Words & Stuff

hhh: Nitpickers R Us

(10 April 1999)

"Proofreading is an art and a craft." --The Chicago Manual of Style, 14th ed., example in Fig. 3.2

For the past few months I've been acting as a volunteer proofreader for a Web-based magazine. We need a way to keep proofreading consistent from story to story, for all proofreaders; the obvious solution is to create an editorial style guide.

My first encounter with a style guide came in 1990, when I was writing a manual for a Macintosh program and someone loaned me Apple's official style guide. I was instantly hooked. I no longer had to make the same writing-style decisions over and over; instead, I could check the style guide to determine that I should use "click" rather than "click on," and "Macintosh computers" rather than "Macintoshes." My inner prescriptivist, half-dormant since my first encounter with linguistics and descriptivism during college, was delighted. Now at last I had a definitive source of Truth; any document conforming to the style guide was written Correctly, while any document that failed to conform was written Incorrectly.

The style guide that the wonderful editor at Silicon Graphics developed a couple years later was probably the single most useful document I've encountered to aid in nonfiction writing. (It helped that I could ask the editor to expand the guide to cover any new situation.) The general rule, however, was that anything not covered in the company's style guide was to be governed by The Chicago Manual of Style (henceforth, Chicago).

It wasn't until six months ago that I finally obtained a copy of the latest edition of Chicago for my own use. Although it has a few flaws, and is lacking in certain particulars, it's an immensely useful reference work for editors of all sorts, as well as for writers and publishers. And although a style guide promotes prescriptivism almost by definition, Chicago's usage guidelines are quite sensible most of the time, often suggesting that writers and editors should rely on clarity and common sense in application of its rules.

Prescriptivist grammarians have long enforced certain rules for correct writing which are now considered (by most professional writers and editors) outdated and unnecessary. Unfortunately, such rules are still widely taught in primary and secondary school. For instance, the idea that a sentence should never end in a preposition was created by 19th-century grammarians who hoped to make English follow certain rules of classical grammar. There is no good reason -- except, sometimes, clarity -- to avoid ending a sentence with a preposition; in many cases avoiding ending with a preposition results in stilted and convoluted prose. (There have been various attempts to end a sentence with as many prepositions as possible -- the best of which is "What did you bring that book I didn't want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?" -- but they inevitably fall back on using words which aren't prepositions in that context.)

Similarly, split infinitives are no longer considered taboo by more enlightened authorities. Chicago says, "the intelligent and discriminating use of [split infinitives is] a legitimate form of expression.... [I]n many cases clarity and naturalness of expression are best served by a judicious splitting of infinitives." Though of course it's best to choose your words and phrasings carefully, and not to arbitrarily split infinitives.

And yet, even though I scoff at such old-fashioned rules, I still enforce some other arbitrary rules. For instance, the American practice of placing commas and periods inside quotation marks (whether or not the quoted material contains a comma or period) has no particularly good justification; the British style of putting end-punctuation inside the quotation marks only when the punctuation appears in the material being quoted is more consistent and makes more sense. In fact, the best defense that Chicago can muster for the American style is that it "seems to [work] fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication." And yet to my American-trained proofreading eye, the British style looks wrong.

Another arbitrary rule: in typeset material periods are always followed by one space, not two, even though in typewritten material two spaces follow a sentence-ending period. I don't know why this difference exists, but violations of these rules jump out at me.

These issues are further complicated by electronic publication, particularly on the Web. In standard typeset material, a hyphen is used only to link the parts of a compound word, or to signal that a word is broken to fit on a line; an en dash (the width of a capital N) should theoretically be used to mark ranges of numbers, such as page ranges; and an em dash (the width of a capital M) is used to indicate a break in grammar. Since typewriters don't include wide-dash characters, common practice in typewritten manuscripts is to use two consecutive hyphens (generally set off by spaces on either side, unlike an em dash) to indicate where an em dash would be placed in typesetting. When desktop publishing came along, there was no reason for people using computers to use the double hyphen in place of an em dash -- but most people had done most of their writing up 'til then on a typewriter, so the double hyphen was the only way they knew to represent a dash. Furthermore, email continues to be largely in ASCII, which doesn't contain an em dash character. And finally, just when many people were beginning to learn to use em dashes for a more professional look in proportional-spaced fonts on the printed page, along came the Web -- which also didn't provide an em dash character.

There are various ways to represent em dashes on the Web, but none are entirely satisfactory. I use a graphical trick suggested by David Siegel; others most often use a double hyphen. There are two ways to indicate a real em dash in HTML ("—" and "—"), but neither works on all Web browsers on all computing platforms. ("—" works almost everywhere, though; I may start using that soon.)

For more information on HTML entities, see the Entity Names table

For an introduction to good writing style, see The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White -- it's old, but it's still good. (This edition on the Web is an early edition from before White expanded it.)

Reader comments and addenda page

Jed Hartman <logophilia@kith.org>