Many grammar aficionados will fiercely debate writing rules and techniques among themselves and with others until they run out of breath. But sometimes their quibbles may prove to be entirely pointless. And that’s not because there are no grammar rules worth knowing or following, but because these self-proclaimed grammar aficionados are from different industries and have developed their writing skills with very different schools of thought and practice. Or it’s because they’ve simply had different professors or teachers who encouraged them to follow very different style guides for very different purposes.
It’s important to consider how you have come to understand grammar and writing techniques as a writer, editor, or proofreader, and where the rules and techniques you follow come from, because you could unwittingly be making grave errors. Or you could be confounding your readers, and that’s never good to do.
At the very least, you should know and designate a style guide for everything you write that will be published or somehow shared with others, especially in professional settings. After you review the list below, you might discover a style guide that better suits your needs or the needs of your organization.
Why Do I Need a Style Guide?
A style guide is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization, or industry.
A style guide:
- Establishes and administers style to improve communication
- Ensures consistency within a document and across multiple documents
- Enforces and outlines:
- Best practices in language usage
- Language composition
- Visual composition
- How words are spelled
- Details for how documents should be formatted
It may also enforce its own compliance standards and ethical guidelines.
How Do I Choose a Style Guide?
Identify the audience who will be reading the final draft, the audience for whom the piece of writing is intended in the first place. The style guide that will be used will depend on how much technical and industry jargon will be needed, and how formal or informal the writing style will need to be.
You’ll also want to consider whether you have readers who are regular subscribers, or whether the piece of writing you’re publishing or sharing is more research-oriented or technical, or if it will be archived for future reference. And if you don’t have specific mandates or recommendations provided to you by an employer or professor, then your personal preference may determine the style guide you’ll use.
Popular Style Guides
Knowing what style guide you should follow can make or break the effectiveness of your writing for its intended audience. Here are some of the more popular style guides you need to know about.
Oxford Style Manual
The Oxford Style Manual covers a lot of topics for writers in a variety of industries, in both UK and US English. It provides advice on how to prepare copy for publication in print and electronically. Topics covered in the manual include how to punctuate and hyphenate accurately, capitalization guidelines, structuring text coherently, how to use quotations and citations clearly, how to provide accurate references, and more. Recent developments in the publishing industry, such as scientific publishing conventions, have been included in the newest edition.
These guidelines are accompanied by the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which features 25,000 A-Z entries giving advice on those words and names that constantly raise questions because of spelling, capitalization, hyphenation, or cultural and historical context. Entries give full coverage of recommended spellings, variant forms, confusing words, hyphenation, capitalization, foreign and specialist terms, proper nouns, and abbreviations. And it also includes appendices for quick reference including proofreading marks, countries and currencies, and alphabets.
The Elements of Style
Cornell University English professor William Strunk, Jr. wrote the first edition of The Elements of Style in 1918 and privately published it in 1919, for use at the university. In 1957, E.B. White at The New Yorker (who had studied writing under Strunk in 1919) wrote a feature story about Strunk’s devotion to articulate English prose and ended up revising the 1959 edition. (Strunk died in 1946.) And since then, the style guide has been revised many times. Here’s a link to a copy of the Fourth Edition.
This style guide is important for general writing guidelines and is often introduced to students in writing programs at high schools and universities because of its simplicity and easy-to-follow rules. It’s also only around 100 pages. It instructs writers to omit needless words, use the active voice, and use parallel construction on parallel concepts, among other fundamental writing rules.
Academia and Research
Modern Language Association Style Manual (MLA)
The MLA style guide is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities. This online resource, updated to reflect the MLA Handbook (8th ed.), offers examples for the general format of MLA research papers, in-text citations, endnotes or footnotes, and the Works Cited page.
Proper documenting of primary and secondary sources is extremely critical to the MLA style guide. While some general writing guidelines are included in the style guide, this style guide mainly focuses on how to cite sources throughout a piece of writing.
In next week's post, we'll continue our discussion of style guides listing those available by industry.