We can all agree on lots of things when it comes to writing. For example, everyone knows that grammar is important, and that proper spelling makes for good readability. Capitalizing proper nouns and lowercasing most other words make things clear for your readers. And most punctuation is pretty standard. Generally, if you’re sloppy in these areas, people will just put your text down, or worse, throw it away. But there are many things editors and publishers don’t agree on, simply because they’re following different style guides. For example, a psychology researcher will follow a style guide that is very different from the style guide a marketer who is writing web copy for a business will follow. The end result is their published works can look quite different.
Style guides exist to establish a set of standards for the writing and design of written works, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization, or industry. And due to this, they don’t always have the same set of standards, as different style guides exist to address the needs of different sets of readers and writers.
Here are 10 things popular style guides don’t always agree on.
1. Oxford Comma Usage
One of the first things editors and publishers should look for when reviewing a style guide is whether it requires the use of the Oxford comma (also known as the “serial comma”). Where journalists who follow the AP Stylebook deem the Oxford comma unnecessary and superfluous in most instances, other writers who follow different style guides argue that it should always be used.
Consider the following example.
With the Oxford comma: I would like to make apple, raspberry and blueberry, and peach pies for the festival.
Without the Oxford comma: I would like to make apple, raspberry and blueberry and peach pies for the festival.
Some style guides don’t require writers to include the comma at the end of a series like the one in the example provided above, while others will. For more details and insight about this, read The Oxford Comma: Use It or Ditch It?
2. Problematic Terms or Phrases
Each style guide highlights common problematic terms and phrases that writers within their field, genre, organization, etc. should know and address in consistent ways. For example, some style guides will require writers and editors to use “Gen X” while others will require writers to use “generation X,” or to use “department chair” instead of “chairman,” or to use “LGBTQ” instead of “LGBT+,” and so on.
3. Spelling, Capitalization, and Proper Nouns
Some style guides will indicate that you should use “e-book” instead of “eBook.” Some guides will indicate you should capitalize “Board of Trustees” while others won’t. And some style guides will indicate you should hyphenate “editor-in-chief” while others won’t, and that you should abbreviate NASA or use other acronyms for proper entities while others won’t… and so on. Example: The New York Times style guide calls for periods in names like I.R.S. and the F.B.I. whereas others go with no periods. Essentially, different style guides will set the standards for the way different terms and phrases should be spelled, capitalized, and used, as they pertain to a certain field or industry.
Style guides typically indicate whether numbers should be spelled out or not. They will indicate whether numbers under 10 or numbers under 100 should be spelled out or represented with numerals and will often indicate if hyphens should be used for numbers. For example, according to one style guide, you would write “ninety-nine,” while according to another you would write “ninety nine,” and according to another you would write “99.” (Not to mention how guides treat numbers when used with age or not.)
In addition to the Oxford comma, style guides will indicate regular comma usage. And they’ll outline when percentage signs should be used and how they should be used, as well as how periods should be arranged in abbreviations or acronyms, and when and how apostrophes and hyphens should be used, as well as if there should be two spaces before the beginning of a sentence, and so on. Certain in-house style guides may even ban the use of semicolons, ellipses, etc.
6. Grammar Rules
The grammar rules specified in various style guides are usually determined by industries and professions. Lawyers tend to follow grammar rules that differ from what journalists or marketers do, for instance. And where some style guides permit the use of conjunctions at the beginning of a sentence and the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence, others won’t. Some style guides will encourage writers to use “their” as a gender-neutral pronoun for “his” or “her” while others won’t.
7. References and Resources
Certain style guides require footnotes for references and resources, others require static website links, still others require a “Works Cited” page, and so on. How references and resources are used or referred to in a piece of writing is also very dependent upon the field or industry in which the writer or publisher works. For example, an editor for a medical journal will follow reference requirements quite unlike what an editor for a nonfiction book about politics will follow.
8. Style and Tone
One style guide will require writers to exhibit a professional style and tone while others will require writers to have a conversational style and tone. For instance, a children’s lesson plan will need a different style and tone than a marketing email about office products will use.
9. Image and Formatting Requirements
In the modern age of the Internet, style guides now include requirements for images and web formats. And certain brands include colors and designs that must be used in various types of electronic documents. Also, various style guides include different formatting requirements for those things that will be published online and those things that will be published in print, as well as those things that should be bolded or italicized, etc.
10. Branding Guidelines
Branding guidelines are typically included in style guides for entities that have a presence across multiple channels, whether those channels are in print or online. For example, certain entities may want to use certain phrases or terms that pertain to their business or publications, or they may want to use certain logos or signatures, etc.
Oftentimes, standards set by different style guides lead to a lot of grammar debates. Where one publisher or editor swears that the Oxford comma is necessary, another will swear that it is completely superfluous. Are they both correct or is it all relative to what’s being written, edited, published and read? Leave a comment below and join the discussion.
Do note that here at ProofreadNOW.com, our go-to style guide is the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) for most documents. But when we process a press release, we use AP style, and when we process medical documents, we of course use the AMA style guide. Customers can request a specific published style and we’ll comply. Many of our clients register their own style guides with us, and we always defer to those.