by Gabrielle C. Durham
“In receiving this award, I thank my parents, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Mr. T.”
This is my twist on the importance of the serial or Oxford comma, the comma that should follow “Gabor” and precede “and.” I was indoctrinated at a young age, which as we know is the best time for a spongy brain to take in nebulous rules that will dictate the rest of one’s life. The catechist was grammar and its incumbent style guide. Style guides rule the world. They frame the content you read, no matter if you notice it. You probably only become aware of it if the framing is inadequate or a convention is broken.
In a just and decent world, everyone would use the Chicago Manual of Style. That august association does not give me any money, but I would give (and have given) them some for the joy and clarity that publication and its website have bestowed upon me. If you’re looking for some syntactic comedy, check out their reader comments. It’s not a Chris Rock special on premium cable, but you might have a titter.
Chicago has everything. If you cannot find an answer in Chicago, either you did not phrase it correctly or it is not worth asking. Even a worthless question, the magnanimous souls at CMS will find a way to answer and give solace to the asker’s weary mind.
Other style guides such as APA, Gregg, and MLA are well and good, but they still have holes. They serve their purposes admirably enough, but they tend toward the scanty and pusillanimous. I want examples, do’s and don’ts, and exceptions, all of which CMS offers in droves.
Then there is AP style. When a project requires AP style, my stomach knots and I have to decide whether I want to proceed with the project. Why bother, my non-newspaper-trained brain grumbles. AP style is what newspapers use to save space consistently, which may seem an oversimplification. Superfluous punctuation, such as the serial comma, endangers column inches. Ergo, the practice of when in doubt, cut it out.
I’ve written dozens of style guides. The best ones are not exhaustive; you don’t want to choke on the information contained. I tend to divide mine into “forests” and “trees.” One thing to consider is the audience for the style guide. Typically, I am writing one for a client who has nary a clue as to what a style guide is, much less how crucial it is to have one for their project or company. My sweetly suasive tone and bargain-basement prices tend to make said client see the value of such an undertaking. In constructing a style guide, will you bother with small beer like “Use correct grammar and punctuation?” Are you writing a style guide for e.e. cummings? If so, then add the bromide. Otherwise, skip such obvious fare.
No, I am quite stingy with what I put in the style guide. If I were to rip off the New Yorker, I would add an entry about the umlaut over the repeated vowel (coöperate, reëlect). For educational publishing, I would add the taboos (no name brands, what religious stuff to avoid such as holidays, the supernatural, and birthdays). For a fiction book, I would keep a list of common rules specific to the content and client.
You add what you think is necessary and what might avoid confusion in the future. If you grew up thinking serial commas were the work of malicious imps, by all means, add that rule to your style guide.
One of the current controversies has been making the round for years: one space or two after ending punctuation and before a new sentence. There’s a great piece on Slate.com about using one space and a recent piece in the Washington Post (May 4, 2018) about why the human eye craves two spaces. This debate arose initially because of fonts. If you are a 1960s machine using Courier (a quickly vanishing breed, thank goodness), a monospace font, you need two spaces to satisfy the spacing gods. If you use a proportional font, i.e., the rest of them, this is not an issue. As a result, the majuscule I will not take as much space as a W in a proportional font.
And you thought style guides would be dry, didn’t you, you silly minx? As the great Anthony Burgess noted, “There is no substitute for craft. Art begins with craft, and there no art until craft has been mastered” (from But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen? Homage to Qwert Yuiop, and Other Writings, 1986). The style guide assists the craftsperson in creating that person’s art. One has to know the rules before breaking them, be it in the name of innovation, youthful indiscretion, revolution, ennui, or what have you. A style guide can only help, provided you know to use it.