Barbara Burns talks to Chloe Paver, editor of the MHRA Style Guide: Fourth Edition (2024).

cover of MHRA Style Guide

BB. What are style guides for? How are they used in practice, and why are they such an important tool for academics and students?

Chloe Paver

CP. Style guides ensure that everything published by a single publisher follows the same format, from the order of information in a footnote right down to whether a full stop is placed before or after a closing quotation mark. Wherever a choice needs to be made – for instance, between ‘e.g.’ and ‘eg’ or between ‘Isaiah 22.17’ and ‘Isa. 22:17’ – a style guide will make that choice. It’s surprising how much room for variation there is in the way that we arrange letters and characters on a page or screen.

Most students and academics would say that they mainly consult style guides for instructions on how to format their references and bibliography. Consistent referencing enables our reader to digest the information easily and to follow up any leads they find in the sources. For most undergraduates, it probably seems like an obscure code whose only purpose is to make their life difficult, but the workplace will have obscure codes too, albeit different ones.

Other elements of style come into focus when academics submit work for consideration by a publisher. From the point of submission onwards, consistency is vital. If a piece of writing has to go through five pairs of hands on the way to the printer then it is no good if a punctuation mark is ‘corrected’ backwards and forwards five times, with each reader thinking they are doing the right thing.

BB. When people say ‘style’ they usually mean tone and choice of words rather than punctuation and capitalization. Presumably this is a special sense of ‘style’?

CP. According to OED, ‘style’ has been used in this sense since at least 1871. Each printing house had a ‘house style’ that employees were expected to learn. I can’t be alone in wishing that those Victorian printers had chosen a more distinctive word for their in-house formatting rules. Even back in 1871, ‘style’ was also used to mean ‘writing elegantly’ or ‘writing in an idiosyncratic way’, and that’s what most people understand by the word today. But if you come to our Style Guide for advice on how to express your ideas, you’ll be at the wrong address, as the Germans say. For every other aspect of presentation and layout, the Style Guide will help you out.

 
Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford, ran through 19 editions in its first 12 years. Henry Hart, son of a shoemaker, was apprenticed to a printer at the age of fourteen, and rose to be Controller of the Oxford University Press, 1883-1915. Here he is laying down the law on ‘-ise’ words.

BB. The new volume is officially the fourth edition, but there have been numerous revisions since the first publication in 1971, making this in fact the ninth iteration. Why was a new version of the MHRA Style Guide needed?

CP. Because the world keeps changing! Most publishers aim to revise their core house style as little as possible, since every change will create inefficiencies: half their writers will follow the old rule for years and this will have to be corrected each time. However, in the past ten years there have been fundamental changes, both in publishing and in the world that we study, so our guidance has to keep up.

Until the late 1990s, the Style Guide still expected that a PhD thesis would be ‘handed over to a typist’. Even in the 2013 edition there were references to ‘disks’ and ‘desktop publishing’, which now seem antediluvian. We also spoke of ‘word processing software’ as if it were a technology that a writer might or might not choose to use, whereas few of us today even give this technology a name: it is just ‘typing on the computer’.

In the 2013 edition, we had just begun to think about social media; for 2024, we have updated that advice and this is the first edition to contain emojis! We have more extensive advice on formatting DOIs and URLs, which we hope will remain a technological staple, though who knows? We all thought Twitter would be Twitter forever.

The third, 1912, edition of the Chicago Manual of Style ‘incorporates several new rules which it is believed will prove helpful, and at the same time seeks to elucidate some of the older rules’; and cautions that ‘applicability, in the printing-office, is a better test than iron-clad consistency, and common-sense a safer guide than abstract logic.’

BB. In the Introduction to the new edition, you mention swapping out examples to make the Style Guide representative of today’s research and today’s researchers. Can you tell us something about that process?

CP. In previous revisions, editors of the Style Guide tended to keep the examples that were already there. We took an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach. When we revised the Style Guide in 2013, I remember making a couple of timid suggestions for making it more inclusive. I asked for ‘the boss’s daughter’ to be removed from the section on apostrophes because I felt certain that nobody was thinking of a female boss, or of a daughter with a PhD in biochemistry.

This time around, we took a more holistic view, thinking not just about the people mentioned in the Style Guide but also the kind of academic work we represent. When the first edition was published, few universities offered film and television studies, and nobody had heard of ecocriticism or queer studies. Back then, it was unusual for colleagues to work across disciplinary boundaries or to work on popular culture.

While we didn’t formulate an inclusivity policy, we added diversity to the mix wherever a chance arose. We quietly added Maggi Hambling, Roe v. Wade, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Claudia Rankine, amongst others. We couldn’t do much about popes – who are still important in historical fields – but we sneaked in a female bishop. We thought about those artists and academics who choose to change their name to reflect their heritage or to mark a gender transition. More importantly, we ensured that the example references include as wide a range of academics, thinkers, subject matter, and approaches as is possible. Lucy O’Meara was a particular support with this. Doubtless our choices will one day seem out of date, but in the meantime, we hope that younger scholars in particular will see their intellectual world mirrored more closely than before.

BB. Are there any amusing anecdotes from your editorial meetings that stick in your mind?

CP. We did seem to spend a lot of time laughing, which may be why the revisions took so long. Because a lot of the text had remained as it was through successive editions, we came across wording that now sounds a little pompous or bossy. We enjoyed ‘Initial capitals should be used with restraint’, which made us imagine, admiringly, authors who use initial capitals with brazen abandon. In other cases, the wording was mysterious. What had we meant by ‘It is very rarely necessary to insert “vol.” before the volume number’? or by ‘Note that some non-MHRA journals do not use quotation marks for article titles’? Those of us who had worked on the 2013 edition felt abashed at not having asked back then. At one point I wrote to the team ‘Can this dog be a rabbit?’, which is not a sentence I ever expected to write. It was an example illustrating the use of commas, and hinged on whether one expects to put a dog out at night. It emerged from our discussions that this very much depends on whether or not one comes from farming stock.

At last, a ruling on -ise words: the first edition of the MHRA Style Book, 1971. Unlike Chicago, we did not rule on ‘manuprise’.

BB. Were there details of the old Style Guide that you were sad to see go?

CP. All editions up to now have included the British Standard proof-correction marks. Working with a paper printout or typescript, the proofreader would make these squiggles and hieroglyphs in the margins, either to instruct the author to make corrections or to instruct the printer to set text in a certain way. Given that anything we receive now is in a digital file from submission to publication, this code is no longer crucial, and we made the decision not to include the proofing marks in the 2024 edition. Those of us who learned the code feel nostalgic about it. It was a welcome use of the human hand in an otherwise mechanized process, and everybody had a slightly different way of hand-writing the delete mark! I still use the basic marks if I am correcting a draft of my own work, but I imagine the memory of this sign language will fade. It would be interesting to ask our proofreaders how they feel about it.

BB. Which aspects of this project were the most challenging, or made your heart sink when you started to tackle them?

CP. Revising the Style Guide was rather like pulling on a loose stitch in a jumper, with the intention of fixing that one stitch, and finding that you have unravelled the whole thing. We started with a plan just to ‘update’, but it soon became clear that simply saying more about online publishing wasn’t going to work. Perhaps we also gained confidence as we went along and lost the anxiety of influence. At a certain point we agreed that we needed to reconfigure the chapters to make the overall structure more manageable. This was particularly important given that the online version is now the version of choice for most users. The fewer headings and hyperlinks, the better. The task fell to Graham Nelson, and he set about it with determination and resolve. Once Graham had done the spadework, we were able to reduce fourteen chapters to eight and to solve some anomalies along the way.

BB. The new Style Guide is available both in hard copy and as an open access, downloadable online resource. Which one do you use, and why do you think the paper version remains so popular in a digital age?

CP. I flit between the online and paper version. Once you know your way around the paper version it can be just as quick to find what you want and it’s a reassuring presence on the bookshelf. The online version allows you to use the ‘find’ function and every cross-reference is just a click away. We can expect the online version to become the norm for younger scholars, but we are not giving up on the printed version just yet.

BB. Some people might regard working on a style guide as rather a nerdy activity, but it clearly is a highly worthwhile one. How did you feel about the intellectual process involved, and how important is the collaborative input of the editorial team?

CP. Certainly it helps to be geeky when making a style guide. If detail doesn’t matter to you, you will soon tire of the task. But for every niche issue (Should translations be placed in square or round brackets?) there are bigger questions about how to organize the material and how best to help academic writers. We spent a lot of time discussing issues of logic, and right up to the end – long after we’d promised to make no more changes to the text – we were identifying scenarios where a writer might be in doubt or formulations that were unclear. Because German is my research specialism and translation studies a growing interest, I enjoyed thinking through the issue of how to use foreign terms in an English text without losing half your readership. The diversification of the examples, mentioned above, involved a lot of thought about what a style guide can and can’t do to make academia a fairer place.

BB. Is the process finished now that the edition is published?

CP. In the 1970s or even 1990s we could put out a new edition and expect PhD supervisors to tell their students to jolly well use it. Nowadays, even undergraduates are expected to follow a referencing system, but most students access style guidance via an intermediary. Either their university library summarizes our Style Guide, or they use one of the commercial reference generators such as Cite them Right or Zotero. Our Publishing Manager Simon Davies has taken charge of the process of contacting our intermediaries to advise them of the changes to our style.

We made a conscious choice not give guidance in this edition on referencing AI-generated content, while we wait to see what role it will play in cultural outputs and – even if we shudder at the thought – in arts and humanities research. In the short term, undergraduates are more likely to use generative AI as universities begin to allow its use in carefully defined circumstances. We recommend that for the time being students follow their university’s guidance for referencing any AI-generated content.

BB. There are elements of ‘painting the Forth Bridge’ involved here, of course. Would you like users of the Style Guide to leave you in peace for a while, or are you happy to be contacted with fresh points for consideration in a future edition?

CP. Reader suggestions are welcome (at style@mhra.org.uk) as long as authors who write in are happy that we can’t enter into correspondence. This is a simple matter of manpower. The big style guides in the US, especially Chicago, have a large permanent staff who can engage with users. We are a tiny team and each of us has other jobs or roles. We’ll store up any queries and suggestions until the time comes for another new edition.

The definitive guidance, 2024. But rather like James Bond movies, style guides always roll the credits with a promise that there will some day be another edition. THE MHRA STYLE GUIDE WILL RETURN...

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