Style and Style Manuals

In general terms, “style” is a manner of writing. What distinguishes stylistic concerns from grammar errors is that grammar errors are violations of the structural conventions of standard edited English writing. Relatively stable rules of correctness govern pronoun cases, subject-verb agreement, dangling modifiers, parallelism, and sentence completeness. In contrast, stylistic concerns involve rhetorical choices – matters of effectiveness and grace rather than right or wrong. Wordiness, choppiness, or excessive use of the passive voice are rhetorical or stylistic, matters. There are many things to learn about style, a basic ingredient in good writing. Matters of style are of particular concern in formal, or “high stakes” assignments such as research papers. This kind of writing can be quite different from more informal, “low stakes” writing such as the writing of journals and blogs, which can be more like everyday speech. You will learn about these differences in your courses, and also from reading well-written academic prose.

Certain aspects of academic writing that are considered matters of style are seen as right or wrong within the boundaries of a particular style tradition. These include such things as the correct way to write footnotes and bibliographies (see Footnotes and citations and Creating a bibliography). Each academic discipline has a traditional set of stylistic conventions that writers in that discipline are expected to follow. However, unlike most aspects of grammar, stylistic conventions can change over time, and can also vary within a discipline: for example, journals in a particular field, such as music theory, may follow somewhat different stylistic conventions.

Undergraduate students need to know the basic stylistic conventions in the subject that they are studying (see below for more information about specific types of style and their respective disciplines). Graduate students need to know more about the fine points and variations in style that can occur in their field, particularly if they are writing theses or dissertations, or submitting articles to journals. Remember that the ability to reference correctly will help convince your reader that you are indeed in control of your material. (For more information see the Citation and Footnotes and citations, and Music Library Resources.)

For general tips and information about writing style, consult the website

  • Source: John C. Bean, Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001).
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