A guide to popular style guides
What is your first thought when you think of ‘style’? The word might conjure up thoughts of a catwalk in London or New York, Paris or Milan. Or glossy magazines like GQ or Vogue, with a cover story featuring a celebrity fashion icon or supermodel. Or maybe an especially delicious moment from a recent episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
In all those examples, style is about a mode of presentation and about how that mode conveys a message. That basic, core meaning of ‘style’ is identifiable when we talk about artistic styles and architectural styles. You don’t need to know how to classify different styles in order to recognise instantly the difference that style makes. Consider two examples of monumental public architecture:
Both are places of worship; both are instantly distinct. As with couture during London Fashion Week, the visual composition conveys meaning. With some familiarity, an eye for detail, and a good vocabulary, it is possible to read a building. Or a painting. Or, of course, a book. Jane Austen’s writing can be distinguished from William Hemingway’s at a glance – because of their styles. Written style matters. And this is where style guides are important:
The purpose of a style guide is to set standards for how you present your writing.
What is a style guide?
A style guide provides guidance for visual elements such as formatting. It tells you how to present your citations and bibliography. It gives you rules for the layout of the text on the page, or ‘typesetting’. This includes the space between lines of text, and considerations for the alignment of text (i.e. centred or right/left justified). Basically, it indicates how your text should look.
The style of presentation also sets standards for the tone of your writing. Can you use contractions? How about slang? When you have a list of items, do you include a comma – the ‘Oxford comma’ – after the word that comes before ‘and’ or not? The style might even require certain content. For example, you may have to include a disclosure of interests, source of funding for research, and an ethics statement.
Did you notice the Oxford comma in that last sentence? (It comes after ‘research’ and before ‘and’). It is a tiny detail and, because the style of this blog is pretty informal, it may seem unnecessary and out of place when you think about it. But you might not have noticed it. You may not be used to thinking of the visual aspects of a text.
For a proficient reader, those elements tend to vanish. There is an immediacy when we fluently read a text. The words don’t register as shapes on a page. They register as conveyors of meaning. It takes the injection of something visually disruptive – such as an unexpected change in the font – to jar the reader into noticing those aspects of a text. Changes of style in formal writing are not as blatant as, say, the differences between a Norman cathedral and a modernist basilica. But they are real. Fussy as it may seem, getting those subtle differences right is an important part of writing well.
That’s why a style guide is your friend.
Why do I need a style guide?
Daring and unconventional styles naturally attract attention. But there is much to be said for mastering conventions.
For a start, in some instances, you will at some point no doubt be required to conform your writing to standards that someone else has set. Let’s suppose you are at university and your course requires you to register for core modules. You will inevitably be expected to submit written work for assessment. Your school might have a document that provides the standards for the presentation of your work. In other words, they may have a house style. Or maybe they will tell you to follow the Harvard style guide, the Oxford style guide, or the Chicago style guide. We’ll come back to the different guides soon. For now, the important point is this: It is entirely possible that your ability to use a designated style correctly will be something that you are marked for.
There are several reasons why you may be required to follow a style guide. For a start, to be able to express yourself in a way that is appropriate to the circumstances is a valuable skill that most of us need to develop. Higher education is particularly apt for promoting that form of discipline. And it can become a self-discipline that you are able to deploy successfully in your profession, if not throughout your life. There is also enormous value in knowing the rules, so that you are in control when you break them – but if you’re not studying creative writing, that’ll be for later.
Another reason that adhering to a style can be required is pragmatic. Adhering to a style provides consistency. When the marker sits behind a tottering mountain of scripts, quick reference to the style guide can separate out the ones that failed to meet minimum standards. No bibliography? Instant fail. This is a specific example of something more general.
A standard style makes it easier for readers to know what to expect and how to find information when they read what you have written. The ability to use a style properly in formal writing will set your work apart visually. At a glance, a skilled reader will know that you are a skilled writer.
As mentioned already, you might need to work at the finer points. Horror of horrors, you might find yourself needing to confirm some obscure rule: when using Harvard style, if I am including a long quotation does the citation go before the quotation or after it? If it goes immediately after the quotation, is it somehow set apart from the quotation itself? Initially using a style can be daunting. But practice makes perfect. And an editor can help.
A third reason for mandatory style is commercial. For many students, writing in a degree programme is often preparation to write for publication. Publishers can be extremely demanding when it comes to the format of a submitted text. You may resent the weary graduate student marking dozens and dozens of essays on Parliamentary sovereignty who fails yours for not citing sources. But trust us. That is nothing compared to the frustration felt when an editor flatly rejects your submission because you ignored the style guide for contributors.
What are the major style guides?
There are five major style guides commonly encountered in academic writing: APA, Harvard, MHRA, OSCOLA and Oxford. Let’s take them in turn. This will let us identify the characteristics of each style and also note where you are most likely to encounter them.
The American Psychological Association (APA) created its Publication Manual, now in the seventh edition, which is the definitive guide to APA style. Typically used in social and behavioural sciences, the APA promotes clarity and precision in writing.
Since 1974, APA style also promotes inclusion by reducing features that discriminate based on ability, age, class, ethnicity, gender and intersectionality (amongst others).
APA style uses ‘in-text’ or ‘parenthetical’ citations in the ‘author-date’ format. So a citation of the Publication Manual would look like this: (APA 2019).
Like APA style, Harvard style uses ‘in-text’ or ‘parenthetical’ citations. Unlike APA style, Harvard style is typically used in the humanities, and Harvard style accommodates both ‘author-date’ and ‘author-title’ format.
‘Author-title’ is particularly useful in the humanities, where a prolific author may very well have multiple publications per year. For example, instead of encountering
(Smith 2018a), (Smith 2018b) and (Smith 2018c),
we would find
(Smith Animadversions), (Smith ‘Counterpoint’), and (Smith ‘Lying Liars’).
The Modern Humanities Research Association (MHRA) brought out the third edition of its MHRA Style Guide in 2013. The Association’s mandate is stated in its name: it promotes modern research in the humanities.
MHRA style departs from what we have seen so far by using footnotes and end notes. The first citation of an item provides all the relevant full details – the author’s name, the title, the series, the place of publication, the publisher, the date of publication, and the pinpointed reference. Later citations are heavily abbreviated.
OSCOLA (which always appears in all caps) is an acronym that stands for ‘Oxford University Standard Citation of Legal Authorities.’ This style is unsurprisingly used chiefly in law.
Compared to the other style guides surveyed here, OSCOLA can fairly be described as very specialist. Legal publications include items not often cited in other works – such as reported cases, statutory instruments, and Parliamentary reports – alongside the more familiar journals, books, encyclopaedias, and newspapers. OSCOLA also uses standard abbreviations, which may seem arcane to people who haven’t studied law.
Oxford style originated as rules designed by Horace Hart for use Oxford University Press (OUP). It is available as New Oxford Style Manual, which puts more emphasis on editing style than Hart originally put on typesetting.
It is difficult to exaggerate the prestige of the OUP imprint. Oxford style is OUP’s house style. Because OUP publishes around the world, Oxford style includes UK and US options for certain stylistic features but requires consistent usage. Distinctive features include the avoidance of capitalisation, the use of footnotes, and, of course, the Oxford comma.
Which style guide is best for my writing?
The architect Louis Sullivan said, “Form follows function.” What you want to achieve should inform how you attempt to achieve it. To return to a major theme for this blog, the use of a coherent style to organise and integrate elements – whether in architecture or in writing – is an identifiable feature. No wonder, then, that similarities are identifiable between movements in architecture and movements in literature.
The key thing to remember is that style guides have been developed for functionality. For our purposes, their primary function is to facilitate written communication for the reader.
Some style guides are updated more frequently than others. The New Oxford Style Manual is roughly forty editions removed from Hart’s 1893 rules for the typesetters at OUP. MHRA, which is admittedly much more recent, is in its third edition – but (like OSCOLA) it is also maintained on-line and can be updated on a rolling schedule without the need of a new edition. This is worth keeping in mind because style guides evolve and change in dialogue (so to speak) with the editors, publishers, and writers who use them.
Let’s suppose that you are not required by your course convener or publisher to follow a given style. As we have just seen, you have five major option to choose from.
“When choosing a style guide to use, remember Louis Sullivan: Form follows function.”
Your overarching purpose is communicating with the reader. That is the function of the text. Are you writing to communicate with lawyers? OSCOLA is your obvious choice. Are you writing to communicate with the public about a legal issue? Avoid OSCOLA like the plague. Consider instead a style used more widely in the humanities.
Much the same thing goes for texts in psychology or sociology. Ask yourself, who do you intend to read what you have written? If your readers are specialists, opt for APA.
Let’s say you are writing in a humanities subject, like history or philosophy. Do you want your reader to focus on the body of the text? Then use Harvard. Parenthetical citations allow the reader to take on information about your source without massively disrupting the reader’s attention.
Does an in-text citation provide too much distraction? Consider MHRA. The references to footnotes are unobtrusive. Do you want to develop tangential arguments? Footnotes and endnotes are what you need, so go for Oxford.
A style can be thought of as a tool. It is suited for some purposes. As your skill and confidence increases, you will be able to use different styles effectively. You will develop a practical sense for which style is best suited to communicate your message. And you will be able to depart from the rules safely, to improvise, to develop a style that is as distinctive as your point of view.
A final word…
A style guide sets standards to encourage effective habits of communication for writers and readers (not to mention assessors, editors, and publishers). The effort of formatting an essay may seem far removed from anything you would intuitively think of as style – but they are bound by real and serious connections.
For purposes of thinking about your written style, what matters is the organisation of visual elements into a functioning whole. The function is to communicate the content. To say it another way, the style is how you express your ideas to the reader. If you are a university student, your basic task isn’t to inform your lecturers and professors. It is to demonstrate that you are able to take bits of information, understand them, and restate them in an intelligible way. Using an appropriate academic style will probably be effortful and challenging at first, but the style guide is not intended to frustrate you. It is intended to help you organise your thought and communicate your understanding.
Proficiency in using a style is acquired by practice. As you practice communicating in a specific style, you will find in due course that you are able to do so without focusing your attention on it. It’s like riding a bicycle. Once you have learned what you are doing, it can actually be a massive distraction to focus on the activity.
Michael Polanyi, a chemist and philosopher, referred to complex activities that have been internalised in this way as ‘tacit knowledge.’ This knowledge is practical and personal. It is ‘tacit’ because the best way to learn it is not through talking about it, it’s through doing it. The interesting thing about tacit knowledge, according to Polanyi, is that acquiring it is a major step toward joining a community of people who also have that knowledge.
To acquire a technical skill is to gain expertise. The skill of correctly using the proper style is tacit, in that sense. It is tacit in another sense, too, because it goes unnoticed. Good style communicates effectively without distracting attention to itself. It is built up through attention to details – where to use a semi-colon, when to indent a quotation, how to prepare a bibliography – that you will eventually be able to use to convey information skillfully.