28 April 2012

Style guide for writers

Image courtesy - Jixar of Flick

If you are related to writing in any way, you must have come across names like The Chicago Manual of Style or The MLA Style Manual . Have you ever wondered: What is a style guide? Or why do you need one? This article will answer such basic questions related to style.

Firstly, I must express a startling fact. While researching for this article, I was surprised by the fact that so little information is available on the internet regarding these issues. Although there are official websites of different style guides, but they usually do not deal with the core questions like the ones posed in the preceding paragraph. Such websites assume that you already know the basics of a style guide and go on to teach their style rules. Therefore you may want to bookmark this article as there is little chance that you will find the information contained here elsewhere on the internet. Okay so let’s begin.

What is a style guide?


There are many places in the English language where there is no one right method to follow. More than one option is available to choose from.

I am not speaking about the differences of the English language that exist between different countries. I mean I am not speaking about the British spelling “colour” and its American variant “color”. What I am talking about are even minor matters that can be different within the same country.

For example let's say you want to mention the novel A Tale of Two Cities in your writing somewhere. It can be done in a number of ways as follows:
  1.  I finished with the reading of A Tale of Two Cities yesterday.
  2.  I finished with the reading of “A Tale of Two Cities” yesterday.
  3.  I finished with the reading of A tale of two cities yesterday.
  4.  I finished with the reading of ‘A tale of two cities’ yesterday.
  5.  I finished with the reading of Dickens’s Tale of Two Cities yesterday.
In the first sentence, the name of the novel is written in italics and all the initial letters of the words of the novel are capitalized, except for the preposition “of”.

In the second one, the name of the novel is enclosed within double inverted commas. Capitalization rules are the same as explained in the preceding paragraph for e.g. 1.

In the third example, the name of the novel is italicized but only the initial letter of the initial word (which happens to be the same thing in our case) is capitalized.

In the fourth, the name of the novel is enclosed within single inverted commas and only the initial letter (as in e.g. 3) is capitalized.

In the fifth e.g., the initial word “A” is dropped from the name of the novel.

Now, all of the above five forms are correct and accepted forms in the English grammar! (Note that how the title really appears on the cover page of the novel is irrelevant here.) In fact, there are many more forms that could have made into the list above but I didn’t mention them for the fear of making this writing superfluous.

The five examples above pertain to writing of titles. Now let us take a slightly different and a somewhat complex example. Let’s speak about citations. Again, I can list a number of different citation methods but for the sake of conciseness, I will restrict to three.

Below are three examples that I can use to cite the article of Encyclopaedia Britannica under the name of “Oscar Wilde”.
  1. "Oscar Wilde." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2012. Web. 21 Apr. 2012. .
  2. Oscar Wilde. (2012). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/643631/Oscar-Wilde
  3. Oscar Wilde 2012. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Retrieved 21 April, 2012, from http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/643631/Oscar-Wilde
It is pretty clear that the above three citation methods are different from each other. And again, all of the above three are correct. All are acceptable in the English language.

I have spoken about titles and citations here. Similarly many other matters like quotations, abbreviations, numbers and dates, etc. have many different forms all of which are correct.

So if there are so many different formats available to structure your writing, which one should you choose?

Here is where a style guide enters the game. A style guide, as the name suggests, is a manual containing the style rules that should be followed by a writer, when writing for a particular organization. Different organizations follow different style forms so writers must consult their particular organization to know which style rules to use while structuring their writing.

Note that such style rules play absolutely no role in places where there are fixed grammar rules.  For example a full stop marks the end of  sentence. This rule is fixed and non-negotiable and hence no style guide will ever deal with such matters as style guides dictate in only those places where there is more than one correct possibility. A grammar guide lays down the rules where there is only one correct possibility.

Why do you need a style guide? 


The simple answer is because it is obligatory by your organization. But why does an organization require you to follow one? Well, mainly for consistency.

Here is what Tulane University says about its style guide:
...written communication, mirrors an individual’s writing style, and at Tulane University, it also should reflect the institution’s identity. The purpose of this style guide is to establish a standard for clear and consistent writing in the publications, websites and other communication vehicles of Tulane. While individual styles naturally vary, using certain elements consistently will help our writing convey a positive image for the university.  - Source
Not following a particular style throughout your writing can result in confusion and misunderstanding. For example, suppose a writer used italics for quotes in the first chapter and in the second he used italics for a sub-heading. A reader will have no knowledge when is he reading a quote and when a subheading.


Why are there so many style guides?


I have mentioned earlier that the main purpose of a style guide is consistency. One may argue that too many style guides will produce inconsistency which is just the opposite of what is intended from a style guide.

One may ask then,why there cannot be a universal standard guide that every English author should follow? After all, there are such universal standards in other fields. For e.g. in chemistry, the IUPAC or the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, is the governing body that sets out rules for the naming of different organic compounds. Why can’t a similar practice be followed in matters of English style usage? 
One apparent answer is - because there is no universal law giving body for the English language. But even if there was an English language academy, I think it still would have allowed for the existence of so many different style guides because different style guides are suited for different audiences. For e.g. a scientific thesis will require different style forms than what a newspaper requires.

Some popular style guides

Below is a list of some popular style guides. Full online access is granted only against a membership fees.
  1. The Chicago Manual of Style - Click here for the online version.
  2. MLA Style Manual -Click here for the online version.
  3. The Associated Press Stylebook - Click here for the online version.
  4. New Hart's Rules - Adapted from The Oxford Guide to Style. No online version available.
No style guide, however thorough, will ever be sufficient for a particular publication. Publishers occasionally will encounter some problems which will not be mentioned in the style guide. In such cases a publisher can either follow some other style guide for the problem at hand or he can make a personal decision. The only requirement is that he will have to consistently apply that style throughout the publication.

Some organizations do not follow any of the standard style guides but go on to create whole new style guides for themselves. The Guardian Style Guide is one such example.

Further reading

  1. Grammar Style Issues by Grammar Girl is a fine and concise read.
  2. The article How many style guides do journalists really need? of Poynter deals with a somewhat different aspect of style guides, but if you have liked my present article, you will like that one too. 
  3. Here's a site where you'll find links to more than 40 Style Guides available online.

So that is all for now. I'll be happy to answer any queries that you have. Post them in the comments below.

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