5 Online Style Guides

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You’re looking for a style guide to adopt, or for one you can use as a model for creating your own personal or professional handbook, but you don’t want to pay for one or more books to evaluate and perhaps use (print versions of the major style guides retail for $20–$65), or you’re done with dead-tree resources (translation: books). You could beg, borrow, or steal a copy, but fortunately, several excellent online style guides are available so that you needn’t resort to these strategies.

1. The Associated Press Stylebook
The online version of the AP Stylebook, the bible of US journalists, costs $26 for an annual subscription — more than the print version — but it features bonus benefits, including email notifications of style updates and access to new entries and recent changes. It also includes a search function and a personalization feature. Subscribers can use the Ask the Editor feature and search its archive, which is more voluminous than the Stylebook itself. The subscription policy includes multiuser and renewal discounts.

Print version: $19.95

2. Chicago Manual of Style
The primary resource for US book publishers is offered online for $35 per year (with multiuser and government and corporate discounts), but several free features are available on the site, most notably the Chicago Style Q&A, which offers responses to queries either from the manual itself or from a live (and sometimes snarky) respondent. You needn’t pay for a short-form (but still substantial) guide to citing sources, either, and a guide to preparation of electronic manuscripts and a chart of proofreaders’ marks are also available to all site visitors.

The subscription cost includes access to the entire text of the fifteenth and sixteenth editions, as well as an online forum and a personalization feature.

Print version: $65

3. The Economist
The free style guide for this venerable British publication (focusing, of course, on British English but suitable for Yanks as well) embarks on a sure footing with an enumeration of George Orwell’s famous writing rules, followed by these admonitions:

  • Do not be stuffy.
  • Use the language of everyday speech.
  • Do not be hectoring or arrogant.
  • Do not be too pleased with yourself.
  • Do not be too chatty.
  • Do not be too didactic.
  • Do your best to be lucid.

The format is encyclopedic, but the often wryly written entries (from Abbreviations to Wrack — no entries, alas, for X ray, yak, or zeugma) are searchable, and some expand with the click of a link. (The long-form entry about abbreviations, for example, is more than 1,000 words long.)

Print version: $29.95

4. National Geographic
This free online resource from the National Geographic Society doesn’t show up high in search rankings, but it’s an excellent resource. (And, seriously, have you ever seen a clumsy sentence, a grammatical error, or even a typo in National Geographic?) Unusually terse but clear entries are organized alphabetically, and the site includes a directory of new and altered entries and, especially helpful, one of terms and rules that contradict other authoritative resources or are exceptions to the norm.

Print version: none

5. Yahoo.com
Alone among these five selections, Yahoo’s style guide (both in print form and on the Internet — the latter version is free) focuses on online writing, and though concise prose is one of the hallmarks of Web content, the site’s articles are substantial (but helpfully so). The Editing 101 section includes thirty detailed articles about punctuation, abbreviation, capitalization, titles, and numbers, and Writing for the Web features more than thirty extensive articles grouped under ten topics such as Shorten and Strengthen Sentences and Write Clear User-Interface Text. The site also includes a selective but substantial sampling of Yahoo’s word list (downloadable, so you can adapt and add to it), a resource list, and an Ask the Editor feature.

Print version: $21.99

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11 thoughts on “5 Online Style Guides”

  1. I still buy print editions. The major reason? Price. It’s a one-time purchase that I can refer to as often as I like. I would be interested in online versions but the price is too high. $35 for one year? Why? Is it revised often to justify the cost? Maybe it makes sense for a volume license for a small company but for an individual, I prefer the print edition.

  2. Great list! Thanks!
    I agree with Marie about print editions, but if you use a lot of web lingo you’ll find it changes pretty fast. The AP used to have it “Web site,” but everyone else goes with “website,” for example. Not sure what the AP is using now, but they hung on to “teen-ager” for eons after everyone else dropped the hyphen.

  3. I worked a few hours yesterday looking for style guides. You heard the call and responded with style. Give thanks! Hmmm, should there be a comma before the and in the previous sentence, you see…my dilemma.

  4. I agree that the online versions are pricey, especially for those with small budgets (ie, in publishing). I haven’t taken the plunge yet with Chicago, but I’m tempted. I love my electronic MW.

    For someone in the business for a long time, what’s your opinion on the Yahoo! Style Guide?

  5. Thanks for these resources, though I have to say, I’m not fond of the “dead-tree resources” view of books. Except for snippets of info I gather online, I generally prefer books for virtually everything. I can flip the pages, don’t require electricity or the internet, don’t have to sit in front of an EMF-emitting device, can highlight the pages, etc. To me, junk mail and catalogs are true wastes of trees (and of course, BAD books lol).

  6. @Bill – AP has switched it over to “website.” I’m not sure exactly when, but it had to be at least 2 years ago, because it was “website” when I first started using AP two years ago.
    AP isn’t my favorite style guide, but it is certainly a good resource, and I’ve become accustomed to it since it’s what I have to use at work.

    I, too, agree with Marie and Bill about print editions – I’d prefer the print version for my own use. But having access to the AP online style guide is nice for when they make changes, and for at work when I need to look something up quickly!

    Those other guides sound interesting; I’ll have to check them out. Thanks for the list, Mark!

  7. Thank you for compiling this list! I also prefer the print editions, mostly for price, but also for convenience. I don’t always have the Internet available.

    Pssst: That “5” should be “Five”. 🙂

  8. Jan:

    I think that the Yahoo guide is very thorough and well organized. I don’t agree with every one of its style decisions (for example, punctuating the introduction to a list), but it’s authoritative.

  9. Forgive my snarkiness (not directed at anyone here), but Yahoo has a style guide? You’d never know it to read their articles. They must not require their writers to read it or refer to it.

  10. Do as what the great wordsmiths of the past did. Procure the print version of the style guide and consult the tome every time you conjure new sentences. Lol.

    I have to agree with Tricia. Between an ebook instruction on writing and Yahoo’s style guide, I think the ebook instruction of my choice has more credibility.

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