Style Guides and Silly Pedantry

The Washington Post BuildingI particularly enjoy reading P M Carpenter when he writes about language or literature. On politics, he’s very liberal. But on these other issues, he’s a bit of a stick-in-the-mud. But that’s okay. So am I in my own idiosyncratic way. Sunday, he wrote, Language Crimes and Misdemeanors. (How do you not like a guy who references Woody Allen films in his article titles?) It is about the big happenings at The Washington Post. It seems that they are changing their style guide in a mad rush to catch up to the publishing world of 2000!

The big news is the move from “e-mail” to “email.” This brings back nightmares of the “Internet” Capitalization War. I don’t especially care, but it seems that simpler is always better if clarity is not harmed. And there could hardly be more clarity than “email”; I think “e-mail” is a bit clunky. Another change is from “Web site” to “website.” That one is especially repugnant to me. First, who capitalized “web” after 2006? Second, two words? Not even a hyphen?! At this point a website is something distinct from a site on the web. It deserves its own word, just like “gravesite” (which many websites represent).

But for pure silliness, The Post has decided to switch from “Wal-Mart” to “Walmart.” The truth is that the corporation’s name has been “Wal-Mart” since 1969. But the company calls itself “Walmart,” and has done so for a very long time. That’s the thing about style guides: they are autocratic. But all autocrats should know the limits of their powers. And continuing to call something by the wrong name is, well, wrong. We can argue all we want about capitalizing “internet,” but people and institutions have names. They define them — not the copy editor at The Washington Post. (BTW: I format The Post’s name like that because that is what it calls itself; I try to do that with all names.)

Carpenter doesn’t have a problem with these changes, but he doesn’t seem to be keen on them either. He describes the changes in the terms of war, “There are tactical moments, however, when ground should — and perhaps must — be ceded…” This is more or less, “I’ll give you ‘website’ but you can have ‘internet’ when you pry my cold dead hands off that capital I!” Fair enough. But what is this war being fought over? If The Washington Post gives up “Internet,” will it lead to George Will writing sentences like, “Me and him gone down to the fishin’ hole”? It’s absurd.

To me, it is always about clarity first and ease of writing second. As a result, unlike Carpenter, I am fanatical about the serial comma. Why? Because it is often necessary for clarity (“Jack Benny, Groucho Marx, and Burns and Allen”), and it is easier for the writer to simply put it in and not worry about whether it is or is not necessary. So these are what guide me in writing. The problem is that a stubborn commitment to past practice is very often an impediment to clarity and ease of writing.

I try, in my writing, to get things right — as defined by intelligent opinion. But that’s clearly third on my list of priorities. As for style guides? They are more about branding than grammar.

30 thoughts on “Style Guides and Silly Pedantry

  1. In your last paragraph the commas are correct but three detract form the quality of the sentence. It would be better with just the last comma.

    I confess to comma overuse myself. It usually is better to write more sentences or else remove commas. Also I love semicolons; they make for nice turns of phrase and give an accurate account of much oral English.

    You should have more love for style guides. If insisted upon too strenuously, they are silly. But without them, the overall quality of everyone’s writing goes to pot quickly. Basically a bad standard usually is better than none at all.

    • Snob! What do you think of my new syntax?

      But I don’t hear my writing in your criticisms. Long, complex sentences? Not me — at least in this format. And I use loads of semicolons, although not nearly as many as I used to. But bear in mind: nothing I writer at FC is copy edited. I write too much here and I just can’t bother. Plus, I spend the bulk of the rest of my time editing writing I dislike even more than my own.

      “Overuse” is clearly a relative term. The moderns brought us the dislike of punctuation. But I look back to the more refined time of Hazlitt and Poe.

      You seem to have gotten the wrong idea. I am keeper of the style guide at work; I wrote it. But it is really hard to get a bunch of freelance writers to follow it.

      • In terms of your writing, I was criticizing one sentence only and not any general trend. My complaint against my own writing is that I do this too much.

        I agree with your completely that it is clarity and avoidance of ambiguity, not some abstract notion of correctness, that is the proper aim here. Note though that when people don’t adhere to style guides, writing is usually vague and ambiguous.

        Thus possessives should adhere to what we were taught in 5th grade or whatever, so that writing is clearer. And people should write ‘figuratively’ if that is what they mean – clearer. In general, adherence to accepted, traditional practice usually results in clearer and better writing. Not because of some metaphysical reality but just because rules given by style guides have been tested out over a long time.

        This is a sticking point for me, but not with your blog as such. Many people in defending innovations I regard as lazy and careless imply that critics are simply unreasonable purists. I am not conservative regarding writing due to some undue purism. No, I am conservative this way because it furthers the goal of better writing.

        • My rants last night were not directed at you. I have no memory of anyone being a grammar pedant around here. But I have seen it at its most bizarre on Twitter. But usually where I come upon it is in conversation — that’s where the 5th grade comment comes from — one I’ve been making for decades.

          Why do you think I’m so down on style guides?! But they are far more about consistency than they are anything else.

          Almost all I do is edit other writers, and there is surprisingly little micro-scale work. Part of this is that the company I work for has a strict “good enough” policy. Is it good enough for people to share and link to? Fine! But even the most marginal writers generally know the basics. Sentence structure is the biggest micro-scale problem. This is what you started off talking about. People tend to write as they talk. And that creates sentences like, “So then I told him, looking away for a moment, because I didn’t know how he’d react, that this was, and let’s face it, always would be, a big problem.” This drives me crazy. But this is mostly a problem with younger, less experienced writers.

          The main thing I deal with is narrative. A lot of writers throw facts into articles almost randomly. There’s little sense of a story. All of this is basic stuff that you will find in any book on writing. And the writers already know this. They can do good work; they just don’t quite often. Most writers are lazy.

  2. I am looking forward to learning how to properly write in legalese next semester. Until then, I will continue to use terms I find fun to use like interwebz, Yewtewb and other probably drive you up the wall spellings. Let us not even get into my horrific failures of punctuation.

    But this does give me the chance to post “Weird Al’s” awesome video on Word Crimes

    • That’s a very good video. It reminds of They Might Be Giants.

      Ultimately, I’m a grammar liberal. The problem I have with those spellings is the same problem I have WITH ALL CAPITAL LETTERS: they slow down the reader. But if they get common enough, I would have no problem using them. I don’t think I’ve ever seen “yewtewb” before. I just want to make the language clear and easy to write, as I said.

      But I do have a major problem with people who think that grammar is some kind of science. Grammar is a system that tries to make sense of the way that we speak. But there are lots of things that simply make no sense such as the inconsistent use of apostrophes in pronoun possessives. Most grammar snobs learned a couple of things in the 5th grade that they are very proud of, and can’t let go. But I still find grammar and language fun. Ultimately, it is better to be inartful or even “wrong” than vague. Yet I don’t see people online going crazy over phrases that can be interpreted in different ways. That kind of stuff exhausts me. Grammar is not a weapon to use against people. The reader and writer are engaged in a dance that requires trust and goodwill on both sides.

      • A few years after I took office I had a situation develop where I had to look up the origin of capitalization in court filings. It turns out it is purposely done to capture the attention of judges so they can zip through their cases slightly faster. So on one hand it does slow the reader down but on the other hand it has the ability to make the reader do something else quicker.

        I am not too far gone into the habit of people under the age of 25 in shorting words to make texting quicker but I enjoy the occasional respelling of a word like Youtube to reflect how it is often said around me. I barely remember what they taught us in the fifth, sixth and seventh grades about English since most of the time I was distracted by being hated by the rest of the class and wanting to escape where no one can bother me so I have no claim to know enough to call anyone out on their language online.

        • They have their uses. The USPS prefers all caps — I assume because they do not want their people reading addresses the way they would a story. It is a question of accuracy.

          I don’t remember grammar school grammar either. There is just something very much in keeping with the proud schoolgirl in the criticisms of the grammar pendants. But it is much more acceptable from a ten year old.

          • Oh no, it is because USPS is a Federal Corporation that makes you into a corporation so you can access your secret Social Security Account created when we defaulted in 1933 after Roosevelt took us off the gold standard and that means that you are collateral for our debt to China.

            The above gibberish is something a sovereign citizen would say for why USPS would use it. I think your assumption is as good as any except a SC.

                • There are different kinds of libertarians, of course. The “intellectual” ones would hate that idea. But when I was involved with the Libertarian Party, I would say that most of them were of the sovereign citizen type. But that was up in Oregon. I did finally find a group of marijuana libertarians. In general, I have no problem with them. They just want their drugs. I get that.

    • I just listened to the rest of the song. There are many things I disagree with. All I can remember is that it has one of my most hated complaints: that people use “literally” to mean “figuratively.” And yes, I don’t like it either. I consider it lazy. But people have been using “literally” in that way for such a long that it is part of the language. Look in any real dictionary and you will see. Do these people think that by making a big production out of it that things will change? No. They are just trying to show off their knowledge — and what a pathetic level of knowledge it shows! The same thing goes for “begs the question,” which I want to misuse just to annoy these jerks.

        • I was going to suggest to you that you never misuse that phrase. In the legal world, that’s a big deal. You might as well say, “I be done now.”

          • I don’t use it. But that response was a joke because it is 1 AM and I will be serious later. Especially since I already decided to have a cookie.

            • Yes, I knew you were joking. But I thought it worth mentioning the thing about lawyers. It seems to me that the only people who seem to care about that are people who were on the debate team.

              • I have never, in ten years, heard anyone use that phrase oddly enough. Seems to be a different level of court. Then again most of the time I have to give extremely careful detailed explanations of the law to the average citizen that is at a level they understand and sometimes through a translator like I did today.

                • I’m not saying that use it. I’m saying they know what it means — almost all of them. I would be shocked if a quarter of a relatively smart people I know are aware of its original meaning. When I see it written, it is almost always the “wrong” way.

                    • Was that unclear? Lawyer types tend to know that “beg the question” means “assume the conclusion.” That doesn’t mean they use the phrase, because the truth is, it isn’t that useful with that meaning. But it would probably make you seem ignorant to go around saying things like, “It begs the question what we are going to do now!”

                    • Now it makes sense. Most of the people I deal with are self represented litigants, not attorneys so most of them don’t use that phrase. The ones who are lawyers are used to dealing with mostly non-lawyer types so they don’t use it either.

                      They do use the term baby daddy. The first time I heard that in the courtroom I had trouble not saying “oh my god, people actually say that?!”

      • And now to actually be serious since it is no longer 1 in the morning and I have time before I go yell at people.

        The song is actually mocking those people. In fact it is making fun of all of the online grammar buffs who demand things like the oxford comma, use of proper spelling of words, literally properly, “I could care less”, etc. while at the same time explaining why those things are incorrect if you want to be a jerk about it in a catchy tune that also parodies the originating song which was about a guy being a jerk to a woman.

        It is a supremely tricky song that on first listen sounds fun. Second listen sounds like he is being pedantic and on third listen you figure out he is actually mocking those people he sounds like he is doing. “Weird Al” has been writing parody songs for a long time and he is incredibly good at slipping in things it takes a long time to figure what he actually means.

        • The truth is without the video, I wouldn’t have made out any of it. It goes by too fast. But even with easy songs, it usually takes me several listens before I grok the lyrics. I’m too focused on the music to start. But standardized spelling has been a boon for readers. Now if we could just get the Brits to spell “color” sensibly…

          • I use the internet to look up the lyrics and then listen again. It makes it easier. Which is part of the reason my memory is so bad these days.

            • No, you’re probably just getting old! Trust me: it gets much worse. Half the time when I need to remember an actor’s name, I have to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon on IMDb.

              • I prefer to blame the fact that information is at our fingertips so we don’t bother to remember anything that is not important to us. I cannot be old yet, I am only 36-I have three and a half more years!

                • I’m sure there is something to that. We use the brain power on other things. Still, I force myself to memorize speeches from Shakespeare, because I’m just like that. We don’t really grow old; we just change. Until we hit 70, when there is a quick decline in mental functioning. And then none after that. Or so I hear. But it looks legit. So you have 33.5 years!

                  • I use it to read five books at once. Apparently that is difficult for people to do much like walking while reading is also.

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