Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

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2 thoughts on “Sturgis’s Law #9

  1. I smiled when I read about the comma before “too,” because I once met someone who was totally anal about it. So I became obsessed as well, until I kept reading novels where “too” was rarely introduced with a comma.
    I’m currently tutoring French to a sophomore student and it’s pure torture to witness the countless irregularities of my native language.
    English has its own strange rules too! And foreigners meet countless tricks along the road! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • When it comes to language(s), teaching and editing have a few things in common! Over and over again we have to look hard at things we take for granted. Not just “This sentence isn’t clear,” but “Why isn’t it clear, and what can I do to fix it?”

      That comma before a terminal “too” was once pretty common. Plenty of students were probably taught that it’s required. Once those “rules” take root in our heads, it can be hard to dig them out.

      Punctuation styles change over time. I recently reread a novel that had just been reprinted in a facsimile edition of the 1940 original. It was well-written, well-edited, and completely comprehensible to a modern reader, but my copyeditorial eye noticed commas were a contemporary novel wouldn’t have them, phrases that had slipped out of use, and other hints of how written American English has changed over the decades.

      Like

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