English is hard. According to the Oxford Royale Academy, it’s one of the top five most difficult languages in the world today. So why do we, as writers and especially as editors, accept making our jobs that much more difficult by using so many different style guides? There’s the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, the Modern Language Association Handbook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook, not to mention revered guides such as Strunk and White’s Element of Style and New Hart’s Rules. And those are just the major ones. On top of all that, we punish ourselves by adopting one of these guides and adapting it for our own house style. And that’s only if you are lucky enough to work for a particular organization—try freelance editing, and you will find yourself needing to be an expert in the difference between comma usages in several styles all at once.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: does our average reader, when skimming a news article written in AP style, notice the lack of Oxford commas? When they then switch over to the novel they are reading, edited in a Chicago-house hybrid, does it strike them that they are now seeing those Oxford commas that were missing before? To put it more simply: Do the different style guides lend more clarity to a reader?
I posit that they do not. As an editor myself, I notice the differences, and find them nothing short of distracting. The vast majority of readers will not notice these differences, which means that writers and editors are punishing themselves to the benefit of no one. Therefore, this lowly graduate student in a publishing program submits to all those style guide writers out there: become one. These guides already have to be updated every few years or so; imagine how progressive and up-to-date your single guide will be when those brilliant minds come together on a single project instead of spreading their efforts over several. Imagine a college student who writes all of her early papers in MLA format, and then in her junior year decides to be a journalism major and has to retrain herself in AP style, then graduates and finds a job in publishing only to discover her new publishing house uses Chicago style? Think of the college students! Think, perhaps, of the time lost in training between these different style guides, of the editors using Chicago having to bang their heads to change every comma in a 400-page manuscript written by an author trained only in APA. Think of the children! No, really: think of the children who have access only to basic public education, which is subpar in a number of states in our country. Consider what it means for them to be able to learn a style, a skill, and put it to good use. For the college students, for the authors, for the editors, and for the children trying their best to learn such a difficult language, let’s use one guide.