Breaking Style

By Mark Nichol readers frequently email a message or write a comment in which they disagree with me (usually but not always respectfully) about something I’ve written. Occasionally, a reader has misunderstood me. Now and then, I’ve been unclear or I’ve made a mistake. Sometimes, the issue is of a difference between the recommendations of one style guide and another. Regardless, sometimes readers tell me that they are going to do something their way regardless of the “rules.”

Writing (and editing) is both an art and a science, and the guidelines about producing prose are somewhat amorphous, for various reasons. As I mentioned, there’s more than one kind of style: Some writing and editing guides call for serial commas (a, b, and c), for example, while others recommend omitting serial commas (a, b and c) unless they’re necessary for clarity. There’s also a degree of flexibility: Introductory phrases should generally be separated from the main clause of the sentence by a comma (for example, as in “When the council met again the next day, the mood was somber”), but short phrases are sometimes given a pass (for example, as in “In effect it acts like a catalyst”).

In some cases, the flexibility is a matter of formality: Contractions (such as can’t in place of cannot) are rare in academic prose but ubiquitous in colloquial writing, for example, and both extremes are intrinsically valid. But one thing I always emphasize when readers disagree with my advice is this: If you are writing for your own pleasure, or if you self-publish (whether in print or online), you are the final authority and may choose which rules to follow and which to flout (though consider that, if you actually want other people to read what you write, with great power comes great responsibility).

But if you intend for your writing to be mediated — if you are submitting it for publication on a website, in a periodical, or in a book — you are generally expected to abide with a set of guidelines about grammar, syntax, usage, punctuation, and other issues of style.

Exceptions exist, of course — and they’re called style breaks, because they break with the standards for style. For example, one book I copyedited was a second edition of a guide to herbs. The author had (erroneously, according to prevailing style) capitalized all the plant names and made other editorial decisions that I thought diminished the book’s authoritativeness, so I lowercased the names and made other style changes.

When I received a complimentary copy of the published new edition from the publisher, I noticed that the plant names were capitalized, as before. Apparently, the author had felt strongly about retaining the capitalization and had asked that it be restored (or had done so himself while reviewing the edited manuscript).

I should have queried the publisher’s project editor before making such a comprehensive editorial decision, but I am glad that the author did not name me on the acknowledgments page. The decision about whether to allow such profligate capitalization is for the publisher to make, but although most readers may not notice — or are unlikely to realize or care that lowercase style is the norm for such usage — it looks amateurish, especially when hundreds of references to dozens of herbs appear throughout the book.

More recently, an editor for a company that publishes commemorative books for professional sports teams told me to honor a style break for references to sports scores when I edit manuscripts. Normally, a score is set off from the rest of the sentence, as in “The 49ers beat the Raiders, 28–21, before a sellout crowd,” but I was asked to preserve the omission of commas in such constructions.

This type of change is innocuous and nearly invisible, and it happens often. The copy editor simply notes the deviation from the norm on a style sheet, a record of variations in spelling, punctuation, and the like, and other editors involved in the project note and preserve the style break.

Feel free to break style in self-published writing or to request that deviations from style be honored when you submit content for publication. But in either case, have a good reason for doing so, or be prepared to accept with good grace a denial of your request.

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3 Responses to “Breaking Style”

  • Rosemary Micire

    I have a comment about your explanation of comma usage in introductory phrases. I understand there are differences in style related to introductory prepositional phrases; however, the example you provided compared an introductory clause to an introductory phrase. “When the council met the next day” is an dependent adverbial clause, including a subject and predicate. My understanding is that introductory clauses do require a comma while introductory prepositional phrases do not. Is there a new usage rule of which I am unaware?

  • Dale A. Wood

    “…unlikely to realize or care that lowercase style is the norm for such usage — it looks amateurish, especially when hundreds of references to dozens of herbs appear throughout the book.”

    I emphatically agree that such writing makes it look like the author is an amateur.
    Here are some other cases:
    1) The names of all of the chemical elements are all common nouns, and this means even the ones that were named for people, places, or mythological characters:
    americium, berkelium, californium, curium, einsteinium, europium, francium, germanium, hafnium (using an old name for Copenhagen), holmium (named for Stockholm), lawrencium, mendelevium, niobium, polonium, plutonium, rutherfordium, samarium, tantalum, thorium, thulium, uranium, ytterbium.
    Even gallium is named for an old name for France. This element was discovered by a French chemist named Lecoq de Boisbaudran, and some people suspected him of naming the element for himself: Lecoq means “rooster” in French, and “gallus” is the Latin word for rooster.

    2. Some people want to capitalize the named of diseases, but these are generally common nouns, too. Just consider polio, pneumonia, arthritis, eczema, appendicitis, and many more. Here, there are exceptions like Parkinson’s disease, Hansen’s disease, and Addison’s disease, but there are good reasons for those.

  • Gordon Havens

    Despite the mishmash of contradictory rules concerning grammar and style — rules that will be argued ad infinitum — one thing is certain and consistent: Mark Nichol knows his stuff. He is a writer to emulate. Kudos, Mark, and continued success with DailyWritingTips.

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