It’s a Question of Style
What exactly does style mean?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, style is “a convention with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display followed in writing or printing.” Style also pertains to documentation. Many style rules, like punctuation and capitalization, are taught in school as part of grammar, so it shouldn’t be surprising if the distinction is a little confusing to you.
Okay, then, what is grammar?
Once again sourcing from Merriam-Webster, grammar is “the study of the classes of words, their inflections…, and their functions and relations in the sentence.”
Yeah, that’s a little cryptic. Basically, grammar addresses the words in a sentence and their relationship to each other, like subject-verb agreement, verb tenses, proper use of pronouns, and so on.
Why do we need more than one style?
Technically, we don’t, but whenever you get a group of people together, they are bound to come up with their own set of rules. That’s why different fields of study and professions have, over time, amassed their own preferences with regard to style. Journalists have different style rules than novelists whose rules are different from academics’.
Does it matter which style I use?
Yes and no. In some cases, following the correct style guide is imperative to getting published. In other cases, there is wiggle room. Below is a list of some of the most prominent style guides (this is by no means a complete list).
The Chicago Manual of Style – Created by the University of Chicago Press, The Chicago Manual of Style focuses on how to edit for publication. This style is frequently used for both fiction and nonfiction.
The Associated Press Stylebook – As the name suggests, the AP style guide is used for journalists writing for the Associated Press.
MLA Handbook – Written by the Modern Language Association of America, the MLA style guide is often used for college and university arts and humanities classes.
The Elements of Style (a.k.a., “Strunk & White”) – William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s classic style guide is considered by many to be the premier guide for all sorts of writing.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association – Obviously, this guide caters to those working in the field of psychology.
AMA Manual of Style – This guide from the American Medical Association is for medical writers and editors.
The Gregg Reference Manual – The Gregg manual is most often used for professional business writing.
The number of style guides available – from those specific to a field of study to those that are more generic – probably reach into the hundreds. Knowing which one to follow can be difficult at times.
So, how do I choose a style?
If you are writing for a specific field of study or profession, then find out if that discipline has a preferred style. Even some organizations have their own style guide, so know your audience. A simple internet search should answer the question for you.
If you’re writing fiction or narrative nonfiction (like a biography), then your options are a little more open. You cannot go wrong with Chicago Style or Strunk & White, and it really doesn’t matter which you use. In fact, this is one area in which you can comfortably abdicate to your editor and let him or her decide which style to follow.
The question of style is really one of consistency. As long as you follow a valid style for your type of writing and you maintain that style consistently, you’ll be golden. Talk to your editor to figure out which style is best for you.