Sunday, September 5, 2010

Which Is Right? Style Vs. Grammar

Because I've been a copyeditor for a long time, people often ask me whether x or y is "correct."

Sometimes I can give an absolute answer because the question is a matter of grammar. For example, it is always wrong to say "neither x or y." It is always correct to capitalize the first letter of a person's name (although you can make exceptions if you like for e. e. cummings and other people who are widely known by a lowercased name). Sentences should always end with a period or question mark.

Grammar is not always this clear-cut. If someone asks me whether a clause should be preceded by "which or "that," I have to ask some questions before I can give an answer. Ditto if someone asks whether "none" takes a single or plural verb; the answer depends on subtleties of meaning.

Some questions, though, have no correct answer. They are matters of style. That is, different publishers or editors do things differently. My answer to, "Should I spell out the number ten?" is, "Who are you writing for?" In Associated Press style, which is used by many periodicals, the numbers ten and above are given as numerals unless they begin a sentence or are a date or a page number. But The Chicago Manual of Style (used for books) has complex rules, and one rule is that the numbers zero through one hundred are spelled out. Scientific style guides have yet more styles for numbers.

Here are a few of the probably thousands of variants of style in American English. All of the following are correct in some publication or another:
  • X-ray; x-ray
  • 10000; 10,000; 10 000; 104; ten thousand
  • 70°; 70° F; 70 °F; 70 degrees Fahrenheit
  • 4:30 p.m.; 4:30 pm; 4:30 PM; 1600; four-thirty p.m.
  • ten percent; 10 percent; 10%
  • Down's syndrome: Down syndrome
  • α-interferon, interferon-α, alpha interferon, interferon alpha, IFN-α, interferon alfa
With so many ways possible to write such things, how do you know what to do?
  • Look at previous issues of the publication you're writing for.
  • If you write for a publication regularly, ask what stylebook they use.
  • If you regularly write in a certain academic field, get the stylebooks used in that field, such as those put out by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the American Chemical Society, and the Council of Science Editors.
  • Google different versions of your word or phrase and see how many hits you get for each. Go with the majority.
  • If you write often for newspapers or magazines, it makes sense to own the most recent edition of The Association Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law. If you write short stories or books, own the most recent Chicago Manual of Style.
  • Buy some grammar and general style books so that you can tell whether the question that stumps you is a matter of grammar or a matter of style.

I'll be blogging at Novel Spaces again on September 21. Hope to see you then!

—Shauna Roberts


Liane Spicer said...

Great advice, Shauna. I used to edit a newspaper and the managing editor gave me a comprehensive list of his style preferences and also lent me his office copy of the AP Stylebook. When I left the job I bought a copy of my own.

KeVin K. said...

"For whom are you writing?"

I taught (American) English in high school and ESL and GED in community colleges. This experience has done more to damage my narrative voice than anything else in my life. With the possible exception of spending hours on end writing repetitive, jargon-laden, passive-voice, inpatient treatment reports for Medicaid in my current day job.

I'm also a southern writer, and the southern voice is incorrect by almost any measure of academic or journalistic grammar. I think not using those superfluous initial articles everyone else is so fond of gets me in the most trouble with line & copy editors.

My own take is voice (or style) trumps grammar. With the universal caveat that you must follow the direct and specific directions and requirements of the folks paying you money for your words.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good point. I remember in grad school having to write all my school papers in APA style but NONE of the papers I submitted for publication in that style. It was rather irritating. But you get a manual and you study it. The only way.

Jewel Amethyst said...

That is quite true especially in Science writing. If you write a paper for publication in one journal and decide to change it for another, you have to change the whole format, sometimes even the way the numbers are written.

Good post Shauna

Shauna Roberts said...

LIANE, how nice the managing editor gave you the style preferences at the start of the job. Over the years, I've had copyediting clients not tell me they had a house style until after I'd been editing inappropriately for a while.

KEVIN, darn it, you caught me not translating to standard English before clicking "Post." I agree, when I don't have to model my style on a magazine's house style, I write in my own voice. I try to sneak it in when I can into magazines, too, but it often gets edited out.

CHARLES, it's strange that the psych journals don't use APA style and also strange that your professors didn't know that. But perhaps the lesson was to teach you to follow a style guide when required.

JEWEL, my least favorite copyediting task was always references because of 1) the sloppy people (who format no two references the same) and 2) the people who left their paper in the format for some previous journal they submitted to. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Lana Gramlich said...

Great post, Shauna!