of an entity’s formal name. Never use & to replace and in text.
apostrophe Used to indicate possession, or to stand in for missing letters or numerals. Examples: The band was founded by the O’Jays. It had its heyday in the 1990s.
The colon is most frequently used at the end of a complete sentence to introduce lists. Example: There are three reasons to visit New Orleans: culture, architecture, and cuisine. The members of the band are the following: Sheila Ross Burnett, Anita Ross Burnett, Veronica Brown, and Terry Jones Flippen Gonzales.
Use oxford comma in series, for example: We had ham, rice, plantains, and mustard greens for dinner.
In direct quotations, commas always go inside the quotation marks.
Use a dash only when it is part of a quotation. Put one space on each side of a dash.
Example: In 1999 Richard Smith declared, “The Northwest African American Museum — established in 1908 — is a must-visit for those interested in Black history in Washington state.”
With compound modifiers, hyphenate before word being modified; do not do so afterward: school-board members, members of the school board, 6-year-old girl; she was 6 years old
Adverbs ending in -ly take no hyphen; they are always adverbs, never another part of speech, i.e., they are happily married, she gingerly handled the baby, he hesitantly agreed to her request.
Use to surround the exact words of a speaker. Do not use them around a paraphrased statement. Example: She told Ryan, “I will never marry you!” She told Ryan she would never marry him.
Periods and commas always go within quotation marks. The dash, semicolon, question mark, and exclamation point go within the quotation marks only when they apply to the quoted matter. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.
Examples: “Please come here,” the producer said. I love the song “Green Onions.”
“Come here!” the producer roared, adding that he absolutely loves the song “Green Onions”!
When using quotations within quotation, alternate between single and double quotation marks. Note: Punctuation rules regarding quotations still apply.
Example: “I love the song ‘Green Onions,’” Sarah said.
In direct quotations, periods always go inside the quotation marks.
Glossary of Problematic Words and Phrases
The words listed below (selected from Chicago 5.250) sound similar and thus are often used incorrectly. When in doubt about their proper usage, consult one of the dictionaries listed at top.)
anyone/ any one
carat; karat; carrot
cite, site, sight
ensure; insure; assure
gibe, jibe, jive
medal; meddle; metal; mettle
minuscule (from “minus”)
palette; palate; pallet
peak; peek; pique
pedal; peddle; petal
prejudice, bias, racism
rein, reign, rain
there, their, they’re
Revised October 2021, Karen Rathe