Style – House, Company, and Your Own

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!



  1. Julia Hayes says

    Learning about style guides only recently, I find myself disappointed to know that writers are often constrained much as horses, with a style guide harness.
    To have to conform and write in a particular style surely depresses the writer’s creative flow.?

    Much as accents on English are interesting and lead to deeper conversations, the use of style guides strike me as similar to the insistence on using “BBC English” for all newscasts. Conformity = Colourless.

  2. We’ve helped businesses and government agencies computerize their style guide rules.

    It’s not difficult to adapt an existing style guide or create one from scratch. The real problem is getting everyone to follow the style rules. Writing a document listing all the rules is usually as waste of time.

    An example comes to mind. One large UK bank wanted to check that all documents had the correct capitalization for product names, telephone numbers and dates written consistenty, certain terms banned and so on. I worked with the publications manager for about a month documenting all the specific rules. I then coded them into StyleWriter.

    The first test was to run StyleWriter with the bank’s house style through the annual report the publications manager had just completed. In the first section of 25 pages, StyleWriter found 145 contraventions of the house style. If the publications manager couldn’t keep to the house style she had designed, there was no hope for the rest of staff to follow the rules.

    But putting the rules into StyleWriter meant that staff had no difficulty keeping to the rules.

    We’ve had many comments from writers and editors on StyleWriter’s house style customization, such as:

    “For me the best feature is adding to the program. I have dozens of preferred spellings, alternatives to industry jargon and words I want to avoid. Adding my advice to the program means I can check for all my editing issues in seconds.”
    – Newsletter Editor

    “You could, for example, add technical words or words used in your profession in your organization’s House Style. I could imagine the editor of a computer magazine adding the word ‘baud’ to remind writers it is often misused for ‘bits per second.'”
    – Freelance Journalist

    “Adding errors you want to find is as easy as using find-and-replace in your word processor. But StyleWriter’s secret is that if you ask it to find an error, it remembers to check every document for this error and any other errors you might add.”
    – Proofreader

    “We used Editor Software to code hundreds of mistranslations of legal terms our European lawyers often make. It used to be a time-consuming and boring job to check for such mistakes. But now as StyleWriter checks for the clarity of our legal documents, it also checks for the mistranslations.”
    – Lawyer

    “The Electronic House Style designed for our organization stops inconsistencies in documents and saves hours of proofreading.”
    – Publications Manager

    “I’ve been looking for years for a program I can add my long list of mistakes I find in documents so I don’t have to constantly change the same errors, manuscript after manuscript. StyleWriter has most of the words and phrases I want to edit out of documents. But I was delighted to find I could add my own pet hates and industry jargon to the program.
    – Publications Editor

    Nick Wright
    Editor Software
    Tel: +44 1453 548409

    • Hello Nick, and welcome. You are clearly advertising a computer program. As we have spent much time discussing on this blog, the strength (and certainly the weakness) of the written word is the human ego in all of its vulnerability and in its potential for the sublime. I welcome your input, and I would also advise all of our readers to investigate with extreme caution whether such a computerized system is the final answer or only one tool among many to attain true communion between author and reader.


  1. […] a comment (0) Go to comments What a shame it would be to write an entire series on grammar and style without paying at least some cursory attention to those writers who have chosen to break the […]

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