Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guest Post: Jonathon Owen Shows Some Style

Our final guest post of April comes from Jonathon Owen, a master's student in linguistics at Brigham Young University. (And no, I'm sure he's never heard the "cunning linguist" joke.) He also blogs at Arrant Pedantry, which is named after something Winston Churchill probably never said. You can also find him daily on Twitter at @ArrantPedantry, which I'm quite certain Winston Churchill never tweeted.

Today he writes about a subject of particular interest to editors: style guides. For you non-editors, style guides are "the rules" when it comes to writing and editing something that your customers will see. Should you use a serial comma? Is it a tenth floor office, a tenth-floor office, or a 10th-floor office? Did Lincoln deliver "The Gettysburg Address," The Gettysburg Address, or The Gettysburg Address?

All these questions and more are answered in a company's (or a publication's) style guide. House style guides usually begin with one of the standard style publications (Jonathon mentions the two most popular below), which are supplemented as needed for specific situations that those guides don't cover.

Last week the AP Stylebook announced that it would now accept hopefully as a sentence adverb, and the announcement was met with both joy and despair. (If somehow you’ve missed the whole debate, check
out this great roundup of articles and blog posts on the subject at But the whole kerfuffle raises some important questions for editors: namely, which rules should we follow, and why?

The answers may seem pretty obvious—we follow the rules in our style guides, and we do it to avoid offending/distracting/confusing our readers—but I think it’s much more complicated than that. After all, as Henry David Thoreau famously wrote, “Any fool can make a rule. And any fool will mind it.” So how do we make sure that we’re following rules that aren’t foolish? Or is there value in following even the most foolish rule?

A recent blog post on Johnson illustrated the dilemma quite nicely. Robert Lane Greene had complained on Twitter about an infinitive that “he absolutely must split,” but the Economist’s style guide instructs its writers and editors to avoid split infinitives, even though there’s nothing wrong with them, simply because they still bother some people. The idea is that even though the rule has no validity, it’s safer to follow it just to avoid raising the ire of a few sadly ill-informed readers. Or as Greene said, “The Economist is not mainly in the business of informing language usage. We’re in the journalism business, and diverting readers with our style risks distracting them from our reporting and analysis.”

This seems like a reasonable stance, but I think that in reality it has some problems. First of all, edited usage sets the standard for other edited usage. That is, style guides often base their decisions on what is found in other reputable publications, so enforcing a dead rule gives credence to the idea—among both readers and other writers and editors—that the rule is still worth enforcing.

Second, if someone has been taught the rule, they will probably notice and be distracted by it whether it’s followed or broken. Believing that the rules against split infinitives and the sentence adverb hopefully are bogus doesn’t make me less distracted when I see them broken than a reader who still believes that they’re important. In the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, Oh, look, they split that infinitive, or, Hey, they used “hopefully” as a sentence adverb. (Though of course I don’t feel the swelling of rage that some people do.)

Third, following an outdated rule can sometimes be worse than deciding to ignore it. Unsplit infinitives typically sound terribly awkward to me, and they make me painfully aware that the author or copyeditor is avoiding a very natural construction just to avoid offending a few sticks-in-the-mud.

And last, there are an awful lot of rules that have been created over the years. My thesis adviser counted over ten thousand rules found in various grammar and usage books written over the last couple of centuries, though of course any single book will contain a lot less than that. How many of those “errors” will bother our readers, how many readers will actually be bothered, and how bothered will they be?

Well, part of the beauty of having a style guide is that it’s supposed to save us from making dozens of extra little decisions when we’re editing. You don’t have to look up the rule in a dozen books and poll your readers before deciding what to do; you just do what the style guide tells you.

But let’s face it: sometimes the rules on the books are just stupid. As John McIntyre argued so eloquently, “The editor has to exercise taste and judgment, and taste and judgment cannot be reduced to a set of rules, however comprehensive.” A style guide is merely a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. It’s a tool to help us do our jobs better by automating some of the decisions that we’re constantly faced with, but to the extent that it leads us to make bad decisions, it’s a bad tool.

The question I’ve avoided answering so far is how we know which rules are the ones worth following, and that’s because I don’t think there’s a ready answer. Every reader, writer, and editor is different, so there’s
no one perfect set of rules that you can follow that will please everyone. Even an optimal set of rules—one designed to please the most people and offend the fewest—is probably beyond human ken.

I think it’s important to avoid being a slave to any style guide, though of course I’ve got my favorites, just as anyone does. For general style questions, I prefer The Chicago Manual of Style. Not only is it more comprehensive than anything else out there, but it’s used in a variety of fields, meaning that it avoids some of the idiosyncrasies that I dislike in The AP Stylebook. For usage, I think nothing rivals Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, though it’s not for the faint of heart; it’s packed full of the facts of centuries of usage, but there aren’t a lot of clear, succinct answers.

Above all, the best thing an editor can do is to be well read. Read widely and deeply, and pay attention to both informed opinions about usage and facts as you can find them. As Mr. McIntyre said in the post linked to above, “This demands a lot of the editor, and should.”

But it also makes it fun, doesn’t it?