Eh, It’s Not My Style

Comments on Hemmingway

One of my favorite things a high school writing teacher ever told me was that English classes in school are to teach you all the rules of the language so you’ll know which ones to break when you start writing creatively. Now, there are some “rules” you can’t get around using without sounding like you don’t speak English very well, but starting sentences with conjunctions, ending with prepositions, and split infinitives are all “rules” English classes teach that become less than important when writing a poem, short story, or a novel. As an editor, I know the correct use of who and whom, but if an author is writing dialogue for a character who doesn’t, I’m hardly going to force a “whom” into their mouths. In such cases, the overall style of the writing is more important than each and every (sometimes arbitrary) writing rule.

Now, this fact should not be taken as carte blanche to write however you want with the argument that it’s your style and therefore good writing. Style is about making conscious choices about how a character would speak (for example, it might be appropriate to have malapropisms for a character who’s trying to sound smarter than they are) not about excusing poor writing (if you have made an unintended malapropism, it’s probably for the best someone catches that before you start sending your manuscript out).

Note: It is also important to state that even if you have made an intentional style choice, it doesn’t necessarily make that style “good” writing. A stylistic choice is more subjective as to if it’s good or bad, but you can still have “bad” writing when you’ve made a conscious choice.

So, you’ve made it through your manuscript and consciously chosen which writing rules you want to use for each character and which ones you don’t.  Sarah’s character is exceedingly proper and uses every arbitrary grammar rule on the books. Her best friend, Jane, is much more colloquial. Awesome. You have some great characterization starting with just that jumping off point. But what about all those little writing rules you have never quite gotten an answer about? Will adding an extra ‘s’ in James’s look out of place with all of Sarah’s ‘whom’s and ‘am I not’s? Does James’ mean there’s more than one James? Has anyone actually given us an answer on that?

In fact, not really. Unlike being able to mark “he am” as an improper conjugation, all of the following “problems” don’t have one correct answer. So what should you do when it comes to some object belonging to a James? The trick is to simply be consistent. If you use James’ five times, don’t use James’s on the sixth.

Since consistency is the real issue here, groups that deal with a number of different writers/authors (such as newspapers or publishers) tend to follow one of a number of “style guides”. Instead of keeping a record of what is correct and incorrect grammatically, these style guides help writers remain consistent from one person to the next. So while there isn’t really a “right” answer when it comes to any of the following problems, there are some style guides writers can choose to follow in the hope of remaining consistent within their industry. While academic papers often use APA or MLA style guides, and journalists tend to use AP Style, most publishers I’ve come across use Chicago Manual Style (CMS) when combating all of these “style” issues. So, if you’re a creative writer and wish to follow a style guide, CMS is your best bet.

And so, here are some tips on what to do about some of the most common “I’ve heard it both ways” writing issues out there:

1. Serial Comma. Also called the Oxford or Harvard comma, serial commas come into play when you’re listing multiple items.

For example: I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches, and grapes. Now, if you can’t tell, that last comma in the list is bolded. Why? Because people can’t agree if that comma needs to be there or not. Personally, I use the serial comma (which is what CMS suggests, so most novels use them as well) but, grammatically, you don’t have to have a comma there. “I went to the store to get apples, oranges, peaches and grapes” is still just as grammatically correct.

Of course, serial commas can save you some trouble, as this internet meme shows us. For those not wanting to click off the site, it’s the classic: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example. With the comma, you have a list, without the comma, it possibly sounds like the strippers are JFK and Stalin. Just a little difference. Of course, it would be possible to clear that up with changing the sentence slightly rather than using a serial comma (We invited JFK, Stalin and the strippers), but personally I, and CMS, prefer not getting into that mess to start with.

What CMS Says: Use serial commas.

2. Periods in Abbreviations. Most recently, my friends and I got into a debate as to whether Los Angeles should be abbreviated “LA” or “L.A.” As with everything else on this list, both are “correct” (nobody is going to see LA or L.A. and immediately shake their head at what a poor editor your book must have had.

What CMS Says: Put a period after every abbreviated word (abbrev., Rev.) unless it is a technical abbreviation (cm for centimeters, etc.) and a period between each letter in an abbreviation that is comprised of multiple words (U.S.A. rather than USA and L.A. instead of LA)

3. Possessives ending with ‘s’. Always the quintessential “What should we do…?” question, the ‘s being singular and s’ being plural doesn’t quite work when you have a name that already ends with ‘s’. Most people tend to go with whichever they find less confusing/sounds better to them. In this case, it’s more important that you’re consistent between words rather than as a whole (you could have James’s and then Atlantis’ if you like, just don’t have James’s and then James’).

What CMS Says: Use ‘s if monosyllabic (James’s, Burns’s) but only an apostrophe if more than one syllable (Artemis’, Jesus’)
[UPDATE (9/13/14): CMS now says all singular possessives should have ‘s, so it would now be James’s and Artemis’s]

4. Writing out numbers. Numbers like making things so difficult. They come in English words (one, two, three…) and Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…), and that’s not even mentioning other systems such as Roman numerals (I, II, III…). So are we supposed to write them out, use the Arabic numbers, or do something else entirely. It’s up to you and your style guide. Personally I tend to write numbers out when writing, but I see plenty of people use the Arabic numbers. (I haven’t seen anyone use Roman numerals in their writing [other than chapter headings] but that might just be a difficulty thing).

What CMS Says: Write out numbers 1 – 99 (one through ninety-nine) and then use Arabic numbers for anything larger than two digits (100, 4500, 5,430,458,302). Note: There are special rules for percentages and other special uses of numbers. Refer to your style guide if you aren’t sure one way or the other.


5. British vs. American Spellings. When it comes to picking British or American spellings of words (colour vs color; programme vs. program) it’s generally best to stick to what you’re used to. Did you grow up in a country that taught “British English”? Then stick to that. Are you more comfortable with American spellings? Use those. The more you try to force yourself to use spellings that you aren’t used to, the more likely you are to start flopping between the two. And it’s correct to use either, even if your characters are British when you’re American, or American when you’re British. The main thing  to take away here, as always, is to be consistent. People worked to standardize spellings for a reason. It makes things easier/less distracting to read.

What CMS Says: Being an American-made guide (the “Chicago” in the name isn’t there by random chance) CMS suggests the American spelling of words (behavior, jeweled, etc.) however most publishers have an “in-house” style guide that will take precedence in this case. If they have no problem with whatever spelling you have used, they’ll leave it alone. If they do, their editors will change it. As long as you are consistent one way or the other, it won’t affect your submission chances.

6. Italicizing vs. Underlining. When it comes to emphasizing a word, people tend to either italicize it or underline it. Both obviously are ways of setting one word apart from the others in a sentence. Most style guides (including CMS) prefer italics to underlines when it comes to added emphasis (as they are less intrusive on a page while still adding emphasis when read) but I have met more than one publisher that prefers underlines, at least in manuscripts. Feel free to use whichever you prefer (I personally default to italics per CMS), just be careful if a publisher specifically asks for one over the other in a submission.

What CMS Says: Italicize when going for emphasis, but do so sparingly.

7. Double Spaces After Periods. Oh the flame wars about whether or not you need double spaces after periods. There have been a number of articles about whether or not people should keep doing so. Many older typists had the necessity of hitting the space bar twice after the end of each sentence drilled into them with no mercy. Some teachers still teach this. The fact is, while hitting space twice on a typewriter might have been useful, most word processing systems have an algorithm that makes for a little extra space after an end of a sentence anyway. Hitting the space bar twice only serves to make too large of a gap at the end of each sentence. Is it incorrect to add double spaces at the end of a sentence? Technically no. Is it unnecessary (or possibly hazardous) when typing on anything but a typewriter? It can be.

What CMS Says:  Their official line is, “There is no reason for two spaces after a period in published work.” They further go on to state their reasons as to saying “no” to double spaces: (1) it is inefficient, requiring an extra keystroke for every sentence; (2) even if a program is set to automatically [watch for] an extra space after a period, such automation is never foolproof; (3) there is no proof that an extra space actually improves readability (4) two spaces are harder to control for than one in electronic documents; and (5) two spaces can cause problems with line breaks in certain programs.


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