The English language is one of the hardest in the world to master and only seems to be getting harder thanks to its constant evolution. The fact that there are so many different opinions about what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” doesn’t make it any easier, especially for those wanting to edit their writing and looking for definitive answers. After all, as writers, we generally don’t want to get involved in the battle. We just want to know who won.
Unfortunately, I don’t have good news on that front. Because while there are some definitive rules, there are also styles that change depending on which country or publication you write in and there are even preferences that individuals make up their own mind in relation to.
Rules are the things that don’t change, regardless of region or style or preference or any amount of arguing from people who have passion but no idea what they’re talking about including:
*Its and it’s
*Your and you’re
*Their, there and they’re
I’ve written a couple of previous posts (here and here) on the common mistakes people make, the correct ways they should be used and some tricks to help remember in order to get it right. If in doubt, buy a good quality dictionary and a guide to grammar and punctuation, then look it up.
There are more styles and guides out there than Twitter trolls (Oxford style, Chicago style, Harvard style, AP style, APA style, Australian Style Manual, as well as innumerable internal style guides from publishing houses and private corporate organisations) and a lot of them are inconsistent so it’s best to pick one and stick to it, if not for the sanity of your readers and publishers, then for your own.
The most obvious differences are between the regional versions of English – UK English versus US English versus Canadian English versus Australian English versus New Zealand English versus quite a few others. Usually, wherever you live dictates which version you write and edit in but that isn’t always the case. When I released my debut novel, Enemies Closer, I chose to use US English, thinking (perhaps hoping) that I would have more US readers than Australian. (I don’t know whether that turned out to be true.) But when I released Project December: A Book about Writing, I reverted back to Australian English, specifically because there was quite a bit of editing advice and my expertise as well as my training and qualifications all relate to Australian English.
There are lots of other things that change depending on which style guide you are working from and here’s a few that seem to really rile up people:
*Points of ellipsis (the dots used to indicate trailing off in dialogue or gaps in quotes) – there are people who insist it must only be three dots and others who say that four is entirely acceptable.
*Oxford comma (“me, myself, and I” instead of “me, myself and I”) – this is another one that gets people all hot under the collar.
*Quotation marks (single or double) – there isn’t a great deal of different except that one choice takes up slightly more space than the other.
The key thing to remember with many of these style issues is that they don’t really make much difference one way or the other.
Preferences are a lot like styles – nobody seems to be able to agree one hundred percent (or should that be 100%?). Because I write fiction and non-fiction about writing, I tend to spell out numbers under a thousand, mostly because I don’t use numbers that often and I prefer how it looks in text. If I was writing an economic report, I’d probably kill myself and all my readers doing this. But it’s my preference. And I don’t write that many economic reports.
Initials are another example – is it JK Rowling and EB White or is it J.K. Rowling and E.B. White? Because I write so much and because losing the full stops doesn’t impact on how it is read, I tend to leave them out. The fewer keys I have to push, the longer I can put off my ever advancing arthritis. It’s actually quite common for publishing organisations like newspapers to make editing decisions based on reducing ink consumption. And while this is becoming less important in the digital age, it’s interesting to know how some of their preference choices came to be made.
You can have your own preferences, too. But if your preference is to break the rules, then that’s not called a preference, it’s just called being wrong. Know which battles to fight.
The two most important things when editing a piece of work are consistency and being able to justify your choices. If you aren’t consistent in your choices, you just look stupid. And if you break the rules, that’s hard to justify. Knowing the difference between rules, styles and preferences will help. And making sure you edit accordingly will go a long way with people who won’t bother to consider the quality of your writing if they’re too busy judging your editing.