In high school and college, even as an English major, when I wrote, I was blissfully ignorant of such things as style manuals like APA, MLA, Chicago Style, or AP.  We had English textbooks that gave us the rules of grammar, and teachers handed out sheets that illustrated how to write a bibliography or footnote.  There was some variance in the rules from school to school and from teacher to teacher, but instructors allowed for a little inconsistency.  I know I’m dating myself by confessing this, but I am wondering if there aren’t a few out there who have had similar experiences.  When I got to graduate school, the honeymoon was over, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA) became my bible.  I was so grateful that at the start of my program I was required to take a short course in the use of this style manual. I thought it might help to look at what a style manual is, what style manual should a writer choose, and what the major differences are between some of the more commonly used manuals.

What are style manuals?

Wikipedia, which has its own style manual, gives a general definition of these reference guides:

A style guide (or manual of style) is a set of standards for the writing and design of documents, either for general use or for a specific publication, organization, or field. . . . A style guide establishes and enforces style to improve communication.

The topics covered are broad and include understanding mechanics (punctuation, spelling, capitalization, etc.), crediting sources, and creating a reference list or works cited page.  There will be information on developing a format, as well as avoiding plagiarism and bias.  Besides students, researchers and journalists should follow a guide written for their disciplines or required by their employers.  Emphasis should be made that these are style guides, not grammar rules; there will be differences from manual to manual.  The goal is consistency within a document, from document to document, and from writer to writer within an organization.

How does one choose which manual to use?

There are a plethora of style guides, and Wikipedia lists many of them.  They are often based on the area of study/expertise of that writer, or they are connected to a particular profession or a single business.  In higher education, a professor may announce which manual to use, like APA (for behavioral or social sciences), MLA (Modern Language Association, for the arts and humanities), or Chicago Manual of Style (for academic publishing).  Employers might adhere to the guidelines in AP style (Associated Press Stylebook, for use in journalism) or Apple Publications Style Guide (for the computer industry).

Some businesses have their own in-house manuals, which may be combinations of several other reference books.  Jean Ives at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt says that “They have their own style guides (for science, math, marketing, assessments, etc.), and they’re based largely on Chicago Manual of Style.”  A writer must first ask his/her employer or professor which one is recommended.  If there is none, then the writer must choose according to discipline or familiarity to assure consistency.

What are some of the differences found in style manuals?

The biggest differences seem to come in the format of citations and references.  For example, in using APA, only the references that have been cited are at the end of a piece of writing, listed on a “References” page, while MLA calls it a “Works Cited” page.  MLA lists authors’ names as the last name, then the first name.  APA uses the last name, then the first name’s initial.  These may seem picky, but each contributes to that consistency mentioned earlier.  Quotes that are 40 words or more are indented five spaces in APA, while MLA indents quotations that are four lines or longer 10 spaces.  There has long been a debate about the use of the serial comma (the comma used before a word like “and” in a series of items, e.g., Tom, Dick, and Harry).  Chicago Style recommends using that last comma, but AP suggests its use only for clarity such as in this classic example:  I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.  The lack of a serial comma makes it sound like Ayn Rand is my mother, and God is my father.

The first time someone uses a style manual is difficult.  The writer spends much time searching for the suggested guideline.  Some writers develop two or three-page “cheat sheets,” which list some of the more confusing or less memorable suggestions for quicker reference.  My friend at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt gives this advice to writers, “I am a strong proponent of using some style guide, and I’m not partial to a particular one.”  Whenever an author is writing for a new evaluator, he/she should ask the question:  which style manual do you use?



Diane Repass is a retired tenured assistant professor
from The University of Dubuque and now a beloved
writer for Plaid Swan Inc. She received her M.A. from
The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, Iowa.