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Wikipedia:Common-style fallacy

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"Wikipedia's Manual of Style contains some conventions that differ from those in some other, well-known style guides and from what is often taught in schools. Wikipedia's editors have discussed these conventions in great detail and have reached consensus that these conventions serve our purposes best. ...

Wikipedia ... is written for a general audience. ... When adopting style recommendations from external sources, the Manual of Style incorporates a substantial number of practices from [other] style guides; however, Wikipedia defaults to preferring general-audience sources on style, especially when ... different disciplines use conflicting styles."

 – WT:Manual of Style/FAQ

The common-style fallacy (CSF) is the flawed reasoning that if a particular typographic stylization turns up commonly in newspapers, blogs, and other popular publications with a less formal register of English usage than the precise language of encyclopedic writing, that the newsy or bloggy stylization is the best or only way to write about the topic in question, and must be used on Wikipedia. Also more narrowly identifiable as the news-style fallacy (NSF), it is the flip side, the opposite extreme, of the specialized-style fallacy about narrowly topical, academic and insider publications.

How the CSF arises[edit]

Wikipedia has a segment of title policy called "Use commonly recognizable names" (WP:COMMONNAME or WP:UCRN), and it is often mistaken for a style policy rather than a naming convention. It is often even mistaken for the overriding naming policy on Wikipedia, when (if one actually bothers to read it) it is just a default recommendation intended to steer us to choose the article title that is the most likely to match the five article title criteria (WP:CRITERIA): recognizability, naturalness, precision, conciseness, and consistency (and, obviously, is primarily about the first of these). The five criteria are the actually important parts of the policy on article titles; all the rest of the policy is based on and refers to these, including WP:COMMONNAME. And the title policy does not directly affect how we write content, aside from article titles, anyway.[1]

Our WP:COMMONNAME rubric helps us determine what the name of something is, e.g. Alien 3, versus "Aliens 3", "Alien III", "Alien: Part Three", etc. How the name is stylized is a matter of differing convention in different writing genres (e.g. marketing materials, news journalism, books about science fiction filmmaking, media studies journals, etc.). In the marketing for that film, to continue with the example, it was often styled Alien3, but this is not really the name of the film; it is not a.k.a. "Alien to the Third Power" or "Alien Cubed". It was just a stylization in PR writing and logo design, which was "honored" by various news publications, but quite reasonably ignored in mainstream writing, across multiple genres of publication, and it is usually given in reliable sources as Alien 3. (Plus, some other marketing material gave it as "ALI3N", among other variants.)

Confusing a name with how it is styled in various contexts is like confusing your co-worker with the business attire or scuba gear you've seen her wear on different occasions in different contexts. She is not a different person because she is dressed up differently.

In rare cases, a name stylization is more like a collection of tattoos, i.e. it's a positive identifier. There is no question that the iPhone is the iPhone, not the "Iphone".[2] It will be clear when such a special case applies, specifically because the stylized version will be almost universally used regardless what kind of publication it is found in, from books, to newspapers, to academic journals. This exception for overwhelmingly consistent use in reliable sources is already to be found in both Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Trademarks and (more narrowly) Wikipedia:Manual of Style/Capital letters. If WP:COMMONNAME actually had anything to do with this sort of question, those guidelines would not exist, and we would simply do a head-count of how many sources write "Pink" versus "P!nk" for the singer by that name and stylization, and automatically go with whatever had a 50.01% majority. We do not do this. What we actually look for is near-total conformity with a stylization. Thus, the singer's article is Pink (singer), and same for Kesha (not "Ke$ha") – but Deadmau5, not "Deadmaus".

Why the "common style" notion is fallacious[edit]

This above-mentioned kind of "positive identifier" case is a per-name determination, and cannot be applied to an entire class of subjects, such as operating systems, titles of published works, financial services corporations, etc. How those names are styled varies by genre (with most of them dropping the stylization).

There are many genres of writing, with different levels of formality and different conventions. Encyclopedic writing is notably toward the formal side of the spectrum. Wikipedia closely follows the stylistic norms of publishers of non-fiction books (which is what an encyclopedia is, after all). While this system is less formal and much less jargonistic both in content and style than the high-academic style of scientific and humanities journals (from which Wikipedia also borrows many features, when they aren't problematic for our readers), it is nevertheless also much less vernacular, compressed, and lowest-common-denominator than the news style of everyday journalism and public-relations writing.

The conventions of these different types of writing are well-codified in various regularly updated style guides, and the differences between these writing style systems are easy to identify and differentiate by referring to those manuals. MoS is based on a particular subset of them for a reason: They already encapsulate the best practices of educational (but non-"how to") publishing for a general audience.

Wikipedia has its own house style[edit]

Don't geek out

"Every reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that material is presented in the most widely understandable manner possible."

 – WP:Make technical articles understandable

Like all professional-grade publications written by multiple people, Wikipedia has a house style. Our WP:Manual of Style (WP:MOS, or MoS) is an internal guideline laying out the house style of this encyclopedia. It is not part of the encyclopedia's content, but has been developed and is maintained, like all of our policies and guidelines, by editorial consensus. With regard to the MoS, that consensus is based on:

  • Primarily, the mainstream style guides for general-audience book publishing, like New Hart's Rules, The Chicago Manual of Style, Garner's Modern English Usage, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and similar works;
  • Recommendations of specialized, often academic, style guides with regard to the handling of particular topics (law, units of measurement, etc.), when they do not conflict with the expectations of the above and thus negatively affect our readers' ability to understand our material, or our editors' ability to write it with a minimum of dispute;
  • Wikipedians' own collective determination of what the best practices are for this project's purposes, involving both selection between conflicting off-site style guides' approaches, and resolution of style matters that are unique to Wikipedia (there is no third-party style guide that can tell us what is best to include in an infobox, how to code Wikipedia headings properly, etc.).

Wikipedia is not paper publishing, and does not have its hands tied with regard to what stylistic decisions its editorship may agree upon. It also does not have column-width and other space constraints, and thus has no need of the compression and expediency measures taken by journalism style guides.

News style isn't WP's style[edit]

"Reliable source" and "news source" are not synonymous,

and facts aren't style.

In particular, Wikipedia is not journalism and is not written in news style, as a matter of explicit policy. Very little of MoS is derived from journalistic style guides like the AP Stylebook, because the expediency- and attention-based needs of news publishing have little in common with the long-term educational and precision-focused writing of encyclopedic prose.[3]

There are many house styles in which mimicking trademark stylization is considered "correct" by that particular publisher, and the majority of these are the stylesheets of low-end news organizations and blogs, especially in the entertainment and tech sectors. Theirs are not Wikipedia's house style, nor are they general styles, but specific to a particular market segment, subscriber base, or individual publication or blogger. However, the AP Stylebook (and its very similar erstwhile competitors like the UPI Stylebook) are used so broadly by news publishers that they are a de facto general style for news writing (though some newspapers also have their own house styles that diverge from that baseline in numerous ways). As a result, various news-style quirks make frequent appearances in the results of Google (or Bing, or Yandex, etc.) searches for news source material.

One of the most frequent symptoms of the common-style fallacy at work is mistaking the way a group of newspapers write something for being the only or best way to write something, especially when one has not run into any sources other than news ones. The problem is, of course, that news writing and other forms of writing take programmatic, rule-based approaches to style matters, so someone is only looking at one "style program" when looking at those particular sources; from a style standpoint, they are all essentially just one source, the AP Stylebook.

Even where encyclopedic and news writing share some things in common, such as overall article structure basics (title, lead paragraph, section subheadings, paragraph breaks, supplementary material at the end, and sometimes use of a sidebar to summarize details), there are very significant differences. Even the lead section of a Wikipedia article has very little in common with a news-style lede. The inverted pyramid of news writing informs Wikipedia article development mostly (when at all) only with regard to depth of content at an article, not the order in which information is presented after the lead, which is highly variable (often chronological or geographical, depending on the nature of the subject). A news-style article also often has a "kicker" to draw attention, a "deck" subtitle to hint at the content to come, extensive use of pull quotes, and other features not typically found in encyclopedic writing. Newswriting is a very distinct form of writing with intrinsic styles; in this, it is like fiction, how-to manuals, school textbooks, and legal documents, which all have special styles that are not simply copy-pasted from one to the other, and which Wikipedia has a policy against using, as with news style.

A concrete, topical example: There are three well-documented conventions for the initial letter-case of prepositions used in the titles of published works and other compositions:[4]

  • Capitalize prepositions of four letters or more (for, in, With, From, Amongst, Between); this is the news journalism extreme.
  • Lowercase all regardless of length (for, in, with, from, amongst, between); this is the academic extreme.
  • Capitalize if five letters or more (for, in, with, from, Amongst, Between); this is the reasonable compromise approach used by Wikipedia, and by most mainstream book publishers.[5]

(All three systems agree to capitalize any word if it is the first or last word in a title or subtitle.)

It is not reasonable to demand that we capitalize, say, pop song titles the way that music magazines do, since we already have a style system for handling titles of works, and it is not the same system used by most of those magazines. The same publications would also apply their capitalization rules to journal articles, or book titles; there is no special convention for song titles.[6] The idea that there is one is an illusion produced by willful engagement in original research with a desire to get an over-capitalizing result (see next section). It is fandom hand-waving.

Trying to "prove" style by search hits is original research[edit]

Misuse of online search results is a frequent but easily spotted sourcing error. It is a mistake to assume that, for example, a popular-culture topic that has no coverage yet in anything but the entertainment press "must" be stylized a particular way just because most of the sources you can find about the topic so far do it that way per their own house styles. Example: a pop song or fantasy novel given excessive capitalization from following the four-letter rule in journalism, mentioned above.

Making this "it must be styled just so" leap is forbidden original research. When one comes to such a conclusion, one has assembled a methodologically worthless data-set with insufficient resources (e.g. Google News search results), performed a personal synthesis and analysis of this poor data, and then come to a subjective conclusion about it (which the editor usually began with and is seeking to enforce). It's an unsourced conclusion that no reasonable and well-informed person would actually believe. Why? Because we already know that when any other, non-journalistic kind of source writes about that same topic, it will apply its own programatic capitalization standard, not the journalism one. For example, academic arts journals (except where one might have a divergent house style) will apply the excessively lowercasing, academic standard to the title, exactly the opposite of the excessively uppercasing convention of the news sources one had noticed so far; a mainstream book publisher will apply the middle-ground, five-letter rule (again, unless they have a house style rule that differs on this; some North American book publishers would actually go with the lowercase-all-prepositions academic rule, following The Chicago Manual of Style[5]). We do not have to engage in original research ourselves to know this (e.g. by observing this effect in already-published material about works that happen to have prepositions in their titles, though we could do that in our spare time for fun, and of course observe that it's true[4]). All we have to do is look at the style guides, the rule systems, upon which the different genres of writing rely.

As another example, we need not do an original-research survey of whether newspapers use the en dash character in the ways MoS prescribes that it be used on Wikipedia. We already know they do not, because the AP Stylebook and other journalism-specific style guides uniformly ignore this character entirely, using the hyphen for its conjoining uses, and the em dash for its parenthetic uses. Our en dash rules are based on those of more mainstream, less expediency-bound, book publishing style manuals. One of the most frequent common-style fallacies on Wikipedia is the argument, common but unsuccessful at WP:Requested moves, that an article title with an en dash in it "must" be moved "per WP:COMMONNAME" because news sources and press releases (i.e. AP style) don't use an en dash. This is the logical equivalent of insisting that it must be some kind of foul in this "golf" game, with which you are not familiar, to hit the ball with a club, because all the football games you've ever seen had no club in them. It's the wrong rule set (see also WP:IDONTKNOWIT). The stylistic system of Wikipedia (and other general-purpose nonfiction publishing), has "equipment" not available in the journalistic rules, uses some shared features (the "ball" and "playing field", by analogy) differently, and is for a different "ballgame" with a different methodology and goal.

We sometimes use online searches in internal discussions about the Wikipedia title policy, naming conventions, and style guidelines, to get a sense of the implementation level of a usage matter in particular publishing circles, by shaping searches and limiting them by source type, age, language, and location, but these are only used as part of a larger consensus-building discussion, grounded in Wikipedia policy, and always with the understanding that such search results are partial glimpses at data, limited to particular types of publications, and skewed by various factors (often including marked limitations of and biases in the search tools). When it comes to actually determining what an article's name should be, such searches cannot be relied upon as if they are sources themselves (your interpretation of their results is, again, original research). They are only a means for finding and looking at actual sources and the subject-specific facts they contain, again with the caveat that the data set is limited and uneven.[7]

Cross-language misrepresentation[edit]

Another frequent case of abuse of online search results to try to "prove" a common-style fallacy is attempting to use English-language news sources (e.g. from Google News searches) to make a point against the use of diacritics for biographical subjects for whom that usage is preferred and well-sourced. If high-quality academic sources use the subject's culturally appropriate diacritics – and thus are reliable sources that their use is attested for the subjects in question – it doesn't matter how many American or British newspapers ignore and drop the diacritics; their laziness in this regard has no impact on Wikipedia, which will follow the more reliable sources, not the more common but weaker ones. Many Western news publishers (and sport governing bodies, even some governmental agencies/ministries in English-speaking countries) have an official editorial policy of dropping diacritics (as well as forcing Western name order, another of these common-style fallacies). Per our WP:Neutral point of view policy, it is completely inappropriate to try to enlist Wikipedia in taking a side in any kind of "language battle". For diacritics, use of them by the subject for their own name, in materials with a Latin-based alphabet, is sufficient, per the WP:ABOUTSELF policy and MOS:IDENTITY guideline. So is use of them in reference to that bio subject by high-quality reliable sources, per the WP:Verifiability policy and WP:Reliable sources guideline (see also WP:DIACRITICS and MOS:DIACRITICS).

Mainstream style guides are the reliable sources for style, and MoS is already based on them[edit]

The common-style fallacy relies in part upon a key falsehood in the faulty reasoning behind the specialized-style fallacy: the assumption that sources that are reliable for facts being reported about a topic are somehow transubstantiated into reliable sources, purely through example, of how the English language must be used when the topic in question in involved. In reality, the only reliable sources for how to write formal but not excessively academic English are style guides devoted to writing such material – the very guides upon which MoS is based. Even these are not laws, but guidance that Wikipedia's own editorial community will take into account when coming to consensus on Wikipedia's own house style.

The "apply the style most commonly seen in sources according to my Google searches" idea is completely unworkable (aside from the frequent cherry-picking of sources and search results), because it would always default to using informal journalistic style, inappropriate in an encyclopedia, for popular culture topics, until academics wrote about the same topic, leading to a style dispute. It would also always default to using excessively academic style, also inappropriate in an encyclopedia, for academic topics, until the subject was covered in the press, leading to another style dispute in the opposite direction. All roads lead right back to the stable status quo we already have: Use the compromise style favored by virtually all general-audience publishers for formal-English writing.

Various other common-style logic problems[edit]

The common-style fallacy has additional logic problems that can be dispensed with quickly:

  • Search engine results and their order are strongly affected by paid search engine optimization (SEO) by experts skilled in manipulating search engines (and sometimes also by paying a search engine directly for high placement – i.e. advertising – depending on the search engine in question); this automatically gives undue weight to stylized presentations preferred by marketers, and undue elimination of acceptable stylization like correct diacritics when doing so is preferred by certain publishing blocs for their own convenience. Search engine placement, in short, reflects marketing, not reliability.
  • Doing proper search-engine tests itself requires a certain level of expertise, to weed out various form of skew, or even totally invalid results. How to do this varies not only by search engine but even by search type at the same engine. Example: In many cases, it requires detailed knowledge of Google Ngrams and its limitations (both in search functionality and in what its corpora contain and how they differ) to extract anything like accurate results out of it.
  • The entertainment press in particular is not independent of the entertainment industry, and largely tries to keep industry players as happy as possible by doing whatever they want stylistically. Most of these publications derive the majority of their income from advertising revenue from film studios, record labels, and other entertainment industry interests. Furthermore, many of them are directly owned by the same international corporations who own the studios and labels (and many city newspapers as well). They have a doubly vested interest in mimicry of the stylization in logos and marketing materials.
  • The ground truth is that people in general do not "obey" or expect extraneous marketing stylizations. No one writes that they bought their shirt at "macys" or just got a "SONY" stereo for their car. Even the idea that people are following marketing/journalism style in overcapitalizing song titles turns out to be provably false.[8]

It's unnecessary anyway: we already have this covered[edit]

The Manual of Style already has provisions (e.g. at both WP:Manual of Style/Capital letters and WP:Manual of Style/Trademarks) to accept a simple stylization matter that is also accepted by virtually all sources across all publications styles (not just one) to be intrinsic to a particular name. In practice this is limited to:

  • Unusual but semantically meaningful capitalization ("intercaps" or "camelcase"): iPod, CentOS
  • Conventionalized dropping of capitalization of an acronym: Nabisco
  • Conventionalized capitalization of an acronym some might not have thought of as one: IKEA, SAGE Publications
  • Fusion of words or names, when the usage is a legal matter (found in corporate documents, trademark registrations, etc.): DaimlerChrysler, GlaxoSmithKline
  • Simple substitution of a letter or letters for some other letter or numeral (Deadmau5, Left 4 Dead)

It does not extend in any cases to:

  • All-capitals for emphasis SONY, TIME magazine, The GAP
  • This includes small capitals: Green Mountain Coffee, Downton Abbey
  • Jumbled capitalization with no semantic meaning: ebaY
  • "Dingbat" substitutions or insertions: E*trade, C|net
  • Changes that require special markup and may cause accessibility problems: Alien3
  • Run-together words that are not found in corporate, trademark, and other legal registrations, nor accepted by most sources, just seen as a matter of logo stylization: Baker&Taylor, JCPenney

The special case of all-lowercase as a stylization

  • This has been accepted in a handful of cases for individuals who use it themselves and for whom virtually all sources also use it: for k.d. lang, but not for "e.e. cummings" (see E. E. Cummings).
  • It is accepted for software that only exists as a command-line executable given in all-lowercase, even when it is an acronym or contains one that would otherwise be capitalized: ntpd for the Network Time Protocol daemon in Unix/Linux, but NTP for the Network Time Protocol itself.
  • It is not accepted for trademarks and logos: citibank, sears.

Specific exceptions for special cases are not blanket rules for everything superficially similar[edit]

Any exception for a particular case (on the basis of near-universal, cross-genre usage regarding that case) does not extend to applying such a stylization approach to everything somewhat similar to it. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Dropping capitalization on all acronyms pronounceable as words, even when some generally reliable sources do it: Unesco, Nasa (this is a style advocated and used by various newspapers, especially in UK, but also including some US ones like The New York Times; it is not catching on and is not used here)
  • Over-capitalizing titles of works: "Do It Like A Dude"
  • Starting names with lowercase where not universally supported: Some new "existentialOS" should not be written that way using iOS as an excuse, because virtually no professionally produced sources would give it as anything but ExistentialOS, except specialist publications that mimic trademarks (usually because they are publications funded almost entirely by industry advertising, and are thus not fully independent sources, a problem common among tech, gaming, music, and movie/TV magazines and websites, i.e. the celebrity, entertainment, and "infotainment" press; see the section about this, above). WP:Common sense always applies.

It does not matter that these changes are sometimes applied by some specialized-genre style guides or individual publishers' house style in other kinds of writing. They are not applied by Wikipedia's, or other mainstream, formal-English style manuals.

The common-style fallacy can be disruptive enough for sanctions[edit]

Wikipedia's editors just have to absorb and live with the fact that they cannot randomly apply conflicting style regimes from unrelated forms of writing.

All of the following are expected, per applicable policies, from those who write for this project:

Editors have been topic-banned from style discussions and from specific content topics, and even indefinitely blocked from editing Wikipedia at all, for failure or inability to work within these necessary collaboration norms.

Wikipedia has its own style manual for two major reasons: to produce consistent, professional-grade content for our readers; and to forestall recurrent, time-wasting disputes over stylistic trivia, by providing consistent rules for editors. Like all compromises, it will not please everyone in every way all the time. Some simple facts about style guides and English usage are that style is largely arbitrary, there is no central authority, there are no absolute rules, and virtually every single style matter – even basic stuff like "start a sentence with a capital letter" – has conflicting advice about it in various style guides. This means that every style rule on WP is guaranteed to have someone who doesn't agree with it, and every editor is going to disagree with at least one such rule. Just deal with it.

As editors, we all agree that Wikipedia policies and guidelines are the operating rules for the Wikipedia system, and that we're playing by these rules, so that we can get to work on building the encyclopedia and remain focused on that. To the extent anyone is trying to monkey-wrench the system by continually being disruptive over a style matter they don't want to let go of, they need to rethink why they are at this project and whether their activities are contributing to or detracting from productivity. Otherwise, the editing community will make this determination on its own and restrain or expel the troublemaker soon enough. The ability to work within a framework that is not exactly as one would have personally designed it, or entirely what one is used to in a different context like journalistic or academic writing, is a matter of basic competence for collaborative project work, both on and off Wikipedia.


  1. ^ WP:Article titles policy does indirectly affect how we write article content, in that we tend to refer to a topic by the same name in the prose as we do in the title, at least in the article's lead section.
  2. ^ Virtually all style guides recommend writing "iPhone" as "IPhone" at the beginning of a sentence, or rewriting to avoid beginning a sentence with a name that beings with a lower-case letter (or with a numeral or other non-alphabetic symbol, as in "3M Corporation").
  3. ^ One of the only sectors where journalism style guides have been of use in the formation of the Wikipedia:Manual of Style is in the handling of fast-moving, controversial usage, because the publication schedule of a paper manual like the AP Stylebook is annual, and many of the other news sites that produce publicly available guides maintain them regularly and for free at their websites, e.g. The Guardian and Observer style guide. These have thus been useful for parts of MoS like MOS:IDENTITY and its segment on handling references to transgender people, a topic most book-publishing and academic style guides do not address in much detail or at all yet.
  4. ^ a b For details, see a three-way review of what major style guides recommend about capitalization of prepositions in titles, from a February 2016 discussion at WT:MOSCAPS.
  5. ^ a b Publishers that follow the Chicago Manual of Style closely will stick to the academic "capitalize no prepositions" rule, because CMoS has adopted this preference from academic journal publishing. This is not a recent change; the exclusion of prepositions from the list of words to capitalize in English-language titles dates to at least the 11th ed., in 1948 (pp. 38–39).
  6. ^ A trade organization called the Music Business Association drafted something called the Music Metadata Style Guide ("Final" version, August 2014 [1], in which MBA insists on titles which "match the cover art" (something that is often literally impossible, even with CSS 3) on p. 10. It then directly contradicts itself on p. 20, and sets out capitalization rules that, naturally, match the four-letter rule already used in marketing and the music press. As of February 2016, there are no indications that this would-be standard, to the extent any sense can be made of it, has had any impact on the publishing world at all, and it was only intended for metadata in digital music files to begin with. Actual style guides for music-related English language usage, like Writing About Music: A Style Sheet (3rd ed., 2014; D. Kern Holoman; U. of California Press, ISBN 78-0-520-28153-0 [2]; pp. 10–11) almost always follow academic style – they do not capitalize prepositions, regardless of length. However, most of them are intended for academic publications, and most often applied to classical music, and so have had little impact on music journalism.
  7. ^ For an example of how to use search engines to find sources, across multiple genres, for a pop-culture topic, within the framework of applicable WP policies and guidelines, and without treating the searches incorrectly as if they were sources in their own right, see Talk:Utada Hikaru/Archive 4#Requested move 22 January 2016.
  8. ^ See, e.g., a detailed review of what various (mostly user-generated content) music-related websites' style guides are doing, from a February 2016 discussion at WT:MOSCAPS.

See also[edit]