What is Style?

In the context of editing and proofreading, the “style” of a text refers to the conventions chosen for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting. English abounds with variants and alternatives that can each be considered “correct” in the right circumstances. Think of single or double quotation marks, the loved/hated serial (Oxford) comma, US or UK English spellings, etc. But it’s typical to choose from among the variants and then aim for consistency within any given publication or document. Making these choices means you’re defining the style for your text, and following them consistently means you’re applying that style.


To demonstrate how much style can change, each of these sentences can be argued to be “correct”.

  1. Since July 1, more than 5,000 people have gotten better by practicing with these multicolored “toys”—some significantly.

  2. Since 1 July, more than 5000 people have got better by practising with these multicoloured ‘toys’ – some significantly.

Sentence 1 features a date in US order, a comma separator in the four-digit number, the US past participle “gotten”, the US spelling of the verb form “practicing” and of “multicolored”, double quote marks, and an em-dash without spaces.

Sentence 2 features a date in UK order, no comma separator for the four-digit number, the UK past participle “got”, the UK spelling of “practising” and “multicoloured”, single quote marks, and an en-dash with spaces.

Ad hoc style, style sheets, and style guides

Any text that has internal consistency can be said to have a style. For example, this article has a style that includes the use of British English, -ise endings, serial commas, and double quote marks.

When you want to apply the same style to multiple documents or throughout a larger publication, it can be helpful to create a “style sheet” to refer to, where you note the points of style to follow. I typically create a style sheet when working editing a book or proofreading documents for a new corporate client. This helps in following the style and making the text consistent, and also makes it easier to communicate style decisions with the client.

The next step up is a “style guide” – a comprehensive document that advises on many points of style, going into detail on even minor points of grammar and punctuation. Some style guides are created by publishers largely for their own use, such as that of the Guardian and Observer or BBC News. Others have a wider following, such as the Chicago Manual of Style, which has become the standard for US fiction publishing, for example.

A publisher may ask a writer (or a writer ask a proofreader) to follow a particular style. But even when no style is specified, it’s important to establish a style at least to make the text consistent with itself.

Consistency aids clarity

One of the key goals of editing and proofreading is to improve the consistency of the text. Consistency is good, as it removes stumbling blocks that could trip the reader up. You want them to take in the message without being distracted by the mechanics. It’s the written equivalent of continuity in a film – it may not matter whether a character is wearing blue or green glasses per se, but if they change colour from shot to shot, there’s a risk the viewer will get distracted by the props rather than caught up in the dialogue. Similarly, for text, you don’t want the reader to be distracted by changes in spellings, for example.

So, where there are options on how to style elements of your text, it’s good to choose one and stick to it.

Consistency aids quality

Clearly, obvious changes in spelling and punctuation conventions can look like mistakes on the writer’s part, and risk making the text look amateurish. What about less obvious inconsistencies? My feeling is that even where the inconsistencies are minor enough that the reader doesn’t consciously notice them, they can still impact the overall “feel” of the text. Perhaps a company is referred to as an “organization” in one place and an “organisation” elsewhere – both recognised variant spellings in British English (yes, really, see my blog post). Many readers might not be able to pinpoint what was wrong, but such inconsistencies risk affecting the unconscious perception of overall quality. In my view, it’s worth the effort to check for style consistency and to make adjustments where needed.

Style for this article: British English, -ise endings, serial comma, double quote marks for Internet use.
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