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“… a matter of style” – Part 1: What is a style guide?

Published on April 7th, 2014

The lawyers for Rogers Communications, a telecoms company from Toronto in Canada, surely regret the day one of their associates skipped English class. Having included one too many commas in a contractual clause, their colleague had just committed the firm to some pretty unfavourable payment terms, unintentionally costing them CAD$1m.

Nowadays, the correct use of punctuation and grammar are being advocated across the globe. In her book Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Lynn Truss investigates the unfortunate and often hilarious consequences of bad or missing punctuation in English (“Let’s eat grandpa” is one of my favourites). Likewise, the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, with sponsorship from BBVA bank, produce Fundéu, the Foundation for Urgent Spanish, a web page, blog and Twitter feed advising journalists on the proper use of Spanish.

As well as adopting a very prescriptive (i.e. black or white) approach to language, Fundéu offers advice on less clear-cut matters, such as loan words and neologisms, or aspects not included in strict grammatical rulebooks.

So, what does happen when language is not as clear as left or right? What if both sides of the argument are, in fact, correct? Put simply: language has many grey areas.

This uncertainty and ambiguity over the usage of language can sometimes make it a serious challenge for those in charge of a company or a brand’s image to arrive at a standardised way of writing about one of their most important assets: themselves.

It is for this reason that corporate communications and copywriting departments of many companies put in place strict style rules to which authors, copywriters and editors must adhere.

This document is generally known as a style guide or style manual, and is a rulebook that provides a short guide to authors, copywriters and editors on how their department, company or institution wants them to write in a given language.

In instituting a style guide, they can achieve a greater degree of consistency, maintain a coherent brand image, respect cultural sensitivities, and avoid ambiguities in the messages they are sending, both internal and external. All of this, whilst at the same time allowing the greatest possible artistic and expressive freedom of their content creators.

Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn more about the different types of style guides.

Oh, and if you are just curious about where Lynn Truss gets the title for her book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

“Why?” asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

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Posted on: April 7th, 2014