Style Guides: A primer

I dare say everyone who writes at all regularly, even for casual purposes, knows that it’s vital to have access to a dictionary. And with so many of them now online for free, there’s really not much of an excuse not to use one.

But what about a style guide? Do you need to use one? And by “use,” I mean “have access to and perhaps own.” Isn’t that like a usage guide? No. A style guide is not a usage guide. Most of them contain some usage guidance, but that’s not the point of a style guide.

Continue reading “Style Guides: A primer”

The requisite end-of-year post, or “four books I read this year and think you will enjoy”

I’m the first to admit I don’t read for pleasure nearly as much as I’d like. That’s something to work on in the coming year. However, of the handful of books I did read this year, I’ve chosen four I think will interest most of you.

They’re in alphabetical order by author’s last name. No favoritism, nothing hinky going on. I decided to organize them by some normal, rational method. (That should tell you how important I think they are.)

The Joy of Syntax, June Casagrande. The grammar lovers among you need this book. I mean, NEED it. This is the deep stuff you know you should know (it even says so in the subtitle!), but it’s not intimidating. At all. If the thought of opening Greenbaum or Huddleston & Pullum scares the bejeezus out of you, this is the book you want. (I own both of those, too. I’ve used them, but I use this more.) It’s written in her trademark style, as if you’re sitting on her porch sipping a cool drink on a hot day and chatting. You know, about infinitives and clauses and the subjunctive mood. As one does.

I particularly like this, the final paragraph from Part 1, Chapter 1 (“Who’s in Charge Here?”): “A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them—a fact some people fail to understand.”

You Are What You Speak, Robert Lane Greene. The subtitle tells you what you need to know about this one: “Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity.” The introduction’s by John McWhorter. With only eight chapters, this book packs a lot of punch into a small space, covering language myths, peeververein (my preferred term instead of “sticklers”), linguistics, nationalism (“You live here now, so speak X”), language legislation, and alternative ways of considering language, in addition to a few topics I haven’t mentioned.

I give you two quotes, because I have to limit myself somehow, don’t I? “Language is too enjoyable to get so angry about it” is the first. The second is this: “A truly enlightened attitude to language should simply be to let six thousand or more flowers bloom.” All right, I lied. Three quotes. “In this world of homogenization—everyone speaking one standard language the same way, all the time—are we richer or better off? Not at all.”

The Prodigal Tongue, Lynne Murphy. Here’s another where the subtitle is defining (as one should be, but often is not): “The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English.” If you don’t know Professor Murphy, she’s a linguist born in the US and living in the UK, currently teaching at the University of Sussex. There’s so much to delight in, in this book! If you are familiar with her blog, “Separated by a Common Language,” you already know the kinds of things she gets tied up in. Here are 350+ pages of such discussions, clarifications, and outright flinging up of hands.

For this one, I give you my favorite chapter title: “America: Saving the English Language Since 1607.” I’ll also tell you I was greatly entertained by the discussions of which English invented what word/phrase. Lots of finger-pointing goes on, lemme tell you. Lynne sorts it. And yet, through it all, she doesn’t take sides. Not really. You want to know more? Read the book, honey.

Word by Word, Kory Stamper. Subtitled “The Secret Life of Dictionaries,” this is a charming in-depth look at lexicography. At the work of defining words. Like “is.” Someone has to write those definitions, y’know.

It’s nearly impossible to choose a quote or excerpt, but I forced myself. In her discussion about the letters of the alphabet and which are “better” or “worse” from a definer’s standpoint, we come to this.

S is, to put it in the modern vernacular, the worst. It is the longest letter in the book and an absolute heartbreaker, because you can see the end of the alphabet from it, and you know that once you clear S, you are moving on to T–Z, and half of those are barely even letters. But SS goes on for-fucking-ever. Exactly 11 percent of your dictionary is made of words that begin with S. One-tenth of your dictionary is made up of one twenty-sixth of the alphabet. I bet the guy in the picture who supposedly went home and shot himself was in the middle of S when he did.”

So, there you have them: four books I read (or reread) this year that I think will be of interest to you. Happy New Year, folks.

Thought for the day, July 25, 2018

“A great deal of modern-day grammar confusion stems from people not understanding the role of style guides. Their rules are not meant as definitive statements on what’s right or wrong. They simply work as playbooks to be followed by anyone who wants to follow them. But the rest of us are not bound by them–a fact some people fail to understand.”

June Casagrande, The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know

(I will add that I don’t call the contents of style guides “rules.” I call them “guidelines.” Furthermore, I usually say that unless one is paid to follow a particular set, one need not follow any at all–unless one wants to make an editor very happy. Run wild, run free!)

Back to basics: forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s

For whatever reason, people seem to confuse (and maybe conflate) forming possessives of plurals with forming possessives of proper nouns ending in -s. I’m hoping to untangle the concepts for them with these last two posts (today’s and the previous one).

First, what’s a proper noun? Well, the easiest example is your own name. Karen is a proper noun. Fred is a proper noun. Oktober is a proper noun. How do we make those into possessives?

Simple. Add an apostrophe and an S.

Karen’s

Fred’s

Oktober’s

You won’t find any contradictions in any style guide to that rule. It’s super simple.

It gets sticky, though, if the proper noun ends in an S.

Which is right: James’, or James’s?

Both. There’s not a damn thing wrong with either version. The Chicago Manual of Style has adopted what is to me a very logical guide: if you say it, write it. We say the last S in “James’s,” so that’s what CMoS calls for.

If the name ends in an -eez sound, you also use an apostrophe and an S. “Xerxes’s troops.”

If the name ends in a silent S, you still use the apostrophe and the S, because you’ll pronounce that final S. “Descartes’s hypothesis”

The former guideline about “historical names” is no longer included as of the 17th edition. (It might have gone away in the 16th, but I don’t have that handy.)

They do provide an alternative guideline, which omits the S from all names ending in an S. However, they also restate their guidance that if it’s pronounced, it should be written, and therefore this alternative is “therefore not recommended.”

Y’all should know by now that I’m a CMoS gal. Of course, if you’re being paid to use AP, or APA, or MLA, or what have you, that’s whose guidance you should be following on this matter. In any case, I strongly recommend ditching whatever you think you remember from your salad days (mine were mostly made with rancid Miracle Whip) and that English teacher who smelled either of Shalimar or English Leather (or, if you were really unlucky, Wind Song or Hai Karate), getting yourself an up-to-date style manual  or a copy of June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. (When you see it,l you’ll understand why I styled it that way and not the traditional all-italic way.)  In all honesty, I reference my copy of that more than I do CMoS because it’s much easier to find what I’m after. (The really esoteric stuff I still use CMoS for, but not the everyday stuff.)

I hope this has helped unmuddy the waters. By all means, if you have questions, leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter. I do my best to answer in a timely manner.

#SpellcheckCannotSaveYou: a bit of explanation

This has gotten a little attention in the last month or so, mostly thanks to June Casagrande (a fantastic editor-person who’s written a number of highly accessible grammar and style books, most of which I own). One thing that some folks don’t quite understand is why it’s “cannot” and not “won’t” or “will not.”

Simple. And it’s got NOTHING to do with the fucking apostrophe (which kills a hashtag every time, y’know).

I don’t care whose software it is; the fact is, no spellcheck program is able to save you from yourself. It is incapable. It is unable. It CANNOT save you. It can ensure you won’t have any egregious misspellings, but when it comes to homonyms, it cannot save you. If the word’s spelled correctly, but still the wrong word, spellcheck is unable, incapable, powerless to save you.

It’s not a case of it being unwilling to perform, or uninterested in doing the job.

It cannot perform that duty. Only a human brain in conjunction with human eyes and reasoning abilities can parse the difference between cleaver and clever. No spellchecker will flag either of those words, unless for some reason you have manually told it to. (You did know you have that kind of control, right? Like, telling the program to always flag the word “pubic” to save you from mortification?)

Spellcheck cannot save you from errors stemming from correctly spelled words used incorrectly. Not that it will not (although technically, that’s true — it won’t save you, but there’s more to the sense behind the phrasing), but that it cannot. It is not capable. It is unable. It cannot perform that action.

Spellcheck cannot save you.

The seventh link of Christmas: Plain language

This is the smallest of my collections, which says something itself, I think.

I share what I find, and I find very little. In my experience, new writers tend to think they have to use florid language (big words, fancy syntax) to make their writing worthwhile.

Nope. If the writer is capable, that’s one thing. If the writer’s new, chances are good that simpler language (in both words and construction/syntax) will be the better option. Again, I’m speaking from my experience as a freelance editor. Your mileage may, of course, vary.

This little collection contains posts on legal, medical, academic, and business writing. You’ll see some familiar names, I think: Bryan A. Garner, Steven Pinker, Conscious Style Guide, and even the Mental Floss site. (AND June Casagrande, one of my editorial heroes.)