Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)

If Cambridge University Press ain’t safe, ain’t nobody safe.

I’ve talked about this before in other venues, but this time I’m including photographic proof.

When as prestigious a company as Cambridge University Press releases a book — and not just any book, but a dictionary with a study guide — with an egregious typographical error, we can be assured that no one is safe from the threat.

Perfection in a finished written work is a lofty goal, and one that is not always (perhaps never) attainable. Still, we should work toward it whether we’re Cambridge University or Joe Blow.

Q: What do you call a neighborhood for hobos?

Nothing instills confidence in your school like seeing a big typo on the sign by the front door.

O no!

Just think: someone (probably many someones) had to write those words, create the sign, proof the sign, drill it into the brick wall, look at it, nod contentedly, and walk away, whistling a happy tune.

The photo comes from the Dudley Street Neighborhood’s Facebook album, and if you check out the comments there, you’ll see that the school posted the photo proudly, then realized their mistake after several people pointed out the error. This article offers a good quote:

“I think we get a big, fat F for the spelling on this sign,” said Matt Wilder, director of media relations for Boston Public Schools. “We are already in the process of fixing it, and it will be taken down today.”

Kudos to the school for acknowledging the error and moving quickly to replace the sign. But this incident just goes to show you that, for good or ill, it’s hard to get away with typos in these days of instant feedback from social media.


Muprhy’s Law in action

You read that right. Not Murphy’s. Muprhy’s. Check the Daily Writing Tips blog (in our blogroll) for an excellent piece about it. (Short form: Any post criticizing the grammar, spelling, or mechanics of another post will in itself contain at least one error.)

Check here and here for examples of a corollary to Muprhy’s Law in action. (ETA: The second link takes you to a master list of worksheets. The page is set for auto-download; I have no control over that. The worksheet in question is #5. If you really want to see it, you’ll have to download it. Otherwise, just keep reading for my commentary.)

I call this a corollary to the actual law because what I’m pointing out are errors not in comments, but in teaching aids.These are actual worksheets available for free at the links provided. I downloaded them for use here at home for my daughter, who needs some help with English skills. Imagine my displeasure when, as we were going through the first one, she stopped and said “That doesn’t look right.” I wasn’t displeased with her at all; I was thrilled that she recognized the problem.

No. My displeasure was with the educator who wrote the material and then made it available for others, obviously without having someone proofread it first. (Never, ever proofread your own work. Trust me. You’re too close to it to catch everything. I will freely admit that every time I post here, I wind up coming back in afterward to fix something. It might be only a missing punctuation mark of some kind, but in the words of Roseanne Rosannadanna, “It’s always something.”) For heaven’s sake, people–if you’re putting material out there to teach English skills, make sure the material is error-free before you post it. Otherwise someone like me will find the errors and tell the world (the entire world, do you hear me?) about your ineptitude.

I do not make allowances for one error in this kind of material. There are no excuses. Period. The materials we use to teach our students mechanics, grammar, and spelling must be perfect. Period. (I apply this to all teaching aids, of course, but I’m not qualified to kvetch about physics, or algebra, or ancient Greek, or any number of other subjects. I am qualified to kvetch about grammar, mechanics, spelling, and literature.)

The second problem is clearly circular. (ETA: The vocabulary word is “perpetuate.” The third option for a definition is “to perpetuate.” Duh.) Someone didn’t change the entry for answer #3, question #10, to a definition of the word in question; the word was just left there. While some might be tempted to make that a “gimme,” I’m not one of them. The problem is, once the error’s corrected it becomes a gimme anyway–because now the correct answer is handwritten on the page.

Damn it.


Yes, I was a language arts teacher for junior high students. Yes, I’m still a substitute teacher who prefers language arts and literature classes to all others, and junior high or older students to younger ones. (I was certified 6-12, so I never had classroom experience with the little ones.) And we all know I’m still a copy editor and proofreader. This stuff is in my blood.

I can’t help it, I was born this way . . .


C is for contrafibularity

Have you ever wanted to add a word to the dictionary? Now’s your chance. The folks at Collins Dictionary, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, are soliciting new definitions for inclusion in their online dictionary. From their announcement:

Your word will then go through an editorial evaluation. If it’s accepted your word will be published on within a few weeks, and your name will appear on the definition page where you will be recorded forever as the submitter of the word.

You can submit your new word here and learn about their evaluation process here. The website is also giving daily prizes to entrants.

Collins plans to accept submissions year-round, and as of this writing, the site has collected over 500 words and definitions. Some of them are terms you’ve probably heard before, such as “celebutard,” “pwned,” and “embiggen.” And then we have entries like the following (presented as is):

administrivia: the mundane, paper-pushing, monkey work that has to get done, however loathsome it may be

skattle: to disappear noisily

nigwin: a person who thinks they know everything and laughs too much

guggerstrasse: the feeling of awkwardness, exposure or panic induced by accidentally being oneself at work

illiterarti: stupid/dumb/uneducated celebrity

twerplet: a small irritating, sometimes offensive, nuisance poster on Twitter, offspring of spammer + troll, but rarely a threat

We’ve talked about the idea of a living language on this blog before, and nothing makes a language evolve more than a steady influx of new words. So head over to the Collins site and share your creativity with the world–or post your favorite definitions in the comments right here. We’re not giving away prizes, but we’ll let you wallow in smug satisfaction.

(The title of this post comes from an episode of Blackadder the Third in which Edmund Blackadder, the long-suffering servant to Prince George, frantically tries to rewrite the dictionary after accidentally burning Samuel Johnson’s original manuscript. Here’s a clip of Blackadder inventing new words on the spot to take the pompous Johnson down a few pegs.)