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.