What is considered the usage and style manual?
February 26, 2006 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Usage and Grammar: What is considered the usage and style manual?

Although I majored in English and focused on language, writing, and rhetoric, I find that I am stumped when it comes to some of the finer points of usage. Somehow I made it through college without even cracking a Strunk and White (wikipedia). I hate it when my cousin, who writes for a textbook company, pings me with a usage/style question and I have no idea what the answer is. This is very bad for my grammar-nazi ego.

Thanks!
posted by frecklefaerie to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: It depends on what you're writing for. Most major news publications have their own manuals of style (such as the New York Times Manual of Style). For the layperson, I think the Chicago Manual of Style is your best bet.

But... one of the nice things about English is that there's no Academy telling us what to say and how to say it. We don't have an official manual of style because there's no real "correct" way of speaking and writing--only codes based on class, time, geographical location and other social distinctions.
posted by maxreax at 11:08 AM on February 26, 2006


Garner is very highly thought of, if you're American.
posted by Gator at 11:10 AM on February 26, 2006


Best answer: Chicago.
posted by cribcage at 11:21 AM on February 26, 2006


In America, there's not one big authority the way there is in, say, France. Probably the closest you'll get is the MLA (Modern Language Association). Of course, there's a lot of divergence -- APA style is also big, and most newspapers have their own style guides (often just tweaked slightly from AP style).

Those are the formal organizations. Then, too, some people go out, form their own opinions, and write books about those. Examples include Strunk & White, Safire, Buckley (yes, that Buckley), and everyone else who's ever complained about it's/its confusion.

If you're British, probably the safest bet is BBC style (pdf). Disclaimer: I'm not British, so maybe you guys secretly prefer Kingsley Amis -- I don't know.

This is probably going to degenerate and go madly off-topic as soon as MeFi's many descriptivists see it. ("What do you mean, the answer?")
posted by booksandlibretti at 11:25 AM on February 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


The British English equivalent of Strunk and White is probably Gower's The Complete Plain Words.

However, neither are style manuals in the way I understand the term. In the first instance, Strunk and White, and Gower are meant to be read rather than referred to. Style manuals tend to cover printing, typography, layout, house conventions, foreign phrases, scientific and technical writing etc., all at the expense of the basics of usage, which sounds like what you're after. If this is the case, just get Strunk and White.

If you really want a style manual then you want the Chicago Manual. If you want extended coverage of British English, the equivalent of the Chicago Manual in the UK is OUP's Hart's Rules. This is now published as The Oxford Guide to Style.

Several houses publish their style guide freely online, which can sometimes be useful. I occasionally refer to those of The Economist, The Guardian, and the American Institute of Physics (especially good for maths and — who knew? — physics).
posted by caek at 11:38 AM on February 26, 2006 [3 favorites]


Best answer: I second the Chicago Manual of Style. I work in publishing and it is by far the most often requested. The APA Publication Manual is somewhat common, but those and Strunk and White are the ones you want. Gator is right about Garner -- that one answered many technical answers recently -- grammar issues to which I knew the answers, but not why the answers were correct.
posted by theredpen at 11:39 AM on February 26, 2006


Best answer: You want the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual, though.
posted by theredpen at 11:40 AM on February 26, 2006


Oxford rules for Printers and Editors and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors are our two bibles (in the UK). The individual volumes are best, but the combined Oxford Style manual is a goodie.
posted by bonaldi at 12:00 PM on February 26, 2006 [1 favorite]


If you're looking for a usage manual, Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is a good choice. Entries are very detailed, with extensive reference to earlier usage books. Helps sort the valuable advice from the specious nonsense you're likely to hear.
posted by words1 at 12:19 PM on February 26, 2006


Both have been mentioned already, but just chiming in to heartily recommend Strunk & White and Garner.
posted by pazazygeek at 12:39 PM on February 26, 2006


Depending on how in-depth and/or esoteric your question is, sometimes a simple google search can answer basic grammar and usage questions.

In US writing we do have a great deal of latitude, but there are some rules. I find that I tend to get most things right by going with what feels and sounds right. When in doubt, I google.

Case in point: I used the possessive form of "our" the other day in my blog. My wife, who spots errors like a hawk, twigged me for using it as "our's." I checked, and found she was right. I should have gone with "ours."

In most cases, I find the answer within the first few links.

Or am I being too simple here?
posted by mmahaffie at 12:41 PM on February 26, 2006


I don't think the book you're looking for exists. There is no "the usage and style manual". Different guidelines exist for different purposes. Not all manuals agree. (In fact, they often disagree markedly.) It's not a good idea to adhere to one manual's style slavishly; find a style (or styles) that you find sensible and then build your personal style around it.

Personally, I have several of the books suggested above, and refer to all of them when I have a question, but ultimately make style decisions on my own (informed, of course, by the manauls' recommendations). See the punctuation outside the quotation marks in my first paragraph as an example.

Pick up a couple of the books recommended in this thread, but remember there's not one Bible of style.
posted by jdroth at 12:56 PM on February 26, 2006


Response by poster: maxreax: But... one of the nice things about English is that there's no Academy telling us what to say and how to say it. We don't have an official manual of style because there's no real "correct" way of speaking and writing--only codes based on class, time, geographical location and other social distinctions.

Hehe, I argue with my husband frequently over my view that English is a productive language. I'm interested in "cleaning up" my writing as opposed to forging new uses.
posted by frecklefaerie at 1:09 PM on February 26, 2006


Response by poster: To those recommending Chicago: Does it list things like whether you say "on Hawaii" or "in Hawaii?" That's the kind of thing that stumps me.
posted by frecklefaerie at 1:13 PM on February 26, 2006


Or am I being too simple here?
I think you are. Google can work when there is a question with a definitive answer. But often times style is a subjective thing and there is no right answer, only common ways of doing something. For example, how would you express the period of time from 1980 - 1989?

the 80s
the 80's
the 1980s
the 1980's
the eighties

All of these could be considered "right" but without referring to a specific style guide I think you would just be floundering trying to use google.
posted by Rhomboid at 1:15 PM on February 26, 2006


See, Rhomboid, this is exactly why people get upset enough to publish their own books. Possessive apostrophes should not be used to denote anything that isn't a possessive. I think 1980's or 80's is a possessive, and when it isn't, it's confusing. Also, '80s is preferred; in that case, the apostrophe denotes the omission of preceding numbers.
posted by booksandlibretti at 1:47 PM on February 26, 2006


I agree very strongly with this:

There is no "the usage and style manual". Different guidelines exist for different purposes.

Though I disagree somewhat with this:

It's not a good idea to adhere to one manual's style slavishly;

At work? Yes there is. There is no right and wrong for these usage questions. The point of adopting a style guide is to stop arguments and get back to work.

In a professional writing environment, there should be no argument -- you dig out your style guide, you tell the person "Chicago says X" or "Strunk and White say Y" and you get on with something more important.

So, at work, it doesn't matter which style guide you use, as long as you do use one.

So this, from the original post:

I hate it when my cousin, who writes for a textbook company, pings me with a usage/style question and I have no idea what the answer is.

prompts me to ask, what the hell kind of textbook company does your cousin work for if they haven't addressed this issue?

They shouldn't be asking you! Someone should long ago have told your cousin "we use Chicago/Strunk/Garner" or whatever. Problem solved.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:47 PM on February 26, 2006


If you're writing in a particular trade, such as newspaper reporting or software technical writing, then there almost certainly is a particular style guide that is standard to that trade (AP for the former; maybe Microsoft's for the latter). If you are not doing that kind of writing, Chicago is good.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 3:01 PM on February 26, 2006


The New York Times manual is inconsistent, full of carried-over errors from years back (which the design and editing staff will easily admit - such as weird norms for contractions). There is no single authority, I don't think, as so many usage / grammar books gloss over typography, which is inherently important. But a mixture of Chicago, Thames & Hudson, Strunk & White and the AP is a good place to start. And if you're producing complex formatted documents or government work, the GPO style manual is an excellent companion. I have all of these on my desk and use them regularly, often in concert.

And 80's is never correct, except in the following two cases: something belongs to an entity known as "80," or you are the New York Times, trying desperately to refer to the '80s. It's a contraction, as mentioned above, and the correct use of the contractive apostrophe is in place of the deleted characters.
posted by luriete at 3:35 PM on February 26, 2006


Response by poster: I realize that there is no actual "definitive" guide to usage, which is why I used the word "considered" in my original question. Really I was hoping that those with professional experience might be able to tell me what they use.
posted by frecklefaerie at 4:14 PM on February 26, 2006


I think it depends on the writer's field (and employer). Major newspapers and publications will have style manuals, whether their own or a particular text from those mentioned by other commenters; The Guardian, one of the UK's leading broadsheets, has put its in-house style guide online, and I've found it has been of considerable help in my academic writing. Between that, a little common sense, and Lynn Truss's "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", I can just about hold my own, though I'm considering making a hardcopy of Strunk for future perusal.
posted by Incharitable Dog at 4:36 PM on February 26, 2006


The AP Stylebook is probably the industry leader for journalism. For scholarly writing, check the MLA Style Manual.
posted by JJ86 at 4:53 PM on February 26, 2006


I'd also like to add that Purude's Online Writing Lab is invaluable--particularly for quick grammar questions.
posted by rockstar at 5:45 PM on February 26, 2006


Possessive apostrophes should not be used to denote anything that isn't a possessive.

I'm a big ol' grammar geek, but this rule (like all rules) has conditions under which it is problematic. As much as I hate to do it, I will pluralize groups of people identified by their academic degree with the dreaded apostrophe. Ph.D.s and M.D.s -- much less understandable than Ph.D.'s and M.D.'s.

The problem, IMO, with the AP Style book or Chicago for general use is that they are geared very specficially toward printed journalism. For general usage (esp. among non-grammar geeks who want the "correct" answer, not a debate), I often find the balance of descriptive to prescriptive practiced by the American Heritage Book of English Usage to be useful. But I enjoy Bill Walsh's books and site a lot more.
posted by desuetude at 9:12 PM on February 26, 2006


PhDs and MDs
posted by bonaldi at 6:40 AM on February 27, 2006


There is (obviously) no single answer to this question. The most widely used style manual in the US is probably Chicago, which I'm fond of myself (though I deplore the fact that they've regressed on singular they in the latest edition). But that's for people editing stuff for (mainly print) publication, and perhaps not very useful to someone who just wants guidance on grammatical and quasi-grammatical questions. I always recommend Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (mentioned by words1 above) and its shorter sibling Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (I keep the former on a shelf a few feet from my desk and the latter right at hand); they not only gives recommendations but provide the history of both the usage in question and the condemnations (often totally spurious) of the usage.

You might also check the recommendations of the alt.usage.english group. But for god's sake stay away from Strunk and White.
posted by languagehat at 2:22 PM on February 27, 2006


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