Why All the Fuss about Spellings and Style Guides?

Oxford2I expect some people will see my latest bite-sized tips post and wonder what it’s all about and why I bother with these lists of spellings and occasional forays into a bit of grammar based on the New Oxford Style Manual. If you’re one of them, then wonder no more because I’m going to reveal my main reasons below.

The first is to ensure that I write/translate consistently within a text. I don’t know about you, but being bombarded constantly with levels of writing competence ranging from fandabidozi to atrocious can take its toll on my ageing brain cells, leaving me in a quandary about what is write right and how to spell certain terms. Being consistent is especially important when working on texts for a client over a long period. If I based my spelling choices on what I felt was right on any given day rather than on a specific style guide, then I might write spellchecker (Oxford’s preference) one day and spell checker the next. I often consult the Spelling Dictionary or the Dictionary for Writers and Editors because I cannot remember exactly which version Oxford prefers, and, therefore, which I used last time. They are a convenient crutch that help me feel more confident about the quality of the work I deliver.

Secondly, when I’m revising another person’s writing, regardless of whether they’re a native or non-native speaker (for example, someone’s translation or an article written directly into English by an academic), if I make a change and they ask me why, I want to be able to tell them that I follow a specific style guide and the latter says XYZ. “Because I say so” is a pretty pathetic reason. “Because Oxford says so, and I’ve based the entire revision/edit on Oxford” packs a far greater punch and stops people complaining in their tracks because it’s far more difficult to argue against.

Oxford1I also believe it’s good practice to start following a style manual on a daily basis and thinking about spellings, layouts, use of grammar, and so on, as these can all differ depending not only which side of the pond you’re on, but also the guide you’re using. When a client does then come along and instructs you to use their preferred particular style, or follow their own in-house manual, you’ll have a much clearer idea of what you need to look out for and find it easier to improve the service you provide. This is particularly useful if you’re on a tight deadline with no time to read a huge tome from cover to cover. As laborious as it can sometimes be to look up punctuation and spelling rules in a client’s guide, it has to be done if you want to keep them happy.

Out of all the style manuals available (see Writing-related Resources for a list of over 40 online), I primarily use the New Oxford Style Manual rather than any other because it’s the one recommended by the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (as stated on the back cover of the four books forming the manual); as an entry-level member of the CIEP*, and having recently completed my first proofreading course with the society, it’s the most obvious choice.

So pick up that style guide and start training yourself in the finer points of our language. I realise it might seem a daunting prospect when you see just how many pages some manuals contain, but I can assure you that keeping at it frequently does make everything slot slowly into place. And the more you become aware of the type of pits you can fall into, the better the end result will be.

This post was first published on 13/05/2015 on my previous blog and updated in May 2020.

*I am no longer a member of the CIEP.

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