The following post is an extract taken from Consistency, Consistency, Consistency: The PEG guide to style guides written by John Linnegar with Paul Schamberger and Jill Bishop.

Publishing houses’ style guides establish house rules for language usage, such as spelling, italics, hyphenation and punctuation. Imposing consistency throughout texts is the major purpose of these style guides. They are rule books for writers, ensuring consistent language usage. Whereas authors are asked or required to use a style guide in preparing their works for publication, many don’t, or don’t do so consistently, as they tend to preoccupy themselves with the content; so you as the copy editor will be charged specifically with enforcing the publishing house’s preferred style.

The four pillars on which really competent copy-editing is founded are completeness, coherence and clarity, correctness, and consistency. It is the fourth of these that creates the need for a style guide, because no matter how good you as the copy editor or subeditor are in fixing the grammar and ensuring that the author’s meaning is expressed clearly and succinctly, if you cannot maintain consistency of spelling, capitalisation, use of italics, hyphenation, or in the treatment of numbers, for example, then you will have failed in a patently obvious way.

Consistency is a sine qua non (or non-negotiable requirement) in the copy editor’s arsenal. Perceived or actual inconsistency in a book’s accuracy and presentation may have only a subliminal effect on a reader, but it is strange how the two merge: a few inconsistent capitals in the text and the reader will wonder whether the facts are also wrong.

If two different styles of capping ‘Minister’ are employed, readers may think a subtle distinction is being conveyed. They then get caught between the lower inconsistency and the higher consistency, and the author gets the blame.

An astute editor will also watch out for common-name alternatives such as Ann or Anne, McIntosh or Macintosh, or in history books about Germany Frederic/Frederick/Friedrich. In Switzerland the Germans spell the town Basel, the French use Bale and the English Basle: all are correct, but only in their specific context, and a style decision is necessary. In English, however, it is customary to anglicise foreign names and titles. This style guide pertains only to English language editing – other languages necessarily follow different rules on style.

Consider how many readers – or, worse still, reviewers – react to a book in which they find dates rendered as 3 June 2009 and October 7, 2010; or in which they find Jayne suddenly morphing into Jane. ‘It’s so shoddily edited,’ they usually complain. Which is probably only partly true, but the book and its author’s reputations suffer as a result. The same is true of magazines: any periodical that’s worth its salt will pay serious attention to matters of house style.

Noticing variations may still draw readers’ and reviewers’ attention from the text, ever so slightly, and these distractions can mount up. Remember that the pass rate for editors is very high: every error we let slip through counts against us, so even if you can’t resolve a matter yourself, communicate the query to another member of the publishing team.

This PEG guide is available as a softcover book or in electronic format for R40. To buy it, contact our publications coordinator, Alison Downie.

Photo credits: Image by Anlomaja27 from Pixabay

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About John Linnegar

John Linnegar has been a text editor, proofreader and indexer of school and academic textbooks, reports and journal articles since the 1970s. For more than 20 years he has trained generations of editors, proofreaders and indexers. During this time, he (co-)wrote several books on aspects of language usage and editing, including Engleish, our Engleish: Common errors in South African English and how to resolve them (2013), Grammar, punctuation and all that jazz … (2019) and Text Editing: A handbook for students and practitioners (2012). With Consistency, consistency, consistency, he pioneered the series of PEG guides that now numbers five titles. Besides being a PEG Honorary Life Member and an Accredited Text Editor of both SATI and PEG, he is a member of a number of professional associations worldwide, including SENSE, NEaT and the CSE (Australia) and a regular presenter at international conferences.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.