Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Eight Simple Rules for Using Apostrophes

I hold two punctuation marks near and dear to my heart. So dear that I want to get a tattoo of them (if my wife would ever let me get one).

They’re the comma (specifically, the Oxford comma) and the apostrophe.

I want to get a big comma on my right shoulder. Then, when I stand up, it will be an apostrophe.

Apostrophes. Well, ONE apostrophe.

See, it could be a comma OR an apostrophe. Now that’s a double duty tattoo!

I want this for two reasons: 1) I believe in the spirit and intent of the Oxford comma, although I recognize that some people believe the Oxford comma is optional and unnecessary. These people are dangerous and you should avoid making eye contact with them.

2) On the other hand, the apostrophe has specific rules and usages which have been carved into stone and were brought down with Moses during a second, less well-known, trip up Mount Sinai.

My friend, Casey Valiant of Signarama Evansville, challenged me to write this blog post (three years after he challenged me to write a post, “Five Things Miley Cyrus’ Tongue Can Teach Us About Business“), so I came up with my eight simple rules for using apostrophes.

(With apologies to Bruce Cameron.)

1. Apostrophes are never, EVER used to pluralize a word.

It’s not DVD’s, CD’s, laptop’s. If you ever want to put an apostrophe before an S to show that you mean more than one, please wrestle yourself to the ground until the urge passes.

2. There is only ONE exception to rule #1.

And that’s to pluralize single letters. The Oakland A’s, the Model T’s.

But you don’t use it pluralize decades, like 70s and 80s.

However, some editors want you to use it before the decade, to show the “19” is missing: I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s.

Finally, don’t use it for combinations of letters and numbers, like “iPhone 5Cs.”

3. Apostrophes are used to show contractions.

“It is” becomes “it’s.” “I am” becomes “I’m.” And even “I would have” becomes “I’d’ve,” and looks goofy.

Also, remember, “would have” becomes “would’ve,” not “would of.”

4. Apostrophes are also used to show possessive.

The man’s shirt was on fire.
The woman’s skirt was caught in the front door

And you put apostrophe-S on the end of plural words that don’t end in S.

The children’s recess was interrupted by the meteor storm.
The gentlemen’s picnic was interrupted by the geese’s mating rituals.

5. Its/it’s is a right bastard.

This the one possessive that violates rule #4. Its (without the apostrophe) is possessive, even though every other possessive word in the known universe has an apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction, and not the possessive version of “it.”

It’s weird, I know. No one said the English language made sense; it’s an ever-changing tapestry of illogic and uncertainty.

6. You MAY or MAY NOT use ‘s on words that end in S. It depends.

Depending on whether you’re American or British, there are rules about which one you follow:

American: I love Dr. Seuss’ books.

British: I love Dr. Seuss’s books.

This is true for plural-and-possessive names too.

American: The Bensons’ peanut-and-olive sandwiches are the best I’ve ever had.

British: Eww, what is wrong with you?!

Some Americans prefer the ‘s on words ending in S, but they’ve been known to consort with people who dislike the Oxford comma. They are morally suspect as well.

This is one area where you can choose your preference. It’s just important that you pick one style and stick with it. Be consistent.

But if you chose s’s, I wish you luck in the future. This is your life now.

7. Apostrophes are used to show glottal stops.

Say “button” without the “tt” sound. Sounds like “Buh-Un,” right? That’s a glottal stop; you’re stopping the air flow in your glottis or vocal tract.

You typically don’t see this used in regular words, but you would see it used in proper names.

For example, the “Shi’Ar” alien race from the X-Men comics, uses the apostrophe to make the glottal stop sound. “She. Arr.” You also see apostrophes-as-glottal-stops in the written Klingon language.

Well, you might, Poindexter. I’m sticking with my comic books.

8. There are stupid exceptions that make me want to set my hair on fire.

One thing that always frustrated me when I was writing Branding Yourself was my editor’s insane insistence that we had to write do’s and don’ts, and put the apostrophe in do’s for “consistency’s sake. It looks balanced.”

“Consistency can go have sex with itself,” I suggested, but was overruled.

These days, I still leave the apostrophe out of “do’s,” but now it looks like “dos and don’ts,” which is Spanish for “two and don’ts.” So, thanks for that.

My point is, there are occasional exceptions which are used either as institutional style, but if you follow them, you’d better make sure you can make a case for violating the other 7 rules.

“Because we said so,” is not a good case. Although it was pretty persuasive at the time.

 

Those are my 8 rules for apostrophe use. Where do you stand on this somewhat-misused and misunderstood punctuation mark? Did I miss any? Or did I get one of these rules wrong? Let me hear from you in the comments below.

Photo credit: Andreas06 (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Watch Out for Muphry’s Law

Yes, Muphry’s.

M-U-P-H-R-Y.

You thought I misspelled Murphy, and you were going to rush in here and catch me, didn’t you? “A-ha, Mr. Grammar Pants! I caught you.”

Except you didn’t. It really is Muphry’s Law.

It’s a variation of Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Muphry's Law signMuphry’s Law says, “if you criticize anyone’s grammar, punctuation, or spelling, you’ll have your own grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors in your criticism.”

You usually see Muphry’s Law in action when political arguments on Facebook turn into flame wars, which usually turn into finger pointing about how idiotic a person is because they forgot to capitalize the “N” in “Nazi,” and so your entire argument, as well as your entire political party, will crumble because “no, YOUR the idiot!”

(See what I did there?)

I’ve fallen prey to Muphry’s Law plenty of times, especially when I write blog posts complaining about grammar sticklers and their nerdy obsession with using language “properly” but are actually wrong or outdated about their reasons. It’s embarrassing when I write a blog post decrying bad writing, only to find that I made a typo.

The only other people we love roasting more than erroneous grammar bullies are televangelists — the ones who tell us to live a godly life and send them lots of money — who are then either caught with their hands in the cookie jar or their mistress’ blouse. We heap scorn and derision on them the way an obsessive gardener piles manure on her tulip beds.

Similarly, God help you if you ever call someone out for making a stupid spelling mistake only to make one yourself. If there is ever a time to pause, write and rewrite, before you ever submit a comment to anyone, this is it.

Muphry’s Law, like irony, is cruel and heartless, and he will cut you.

 

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Grammar Bullies, Write or Shut Up

I saw a video based on an essay by Stephen Fry about how he loathes language pedants (that’s fancy British talk for Grammar Bullies), and it’s got me rethinking how I approach my own love of language and punctuation pet peeves.

First, let me say I’m not a fan of a 6:30 minute kinetic typography video (see it below); I’d rather just read the original, or hear the audio, not read at someone else’s out-loud pace. But that’s just me. Other than that, this was brilliant.
Mean Teacher

For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.

<snip>

There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

Don’t Mind Your Language by Stephen Fry

I’ve always been a stickler about language, but I try not to make an ass of myself about it. I make sure I use it correctly, but I don’t want to be a Grammar Bully. I don’t correct people out loud, although I’ve been known to mark up a sign or two. And I’ve, on occasion, sent my friend Doug Karr a private DM when he’s misspelled a word in a blog post.

My bigger crusade has been spent fighting the Grammar Bullies, those self-appointed vigilantes who snipe and gripe about every preposition-ending sentence, every split infinitive, and every other misguided grammar myth that they insist on perpetrating because they stopped learning about grammar after the 5th grade.

(Had they continued, they would know those myths have long been debunked, and that you can boldly split infinitives and end sentences with any prepositions you come up with.)

My Challenge to Grammar Bullies

So I’m changing my own personal rules about language usage. I’m not going to pick nits off other people’s language, unless they pick on someone else first. I’m not going to correct someone’s mistakes, unless they just need a guiding hand to send them in the right direction, rather than a bully’s smackdown.

To the Grammar Bullies, those people who still vomit out their 5th grade English rules like yesterdays’ lunch, you need to put up or shut up. Most of those rules are outdated or were incorrect in the first place.

If you’re a Grammar Bully who doesn’t actually do any real writing yourself, you’re a coward. An assassin who does his work with poisons, so he can be safely out of harm’s way, rather than the warrior, who wades into battle and earns his glory. You’re the theater critic who can’t act, the sports analyst who never played.

I think the new standard for Grammar Sticklers (that’s fancy American talk for “you’re being an A-hole”) should be that you need to be a Writer. You can’t just complain about grammar and language. You need to produce your own grammar and language for everyone to see.

Write, as Fry said, “poems, love-letters, novels and stories.” Put them out there for the whole world to see. Let the other people who are “too farting busy sneering and guarding the language” get a gander at your work.

But if you can’t produce, if you don’t have any skin in the game, then your “corrections” are hollow and pedantic (that’s fancy talk for “this is why no one likes you”), and should be ignored.

You’re not allowed to gripe. You’re not allowed to point out errors in other people’s writing. You may not complain about these things, because you haven’t earned the right. You haven’t done the work. You haven’t slung the ink. You haven’t sat down at a typewriter, opened a vein, and bled.

Because until you do, you don’t know the annoyance of a pesky piss-ant biting at your ankles, complaining about things they know nothing about.

So, you self-appointed grammar thugs and bullies, put your Sharpies down, pick up your notebooks and laptops, and let’s see what you can do. Until then, keep your pens and your pedantic rules in your pockets, and let the real writers get back to work.

(As for the rest of you: seriously, stop putting apostrophes in words to pluralize them. “DVD’s” and “car’s” is incorrect.)

 

 

Stop Telling Students “Said is Dead;” They Shouldn’t Use Anything Else

One of the most fun, yet annoying things I’ve ever done for my oldest daughter is to undo the writing “rules” her teacher taught her in the 7th grade.

“Paragraphs have to be 3 – 4 sentences long. Don’t use contractions. Don’t start sentences with ‘and,’ ‘but,’ or ‘or.’ Don’t end your sentences with a preposition.”

When she was in the 7th grade, I had told her not to follow one of her writing rules “because,” I said, citing my full 20+ years of experience, “it’s stupid.” She did, and when the teacher corrected her, she said, “My dad told me not to do it, and he’s a professional writer.”

Nude woman with the words "write or be written off" written across her front shouldersBelieve it or not, that was the end of that little rule, although the teacher did explain that she wanted my daughter to at least know the basics, so she could understand what rules she was breaking.

“They shouldn’t be rules in the first place,” I started to tell my daughter, but my wife stopped me.

Now that my daughter is home schooled, and writing (especially blogging) has become a central part of my daughter’s education, I’m able to teach her the right way to write, and not the school way to write.

And yes, there’s a difference.

This is What Happens When You Focus Too Much on Math

I was more than a little annoyed and disheartened to read John Warner’s “Said Is NOT Dead” article on InsideHigherEd.com.

Recently, the most disturbing news I’ve heard in a long time came across my Facebook feed. It was supplied by Matt Bell, a writer and creative writing teacher of my acquaintance who had heard this very troubling thing from the students in one of his classes.

They told Professor Bell that when it comes to tagging dialog in their fiction, “said is dead.” He inquired where they learned this, and they answered, “school.”

This is what annoys me about our educational system. We have people who don’t write teaching people how to write. We make science teachers have a background in science, history teachers have a history degree. And yes, I know English teachers have an English degree, but they’re usually readers, not writers. Or they’re not very good writers, otherwise they wouldn’t be telling students to use “enthused,” “squealed,” “chortled,” and “shrieked,” instead of “said” and “asked.”

That’s not good writing. That shows you have a thesaurus, and it’s actually very distracting. The whole point of dialog is to relay a conversation, not show how clever the author is. I want to hear the people speaking, I don’t want to see how many different emotion words the author knows.

To paraphrase Warner’s friend, Jim Ruland, “A tag on a line of dialog is like a tag on a garment: you’re not supposed to notice it and it’s slightly embarrassing when you do.

By teaching “said is dead,” these teachers are violating two other important rules of writing:

  1. Don’t use adverbs. Don’t describe a verb, use a better verb.
  2. Show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me she’s enthusiastic, describe it through her actions.

Good dialog should flow like a good TV show. When you have good actors doing good dialog, you don’t need a lot of visual fluff to go with it. When you’re writing dialog, you don’t need all that pap and fluff to tell the reader what to think. You show it with the rest of the narrative or the other character’s reaction.

Teachers Need to Learn to Write

Writing is easy. Writing well is hard. And the better you get, the harder it gets. But people who teach grossly incorrect ideas like “said is dead” are making it harder for people who actually want to write for a living.

Anyone who has to unlearn a bad habit is at a disadvantage compared to the people who learned good habits early on. Teachers who tell their students “said is dead” — or any of these other grammar and language myths — are doing their students a horrible disservice. And employers like me end up with an entire generation of students who couldn’t write their way out of a wet paper bag without a quiver full of adjectives.

Teachers, if you want to help your students be good writers, start writing yourself. Write essays and short stories. Don’t just read them, produce them. Invite professional writers and college writing professors to your class to talk about what the writing life is like. Start reading blogs from professional writers and creating writing teachers to see what kinds of advice they’re giving and what ideas they’re teaching.

Give them sound writing advice that every professional writer is following in the real world, and not something from the Pollyanna School of Saccharine Pap.

(Update: As my friend and published novelist, Cathy Day, said in the comments below: If any K-12 teachers find their way to this post and feel inspired to focus on their own identities as writers, this is just what they need: The Indiana Writing Project (or if they don’t live in Indiana, many states off similar summer institutes).)

Six Writing Terms That Are Fun to Know

I listen to enough writing and language podcasts that I keep hearing certain writing terms bandied about like I’m supposed to know what they are. After hearing some of the same ones over and over, I decided to look them up. And then, because I constantly need to feed this beast, I decided to turn them into a blog post.

These are words that every writer should know, if nothing else, than to explain with a wild look in their sleep-deprived eyes why they do what they do, or at least, how they do it.Nude woman with the words "write or be written off" written across her front shoulders

At the very least, it just makes you sound smart at parties.

Hypergraphia

The manic need to write. This is more than just the weird obsession that most writers have. Wikipedia says “It is not itself a disorder, but can be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy, and hypomania and mania in the context of bipolar disorder.” Don’t worry, if you feel like you need to write all the time, you probably don’t have hypergraphia. You’re just obsessed. True hypergraphia is the overwhelming desire to write, even to the point that you don’t eat, sleep, or visit the bathroom. (Ewwww!) But you can also tell people you have “mild hypergraphia” and watch them edge slowly toward the cheese dip.

Prescriptive versus Descriptive grammar

Prescriptivists are real bastards about grammar rules and the way language should be used. These are the ones who rend their garments, gnash their teeth, and wail whenever another sacred grammar cow is threatened. Scads of prescriptivists were truly upset when the Associated Press said you can start sentences with “Hopefully,” or when they learned you can end sentences with prepositions.

But Descriptivists — also called linguists — are more concerned with language as it’s actually used by speakers and writers. They’re the ones who shout “common usage!” like it’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card whenever a prescriptivist corrects them on something.

Metonymy

Replacing the name of one thing with the name of something else that’s closely associated with it. For example, referring to “Detroit” when you mean “auto makers;” “Washington” when you mean “politicians, Congress, or the President;” and, “Wall Street” when you mean “those thieving bastards who wrecked the economy.” Hat tip to @RyanBrock, owner of Metonymy Media, for teaching me this word.

Synedoche

A type of metonymy where a specific part of something that is used to refer to the whole. “The White House” when you mean “the President and his staff;” “graybeards” as “a group of old men;” or one that I’ve been talking about a lot lately, “Coke” when referring to “any carbonated beverage.”

Trope

A figure of speech where the words are used in a way to change their meaning. It comes from the Greek verb for “to turn” or “to alter.” I include it here, because metonymy and synedoche are both tropes, as are metaphors and irony (Completely useless trivia: These four figures of speech are considered the four master tropes)

Will these terms make you a better writer? Will they transform and uplift your words into the realm of the powerful and noble?

No. Not at all.

But are they fun to know because they make you feel smarter? Definitely. Trot one or two of them out at your next writers gathering, and use them in a sentence like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If nothing else, you’ll feel smarter than that smarmy, hatchet-faced Evelyn who’s always prattling on and on about her latest self-published “office romance” novel.

Photo credit: Djuliet (Flickr, Creative Commons)