Saturday, February 10, 2007


Style is arbitrary
The reason we have style manuals—and here I’m talking about books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, The MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and so forth—is precisely because style is arbitrary. That is, there is not one hard and fast rule that makes one style correct and another wrong. Style is not the same as grammar, which deals with the question of whether an utterance sounds natural to a native speaker of the language and does not care so much about how to abbreviate the name of a scholarly journal. So a publisher or an editor chooses a style guide and refers to it for all of the undecidables: Shall I use an Oxford comma or not? Do I use italics or quotation marks? Does this call for a semicolon? Do I form the possessive of this name with an apostrophe alone or with an apostrophe-s? Etc.

A style guide is nothing more than a collection of arbitrary choices according to the taste of its author or the amalgamated tastes of a committee.

The style guide doesn’t tell me that this is the one true path; it tells me that I can maintain a consistency within the work I am editing by following the same style each time I encounter a similar situation. Alert readers are comforted by that sort of consistency because it indicates that the writing and editing were done with care, and this lends credibility to the author (whether or not it is deserved, I hasten to add). The same arbitrariness applies to the choice of a dictionary, and the same value is added by using one: it reassures the reader.

Style drifts
Tastes change over time. That’s why, for example, we’re up to the fifteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style. Technology changes, too. And when you are in the business of getting glyphs onto paper, accommodating the limitations of current typesetting technology is necessary.

Combine those two facts with the reality that for every two editors in a discussion of style you get three opinions, and you can see that nothing stays fixed for long. Meanings of words change, spelling changes, our understanding of the science of linguistics changes, the world changes.

Some of these changes are predictable. We have a fairly long history in English of forming hyphenated compounds and then later closing up the compounds to form solid words. We also have a fairly long history of simplifying what we can get away with simplifying in terms of sentence structure, punctuation, and, to some extent, spelling. Similarly, we’ve moved from using lots of capital letters, almost as many as are used in German but with less regularity, to using few.

But I’ve been watching this process long enough to notice that—even within a few decades—these predictable trends move like waves against a beach as the tide comes in. As the wave comes in the water rides up the beach and then rolls back down. Yes, the next wave pushes in a bit higher on the beach, but it too rolls back, if not quite so far as the one before. For example, electronic mail quickly became e-mail and just as quickly became email. But a lot of editors have looked at that construction and there is now some pressure to reconsider and revert to e-mail.

What prompts this post is a reconsideration of how we use capitals. I mentioned the other day that I still capitalize President when referring to the President of the United States. Many style guides have moved toward lowercasing the word when it is used as a noun in a sentence rather than as a title preceding a name. “The president said yesterday….” A couple of months ago, I participated in an online discussion about whether to capitalize Act when it refers to a particular piece of legislation. Some argued that it should only be capitalized when it is used in the full title of the act in question. I argued that if it refers to a specific act and not generically to any act of Congress, it should be capitalized. A nickname or an abbreviated name of a specific instance of a person, place, or thing is still a proper noun in my book, and proper nouns need to be capitalized to avoid ambiguity and confusion.

The wave of decapitation surged up the beach, partly pushed by the tide of style drift and partly pushed by the typographic conceit that a block of text should be as smooth and uniform a color as possible. And I got dragged along with it for a while. But now I hope it is receding. At least I’m doing what I can to pull it back a bit toward the calm sea of convention by undecapitating <g> the words I think should never have been lowercased in the first place. I suspect that the style guides will roll back down the beach a bit, too.

We’ll see what happens.

1 comment:

r_i_d said...

Nice blog you have here. I have my own issues with style, too, especially when writing for a blog. Who can read so much, so easily off the computer screen?

...words themselves. Sometimes, I wonder what our pages will look like in a hundred years from now. Blogging _might_ change the way writers write.