I have been having the most interesting discussions of late in an attempt to discover, not only the differences between grammar and style, but the seemingly endless variations among style itself.
One recurring theme is the distinction between personal preference and house style. I quote Webster (Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language. NY: Gramercy, 1996. Print), def. 16: “the rules of customs of typography, punctuation, spelling, and related matters used by a newspaper, magazine, publishing house, etc., or in a specific publication.”
There are as many house styles as there are houses – publishers, periodicals, and pedants. In the United States, there are at least six major editorial houses, and their style guides generally add to the confusion by addressing matters far beyond the scope of “typography, punctuation, spelling, and related matters.”
Many of the professional writers and editors with whom I’m speaking are referencing def. 6: “the mode of expressing thought in writing or speaking by selecting and arranging words, considered with respect to clearness, effectiveness, euphony, or the like, that is characteristic of a group, period, person, personality, etc.,”
And given that I am based in the United States, many of my colleagues are based in the United States, and the United States is a notoriously individualistic society, the conversation tends to circle around “selecti[on] and arrang[ement] … with respect to … euphony … characteristic of a person.”
As gratified as I am to see that so many people have so much time to pursue their own self-actualization and creativity, my own work is devoted to those writers who are forced to make stylistic choices and who do not have the freedom to do so based entirely upon their own personal preference. And while the style guides I mentioned above do provide some guidance, they can’t answer every situation in which a writer may find him or herself.
This is because smaller groups also have preferences; notably organizations and companies like those for whom my writers work. And those preferences must be taken into account. But where are those preferences delineated, and by whom, and how?
The answer to that question ranges widely, and woe to the writer who knows not where to find the answer or who quests in vain. Many organizations have adopted a style guide, and where it falls short, they have supplemented it with a style sheet of their own, updated periodically to reflect changes to the language. Good work!
Others are not so savvy, and they struggle with these questions, occasionally drafting a style sheet to circulate, but using it infrequently or inconsistently.
Still others are but marginally aware of such guidelines. They may once have used such a guide for a specific project, and now they indiscriminately apply the same guide to all of their writing, regardless if it is meant for such work. Individual writers may have had their work corrected by a superior and now write everything to conform to that style while counseling others to do the same. Such advice takes on the status of folklore around the office, traveling by word of mouth from colleague to colleague, repeated to new employees and interns, until finally some ambitious employee decides to codify it into a style guide that has no basis in sound writing practice or company preference.
Perhaps I exaggerate. Let us hope so. And let us also remember that even the best style guide must leave room for the writer’s voice. An organization, a publication, or an editor may suggest where we place our commas; which voice, mood, or tense to use; and how our sentences should be structured, but no one should rob of us that ineffable quality we bring to the page. In any act of communication, it is the raw, frail human ego with all of its vulnerability and tenderness, its weakness and error, and its potential for greatness that allows for a transference of meaning. Let no guideline, no matter how simple or refined, interfere with that most precious act of communion between writer and reader.
Want to learn more? November 11, 11 a.m. EST, join me for Style Guides 101. In a quick, interactive session that you can attend from your home or office, you’ll get expert advice on the differences between grammar, style, and usage, so you’ll never again need to wrack your brains or engage in endless debates. And with the recording, transcript and resources included, you’ll be able to quickly and easily navigate any style guide you choose, or even write one of your own. Seating is limited, so reserve your spot today!