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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: House Style

by Edwin L. Battistella

House Style

As the publishing industry grew, large publishers developed in-house style manuals for typesetters, editors, proofreaders, and eventually authors. Many of these manuals found their way into broad use. The University of Chicago Press published The Chicago Manual of Style in 1906. The original subtitle—Being a Compilation of the Typographical Rules in Force at the University of Chicago Press, to Which Are Appended Specimens of Type in Use—is indicative of the scope. The 1906 edition was about a fifth the size of the current (seventeenth) edition of Chicago (as it is known), which covers all aspects of manuscript production, editing, and the publication process, including copyright and permissions, and is available online by subscription (with some free sections). R. M. Ritter’s Oxford Guide to Style was developed from Horace Hart’s Rules for Compositors & Readers at the University Press, Oxford, which was first published in 1893 as a guide for setting books into print at Oxford University Press. Presenting the British standard, Oxford Guide deals with everything from the parts of a book to foreign-language conventions and copyright issues, including topics both commonplace (apostrophes, semicolons) and specialized (whether to capitalize “the” in newspaper titles).

Chicago and Oxford are the two big house manuals, but others are frequently used. Among these is The New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage, which, like the NYPL itself, is a mix of the scholarly and the popular. The work covers the traditional topics—punctuation, usage (including 1,000 troublesome words), bias-free language, production, design, printing—and also provides more than 140 sidebars offering language lore and tips. Marjorie Skillin and Robert Malcolm Gay’s venerable Words into Type, first published in 1948, is still useful, but its most recent edition was released in 1974, so an update is sorely needed. William Sabin’s The Gregg Reference Manual is a something of a house-style reference for business writing, and its 2,500 entries provide a lot of information. The most recent edition of Gregg (the tenth) includes material on letters, memos, and reports along with a glossary of computer terms and a section on pronunciation. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communication by Amy Einsohn and Marilyn Schwartz, now in its fourth edition, covers grammar and editorial style and also introduces the elements of copyediting and issues of plain language compliance, ESL and EFL editing, bias-free language, and publishing law.

Professional organizations have developed their own guides as well. For example, “Style Sheet of the Modern Language Association” (MLA) morphed into handbooks for writers of research papers, theses, dissertations, and scholarly publications. Today these resources include the MLA Handbook, which advises high school students and undergraduates, and MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, aimed at graduate students and humanities scholars. The APA’s complementary Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (also known as APA Manual) began as a report in the Psychological Bulletin in 1929 and was later reissued.6 The current edition is recognized as the style not just for the APA but for most behavioral and social sciences. The MLA and APA guides focus on aspects of style that relate to research and publication, including punctuation, citation, and documentation of sources. In the natural sciences, the standard reference is Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, edited by Council of Science Editors. This manual covers general and special scientific style conventions, among the latter those relating to subatomic particles, chemical elements, formulas and names, drugs, genes and chromosomes, and disease names. Finally, one must not forget Kate Turabian’s work, i.e., what is now A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations: Chicago Style for Students and Researchers, revised by Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, Joseph M. Williams, and the University of Chicago Press Editorial Staff, now in its eighth edition. This book was originally published in 1937 as A Manual for Writers of Dissertations, and Turabian (then dissertation secretary at University of Chicago) wrote it for the benefit of students. Based on Chicago style, this book, in its current iteration, can serve as a general thesis guide.

Approaches to style have also been institutionalized by press organizations and individual newspapers, the current standards being The Associated Press Stylebook [AP Stylebook] and The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, by Allan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly. The AP began circulating guidelines for newspaper copy in the 1950s and eventually published this full-fledged book. The most recent edition (the 55th) includes more than 3,000 entries; an introduction titled “What’s New” lists additions and updates. AP Stylebook also has sections on business and sports writing and, of course, its “briefing on media law,” where one can find information on the First Amendment, libel, defamation, copyright, and fair use. The New York Times Manual, which is more fun to read than the AP Stylebook, has been around in some form for decades. Now in its revised and expanded fifth edition, it gives advice on everything from terms of address and terminology (should one use “American Indian” or “Native American”?) to word differences (“swath”/“swathe”). It tells which abbreviations require periods and which do not (A.A., A.M.A., and N.A.A.C.P., but AAA, AARP, NPR, and NOW) and includes quirky Times-preferred spellings such as “tendinitis” (rather than “tendonitis”) and “shh” (two h’s). It also provides a nice capsule summary of the distinction between writing guides and house style guides, noting in the foreword that “there is Style and then there is style”: “Style” is like painting, whereas “style” (which is the province of house style guides) is like framing the finished piece. This manual omits legal advice on libel—The Times presumably has lawyers for that.

Academe and journalism were among the first domains to take nonsexist and bias-free writing seriously, and most general guides advocate inclusion and consideration of a referent’s preferences. Three works dedicated to this subject stand out as historically important. First appearing in 1980, updated in 1988 and rereleased in 2000, Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing (intended “for writers, editors and speakers”) was in its day comprehensive and groundbreaking, dealing with false generics, pronouns, generalizations, sex-linked descriptives, double standards, names and social titles, and more. Francine Wattman Frank and Paula Treichler’s Language, Gender, and Professional Writing: Theoretical Approaches and Guidelines for Nonsexist Usage (which appeared in the late 1980s) provides writing advice supplemented with sophisticated and still relevant essays on language theory and history. And Marilyn Schwartz’s Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing, written in cooperation with the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses, provides a dictionary of bias-free usage and a comprehensive list of racial, ethnic, and religious terms.

Three valuable titles have appeared in the last several years. Dennis Baron’s exhaustive What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He & She brings together forty years of research into the history and politics of generic and nonbinary pronoun usage, and includes a sixty-page chronology of invented and adapted pronouns. Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style shares twenty-two principles of editorial style and cultural practice for working with indigenous writers and texts, and also provides a number of useful appendixes. And Karen Stollznow’s On the Offensive: Prejudice in Language Past and Present examines prejudice and discrimination through the lens of the derogatory phrases, slurs, and stereotypes that target race and ethnicity, gender identity and sexuality, religion, disability, age, and appearance.

Works Cited