It’s all about style

February 24, 2012

(adapted from a ‘Writing Tips’ email sent to work colleagues)

Bottom line:

  • There are no ‘rules’, only conventions, guidelines, accepted practices, and usage patterns – and traditions
  • Style guides offer guidelines for word and punctuation usage, word formatting, etc. The group I work with has an Editorial Guide that I wrote for them.
  • The Macquarie Dictionary is our spelling authority for anything not specifically listed in the Editorial Guide (www.macquariedictionary.com.au)
  • The Australian Style Manual is our authority for anything not specifically listed in the Editorial Guide (http://australia.gov.au/publications/style-manual; unfortunately, it’s not available as an eBook, PDF or searchable website)

One of our authors queried me about why I’d picked up two words that he’d used in a document – I’d corrected one and queried the other.

For the word I’d corrected (adviser/advisor), my decision was relatively easy as I had referred to Macquarie Dictionary for spelling guidance, as per our Editorial Guide. Macquarie stated that both variations were acceptable, so then I’d used the experience I’ve gained working on the [project] to decide that I’d seen ‘advisor’ used far more often within the [organisation] (especially for job titles) than ‘adviser’ – so I went with ‘advisor’.

The other word (‘stewarded’) wasn’t so easy. ‘Steward’ is a noun according to Macquarie, except for some US military usage where it is a verb ‘to steward’. And while you shouldn’t ‘verb a noun’, it happens quite often (e.g. impact/impacted, task/tasked, etc.). Macquarie didn’t allow ‘stewarded’, so I queried the author and he sent me definitions for ‘stewarded’ that he found on the internet. Ultimately, the use of that word is his decision – my job was to let him know that the verb form he’d used wasn’t acceptable according to Macquarie.

This discussion between us got me thinking about language and how it changes over time and how it’s not set in stone. Despite what your teacher may have drummed into you at school, there are no ‘rules’ – there are only conventions, guidelines, accepted practices, and usage patterns. And traditions. What isn’t acceptable now may well be acceptable in 10 years time; what was unacceptable several years ago, may be acceptable now. Language — and conventions related to language, such as punctuation and grammar — are changing all the time; some changes take centuries, others take just a few short years. (See a blog post I wrote on changing language styles and punctuation conventions over time, based on evidence from Australian newspapers: https://cybertext.wordpress.com/2011/04/15/how-styles-change/)

Words that join up to become one word (e.g. data base, then data-base, then database) are the most problematic, as the form of the word (from two words to a compound hyphenated word to a single word) can change very quickly, and in some cases, can skip the hyphenated step altogether. Dictionaries find it hard to keep up, so it’s no surprise that inconsistencies abound even within a single dictionary (e.g. Macquarie has seabed, seahorse, seagrass, seabird and also sea floor, sea breeze, sea pen etc.). Most of my searches on Macquarie relate to whether a word is closed, hyphenated, or is still two words. Then there’s capitalization (web page vs Web Page, eMail vs e-mail vs e-Mail vs Email vs email vs E-mail vs E-Mail etc.) – each new edition of a dictionary may change how it treats these sorts of words as they morph from ‘brand’ words into common words. No wonder authors get confused!

This is why we have an Editorial Guide – to guide you when you’re writing your documents by taking away some of the anguish and decision-making you might otherwise face when confronted with a writing dilemma (e.g. Do I italicise ‘et al.’ in a citation? Do I italicise the title of an Act of Parliament? Do I include an Act in the References list? [our Editorial Guide says Yes, Yes, and No to these questions]).

While we do it one way, another organisation – or even another part of [our organisation] — may do it another way. Neither are necessarily ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ – just different.

[Links last checked February 2012]


  1. Excellent information. I work for oil and gas attorneys and am constantly wondering which one is correct: “groundwater” or “ground water”. Or, if you have quotation marks around just a word, do you include the period or comma within the word. I know that when you are quoting a phrase, the comma or period goes inside the phrase. I could go on and one. Never thought about writing an editorial guide for the office, though–great idea. Thank you.

  2. Hi Carol

    I also work in the oil and gas industry (HES mostly)!

    A resource that may be of interest (and perhaps substitute for you writing your own editorial guide) is the Society of Petroleum Engineers Style Guide: http://www.spe.org/authors/docs/styleguide.pdf

    Also, take a look at Jeanne Perdue’s blog: http://oilpatchwriting.wordpress.com/


  3. Oh, and if you are in Memphis for the WritersUA Conference in a couple of weeks (March 11-14), I’m doing two presentations on Sunday March 11 — one on Editing (http://www.writersua.com/conference/ua101.htm), where I’ll cover quite a bit on style guides, both commercial and in-house.


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