A Quick Guide to Style Guides (Part 1)

Posted on Sep 27, 2011

Does a full stop go inside quotation marks or outside? E-mail or email? Should job titles be capitalized? Which words in a title are capitalized? In a list of items, does a comma come before “and” or not? When should we use bold, and when italics?

These and a million other niggling questions come up for all writers, whether bloggers putting together their latest post on pancakes, students composing a paper, or authors putting the final touches on their manuscripts.

If you are confused about these items, you’re not alone. In this and future posts, we give you some answers.

The first thing to consider is the version of English you are writing in. Is it American, British, Canadian, Australian, or another variant? Each of these have their own rules, which we’ll cover later. Be careful with this one. Fierce battles have been known to break out when national pride gets tangled up with comma placement!

The next thing to think about is style. If you write regularly, for fun, for marks, or for profit, you need to know your style. I don’t mean deciding whether you are into gothic malaise, cheerful introspection, or life affirming motivational quips. I’m talking about the style guide that you follow.

If you are writing an academic piece, you will likely be required to follow a set style. You may or may not get information on this from your professor or teacher if you are a student, but if you are confused, should definitely ask. You should especially check on this if the person who will mark your work obsesses over detail, goes crazy when the same simple mistakes are made again and again, and spends their life reading and correcting papers (this describes nearly anyone who is likely to grade your work).

If you are a graduate student or professor, you will likely already know the style used by your academic institution or department.

In any case, the most common styles used in the academic world are MLA and APA. AMA is used in medical studies in some cases. Many universities also use a confusing pseudo-style called “Harvard.” Journalism studies often involve the use of AP style, while a wide range of institutions use Chicago style or a variation on it called Turabian.

Scratching your head?

It’s not so tough to figure out. If you’re a student, professor, or other professional writing for universities and their publications, find out the style you should follow.

If you are looking to have an article or press release published, AP style is the one you want.

For most other writers, a good rule is to follow Chicago style.

Great, so you know what version of English you’re following and what style you’re going to use. Now comes the hard part. How does the style work? In the next post, we begin tackling individual styles, giving you an overview of all their important points, some free resources to use for answers, and information on how to get the clearest answers to the most obscure questions.

Of course, the easiest option is to send your work off to an editing service like Make Your English Work, which will put the finishing touches on your pieces, free of worry. You may even want to do this for a final proofread if you have everything up to scratch.


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