Why You Should Care about Style Rules and Consistency

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Can Consistency Be as Important as Correctness?

Writers have a variety of preferences when it comes to grammar and punctuation. There are many indisputable rules that are universally recognized, but there are also gray areas where even leading style guides disagree with one another.

It’s always important to follow the universal rules consistently, but it is equally important to be consistent in how we treat the rules that fall into the gray areas.

The example of the serial comma

The serial comma, also called the Oxford comma is one of these gray areas.

The Chicago Manual of Style, the most common style guide used in publishing, advocates the use of a comma between all items in a series. For example, “They used pens, pencils, and markers.”

The Associated Press Stylebook, which is the leading style guide in journalism, prefers to leave out the final comma when the last two items are separated by a conjunction, namely “and” or “but.” AP style only recommends using this comma when its omission makes the meaning unclear.1

Someone following AP style would write “They used pens, pencils and markers.” As you can see, there is no comma between the “pencils” and the “markers.”

That same adherent to AP style would, however, use an additional comma for a sentence like “They found writing utensils, brushes, and paint.” Leaving out the comma here would make it sound like paintbrushes are being used as writing utensils. Inserting the comma makes it clear that there were writing utensils in addition to the brushes and paint.

The fact that these two style manuals disagree does not make either incorrect, and they are both highly regarded reference books.

The type of writing matters

For a particular field, one way may be better than the other.

An author publishing a book will want to use the serial comma the way that Chicago style dictates. A journalist, on the other hand, would do well to follow what is common practice in their field, which means following AP style.

In both situations it is advantageous to use whichever option readers are more likely to expect.

But neither way is fundamentally more correct than the other. The most important thing, whatever field of writing you are in, is to pick one way and stick with it consistently.

Grammar is full of gray areas

The serial comma is just one example of the many gray areas in writing.

Some of these gray areas are addressed by style manuals that pick one side or another. In other areas the leading style guides don’t have clear guidance, so even someone who follows Chicago style religiously will have to make a decisions.

But the fact that two ways are accepted certainly does not mean that you can go back and forth.

Why is consistency important?

Lack of consistency is confusing

Don’t alternate between the spellings “gray” and “grey.” Readers may be confused and spend time wondering why you are using both forms. The last thing you want to do is distract readers from your message, and a lack of consistency can do just that.

If you are British, “grey” is the correct spelling and “gray” is incorrect. If you are American, “gray” is the correct form and “grey” is a misspelling.

British and American spellings are both equally correct. But whether you are British or American, using both forms means that half are spelled wrong.

Whichever country you are in, either spelling is better than both. If you use the wrong spelling but use it consistently, most people won’t even think about it.

But especially with a word like gray where many people are aware of the variance in spelling, some people will notice. It’s always best to consistently use the correct spellings for the type of English you speak.

Inconsistency makes you look less qualified

When your writing is inconsistent, it can seem like you don’t know what you’re doing. If it looks like you can’t decide which forms to use or how to use punctuation, readers will assume you don’t have a good understanding of the rules.

If you make an informed decision of what rules to use and then stick to them confidently, readers will have a positive impression of your writing skill and be more likely to listen to you.

Consistency looks polished

An important part of the editing process is ensuring that a piece of writing follows the requisite style rules. When it adheres to its style rules consistently, it looks more polished and professional.

A consistent writing style shows readers that you have invested extra time or money in the piece. This shows that you take yourself seriously and know how to correctly apply the rules of grammar, punctuation, and spelling consistently.

Showing this type of attention to detail and commitment to making your work readable will encourage people to continue reading your writing.

How do you ensure consistency?

Pick a style guide

Style guides exist to help you be consistent, both with yourself and with other writers in your field. These reference manuals provide a cohesive body of rules you should be following and ensures that your writing will match the style that readers are familiar with.

The organization you work for, for example a publishing house, may have a house style that you are required to follow. In other situations you may have more freedom to make your own choices.

Know which rules must be followed

Some rules are black and white, and ignoring these will make your writing difficult to read and make you look less capable as a writer.

It’s important to gain a solid understanding of the English language and its grammar and then carefully identify the gray areas where there are multiple options.

Always keep in mind that you may be expected to follow a certain style guide. When you do make style decisions, make sure this is only in areas that are not defined by any required style manual or house style.

Make informed decisions

Before you decide to do things a certain way, it’s good to make sure your choices are attested in one of the leading reference books.

For example, nobody writes “e mail,” so make sure you stick with either “e-mail” or “email.” The spelling “e-mail” is recommended by Bryan Garner.2 “Email” is the form recommended in the most recent editions of The Chicago Manual of Style,3 The Associated Press Stylebook,4 Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage,5 and The American Heritage Dictionary.6 Merriam-Webster7 lists both as equal variants.

Make educated decisions on which rules to follow, and then follow them consistently.

In the example above, the unhyphenated form is probably preferrable to a younger audience, whereas an older audience could be more accepting of the hyphenated form. Given how many of my reference books are choosing the closed compound, I would highly encourage the use of “email” in most circumstances

If you have a well-respected style manual, usage guide, or dictionary that advocates using one of your preferences, it can be safe to use. Make sure it is the most recent edition, ideally published within the last few years.

Use style sheets

A style sheet is a document that lists every editorial decision that has been made for a piece of writing. For example, it will note which spelling to use when there are multiple accepted variants, what words must be hyphenated or capitalized, and the format for citations.

When the work follows a specific style manual and dictionary in all areas, the style sheet may be shorter. If the writer has many individual preferences, the style sheet will need to be longer.

The purpose of a style sheet is to define areas of ambiguity so that whatever rules the writer has chosen can be followed with consistency. This is why an editor will use a style sheet on every job they edit.

If you want to ensure consistency in your writing, using a style sheet is a must. It will also save you money if you hire an editor since you will have clearly documented all of your preferences in advance.

Writing is an art

In many ways writing is more of an art than a science. While there are certain rules that must be followed, there is often room for interpretation.

The art of writing lies in figuring out how to best convey your intended meaning. Different styles of writing work well for different topics and in different contexts.

In very technical writing, for example, it is more important to adhere to standard grammar rules. With complex content, you need to give the reader more help for them to understand it.

Poetry, on the other hand, can benefit when the writer is less of strict about following the rules.

It’s perfectly fine to have your own style of writing, as long as the rules you follow are attested. And provided that you remain consistent, readers should be able to understand you and avoid confusion.

  1. The Associated Press Stylebook, 55th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 336.
  2. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 328
  3. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017), 7.89.
  4. The Associated Press Stylebook, 55th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2020), 99.
  5. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th ed., edited by Jeremy Butterfield (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 255.
  6. https://ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=email
  7. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/email
Image of a woman holding a book with the words "why consistency matters in your writing"
Clara Carlson-Kirigin

Clara Carlson-Kirigin

I’m Clara, the editor behind Prometheus Editorial. I work with fantasy and romance authors who want to invest in professional editing to help their novels succeed. I love teaching people how to harness the power of language, find their voice, and reach their target readership.

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