Whose authority do I follow? Choosing a writing style guide

Writing style guides

In important documents we need to use correct English. But what is “correct” English? How do we know if it’s correct to write:

  • 7–10 days, 7 to 10 days, or seven to ten days?
  • One-third or 1/3? 20% or twenty percent?
  • Should my email say 24th November, 2017 or 24/11/17?
  • Do I use a hyphen (-), en-dash (–) or em-dash (—)?
  • Fifteen degrees Celsius or 15°C? What about time, commas, currencies, telephone numbers, citations?
  • Full stops or semi-colons in lists? Or neither?

It’s a matter of convention. The main thing is to stay consistent, but if in doubt, refer to a style guide. Here are some links to five useful ones for business writing:

  • Guardian and Observer style guide. Good for journalistic writing, and therefore useful for business writing.
  • Telegraph Style Book. Slightly less detailed than the Guardian and Observer guide but with separate sections on things such as court reporting, grammar, people and places, etc.
  • The Economist Style Guide. Useful for financial reports and documents.
  • Associated Press Style Book. Used in broadcasting, newspapers, magazines and marketing in the USA and worldwide. It’s designed to be concise to save valuable print space, for example by using figures for all numbers. It has its own Twitter account for regular tips.
  • Oxford University. Widely used in the UK and useful for research documents that need to use proper citations. Available as a downloadable PDF.
  • New Oxford Style Manual. Derives from Hart’s Rules, an early influential compilation of best practices in publishing.

Business writer Howard Walwyn of Prism Clarity suggests developing your own style guide for keeping consistent—his article gives tips.

Want to learn more? You may be interested in my Punctuation & Grammar Masterclass, which clarifies common confusions and explains writing conventions.

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