Does your company or department have a style guide? It can be as simple as a list of terms or as substantial as a book, but a good style guide can improve your organization’s efficiency, enhance its image, and even increase its profits.
What is a style guide?
A style manual, or style guide, describes the rules an organization has decided to follow in preparing its documents. Whether written for employees, clients, or the public, a company’s documentation is part of its identity. That’s one reason Apple has a style guide. Consistency in a company’s written materials is part of its branding.
A style guide may tell you which terms to capitalize, which acronyms to spell out, and whether to use the so-called serial (or “Oxford”) comma. It may specify the proper names of particular products, services, or programs. It may describe the correct use of any trademarks the company owns. Pepsi, for example, has a guide that specifically addresses the brand’s visual identity and includes specific guidelines—colors, fonts, sizes—for different versions of its logo.
Time is money
A style guide can increase the efficiency of employees and management alike. If your company regularly lowercases the word “internet” or hyphenates “back-test,” your style guide will include those items, so the same decisions don’t have to be made over and over. When you hire a new employee, training time is cut down when, in addition to your policies and procedures manual, you can give that employee a documented set of guidelines to use for all written communications.
And if you work with contract writers or graphic designers, being able to provide a copy of your organization’s style guide cuts down on questions and revisions, reducing the back-and-forth time that can increase the cost of a project.
Enhance your image
Clear, consistent writing contributes to the image of a competent organization. If your company sometimes works with “advisers” and other times with “advisors,” you risk appearing unprofessional or careless. (According to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, neither spelling is incorrect; use one or the other, but be consistent.) Consistency conveys the kind of attention to detail that we associate with true professionals.
The CIA’s style manual (full text available here) explicitly states that the agency’s successful operation depends “in large measure on clear, concise writing.” In addition, when written materials have to be prepared by a group of individuals, a style guide can help that team achieve a uniform tone.
Choosing a style guide
An organization may adopt one of the widely available published style manuals, and different fields tend to use particular guides. In the U.S., most newspapers follow the Associated Press Stylebook. Trade and university book publishers tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style (available both as a printed book and by online subscription). The social sciences favor the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA Style). Legal publications use the Bluebook.
Because every industry has its own terminology, many organizations supplement or replace these published manuals with their own in-house style guides. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has its own style guide, as does the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC).
Whether it’s the documents division of a big research institute, the marketing department of a corporation, or a tiny nonprofit, every organization should aim for clarity and consistency in its written materials. A good style guide isn’t just a reference work; it’s an important business tool.
We’ve all struggled with the weirdness of English spelling. But over the centuries, several intrepid characters have actually gone so far as to try to fix it, from recasting words to reflect their roots to proposing a whole new alphabet.
And did all that fiddling help? Not a bit, says professional word taster James Harbeck. In “6 Quests to Fix English’s Messed-Up Spelling,” he describes a tug-of-war between phonetics and etymology that has repeatedly corrupted, “corrected,” and re-corrupted our spelling.
Harbeck concludes that good sense is powerless against the English language. “We may complain about the spelling, but as a whole we seem to be addicted to its weirdness.”
(For more on the English language, check out James Harbeck’s articles and “word tasting notes” at Sesquiotica.)
Some time ago, I mentioned economist Keith Chen’s finding that speakers of “futured” languages (languages with a clear future tense) tend to be less responsible about planning for the future than speakers of “futureless” languages (which make a much weaker distinction between present and future). His published research has since been picked up by the Atlantic.
In “Can Your Language Influence Your Spending, Eating, and Smoking Habits?” Atlantic senior editor Derek Thompson recounts how Chen’s “absurd-sounding claim” was savaged by critics, then retested and confirmed by experts. “Americans don’t save money because of … our grammar?” In fact, yes.
Speakers of “futured” languages (like English) see the future as separate and distant from the present, so they may be more likely to disregard the future consequences of present actions. Chen found that they save less money, smoke more, and are more likely to be obese. Whereas speakers of “futureless” languages see the present and future as equally important, so they’re more likely, for example, to forgo spending today in order to save for retirement.
The Atlantic coverage also features this elegant video version of Chen’s research.
Typeface influences the way we read and think, explains Chris Gayomali at The Week. “Words hold power. But the aesthetic manner in which those words are presented can affect the way we read, and the way we think about the information presented.”
In one study, for example, readers were more likely to perceive a statement as true when it was presented in Baskerville than when the same statement appeared in Comic Sans (about which, more here).
Why? The more formal fonts, such as Baskerville, have more “gravitas,” more authority. A more informal or “playful” font, like Comic Sans, doesn’t inspire as much confidence in the information being presented.
Which font is best for a particular purpose will depend on many factors–the audience, the context, the medium–but that choice matters. Even the small advantage offered by the “right” typeface could mean a bump in sales figures.
It turns out our brains catch grammatical errors even when we don’t realize it. In a University of Oregon study, subjects were presented with sentences one word at a time and asked to catch any errors. When the task of rating an intermittent auditory tone was added to distract the subject’s conscious mind, the subject noticed fewer errors, but electroencephalography readings showed that the brain was still catching and correcting each error so that the sentence made sense.
This finding has interesting implications for language instruction. “Children learn grammar implicitly before receiving formal instruction, but in the classroom we often try to teach second languages in the opposite way–learn the grammar rules explicitly, then build vocabulary around them. This research suggests that may be backward, that our brains should learn the grammar rules implicitly without thinking too much about them. After all, it’s the unconscious brain that seems to have the better handle on grammar.”
Read more about this study at ScienceDaily.
According to research by Professor Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the Yale School of Management, speakers of languages that make a strong grammatical distinction between the present and the future (such as English, Greek, Italian, and Russian) have trouble making good future-oriented choices.
“Speakers of languages that do not distinguish between the present and the future [such as Chinese, Finnish, German, and Japanese] save more money, retire with more wealth, smoke less, practice safer sex, and are less obese, according to Chen’s findings.”
“There’s a connection between how you feel about the future and how your language forces you to talk about the future,” says Chen. “If you speak a language that doesn’t distinguish strongly between the present and the future, you save a lot more because the future feels closer. If you speak a language that separates present and future events, the future feels more distant, which makes it harder to do things to care for your future self like save money, exercise, and eat better.”
Working with early 19th-century manuscripts made me especially aware of the changing fashions in punctuation over time. For the evolution of comma usage, see Ben Yagoda’s New York Times blog piece “Fanfare for the Comma Man.”
And if you want more nitty-gritty on correct and incorrect uses of the comma, try his list of “The Most Comma Mistakes.”