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04/09/01: Style Manuals

Several newsletter subscribers have written to ask us why we frequently refer to the Chicago Manual of Style rather than to other well-known style manuals. The answer is simply that Chicago is the most authoritative and the most widely used style manual in the American publishing industry. But before you decide which style manual is best for your organization, here are some points to consider.

First, many style manuals tend to be discipline specific. Many people who practice law, for example, use the Texas Law Review Manual of Style and Usage, and Harvard's The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation is the bible of the legal professional with regard to form and style for legal citations. People trained in the humanities use the manual published by the Modern Language Association (MLA). Professionals in the social sciences commonly use the stylebook of the American Psychological Association (APA). Almost universally, journalists follow the guidelines of the Associated Press (AP) style manual.

Because each of these manuals of style--and the many others not named here--is designed to accommodate a specific kind of writing, they do not always agree on particular matters. The Associated Press, for example, discourages the use of the serial comma, while Texas, Chicago, and a host of other grammar and mechanics guides advocate its usage. Texas advises that shortened references to proper nouns (such as when we refer to "South Carolina" in a document and later refer to it as "the State") be capitalized, while Chicago recommends that such words begin with lowercase letters.

Despite the fact that we here at Get It Write usually use The MLA Style Manual for our own academic publications, we suggest the use of Chicago, due to its established place in American publishing as a whole, for business and organizations that have adopted neither a customized nor a discipline-specific manual of style.

Barnes and Noble editors recognize Chicago as the "quintessential style book," speaking of it as "an invaluable guide that is considered a standard in the publishing world." Reader's Catalog calls it "the standard" and notes that "for over 80 years, this reference has been used by American authors, editors, and proofreaders for its chapters on preparing and editing copy for publication." Booklist acknowledges it as the "classic handbook for publishers." Other reviewers call it "the accurate, final authority," one noting that although "there are many guides to choose from . . . none is more respected than Chicago." (All quotations can be found at the following Web address: .)

Although many textbooks on business and technical writing exist, and a few mass-market style manuals for such writing have been published, such as the Gregg Reference Manual, no single book has emerged as the "quintessential" manual of style for the field of business per se. Most of these books do speak with authority about matters of style in business writing, but often they do not agree with one another. Thus, rather than arbitrarily choose a business-oriented guide as our primary source of information, Get It Write has here again elected to adhere to the principles set forth in Chicago. For guidance about matters not addressed in Chicago (such as the format for business letters, memos, and business e-mail business E-mail), we use Merriam-Webster's Secretarial Handbook because it works well with our preferred lexicon, Merriam-Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.).

What matters most, in any case, is for an organization to choose or design a style manual and insist that all its employees adhere to that style for consistency's sake. We all know how important it is to be consistent in matters of style in a single document; an organization, corporation, or agency should demonstrate the same consistency if it is to project a professional and polished image to the public.

Many organizations design their own style manuals in order to address the kinds of writing-related issues that are particular to them. Such a document is referred to as an in-house style sheet or manual. Newly hired employees will bring with them a set of expectations about how business writing should be handled. An in-house style manual provides newcomers (and old timers!) with clear guidelines regarding the principles of style that should govern writing in their workplace. (Learn more about in-house Style Manuals).

Copyright 2001 Get It Write.

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