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House style guidelines – why and how?

May 24, 2011

You would be amazed, I think, how many of the points in one company’s set of house style guidelines appear in everyone else’s.  In other words, getting a basic set together is not difficult – look on the web.

The points I am referring to are not strictly house style, they are more a question of helping people to get things consistently right.  These items appear on most sets of writers’ guidelines I have seen:

  • Spelling of principle, principal, licence and license
  • The difference between affect and effect
  • Use of me and myself
  • The difference between colons and semi-colons

Then there’s the old chestnut of how to punctuate bullets.  That is real house style because there are many ways to do it and a company should choose their rules and lay them down clearly.

Any company that writes to its customers should have up to date, well circulated house style guidelines.  They help with the common errors, they remove the need for astonishingly high-level time wasting while people discuss whether ‘whilst’ is better than ‘while’ and they make the point that consistency is important.

What is the first step?

Here are some links to freely available guides to start you off.

Ofsted

Guardian

Blackwell

BBC

You need a member of staff who is interested in this kind of thing to be the keeper of the house style guide.  This person makes sure it is relevant and up to date, decides where to keep it, if it should be printed and how to present it.  They are the first port of call for anyone with a question that it does not answer.

Many organisations have a set of over-complicated house style guidelines that nobody can find let alone bring up to date.  If that is you, start again with these principles in mind:

  • Have a senior champion
  • Have an active keeper
  • Keep it simple to use and simple to update
  • Put it where everyone can find it and publicise it widely

If you want some tips, I am always willing to help – no charge for comments through this page or thoughts on an email.  I have created a set of ‘vanilla’ guidelines using my experience with a very wide variety of organisations.  I make a modest charge for this on the basis that they took me time and save you time – but you must add your own points and examples to make them feel like real house style.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 25, 2011 10:23

    Sensible advice, but the examples you give are far too detailed for commercial use. I guess that’s because corporate style guides tend to confidential.

    Your point about bullet punctuation is well made. Only we writers realise what a minefield seemingly simple points of style can be. I suspect that we worry too much. It all washes over the average reader.

    • May 25, 2011 15:26

      Hi Chas. Thank you for your comment. Can you expand a bit on what you mean when you say that the examples are too detailed for commercial use. Do you mean the links to the guides that are available on the web? If so, can you give me an example? Very genuinely interested.

  2. Mike Taylor permalink
    April 9, 2012 13:01

    To “use of me and myself” you might also want to add “use of myself and I”, as in “myself and the wife live in Essex”, for example. “I” is apparently too short and therefore worrisome to those of a grammatically challenged disposition.

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