Wikipedia:Identifying and using style guides
This is an essay on Wikipedia:Reliable sources, Wikipedia:Manual of Style, and manuals of style in general.
It contains the advice or opinions of one or more Wikipedia contributors. This page is not an encyclopedia article, nor is it one of Wikipedia's policies or guidelines, as it has not been thoroughly vetted by the community. Some essays represent widespread norms; others only represent minority viewpoints.
|This page in a nutshell: Not all style guides are created equal; Wikipedia's Manual of Style is only based on a few of them, aside from particular topical details. Use of them as sources in our articles must follow WP:PSTS policy.|
This advice page examines the use of externally published style guides for English writing, both as informative of our own internal Wikipedia:Manual of Style (MoS), and as reliable sources cited in our articles on English usage.
Remember that Wikipedia has and uses its own house style; do not impose styles that don't comply with it just because a divergent style can be found in an external stylebook.
How Wikipedia uses style guides
The style manuals in English that have the strongest effect on general public writing (in the kinds of secondary sources Wikipedia cares about) – and which most directly inform the consensus behind our MoS – are those for mainstream book publishing. Those of journalism also influence less formal usage (e.g. news reporting, marketing, and business style), but very little from them directly affects Wikipedia style, because it's a markedly different kind of writing. Most discipline-specific academic style manuals are focused on citation formats and the preparation of papers for publication in journals; we draw on them only for technical material. Government and legal manuals have little impact outside their fields; like academic manuals, they provide little to Wikipedia aside from some terminology and citation formatting.
As sources for use in our articles, care must be taken to use style guides within the bounds of Wikipedia's policy on primary, secondary, and tertiary sources, with particular regard to the reputability of the publisher and expertise and background (thus potential biases) of the author(s). Draw a sharp distinction between presenting the real-world consensus on a language matter versus advocating a subjective "rule". Most of these works are a mixture of sourcing types, but only secondary material from them can be used in our articles for claims that provide analysis, evaluation, interpretation, or synthesis ("AEIS").
The "big four", plus one
The four most frequently used style guides for English are also those that are the main bases of our own MoS. These are The Chicago Manual of Style (often called Chicago or CMoS) and Garner's Modern English Usage, for American and to some extent Canadian English; and New Hart's Rules and Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage for British English, and Commonwealth English more broadly. They are not necessarily the most factually correct on all linguistic matters they address, but they are by far the best-selling and thus the most influential on usage.
These are the style guides with the most direct impact on formal written English. Chicago and New Hart's are the primary style guides of non-fiction book publishers in North America and the Commonwealth, respectively, and also have a significant impact on journals. Well-educated people who write much will often have a copy of one or the other (though not always a current edition). Garner's and Fowler's are both usage dictionaries (like New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, often packaged with New Hart's in a single volume, New Oxford Style Manual), and are popular with well-read everyday people as well as professional writers/editors. Cambridge University Press puts one out too, but The Cambridge Guide to English Usage dates to 2004, is rarely cited, and is primarily for ESL learners.
Wikipedia's Manual of Style also relies heavily on Scientific Style and Format for medical, science, and other technical topics; e.g., it's where most of our advice on units of measure comes from. This is put together by a multi-disciplinary body of science writers from all over the anglosphere. It was formerly published in the UK, and leaned British for basic typographical matters, but the last few editions have been published in the US by the University of Chicago Press, and been normalized to an extent to Chicago style on such matters, without affecting the technical advice.
For citations in articles: Highly reputable, organizationally published style guides, like Chicago and New Hart's / Oxford, are a mixture of primary, secondary, and tertiary sourcing. They are often explicit that they are offering an opinion which may conflict with other style guides and which is not based on generally accepted norms, but attempting to establish one; this is primary. In other cases, they defer to other named sources' consensus on a matter; this is secondary. When they simply aggregate and repeat what almost all style writers agree on (e.g., start a sentence with a capital letter absent some special reason not to like a trademark that starts with a digit), then they are high-quality tertiary sources. Scientific Style and Format is mostly tertiary, and generally provides consistent advice with that of more discipline-specific manuals from professional bodies in chemistry, medicine, and other scientific fields .
Style guides issued by government agencies/ministries are usually specific to that particular legal entity. There are exceptions, intended to normalize style across an entire government, with highly variable success rates; examples include the US Government Printing Office Style Manual (GPO Manual for short, on which most American government department manuals are actually closely based); the UK Guidance for Governmental Digital Publishing and Services (for British government websites; too new to assess); and the Australian government's Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (last updated in 2002 and widely ignored). There are also some international or world English manuals for specific organizational purposes, e.g. UN directorates.
Governmental style guides determine (or attempt to determine) bureaucratese/governmentese/militarese – regulatory language. They also exert some effects on national legal style (a field with its own manuals), and business writing to an extent (which also draws heavily on journalism/marketing style, of course). And that's about it. No English class is going to recommend the GPO Style Manual to its students, for example; nor are these works relied upon by book, news, or academic publishers, except for limited, specialized purposes. Governmentese is a quirky style, full of excessive capitalization and a hatred of hyphens, commas, and much other punctuation.
English has no global or national language authority; there is no equivalent of the French language's Académie française. Government manuals have no authority to dictate style to non-governmental writers, including Wikipedia. We do borrow from national legal style manuals their citation formats for legal cases, but very little else.
Government style guides should always be treated as primary sources; their sole purpose is to "lay down the law", advocating a strong stance about the writing under their authority (e.g. that of government workers, or those submitting government paperwork).
Wikipedia is not written in news style, as a matter of policy. Journalistic writing uses many conventions not appropriate for scholarly books (which is what an encyclopedia is, even if you move it online). Our MoS does derive a handful of things from journalism manuals, simply because they are not covered in academic ones.[a] But MoS does not follow journalistic punctuation, capitalization, or extreme brevity practices, and eschews bombastic and unusual wording common in low-end journalism, sportswriting, and entertainment coverage. Our encyclopedia articles' lead sections have little in common with journalistic "ledes". Even the inverted pyramid article structure of journalism is typically only found at Wikipedia in simple articles; for more complex topics, our pages are arranged more like an academic paper, with a number of subtopical sections, especially if summary style is employed.
In newswriting, the most influential manual, by both number of compliant publishers and number of news readers, is the Associated Press Stylebook (AP), used by the majority of the US press (though several papers, including The New York Times, put out their own widely divergent style guides). The UK/Commonwealth press have no equivalent "monolithic" stylebook; each publisher makes up its own, or chooses to follow one of the major papers' (The Economist, The Guardian, The Times of London, and BBC News appear to be the most influential; they're all inconsistent with each other on many points, but converge on an overall British news style). The UPI Stylebook and the house-style one for Reuters (both international newswires) diverge very little from AP.
News style guides are mostly tertiary; the bulk of their content is in the form of usage dictionaries built up from the experience and input of many professional news editors. They can sometimes be primary, however, when making "do/don't write it this way" advice that conflicts with other style guides even in the same field. It's just organizational opinion – a stance – in that case.
Topical academic style guides
Beyond the above, there are few style guides of note, other than for specific fields. Some major examples include the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA), the Modern Language Association Style Manual and its MLA Handbook abridged student edition (collectively called MLA style), the American Medical Association Manual of Style (AMA), the American Chemical Society Style Guide (ACS), and the American Sociological Association Style Guide. Most of these are American, and are primarily used for citation styles and the preparation and publishing of academic papers in journals. Students and other casual users (like Wikipedians) of their styles tend to buy citation style summary guides like A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations (often called Turabian, after the original author, and containing also a summary of Chicago style), rather than the full, expensive manuals.
When they offer general writing advice, aside from citations and field-specific stuff, the topical academic guides are mostly in line with Chicago and Scientific Style and Format. There's also the Modern Humanities Research Association Style Guide (MHRA), which is British, but tiny, being mostly concerned with citations. Virtually nothing in the Wikipedia Manual of Style on general writing principles comes from these works,[a] though they inform several discipline-specific line items in some of MoS's sub-guidelines, and provide supporting authority for some decisions in MoS adopted from Chicago and Hart's (which are broad academic-writing guides at their core).
When working on articles, it is important to remember that Wikipedia is not a journal and must not be written like one, but for a general audience. As with Chicago and Hart's, these style guides vary from primary through tertiary in source type. They are primary sources for their organization-specific citation styles, but often tertiary for general and field-specific writing advice, being based on the norms of journal editors as expressed in journal- or publisher-specific stylesheets.
A related teritiary source is an expert-compiled encyclopedic dictionary for a particular field, often scientific. While these mostly consist of highly compressed encyclopedic entries, they may offer reliable style advice on particular things, such as the proper capitalization of a symbol for a unit of measure, how to abbreviate "subspecies" in zoology versus botany, etc.
For Englishes around the anglosphere
Canada's style is in flux, even aside from being a commingling of British and American influences plus Canadian innovations. There are several competing style guides, like The Canadian Style (which is old) and Editing Canadian English, but they're not published very frequently, and they contradict each other a lot. One "Canadian" style guide, A Canadian Writer's Reference (2016), intended as a classroom manual, is just a tweaked American one, by an American author, put out with a new cover; it is not a reliable source on Canadian norms. The Canadian Press Stylebook pretty closely follows AP, except on various Briticisms used commonly in Canada (-our, -re, etc.). The Gregg Reference Manual, for business writing, also exists in a Canadian edition (2014), but is American-authored.
The Australian government style guide, while intended for public not just governmental use, is generally excoriated; some of its recommendations have caused minor political disputes, and even "most public servants ignore it". A new edition has been in the planning stages for years, but even if it came out tomorrow, it would be too soon for it to have any effect on Australian usage any time soon, much less on Wikipedia. The Cambridge book has an Australian edition, The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage; it is already over a decade old, and is almost word-for-word identical to the UK edition, aside from a few .au colloquialism tweaks.
Aside from single-entity house style manuals (internal documents for university departments, companies, particular newspapers, specific ministries/agencies), or self-published one-author websites, real style guides do not appear to exists for the Englishes of Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and so forth. People in those places just buy the British ones (often not printed in the UK; they're reprinted in India, etc., under contract, to avoid the shipping expense). In formal writing, there is no difference between Barbadian, Hong Kong, Singaporean, or Ghanan English; they're all British English, aside from some loanwords borrowed from local languages (just as in Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, and Northern Irish English within the UK itself). Some English varieties, like those of Liberia, the Philippines, and Okinawa, are based on (and in formal writing follow the norms of) American English, not British.
Other style guides
Various other types of works are sometimes referred to as style guides.
In law, business, marketing, and other professions
There are specialized style guides for legal writing, for business letters and memos, for effective marketing, etc., but they don't have any real impact on general writing. Some of these have field-specific details drawn from them (especially in law) for MoS, but otherwise have no detectable influence on Wikipedia style. In particular, many of them are "punctuation-hostile", and like to drop hyphens, commas and other marks that don't seem absolutely necessary when professionals are communicating with other professionals in the same field, in compressed and highly jargon-laden professional journal or trade publication material.
As with other discipline-specific manuals, these are a mixture of primary though tertiary sourcing, and reliable for field-specific details, but not for general English-language matters. The legal ones are often tertiary in large part, collecting mandatory formatting requirements imposed by various court systems, not just promulgating their authors' own style ideas.
Innumerable organizations produce a "house style" guide for internal use. These are not reliable sources for English usage, and are just primary sources for what that entity's own subjective preferences are for its internal memos and external marketing. Be careful when doing style research; it is easy to mistake something like the "University of Foobar Style Guide" for a work intended as public advice when it is really nothing but the opinion of the head of the school's marketing department for how to style university brochures and webpages for corporate identity purposes. Fairly often, you can even find conflicting style guides from different departments at the same legal entity.
A similar case is the submission requirements style sheets of individual journals and particular journal publishers. These reflect a single company or organization's viewpoint (or simply expediently made decisions), not an industry- or discipline-wide norm. They, too, are primary sources. They may be useful for providing (attributed) quotable definitions of particular terms to compare with other definitions in articles on punctuation and other usage matters.
For determining what MoS should advise, such "house organs" are sometimes useful, but only in the aggregate. E.g., if a search on
Canadian spelling theatre OR theatre shows that 17 of the top 20 results in Canadian institutional house stylesheets exclusively prefer theatre, two permit theater for movie houses only, one has no preference, and zero prefer theater in general, then this probably tells us something about Canadian usage, while the result from the University of Toronto's arts department, taken in isolation, tells us nothing but what that department likes. This sort of original research (analysis by Wikipedians themselves) is not permissible in articles, but is a regular part of internal Wikipedia deliberation on talk pages (e.g., it is how we arrive at an evaluation of author and publisher reputability and thus source reliability; how we summarize multiple sources in encyclopedically compressed wording for our readers; how we decide the best way to write about transgender biography subjects; how we determine whether a novel scientific idea is fringey; etc.).
Monographs and how-to materials
There are innumerable style monographs. Some notable examples include those of Gowers, Strunk & White, Fogarty, Pinker, and Truss. They range from overall writing advice to usage dictionaries, or some combination of these, and are of debated authority, often in conflict. The two best-accepted that take the form of usage dictionaries were already mentioned above: Fowler's (UK) and Garner's (US, though recently internationalized to an extent and actually published at Oxford). There are also many how-to guides intended for a specific genre (writing better mystery novels or TV scripts, etc.). MoS is not concerned with these, and takes a consistent writing approach to all subjects, including fiction.
Monographs (and two-author variants of the format) range from primary to tertiary sources, and must be used carefully and accordingly; by default, treat them as primary. The writing-advice volumes are almost entirely primary, while usage dictionaries are mostly tertiary but frequently peppered with patently primary opinion; little in either type is secondary. Where a work like Garner's provides research-based analysis for a claim, it is secondary. Where it repeats the averaged advice of "language authorities", it is tertiary. Where it expresses the author's opinion, it is necessarily primary.
There's also a never-ending stream of over-priced undergraduate textbooks that are almost entirely rather regurgitative tertiary sources, though a handful are fairly well-regarded, like The Bedford Handbook and The Penguin Handbook. These do not set style, but collect and average it from other sources (generally on a national basis, and sort of splitting the difference between academic, news, and business writing). Such works must be used with care for several reasons. They're typically not very current, and may insist on traditionalisms that have already slipped out of conventional usage. They are derivative, not authoritative, and may simply pick an arbitrary recommendation when more authoritative sources conflict. Thus, they are rarely of use in informing internal MoS discussions,[a] other than when surveyed in the aggregate (i.e., "Because Bedford says so" isn't a valid rationale). They are also typically written by educators and writers who specialize in writing for that market, not by language experts.
They are weak sources for use as citations in our actual articles; while our WP:No original research policy considers them reliable as a general class (at the university level and higher), they are not high-quality sources, and (being tertiary) they cannot be used for any claims that involve anaysis, evaluation, interpretation, or synthesis – these require secondary sources. It is very easy to abuse such works to push a point of view about what is "correct". Textbooks below the university/collegiate level are not reliable sources; this also goes for remedial textbooks, any books written for children, and works written for the simplified English market.
Finally, there are grammars of English,[b] which sometimes cover a few style matters, but they're descriptive works – about everyday usage for learners, or in serious linguistics terminology (depending on the publication in question) – not prescriptive style manuals. Our MoS generally does not deal with grammatical matters, strictly speaking. Wikipedia trusts that our editors already have that under their belt.
High-quality grammars of English are, however, very good sources for use in articles on the English language. They are mostly secondary and to an extent tertiary sources, written by actual language experts. They should take precedence over individual monographs and other prescriptive matter. For example, no amount of punditry against split infinitives and sentence-terminating prepositions can evade the well-studied linguistic fact that there are features of the language; their deployment or condemnation is primarily a matter of register of use, not of "correctness".
Basic learner materials are not reliable sources, for the same reason that secondary-school text books are not.
Tone about tone – dictating what's "right" is wrong
MoS is written to provide advice on what to do when writing articles here (and sometimes why), without editorializing on propriety or legitimacy. We always keep our broad readership in mind – surely the most general audience in human history, in an era of unprecedented increase in (and reliance upon) mutual intelligibility across the anglosphere. Please keep these things in mind if you work on improving the Wikipedia Manual of Style.
Our articles, like our MoS, should steer well clear of subjective pronouncements about what is "proper", "incorrect", "standard",[c] etc. – even when some of our sources wander into that territory. Beware also claims about "American English", "British English", etc. made by style guide authors who are not linguists (e.g., Garner's Modern English Usage, though quite comprehensive, is written by an attorney, and many others are written by news editors, teachers, and other users of – not scholars of – language). Most linguists do not agree with the idea that orthography (spelling, punctuation, etc.) is a matter of dialect (nationwide or otherwise); rather, it is a matter of various publishing industries' standards – i.e., of commerce.
In a few cases, editors with a bee in their bonnet about the "legitimacy" or "wrongness" of some particular style nit-pick (especially along nationalistic lines) have been topic-banned from editing about that peccadillo, or even banned from MoS-related discussion as a whole, especially if their non-neutral advocacy starts affecting article content. Avoid disruptive editing about style, especially personalization of style or article-titles disputes. Discretionary sanctions have been authorized to deal with MoS-related disruption: admins have leeway to unilaterally issue editor or page restrictions.
- One distinction between Wikipedia style and that of many news and academic publishers is the "five-letter rule": in titles of published works, capitalize a preposition of five letters or longer. Journalism style tends toward four or even three, while academic style most often lower-cases all prepositions, even long ones like alongside. It is one of the only ideas that Wikipedia's MoS has pulled from university textbook style guides, a "split the difference" approach that produces a happy medium for most readers and editors.
This is just one example. Another is that Wikipedia uses "logical quotation", adopted from textual criticism, linguistics, philosophy, computer science, and other technical writing. Most academic and news writing follows the less precise punctation conventions typical of publishers in the country of publication, but consensus has decided this is not the best approach for Wikipedia, a work that relies on quotation precision.
Two sorts of things that Wikipedia has adopted from journalism stylebooks are how to write about the transgendered, and which US cities are well-known enough to not need to be identified by state unless ambiguous.
- In this sense, "a grammar" means 'a published study of grammar; a grammar book'.
- There is no official body for issuing "standards" about the English language. Some reliable sources on English use the term standard in a special sense. The academic concept of standard Englishes refers to the majority dialects spoken within anglophone countries. A standard English is an estimation of usage acceptability within a population and does not imply the existence of a standard in the sense of published specifications being issued. When referring to a standard English in an article, please link to Standard English at first occurrence so that readers are not mislead.
- "The document the Australian government hasn't updated in 14 years". ContentGroup.com.au. Canberra: Content Group. 2 May 2016.
- Wikipedia:Verifiability (policy: the information in our articles must be sourceable and usually already sourced)
- Wikipedia:No original research (policy: includes misuse of sources, especially primary ones)
- Wikipedia:Citing sources (guideline: we accept lots of citation formats; don't edit-war over them)
- Wikipedia:Identifying reliable sources (guideline: author and publisher reputability matter)
- Wikipedia:Identifying and using independent sources (essay: conflicts of interest matter)
- Wikipedia:Identifying and using primary sources (essay: includes style guides that are prescriptive)
- Wikipedia:Identifying and using tertiary sources (essay: includes much that is published in style guides)
- Wikipedia:Dictionaries as sources (essay: includes usage dictionaries and style guides that contain them)
- Wikipedia:Common-style fallacy (essay: just because bloggers or entertainment journalists do something doesn't mean we do)
- Wikipedia:Specialized-style fallacy (essay: avoid imposing strange stylistic quirks from field-specific writing)
- Wikipedia:Tertiary-source fallacy (essay: dictionaries do not magically trump other sources, policy, and reasoning)
- Wikipedia:You are probably not a lexicologist or a lexicographer (essay: opinions about word usage do not trump reliable sources on language)