Is it ever acceptable to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’? Is that brand new buzz-phrase one word, two words or hyphenated? Should you put a full stop at the end of a bullet list? Don’t, or do not?
This is style.
The New Yorker magazine has a famously idiosyncratic house style, spelling cooperation ‘coöperation’ and reelect ‘reëlect’ with those two dots – diaeresis, not an umlaut – to make absolutely clear how those words ought to be pronounced.
At the Guardian you’d get in trouble for capitalising ‘chancellor of the exchequer’; at the Telegraph you’ll be for it if you don’t. This isn’t a superficial choice: the Guardian style gurus argue that it’s a job, while the Telegraph treats it as a ceremonial position.
You might think, why bother? Who cares?
First, for writers and editors, style is practically a matter of life and death. It can cause friction within an organisation where Person X likes to hyphenate ‘auto-enrolment’, while Person Y thinks writing anything other than ‘auto enrolment’ just looks fussy and fiddly.
But for readers, too – even those who aren’t consciously aware of it – style sends signals. It’s like the fine stitching on a handbag, or professional photography in a magazine, speaking almost subconsciously to the quality of the product.
That’s why putting together a style policy, even if it’s only two sides of A4, can be worth the time and trouble.
Here at PracticeWEB we have our own style guide (the product of much internal debate). If we come across an issue that’s not covered there, we defer to the style guide put together by our colleagues at AccountingWEB. If that doesn’t have what we need we turn to the Oxford Style Manual – a volume about the size and weight of a house-brick.
But all of those are trumped by the house style of clients who buy tailored content from us. If they don’t have a house style guide at the very least we try to work out, for example, whether they have an aversion to starting sentences with and or but, or if they are particularly fond of using exclamation marks! (We are not.)
If you’d like to develop a style guide for your firm the easiest way to begin is by taking a note everytime someone in the office asks something like “Does cashflow have a hyphen?” or the managing director says, “Ugh – I hate it when people capitalise prime minister!”
In the meantime, there are plenty of free style guides available online. The Guardian style guide is popular because it is both comprehensive and witty; the Telegraph is more conservative; and for financial and accounting terms AccountingWEB keeps it clear and direct. The trick is to pick one and stick to it.
Or talk to us if you’d like help defining your tone of voice, house style, and how to reflect your brand in writing.