Companies that produce documentation intended for the public typically have a “house style” defined by a set of “dos and don’ts” that writers are expected to follow in the performance of their craft. In the United States, company policy may prescribe one or another of the standard manuals of style such as The Chicago Manual of Style for questions of grammar and punctuation, a reasonably exhaustive “general usage” dictionary (e.g., The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language) for spelling and usage, and perhaps a technical reference appropriate to the company’s business (say, Barron’s Dictionary of Banking Terms). These in turn may be supplemented by a style sheet (or “guide”) covering the company’s particular requirements vis-à-vis the style and content of their published work.

Company-specific style sheets can run the gamut from the highly specific—as “three-way (adjective; no hyphen as noun, e.g., ‘We had a threeway’)” in the Penthouse Letters Style Sheet cited in “Questions of Style,” a comparative sampling of style sheets from The Washington Post and Penthouse magazine that appeared in the April, 1985, issue of Harper’s magazine—to the sufficiently vague as to be of little or no use, e.g., “Use your common sense,” which may get you a pass if your guide is Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio (“I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [i.e., hard core pornography]…But I know it when I see it…”) or not, if it’s Québec’s Registraire des entreprises and you want to register your company under the name Wellarc, which is deemed to transgress the province’s language laws by sounding “too English.” (See for the ruling in Jacobellis v. Ohio and and for two views of the Wellarc case.)

Somewhere between Penthouse and the halls of government lie the majority of in-house style guides. Companies that provide documentation for products that, if they malfunctioned or you misused them, could cause you serious grief or harm typically have a set of guidelines for giving the customer written fair warning. For example, the Federal Trade Commission requires manufacturers and importers of clothing to attach “care” labels with washing or dry cleaning instructions so that the customer won’t innocently damage the goods, and each manufacturer or importer follows in-house wording appropriate to the garment. Software companies, though not subject to quite the same legal requirements as the garment industry, nevertheless typically maintain a list of terms denoting different degrees of severity of warning—Note, Attention, Caution, Warning, Danger, or the like—that writers are supposed to employ when describing possible traps for heffalumps that the user might encounter in running the product. Because the traps vary and writers may need to use their imaginations in anticipating them, the items on the list are often accompanied in the style guide by an example or examples of use, e.g., (from the Microsoft Style Guide [3d edition, 2004]):

A caution is a type of note that advises users that failure to take or avoid a specified action could result in loss of data.
Caution To avoid damaging files, always shut down your computer before you turn it off.”

In both of these cases, in-house style conventions exist to guide the writer in conveying cautionary information directly to the end user. In the textbook publishing industry, in-house style guides have an added wrinkle to the extent that they acknowledge two rather different audiences, namely: the person or persons responsible for adopting a textbook for use in school, and the student—the actual intended end user. (Publishers of children’s picture books are faced with a similar audience challenge: The Spiffiest ABC Book Ever has to appeal not only to the kid to whom it will be read but to the hapless adult who will be tasked with reading said book to said kid, possibly over and over until they both drop.) So, if the textbook publisher’s style guide contains any cautions, these will be addressed to the writer, not to facilitate communication with the end user but rather with an eye to minimizing the chances of losing a make-or-break statewide adoption by offending the wrong people.

The following is an actual style sheet handed out to writers for a major textbook publisher in the 1980s (and judging from recent reportage [], still alive in spirit if not in its specifics):

The following is a list of red flags that you should avoid in your writing for the grammar/composition series. Some of them are/should be self-evident. Others are the product of a varied and competitive marketplace. Offending any one interest or pressure group can be lethal. Often people will find objectionable material even if it isn’t intended to be objectionable. If anything can be misconstrued, it will be misconstrued, even if your intentions are honorable.

  1. Avoid any use of direct sexist references: waitress, Jewess, stewardess, Negress. Woman [sic] should not always be cooking, or cleaning, or tending house/children. Women should not be portrayed as physically weaker than men. There should be equal numbers of women and men in examples and exercises. Paragraph and sentence models should be equally male-and-female-oriented.
  2. Avoid using man and mankind to refer to the human species, and avoid using professional models that do likewise.
  3. Avoid reference to specific deities, esp. pagan deities. Do not use God as an interjection. Try to avoid references to religious holidays (the best holidays to refer to are national: 4th of July, Thanksgiving, Patriot’s Day, etc.)
  4. Avoid references to junk foods. The following are considered junk foods: sugar, candy, coke and other soft drinks, french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, ice cream, birthday cakes, chocolate and similar flavorings, etc.
  5. Vocational references that may be seen as demeaning or facetious: undertakers, gravediggers, garbage men, etc.
  6. Avoid the use of potentially offensive terms: slop, paddy wagon, gangster, Mafia, lady, witch, etc.
  7. Avoid the inclusion of bloodshed or overt violence of any kind. (On the other hand, don’t mention gun control or disarmament either.)
  8. Be careful with mythological references, references to evolution, references to the U.N. and the unity of the human species, references to mysticism, E.S.P., poltergeists, U.F.O.’s, ghosts, and the like.
  9. Avoid double entendre words and phrases: words from the drug culture (fix, trip, score, bust, etc.), and sexual double entendre.

On the inclusion side, you might try to inject some of the following into your text—
–references (cities, rivers, buildings, provinces, activities) associated with Canada (where we sell a lot of books);
–references to senior citizens (as vital, active, and attractive persons);
–references to handicapped persons (also as vital, active, and attractive).”