The Student’s Guide to Style

Okay, here’s a good one for you students. Tell me if this scene sounds familiar: You’re working on your references page for a paper, and you’re not sure how to do the date. You Google “format date in reference list,” and click on the link to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). After poking around on the OWL site, you find that you’re supposed to put the date in parentheses after the author’s name. Easy enough. You go back through your list and put all your dates in parentheses.

A few weeks later, you get the paper back. A few marks here, a few scribbled comments there, but overall it’s looking pretty good. Until you get to the last page. There, your professor has scribbled through all your carefully added parentheses, adding a “-1” by each entry. Your respectable 86 has now been brought down to a disappointing 74.

Being the good student that you are, you go up to your professor after class and graciously explain that you’re not sure why you got a 74, that you researched it and you know you did it right, and that it seems a little extreme to take off a point for every occurrence of the same tiny mistake.

Your professor, without looking up, says, “Did you not read your syllabus? All papers for this class are to be formatted using Chicago style.”

Chicago style? What does that even mean? I thought she said Times New Roman, 11 point.

“Who’s next?”

Saddened by this ugly reminder that all professors hate students and want them to fail, you stuff the paper into your backpack and walk out the door.

If only you had known about one little thing: style guides.

Style guides are what make the changing rules of grammar manageable. They are sets of rules for writing and formatting written works that are specific to certain groups or genres of writing. Following are some of the most commonly used styles and the genres in which they are used:

  • American Medical Association (AMA): medical journals and publishing
  • American Psychological Association (APA): social sciences
  • Associated Press (AP): journalism
  • Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago): general publishing
  • Council of Science Editors (CSE or CBE): biology, physics, medicine, math, earth sciences, and social sciences
  • Modern Language Association (MLA): academic writing, specifically humanities
  • Turabian (similar to Chicago): academic writing, specifically humanities (Einsohn, p. 60)

In the story above, you found the rule for APA style, but your professor wanted Chicago style. In APA style, the publication date in a reference list has parentheses around it. In Chicago style, it doesn’t.

Tricky? Yes. Helpful? I would argue also yes. With style guides, we can do what makes the most sense for different types of writing without worrying about breaking a silly rule. For example, the APA more often uses numerals for numbers (i.e., “14” instead of “fourteen”), while Chicago more often spells out the number. That’s because APA style is geared toward scientific and technical writing, and spelled-out numbers would make scientific and technical writing even more cumbersome and confusing than it has to be.

You can usually find abbreviated versions of style guides online, and if you really want to get into the nitty gritty details, you can buy an entire printed manual for each style. Though style manual publishers aren’t quite as bad as textbook publishers, they do come out with new versions every so often. Truthfully, new versions are pretty necessary. Written style is always evolving, especially in recent years as the Internet and other technologies are becoming more and more important to the world of writing.

Of course, even the 900-page manuals that outline the rules for each style cannot cover every possible scenario. And sometimes an author may choose to do something that doesn’t fit with what the style manual suggests. When this happens, the author or editor creates a style sheet.

A style sheet is a highly customized style guide. In fact, it is often called an in-house style guide, because many smaller publishing firms have their own style guides that complement the official style they generally use. Style sheets help authors express their unique preferences while remaining within acceptable grammatical guidelines. They are a HUGE help to editors and proofreaders, who can quickly refer to the style sheet whenever they come across questionable spelling or punctuation or other grammatical idiosyncrasies.

For example, Chicago recommends italicizing foreign words on their first use, then using Roman (regular) text every time the word appears later in the manuscript. But a French-American writing a memoir of her family’s history may wish to incorporate lots of French words to give the true flavor of her blended heritage, and italicizing every single French word may interrupt the flow of her story. This author may choose to use Roman text even for the first occurrence of French words. In this situation, she (or her editor) would add an entry to her style sheet that says, “French words Roman text on first and every use.”

So, student or not, here are two things you should remember:

  • Find out what style guide is required or recommended for what you are writing.
  • When you’re writing, use a style sheet to keep track of decisions you make about how things should be formatted.

Follow those suggestions, and you’ll always be in style. Haha.


American Psychological Association. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. 6th ed. Washington, DC: Author, 2010.

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 2nd ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Purdue University. The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL).

University of Chicago Press. The Chicago Manual of Style. 15th ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

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