September 9, 2016
I love the English language. It’s got rules,
man! It also has so many exceptions to the
rules to make the rules virtually useless.
That’s one of the reasons you need a
stylebook if you communicate as a
company, organization, or personal brand.
Merriam-Webster defines a stylebook as
“a book explaining, describing, or
illustrating a prevailing, accepted, or
That’s a verbose way of saying a stylebook provides consistency to your messaging. Without one, you’re at the whim of the moment.
For example, do you use the Oxford comma—also known as the serial comma—before a conjunction in lists of three or more? Is it the Washington Post with a lower-case, unitalicized “the” or The Washington Post? Should The Washington Post be italicized? Is it acceptable to use CVC in first reference to Consistent Voice Communications? Why is The Washington Post italicized and Consistent Voice Communications isn’t?
Those are the questions stylebooks and style guides answer. For the purposes of this blog, a stylebook is a commercial publication, such as The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. A style guide is an organization’s in-house publication. A style guide usually builds on and provides exceptions to a stylebook. It also provides style information particular to that organization. For consistency, every business and organization should have one.
A quick quiz: Is the correct spelling “adviser” or “advisor”?
According to Merriam-Webster, both are acceptable. So you can use “advisor” all through your copy or “adviser” all through your copy. You can even interchange them throughout your copy and still be technically correct. If you do, you’ll make Mark Twain happy. He supposedly once quipped, “I don't give a damn for a man who can only spell a word one way.” But most of us aren’t Mark Twain, and most of us will mark you as sloppy instead.
Because the dictionary advises both adviser and advisor are correct, a style guide would spell out one or the other as the “authorized” spelling for your organization. (Some dictionaries note “adviser” is the preferred spelling. If your style guide designates a dictionary that makes that distinction as your base dictionary, you don’t need to list it in your style guide.)
Feeling overwhelmed? Don’t be. By basing your style guide on stylebooks, you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel. Three of the most popular stylebooks are the aforementioned The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual of Style, along with the MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing. In addition, many organizations have their own stylebooks publically available, such as the American Psychological Association.
The Chicago Manual of Style is your generalist stylebook. But if your target audience is the media, choose The AP Stylebook as your baseline. If your target audience is the world of scholars, choose the MLA Style Manual.
Then build on it. If “The” is part of your name, as it is for The Washington Post and The Associated Press, your stylebook would reflect that. If CVC is acceptable to use in a second reference for Consistent Voice Communications and in media release headlines, your stylebook would reflect that.
Mark Twain notwithstanding, most of us strive for consistency. A stylebook provides that consistency by laying down rules in a largely lawless language.
Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications and author of Write It, Speak It: Writing a Speech They'll APPLAUD! Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.