Creating a style guide: why it’s worthwhile and what it needs to include

What is your position on gender-neutral language? Do you want your communication to be casual or formal? What tone do you generally want to strike? Many questions arise in connection with a company’s communications, especially when they’re multilingual. With a linguistic style guide, you can establish the rules you want to adhere to. We show you why it’s worthwhile creating one and which points a style guide should include as a minimum.

What is a style guide, and what is it used for?

A style guide defines the desired image of your company, your corporate identity. It can include your corporate philosophy, your corporate goals and your target audience as well as your linguistic and stylistic preferences. In other words, it’s everything that makes up your brand personality and determines how you communicate with the outside world. A style guide therefore covers not only linguistic aspects, but also design elements such as images, colors and your company logo. However, we are particularly interested in the questions that arise with regard to corporate language – also known as the “tone of voice”.

A style guide is a manual for everyone who works at a company that helps them to keep track of everything. It also makes clients’ and users’ experience with you consistent across all channels and points of contact, which ensures brand recognition. Let us give you an example: do you immediately think of IKEA when you hear MALM or PAX? We bet you do, and this is because the furniture conglomerate has a clear strategy for naming its products. We’ll come back to this in a bit.

This makes a style guide important not only for your communications department, but also for sales staff, product managers and developers – or anyone who creates content for your company. It is also relevant for the people who support you externally, for example agencies or language service providers.

A few basic rules make things all the easier if you communicate in several languages. After all, you want to ensure you’re conveying the image of your company consistently in other languages as well. With a style guide, you make the translation management process smoother and can carry out new projects more effectively and quickly. It’s not a matter of cramming in every little detail; when done properly, your style guide should act as an aid that helps your creativity to flourish rather than restricting it.

What is included in a style guide?

Wording and spelling

In this section, you explain formal characteristics. Typical considerations when it comes to word choice and spelling are as follows.

Proper names and foreign words

From FedEx to IKEA to 7UP: brand or product names sometimes ignore the basic rules of spelling. Hyphenation or upper and lower case may be ignored, or special characters may be used for a totally new purpose. Doing so is fine, as long as you make it consistent. It’s a good idea to create a word list in this case.

Maybe you have certain foreign words you want used in your texts across languages, or perhaps you want certain terms always translated in the same way. Once defined, such terms – as well as the spelling of proper names – can be added to the termbase. This translation tool ensures that, even in different languages, the typography never changes and foreign words are never translated where they shouldn’t be.

Gender-neutral language

From the singular “they” to the title “Mx.”, gender neutrality is slowly becoming standard for English speakers. However, each language has its own way of tackling the gender conundrum. While English speakers striving for gender neutrality have it relatively easy, French still has some catching up to do and Spanish is experimenting with its own ways of marking gender. With this topic constantly gaining relevance, it’s important that a company agrees on a strategy.

Numbers and dates

Another important consideration, especially in multilingual communication, is that date formats and the representation of numbers can vary. So you should make decisions about the approach you’d like to take: do you prefer the UK’s 10 February or the US’s February 10? Do you prefer the currency placed before or after monetary amounts? Would you like currency names written out in full or do you prefer to use the symbols? And are there perhaps even numbers that you would be better off avoiding altogether in other languages?

Local variations

The language region is another important point to consider. You should determine whether you generally prefer to communicate in British English or American English, or whether you need Swiss French or international French, for example. Make sure to include key points, from different vocabulary, such as “underground” (UK) vs. “subway” (US), to whether or not accents should be placed on capital letters like in “À Paris”. This ensures everyone is on the same page at your company, as well as those who translate for you.


In addition to wording, there are also some things to consider concerning the style of your corporate language.


How do you want your texts to sound, and what effect do you want them to have? This is primarily about the emotions and convictions that you want to convey. This is also known as the tone of voice of the text. Some possibilities for tone include:

  • Funny
  • Serious
  • Informative
  • Excited
  • Intelligent
  • Casual
  • Sincere
  • Journalistic
  • Personal
  • Confident

Tone usually depends on the text type or the channel you use. Contracts and GTCs are generally much more matter-of-fact than an advertising poster. In addition to a basic tone, it can also be worthwhile to define a specific tone for each channel. The next point has a significant influence on this.

(In)direct form of address and politeness

Do you want to appeal directly to your clients and address them actively, or does a passive, impersonal approach fit better? Do you want to be on first-name terms with your target group? These factors determine whether your texts come across as more formal or informal and, depending on this, whether the focus is primarily directed toward the readers or the product.

The question of form of address also arises anew for each language: a French audience is, in general, accustomed to using the formal “vous”. In Italian, on the other hand, it’s up to you whether you use “Lei” or “Voi”. Formality is less of an issue in English, since the only option is “you”. Nevertheless, US audiences in particular tend to prefer more emotional appeals in advertising. The style you choose is therefore highly dependent on your target audience, so it’s worth specifying this individually based on the language.

And what happens after that?

This list is by no means exhaustive. You can also include many other preferences and considerations concerning your corporate language in your style guide. It’s also worth remembering that languages are constantly changing, so some issues may not arise until later. For this reason, you can also expand or gradually update your style guide.

However, even a basic style guide will ensure a more consistent image and facilitate your work in small ways, both of which benefit you, new employees, your clients and your language service provider. So investing a little time in creating a style guide pays off. And then all you have to do is make sure it is adequately distributed and adhered to.

Motivated to start your style guide but still have questions? Then let’s have a chat.

Cover image via Twenty20

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