Category Archives: Style manuals

Thank you, American Dialect Society

For any editor or language buff who has struggled with sentences like these:

  • Everyone took his or her seat.
  • Your client may want his or her options increased.


The old rule, much disputed, said: If your antecedent (the word to which your pronoun refers) is singular, you cannot use the word “their” because it is plural. You have to use a singular pronoun, which was always masculine until recently (when the “his or her” construction became popular to indicate that, in the first sentence above, women sat down, too).

The good news: The American Dialect Society just named “they” (and by extension, the possessive plural “their”) as their Word of the Year (WOY).

What this means for you as a writer: Erase everything you’ve ever been taught about this aspect of pronoun agreement.

It’s going to be a good year!

A tale of two (actually three) English grammar texts

I had an interesting conversation with my friend Michael Franklin at the AMWA (American Medical Writers Association) conference in Columbus last month. He told me of a must-read grammar text, Understanding English Grammar by Martha Kolln and Robert Funk, that he had studied in graduate school. I nearly fainted when I saw the price at my favorite book dealer ($126.52), but I was able to find a really clean used copy of an earlier edition for a fraction of that price.

Now, when I say “a must-read grammar text,” understand the context: I’m a nerdy linguist at heart, always striving to learn “the systematic nature of language” (p. xv). This book excites me because it includes sentence diagramming, which can greatly clarify sentence structure for the lost and confused writer. Kolln and Funk provide 64 exercises (answers, too).

But I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t drop everything and read the book cover to cover, an indulgence that I rarely can afford no matter how compelling the book. I do keep it close at hand, however, and I have now adopted it as my first and most definitive grammar resource.

I feel a bit disloyal to my old favorite, A Concise Grammar of Contemporary English by Randolph Quirk and Sidney Greenbaum, now out of print and also priced at a breathtaking $125.84.

My copy, bought for $14.25 and used lovingly in graduate school and to this day, has now completely disintegrated through the spine to leave me with 460 separate pages. The crumbly remnants of the spine fall into my keyboard and over the office floor whenever I open the text. I would replace my copy with a used one in better condition except that I have so many annotations that I cannot bear to leave behind (or copy over).

And now for that third grammar text, which I discovered while searching for Kolln and Funk’s book: Understanding and Using English Grammar by Betty Schrampfer Azar and Stacy A. Hagen. I found a copy at my local library and learned that this text is “a developmental skills text for intermediate to advanced students of English as a second or foreign language” (p. xiii). It is, as are the two books above, intended primarily as a classroom teaching text but also as a further reference. I was delighted to find a resource that I could recommend to my brilliant engineers for whom English is their second language. They are very motivated to improve their English and could study the book and work the exercises using the answer key and audio CDs.

If English is your first language and you are looking for a good, definitive resource to understand its structure, the first two titles above would probably help you. If English is your second language and you want to learn and understand the structure of English better, check out the third title. But if you are looking for answers to style questions (Should I capitalize this? Should I use “imply” or “infer” in this sentence?), consult The Gregg Reference Manual or the style guide of your choice.



Why bother with a style guide?

If you write or edit more than one document a day or work with other writers and editors, you need a style guide to provide guidance on style (language conventions with respect to spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and typographic arrangement and display). You can create a style guide at the personal, department, or corporate level (depending on the politics in your workplace).

For example, will you write:

  • Provider Services Department or Provider Services department?
  • Post-operative or postoperative?
  • Bullet points with periods at the end?
  • Zero through nine as words and 10 and above as numerals?

If you want consistency in your documents, you must have a style guide to direct these and hundreds of other style decisions.

Base your style guide on a published style manual

Published style manuals include The Gregg Reference Manual or The American Medical Association Manual of Style. You can buy most style manuals on Amazon. To compare 12 currently published style manuals, download this style manual guide that I wrote with my colleague Elizabeth Frick. (You read that right―the other Elizabeth Frick [Betsy Frick] and I have collaborated on several books and documents).

Here’s the short version of that matrix:

  • For most technical and business documents, consider using The Gregg Reference Manual.
  • For medical documents, you must use The American Medical Association Manual of Style and/or Scientific Style and Format (the CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers).
  • For academic publishing, consider The Chicago Manual of Style. This manual is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For publishing psychological research, use APA (Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association). APA is generally not appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For government writing, consider The Gregg Reference Manual and/or the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO Style Manual).
  • For journalism and marketing or sales writing, use AP (The Associated Press Manual of Style).  AP is rarely appropriate for technical or business writing.
  • For software documentation, use the Microsoft Manual of Style or Read Me First.

It’s important to realize that your chosen published style manual merely acts as the basis of your style guide―you can go against or “contra” any of the style manual’s advice. For example, if your chosen style manual requires a period after the abbreviation “Inc.” but your company does not use the period, you could list your style followed by the parenthetical (contra Gregg 122f). In a culture driven by individualism, not having to conform to a style manual on every decision may be comforting if you or others chafe at any hint of being controlled.

On the other hand, it may be even more comforting to know that you don’t have to create a style manual from scratch. Save time and base your style on a chosen published style manual, adapting it to work for your organization.


The numbers game

I have frequent requests in my writing classes to explain how to express numbers in technical and business writing. Let me be honest with you: I can’t possibly cover all the variables involved in writing numbers in this brief post. In fact, I could actually shorten this article dramatically if I just said: “Consult your chosen style guide.”

For most business and technical writing, I preach that the style guide of choice is
The Gregg Reference Manual
, which

Gregg Reference Manual

has a 30-page section on how to use figures or words to express numbers (Part 1, Section 4). The first four pages prescribe the basic rules, which I will summarize here:

Use words to represent numbers from 1 through 10 (for example: one, two three . . . ten) and use figures for numbers above 10. (Rule 401)

We sent six people to the conference.

I lost only 11 files when my computer crashed.

Use all figures for 1 through 10 when the numbers need to stand out for quick comprehension or have technical significance (Rule 401).

Cut the wire strip into 1-cm lengths.

Use words to represent numbers at the beginning of a sentence (Rule 401).

Sixteen employees called in sick with the flu.

When two or more related numbers appear in the same sentence, use figures for all numbers if one of the numbers is larger than 10.

We have always sent between 10 and 20 employees to the conference.

Use word style for numbers from 1 through 100 when writing high-level executive correspondence or nontechnical documents such as formal announcements, invitations, or literary texts (rule 404).

Other style guides differ from this advice (for example, The American Medical Association Manual of Style prescribes using figures for numbers 1 and above [with a few exceptions]). Be sure to consult any style guides that you are required to use in your job or industry.

Ready for your quiz?

Recently released: The Copyeditor’s Handbook (a great resource)

 The Copy Editor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, 3rd edition, is a comprehensive resource for both new and experienced editors. The preface acknowledges the author’s intent to help new copyeditors: “This handbook is addressed to new and aspiring copyeditors who will be working on nonfiction books, journal articles, newsletters, and corporate publications. . . [because style manuals] assume that their readers already understand what copyeditors do, why the rules matter, and how and when to apply, bend, or break the rules.”

I would argue, however, that even established editors would benefit from this text as an overview and reminder of our complex tasks and decisions. It was good to see an acknowledgment of the intricacies of editorial judgment and to watch a professional walk through the research that informs her judgments. Even after years of editing, I learned something in every chapter I read.

My other argument with Amy Einsohn, the author, is that she has based the book on The Chicago Manual of Style, whose explicit purpose is to set style for academic publishing (specifically at the University of Chicago), not necessarily for “book publishing and corporate communications” as Einsohn has specified. I also wonder why she fails to mention The Gregg Reference Manual, my favorite style manual for all things business because it addresses far more relevant issues than does Chicago.

Nevertheless, Einsohn redeems herself with 15 editing exercises sprinkled throughout the chapters (the answers alone take up 66 pages). The richness of this book almost makes me wish that I would experience a very minor injury or illness that would sideline me for just one day so that I could curl up, finish the book, and take the quizzes.

The Copy Editor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, 3rd Edition
Amy Einsohn
University of California Press
About $15

Tour de Style Manuals

If you’d like a demonstration of democratic unproductivity, try settling writing style issues like the serial comma or the hyphenation of the word “e-mail”  in a group. Months later, you’ll still be arguing (and the national debate on health care will look tame by comparison).

That’s why I recommend that each work group, department, division, or company adopt a published style manual and mandate strict adherence to that particular style to increase the consistency of their written messages.  (To see a comprehensive matrix of 12 style manuals, visit

If necessary, each group can create a personalized style sheet to document where style choices differ from the adopted style manual. This process, however, can be costly and bloody.

Of course, everyone can play Frank Sinatra’s “I did it my way” at review meetings, but for those who want a coherent, consistent style, these steps outlined above will be helpful.

Read upcoming blog  entries for more information about each style manual, including my opinions on each .

Navy Seals, please take out the Associated Press Stylebook next!

I just finished editing a 500-page proposal for a company who follows the journalists’ style manual, the Associated Press Stylebook (AP). AP stresses that writers should NOT use a comma before the conjunction in a series (known widely as a serial comma). For example, in this sentence, the final comma is a serial comma: “The end result was a premier golf course community on 225 acres of oak groves, open prairie, and marshlands.”

To be fair, AP does allow the serial comma for a “complex series.”

Here are the three main complaints that I have about the AP position on the serial comma:

  1. Of all the most popular style manuals, AP is the only one who does not require the serial comma.
  2. AP requires the author or editor to stop and make a decision about the complexity of a series of items. All the other style manuals allow authors and editors to just use the comma and save time and brain cells for more important issues in writing.
  3. A series without a serial comma may be confusing to the reader: “I ordered a hamburger, fries, cookies and ice cream.” [Is cookies and ice cream one product or two?] The serial comma would clarify that.

So, please, Navy Seals, can you just delete this provision from the AP Stylebook? It may not be as dramatic as recent successes, but it will save a lot of comma terror in America.

A rapid uncontrolled and disorganized rhythm.

The Yahoo! Style Guide

I just learned of the Yahoo! Style Guide online (you can buy it for $14.95 on Amazon). The online version has some interesting quick links; I was fascinated by their word list (is it 24/7 or 24-7?) You can download their list and start adding to it yourself, which would make you look very consistent in your writing.

I would suggest that this style guide might be best for people writing for the Web (yes, that’s right: Capitalize the word Web when a noun, but lower case it when combined with other words such as webcam, weblog, webpage). If you are writing in technical fields, such as medicine or engineering, that have their own style guides, of course you’ll follow those.

The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers

Recently, a client required me to edit their medical manuscript to the style manual Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers (7th edition). This style manual, published by the Council of Science Editors in 2006, might be of interest to people who write and submit articles in all scientific disciplines, especially chemical, microbial, plant, zoological, genetic, and medical sciences. To quote the preface: “This manual’s content on special scientific conventions is generally organized according to a rising scale of dimensions, starting with the fundamental units of matter and proceeding up through chemical and cellular components, microorganisms and more complex organisms, to the planet Earth and the rest of the universe” (p. ix).

In my role as a medical editor, I believe the AMA Manual of Style (American Medical Association) is more appropriate for my work, but the CSE certainly might be more appropriate for other scientific disciplines.

If you need to use the CSE citation style, these two websites are among several which offer “cheat sheets” to make your task easier:

Ohio State University cheat sheet on citation style

Dakota State University cheat sheet on citation style

You might also be interested in a thoughtful and very complete review of the CSE by Geoff Hart: