What Are Style Guides? Chicago, APA, MLA and More
Getting people to agree on what makes good writing is difficult. This is because stylistic issues are a matter of preference rather than subject to strict rules. And as such, we often have to rely on style guides for advice when we want to know the best way to write something.
But what are style guides exactly? Well, all of them set guidelines for how to write a document, including issues related to spelling, grammar and punctuation. But different style guides focus on different issues. Here, then, are some of the major types of style guide you may encounter.
Academic Style Guides
Academic style guides are used by academic publishers and universities. As well as spelling and grammar, they tend to focus on issues including:
- How to structure an essay or research paper
- Citing and referencing sources
- How to use graphs, charts and illustrations
- Subject or field-specific vocabulary
- How to write abbreviations, initialisms and acronyms
Common examples of academic guides include:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style)
- The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style)
- The Modern Language Association Handbook (MLA style)
Most universities will either use one of these or have an in-house style guide. If you are a student, then, you should check your university’s website before buying one of the style guides above!
Regional Style Guides
Regional guides focus on English dialects (e.g. Australian English or American English). These specify the standard spelling, punctuation and grammar rules for a specific type of English. Some major examples from different parts of the English-speaking world include:
- The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage by Pam Peters (Australian English)
- The Elements of Style by W. Strunk and E. B. White (American English)
- A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler (British English)
These style guides are most useful when writing for an audience or client from a different part of the world. For example, if you have grown up using Australian English, you may need to check an American English style guide when writing for a US audience or company.
Publication and Journalistic Style Guides
Publishers, broadcasters and news organisations often have their own style guides. The Australian Broadcasting Company, for example, has the ABC Style Guide. As well as the usual stylistic issues, these guides may also include editorial guidelines and other industry-specific information.
In-House Style Sheets
Some businesses have in-house style sheets. These are typically shorter documents that set out the preferred writing style for an organisation, including company-specific requirements (e.g. brand voice). Larger organisations may even have a full style guide.
Generally, if you need to use an in-house style sheet or guide, your employer will tell you. However, it is worth checking if you are unsure.