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The Very Best Style Guide Reference Books

Monday, November 16th, 2009 by Chris

If you’ve read the fabulous Grammar Queen’s post on creating a corporate style guide (and if you haven’t read it, do so right now), you know you must make some decisions about how your organization crosses the t’s and dots the i’s. However, you can’t possibly list every grammar or style rule in your own guide, so you should direct your staff to consult published style guides for the last word on rules and style. (Better to go to an established guide than to argue endlessly with co-workers about whether it’s “who” or “whom.”)

Here’s a list of the most comprehensive and commonly used style guides. For easy reference, add a list of these resources to your own style guide.

The Chicago Manual of Style: The “CMOS” is an indispensable reference for anyone who writes. It is astoundingly complete, covering everything from grammar and punctuation to the use of foreign language terms and mathematical references. At 900-plus pages, the printed version is a bear to tote around the office (drop it and you may break a toe). Fortunately, the CMOS now offers a searchable online version, making it much easier to ferret out the finer points of pronoun usage. The online guide also includes ongoing Q&A discussions with CMOS editors about tough style issues or disputes.

Associated Press (AP) Stylebook: While not as insanely comprehensive as the CMOS, the AP Stylebook – also now online – is valuable for organizations that apply journalism-style tone and voice to their written communications. It takes a practical approach to style and word usage, since it is informed by the “just the facts, ma’am” ethos of traditional news outlets. You can add your own notes to the online listings and customize the guide. And like the CMOS, the online AP Stylebook features Q&As with editors on style matters. (Q. Would it be a trench-coat-wearing sleuth or a trench coat-wearing sleuth? A. Trench coat-wearing sleuth.)

The Elements of Style: The Strunk and White classic is a great starting place for anyone who’d like to polish their writing. It’s a skinny book and a fast read. If, at the very least, you breeze through the opening “Elementary Rules of Usage,” you’re bound to pick up several tips for better writing. I especially like the section on “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused,” which will set you straight once and for all on whether to use “less” or “fewer.” The 1918 first edition of the book is available for free on the Bartleby.com website, but I suggest spending $25 for the recent hardcover edition that’s gorgeously illustrated by Maira Kalman. It makes a great holiday gift for language-loving friends. (That was not a hint. I already have a copy.)

While not strictly style guides, these books provide yet more tips on avoiding common writing mishaps:

Eats, Shoots & Leaves: If you cringe at out-of-place commas and overused dashes, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Lynne Truss. (The book jacket’s author photo shows Truss taking a Sharpie to a movie poster that lacks a possessive apostrophe.)

Woe is I: For those of us who’ve been out of English Comp for too many years, this book offers an easy-to-use refresher on the mysteries of everyday usage — which vs. that, who vs. whom, et al — with a leavening of humor. Chapter titles such as “Plurals Before Swine” and “Comma Sutra” make the going more fun.

And just for fun: The Fake AP Style Book Twitter feed provides a tongue-in-cheek (and occasionally, off-color) version of the real thing. Sample tweet: “The passive voice should be avoided by you.”

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