What Is ‘House Style’?

You know about the major style guides (AP, Chicago, APA, etc.), but do you also have your own house style guide? Here's why you should!

Samantha Enslen, Writing for
4-minute read

One of our listeners wrote in recently to ask whether you capitalize the prefix “non” in the phrase “non-federal sponsors.” We replied that it depended on what her house style was for “federal.” If her company capitalized the word “federal,” then “non” would be capitalized too.

Her reply was “Thanks, but what do you mean by ‘house style’?” 

Here’s an explanation. 

What Is a Style Guide?

As you might know, most of the so-called “rules” we follow when we’re writing and editing aren’t rules at all. They’re actually a collection of choices related to grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting. These choices, which can vary by industry and country, are collected in major style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA). And as we said a couple of weeks ago in the segment on the plural of “quid pro quo,” the online Buzzfeed style guide often has good advice for internet and pop culture terms that other style guides don’t have. 

These guides address a vast range of questions that come up when you’re writing or editing. For example: 

  • Whether you capitalize or lowercase certain words
  • Whether you hyphenate compound words, close them up, or set them as two separate words 
  • When you spell out numbers, and when you use numerals 
  • When you abbreviate certain terms, and when you spell them out
  • What punctuation you use in bulleted and numbered lists
  • How you format indexes, reference lists, and text citations
  • How you format the names of books, magazines, websites, TV shows, and the like.

Despite how comprehensive the major style guides are — the print version of Chicago runs 1,144 pages — they still can’t answer every “how should I do X” question that comes up when you’re writing. That’s particularly true when you’re writing about a specialized area — whether it’s gardening, ceramics, or snake handling. 

No one style guide — nor dictionary — can capture the all of the rich terminology we use when we talk about our favorite topics.  

A ‘House Style Guide’ Is a Supplement to a Major Style Guide

That’s where house style guides come in. These are supplemental guides that document all the additional style decisions you need to make when you’re writing about a very specific topic. 

Why is it called “house” style? Think of the four houses in the Harry Potter novels: Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Slytherin, and Hufflepuff. Each embodied distinct values, looks, and attributes. In the same way, your house style reflects the values of your “house” — your unique company, association, or industry. 

Your house style reflects the values of your 'house — your unique company, association, or industry.

For example, if you write about baseball, you might note that “strikeout” is one word but “at-bat” is hyphenated. You might note that “Astroturf” takes a capital “A.” And you might include guidance on how to format box scores.

On the other hand, if you write about international finance, your guide might include a big table listing all the different world currencies and what their symbols are. You might list some of the ISO standards related to banking and monetary systems.

And if you write about science fiction, your guide might include the correct spelling of author names that could easily be mistyped, such as Ursula K. Le Guin or Liu Cixin. You might include the names of fictional worlds such as Azeroth, Mid-World, or the Discworld universe. 

In sum, a house style guide can be a useful supplement to a major style guide like Chicago or AP. It documents all the terms of art and formatting specs you use when writing about a particular topic. If you work at a company, the house style guide should be available to everyone who writes for the corporation, but even if you write alone, it can still be helpful to have your own personal “house” style guide to remember how you like to do things. It can keep you from having to look things up over and over or from having to remake style decisions.

Your house style documents all the terms of art and formatting specs you use when writing about a particular topic.

And if you’re wondering about the capitalization of “federal,” it’s generally lowercase when it’s descriptive, like when you’re talking about federal laws and federal court, and capitalized when it’s part of the name of an organization, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Reserve Board, but the AP Stylebook says it’s also capitalized when you’re referring to the Federal architectural style. So in the example “non-federal sponsors,” it’s most likely that “federal” would be lowercase, so “non-federal sponsors” would be lowercase too.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial. You can find her at dragonflyeditorial.com or @DragonflyEdit.

About the Author

Samantha Enslen, Writing for Grammar Girl

Samantha Enslen is an award-winning writer who has worked in publishing for more than 20 years. She runs Dragonfly Editorial, an agency that provides copywriting, editing, and design for scientific, medical, technical, and corporate materials. Sam is the vice president of ACES, The Society for Editing, and is the managing editor of Tracking Changes, ACES' quarterly journal.