If you travel, watch international films and television or even read widely on the web, then you know the English language is not exactly the same everywhere you go. Spoken English can vary locally; most regions and big cities have their own dialect, and in some places, usage and pronunciation change from town to town. Each major English speaking country has its own rules for spelling, and a few standards for punctuation and usage vary by country, or more commonly, by the style guide you reference.
Yes, the US, UK, Canada and Australia all have their own popular style guides for English usage, and the style guides seldom agree on all the details, even within a national market. The governments in the US and the UK have nothing to do with setting detailed standards for the use of language, and the rules are both more universal and less cut-and-dried than you may have thought. There are a few standards for written English that have an international scope, as well.
Let’s take a look at what’s out there, by country.
American English Style Guides
The Chicago Manual of Style is the go-to guide for academic and nonfiction writing and editing in the US, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is very popular with all kinds of writers. The more casual Associated Press Stylebook is the standard most American newspapers use, and it’s also a common choice for online content. Since the US dominates the English-speaking internet, all three style guides are reasonable choices for a multi-market English language website.
None of these three style guides are free; however, you can find academic and independent web sites that have excerpts from, summaries of and elaborations on their rules and guidelines.
British English Style Guides
In the UK, the most commonly referenced style guides are—unsurprisingly—maintained by Oxford, Cambridge and the BBC. The reference that prescribes the famous and controversial Oxford Comma is The Oxford Guide to Style, previously known as Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers. Of course, Cambridge has a competing style guide: Butcher’s Copy-editing: The Cambridge Handbook for Editors, Copy-editors and Proofreaders.
Those looking for a straightforward, journalistic approach to British English can refer to the BBC News Styleguide, which is available for free online.
Canadian and Australian English Style Guides
Of course, you can’t count out the Canadians and Australians. They have their own variations on standard written English, and they’re not exactly the same as either American or British English. Unlike the Brits and Americans, the Canucks and Aussies have official government style guides that are available for free online, so finding out about standard usage is easy. Refer to:
- The Canadian Style: A Guide To Writing and Editing,
- and for the Australians, Style Manual: For Authors, Editors and Printers.
International English Style Guides
English is more than just the native language of 360 million people in the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, south Asia, and parts of Africa and the Caribbean. It’s also the dominant international language in business, education and diplomacy. In fact, it’s estimated that while English is the third most common native language in the world, after Mandarin and Spanish, it is spoken with some degree of proficiency by at least 1.5 billion people. It’s no wonder there’s a demand for an international standard for written English. Here are a few popular international style guides.
The Franklin Covey Style Guide for Business and Technical Communication has been developed by a US-based consulting firm that specializes in leadership methods, time management and productivity. Their style guide is in widespread use by international corporations and consultants. It discusses issues of text design and legibility as well as basic style. The FC Style Guide is easy to find for sale online.
The Global English Style Guide: Writing Clear, Translatable Documentation for a Global Market, by John R. Kohl, is another well-regarded guide to technical and business writing in international English. It emphasizes written English that is easy for non-native speakers to understand and easy to translate into other languages.
The European Commission has an English Style Guide available as a free pdf file. It focuses on legal and regulatory language.
Finally, Garbl’s Editorial Style Manual is a free online resource. It’s based in American English, but it focuses on clear, easy to follow writing.
Which Style Guide Should You Use?
Even this simplified overview of English language style guides might seem complex and confusing. Which style guide should you use? If you’re writing for an isolated national market, then it makes sense to choose a style guide that’s been written specifically for that market. Alternatively, if your work is international in scope and you prefer to have a single internal standard, then it would make sense to choose one of the international style guides or to write your own, internal style guide.
At WordJet.net, we write for clients all over the English speaking world and for clients that do business internationally. We need to have a consistent style for international English. If you’re interested in communicating with an international audience, then follow along with our discussion on international English style standards. We’ll get into more detail in future posts.