Mar 042012

This is becoming an annual blog, I’m afraid, but I feel the need to post on National Grammar Day each year. Whether the post is directly related to grammar or not.

Style in writing, or the necessity of consistency

Chicago Manual of Style. American Press Style. Canadian Press Style Guide.

These are all guides to how we write. One is no better than the other, simply different. They don’t all agree, and that’s fine, too.

So what are style guides for?


Style is not about grammar. Style is about consistency of use. Style guides are simply guides to consistency.

If you’re going to follow Canadian Press spelling and use ‘honour’ instead of ‘honor’ on page 6, then you want to spell it ‘honour’ on page 10, 14, 92, and 376.

If you’re going to spell initialisms, such as that for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, without periods (RCMP) on page 76, then you don’t want to spell the initialism for the Federal Bureau of Investigation with periods (F.B.I.) on page 260. (Unless you have a specific reason for that, in which case you’ll want to be sure you use or don’t use the periods consistently.)

Style guides are guides to grammar, too. You want to use punctuation – like commas or dashes – consistently, too.

So what does all this have to do with writing style? Let’s talk about style for a minute.

If I were to say someone has a Gothic style, what does that mean? It means their clothing, makeup, and sometimes even mannerisms and word choice, follow the style trend of Gothic. Gothic style includes dark clothing.

A house that is bungalow-style is one floor high and generally square/rectangular.

These are styles. There are so many different things people can do within these styles, to show their own style. Maybe a person uses a certain makeup design or has a raven tattoo. Maybe a bungalow builder paints its bungalows in earth tones.

People create their own styles, too. If someone dresses Gothic but ties a bright yellow scarf around their neck, that’s their style. Not all Goths need the scarf, but the bright yellow scarf may mark a person’s personal style within the Gothic style. A deck attached to a bungalow doesn’t change the bungalow, but it does make it more personalized.

Have you noticed what all these style differences have in common? Consistency. The bright yellow scarf says nothing about personal style if it’s rarely worn. If the person consistently wears that or other bright-coloured scarfs, that person is setting their own style within the Gothic style.

A style guide merely helps to make a complicated style easier to follow. Grammar, punctuation and spelling are so diverse that it’s easy to forget how you used a comma on page 12 once you reach page 79. A style guide helps you to remember.

And there’s nothing to say you have to follow any style guide to the letter – as long as you are consistent in how you don’t follow it.

Many businesses and organizations have their own internal style. These company styles tend to be based on one of the major guidebooks, simply because it’s easier to piggyback a style on a style.

The differences lie in smaller things. The style may be based on Canadian Press Style, but the company prefers to use the Oxford or serial comma. Or it may be based on Chicago Manual of Style, but with Canadian spellings.

The best thing a writer can do is choose one style guide that they agree with, and then create their own styles based on that – and to stick with them. Spreadsheets are good for this, and many writers use spreadsheets to keep track of spellings, especially when words are different than normal English, as in the case of a lot of fantasy and science fiction.

My style? I follow the Canadian Press Style Guide for the most part, but I have my own idiosyncracies. For instance, when showing possession in names that end with ‘s’, I prefer using only an apostrophe, not an apostrophe with an ‘s’. So, the car that belongs to Philips is Philips’ car, not Philips’s car. Why do I choose to do that? Because when reading this character’s name, I prefer people to read or pronounce it as Philips’, not Philips’s. It affects reading, it affects rhythm, and it affects style.

(Rhythm is a whole other style issue, and just as important as any other issues. However, that’s for another blog post.)

So you can see that a style guide doesn’t have to restrict your personal style. It’s just a guide, a memory jogger. You can create your own style on top of that one – but remember to keep it consistent. If it’s not consistent, it’s not style.

Mar 042011

It’s National Grammar Day (in the US – but it gives me an opening, so I’m going to take it!) Now is a great time to address that punctuation of pause – the comma.

I was going to do a great, long thing on commas, but I decided it was too long, no matter how great. So, I’ll just explain a bit about commas and independent clauses.

An independent clause is basically a sentence or part of a sentence that could be a sentence on its own. That is, it has a subject (noun) and predicate (verb). Here are some examples of independent clauses:

Duke leaped the fence. (subject: Duke; predicate: leaped the fence)
Despite his sore leg, Duke leaped the fence.
James found the gate, but Duke leaped the fence.
Duke leaped the fence, and Jeremy ran after him.

Yes, ‘Duke leaped the fence’ is the independent clause in all four examples. It’s the last two examples I want to talk about.

You see, ‘James found the gate’ is also an independent clause, as is ‘Jeremy ran after him.’ You see how these are all separate sentences on their own, with subjects and predicates of their own.

Look how I separated the independent clauses in those sentences: I used a comma and a conjunction (and, but).

When putting two independent clauses together in one sentence, you need both a comma and a conjunction.

If you only use the comma, it’s called a comma splice, because you’re splicing together two sentences with a comma:

Duke leaped the fence, Jeremy ran after him.

This is not a good thing. Grammatically, it can get you whipped with a wet noodle (many grammarians can’t hold anything heavier than a wet noodle.)

So, you don’t want to leave the conjunction out of the picture.

You don’t want to leave the comma out, either.

“Duke leaped the fence and Jeremy ran after him” is also incorrect. This form, though, would only get you criticized, as opposed to noodled.

There are two other forms of punctuation you can use to put these sentences together: the period and the semi-colon. I’ll just show you examples here:

Duke leaped the fence. Jeremy ran after him.

See? Using a period is easy – it makes two separate, simple sentences. However, sometimes the second sentence follows the first in meaning, as well as position, and you may want to contain both in one sentence. That’s when you would use a semi-colon (or the conjunction/comma combination above):

Duke leaped the fence; Jeremy ran after him.

Speaking of colons, did you know that March is also Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month? So get your butt checked, so your colon doesn’t become a semi-colon! (Yes, I stole that joke from the National Library of Medicine. No, I will not apologize.)

Mar 042010

It’s National Grammar Day in the United States, though nowhere else I know of. Being Canadian, I thought I’d point out one difference in style between Canada and the US.

Canada’s style and spelling reflect our common history with both the United States and the United Kingdom Commonwealth. In some cases, we follow British English, and in others, American English. In this post, I’ll discuss one way we follow British rules instead of American rules.

Punctuation sometimes goes outside the closing quotation marks.

I’ve heard one reason the US does otherwise, and it may be an urban myth. *
Periods and commas always go within the closing quotation marks because, in typesetting in the 1800s, the pieces of type for the comma and period were the most fragile and could easily break. Putting them within quotation marks — even when it isn’t logical — protected them. This is why this is often called typesetters’ rules.

In Canada and Britain, some periods and commas go within quotation marks when they belong to the speech within the marks. They go outside the quotation marks when the speech they belong to encompasses the quotation. This is called British style or logical punctuation.

For an example, let’s use Harold’s greedy cookie habit:

  1. 1. Harold said to stop eating the cookies.

    (indirect speech, so no quotation marks)

  2. 2. Harold said, “Stop eating the cookies.”

    (direct speech, where the period is part of the quotation, so is within the quotation marks.)

  3. 3. Harold told us not to “eat the cookies”, then ate them all himself.

    (note the comma outside the quotation marks)

  4. 4. I wish Harold would stop saying “eating the cookies”. It makes me hungry.

    (note the period outside the quotation marks)

Using typesetters’ rules, these last two would be:

  1. 5. Harold told us not to “eat the cookies,” then ate them all himself.
  2. 6. I wish Harold would stop saying “eating the cookies.” It makes me hungry.

Note the comma and the period are within the quotation marks in these examples.

What’s so logical about examples 3 and 4, compared to 5 and 6? They depend on which part of the sentence the punctuation belongs to. The comma in example 3 and the period in example 4 are not part of the speech within the quotation marks, but a part of the sentence which contains the quotation. Typesetters’ rules arbitrarily place the comma and period within the quotation marks.

Now, all this aside, many Canadians — and many Canadian resources — do follow the typesetters’ rules, such as The Canadian Press Stylebook. But the Guide to Canadian English Usage prefers the logical punctuation. Editing Canadian English lists both, but does not give a preference either way.

This leads to one of my recurring messages about style: very little is actually set in stone. There are ambiguities between regions and even within regions. These ambiguities are where the writer can pick and choose their personal style.

The important thing to remember is: Be consistent. Don’t use typesetters’ rules one time, then logical punctuation the next.

I hope I haven’t confused anyone.

*Wikipedia‘s sole resource on this topic is a newsgroup article. I’d be happy to prove this using a better respected source. If you can provide one, please leave it in the comments.