The copyeditor’s job, at its most basic, is to make decisions — decisions about word usage, about punctuation, about flow and readability and how the words just look on the page. Many of those decisions stem from copyeditors’ understanding of and feel for the language — their sprachgefühl — which, one hopes, becomes more sensitive and refined with time and experience.
But many other editorial decisions — especially those concerning the science (as opposed to the art) of copyediting — come directly from style guides like The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. For what isn’t clearly explicated in those guides or in the preferred dictionary, copyeditors turn to the house style guide, a living document that outlines the specialized vocabulary, aberrations, and editorial foibles that are unique to a publication.
But what do you do if you find yourself in an editorial conundrum that isn’t covered in any of your style guides? Or what if, like me, your house style is a sometimes ambiguous blend of AP and Chicago, and the two disagree?
If you’ve got both the clout and the gumption, you could unilaterally make a decision. More likely, though, you’ll want to get a better idea of how other copyeditors and publications have approached the same situation. Luckily, some publications have posted their house style guides online. Searching through them can yield new information and differing viewpoints, but beware: They can be rabbit holes that are difficult to climb out of.
This house style guide is a bit click-heavy to use, but it contains the type of cultural and international terms that are perhaps more common at NatGeo than at your publication. Terms are listed in alphabetical sections, and clicking on an individual term reveals more information. For example:
Bantu languages, people
In Bantu the name of a cultural group is formed by adding the plural prefix Ba to the name of the language.
For instance, Mbuti is the language and BaMbuti the people speaking that language; Aka is the language, BaAka the people.
BuzzFeed’s style guide is a great resource for nailing down pop culture vocabulary. Unfortunately, it’s a single, very long web page broken into sections, and hunting down what you need by hand won’t always be intuitive. Starting your search with Ctrl+F can help you track down items more quickly.
As a current pop culture reference, BuzzFeed offers guidance that your favorite online dictionary can’t. Not only is it great for guidance on slang (e.g., judgy, manspreading, surfbort, which I regret actually googling), but it also contains a list of celebrity names (from Alexander Skarsgård to Zooey Deschanel), combining forms (-fest is usually closed: lovefest, puppyfest), and even subsections for a few popular fictional worlds. It’s probably the only house style guide on the planet that includes the phrase “I love my Harry Potter socks.”
But it’s not all fun and games. BuzzFeed’s style guide also includes guidelines for writing about race and ethnicity, gender issues, and illness and disability.
Reuters is an international news agency based in London, so its explanatory text defaults to British English. However, its style guide tries to account for both AmE and BrE, as well as other international variants and topics. Though you might be slowed down by entries for some basic editorial problems (e.g., “lie/lay”), you can find some good advice here, both for editing and writing:
The president/prime minister quipped… is a phrase almost invariably followed by something that is not funny. Avoid both quip and third-rate humour.
The Guardian and The Observer
British sister publications The Guardian and The Observer share a style guide, and it is HUGE. Their style choices lean toward(s) British English, but you can discover some surprising entries about American culture in here, along with commentary that is both useful and entertaining:
To quote “the Loaf” himself:
“When I see my name spelt with one word, I want to slap and choke people. If you do that, you got to be a moron. It’s on every poster, every album and every ticket as two words. If you spell it as one, you’re an idiot. Bottom line”
This style guide also contains the entry “awopbopaloobop alopbamboom.” You just never know what you’ll find.
The Conscious Style Guide
Though The Conscious Style Guide isn’t itself a publication, I would be remiss were I to leave it off this list. You won’t find the same sort of alphabetical listings here that you find elsewhere. Instead, you’ll discover guidance on how to write mindfully and respectfully about sensitive issues that affect readers most personally, like mental health, suicide, gender issues, ethnicity, and disability. [Disclosure: The Conscious Style Guide and Copyediting sponsor each other. -ED]
Exploring all the options might be fun, or it might be nerve-wracking. In the end, though, you are going to have to make a decision. That’s your job, after all.
And when you do, might I recommend enshrining that decision in your own house style guide?