Style Guides Keep Our Grammar from Being a Hot Mess

By March 4, 2013 language 4 Comments


Happy National Grammar Day! I’m sure you have been preparing your celebration for weeks now, with all the food, the merriment, the games—the party usuals.

My festivities start right here at The Patch with a look at grammar style. What is grammar style, you may wonder? Well, it’s not style as in fashion (although proper grammar is always tres chic)—rather, it’s about design, mode, and structure. Without style, your grammar will be a hot mess. And we don’t want that, so we look to grammar style guides—the two most popular being The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) and The Associated Press Stylebook (AP).

Grammar geeks love to argue the virtues of their chosen guide and the evils of the opposing side (see this spoof from The Onion). And there is this infographic I found with CMS and AP in the boxing ring. But because this is a party, we’re going to put aside our differences and simply look at style—how CMS and AP keep our written words in some semblance of order.

Let’s start with the basics:

CMS has almost 1,000 pages of writing helps and rules; covers everything from sentence structure to capitalization rules to creating figures and bibliographies. It is the go-to guide for manuscripts, publications, and academic works.
AP has almost 400 pages listing proper word choice and word styling. It is the go-to guide for newspaper/journalism.

Although many people think the distinguishing factor between CMS and AP is the serial/Oxford comma (CMS uses it, AP does not), this is a minor difference. Neither source would need hundreds of pages to explain comma usage.

As an editor, I use both books, even for clients that note AP as their guide of choice. For example, AP covers capitalization of storms and how to handle political titles, but it does not explain the parts of a table or list the major political movements or explain a gerund. I would need CMS for that. I see CMS as a comprehensive language guide and AP as a style guide for how some of that language should be handled.

I’ve found that the more I dig into either guide I see what I don’t know. There are so many intricacies to the English language! I’m always learning something new (i.e., something I’ve been doing incorrectly all these years). My recommendation is to give each guide a thorough read every year or so. And if you are committed to CMS or AP, you really should be familiar with the other guide, to at least know what the differences are beyond comma usage.

Which guide do I prefer? I use CMS most, because I am not a journalist. And I like all the detail CMS gives! CMS gives lots of examples, and I like that.

Ultimately, both CMS and AP keep our style flawless. Say no to style malfunctions—use a guide, any guide. And stay stylish, my friends!


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