Reader Questions

I accidentally encountered a target audience member for this blog over the weekend (hopefully she’s reading now!). She had a quick question about handling an in-house style guide. Also, a friend had a question about capitalizing geographic directions. I’ll take both of these on today since they’re pretty quick-hit items.

How closely does my style need to comply with an existing style guide?

The short version of this answer is: if your organization has an internal style guide, however convoluted, follow that. The longer version is: it depends.

My experience with style guides has been with two primary employers: Disney Guest Letters and NASA. At Disney, they had a lot of unofficial rules regarding how to address guest concerns (note: “concerns,” not “problems”). They did, however, have VERY specific rules regarding the company’s proprietary nomenclature, i.e., how we named things. It couldn’t just be “Magic Kingdom,” it had to be “Magic Kingdom Park.” Or, you couldn’t just say “Disney” or “Disney World,” it had to be the “Walt Disney World® Resort.” The idea being that if the company misused its own nomenclature, that opened them up to a diminishing of the brand or allowed others to use incorrect colloquialisms when referring to a specific ride or attraction.

I don’t pretend to understand all of the ins and outs of the legal thinking; I just know that I became the Nomenclature Nabob for a while and so had to be mindful of how everything was described.

As for the official internal writing style guide, at the time I was writing for the company (1996-2001), there really wasn’t one, so long as we were consistent within a single document or set of related documents.

At NASA, similar rules held, though occasionally we would encounter a situation where the Government Publishing Office (GPO) style was required. Anything put out by the Public Affairs Office (PAO) tended to use the Associated Press (AP) Style. Other times, like when we were writing conference papers, items such as the infamous Oxford comma, were left blissfully in the hands of the writer.

During the Ares Projects, I got the joy of creating the internal style guide for the writers, with input from some of them as they encountered individuals items. So, for example, we employed a generalized Chicago Manual of Style approach to writing and formatting our papers with specialized exceptions that fit our needs. So, for example, Chicago and AP tend to do things like not capitalize the major bodies in our solar system, like Earth, Sun, and Moon, but NASA did.

NASA, too, had its own specialized nomenclature and manner of handling them. So, for example, you could call something Kennedy Space Center upon your first use of the term and then KSC after that. Calling it “Kennedy,” however, was not usually done. Then, too, program nomenclature kept changing. One flight test changed its name several times, from Ares Development Test Zero (ADFT-0) to ADFT One (ADFT-1) to Ares-1 to Ares I-X. Then there was the matter of italicizing: do or don’t? Answer was: it depends. The Orion spacecraft NASA is building now is not italicized. The Apollo spacecraft wasn’t italicized, but individual mission spacecraft were (Eagle, Columbia, Yankee Clipper, etc.). “Space Shuttle” wasn’t always capitalized, but individual Space Shuttle Program. The term “Space Shuttle” wasn’t italicized, but individual shuttles were (Discovery, Atlantis, etc.).

The great thing about working in small organizations or in organizations that don’t have a prevailing style is that you are free to make it up as you go along, at least until you’ve been at it a while and determined what works for you. If, like my accidental target audience member, you find yourself editor and enforcer of the in-house style, you could go with straight AP, MLA, Chicago, or a mixture of whatever you prefer–you just have to write it down and stick to it once you’ve set up the rules as you’d prefer them.

True story: the AP, MLA, APA, etc. are not the police. If you don’t follow their style 100% and you’re not writing a document in one of their refereed publications, they will not come and get you for not toeing the line. If, however, you’re writing a story for the Associated Press or the Modern Language Association, you’d better have your style manual handy.

Do you capitalize geographic directions?

A friend asked me about capitalizing north, south, east, or west a couple days ago and I had to punt because I was in the middle of a crowded theme park and really couldn’t think clearly enough to offer a clear thought on the matter. I do have a couple thoughts now, and they boil down to this:

If you’re just pointing someone in a direction, say, telling a reader that they need to turn north, you can keep the word lower-case.

If you’re talking about something resembling a proper noun that includes the direction or position/location in it, you should capitalize. Examples include:

  • Eastbound Interstate 4
  • Northern Alabama
  • West Coast

Thanks for reading and trusting my judgment, folks!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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