Like many organisations and agencies in Australia, we’ve been using the Australian Government Style manual for authors, editors and printers (6th edition) since it was released 18 years ago – and wishing for an updated digital version for almost as long. So the newly announced online beta – which has been sending ripples across the editing community, the communications sector and the internet – is like Christmas come early (or very, very late).
What is the Style manual?
The Style manual is the foundation of many Australian house style guides, especially in the government sector. But it also plays a hidden role in the style guides of public, private and not-for-profit organisations across Australia: filling in the blanks in house style guides; answering questions that even the most comprehensive style guide might not think to cover; and helping settle many a dispute about hyphenation, quote marks and list formatting. It gives us a national benchmark for ‘Australian English style’, just as the Macquarie Dictionary gives us the benchmark for Australian English spelling. Like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style or The Chicago Manual of Style in the US, the Style manual is something of a ‘bible’ for Australia’s professional writers, editors, proofreaders, graphic designers and publishers.
The problem is that language and society aren’t static, and as the ways we communicate change, we need updated guidelines to help us do so consistently and professionally. The online beta contains a much-needed update on inclusive language (something we touched on recently), with vastly expanded and revised guidance on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander terminology, cultural and linguistic diversity, and gender inclusivity.
Communication technology has also changed rapidly since 2002 – when the iPhone was still five years away and we had no idea that a ‘tweet’ would one day contain words. The 2002 Style manual mentions Netscape Navigator (1994–2008) as one of two widely used ‘browser programs’ (alongside Microsoft Internet Explorer). If 18 years is a long time to wait for a revised edition, 18 years in the 21st century has felt like an eternity.
More recently, the sudden shift to remote work has made the need for a digital edition more acute than ever. Believe it or not, not everyone already has a dog-eared copy at home, and procuring dozens – or hundreds – of copies so everyone in an office can have one seems decidedly archaic. After such a long wait, this online beta couldn’t have come at a better time. And yet, reviews have been mixed.
Why all the fuss?
As The Guardian reports, “not everyone is happy”, with one author going so far as to say that one specific change “hurts my feelings”. (The change in question: using numerals for numbers over two, instead of the age-old standard of spelling out numbers below 10.)
But as The Guardian also points out: “It’s worth noting this isn’t the final version, but a public beta. The manual’s team will incorporate any feedback or updates into the live release, due in September.”
We’re waiting to see how things pan out once the testing phase is complete – after all, nothing is yet set in stone. (We have a sneaking suspicion the guidance on numbers might change, and we’ll be holding our breath until September to find out.)
The future of style
Come September, we’re sure many clients will stick with their existing style – spelling out numbers below 10, for example – even if it doesn’t align with the new guidelines. Others may wish to update their house style to align with the new national standard. Government agencies in particular may need to overhaul their house style guides, especially those that refer directly to the outdated 2002 Style manual. We’ll be ready either way. We have experience creating and updating style guides for all types of industries – and we’re not (too) sentimentally attached to the old ways.
As for the emotional aspect, we know it’s the human condition to be wary of change, and it’s easy to get attached to your favourite punctuation rules. But we’ve been wishing for this update for so long that we’re hardly going to look a gift horse in the mouth. We love the new focus on respectful, inclusive language, and we’re excited about the radically improved functionality of a digital Style Manual – goodbye, sticky-note bookmarks; hello, search! We also look forward to working with an organic reference source – one that, no longer hindered by the procedural hurdles of book publishing, can operate as a living document, easily updated in line with changes in society and how we write and communicate.
The Style manual (6th edition, 2002) is dead; long live the Style Manual!
Olivia McDowell is our Senior Editor in New York. She loves the organic changeability of a good style guide, and for years has been waiting patiently for the Style Manual of the future.