Style Guides for Good Grammar and Consistency

good grammar

Using style guides for consistency and good grammar.

When we’re writing, we run into a lot of technical issues. Where do the quotation marks go? When is it correct to use a comma? How should titles be formatted?

Some of these questions are answered by the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But other questions are not addressed by grammar. There’s no official rule for how to format a title.

We writers need trusted resources that we can use to resolve all of these issues, especially if we want to produce work that is both grammatically correct and stylistically consistent.

Style guides answer grammatical questions and provide guidelines for consistency. But there are lots of different style guides, from the The AP Stylebook to the The Chicago Manual of Style. Which one should you use?

Who Uses Style Guides?


  • Students, scholars, and other members of academia
  • Scientists, doctors, and those who work in specialized fields such as law or government
  • Journalists and reporters
  • Authors
  • Any writers who want their work to be consistent should use a style guide

What, Exactly, is a Style Guide?

A style guide is a manual that establishes rules for language, spelling, formatting, and punctuation. Within academia, these guides also provide standards for citations, references, and bibliographies. Many disciplines have their very own style guide, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.

According to Wikipedia, “…consistency is the major purpose of these style guides. They are rulebooks for writers, ensuring consistent language.”

These manuals promote good grammar and ensure consistency in areas where grammar is unclear. Style guides answer all those burly writing questions that are absent from the rules of grammar. Yet at the same time, the average style guide also answers those questions that deal specifically with the rules of good grammar. Basically, it’s an all-purpose writing resource.

Where Do I Get One?

You should be able to pick up any standard style guide at your local library or bookstore. University libraries and college bookstores should have a greater selection of specialized style guides. Of course, you can always order through Amazon or the online book seller of your choice.

Many large companies and corporations use their own internal style guides, so if you are writing for a such an organization, they may need to provide you with their own style guide.

When is a Style Guide Appropriate?

A style guide is almost always appropriate. Since a style guide’s primary function is to render a work consistent and ensure good grammar, any work will benefit from its application. That includes creative writing, freelance writing, and blogging!

In many cases, a style guide is not only appropriate, it’s mandatory. If you’re writing for submission, it’s a good idea to check a publication’s submission guidelines to see if they require writers to use particular style guide.

Why Should I Use a Style Guide?

A style guide will make your work more consistent. Did you use a serial comma in the first paragraph, but leave it out in the third? Have you used italics in one post to refer to a book title, but in another post used quotation marks?

By establishing standards, a style guide will help you streamline your work. After you’ve used a particular set of guidelines for awhile, the writing process will flow more smoothly since you won’t have to stop and deliberate on grammar and style. Your readers will be pleased too, since inconsistency causes confusion.

How Do I Choose?

In many cases, the matter of which style guide to use is not left up to the writer. As mentioned, publishers will provide guidelines explaining which style guide is required.

Most newspapers adhere to The Associated Press Stylebook on Briefing on Media Law (often called The AP Stylebook), whereas a small press publisher might ask you to use The Elements of Style (often referred to as Strunk and White). Professors and teachers generally require students to use the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition.

What about freelance writers, bloggers, fiction writers, and everyone else?

writing resourcesThe most popular style guide for general use is The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is also the style guide commonly used for manuscripts (i.e. novels and anthologies). Many other writing guides are based on Chicago or will defer to it for any areas of style that they do not specifically address. It covers formatting, includes rules for good grammar usage, and provides a roadmap that ensures your work is mechanically consistent.

For general use, Chicago is by far one of the best writing resources on the market, and for me, it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made for my own writing career.

Which Style Guide Should You Use?

If you’re writing for a newspaper, you might want to go with AP. I’m not a big fan of AP because much of their style is dictated by saving space for the printing press (thus the absence of the serial comma). I think Chicago is more useful for freelancing and copywriting as well as authoring and blogging.

However, having both won’t hurt, and any serious writer would be wise to start building a collection of style guides that might prove useful throughout the course of one’s career.

So, do you use a style guide, and if so, which one? Are there other writing resources that you can’t live without? Share your favorites in the comments.

About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.

Comments

14 Responses to “Style Guides for Good Grammar and Consistency”

  1. Erik says:

    In my current writing I don’t use a style guide. Granted, my current writing isn’t meant to be treated as a serious piece of journalism, either. While in grad school we used APA style in our writing (I was a Master’s student in Higher Education Admin.).

    Purdue actually has a very handy online style guide at Purdue OWL. It practically got me through grad school.

  2. Erik, I don’t think you have to write serious journalism in order to make good use of a style guide. The emphasis on style guides is consistency in all those issues which are not addressed by the rules of grammar. If you have that consistency in your writing, then a guide may not be of great use to you.

    Chicago and APA both offer online versions through a paid subscription. As much as I love online resources, I opted for hard copies!

    -Melissa

  3. Michele says:

    Thanks for breaking it down like this, Melissa! I am like you in that I LOVE hard copies. :-)

    I really enjoyed reading this post. You always teach your readers so much!

    Smiles,
    Michele

  4. Thanks Michele, for prompting this post, which was both challenging and fun to write. I just started using style guides a few months ago, because I felt that they were necessary to the professionalism of my freelance writing, and I have become a huge advocate! I don’t really aim to teach, but I’m more than happy to do so. I just want to share what I’ve learned or experienced with others!

  5. Ashley says:

    Thanks for this article. I had been using the Elements of Style but I didn’t realize Chicago was more popular.
    Of course, I haven’t really used any style manual as much as I should since it’s no longer required by a professor. Maybe using it more would be a good New Year’s resolution!

  6. Ashley, Elements of Style is next on my list of style guides to buy. I do have a very old, outdated copy from the early 80s, and it’s high time to upgrade. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Deb says:

    Depending on the situation I think I have used most of the ones listed. I own several because they were required for classes and I prefer hardcopy.

    Currently on my shelf, at least what I can see from here:
    AP, APA, Turabian, Elements of Style, MLA, and an unknown technical style manual. Unbelievable; and there is no Chicago because it was only required for one class and our team shared. AP gets the most use at present since my work is newspaper-focused. Maybe Chicago needs to be on my wish list.

  8. Deb, sounds like you have a great collection of style guides! I used to have MLA, but I can’t find it anywhere…

  9. Essie Webber says:

    Hello, Melissa. Happy New Year. :)

    I’m amidst a forced break from blogging (illness and surgery next week) so have had time to reflect on business and my personal blog.

    It’s coincidental that you wrote about this now, as I was realizing I feel a lack in not using a style manual *even* in writing my personal blog.

    For years any writing I did was always under a specified syle manual. The MLA was “it” for ages and then the arcane “Blue Book,” as we called it, for the law school years. I used Elements of Style as a general reference when I occasionally wrote outside the predetermined style spheres…

    I didn’t think I’d want to bother for my personal blog. Really. I have no pretensions to being a freelance writer in the usual sense. As time went on I noticed the pauses for choices, and see that my blog is horribly inconsistent as well. The guides really help! They aren’t the additional burden I thought of them as when they were enforced. It’s time to get a current hard copy (of course) of whatever guide — but I can’t make up my mind.

    This article helps quite a bit, thank you. I have narrowed it down to two, at least. An updated Elements of Style would probably do the trick. I wonder why the Chicago is that popular? I am very glad to have found out it is, thanks.

    The Chicago guide is much longer, isn’t it? I’d love to read any observations you have comparing the two if you end up having them both… By the way, I always have used the final comma before the conjunction in a series. I don’t think I could accept a guide that dictated the opposite. :) How we get stuck in our ways!

    Essie

  10. Essie,

    Chicago is huge, enormous. It’s almost 1000 pages, while my ancient copy of Strunk & White isn’t even 100 pages. I figure that’s a good indication that Chicago will answer just about any style question I may ever have. Also, since I do freelance writing, and much of it is for business, it helps to have a guide that covers every base imaginable.

    When I get the latest edition of Elements, I’ll definitely write up a comparison, since these two are most popular for general writing.

    Thanks Essie!

  11. I have “The Elements of Style” but I haven’t actually read it cover to cover yet. *hangs head* It sounds like I could benefit from reading the book and getting the “Chicago Manual of Style” too.

    One question: Is it difficult to find what you need in the 1000 pages?
    Despite not having read “Elements”, I was able to find the section about comma use I needed. Of course, glancing at the table of contents leads me to think the book is not particularly all-inclusive.

    I’ve found I tend to do things consistently with my writing out of habit. It would be great to learn a specific ‘style’ so that I could adapt to those techniques. While glancing through Strunk and White’s today I’ve already discovered things I do that could be improved upon.

    Thanks for the thought provoking and informative post, Melissa!

  12. Rebecca, I haven’t had any trouble finding anything in Chicago. It has a great and easy-to-use index, and it covers just about every style issue imaginable. I find it to be an invaluable resource, which is why it’s featured here at WF this month. I’ll have to get Elements sooner rather than later. My copy is actually the one my mom bought for me in sixth grade for my very first term paper, which was about ghosts. It’s ancient, but ah, the memories!

  13. Catherine Onyemelukwe says:

    Thanks for the article, Melissa. I recently bought the Chicago Guide for my husband who is finishing his 5th book. His publisher recommended it. But he refuses to do the footnotes properly, so I’ll leave it between him and his editor.

    However, I’m finishing my own memoir, and have already used it several times.

    • I just got some edits back and am glad I had Chicago because my editor made references to Chicago to cite her revisions. I could have just accepted the revisions but I was able to see which rules she was following, and I found that informative.