The Ultimate Guide To Style Manuals: What Do They All Mean?

By Catherine Foster

A writer and editor must work in tandem to produce a high quality and error-free document. But what is considered an error? Sometimes it’s very clear: a misspelling or a comma out of place constitutes a mistake that can be fixed by either party at any stage in the editing process. However, some rules are more ambiguous. Should italics or quotations be used when denoting a title? Is it proper to use a numeral when referring to age or is it better to spell it out? Oxford comma: yay or nay?

The answer to these questions and more can be found in the form of a style guide. A style guide is the list of rules for a particular writing discipline. For example, when there is ambiguity in grammar (mostly in punctuation for citations and references), the style guide seeks to provide a standard set of rules for one area of writing. This guide is essential when one is seeking to submit a document for publication. The style guide that a journalist might use when attempting to submit to The New York Times is vastly different from what a doctor might need when publishing in The New England Journal of Medicine, for example. Understanding the subtle differences in each style guide is crucial and could mean the difference between acceptance and rejection—regardless of the content of the manuscript itself. While a full distinction of the guides is beyond the scope of this post, below are a list of the major style guides (in the US) and their respective disciplines:

AMA Style for medicine

APA and ASA Style for social sciences

AP Style for journalism

Bluebook Style for law

CSE Style for physical sciences

ACS Style for chemistry

USGPO and AGPS Style for government publications

Oxford and Chicago Style for academic publishing

MLA Style for academics, literature and humanities

House Style This is a blanket term referring to a publisher’s individual and unique set of rules for formatting or punctuation

While a writer isn’t typically expected to know all the rules of these style guides by heart (and there are many more individual resources within each discipline that exist to help clarify), they are expected to adhere to the guide of the discipline that they are submitting to. House styles within even the literary community can vary widely, so a savvy author will take a moment to check the style guide and either adjust accordingly before submission or employ the services of a knowledgeable editor. Preparation is the key to publication! Knowing the difference to different style guides is half the battle. Good luck and happy writing and editing!

The Great Copy Editing Cheat Sheet

We’ve all been there: we’re reading someone’s Facebook post when we’re confronted with that most annoying of offenses: someone who uses your when they meant you’re. “I’d never do that!” you think, reveling in the self-righteous glory that comes from someone who knows a possessive from a contraction. You may be right; you’re probably the sort of person who double checks your texts to make sure that they don’t autocorrect to the wrong their/there/they’re, and you might even know your who from your whom. But even the most seasoned grammarian has a weak spot; the following are a list of common words that might make you think twice, even if you’d rather not admit it. Remember: there’s no honor lost in having to pull out your dictionary to double check a phrase once in awhile, especially if you edit a lot. Editing tends to loosen our moorings. When we see something wrong on the page enough times, it starts to look right after awhile. Even if you aren’t an editor by trade, there are some words or phrases that may just have an evil hold on you (in the interest of full disclosure: I still question how to spell privilege each and every day). Check this out and see if there’s something on this list that you struggle with, too:

lay vs. lie

Perhaps the most complicated pair on the list (at least for me!), lay and lie are deceptive in that they are easy to understand at first. They are both verbs. Lay means to place an object down. Lie mean to recline or to be placed.

Ex.:

Lay the hat on the table.

Lie down on the bed.

It becomes confusing when you consider the past tenses. The past tense of lay is laid. The past tense of lie is lay.

Ex.:

The hat was laid on the table yesterday.

You lay in bed last night.

The past participle of lie is lain. The past participle of lay is laid.

Ex.:

They have laid many hats on this table before.

You could have lain in bed for days.

Layed is a common misspelling and does not exist. Use laid.

may vs. can

These two words may take you back to your childhood. May simply refers to a possibility and can to an ability. In speech, there is a somewhat formal-sounding tone to ask “may”, and many people forgo it for the less-formal can, (similar to the way should has replaced shall) however, there is still a place for may. When we consider the question “May I go to the bathroom?” vs. “Can I go to the bathroom?” the questioner is asking permission, but in using can it sounds as if he is asking if he is able to go instead of if he is allowed to go. Thus, may still retains value and should be considered.

may vs. might

Many people use these two words interchangeably, but there are two important distinctions between the two. Let’s tackle the first thing you need to know. May refers to situations that are factual and possible, whereas might is used when the possibility is less remote or hypothetical.

Ex.:

I may go to the movies later.

I might buy a boat if I win the lottery.

May gives a sense that things could happen, and might is for more speculative situations.

The second thing to know about these words is that might is the past tense of may. The only time when one would use may have would be when one is asking for permission, as in the previous section (May I have another slice of cake?). Otherwise, it would only makes sense to write might have.

Ex.: I might have driven around the accident if I had known about it.

One would never have an occasion to write may have, since may is the present tense.

further vs. farther

This is pretty easy. Further refers to anything metaphysical and farther to strictly distance. Thus, I wish to take my career further, and I will be willing to drive farther to do so. While this rule of grammar has fallen out of favor somewhat in recent years and it is more permissible to use these terms interchangeably, it is still good to know the difference and to apply them when possible.

issue vs. problem

The rampant misuse of these terms have become a widespread problem in recent years. We don’t tend to see people writing much formally about the words problems and issues, but it is spoken about and thus it crops up in informal writing, such as texts and in emails. Many people are not aware that there is a difference in the terms, and they use the word issue to mean problem, believing it to have a less … problematic sounding tone. Perhaps it sounds more official. Whatever the recent shift to issue, this is an incorrect word to substitute when one really means problem. A problem is something with a solution. An issue is a debatable topic. Examples of problems would include broken computers, a hardware malfunction, a measles outbreak, “Houston, we have a” … any number of things that trouble us because they are pressing matters and they have gone wrong and need fixing. Examples of issues are political debates such as Roe vs. Wade, gun rights, civil liberties, etc. Issues may also be problems, but problems are not usually issues.

i.e. vs. e.g.

These Latin abbreviations are often misused. It isn’t much of a problem, since the point of language is for us to understand each other and communicate our intentions. As long as we all understand each other, that’s what matters. Still, you’ll impress others if you are in the minority of people who know difference between these abbreviations and how to apply each of them correctly!

i.e. stands for id est and means “that is” or “in other words.” It is often used erroneously to list things out. The correct use for this is when you need to clarify something, use a metaphor or restate it more simply.

e.g. stands for exempli gratia and means “for example.” This is when a list can and should be used.

wherein vs. whereby

Wherein means “in which” and whereby means “by which.”

was vs. were

Was and were are both used in the past tense. Was is used in the first and third person singular past, and were is used in the second person singular and plural and first and third person plural. Was is used for statements of fact only. Were is used in the subjunctive mood to indicate unreal or hypothetical statements (The words if and wish usually indicate the subjunctive mood.)

Ex.:

When I was a child, I was very short.

If I were rich, I’d buy a mansion.

Hopefully, you’ll find some of these distinctions useful. If you’re like me, you’ll have to keep looking up one or two even after many years. Good luck, and happy editing!

The Great Copy Editing Quiz No. 2

by Catherine Foster

Do you want to be a copy editor? Maybe you just enjoy catching other people’s grammar errors and rampant punctuation mistakes. Do you think you have what it takes to find the flaw in every phrase? Take our quiz and find out!

Choose the correct sentences:

1.
A) The girl thought that all of her pudding were missing.
B) The girl thought that none of her pudding were missing.
C) The girl thought that some of her pudding were missing.
D) The girl thought that some of her pudding was missing.

2.
A) Neither Erik nor Christine have played violin.
B) Neither Erik nor Christine are playing violin.
C) Neither Erik nor Christine is playing violin.
D) Neither Erik nor Christine were playing violin.

3.
A) Either of us were capable of doing more work.
B) Either of us are capable of doing more work.
C) Either of us have been capable of doing more work.
D) Either of us is capable of doing more work.

4.
A) Some of the cookies is on the platter.
B) Some of the cookies has been on the platter.
C) Some of the cookies was on the platter.
D) Some of the cookies are on the platter.

5.
A) Here is the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
B) Here’s the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
C) Here are the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
D) Here are the box of blue ballpoint pens you requested.

Please correct the following sentences:

6. It is us whom must decide whether to eat pizza or buffalo wings.

7. Between yourself and I, this movie is boring.

8. Whom do you think you are to give me advice about the test?

9. Whomever makes up these silly games?

10. Whomever do you think should come in first place?

11. Our puppy is much more sweeter than his sister.

Answer Key:

1. Correct Answer: D The girl thought that some of her pudding was missing.
Explanation: Some is a portion word that is singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition. In this sentence, “pudding,” is the object of the preposition, so use “was.”

2. Correct Answer: C Neither Erik nor Christine is playing violin.
Explanation: when neither and nor connect two singular subjects, use a singular verb.

3. Correct Answer: D Either of us is capable of doing more work.
Explanation: “Either” is the singular subject, which requires the singular verb “is.”

4. Correct Answer: D Some of the cookies are on the platter.
Explanation: see Explanation 1.

5. Correct Answer: C Here are the blue ballpoint pens you requested.
Explanation: the subject is “pens,” so use “are.”

6. Correct Answer: It is we who must decide whether to eat pizza or buffalo wings.
Explanation: After “is,” use the subject pronoun “we” to rename the subject “It.” Also, use “who” as the subject of “must decide” because you would say “we must decide,” not “us must decide.”

7. Correct Answer: Between you and me, this movie is boring.
Explanation: “Between” is a preposition and the pronouns that follow are objects of the preposition, so use “me.”

8. Correct Answer: Who do you think you are to give me advice about the test?
Explanation: despite the tricky word order, the sentence is actually asking, “Who are you, do you think, to give me advice?”

9. Correct Answer: Who makes up these silly games?
Explanation: “Who” is correct because we would say, “He makes up these games.”

10. Correct Answer: Who do you think should come in first place?
Explanation: despite the tricky word order, the sentence is actually asking, “Who should come in first place, do you think?”

11. Correct Answer: Our puppy is much sweeter than his sister.
Explanation: never use “more” with a comparative adjective (“sweeter”).

Extra Credit

As lover of language, we never tire of a good discussion on the topic. So please choose your favorite subject and tell us about it. Do oft-overlooked rules of ellipses fire you up? Should/can you use the virgule in formal writing? Do you have a stance on the Great Oxford Comma Debate? What’s your take on rampant semicolon abuse? From the differences to em-dashes, en-dashes and hyphens to the subject of adverbs, we want to know what makes you a passionate editor. Here’s your chance to shine!

The Writer’s Bullet Journal: Do & Done

The bullet journal is a DIY paper planner beloved of many writers. Popularized by Ryder Carroll, this analog system features: 

  • an index
  • to-do lists: each task is assigned a bullet point
  • collections” of related ideas e.g. a reading or fitness log
  • task migration, or review.

The average bullet journalist is constantly refining their system and I’m no exception. Here’s a new addition to my bullet journal: Do & Done.

  1. Reserve the “Do” list for appointments or priority tasks.
  2. Fill in the “Done” list daily with anything you achieved or completed.
  3. That’s it!

Above you can see my bullet journal for Week 19. On the left are my appointments and errands for that May week. The “Do” column is a typical planner view and many people stop there. However, in Week 19 I also reflected every evening on what I had actually accomplished and made those entries under “Done.” This created a mindset of “What can I achieve tomorrow?” So mythological research on Monday led to a freewriting session on Tuesday and a scene outline on Wednesday. Brainstorming character motives on Friday led me to tweak the story arcs for the heroine and her antagonists over the weekend. Not bad for a week where I had planned to do no writing at all.

Writing is a solitary job and motivating oneself can be difficult. Therefore it’s really important to record your daily wins and personal milestones. The Do & Done tracks your progress through the week, inspiring you to continue a creative cycle of work. Don’t break the chain!

I hope you enjoyed this glimpse into one writer’s bullet journal. For more inspiration, search Pinterest and Instagram to see what other writers choose to record in their “BuJo” notebooks.

Further Reading

Ryder Carroll: https://www.bulletjournal.com/

Kim Alvarez’s reference guide: https://www.tinyrayofsunshine.com/blog/bullet-journal-reference-guide

The Great Copy Editing Quiz No. 1

by Catherine Foster

Do you want to be a copy editor? Maybe you just enjoy catching other people’s grammar errors and rampant punctuation mistakes. Do you think you have what it takes to find the flaw in every phrase? Take our quiz and find out!

Choose the correct sentences:

1.

A) Some of the parfait was left by the end of the party.

B) Some of the parfait were left by the end of the party.

C) Some of the parfaits was left by the end of the party.

D) Some parfaits was left by the end of the party.

2.

A) Your bright smiles almost makes up for your tardiness.

B) Your bright smiles almost make up for your tardiness.

C) Your bright smiles makes up for your tardiness.

D) Your bright smiles has made up for your tardiness.

3.

A) Neither Erik nor I am playing violin.

B) Neither Erik nor I is playing violin.

C) Neither Erik nor I are playing violin.

D) Neither Erik nor I were playing violin.

4.

A) All of the class is willing to take part in the play.

B) All of the classes is willing to take part in the play.

C) All of the class are willing to take part in the play.

D) All of the classes has been willing to take part in the play.

5.

A) Two-thirds of the voters tend not to cast their ballots in local elections.

B) Two-thirds of the voters tends not to cast their ballots in local elections.

C) Two-thirds of the voters tends not to cast their ballots in local elections.

D) Two-thirds of the voters tends not to cast its ballot in local elections.

Please correct the following sentences:

6. He is one of those veterinarians that make house calls.

7. Dr. Raoul is one of those conductors who does whatever it takes to get his point across to his musicians.

8. He is the only one of the conductors who do what it takes to help their musicians.

9. Her and him are always together.

10. When him and Christine come over, we always have dinner.

Ex. Credit: Do you know the difference between issue and problem?

Answer key:

Choose the correct sentence.

1. Correct Answer: A Some of the parfait was left by the end of the party.

Explanation: Some is a portion word that is singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition. In this sentence, “parfait,” is the object of the preposition, so use “was.”

2. Correct Answer: B Your bright smiles almost make up for your tardiness.

Explanation: “bright smiles” is the subject of “make up.”

3. Correct Answer: A Neither Erik nor I am playing violin.

Explanation: when neither and nor connect two singular subjects and the second one is I, use am.

4. Correct Answer: A All of the class is willing to take part in the play.

Explanation: “All” is a portion word that is singular or plural depending on the object of the preposition. In this sentence, “class” is the object of the preposition, so use “is.”

5. Correct Answer: A Two-thirds of the voters tend not to cast their ballots in local elections.

Explanation: “Two-thirds” becomes plural because the object of the preposition, “voters,” is plural. Use the plural verb “tend.”

Please correct the following sentences:

6. Correct Answer: He is one of those veterinarians who make house calls.

Explanation: “who” refers to “veterinarians,” not to “one,” so the plural verb “make” is required.

7. Correct Answer: Dr. Raoul is one of those conductors who do whatever it takes to get their point across to their musicians.

Explanation: “who” refers to “conductors,” not to “one,” so the plural verb “do” and the possessive adjective “their” are required.

8. Correct Answer: He is the only one of the conductors who does what it takes to help his musicians.

Explanation: in this sentence, “who” refers to “one,” not to “professors,” so the singular verb “does” is required.

9. Correct Answer: She and he are always together.

Explanation: “She” and “he” are the subjects of “are together.”

10. Correct Answer: When Christine and he come over, we always have dinner.

Explanation: “Christine” and “he” are the subjects of “come over,” so use the subject pronoun “he.”

How did you do? Let us know in the comments!