Understanding “Style”

What Is Style?


Style guides offer sets of usage, typographical, and formatting rules that help writers better communicate with other readers and writers within their field. By collectively deferring to the rules of a single style guide, writers within a given field ensure a level of uniformity in the way they use and record language. A style, in this sense, functions on the page the way a dialect does in conversation: it provides meaningful rules that, because they are shared by both the producer and perceiver of the language in question, aid clear and concise communication.

Strunk and White's "The Elements of Style"Popular Style Guides:

Style manuals vary greatly in depth and focus depending on the audiences for which they are created. Because Strunk and White’s iconic The Elements of Style (1918), for example, is designed for a general audience, it does not provide guidelines for formatting or citing material, skills more important for journalists, publishers, and academics than for lay people who simply want to write clear prose. Instead, it reviews basic rules for syntax, usage, and punctuation that are essential for writing in any field. Other popular style guides such as the AP Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style, and The MLA Style Manual offer sets of guidelines that address the concerns of particular fields.

Published by the Associated Press, the AP Stylebook, now in its forty-seventh edition, is the standard manual for short-form journalists. As a result, it addresses questions of primary concern to media organizations, such as how to format photo captions, how to use common sports terminology, and how to correctly reference cities, politicians, institutions, and countries. In addition to answering the kinds of questions common among journalists, the answers it provides are catered to the needs of journalists’ editors. This is perhaps most obvious in the guides’ rules for writing numbers (use figures above nine [i.e. “. . . seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 . . .”]) and for punctuating series (don’t use Oxford commas), which are both designed to save scarce newspaper space.

The Chicago Manual of Style, published by the University of Chicago, is the manual of choice for most book publishers and many academics. Now in its sixteenth edition, The Chicago Manual offers comprehensive guidelines to writing and formatting as specific as when to use a double question mark (don’t) and how to punctuate indirect one-word questions (i.e. “The question was not how but why . . .) which make it too long—1026 pages in its last edition—for most writers to be willing to read cover to cover. It is nevertheless an essential reference that every writing or publishing professional should learn to navigate so that she can answer style questions when they arise. Because of its academic- and book-centric audience, The Chicago Manual, unlike The Elements of Style or the AP Stylebook, offers guidelines for citing sources.


More recently the Modern Language Association (MLA), an association of U.S. professors and graduate students in the humanities, has published a manual designed for academic writing in the humanities called The MLA Style Manual. In the mere three editions since The MLA Style Manual was first published in 1985, the style guide has become widely accepted, along with The Chicago Manual, in scholarly writing within the liberal arts. Though more narrow in scope than The Chicago Manual, aspects of its guidelines have eclipsed Chicago‘s, namely its format for short in-text citations that are now preferred among many academics in the humanities.

Other important style guides address problems common in certain academic fields, such as The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which offers guidelines for formatting tables and reducing bias in language popular in the data-heavy social sciences, and the American Medical Association’s AMA Manual of Style widely used by researchers and editors in the scientific community.

In order to ensure that writing manifests meaning in ways that its audience can best unpack it, process it, and locate its sources, writers must consistently implement the dominant style within their field. The first step to determining the style that best serves a given project is to consider what type of publication the writer would like her work to appear in.

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