Why Can’t Style Manuals Just Agree?

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Caitlin Thomas sounds pretty fed-up with the differences she finds between the various style guides in her life:

Perhaps you’d know the answer to this question?  Why are MLA citation formats being continually revised?  And why are there so many discrepancies for a process that claims to be so precise?  My college’s library Style Guide, the MLA Handbook, web articles, and the internet often seem to disagree on proper citation methods when cross-referenced. I’m afraid I’ve at this point written them off as a joke on students.

I’ve been there, Caitlin. My idea of torture is having to prepare a dissertation according to MLA specifications.

In writing for DWT I often feel little shivers of guilt when I make a statement about usage without following it with a parenthetical citation. I have to remind myself that I’m writing a blog, not a research paper.

As painful as following them can be, style guides are not intended as a joke on students.

Style guides are necessities for anyone who writes for any kind of publication–academic or otherwise. Like so much else in this world of free enterprise and different-sized electrical plugs, they don’t all match. They also change to keep up with the times.

It’s not surprising that a university library would develop a hybrid style guide that doesn’t quite match up with any other. Librarians work with departments that follow various guides, for example: MLA, APA, AP, and CMS.

I recommend that college students who share Caitlin’s frustration take a look at the Online Style Guide on the website of Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. In addition to a useful guide to writing for the web, it offers a brief explanation of why style guides are necessary.

Dealing with multiple style guides is just one of those things that college students must put up with. The good news is that when you graduate, you can settle on just one.

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5 thoughts on “Why Can’t Style Manuals Just Agree?”

  1. I wish I had a style guide to settle on. At my place of work, I am currently setting one up, because we’ve not had one before . . . and I work for a government contracting company. Some days tech writing is tough work.

  2. Can you make an bookmark link for Facebook?? Many of my writer friends are there, and it would be so nice to share via FB.


  3. The reason that style manuals don’t all agree on every single point is because they were not all written in the same year. In fact, it takes several years sometimes to write just one book, then it takes another year or so to get the book into print, then it has to be distributed, bought, and used by students and professors. By the time most manuals are utilized for an English course, they are several years out of date.

    The reason why MLA is frequently revised is to make it clearer and simpler. It may not seem that way on the surface or at first glance, but I have been studying, tutoring and teaching English since 1991, and I have seen MLA evolve during those years. I can assure you that in 1991, MLA format was somewhat more complicated than it is today. The latest revisions in the Works Cited page were made to significantly simplify that page. No longer are the urls required for each source that is taken from the internet. This saves a great deal of time and energy for the student or other researcher, since no one in his/her right mind reads urls character by character anyway. Why spend the time and effort on something that is unnecessary as long as there is something as powerful as Google?

    So I really wish people would stop complaining about style/format. If English were a dead language like Latin, there would be no need for revisions in style and format, but our language is happily alive and growing, and thus deserves a certain amount of gardening.

    Prof. Sylvia
    Miami, FL

  4. I certainly understand the frustration over the variances in style guides.

    In fact, my significant other and I recently had a “debate” over the serial comma. He was adamant about NOT using the serial (or Oxford) comma. I tried to explain style manuals to him and some of the reasons it makes sense to consistently use the serial comma.

    Nope – not for him. He’s sticking to his own personal style guide! 😀

  5. I enjoyed the book “Web Style Guide”. Various projects I have worked on have had coding or documentation style guides. I guess I just always assumed that different groups and settings use different style guides – and the onus was on me to ferret out what style guide(s) applied to my work. I couldn’t always rely on my manager or company to spell out what standards or guides they intended to apply.

    Organizations don’t always agree. I would never presume that because there is a recognized or well known style guide, that it would over-rule the one my boss uses.

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