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Let's Talk about Style

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Style, according to Merriam–Webster, is "a distinctive manner of doing something (as in writing or speech)." The style that we adopt—whether dress, decor, or writing—projects an image to others. Styles are often associated with particular cultures or traditions. For example, APA Style is traditionally adopted by writers in the social sciences, whereas Chicago Style is commonly used in the humanities. Defined style guidelines ensure consistent tone, mechanics, voice, and language use. In academic writing, style needs to be a conscious choice because the style can signal your worldview as related to your relationship with your readers, with your research participants, and with the rest of the scholarly community.

Guidelines for APA and Chicago styles can be found in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and The Chicago Manual of Style, respectively. Although I could compare APA and Chicago styles, a comparison of the two manuals is more beneficial because the styles themselves have much in common, and the manuals—although very different from one another—can complement each other quite well. 


The Point

  • Styles are alike more than they differ.

  • The focus of the APA's Publication Manual is on manuscript preparation.

  • The focus of The CMS is on style, but still provides greater depth on issues related to publication.

  • Writers using APA Style may find The CMS useful as a resource on issues of grammar, usage, and mechanics, but should confirm that any guidance does not contradict the Publication Manual.



The Publication Manual was first published in 1952. Its 7th edition was published in 2019 and includes 396 pages of content. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and spiral bound, as well as an e-book. Each takes advantage of colored type for added clarity. The spiral-bound version also has tabs to make it easy to turn to a specific section. The Chicago Manual of Style's 17th edition was published in 2017 (it was first published in 1906). It is a hardcover book and includes 974 pages of content plus a glossary and a bibliography. Users may access it online through a subscription-based service.


The front cover of The Chicago Manual of Style states that it is “for writers, editors, and publishers”; the CMS website notes that is the "authoritative reference work for authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers." According to the publisher, the Publication Manual is for "undergraduate and graduate students, instructors, researchers, and editors." Although the content is primarily for individuals writing papers for publication, there are guidelines and examples in the manual for student papers, as well. APA has a simpler version for high school and undergraduate students or for those first learning APA style: Concise Rules of APA Style. Students using Chicago style commonly follow the guidelines in Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


In the broadest sense, both manuals cover similar topics, although they are organized differently. The CMS has 16 chapters divided into three sections. The section on style and usage comprises 50% of the content, with the remainder split roughly equally between the publication process and guidelines and documenting of sources. APA's 12 chapters are sequenced in a manner that is more or less "need to know": the principles of writing, the formatting and content of papers, various stylistic elements, preparation of tables and figures, citations, references, and the publishing process. Only about 1/5 of the APA manual is actually devoted to style—despite the front cover labeling it “the official guide to APA style.” It is, instead, weighted much more heavily toward publication (43%) and documentation (36%). Let’s take a closer look at how the two manuals cover those three topics.


Although the four chapters related to publication comprise the bulk of the APA manual (136 pages), the CMS manual still provides more content, overall (222 pages). The APA manual is beneficial for its chapter on journal article reporting standards—the expected content for articles that describe various types of research studies. CMS includes guidelines for editors and publishers regarding the editing process, as well as considerable detail regarding the formatting of books. Authors who are using APA style for dissertations or books may find that section of CMS useful.


The CMS’s section on style and usage is about the same length as the entire APA Publication Manual! So, it is no wonder that the former includes far more details. For example, whereas the Publication Manual includes 3 pages of guidelines on the use of abbreviations, CMS provides an entire 40-page chapter. When discussing punctuation, the Publication Manual has just over one page, CMS has nearly 20! In my opinion, the explanation of writing mechanics, including punctuation, is much clearer and much more comprehensive in The CMS. The Publication Manual includes brief statements of when to use or not use an element, followed by an example; CMS provides detailed explanations. The Publication Manual's discussion of mechanical issues, as well as grammar, addresses common problems or aspects of usage that are specific to APA style. CMS, on the other hand, is much more comprehensive. I find that it could be used as a reference manual for understanding pretty much any writing rules including grammar, syntax, sentence construction, and punctuation. APA notes that the information is not comprehensive. They note that, in general, styles are more alike than different and, when conflicts arise, the Publication Manual takes precedence. I extend that principle to suggest that when the Publication Manual is silent, consult CMS. In addition to grammar and mechanics, the manuals both address statistical and mathematical copy, lists, bias, voice, continuity, and clarity. CMS also includes a “glossary of problematic words and phrases,” and a chapter about the use of languages other than English.

Documentation of Sources

Chicago has two options for citing sources: notes and author–date. Footnotes and endnotes are typically accompanied by a bibliography; in-text author–date citations are accompanied by a list of cited works. APA uses an author–date system that is very different than Chicago’s. Here, each manual has its strengths. APA includes a chapter focused on in-text citations, including a discussion on the use of quotations and paraphrasing. The basic principles are presented clearly with examples of every conceivable scenario. A subsequent chapter discussed the reference list, with a discussion of how to format the various elements. This chapter is also clear, although there are few examples, and those that are provided are generic. An additional chapter provides numerous examples that will address nearly any possible reference entry (legal examples are another chapter altogether). This chapter is as clear as the others, but readers need to be attentive to formatting details because they are not described alongside the examples. By contrast, CMS has a chapter that provides guidelines and examples on formatting quotations. In addition to direct quotations of scholarly sources, it provides guidance on poetry, dialogue, interviews, and field notes. These examples are absent from the APA manual, so they would likely be useful to writers using APA style who are including such text in their work. CMS discusses citations alongside the bibliography/reference list in the chapters that address the two citation styles. I personally find it more difficult to follow CMS’s discussion and wished the reference examples were presented separately.


APA Style and Chicago Style have much in common, but are distinct. The differences between their respective style manuals—the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association and The Chicago Manual of Style—are even more stark. Although my own scholarly writing tends to conform to APA Style (except when a particular journal requires Chicago), I regularly consult CMS when I need guidance on grammar or mechanics. When editing APA manuscripts written in APA style, I adhere strictly to the guidelines that appear in the Publication Manual, but will consult CMS when the APA manual is silent. When editing manuscripts in Chicago style, I use only CMS.

Post your questions in the comments below. If you are interested in developing a mastery of any aspect of either style, or otherwise improving your writing, consider a personalized tutoring program.


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