Thursday, April 22, 2021



A few weeks ago we talked about grammar. (Well, I did. No one else had much to say.) That was supposed to include a discussion of stylesheets, but the grammar post was plenty long, so here we are today.


Stylesheets are fine, in their place. Newspapers or magazines need consistency, lest they look, and read, as if assembled by the proverbial thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters. I have a stylesheet of sorts for this blog to remind myself to enforce certain things I feel strongly about. (Oxford commas, for example. I acknowledge there are two schools of thought: those who use Oxford commas to provide clarity and flow to the writing; and those who are wrong.) It’s also my blog, so no one else’s opinion really matters.


Strict adherence to a stylesheet bothers me when publishers insist on one for all books. I have been fortunate that Down & Out Books isn’t hardcore about this, though I have had discussions with editors because I insist on something that doesn’t agree with the stylesheet they prefer. I understand, and agree, the book needs to be consistent throughout, but it is pedantic beyond description to think anyone cares that one author used Oxford commas and another from the same publisher was wrong.


I use punctuation similar to musical notation, especially in dialog. I’m trying to convey to the reader where the speaker hurried on or paused, and how long the pause is. This means I may use a period, comma, dash, or ellipsis in non-traditional manners that may not be welcome to a grammarian. I don’t want to have to argue about what the stylesheet says should go there. Paraphrasing Raymond Chandler, when I use an ellipsis/comma/period, God damn it, it is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed and attentive.


Grammar, of which punctuation is part, evolves, as even a quick reading of Lynne Truss’s delightful book Eats Shoots and Leaves will show. Too rigid an adherence to stylesheets will only stifle the inevitable changes. To pick a point in time when grammar was “correct” or “proper” is to deny the history of the topic about which such pedants claim to know so much. (There’s an example of classically proper grammar actually making the sentence harder to understand.) I’ll admit, the misuse of “less” when “fewer” is appropriate affects me as fingernails scraping across a chalkboard. That doesn’t mean I should be a bigot about it. (In my defense, “less” implies an analog, thus less specific, measurement; “fewer” is more digital.)


Do stylesheets serve a purpose? Absolutely. In their place. And that place need never be too broadly construed.

1 comment:

Ef Deal said...

As one who loves the em-dash and a proper semi-colon as well as the Oxford comma, may I just say "amen"!