Tuesday, June 20, 2006

You Can't Account for Style

To professional writers—the ranks of which I have recently entered full-time—words matter. But myriad occupational hazards come with the territory.

For starters, there’s the waxing and waning income. And the omnipresent threat of writer’s block.

Don’t forget the pitchfork-toting gangs of vigilantes hell-bent on murdering unsuspecting freelance writers. (Maybe that last one is just a story I’m working on. Humor me.)

Another hazard for scribblers is the delicate dance required to navigate between style guides. The two biggies are AP Style, which journalists favor, and Chicago Style, which book publishers tend to follow.

These two handbooks agree on most issues. Hyphenate compound nouns. Use ellipses in place of missing words within quotes. Place periods inside quotation marks.

Unfortunately, the manuals differ on a few crucial elements of everyday writing. For example, there’s the use of that pesky comma—specifically, the “serial” comma.

Let me show you what I mean.

This series of David Amulet’s favorite words would be silky smooth with AP types: spleen, wombat, penultimate and kumquat. Windy City stylists, however, are doubled over in agony right now; their indoctrination has instilled in them the need for a comma before that conjunction.

The serial comma disagreement has sparked conflicts between editors that make the Second World War look like a playground scuffle.

I’ll be honest with you: I loves me the serial comma. Perceptive visitors here already know that I prefer using the little swipe of additional ink to make longer sentences easier on readers.

But let’s focus on what matters. As long as the material is good and the meaning is clear, style takes second place … which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from the Washington Post’s Sam Brown:

“Never offend people with style when you can offend them with substance.”



At June 20, 2006 11:52 AM, Blogger Jim replied to my musings ...

my obsession is proper use of em and en, but I agree with you about the comma

At June 20, 2006 12:19 PM, Blogger The Phoenix replied to my musings ...

Although I've almost exlusively used AP Style, I always put the serial comma before the conjunction.

Grammarians can battle it out. It's just a habit for me.

At June 20, 2006 12:52 PM, Blogger Mimi replied to my musings ...

That is a great quote!

At June 20, 2006 1:41 PM, Blogger Pixie replied to my musings ...

I don't really have an obsession per-say.
Wp has this thing of all I's as in me being capitalised. So I automatically do it now. Other then that I have terrible grammer so I would not fair well in that profession ;)
and yes that is a great quote!

At June 20, 2006 1:54 PM, Blogger Bruce replied to my musings ...

Hi, my name is Bruce, and I use the serial comma.

At June 20, 2006 2:45 PM, Blogger angel, jr. replied to my musings ...

I used AP style all through undergrad.

At June 20, 2006 3:12 PM, Blogger OnMyWatch replied to my musings ...

Wow, that's terrific for you! But does that mean I'll soon have to pay to read your stuff now?

At June 20, 2006 4:01 PM, Blogger ~ good girl ~ replied to my musings ...

Loved the quote!

Hate the sinking, nagging feeling I now have about watching grammar, slashes and dots :-(

Now I'm thinking, "Should there have been a comma after 'nagging'?"


At June 20, 2006 5:35 PM, Blogger Nova replied to my musings ...

What things have you written? I've been trying to get a working manuscript out for a little while now. I have the idea but am faltering on the production.

At June 20, 2006 9:51 PM, Blogger fatty ~ replied to my musings ...

we have to kumquat bushes in our garden and they're fruiting at the moment. My grandma collects them for cooking.

That is all i have to add - i dont even know what the serial comma is so i'll just nod and smile :D

At June 20, 2006 10:22 PM, Blogger Kay replied to my musings ...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At June 20, 2006 10:24 PM, Blogger Kay replied to my musings ...

My vote is for the serial comma. I am also a big fan of hyphens - perhaps too much so.

(I also just deleted my previous comment due to a typographical error.)

At June 21, 2006 1:36 AM, Blogger Tai replied to my musings ...

'Word' indeed.

I try to write as I speak, but I've learned it doesn't translate.

No wonder there are so many issues with translations!

At June 21, 2006 4:15 AM, Blogger CT replied to my musings ...

You hit the nail in the coffin bro.... Kick ass with the free lance... who knows maybe playboy will pick you up?

At June 21, 2006 6:02 AM, Blogger DaBich replied to my musings ...

Serial comma, serial

Seriously tho, in grammar school we were taught to use the extra comma before and...and that's the way I STILL do it!

At June 21, 2006 7:17 AM, Blogger Curare_Z replied to my musings ...

I am a serial commaist. I'm also a serial ellipses user.

WHEW. That was tough. The first step is admitting that you have a problem.

At June 21, 2006 8:35 AM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Jim, Bruce, GoodGirl, Kay, DaBich: Your comments remind me of the recent book, Bill Walsh's Lapsing Into a Comma. You just gotta love those hot grammar-and-style reads.

Phoenix, Angel Jr.: In general, I like AP Style, too, because it's clean, crisp, and effective. (But note my use of the serial comma in the previous sentence anyway!)

Mimi, Pixie: I try to keep a file of good quotes like that--send me your favorites for my collection!

OnMyWatch, CT: 'Tis true, my best stuff is going to paying markets. Trust me, if I could get every reader of this blog to pay me a dollar a week, I'd write a whole lot more here! Playboy is actually a top-notch writing market to break into ... maybe someday.

Nova: Stick with it. To cite Calvin Coolidge -- a president who was better with quotes than with leadership -- "nothing in the world takes the place of persistence." I have dabbled in many formaats; the short humor/pop culture essays here are among my favorites to write.

Fatty: Finally someone who knows what a kumquat is!!

Tai: Writing in your "voice" is a good thing, but I agree that oral communication often does not translate well in print.

Curare: You'd better stop now. Once you start down the road of admitting your problems here, the comment section will fill up with your issues faster than Britney's womb fills up with Little K-Feds.

-- david

At June 21, 2006 4:32 PM, Blogger Kyahgirl replied to my musings ...

That's a great quote. I always wonder about people who get that worked up about a comma here, a comma there, when the substance is what you're interested in, aren't you?

I know if people come to my blog and can't forgive typos and punctuation errors, they just better move on. :-)

At June 21, 2006 5:23 PM, Anonymous mojotek replied to my musings ...

I'm of the serial comma persuasion myself. Of course the rest of my writing is probably a mash of AP, Chicago style, and baby caca. But I have used the serial comma since the second grade!

At June 21, 2006 7:10 PM, Blogger Tai replied to my musings ...

The comma and I have long standing issues.

May I recommend a book here?

"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss.

At June 21, 2006 9:45 PM, Blogger Nova replied to my musings ...

Eats, Shoots and Leaves is a very interesting sounding book. I've heard of it but never picked it up.

At June 22, 2006 6:16 AM, Blogger An80sNut replied to my musings ...

Love this post as I'm always second-guessing my comma usage and vary tactics often so I'm never cornered into one practice. I'd give an editor headaches... which is probably why I self-edit my publishing.

At June 22, 2006 3:25 PM, Anonymous Bar replied to my musings ...

David, great post. I have a question for you: How do you define "a writer". What I mean is, I consider myself a writer because I write a lot of stories, poetry, and journaling - but I don't think I am all that great, I do it for me. In your opinion how does one earn the title "Writer"?

At June 22, 2006 6:07 PM, Blogger fatty ~ replied to my musings ...

man i'm asian. of course i know.

At June 22, 2006 7:59 PM, Blogger Jamie Dawn replied to my musings ...

My natural instinct is to NOT put a comma before the conjunction, but I do toss it in sometimes for fun.

It's the content that matters. My dad sends me hilarious emails with many errors ranging from spelling and capitalization errors to atrocious punctuation errors. It doesn't matter. The content is SO good.
Then there's the perfectly written piece that is so boring one can hardly get through it.
Which it better?
I'll take my dad's funny stuff any day.

At June 22, 2006 9:49 PM, Blogger cube replied to my musings ...

Hee hee. I loves me them elipses... I can't get enough of them ;-)

At June 23, 2006 10:24 AM, Blogger Blonde Vigilante replied to my musings ...

That is a great quote. As long as there are no glaring grammatical mistakes or misspellings and the substance is rich and creamy...I'll swallow what you're writing.

At June 23, 2006 11:16 AM, Blogger David Amulet replied to my musings ...

Kyahgirl, 80s Nut, Jamie: Self-editing is hard, no doubt. I can't tell you how many "obvious" errors I have missed even when I do a full scrub of an article or other copy. For paying clients, it makes sense to do a spell check, a full scrub, and a "clean-eyes" look at the copy, whether it's another person's review or a fresh examination after some time away from the text.

Mojotek, Tai, Nova, Cube: Truss's book is about as fun as a manuscript about punctuation and style can be--and it addresses both commas and ellipses. I know a lot of editors who disgaree with parts of it, though. (You'd thihk this was philosophy or something with the petty little fights among editors!)

Fatty: Now I'm just waiting for an Aussie reader to weigh in on the wombat.

BV: Great, I need a cold shower.

Bar: Thank you. I think a writer, most simply, is someone who writes. That's not a smart-ass answer; I know several "writers" (myself included, at times) who do everything BUT write. I suggest that to take it to the next level and see yourself as a Writer, all it takes is to think about the reader as you write. You don't necessarily have to change what you are writing ... but the very act of thinking about what a reader will take away from your words shifts the focus from solely your need to vent and takes into account the point you might be making to someone else.

-- david

At June 24, 2006 1:42 AM, Blogger ~ good girl ~ replied to my musings ...

David, I so like your answer about being a writer! I was mulling over that myself recently. One reads a lot about "If you're blogging for readership, you have no place owning a blog." It stopped me short. Am I writing for myself or writing to increase readership?

Your answer takes it out of the box. It's not readership, it's what even 1 reader might take from it. Write for yourself but make your point, something you hope the reader might take with him, whether it is a question or a choice of answers.

I loved your answer. Truly. Thanks!



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