Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Why I Don't Like Style Guides

I have a lot of problems with style guides. The first is that grammar is not rigid or inflexible. Grammar has been in a constant state of change since its very inception. Every single generation has changed the grammar of its language, and no matter how hard the generation in power struggled to stop their language from changing, it has. Not even the printing press or the myriad style guides that have been written through the ages have kept language from evolving. The idea that language should be caged destroys the very fundamental purpose of language.

Language is about communication and expression. The ultimate reality, and really the only rule of language is that the words I say need to make you understand the things that I’m thinking. If you understand me, then my language is correct. The only grammar that matters is the grammar that aids in the understanding of language. Keep in mind here that I know a LOT of grammar. I soaked that stuff in like a sponge when I was young and I haven’t forgotten it. I know and enjoy a lot of the standard conventions of English grammar. For example, I think that Oxford commas are absolutely critical and the idea that they are optional is shameful and wrong; they are often essential to aid in communication. However, some conventional grammar rules are stupid as hell. Not ending sentences with prepositions is moronic bullshit. The same for not being allowed to use “hopefully” to mean “with hope”. When everybody knows what I mean, then my language is correct.

Beyond that, though, language is too complex to fit in a book. If you tried to create a rule for every single solitary possible event that could arise in English, your guide would be so unwieldy as to be useless. And if you did know how to navigate the guide and managed to learn all of those rules, you would be the only one that knows them. And once again, who cares about imaginary rules that only you follow? If it isolates you from the rest of language speakers, then it hinders communication.

Ultimately, though, what bothers me most about style guides is that they are STYLE guides. They aren’t telling you that something is right or wrong; they’re telling you how to write specifically in a certain way. Once again, I find these to often be a hindrance to communication. (Hey look, I just noticed that I split an infinitive. It did not in any way whatsoever impede my ability to communicate.)


  1. I'm interested in how you're interpreting the purpose of a style guide.

    I think of a style guide as a basis for clarity and consistency within a specific discourse community. For example, CSE, MLA, or Yahoo. Are you saying you don't see a need for differentiating styles? Or are you peeved specifically with the notion of there being a "right" or "wrong" way of communicating?


  2. Style guides do exist for consistency. The problem is that the consistency doesn't actually aid in clarity. It does not matter whether I write 1PM, 1 PM, or 1 P.M. In all of these cases, they all mean the exact same thing and you understand exactly what they mean. The idea that a style guide has a rule for how to write times is ludicrous.

    And to give you the opposite example, consider the following: "I was talking with Brad and George. He was being a jerk, so I punched him." Technically speaking, a pronoun refers to the last noun that it fits. Therefore, this sentence is perfectly acceptable because we all know that "he" refers to George. In reality, this sentence is dreadful because it fails in practical communication.

    Here's the thing: there IS a right and wrong way of communicating. The problem is that what style guides give you is very often inaccurate. Again, the only thing that matters is that the receiver understands the transmitter with the least possible effort. Worrying over the minutiae that make make up the bulk of any given style guide will not make you a better writer or a better communicator.