A Writer’s Reference Toolkit: Style Guides

There are two broad kinds of style guide. There is the generic type, containing advice on such things as whether to use “different from” or “different than”. And there is the specific type, ie specific to a particular publication. For example, should “internet” be spelled with a lower case “i”, or as “Internet”?. The specific style guide will tell you.

You need both types, of course, but unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as your needing only two books or two documents.

Generic style guides

The main style guides I useWhen deciding on which style guides you need, there are several things to bear in mind.

First, the target readership’s country will make a difference. For instance, Americans tend to say “different than” while us Brits say “different from”. Another difference is that the British “I couldn’t care less” becomes transformed into the American “I could care less”. A third example is what happens after a colon. In British English the first word after a colon begins with a lower case initial letter, but in American English it starts with a capital letter.

If you’re writing for a print publication published in another country, it is pretty easy to deal with such differences: you ignore them. As long as you possess a style guide for that country, you’re high and dry. The real difficulty comes when you’re writing for a (potentially) international audience, such as on the internet.

Some people advise sticking to the style of the country in which the majority of your readers live. However, I think it is safer to stick with the style you’re most familiar with, which is probably that of your own country. That is more likely to guarantee consistency. I contend that it would be more annoying to readers to have an inconsistent style than to have just one style they may not prefer. You can learn to live with phrases and grammar that look odd, but it’s hard to come to terms with being continually jarred by changes in form.

Second, different style guides give different explanations and advice about the same thing. Take “different from” and “different to”. The Economist’s Style Guide says curtly: “Different from – not to or than”

Mind the Gaffe tells me that “different to” is OK in speech and colloquially, but not in in “careful writing”. (I shouldn’t have thought that people who write uncarefully would be bothered either way, but still.)

The Complete Plain Words says that “there is good authority for different to, but today different from is the established usage.”

Finally, Fowler’s Modern English – which incidentally I regard as my bible for this sort of thing – informs me that: “The fact is that the objections to different to, like averse to, sympathy for  and compare to are mere pedantries. This does not imply that different from is wrong; on the contrary, it is ‘now usual’ (OED); but it is only so owing to the dead set made against different to by mistaken critics.”

The interesting aspects about this little exercise is that although (in this case) all of the guides agree that “different from” is to be preferred to “different to”, the last one mentioned gives me a much fuller explanation. It has also given me the confidence to use “different to” if I feel so inclined because, like the rule against splitting infinitives, the injunction to avoid “different to” is not some sort of divinely ordained law. I can break it if I wish to, brandishing Fowler’s lest anyone object.

Where there is no clear answer, such as when the style guides give conflicting advice, I would suggest using either the most authoritative, or taking the majority view.

What do I mean by “most authoritative”? Well, without wishing to upset anybody, of the Style Guides I’ve just consulted, I would say Fowler’s is the most authoritative because it has been around for ages. However, it is not necessarily the most up-to-date, so I think it may come down to a toss of the coin between The Complete Plain Words and The Economist’s Style Guide. The least authoritative, in my opinion, would be Mind the Gaffe. It’s a handy little book, modern, easy to read – but I’d never heard of the author, R Trask, until I picked up this book. In fact, the only reason I bought it was that it is published by Penguin, and I didn’t think they would publish rubbish.

So why buy other guides at all? Well, this brings me on to my third point. They all cover slightly different areas, or cover the same things in different ways.

For example, I love Fowler’s because of its unwillingness to pull punches, such as the comment about “mere pedantries”. It’s a great read in its own right.

Plain Words is organised differently, with a section, for example, on words to be handled with care (such as “transpire” which is almost universally used incorrectly). It also contains a section on verbs and one on punctuation.

Mind the Gaffe is slim and accessible and, as I said earlier, up-to-date.

The Economist’s offering includes such handy items as a list of abbreviations, a list of Roman numerals and, as you might expect from the Economist, a list of the world’s stock market indices.

Fourth, some style manuals contain an extensive amount of material which is not in others. The Oxford Style Manual falls into that category. It includes information relating to illustrations, copyright and different languages (eg in the section on French: “Unlike the English dash, [dashes in French] are never put close up to a word…”).

For these reasons, you really need at least three different style guides. As well as providing you with a wealth of different, though partly overlapping, guidance, with any luck you’ll find a majority two-to-one ruling in favour of something should there be differences of opinion.

Specific Style guides

It’s unfortunate that different publications have different styles and conventions, but they do, and you need to know what they are. The reason is very simple. Even if you write great copy, if the editor has to spend time correcting style errors which could and should have been avoided, he or she may think twice the next time they need an article penned.

So, look on the publication’s website, and if you can’ see a style guide, and are not given one, ask for it.

A conflict of views

What if the publication’s own  style guide contradicts the generic style guides? The publication’s own guide must always win, even if you find the “correction” anathema.

After all, you do want the work, don’t you?!

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