Consistency vs. Flexibility

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Note: This article originally appeared in Copyediting newsletter, which explains the low word-to-humor ratio, and is reproduced with permission.

In The Gregg Reference Manual, William A. Sabin said this of applying one style to all circumstances: “It is the impoverished person who meets every situation with the same set of clothes.” Copyeditors are charged with enforcing consistency, but new editors have a tough time knowing when to be flexible.

Adopting a hybrid style is often the solution.

We can manipulate style to bring out the best in each type of project without abandoning house style. In theory, the ideal is to follow one style with broad application. When people ask me which style to use across different media, they’re hoping for one style for everything—websites, brochures, press releases, blog posts, and so on.

In reality, adopting a hybrid style is often the solution. One option is to use Chicago style for company materials, Chicago with AP-style punctuation for websites and e-books, and AP style for press releases.



Avoid forcing uniformity when the result will be awkward, distracting, or ineffective.

Factors that influence style departures go beyond assessment of words on a page. Copyeditors can be purely pragmatic and choose rules that are easier to learn or are more deadline friendly. Other reasons to deviate from established style include aesthetics, a desire to control an element’s prominence, a glaring overuse of a style rule in certain passages, and limitations that make the existing style unsustainable.

On an invitation, you might capitalize occupational titles where you would not in a press release. In a magazine ad, you might omit periods after calls to action where you would not in a magazine article. The intention is to avoid forcing uniformity when the result will be awkward, distracting, or ineffective in that particular situation.

As copyeditors, we have a wealth of options for controlling how ideas are presented and consumed. It’s more realistic to strive for consistency within one context, one article, one series. Be willing to change style when another is more appropriate for the effect you want.

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