Style Manuals vs. Dictionaries

If your writing looks professional, so do you.

  • Nancy Tuten

    9 July 2020

    Style Manuals vs. Dictionaries

    While there are certainly some hard-and-fast grammar rules (verbs must agree in number with their subjects, for example), many of the guidelines that people regard as “rules” are, in fact, matters of style and not necessarily consistent from one style guide to another.

    Everyone should choose a style manual and adhere to it consistently. Ideally, everyone in a workplace would adhere to the same style manual. Before you decide which style manual is best for you or your organization, here are some points to consider:

    Style Manuals Are not the Same As Dictionaries

    Style manuals are prescriptive; that is, they tell us how we should use the language within the confines of a specific academic discipline or professional field.

    Dictionaries, on the other hand, are descriptive; they describe how people actually use the language. Thus, since people use the word ain’t and the word irregardless, they will appear in the dictionary whether or not they are considered professional or “correct.”

    Whether language mavens like it or not, if a substantial number of people use a word, it will end up in dictionaries. But even though a word appears in the dictionary, it may not be wise to use it in professional settings.  Find out whether a word has made it into the hallowed halls of acceptability by looking at the descriptors that accompany them, such as substandardcolloquial, and slang.

    For American English usage, the print or online version of Merriam-Webster’s dictionary is a solid resource, as is the American HeritageOxford University Press is an authoritative source for British English and also publishes a dictionary of American English.

    Style Manuals Are Discipline Specific

    Many people who practice law, for example, use the Texas Law Review Manual of Usage, Style, and Editing. 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 style book 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, MLA and most other grammar and mechanics guides advocate its usage.

    Here’s another example of a difference: 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 (“the state”).

    How Do We Choose a Style Manual?

    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 for business and organizations that have adopted neither a customized nor a discipline-specific manual of style. Discussions on this website frequently refer to Chicago rather than to other well-known style manuals because Chicago is widely considered the most authoritative and widely used style manual in the American publishing industry.

    Barnes and Noble editors note that “for more than one hundred years The Chicago Manual of Style has remained the definitive guide for anyone who works with words.”

    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), we recommend Merriam-Webster’s Secretarial Handbook because it works well with our preferred lexicon, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

    What matters most, in any case, is for an organization to choose (or design—see next paragraph) 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.

    Designing an In-House Style Manual

    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 how Get It Write can help you create an in-house style manual for your business or organization.)

    Copyright 2001 Get It Write. Revised 2020.

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