SAPIENS House Style Guide

We follow the Associated Press (AP) Stylebook and the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, except as otherwise directed below. Note that some text and examples are drawn directly from the AP Stylebook. We also have incorporated and adapted guidance from Elements of Indigenous Style by Gregory Younging.

Abandonment: See “collapse” entry.

Aboriginal: Capitalize when referring to people. Only use as an adjective, never a noun.

Accent marks (and other diacritics): We use accent marks and other diacritical marks whenever possible in languages that use a Latin alphabet. See National Geographic’s guidelines for reference.

A.k.a.: Use periods.

Archaeology: Spell with the second a.

Artifact: When used in reference to a tool or object made by Indigenous people (ancient or contemporary), try to be specific and replace the term with what the contemporary community calls the object or artwork, or the phrasing used to describe its significance. If not known, then consider using the term “object” or “artwork” instead of artifact.

Band: In general, avoid the term unless capitalized as part of a formal title. If it is incorporated into a piece, be attentive to usage. Sometimes the term is used in such a way that the cultural and political institutions of an Indigenous community are dismissed or ignored. However, it may be the preferred term for describing an Indigenous group. Where possible, check with the community itself to see whether they prefer this term in reference to themselves or their ancestors.

Cave: Capitalize when part of a formal name (e.g., Liang Bua Cave) but not as part of the name of a cave system (e.g., Atxurra cave system).

Chief: Capitalize as a title before a person’s name.

Clan: Avoid the term unless capitalized as part of a formal title. As a general term (lowercase clan), it may not adequately recognize the sociopolitical organizations and structures that Indigenous communities have had through time. (Also see “Band.”)

Climate change: When this term is used as a modifier, do not hyphenate it (climate change expert).

Collapse: While archaeologists have long used the term collapse (and/or abandonment) to describe the complete failure of societies or the “disappearance” of various peoples (such as for the Ancestral Puebloans in the U.S. Four Corners area), new research and deeper conversations have shown that communities often shifted social organization, relocated, or dispersed across landscapes. Their societies didn’t necessarily “collapse.” In some cases, they continue to return to those previously inhabited lands for resources and/or spiritual observance and so on. Thus, the concepts of collapse and abandonment should be carefully framed and scrutinized.

Comma, serial (a.k.a. Oxford comma): Use it.

Composition titles: Capitalize all major words, including prepositions and conjunctions four letters or longer. Capitalize and italicize both the genus and species name in scientific names in titles. Italicize titles of books, movies, magazines, journals, newspapers, websites that are similar to books, magazines, and the like. Place the titles of chapters, articles, stories, academic courses, poems, etc., within quotation marks. Workshop titles and column titles are set in ROM and do not have quote marks.

Creator, Creation: Capitalize in reference to Indigenous peoples’ understandings of the supreme being who fashioned the world and all life, or the Creation that resulted.

Data: Use plural verbs and pronouns with “data.”

Discovery: Do not use this term as if a practice, object, or place that comes from or was inhabited by Indigenous peoples did not exist prior to a “discovery” by Europeans or European descendants. The practice, object, or place had meaning in context for Indigenous societies. The idea of “unoccupied lands” is erroneous.

Elder: Capitalize as a title before a person’s name.

Epigraphs: Note that these are neither italicized nor enclosed in quotation marks. We typically place them in a gray box.

Folklore: The term can be problematic when it implies differentiation between “high culture” (European, Euro-American, or related to Europeans/European descendants) and “folk culture” and/or non-Western cultural expressions. We suggest replacing it with “cultural practice” or another relevant phrase. Note that it also refers to an academic field, in which case the term is, of course, acceptable.

Foreign terms: Italicize the first instance of a foreign word or phrase, followed by a definition in quotation marks or parentheses. After the first occurrence, if the word is used frequently enough to become familiar, it need not be italicized. Foreign words or phrases that have become commonly used in English (and are found in Webster’s New World College Dictionary) are not italicized and usually do not require a definition. 

Genus and species (Latin) names: Capitalize the genus name and italicize both names: Homo sapiens. Upon second reference, abbreviate the genus name: H. sapiens.

Handwashing: One word, a deviation from AP style.

Hyperlinks: Links should be used sparingly. They can be incorporated to cite original research papers (if the full citation is not given in the text), provide further reading (e.g., a trusted media report that presents a deeper understanding of the topic), connect to the direct source you are quoting (such as a speech transcript), or link to a SAPIENS story that covers a related topic. We do not link to encyclopedia entries.

Hyphens: Use hyphens when compound modifiers precede a noun (small-town residents, small-business owner, 72-day marriage, full-time job), except when compounds include the word very (a very small town), any adverbs that end in –ly(an easily forgotten rule), or are clearly understood (chocolate chip cookie). EXCEPTION: hyphenate all instances of well when used as part of a compound (well-known, well-documented, well-understood).

Indigenous: Capitalize when referring to people. Only use it as an adjective, never as a noun.

Land Claim: This can be a problematic term. When applied to Indigenous peoples’ right to ownership of their land, the phrase might imply that the community must apply to have ownership of their lands. The phrase “Indigenous Title” is more appropriate in such cases. However, the phrase can also be used in other ways. For example, when used as a legal term to describe a tribe’s efforts to reclaim legal ownership of traditional territory, it can be less problematic.

Legends: In reference to Indigenous peoples’ Oral Traditions, this term can be insensitive in that it dismisses their traditions as inconsequential or not based in reality. Preference is to use “Oral Traditions,” “Traditional Histories,” or “Traditional Stories.”

Longhouse: Capitalize when used to refer to an Indigenous institution based on consensus. Lowercase in reference to a community’s living quarters.

Maya/Mayan: Use Maya as a noun when referring to a member of a peoples who speak Mayan or as an adjective describing their culture (Maya architecture). Use Mayan to refer to the language (Mayan language family).

Medicine Man/Medicine Woman: Capitalize as a title before a person’s name.

Months: Spell out all instances of months. Do not abbreviate any of them.

Mythology/Myths: In reference to Indigenous peoples’ Oral Traditions, these terms can be insensitive in that they dismiss those traditions as inconsequential or not based in reality. Preference is to use “Oral Traditions,” “Traditional Histories,” or “Traditional Stories.”

Native: Capitalize when referring to people. Try to use the specific community’s name where possible, not simply Native or Native American. It is less commonly used in Canada than in the U.S.

Neanderthal (follow AP): not Neandertal (unless in a quotation)

Numerals: In written text, spell out numerals one through nine. Use figures for 10 and above. EXCEPTIONS: Always use figures when they precede a unit of measurement (4 miles) or a percentage (3.7 percent interest) and when referring to ages (6-year-old girl).

Oral Traditions: Capitalize in reference to the stories that have been told across generations within Indigenous communities.

Paleoindian: not Paleo-Indian

Percentages: Spell out the word percent rather than using the percent symbol: 98 percent.

Pleistocene: The term means the geologic epoch 2.6 mya to ~ 11,700 years ago. Archaeological sites in the Americas prior to ~ 13,000 years ago can be referred to as being from people who lived during the “late Pleistocene,” if an author chooses to avoid other terms that some see as problematic. Suggest using “Paleoindian” or “late Pleistocene.” But others an author can consider: Paleoamerican, Amerindian, or Paleolithic. However, know that some people argue Paleoindian presumes that the first peoples in the Americas were “Indians.” Others say that Paleoamerican may signal a problematic separation between the Americas’ archaeological heritage and Native peoples. Yet others argue that Paleolithic refers to sites in the Eastern Hemisphere and thus is not appropriate for archaeological sites in the Americas. Discuss further on a case-by-case basis with the author, if necessary.

Postcolonial: not post-colonial

Prehistory/prehistoric: Avoid these terms when referencing Indigenous societies before a certain time period. They do not recognize historical accounting kept by Indigenous communities prior to European contact. Replace with “ancient,” the specific date or date range, etc.

Primitive: Unacceptable in reference to Indigenous peoples, as it connotes inaccurate, unscientific notions of human evolution that place human groups in a hierarchy.

Proportions: Use numerals (including 1–9) in proportions.

Pseudonyms: They should be used sparingly, but we recognize the need for them. Authors should be asked why they prefer pseudonyms, and the reasons will be evaluated by the editorial staff on a case-by-case basis. Valid reasons include: to protect the safety of interviewees, to ensure interviewees are not prosecuted for potential criminal activities, to comply with Institutional Review Board requirements of anonymity, or to fulfill previous agreements of anonymity made by the researcher or other interviewer. We do not use double pseudonyms (i.e., Yamaguchi Leijin) where naming conventions place the family name first. Try to write around those instances. And add one of these editorial line at the bottom: * Names have been withheld to protect the sources, as is customary practice in anthropological field work. OR * All names except the author’s have been changed to protect people’s privacy. OR * All names of interviewees have been changed to protect people’s privacy. (Place the asterisk in the text at first mention of a source or for specific interlocutor names that have been changed.)

If an author also needs to ensure the anonymity of a specific place, then use a general description (e.g., village in X state) rather than the actual name.

Rain Dance: May or may not reflect Indigenous understandings of their own rituals working with nature to bring rain. The term may have been adopted by Indigenous communities after colonists popularized it. The rituals may involve much more than inciting rain. Where possible, ask the community to provide a description of the ceremony or ritual.

Square brackets: Use them for parenthetical material within parentheses: (A separate agency, the National Indian Foundation [FUNAI], manages indigenous lands while the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform [INCRA] is tasked with sorting out the rights of squatters and traditional people with informal land rights.)

Sundance: Capitalize this term when it is used to refer to the specific ceremony practiced by Plains tribes. Lowercase the term when referencing a general type of dance or ritual involving the sun.

State abbreviations: The names of the 50 U.S. states should always be spelled out when used in the body of a story.

Superscript: Do not use it (19th, not 19th).

Sweat Lodge: Capitalize the term when used to refer to the specific ceremony conducted by Indigenous peoples. Use lowercase when referring to the lodge itself.

Tales: In reference to Indigenous peoples’ Oral Traditions, this term can be insensitive in that it dismisses their traditions as insignificant or not based in reality. Preference is to use “Oral Traditions,” “Traditional Histories, or “Traditional Stories.”

Tea Party: Capitalize this political and social movement. Its adherents can be called Tea Partyists.

Titles: In general, confine capitalization to formal titles used directly before an individual’s name: Secretary of State John Kerry. Otherwise, the title is lowercase: John Kerry, secretary of state.

Traditional Knowledge (TK) (also, Traditional Ecological Knowledge [TEK]): Capitalize when referring to Indigenous peoples’ “knowledge, innovations, and practices,” e.g., with respect to architecture, ecological management, medicines, and/or the climate, ecosystems, and animal migrations. This is a broader category than Oral Traditions that includes Oral Traditions.

Traditional Stories, Traditional Histories: Capitalize in reference to the stories and histories valued and passed down from generation to generation in Indigenous communities.

United States/U.S.: U.S. (with periods) as an adjective or a noun (even in headlines): migrating to the U.S.; U.S. immigration policy. EXCEPTION: US$4 billion (no periods on US).

Units of measure: Use metric and/or imperial depending on context. Typically, a story that’s based in the United States will use imperial and stories that are based elsewhere will use metric. Use what the author prefers, but be consistent.

University titles that include the city: Use a comma between the university name and the city in all instances: University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee.

Vision Quest: Capitalize the term when referring to the specific ceremony practiced by Indigenous peoples.

War Dance: May or may not reflect Indigenous understandings of their own rituals that relate to social conflict. The term may have been adopted by Indigenous communities after colonists popularized it. The rituals may involve much more than war. Where possible, ask the community to provide a description of the ceremony or ritual.


Revised September 2020