Sunday, March 4, 2012

Style in writing - National Grammar Day 2012

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.