Tuesday, March 27, 2012
From the comments
Anon, here's the short answer: AP.
And now here's the long answer. For most commercial fiction submitted to American publishing houses, you are probably safe with the AP style guide. (AP = Associated Press) That's the one used by most newspapers and magazines, though some still have their own style guides. (I think the New York Times and the Economist are counted among those with proprietary guides, and if I remember correctly, the Economist has parts of its style guide online.) AP approximates what used to be called "standard English." Standard is meant to indicate correct everyday usage as opposed to formal or academic usage. Think of it as the kind of English typically used by people who are moderately well educated. So, for example, it would limit the usage of colons and semicolons, which are ordinarily viewed as formal. It would also provide some flexibility in the usage of that/which clauses and commas, where formal rules preserve the that/which distinction. There are other points of distinction, but the main idea is that standard English reads as though it is free of grammatical errors without being particularly formal or complex. For most fiction, and for most fiction writers, applying standard rules will get better results than applying formal rules.
Sometimes we also talk about "up" and "down" English. This isn't quite the same as the distinction between standard and formal English. This has more to do with idiom, slang, and the kind of blundering usages that pass for common expressions without being technically correct. Down English allows for quite a lot of expressions that up English would remove. One of my favorite examples of a common down English expressions is, "It's not that big of a deal." Have any of you grammar purists out there ever tried to diagram that beast? I have, several times, with mind-bending results. Yet this expression is commonly accepted as correct in the spoken lexicon, and if a character uttered it in a manuscript, it should probably be allowed to stand. No matter how much it hurts our inner sticklers. ;) The point is, of course, that characters sometimes botch the language in a way that feels entirely natural for that character. In dialogue and true interior monologue, these usages might be appropriate even if not technically correct.
There are different kinds of style guides. AP is a non-academic style guide, and its rules are meant to appeal to a wide readership. The academic style guides (Chicago/Turabian, MLA, APA, AAA, AMA, ACS, CSE -- the list goes on) all have the same basic goal of providing uniform methodology for research writing in a particular field or fields. So these are aimed at a narrower readership with specific concerns, though there is quite a lot of overlap between them; for example, AAA is basically a set of exceptions to Chicago. Then there are the proprietary style guides generated by particular publishers. Because most of these various guides are academic in nature and/or aimed at a narrower readership, AP will generally serve your fiction interests better than most of these.
That said, there are a lot of fans of Chicago, and several publishing houses that claim to use it. Whether they actually do use it is a different issue. Some houses adopt strict style rules, whether Chicago or proprietary rules or whatever. And some take a more flexible approach, using their style guides as a tool to resolve disagreements or to try to lead authors to better style on some point or other. I can tell you that the style guide I wrote for Red Sage was cheerfully ignored by most of the editors except for when they wanted to argue with me about changing it. And that was mostly okay, as long as they turned in good manuscripts with clean copy that were more or less in keeping with the spirit of the style guide. I had a topnotch team and I trusted them to get it right -- or right enough that our end product would be in the right range.
Then there is the grammar side of things. Grammar and style are not exactly the same thing, though there is overlap. For example, the time signified by the use of the past perfect tense is a grammar issue. But when to allow its use, and when to sort out a timeline to avoid its use -- these are, to some extent, style issues. Good stylists will try to limit the use of past perfect and will revise grammatically correct sentences to eliminate the need for it. But you need to understand the basic grammar before you can even get to the style question, so a good grammar book will also come in handy.
Everyone has their particular favorite grammar books. My special pet is Warriner's Complete Course (the Franklin edition, though other editions can be useful). I like this book, even though it is now about 30 years old, because it is a comprehensive manual of standard English grammar undiluted by a lot of generative grammar principles. (My least favorite generative grammar rule is the one that advises us to place commas where we would pause while speaking. This single piece of advice has done more to lower general literacy than any other trend in English education, imo. Rant, rant.) But if you want something more contemporary, you might look at the Gregg book. A lot of people like that one, with good reason. I use it myself, along with the McGraw-Hill book, which is also very good.
I'm sure our commenters can also recommend their favorite grammars. Commenters, what say you?