Arrant Pedantry

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The Style Guide Alignment Chart

I’ve been thinking a lot about style guides lately, and I decided that what the world really needs right now is the definitive style guide alignment chart. I posted a version on Twitter the other day, but I wanted to do a slightly expanded version here. (Quotes are taken from easydamus.com.)

Lawful good: The Chicago Manual of Style, Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook, Chaotic Good: Buzzfeed Style, Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style, True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide, Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style, Lawful Evil: The New Yorker Style Guide, Neutral Evil: The AP Stylebook, Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the  American Psychological Association

Lawful Good: The Chicago Manual of Style

A lawful good character “combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly.” And boy howdy, is Chicago relentless—the thing is over 1,100 pages! Even if you use it every day in your job as an editor, there are probably entire chapters that you’ve never looked at. But it’s there with its recommendations just in case.

Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook

“A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do.” Look, the MLA Handbook certainly tries to do what’s right, even if it can’t make up its mind sometimes. Remember when it said you should specify whether a source was print or web, as if that wasn’t obvious from context, and then it took that rule out in the next edition? Enough said.

Chaotic Good: The Buzzfeed Style Guide

“A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him.” Buzzfeed style is guided by a strong moral compass but doesn’t feel beholden to a lot of traditional rules. It has great entries on gender, race, and disability and would probably recommend singular “they” in that last sentence. It also has entries on celebricat (a celebrity cat), dadbod, and milkshake duck, because that’s the internet for you.

Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style

“A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her.” The Elements of Style, a.k.a. Strunk & White, certainly upholds a lot of laws and traditions. Are they good laws? Look, I don’t see how that’s relevant. The point is that if you follow its diktats by omitting needless words and going which hunting, your writing will supposedly be just like E. B. White’s.

True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide

A true neutral character “doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos.” Wikipedia doesn’t care for your edit wars. There are lots of acceptable style choices, whether you prefer American or British English. Just pick a style and stick with it.

Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style

A chaotic neutral character “avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions.” Wired Style has a chapter called “Be Elite” and another called “Screw the Rules.” The first edition is also printed on day-glow yellow paper, because screw your eyes too. It also has a chapter called “Anticipate the Future” but probably didn’t anticipate that it would go out of print twenty years ago.

Lawful Evil: The New Yorker

A lawful evil character “plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.” The New Yorker uses jarring diereses to prevent misreading of words that no one has trouble reading, and it doubles consonants in words like focussed because it said so, that’s why. It also unnecessarily sets off certain phrases with commas based on a hyperliteral idea of what restrictive and nonrestrictive mean. Tell me that’s not mercilessly evil.

Neutral Evil: The Associated Press Stylebook

“A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with.” The AP Stylebook used to say that two things couldn’t collide unless they were both in motion, and it also used to recommend against not only split infinitives but also adverbs placed in the middle of verb phrases, which is the normal place to put them. They only abandoned those rules when John McIntyre finally called them on that BS.

Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

A chaotic evil character is “arbitrarily violent” and “unpredictable.” Have you ever seen APA-style references? Some titles are in title case, while others are in sentence case. And, for reasons I can’t understand, volume numbers are italicized but issues numbers aren’t, even though there’s no space between them. “Arbitrarily violent” is the best description of that mess that I’ve seen.

Naturally, there will be some disagreement over the placement of some entries. I’ve also had a lot of calls to include Bluebook, with most people wanting to put it somewhere on the evil axis, while others have wanted to include The Yahoo! Style Guide, The Microsoft Manual of Style, or AMA Manual of Style. I’ve decided that I’m probably going to have to do a yearly update to add new entries or move some to more fitting spots. In the meantime, if you’ve got opinions—and I’m sure you do—feel free to chime in below.

44 Responses to The Style Guide Alignment Chart

  1. DialMforMara says:

    Strunk and White are lawful evil. They perpetuate zombie rules and have made generations of students afraid to write for fear of getting caught consorting with adjectives. Calling them neutral implies that you’re okay with this.

  2. Elizabeth Platt Hamblin says:

    Very disappointed that the AMA Style Guide isn’t represented here. They are well beyond The New Yorker in the Lawful Evil category.

  3. JenBeee says:

    I have to use the Government Printing Office (GPO) style guide a lot. I guess I would call it lawful evil.

  4. Iain Muir says:

    Have you considered the joys of The Economist style guide? Somewhere on the lawful side, not sure if you would tag them as neutral or evil

  5. Brian says:

    IEEE forever!

  6. Dennis Jerz says:

    Definitely switch the AP with Strunk & White.

  7. H. Ible says:

    Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

    Lawful good! And endlessly fascinating!

  8. Kevin says:

    You should check out the World Health Organization’s style guide. Because it is geared towards an international audience, it uses a mix of US and UK style and spelling conventions. To their credit, WHO admit that everyone who uses WHO style will be uncomfortable about something.

  9. Ruby says:

    Im confused. Who wrote the quotes at the beginning of each description? What style manual did this follow?

  10. Marc says:

    Where would Stephen King’s “On Writing” fall in this guide?

  11. Carol Taylor says:

    I guess I subscribe to whatever guide you used in writing this article (or your editor did in editing it), since I didn’t notice any instances of misspelled words, unnecessary commas or enhancements, lack of the Oxford comma, or comma splices in it, and that is remarkable in published works today.

  12. Verity says:

    Where’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves?

  13. Nicki says:

    APA manual for the evil win! Absolutely zero mercy for undergrads, and required use of section headers and parentheses numbers for webpages, is a stroke of evil chaos.

  14. Michael O. says:

    The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage, by Kingsley Amis. I’d put it in Chaotic Good (arbitrary, fickle, opinionated, but animated by a sincere devotion to the love tension between euphony and clarity). No doubt others would put it elsewhere.

  15. Informitch says:

    Writers and editors whose disciplines have taught them aspects of style different from those found in the GPO Style Manual will appreciate the difficulty of establishing a single standard. Users of this Manual should consider it instead as a general guide. Its rules cannot be regarded as rigid, for the printed word assumes many shapes and variations in final presentation, and usage changes over time as language evolves.
    — GPO Style Manual. 2016. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Publishing Office. p. v.

    Plus, it uses the Oxford comma.

  16. Byrd says:

    Oh I cannot agree at all. Strunk and White must be neutral good (“omit needless words” is timeless) and CMS has tons of good rules, plus rules for the sake of having rules; therefore the two must be swapped. The Wired Style book is too much a product of the dot-com 1990s binge to go anywhere on the list. Lawful Evil MUST be the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language — rules everywhere, and every single one cruel and useless.

    • I have to admit that I’m really baffled by your statement about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It’s not a style guide at all, and it’s not even a writing or usage handbook—it’s a descriptive grammar. Its whole purpose is merely to catalog how English works, not to lay down rules that readers should follow. How on earth are its rules—descriptions, really—cruel and useless?

  17. Informitch says:

    An interesting point: In your title, which style guides would hyphenate “Style Guide” in “Style Guide Alignment Chart”?

    The GPO Style Manual wouldn’t–“Where meaning is clear and readability is not aided, it is not necessary to use a hyphen to form a temporary or made compound. Restraint should be exercised in forming unnecessary combinations of words used in normal sequence,” Rule 6.16, p, 101. But Bryan Garner’s Redbook–a legal-writing book that’s *actually* a style guide, and pretty friendly, says “Some style guides recommend hyphenating phrasal adjectives only when needed for clarity. But while some phrasal adjectives may be clear to the writer and to most readers, the absence of hyphens will always cause some readers to misstep midway through the sentence. The better practice is to hyphenate.” (Rule 1.60(b), p. 45.)

    FYI: The Bluebook is *not* a style guide, not even–it’s six hundred pages about *how to cite*. I used The Bluebook in law school and APA 5th in library school (and APA 6th since)–APA is a pleasure by comparison.

    • That is actually one of the reasons why I took Bluebook off (in addition to generally being unfamiliar with it). Though, in fairness, my seventeenth edition does have a handful of pages about things like punctuation and italics, so I think you could argue that it is a style guide and not just a citation guide.

      As for the first question, I’m not sure I have an answer to that. I don’t think Chicago would—it says that “hyphenation usually lends clarity” and that “it is never incorrect to hyphenate adjectival compounds before a noun.” But then a few sections later it says that “Chicago prefers a spare hyphenation style” and that “hyphens should be added only if doing so will prevent a misreading or otherwise significantly aid comprehension.” That makes it sound to me like it’s optional but like they’d prefer “Style Guide Alignment Chart” to the hyphenated form.

  18. Nathaniel says:

    To me, Strunk and White is Lawful Good. It has a bad rap as being hyper-prescriptionist, but that’s an overly literal misreading. Go reread Charlotte’s Web (or Stuart Little or Trumpet of the Swan) and tell me that’s not beautiful, literary style, enjoyable by anyone from kids to English professors.

    • I think it’s important to distinguish between White’s writing and his writing advice. His writing may be great, but I don’t think his writing advice is actually that helpful. I certainly don’t think that following it will make you write like him.

  19. If you do another one for usage guides, consider Garner’s Modern English Usage. I love that book. It’s the modern-day Fowler’s, all the way down to the polite but unmistakable snark.

    I love the Chicago Manual of Style, so in the spirit of confirmation bias everywhere, I agree with your placement. 🙂 (I used to read each new edition cover to cover. That was me in my younger, more profligate reading days.)

  20. I love what happens in this alignment, Jonathon. Your use of a D&D character grid is a great example of how tables help us think about material we already know fairly well.

    I would suggest that S&W is simply “not like the others” on the list. It’s not a style guide in any sense that I think of “style guides.” That’s especially true if we take CMOS as the model for what a style guide does.

    S&W’s title sets their book’s limits: The Elements of Style. If it were in a table filled with books with a similar purpose (A Sense of Style, for example), I think “lawful neutral” is a fine assessment of its character. It is possible to see the book’s authors as villains, I suppose. But that requires deliberately mistaking their practical and humane text for inhumane uses of it by various college professors and editors over the years.

    • It’s true that S&W is not really like the others. It’s really more of a writing handbook than a style guide. No publisher is going to say “We follow The Elements of Style here.” They’re going to use a real style guide like Chicago or APA or AP.

      I’ve never really found S&W practical or humane, to be honest. The first time I looked through a copy, I was underwhelmed and disappointed. Nothing I saw in it seemed that helpful, and it’s full of half-truths and personal preferences disguised as grammatical fact. The way that some professors and editors use it compounds my dislike, but I think there’s plenty to dislike about it even without that.

  21. K. says:

    No “Write More Good” by The Bureau Chiefs? 😉

  22. Richard Hershberger says:

    You totally should do this with usage manuals. And be sure to include this one, which I describe in my reader review as The Village Idiot of Usage Manuals: https://www.amazon.com/Penguin-Dictionary-American-English-Usage/dp/0670891665/ref=cm_cr_srp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8

  23. DJ says:

    The Gotham Grammarian by Gary Lutz is the Dungeon Master

  24. David Marjanović says:

    I think it’s important to distinguish between White’s writing and his writing advice. His writing may be great, but I don’t think his writing advice is actually that helpful. I certainly don’t think that following it will make you write like him.

    There’s a Language Log post somewhere where it’s documented that White’s writing constantly breaks his own rules, which is hard to notice because they’re all made-up rules that have nothing to do with how the English language works.

    How does this blog software work, BTW? The comments are nested, but only the blog owner can nest his comments???

  25. Allandaros says:

    Judge Posner – CG
    The Bluebook – LE

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