Style Guides: A primer

I dare say everyone who writes at all regularly, even for casual purposes, knows that it’s vital to have access to a dictionary. And with so many of them now online for free, there’s really not much of an excuse not to use one.

But what about a style guide? Do you need to use one? And by “use,” I mean “have access to and perhaps own.” Isn’t that like a usage guide? No. A style guide is not a usage guide. Most of them contain some usage guidance, but that’s not the point of a style guide.

Disclaimer: I am not discussing Strunk and White. At all. If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you know my thoughts on that little brown text. If you haven’t, I suggest you search for “Pullum 50 Bad Years of Grammar Advice.” The original article is paywalled, sadly, but discussions of it are readily available.

Surprisingly to me, I’ve apparently never done a post about style guides other than this one I’m linking to. It’s a great post for folks who use more than one guide, but this time I’m writing for those of you asking what one is, why you’d need one, and how to choose the right one for yourself.

A style guide is a book about typographical choices, among other things. Nearly every style guide also talks some about grammar and usage, but the Big Deal about a style guide is the mechanics. You know, the M in GUMmy Stuff. That means a good chunk of the information in a style guide, usually, is about how to use quotation marks, commas, periods, dashes of various kinds, capitalization, ellipses … the nitty-gritty things that copyeditors and proofreaders live for. This is what will differ most across the various style guides. Grammar is grammar, but style is STYLE. And you know how styles change. It’s the same in print as it is on the runway.

But if all you ever write are blog posts, do you need a style guide?

It can’t hurt. For general writing like this blog post, there are a couple of fine reference options: Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, and Words into Type. (Here’s where I confess that I’m a huge fan of Benjamin Dreyer. I’m still slightly agog at seeing my name in the acknowledgments as a member of “Wordsmith Twitter.”) Either one will serve you well for everyday writing, where you need to know the most usual conventions (there are so few rules, but many, many conventions) of mechanics and type styling so that your work won’t draw the attention of the peeververein. Of the two, Dreyer’s makes delightful leisure reading in addition to being an excellent reference text.  Words into Type is a classic; my copy is the 1974 third edition, bought used for (I think) about $10US.

Both will educate you on the basics and niceties of punctuation (mechanics), grammar, and usage. WiT (as we often abbreviate it) also discusses manuscript preparation, the basics of the copyediting and proofreading processes, and the bones of graphic design (illustration and typography).

Two excellent basic texts, but aimed at slightly different audiences. If you never aspire to publish anything (whether that’s self-publishing, selling a piece to a perodical/journal, or landing a trad-pub book contract), I’d say Dreyer’s book is the better choice for you. It’s insightful and engaging, and doesn’t contain a lot of stuff you’re not likely to use. Still, considering how inexpensively you can buy a copy of WiT, having one on hand won’t hurt you. And either one will tell you whether you need to use quotation marks or italics for the name of that song you want to write about. (Yes, people notice these things. And they TELL you they’ve noticed.)

What if you’re writing for publication in the book market? Doesn’t matter whether you’re repped (have an agent) or not; are you looking to see your book available for sale in some format? Then you’ll do well to get a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. Currently in its 17th edition, this is the bible of the book publishing industry. Older editions are useful, with the caveat that their usage guidance (not rules!) will be outdated on the “cutting edge” issues like singular they. (The 17th edition acknowledges its use in informal settings, but warns that it is still looked at askance in more formal writing. That said, if an individual expresses the preference for “they” as their personal pronoun, “any such preference should generally be respected.”) The advice on technological language, medical language, and other specialties may also be outmoded. Let your needs guide you to choose the level of “correctness” required for yourself.

Chicago (as we call it) also contains the copyeditor’s favorite mini-reference: the hyphenation table. You can find this in PDF form with a simple search, if you need to know the particulars of hyphens but don’t much need the rest of the book. (I am such a HERETIC.)

What if you’re aiming to appear in a periodical of some kind? Chances are good you’ll need to know AP style. A copy of  The Associated Press Stylebook is invaluable for journalistic writing. (I bought mine, new, in 2012. I haven’t replaced it since. My work no longer concerns the kinds of things AP is designed for.) A quick look at the table of contents tells you what you’ll find, aside from the expected GUMmy Stuff: guidelines on sports, food, fashion, media, business; broadcast guidelines; captioning photos; graphics and interactive media; social media guidelines; and an overview of media law. The “stylebook” portion of the 2012 edition takes up 295 pages, filled with the GUMmy Stuff and what to do with numerals. (Every style guide discusses numerals, and there are minor variations across the guides. Don’t expect that because you know what one guide says it means you don’t need to check another if your audience/venue shifts.)

One of the most obvious differences (to copyeditors and proofreaders) between Chicago and AP is the mechanics of the em dash. Chicago prescribes no spaces on either side; AP says yes, a space on each side. This is the kind of thing that matters in publishing, from the editorial side. (Dreyer sides with Chicago on the topic, as does WiT. Even general writing benefits from niceties like “space or no space with dashes?”) Why does it matter? Each audience has come to expect a certain look, a specific reading experience. We know that books don’t read the same as magazines. That’s due in large part to books using Chicago and magazines using AP. (I won’t get into “house style” here. Baby steps, folks. Baby steps.)

Here’s a great place for a link to the excellent AP vs Chicago site. Have at it. Take a flashlight with you; it gets dark quickly when you’re not paying attention because you’re meandering about the entire site. (Why are you looking at me like that? You think I speak from experience?)

Are you an academic writer of scientific articles? Check into a copy of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA, for short). My last degree work, in 2014, required a version of this style tailored specifically for my university. (It was a royal pain, and I suspect there was no better reason than “we could, so we did.”) For those of you writing in the sciences, this book will save your bacon. It’s designed for your work, not general writing. Thus, there’s an entire chapter devoted to the proper display of research results. (Yes, Chicago talks about tables and figures, but with an eye toward the general audience. APA has your number, researchers.)

If you’re writing in the humanities, the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Modern Language Association) remains the standard. I have never used this one, myself. I own a copy, though: the second edition, from 1998.  I quote from the back cover copy: “MLA guidelines are used by over 125 periodicals with circulations over 1,000; by hundreds of smaller scholarly journals, literary reviews, and newsletters; and by many university and commercial presses.” The text covers legal issues; writing basics (GUMmy Stuff); manuscript, thesis, and dissertation preparation; and documentation (both lists of cited works and in-line citations).

Both APA and MLA emphasize documentation, because of their academic focus. Chicago has its own academic style, Turabian; be sure you’re using the one required for your writing. Having to redo an entire list of works cited from one format to another is mind-numbing (but I hear there are macros that can save your brain).

Now for the really heretical part.

If you simply can’t be bothered with style guides, what do you do?

Get a good standard dictionary.  Stick with something from Merriam-Webster or American Heritage to be safe; use that for your everyday writing reference. If you get hooked on dictionaries (it can happen!), then branch out. I own several, but the one that gets daily use is my Webster’s Collegiate, 11th edition when the online version won’t suffice. The others aren’t nearly as well known; I have an Encarta World English Dictionary purchased over 20 years ago that I loved for its usage notes, but M-W’s online free dictionary provides those these days. I also have a Oxford Canadian English Dictionary and a Shorter Oxford Dictionary on Historical Principles, the latter of which was given to me as a gift. Then there’s the Chambers Slang Dictionary, the Chambers Etymological Dictionary, the …

And I’m a piker compared to some of my colleagues. Anyway, onward.

I will also suggest (AGAIN!) the excellent little book from June Casagrande, author of the weekly column “A Word, Please” appearing in major newspapers around the US: The Best Punctuation Book, Period. She presents the four main styles (Book, News, Science, and Academic, corresponding to Chicago, AP, APA, and MLA) side by side in a highly accessible, readable format. It’s fun for us punctuation geeks to compare styles without having to haul out the Big Books, but it’s also easier to locate specific information in her little book than in any of the style manuals. (Sorry, but it’s true. I use this little book more often than my copy of CMoS.)

If you need a style guide, know which one you need. Don’t try to use a general guide like Dreyer’s for a research paper on your findings about some topic on the bleeding edge of quantum physics. Likewise, don’t use APA’s guide if you’re writing a blog post for yourself and maybe three other people. You can easily get by with a standard dictionary and access to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). Even we professionals go there from time to time. Honest.

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