Wikipedia:If MOS doesn't need a rule on something, then it needs to not have a rule on that thing

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Instruction creep is an especially serious problem with Wikipedia's Manual of Style. Here are some thoughts on keeping that in check:

Something belongs in MOS only if (as a necessary, but not sufficient test) either:

  1. There is a manifest a priori need for project-wide consistency (e.g. "professional look" issues such as consistent typography, layout, etc. – things which, if inconsistent, would be significantly distracting, annoying, or confusing to many readers); or
  2. Editor time has been, and continues to be, spent litigating the same issue over and over on numerous articles, either:
    1. with generally the same result (so we might as well just memorialize that result, and save all the future arguing), or
    2. with different results in different cases, but with reason to believe the differences are arbitrary, and not worth all the arguing – a final decision on one arbitrary choice, though an intrusion on the general principle that decisions on each article should be made on the Talk page of that article, is worth making in light of the large amount of editor time saved.

A further reason disputes on numerous articles should be a gating requirement for adding anything to MOS is that without actual situations to discuss, the debate devolves into hypothesizing along the lines of "Well, suppose an article says this ..."  – no examples of which, quite possibly, will ever occur in the real life of real editing.

An analogy: The highest courts of many nations generally refuse to rule on an issue until multiple lower courts have ruled on that issue and been unable to agree. This not only reduces the high court's workload, but helps ensure that the issue has "thoroughly percolated" through many points of view and in the context of a variety of fact situations, by the time the high court takes it up. The same thinking should apply to any consideration of adding a provision to MOS.

In summary: If MOS does not need to have a rule on something, then it needs to not have a rule on that thing.

Closely related principles understood by experienced editorsEdit

  • The "already" corollary, per SMcCandlish [1], 2017:
    If MoS does not already have a rule on something, then it almost certainly doesn't need one.
    MOS is very well-developed now, and it is unlikely that the "new" rule you want to insert has not already been considered and rejected several times before.
  • The value of MOS is in its provision of stability – for the reader experience, and in internally guiding cleanup and the resolution of recurrent disputes – not in its exact choice of advice about any particular style peccadillo.
    • However, MOS's rule selections are not random. They are guided by this online encyclopedia's accuracy, clarity, technical needs, and other principles summarized below.
    • MOS's job is simply to help us present a consistent and well-written encyclopedia with a minimum of editorial strife over stylistic trivia, so that we can get on with the work we're actually here to do.
  • In the real world, English-language writing style is subjective and variable; most style matters are arbitrary to a degree. The leading English-language style guides all disagree with each other on hundreds of alleged rules. It is not logically possible for MOS to be objectively "right" or "wrong" about any style nit-pick.
  • MOS is not an encyclopedia article nor a public "how to write" guide for the world. It is an internal document determined by consensus discussions (informed, of course, by reliable sources on style), not by citations or through willy-nilly revisions.
    • WP:WPEDIT policy: more caution should be exercised in editing policies and guidelines than in editing articles. WP:PGCHANGES policy: because policies and guidelines are sensitive and complex, users should take care over any edits, to be sure they are faithfully reflecting the community's view and to be sure they are not accidentally introducing new sources of error or confusion. Substantive changes to MOS are especially sensitive, because they can directly affect the content of thousands – potentially even millions – of articles.
  • "Rule creep" is a real problem. The KISS principle applies to all of Wikipedia's policies and guidelines. This seems to be forgotten more often in MOS-related discussion and editing, in part because many off-site style guides try to answer every conceivable style question. Many of us also hold onto a poorly-aging notion of "proper" writing from our school days, and some are later habituated to field-specific writing norms in our work life, in conflict with other styles.
    • MoS is not "broken" just because it is not agreeing with or is missing something found in your favorite overly comprehensive or topically specific manual.
  • MOS is based on style guides for academic-register books, because that's what an encyclopedia is. To an extent, MOS is also influenced by the most clearly demonstrable, dominant, long-term patterns of English usage found in high-quality sources across genres and intended audiences. The primary inspiration for MOS's specific decisions comes from the c. 2000–2015 editions of The Chicago Manual of Style, New Oxford Style Manual (a.k.a. New Hart's Rules), Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Garner's English Usage, and Scientific Style and Format. However, MOS does not blindly follow any of these, because they may not always address what Wikipedia needs for its purposes and readership.
    • In particular, Wikipedia is not written in news style, as a matter of clear policy. Whether MOS agrees with a particular news publisher's style preferences, or that of a popular journalism style guide, is simply irrelevant. MOS has adopted virtually nothing from news stylebooks, which are not reliable for how to write encyclopedic prose. If you argue to change MoS to match AP Stylebook or The Guardian and Observer style guide [sic], you are making a mistake.
    • Wikipedia is also not written in sharply varying styles from topic to topic. We do not wallow in bombastic or fandom-style wording in pop-culture topics, then veer into the ponderous jargon-laden habits of specialists writing for other specialists as found in scientific journals. Avoid making assumptions about the reader's background; do remember that Wikipedia is not a blog, magazine, social-media site, or forum; and please examine your own motivations before suggesting a change to MOS.
    • MOS does not make special-pleading exemptions for particular topics. Participants in a wikiproject agitating for "their own rules" is counter to WP:CONLEVEL policy.
  • The sport analogy: MOS is like the rules of football, an agreement between participants (and observers) on how the game will proceed, so that it can actually proceed in sensible fashion. You don't decide to employ a basketball rule on the football field just because you don't like the football rule. Your team doesn't play by a different rulebook than the opponents. And players do not stand on the pitch arguing for hours about how they wish one of the rules were different; they get on with the game, or the spectators will boo them and go home.
  • In closing, an observation from our esteemed fellow editor Randy Kryn [2] during a 2018 MOS dispute – we're not quite sure what it means, exactly, but the imagery is great:

    What may be happening is intelligent editors have created, argued, and reminisced about so many rules, guidelines, and related flora and fauna that Wikipedia is running out of them. Intelligence flows like water into extant depressions, and when the ground is mostly level all we get are slight smeared-out puddles which then freeze over and cause all kinds of slipping and grumbling.

See alsoEdit