Tag Archives: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style

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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Dear Sir or Madam

GerundsThere are times when the vagaries of modern English (previous error in capitalization edited by Stephen Swartz) get in the way of reading what could be a great novel.  Some weeks I see six or seven books, both indie and traditionally published, before I find one book worth reviewing for my book review blog, Best in Fantasy.

As authors, we are all overcome with the urge to shout to the world, to immediately show the world our precious child, to rush to publish it now.  It is the rare author who can write prose that is fit to read in his first draft–if that author actually exists, I’ve never read his work.

For the indie, this is fatal.

This is why I highly recommend hiring a reputable editorial service to go over your manuscript, even if you plan to submit it to a publisher. After all, why not submit the best work you can, rather than risk being stuck in the slush pile?

An editor will have several reference manuals at his/her hand, and will help you realize your vision, whittling away at the block of granite you gave birth to and love so much, carving away the unnecessary and extraneous words and cliches  until the book emerges in all its glory.

honorificsWhen I am editing, I refer to The Chicago Manual of Style, the Oxford A-Z of Grammar & Punctuation, and of course, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. As I have been through the process of being edited and hate that horrible feeling of being called to task on silly things, I often refer to these books when I am second guessing myself in my own work.

What are the silly things, you ask?  They are things we learned in grammar school but forgot as we grew older and didn’t use them.  Small things like when to capitalize an honorific title, and when not to–something that crops ups regularly in my work as I often write in a medieval setting.

I’ve found it helpful to use the control -f (find) function in WORD to locate every possible mangling I might have made of a particular word. Then I look at and replace each instance on an individual basis. (NEVER click replace all!)

KinshipConsistency is important, so  we must know when to capitalize titles and honorifics–words like king, and majesty, or even lord. Also, when to capitalize familial titles such as father, mother, son and aunt.  If you are determined to do it wrong, at least have your roommate ensure that you have done it that way throughout the entire manuscript, rather than sometimes one way and sometimes another, which is the normal, natural way to write a first and even second draft.

Editors not only correct grammar, they check for consistency. They are worth their weight in gold. They’re more important than the fine artwork for the cover, more critical than the catchy blurb. We live in the wild west of the publishing business, and we find ourselves doing whatever we can on the cheap to get our book published. DON’T skimp in this area, if you value your reputation. Once you have published, it’s a pain in the backside to unpublish, have it edited, reformat it, and go through the launch all over again. Remember, we see what we meant to write, not what is actually there.

But you don’t have to listen to me–experience is the great humiliator.


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