Tag Archives: style

5 things every editor should remember

Editing advice 1

 

Not an exhaustive list, of course, but some good things to remember:

1. No one will ever complain if something is too clear.

2. It’s not about you. Just because you don’t like the way something’s written doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As I’ve said before, have a good reason for any change you make. The writer’s voice should be left intact so long as it does not impede clarity or distract from the information.

3. Don’t be a slave to the rules. Think of them as guidelines, and remember that clarity is always more important.

4. Trust, but verify. Always check names, dates, places, times, superlatives — anything you can check, check it. Anything that seems strange or off, check it. For that matter, even if something doesn’t seem strange or off, check it.

5. Math is your friend. Numbers are facts too, and should be treated with the same amount of care and scrutiny.

Next up, because what’s good for the goose, etc.: 5 things every writer should remember.

“Playing” English: Grammar rules and when to break them

One of last year's free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.
One of last year’s free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.

Writing can be like playing the piano. To get good at the piano, first you need to learn scales and chords and technique. Then you learn how notes fit together and form compositions. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to get a good sound.

To get good at writing, first you need to learn what words do and how they work. Then you put them into sentences and put the sentences into paragraphs. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to make a point, convey an idea or just make the language sing.

But those first steps are crucial for both writing and music. Just as a jazz pianist improvising (usually) sounds a lot different from a child banging on a piano, a careful writer throwing out a grammatical rule for a reason “reads” a lot different from a novice writer who never learned grammar to begin with. One is effective, interesting, uplifting; the other is noise. For one, every note — every word — has a purpose, a reason to be there; for the other, notes — words — are used sloppily, randomly.

A good writer knows the rules and understands why they’re there. A good writer also knows when breaking them is effective, and when it’s just sloppy.

Happy National Grammar Day! And may all your rules be broken for a reason.

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

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Few people use "forsooth" anymore.
Few people use “forsooth” anymore. It’s marked “Obs.” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction of grammatical constructions.

Of course, it’s not as simple as a few people saying, “Now X will mean B instead of A.” Change rarely happens from the top down; it’s an organic process that takes time. In the past, given enough time, one language would gradually split into new ones that were no longer mutually intelligible. It’ll be interesting for linguists of the future to study the effects of standardized usage, high literacy rates and mass media on language change.

As it is now, words that most people no longer use eventually get labeled “archaic” or “obsolete” and fade from the language. New words appear to describe new concepts or technologies (or newly discovered old things, like “Nasutoceratops”). Continue reading Who gets to decide how language is used?

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.”