How many style guides do journalists really need?

I remember a fellow journalist telling me how her J-school professor once ordered students to write out the entire AP Stylebook by hand as part of a class project. The exercise, I was told, was designed to help the students memorize the Stylebook entries.

I still wonder how these students reacted after they became professional journalists and found out that not all newsrooms use AP style.

If they went to work for a magazine, they probably had to learn the Chicago Manual of Style. If they work for an online media company, they may have had to learn the Yahoo Style Guide, which covers the basics of writing for Internet and mobile audiences. In most other cases, they would have had to master the various in-house styles that most media companies have and use to ensure uniformity in their content.

Do journalists really need all these style guides?

To shed some light on this question, I interviewed several editors via email for their insights.

Various style guides show that ‘style is subjective’

David Minthorn, AP deputy standards editor and AP Stylebook co-editor, said differences in style guides are not generally a problem. He explained that style variations are similar to differences in word spellings and usage found in dictionaries and lexicons.

Minthorn said although AP staffers have to adhere to their company’s style and usage, their editors also consult the stylebooks of other news organizations and occasionally reach out to the editors of these organizations for input on some style issues.

Writer and editor Erin Brenner of Copyediting.com and The Writing Resource agrees with Minthorn. She explained that style differences often come down to preference based on practical reasons.

“For example, AP style does not use italics because italics become garbled over the AP wire. It’s the only style guide I’m familiar with that doesn’t use italics,” Brenner said. “The Yahoo Style Guide offers specific guidelines for creating text links that help the reader and the search engines, while AP doesn’t even cover that. And why would it? If it’s a guide for print and broadcast, it doesn’t need to,” she said.

Brenner generally recommends mastery of least two style guides. She said editors and writers can use the Chicago Manual of Style for their publication’s print copy, for instance, but also often follow The Yahoo Style Guide for Web copy.

On the AP versus Chicago debate, Brenner said the issue should not be seen as “a one-or-the-other, winner-take-all competition.”

“Publications should choose a style that best fits their needs and not worry about the rest. There’s no one right answer for everyone, nor should there be,” she said. “This is style. Style is subjective, and we all need to realize.”

A style guide doyen on the other side of the Atlantic also has a descriptivist view on variations in style guides.

David Marsh, the Guardian production editor and style guide editor since 1999, said that while all guides adhere to basic rules of English grammar, punctuation and spelling, we are unlikely to find a guide that will advise us to spell words in whichever way we want to. “Beyond that, however, the language offers users considerable latitude, and that is where different guides will make different choices,” he said.

Marsh and Brenner both cited the use (or non-use) of the serial or Oxford comma. Marsh said no one can say with authority that the serial comma is right or wrong. “One style guide may advise using the serial comma, while another one does not. Either way is correct,” Brenner said.

Marsh said that aside from grammatical issues and linguistic variations, different publications have different values, which are reflected in their style guides. While most news organizations censor expletives, for instance, the Guardian publishes F-bombs and explicit language in full when quoting sources.

“Our readers prefer this to the use of asterisks or euphemisms,” he said.

Different audiences call for different style guides

Mark Allen, an American Copy Editors Society member, said variations in the English language, as well as differences in audiences, demand various style guides.

He said the variations have deepened his understanding of usage issues, and help him when he shares advice on his blog or on Twitter.

“No word czar runs the English language,” he said. “The important thing is to be consistent, and that’s why house style guides are important.”

Andy Bechtel, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, believes that different style guides and editors can all get along — or become “friends with benefits,” as the Chicago Manual of Style’s Carol Fisher Saller wrote in April.

“We need to recognize that what works for one medium or one publication may not work for another. Therefore, we have more than one stylebook,” Bechtel said. “It would make no sense for the Guardian newspaper to switch to the Associated Press Stylebook. It’s all about the audience.”

And, in many ways, it’s all about consistency. It seems a little ironic, then, that there are so many different types of style guides. Why not have just one to avoid confusion? Bechtel said he likes to pick one stylebook and stick with it.

“I’m curious what other stylebooks have to say on some topics, but in practice, a mish-mash would be confusing, especially in journalism classes,” he said.

As for making students submit handwritten copies of the AP Stylebook? Bechtel can’t say he’s ever asked his students to do this.

“I am clear with the students that the AP Stylebook is just one of many options,” he said, “and that they may encounter other stylebooks in their careers.”

Related: “Cleaning Your Copy,” a News University online course.

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