When it’s OK to ignore your style guide

Style guides are great — but flexibility is key.

When to ignore your style guide

Here at PR Daily and Ragan Communications, AP style rules our world. We use the venerable style guide to govern every aspect of how we write.

Except when we don’t.

For instance, we’ve decided wellbeing is one word while AP wants a hyphen there. AP style says millennial and baby boomer should be lowercase, but we’ve decided they should be uppercase.

And breaking those rules is completely OK.



Why you need a style guide

We’re not calling for anarchy here. You still need a style guide, and in most cases it makes sense to at least start with an off-the-shelf option. Journalists like AP style, so that’s what we counsel PR pros to use, at least as a base. But your organization might favor Chicago Style, APA and so on.

Style guides give overall consistency to writing, especially when you have multiple people and multiple teams crafting copy. An organization should ideally speak with a unified voice, and that includes even small details like capitalization and punctuation.

So don’t misunderstand: we aren’t telling you to light your style guide on fire and let everyone choose their own grammatical adventure.

Why you might want to ignore your own style guide

The most important word in “style guide” is “guide.” It’s not a “style law” or a “style dictator.” It’s guidance. And we can choose to politely ignore that guidance when it doesn’t meet our needs.

Indeed, there’s a lot of latitude and choice built directly into AP style. For instance, in their entry on the Oxford comma (which they call the serial comma), they say that while you omit the last comma in most simple series (buy milk, bread and eggs), there are other times when you need to make a judgment call: “Include a final comma in a simple series if omitting it could make the meaning unclear,” the guide reads.

In other words, you could decide that omitting that last comma always makes the meaning unclear and decide your style is to include it no matter what. And that’s perfectly OK!

Style guides are built to be useful to large numbers of people. Which means there are times when it won’t work for you specifically.

So that’s when you chart your own path.

Commonly ignored AP style rules

We’re going to focus on AP style here, because again, that’s the style most commonly used in journalism and PR writing. But these are a few rules you might choose to ignore and reshape to met your own needs:

Titles: AP style says that generally, you should only capitalize “formal titles used directly before an individual’s name.” So you’d have President Abraham Lincoln, but Abraham Lincoln, president. Many organization prefer to give more weight to titles and capitalize in all instances.

Company names: AP style has fairly strict rules about how company names should be styled. For instance, unless a company’s name has letters that are pronounced individually (IBM), their name should not be styled uppercase. For instance, AP style calls for Ikea, not IKEA. They also ignore other symbols used in a name, like Yahoo! or E*Trade, opting instead for simple Yahoo and E-Trade. Obviously, your company will want to adhere to its own rules for its name to follow your branding guidelines.

Trademark and copyright symbols: AP style does not use these symbols, but it may be important for you to do so for legal or brand reasons.

Other things that irk you: You don’t really need a good reason to break AP style. If you simply think a term looks better uppercase instead of lower, hyphenated instead of not, or with that extra comma, you follow your gut. As long as the choice does not significantly hamper understanding, there is no reason not to forge ahead with what you feel looks and reads best.

Be consistent

However you choose to approach style, it’s critical that you are consistent across writers, departments and divisions. You can deviate from a style guide as much as you’d like, but ensure you’re socializing those changes across all writers who create public-facing content to ensure consistency. If you haven’t, this is the time to create your own in-house style guide to keep everyone on the same page.

What style guide rules do you break?

Allison Carter is executive editor of PR Daily. Follow her on Twitter, LinkedIn or Threads.


One Response to “When it’s OK to ignore your style guide”

    Brad Fisher says:

    When I worked for a health system, our style guide was the AP Stylebook with a flysheet that said, ” our style is AP style, with these exceptions.” We used honorary titles, because the doctors got upset when we called them “Jones” instead of “Dr. Jones.” We used numerals all the time. I got sick and tired of people saying we were inconsistent because we said “20 cases and nine deaths.” And we capped departments. Again, the internal audience flipped out about it. But we fought to the death over changing it in news releases. If we’re sending to the media, we go by their rules, not ours. That’s the difference between earned and owned media.

    Great article. Too many young practitioners don’t appreciate the need for a uniform style.

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