Tag Archives: AP style vs CMOS

English, origins and style #amwriting

One of my favorite subjects is how English is and will always be an ever-evolving and ever-disintegrating language. The history of the evolution of English is intriguing.

In recent years scholars have determined that if you want to make Shakespearean poetry  and prose rhyme, it must be read with what is now a Scottish/Appalachian accent, as that was the accent of Renaissance England, and pronounce words the way they are spelled. To hear for yourself, go out to NPR’s Shakespeare’s Accent: How Did The Bard Really Sound? I found it to be a treat.

Jonathan Swift, writer and Dean of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, complained to the Earl of Oxford in 1712: “Our Language is extremely imperfect. Its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities.” He went so far as to say, “In many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.”

It was the linguistic wild-west, undisciplined and out of control. Slang words willfully forced their way into drawing rooms, newspapers, and books, and in the process they became part of our common usage. So, in an effort to tame our wildly evolving language, a group of clerks and clerics in the eighteenth century who wanted a more orderly language developed the rules for the “Queen’s English.”

Unfortunately, they used the rules with which they were most familiar. Being men of the church, they borrowed them from Latin. This poor choice on their part is the source of much of our grammatical dysfunction.  These men applied the rules of a dead language, Latin, to an evolving language with completely different roots, Frisian, added a bunch of mish-mash words and usages invented by William Shakespeare, and called it “Grammar.”

Despite their origin, the rules have been consecrated, hallowed, and immortalized in hundreds of books on style, and repeated by scholars who ignore the scabrous history of our English language. Frisian evolved into Modern Dutch, and Latin evolved into Modern Italian, Spanish, French, Romanian—and several other modern languages. Yet, despite the wide linguistic differences in the two root languages, these hard-and-fast rules have been passed down by generations of schoolteachers in a vain effort to teach students how to write and speak our common language.

These rules of grammar are what we also refer to as style.

When we leave school and first begin to write seriously, we soon discover that we don’t really know how to construct a narrative that people would want to read. So, we need to further educate ourselves.

Despite the pox-ridden history of the English language, it helps to have a framework to go by when writing. I use a book of rules, the Chicago Manual of Style.  This book is used in the big publishing houses here in the US and is the manual of choice for most American editors of fiction and literary works. Referring to it when I have a question helps me to remain consistent in my punctuation, and ensures my personal style is comfortable for the reader.

You can use any style guide you choose, but you must remain consistent. Refer to your guide of choice whenever you are confused about punctuation or grammar. This isn’t a cure-all for bad writing. Many times, confusion can only be eliminated by rephrasing, deleting excessive descriptors, and by cutting long, compound sentences in half.

Knowledge of grammar is no substitute for talent, but it can help make talent readable.

If you are in the UK, you might want to invest in the New Oxford Style Manual.

If you are writing technical manuals, the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications would be a good investment for you.

If you are a journalism major, you may think Associated Press Style is the only style guide you’ll ever need, but you would be wrong. AP Style evolved for the printer setters in the newspaper industry and is intended to make the most efficient use of space in a column. It is not favored by the large traditional publishers and editors as the style guide for novels or short stories, which have different requirements.

For a good post on the major differences in these two very different American English styles, see this blog post written in 2016 by Acadia Otlowski for Hip B2B:

AP vs Chicago Manual of Style: Which Stylebook is Right for You?

I’ve seen AP and Chicago Manual users in hair-pulling matches over the Oxford comma, on-line disputes that were both embarrassing and needlessly troll-ish.

Regardless of your personal writing style, it’s a good idea to learn how to write and speak in your native language, as readers will be able to accept your personal style choices more easily if the larger elements flow as expected.

And that is the key word: expected.

We all habitually write in such a way that we consistently break certain rules. This is our voice and is our fingerprint. This does not mean you should throw grammar out the window—readers have expectations that authors will respect them enough to spell words properly, will understand the words they are using and use them correctly, and will insert pauses between certain clauses.

They don’t demand perfection, but they do want consistency.

A rudimentary knowledge of how your native language works is essential, so my advice is for you to invest in a few reference books and use them. Listed below are my go-to books.

If you are writing novels or fiction in the US, a handy book for you would be The Chicago Guide to Usage and Grammar by Bryan A. Garner. It is a more concise and to the point compilation of the important things than the big blue book that is the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you are in the UK, you should invest in The Oxford A – Z of Grammar and Punctuation by John Seely. I use this little guide when I am editing for my British clients.

A handy book for all who write in the many multi-national English dialects is The Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms – I find this book invaluable when I am stuck trying to think up an alternative word that won’t be awkward or pretentious.

I secretly love awkward and pretentious words, especially ones that rhyme. It embarrasses my children when I forget my manners and use them in public.


Credits and Attributions:

Quote from: A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue by Jonathan Swift, 1712, 2nd ed. Edited by Jack Lynch, Professor and chair of the English Department in the Newark College of Arts & Sciences at Rutgers University – Newark. (accessed Aug. 12, 2018).

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What reference guide is right for what I #amwriting?

The_Chicago_Manual_of_Style_16th_editionNovember is a difficult month for me because I have a specific goal to accomplish, and I’ve set the bar high. It’s National Novel Writing Month and I have many activities involved with that. I need to add writing time to my already packed schedule, attempting to rebuild my stockpile of short fiction and essays, and am letting everything else fall by the way to do it. Trader Joe and the Microwave are providing my husband with hot meals because I have been known to forget to cook.

For my NaNoWriMo project this year I am writing a variety of short pieces, some technical essays on writing craft, some essays on life and travel, and some short fiction. I am writing for three different markets and we will get to why that distinction is important a little further on.

I’m on the road a lot, and have limited time to get my wordcount. Sometimes I get two or three pages of writing done in the 20 or 30 minutes before I have to leave the house for an appointment. There is something about the pressure of knowing I will have to quit at a certain time that forces me to be more productive than I would ordinarily be.

Why is this? When I am pressed for time I use every second to get those ideas out of my head. I don’t have the luxury of stopping to research grammar and questions of style on the good, old, time-wasting internet. Instead I refer to hardcopy reference manuals, unless I absolutely must go out to the internet to research something.

Some references have to be in hardcopy, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, which is the most comprehensive style guide geared for writers of essays, fiction, and nonfiction. Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is an acceptable beginner style guide, but the information there must be looked at with a critical eye as it is presented in an arbitrary, arrogant fashion and sometimes runs contrary to commonly accepted practice.

Instead I always recommend The Chicago Manual of Style to authors who are writing fiction they someday hope to publish, and who want to know about sentence construction. The researchers at CMOS realize that English is a living changing language, and when generally accepted practices within the publishing industry evolve, they evolve too.

Writing is not a one-size-fits-all kind of occupation. There is no one style guide that will fit every purpose. Each essay and book may be meant for a different reader, and each should be written with the style that meets the expectations of the intended readers.

The Chicago Manual of Style is written specifically for writers, editors and publishers and is the publishing industry standard. All the editors at the major publishing houses own and refer back to this book when they have questions.

micosoft-manual-of-styleWhat is the best style guide for writing technical user manuals?

Are you writing for a newspaper? AP style was developed for expediency in the newspaper industry and is not suitable for novels or for business correspondence, no matter how strenuously journalism majors try to push it forward. If you are using AP style you are writing for the newspaper, not for literature. These are two widely different mediums with radically different requirements.

For business correspondence, you want to use the Gregg Reference Manual.

If you develop a passion for the words and ways in which we bend them, as I have done, you could soon find your bookshelf bowing under the weight of your reference books.

Some of my best ideas have come about under a time crunch.  Normally when I am writing on a stream-of-consciousness level, I can key about fifty words a minute, which I know is paltry compared to today’s authors who grew up keying their homework rather than writing it in cursive.

ozford-american-writers-thesaurusI do admit that just because I can key those words does not mean they will all make sense, or be worth reading. That is why we are driven to look at what we just wrote the day after we wrote it. Did it say what I meant? How many times did I use the word “sword” in that particular paragraph and where am I going to find six different alternatives for such a unique weapon? Sword? Blade? Steel? After all, an epee is not a claymore, nor is it a saber. Any reader with a small amount of knowledge will know that, so I have to be careful what synonyms I use. My characters swing a claymore-style of sword which is rarely referred to as “steel.” In literature, that term is more commonly used for epees and rapiers.

It’s a jungle in my head sometimes, and my ancient  student edition of Roget’s Thesaurus is no longer my friend. But neither is the modern, online version cutting it. I need more synonyms. Lots, and lots more! Thus I have the Oxford American Writers’ Thesaurus on my desk and I refer to it regularly. It saves time to use the hardcopy book rather than the internet because I am not so easily distracted and led down the bunny trail of “Wow! I never knew that!”

All in all, I like the way being forced to produce words in a short time helps me lay down a rough draft. But I admit, I do look forward to the end of November, when I can look back on my accomplishments and go back to my normal writing routine of wasting time on the internet researching important things like the life cycle of sand dollars. Who knew those little creatures were so intriguing?

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