Myths about style guides and the “rules of styles”

I posted this over at Kindleboards, because of the never-ending controversy there over style guides and rules of style. For some reason amateur writers seem to think there’s a conspiracy afoot to control them. Alternatively, they believe in this whole business about knowing when to “break the rules” and so forth, as if there were rules to break. I’d like to do a longer post with sources and so on at some point, but the quick and dirty version will have to do. Anything I say here can be verified with some digging.

Anyway, enjoy…

In an ongoing effort to kill some of the pernicious myths about style guides and rules of style, I’m going to point out some of the history surrounding the origins of style guides and their actual purpose. Once you know where style guides come from and what they’re actually used for, I think you’ll see how ridiculous so much of the talk against—and for—them actually is.

FACT 1. “Style guide” isn’t a single kind of thing: there are three basic kinds of style guide with three different functions.

The first and most common style guide is the “how-to manual,” a genre that originated in the nineteenth century. It was geared toward amateur novelists who began springing up at the time. Note that an “amateur novelist” was someone without a liberal education. Those with a liberal education had studied rhetoric and classical literature and languages. Since they knew how to write Latin in the styles of Cicero and Virgil, they didn’t need advice on the use of adjectives. Thus, the style guide writers were compiling what amounted to tips and tricks for mimicking those who knew how to write. In other words, these style guides contained rules of thumb for imitating good prose. This “how to be a writer” industry is still flourishing.

The second wave of style guides began in the 1950s. Strunk & White is the locus classicus here. These guides were aimed at undergraduates. There were a number of reasons behind their creation, but mostly they came about because the massive expansion of the universities at the time flooded the lecture halls with middle class kids who hadn’t gone to the fancy prep schools where their upper class peers had been taught to write. They came from public schools with public education.

The third form of style guide originated in industry and academia. The purpose of these guides had nothing to do with “enforcing rules” on people; they were meant as industry standards. The AP’s stylebook, for example, is the newspaper industry’s guide and the Chicago is the publishing industry’s; though the latter has also been adopted by the academy along with the MLA. The APA’s Publication Manual is used for the social sciences and the AMA’s for medicine.
Note that the word “adopted” here is important because that’s how these guides work: someone goes through the trouble of codifying all the rules that make sense and industries and universities adopt them to avoid having to write their own. Contrary to indie folklore, then, there’s no conspiracy here, no Machiavellian plot to control you behind any of this. That leads us into Fact 2.

FACT 2. Style guides of any kind do not legislate style.

To imagine that the early “how-to guides” and their modern descendants were and are somehow conceived as a means of controlling you and crushing your precious individuality is ludicrous. It should be obvious to you that they were and are meant to give amateurs simple rules of thumb to help them write better books—books more likely to succeed. And this is what those so-called “rules” really are: they’re rules of thumb—heuristics—that are meant to stand in for the knowledge you didn’t get from studying classics and literature at Harvard.

Now, I’m not saying all these how-to books are as good as Gospel. Far from it. But most of any given guide consists of the same old common sense “tips and tricks” that have been repackaged for years. So when I hear someone carry on about casting off the shackles of these how-to style guides, I think of the handyman throwing out his do-it-yourself plumbing handbook so he can plumb his house his “own way”—which, of course, always turns out well.


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