Saturday, May 2, 2015

Grammar Styleguides: Which is Right?


I’m a nerd when it comes to collecting grammar books. I possess many of them. I am not saying I have mastered all the rules within these manuals, but I am interested in learning the best way to use the English language in my manuscripts.

One of my favorite resources is the British Bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. On the back of her book, she humorously makes her point about how bad punctuation can affect our readers. She tells a story of a panda bear that enters a café, orders something to eat, eats the food, and draws his gun to fire two shots in the air. When the waiter asks him why he exhibits such behavior, the panda, before he leaves, throws a poorly written wildlife manual over his shoulder and tells the waiter he can read about it under Panda. The entry explains: Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

When I first read the quip on the back of Truss’s book, I had a good laugh. Bad punctuation can alter the meaning of our sentences and leave the reader scratching his head. I have dodged the fiery darts of those in the office who argue to leave the comma in, take the comma out, or put the hyphen in, leave the hyphen out. The battle became so intense that management finally put together a style manual so everyone follows the same rules.

Why do so many variations of writing guidelines exist? Style guide, after style guide vie for our attention in the editing world and confuse the most expert connoisseur among us. Surely one is right and all the rest are wrong. Journalists follow, for the most part, Associated Press rules. Different countries lean to their own sets of guidelines, while formal American writers use a combination of several other regulatory manuals.

I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that dilemma. I think the danger comes when we mix the various styles without consideration of our reasons for doing so. Should we stick to one guide and use it religiously? Should we use AP rules when we are not writing for a magazine or newspaper venue? My take on the matter: ours is not to pick and choose at random. That is where the confusion seeps in.

Whichever system becomes your mantra, shoot for clarity in your manuscripts. I would much rather convey my messages without confusion than adhere to a specific style to the end of time and never get out of the slush pile.

It’s your choice. How you use that choice just might determine how well your writing rises to the top.

4 comments:

Marsha Ward said...

I'll admit to an abiding fondness for the Oxford comma.

Peggy Shumway said...

So do I, Marsha.

christopher said...

Blending rules and creativity is not an easy task if the result is to be special.

Catherine A. Winn said...

Just wanted to say that I'm so glad to see a post from you on my list!