The Absolute Beginners Guide to Style Guides


Writing is an art that comes in many forms.  Some forms are structured, others are entirely free from the restraints of any mandated rules or regulations.

No reader expects a poet to quote his or her sources of inspiration.  As with other types of anarchy, poets get to do whatever they want.

You and I, however, are expected to follow certain rules of grammar, punctuation and usage, in addition to getting our facts straight.  To accomplish that, we must find and follow trusted sources.


A tremendously well-respected man in our community was a guest on a local radio station this morning.  Nice guy.

His first topic of discussion was the madness of North Korea’s ruler, who recently (according to our esteemed friend) announced that North Korea had just put the first man on the moon.  To celebrate, people in one crowd were supposedly given an extra ration of rice and canned water.

I tried to verify this gentleman’s unnamed source.  The “news” came from the The Onion, who published that bogus tale a year ago.  It was a bizarre joke.  Our friend, however, quoted that unworthy source, to his own discredit.

There are millions of websites that offer opinions, but few are credible sources for questions regarding grammar, spelling or other aspects of the art of writing.  You will avoid discrediting yourself by heeding the most revered sources.

The Associated Press Stylebook

ap-styleFor journalists, The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook is an esteemed guide that must be mastered if you hope to become an accomplished news writer.  Used primarily by journalists, this stylebook is an A-Z compilation of roughly 3,000 words and phrases commonly used in newspapers and news writing.  New editions are published each spring.  (No, it’s not “Spring.”  You’ll find this typical error addressed under “seasons.”)

The AP Stylebook unilaterally mandates the wording of many “politically correct” terms.  To adhere to AP style, you must abbreviate California as “Calif.”  You must not use the term “illegal immigrant” and you must use “anti-abortion,” not “pro-life,” for example.

Are we bound by the edicts of the AT stylebook?  No, not in my opinion.  They can adhere to their anachronistic insistence of “Calif.” but I prefer the abbreviation rooted in our postal system instead: “CA.”

I have happily read my copy of the AT stylebook cover to cover repeatedly.  The fruit of my labor came when I took the writing test at The Gainesville Times newspaper.  The editor at the time said I “rocked the test.”  A degree in journalism will get you an interview.  Knowledge of AP style will land the job.

Apart from learning their perspective on such items as when various titles should be capitalized and how baseball scores should be notated, the best part of this particular book is its guide to punctuation.  This ten-page chapter within the book is a treasure.

The Associated Press Guide to Punctuation is also available as a separate 100-page booklet.  Buy a copy of this valuable resource and keep it handy when you write, if you want to be correct when using:

  • colons or commas
  • hyphens or dashes
  • quotation marks and question marks.

Applying the simple rules of punctuation can prevent rookie mistakes – errors that cause picky people to doubt your credibility – in your writing.


As an editor of all sorts of works, I have learned to trust Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.  Don’t ask me why, but this is the dictionary that publishers prefer; therefore, I use it exclusively for questions of spelling and the application of curious words.

I also keep these reference books at hand:

The Chicago Manual of Style

Chicago Manual of StyleThose resources have been helpful, at times.  Not one of them, however, carries the weight of the most respected measure for writing, formatting or editing manuscripts: The Chicago Manual of Style.

When writers depend on The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), published by the University of Chicago, you might not agree with their content, but you only have CMS to blame when it comes to grammar, usage, structure, citations or indexes.

The Chicago Manual of Style is the better part of 1,000 pages of what “word geeks” live for: order.  Think of it as a cookbook for writers.

If you cannot find the answer to your questions by lovingly thumbing through your very own volume, you may submit your questions online, hoping your query will be chosen to enlighten writers everywhere.  I, for one, await my monthly Questions & Answers e-mail as others long for their precious sales circulars or favorite magazines.

Click Here for The Chicago Manual of Style’s Questions & Answers

The best part of the entire tome, in my humble opinion, appears on page xiii in the preface (not capitalized, according to Merriam-Webster) of The Chicago Manual of Style’s 15th Edition:

“Most Chicago rules are guidelines, not imperatives; where options are offered, the first is normally our preference.  Users should break or bend rules that don’t fit their needs, as we often do ourselves.”

And, “Rules and regulations … cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law.  They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.”

Sorry, fellow word geeks.  Even CMS admits their rules are meant to be broken, on occasion.  We live in an imperfect world, in spite of our best efforts.

In-House Style Guides

Many organizations have their own style guides. Check the A List Apart Style Guide as a great example.

Somewhere, I believe, is an epitaph that reads, “Here Lies [insert name here], Who Had the Right of Way.”  Some things are not worth dying for; especially, grammar and punctuation.

If your boss (or the ignorant intransigent editor of your in-house style guide) says it’s acceptable to hyphenate adverbs, you are free to pitch a fit, be labeled forever for “not being a team player” or worse.  Or, you may say, “I prefer the way The Chicago Manual of Style suggests, but I understand that language is an art and artists don’t always agree.”

Then, you go to lunch, instead of back to your desk to empty it of your possessions and hope of future earnings.  Perhaps, you also look for work elsewhere; but, fighting over grammatical differences is not worth the risk of losing work.

Think I’m exaggerating?  Here’s the first of last month’s CMS questions:

“A colleague and I have a conflict.  I don’t like the use of and also in sentences like the following: “We walked and also ran the two blocks to the post office.”  I would change the sentence to “We both walked and ran the two blocks to the post office” or “We not only walked but also ran the two blocks to the post office.”  What’s your take on the use of and with also, two words close in meaning?  My colleague says one is a conjunction and the other an adverb, so the combination is fine.”

Following Style Guides in Your Work

If you’re writing for someone else, avoid conflict over grammar.

When you go to work for a person or a company, they pay you to do things their way.  That applies to “rules” of grammar, in my opinion.  Yes, there are limits.  Yes, they might be wrong.  Yes, you might be right.

In the workplace, I believe managers have the right to set work hours, dress codes, policies on inter-office dating or computer use and whether you must refer the president of the company as the “President,” even if it’s wrong according to all that we hold dear.

Choose your battles.  Quote your trusted sources.  Then, remember it’s always best to have a job when you look for a new job.

Don’t have a stroke over idiots who use commas as if they were salting french fries.  (Yes, the preferred usage is “french,” according to Merriam-Webster.)

Unless they force you to capitalize “spring.”  That’s when you go to the mat.


  • Steve Burge

    Steve is the founder of OSTraining. Originally from the UK, he now lives in Sarasota in the USA. Steve's work straddles the line between teaching and web development.

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10 years ago

I just made a big effort to read this article because I often struggle to put a sentence together. I also thought that this article could of benefit to me as a normal office worker who is looking to write some better content on to a new website. I’m sorry to say that I was left, well, kind of left a bit disappointed about what I learned from this article.
After reading this article I was a bit puzzled by some of it if I can high-light what I mean please:-
1) In the Associated Press Stylebook section, 3rd and 4th paragraph, it uses the initial AT, but are these typo mistakes for what should read as AP?
2) The book recommended is called The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. Is this book really a book on how to write or more geared to writing articles on Medical Law? Sorry, you can see why I might be confused.
3) The first sentence in this section says “For Journalists,”….which might imply that the book is mainly for Journalists and not really for many other people. The book is

actually recommended for Journalists, Students, Editors and Writers in all

Professions or that’s what I read on front cover.
4) For me to “buy a copy”, I would need more convincing that the book could be of benefit to normal office workers like me.
5) After reading, I was left very uncertain whether to take the ‘The Chicago Manual of Style’ book seriously or not. At the beginning the article says ‘you might not agree with their content’ and later on its say that ‘word geeks live for’ this book. Only when I clicked on the ‘Click Here…’ web-link, did I realise that this is a serious book but was in doubt before I clicked the link.
What I did gain from this article were these two book recommendations:-

•Merriam-Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style

•A Pocket Style Manual by Diana Hacker
When I checked on Amazon, both books seemed fairly cheap and

handy which I think could handle.
I look forward to anyone else’s thoughts on what also think about

this article.
Kind Regards


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