Tag Archives: AP Stylebook

Don’t sweat it: Serial comma

Without a serial comma, and with.

Want to start an argument in a group of editors? Bring up the serial comma. The serial (also called Oxford) comma is the comma that comes right before the conjunction in a list of items. For some reason, word people tend to get really worked up about this one little mark. (There’s even a song called “Oxford Comma,” but it should be noted that the song’s refrain wonders who really cares about it.)

The serial comma is not strictly necessary in many sentences, but other sentences do need it to clear up potential ambiguity. The Associated Press Stylebook, among others, says to omit it in simple series (note that this is not an outright ban), while other guides, including Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style, say to always include it. Continue reading Don’t sweat it: Serial comma

Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 4, 2012.

What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)

Style dictates how words (and numbers) get rendered, how punctuation gets used and how text and graphics get formatted, as well as bigger-picture things like which vulgarities are acceptable for publication and in what contexts, jargon and euphemisms to avoid, and so on. But the thing about style is that many of the rules are decided arbitrarily — and writing that diverges from a particular style isn’t necessarily wrong. So people who hyperventilate over, for example, someone using — or leaving out — an Oxford comma, are wasting their breath. Either choice is OK (as long as the sentence is clear), but a publication’s style dictates which way to go.

Most newspapers in the U.S. follow Associated Press style, and most have a “house” style guide that addresses local usages and policies and notes divergences from AP style. Book publishers tend toward the Chicago Manual of Style, academia goes with APA style or MLA style, and Yahoo has its own style guide focused on websites and other online media. Users of any of these are familiar with the minutiae therein and will take pleasure in the satirical style guide “Write More Good,” by the Bureau Chiefs of @FakeAPStylebook.

Most editors also refer to usage manuals such as Garner’s and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, as well as general style guides such as Strunk and White’s venerable (or fusty, choose your adjective)  “The Elements of Style.”

Stylebooks usually cover grammar and usage matters too, but there are lots of conventions in writing that are strictly matters of style — arbitrarily decided — and have no bearing on grammar. These include spelling numbers out or using figures, certain punctuation preferences, putting titles in italics or quotes, British vs. American spellings* and usages, and so on.

Saying Sept. 1, 2011, is no more or less correct than saying September 1st, 2011, or 1 September 2011 — but one follows AP style and the others don’t. It’s not “wrong” to put a period outside of quotation marks, or inside, for that matter: one is typical of British style and one is more common in the U.S. “Towards” means the same thing as “toward” — neither is inferior — but it may not be the preferred form in the style of a publication.

The important thing to remember is that many aspects of written language are determined by style, not grammar — and just because something diverges from a particular style does not mean it’s wrong.

* “Write More Good” illustrates this point thus: “caliber/calibre: The diameter of a gun barrel; the diametre of a gun barrle.”

Some questions, some answers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 16, 2010.

We get lots of questions on Twitter, mostly ones about grammar, spelling and usage (we do answer, and we’re happy to help), but there are some questions we’ve had a few times that we thought we’d answer here on the blog.

1. Do people really mess this up?
Almost all of our examples come from real news stories we edit or read online. Some come from news releases. We change the wording sometimes to fit into 140 characters, to protect the guilty, or just to make the example a little more silly. But yes, people really mess this up.

2. How do you come up with answers to questions?
We have piles of word books here on the Eagle’s copy desk, both the serious kind and the fun kind. The one we usually consult first is Garner’s Modern American Usage, which we consider the definitive reference on, as the name implies, modern American usage. We have various dictionaries, general and specific, even an OED. We have books of grammar tips, grammar reference books, punctuation books, style manuals, and usage manuals old and new and British and American.

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And there’s the Internet, which has some great reference sites as well, and is also a good way to find out how often certain usages appear in contrast to others. Even with all of this knowledge at our disposal, there are still some questions to which there is no one right answer. So we discuss, sometimes noisily, which way it should go (in the process annoying the sports desk).
Continue reading Some questions, some answers

Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 18, 2010.

In discussions of language and grammar, you may have heard the terms “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” These are the two extremes: the fussbudgets and the freewheelers. But a lot of us, even editors, fall somewhere in the middle.

Prescriptivists adhere to a rigid standard of letterslanguage, with clearly defined right and wrong ways to say something, never mind how many people use different forms, never mind whether these “wrong” forms are perfectly clear and grammatically unobjectionable. They “prescribe” the proper way to speak and write; anything less is a degradation of the language.

These are the folks who form organizations like the Queen’s English Society or the Academie Francaise, defending the language from change, and, therefore, degradation. (Some interesting reaction to the QES is here and here.)

These are also the folks who write us letters — letters, not e-mail — enumerating a week’s worth of split infinitives that appeared in the newspaper.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, think that language is whatever people speak. They “describe” language without passing judgment.
Continue reading Fussbudgets and freewheelers