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The Tyranny of Style Conventions

Here I am, the fourth day in a row, going through the mechanical process of changing double quotation marks to single in my article already accepted for publication. I am also changing my transcription conventions. For code mixed items and translations, I have to italicize what I had bolded, underline what I had italicized, and bold what I had underlined. Though I had used the standard conventions, I didn’t realize that the publishers of the journal had their own in-house convention for these matters. Of course, I had taken care to follow the publisher’s style sheet for parenthetical documentation, references, and other main features in my original submission. However, I hadn’t realized that the European publisher had some quirks on minor conventions that differed from American journals. There is a proliferation of style manuals and rules for all aspects of manuscript preparation these days. Apart from the standard style sheets (APA, MLA etc.), we also have the in-house style sheet of many publishers.

After going through the rigorous process of revising and editing my article multiple times to clarify my argument, and having the article finally accepted, I had heaved a sigh of relief. I thought I could now turn to other pressing matters of teaching and institutional service as the new semester had begun. Now I am getting irritated. That’s when I start quarreling with the publishing industry and its conventions. I begin to smell conspiracy theories and political schemes behind style conventions. I ask: Whose interests do style conventions serve? Does it make a difference to my argument or to the significance of my findings that my article adopts APA or MLA? Is it worth spending so much time on mechanical conventions rather than on other constructive activities, such as reading a research article, grading students’ essays, or even writing this blog? Though I can understand the need for a few major style manuals such as MLA or APA, why do publishers develop their own in-house conventions? I can even understand the reasons for having different manuals for the different disciplines (say the natural sciences and the humanities), but why should we have different conventions within the same discipline? I wish all the editors can get together and decide on a single style sheet at least for their own discipline.

At this point I begin to sound like a lazy undergrad complaining about having to mind documentation in a term paper. It was I who had considered many authors lazy when they didn’t follow the APA consistently when they submitted articles to TQ. I can now understand the reason why many foreign authors come off as careless about such matters. It is not only that they don’t always have the different style manuals or that they don’t have a knowledge of the periodically changing conventions. It also takes a lot of effort to change style conventions when they resubmit an article elsewhere, even though they might have followed a style sheet religiously on their first submission. Matters are doubly complicated for authors who are still using typewriters or unsophisticated word processing programs to prepare their manuscripts. (And I am complaining despite the superior resources afforded by Word 2007?)

The publishing industry, however, is relentless. There is inordinate time and effort given to legislating style. I can remember Chuck Bazerman’s observation once that APA has grown from six-and-a-half pages in 1923 to “approximately two hundred oversized pages of rules, ranging from such mechanics as spelling and punctuation through substantive issues of content and organization” in 1983. Well, it has grown to 439 pages now, in the fifth edition that came out in July 2001.

But there is a larger problem with style conventions. They are not merely mechanical. They have discourse and ideological implications. The style manuals also legislate on syntax and word choice. For example, APA has low tolerance for the passive construction. We frequently run into discourse level problems when we follow APA for TQ. As we try to open up our journal to narrative inquiry, we find that APA is not very friendly to certain forms of informality and personal voice. We faced a special problem when we published a special topic issue on gender a few years back. Many female authors complained that our insistence on changing passives into active voice (in addition to other more subtle changes, following APA), had distorted their voice. We also frequently run into problems with British authors who find it enigmatic that some of our American copyeditors have changed their choice structures, blaming it on APA. In this age of voice and diversity, style conventions are not innocent anymore.

If we are expending so much time and effort on legislating style, let’s at least have a gathering of editors and publishers to review our current practices. It would be ideal if we can have some uniformity across journals for some basic conventions, while providing for a lot of flexibility to accommodate diverse identities and voice on other matters of style. Can we agree on a common style manual at least for our individual disciplines, while providing for more flexible practices that give enough space for different identities and ideologies without being smothered by the seemingly mechanical conventions? Would someone organize a conference on style conventions that would help us find a way out of the current quagmire of messy rules and insensitive regulations?


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Comments (1)

Iris Devadason:

Hi Suresh,
Just read your note in TESOL Connections.
All I can say is AMEN!
I had such a rough time with the MLA for my thesis as in my college Theologians use Turabian, or the Chicago Manual and our own Subject Specific Manual by Hunter P.Mabry.
Our theologians have not heard of the MLA!...
and for UK I used the ELTJ style,
while in Aston, UK, it was another one ,
and for TESOL I use APA.
I spent 21 pounds buying the APA once a few yrs ago as I just could not satisfy the editors.
WHY all these differences I wonder when meaning and clarity and honesty in acknowledging sources are all that are required?
It seems such a waste of time though we do see the need for being systemmatic.Can we not have a 'One-pattern- fits- all' model for English Lang and Lit.? It is English after all.
Consoling to know that I am not the only one annoyed at these artificial conventions.

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