Hyphens, style guides, and writing conventions

adult-footie-pjsYou need a good style guide. No, I am not suggesting that you need help with your wardrobe–those footie pajamas are awesome, and are the perfect uniform for the dedicated author. What I am suggesting is that you develop consistency in your writing, and there are guides to help you with that.

English is a completely wonky language, even for those of us who grow up speaking some form of it. My dialect is that of the western United States, specifically the Pacific Northwest, near the Canadian border. As in every other part of the world, we speak informally in our homes and with friends, but in writing, we should conform to certain standardized rules, or those who speak OTHER versions of English will not be able to follow us, despite the many similarities in our dialects.

Kathleen Cali, in an article at Learn NC, says: “Conventions are the surface features of writing — mechanics, usage, and sentence formation. Conventions are a courtesy to the reader, making writing easier to read by putting it in a form that the reader expects and is comfortable with.”

Since I am a US citizen, I use American writing conventions. In the United States, many non-journalistic professional writers use The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is the manual I use.

elements of styleA classic style guide for new authors and the general public is Strunk and White’The Elements of Style. This is a popular reference among writers just beginning in the craft. I sometimes use this guide, but as I have advanced as an editor, I find myself referring to the more in-depth Chicago Manual of Style. However, either one is excellent for the US author, and for any Europeans editing for a US author in this era of the internet and the global market for editing services.

Any author or editor who tries to tell you that one particular style guide is “the only” style guide is simply voicing an opinion, and if they are obnoxious and defensive about it, ignore them. Each style guide is an excellent reference tool, and each one plays to different requirements. But all of them are for the benefit of the reader.

chicago manual of styleThe Chicago Manual of Style is one of the oldest and most comprehensive style guides available, and for me in my role as an editor, it’s an indispensable tool because it contains information that I can’t find anywhere else. While I could easily access it all via the online version, I do like having my large book at my fingertips.

As a writer I rely on a style guide because  it often feels  like every rule has an exception, and knowing what those are makes huge difference in a manuscript’s consistency and readability.

For example, sometimes we don’t know if we should hyphenate or not. Or, we are unsure when to capitalize a direction or an honorific. When this occurs, our work becomes uneven and hard to read, because it’s rife with  inconsistency, hyphenating words in one place but not another. This happens because not every set of words needs to be hyphenated, and how do you know which to decorate with that dear little dash?

There are answers to these questions, in the handy-dandy style guides we have available to us.

So how DO we employ those little morsels of madness that work their way into every corner of my manuscripts? I love them!

Unfortunately, hyphens are not toys. As I discovered when creating my world of Neveyah for the Tower of Bones series, they are the gate-way drug to writer’s hell. Take my advice and do not use a hyphen unless it serves a purpose. If a compound adjective cannot be misread or its meaning is established, a hyphen is not necessary.

  • An English-speaking country
  • A time-saving device
  • A thirty-floor building
Some compounds are created on the spot to fulfill a specific need (on-the-spot creations). Permanent compounds start out as improvised compounds, but become so widely accepted that they are included in the dictionary as permanent compounds. Examples of temporary compounds that have made the transition to permanent compounds are words like  know-it-all, heart-stopping, free-for-all, and down-at-the-heels.
shark memeContext determines whether or not to hyphenate.  Ask yourself, “How will the words be interpreted by the reader if I don’t hyphenate?” Wikipedia offers the following examples:
  • Man-eating shark (as opposed to man eating shark, which could be interpreted as a man eating the meat of a shark)
  • Wild-goose chase (as opposed to wild goose chase, which could be interpreted as a goose chase that is wild)
  • Long-term contract (as opposed to long term contract, which could be interpreted as a long contract about a term)
  • Zero-liability protection (as opposed to zero liability protection, which could be interpreted as there being no liability protection).

And finally, especially if you are writing in a fantasy genre, as you are writing your tale down and creating your world, also make a style sheet that pertains to your manuscript noting what words must be capitalized and what the proper spellings for invented places are.

Refer back to it frequently, updating it as needed. I learned this the hard way. Whether it is handwritten or a WORD document, a simple directory of compound words and phrases that are unique to the world you have created will be as invaluable to you as your copy of The Elements of Style.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Hyphens, style guides, and writing conventions

  1. Great post. I’ve been using the Gregg Reference Manual. It’s a big book, but I find it easier to look up items than in The Elements of Style.

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    • Gregg is the manual I had in the office for all those years as a bookkeeper and office manager. It is an excellent tool, and the important thing is you are using a guide to aid in keeping you consistent. Most guides overlap a great deal, with some differences in usage, but consistency is key.

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  2. Funny, I just read another article about hyphenation recently. I wonder if it’s something about the middle of winter that makes such things bubble to the surface.

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