Because everyone uses language differently, style guides exist to provide some degree of consistency. They are like rule-books, providing a ‘correct’ approach to punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, disputed spellings and so on. They also cover areas such as layout of dates and numbers, use of abbreviations, capitalization, and how to refer to cited articles, essays and publications.
Of course, it would be wonderful if there were one compendium to cover all possible eventualities. But the fact is that different professions require particular rules and ways of laying out information.
Journalists, for example, may use ‘AP’ style, and academics ‘Chicago’ or ‘MLA’ style, whereas lawyers may refer either to the ‘Bluebook’ or else ‘ALWD’ style. (Incidentally, ‘Harvard style’ – which actually has no official connection with Harvard University – is technically a system for referencing cited works, rather than a complete style guide.)
To complicate matters still further, individual institutions and publications, for example The Guardian, The Washington Post or the BBC, have their own ‘house styles’, which may change over time.
For instance, in the case of the oft-disputed spelling of verbs in ‘-ize’, The Times newspaper has plumped for ‘-ise’ – but only since 1992. And in what they see as a reflection of today’s less hierarchical society, editors at The Guardian have drastically reduced the use of capital letters. Among their controversial recommendations are ‘St Nicolas church’, ‘Great Ormond Street children’s hospital’ and ‘Ripon grammar school’.
Our blogger, George, recommends one of three usage and style guides for general use: New Hart’s Rules (formerly The Oxford Guide to Style), the MLA Manual of Style, and the MHRA Style Guide.
The last of these, published by the Modern Humanities Research Association, is particularly good for those writers who are new to style guides. It’s compact, up-to-date, and best of all completely free online at this link. It’s also the style guide which we use at English Wanted. Take a look, and see if your own writing comes close to their rules and recommendations!