Tuesday, March 27, 2012

From the comments

Anonymous said...
I am in the process of writing my first novel (a thriller), and many times I wish I had one guide I could review to look up a grammar issue. For example, how do you punctuate something written on a tombstone, or is it: ID or I.D.? I wish there was just one definitive source that I could go to and say, "here's the answer." When an editor, agent, or someone reads my manuscript, I would like to know that it is basically correct and if not, they can point me to page 12 of some style guide and say, "here, it is." So, next time, I'll know. With the advent of self-publishing, I think this will become a bigger issue, and we're going to see novels with significantly different grammar usage. I could imagine each genre creating (likely ad hoc) its own grammar usage customs. I would like to know, what style guide would you recommend for a typical thriller novel?

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?



Kristen Stieffel said...

Nooooooo! Not AP! Anything but that!

OK, I'll take a deep breath and calm down. But I worked in a newsroom for 10 years, and I can tell you, AP is far from ideal. And it recommends omitting the serial comma, which most book publishers require. But I agree Chicago is overkill for fiction writers.

The poster is looking for One Book to Rule Them All, but there isn't one. You need a dictionary for spelling (I like Merriam-Webster), a grammar guide (try Webster's New World English Grammar Handbook) and then, of course, a style guide (I like Chicago, but I'm just geeky that way). That's the bare minimum. Ideally, you want to read a variety of resources and learn to make your own decisions on these matters.

That said, I think a novelist's time is better spent working on major elements like character, plot, pacing, and voice. I say that because I did the opposite, fussing over commas and where to put adverbs and how to spell "OK," which was great training for becoming a copyeditor. But fixing those big problems in my ms wound up being a lot harder than getting the commas in the right place.

Laura Hughes, MittensMorgul said...

I don't use a style guide. But...

My mom was an English teacher, and my dad had degrees in engineering, business, and law. He was a stickler for clarity and brevity. His favorite response to, "Hey, Dad, what does [insert mystery word here] mean?" was, "Go look it up." He knew what the word meant, but forcing me to do my own research long before the days of Google instant gratification taught me more than just giving me the correct answer would have.

To that end, I don't think any stylistic choice the writer makes is either 100% right or 100% wrong, as long as it's consistent 100% of the way through the manuscript. If you like the Oxford comma, use it EVERY time. If you use nonstandard punctuation, make sure it's used the same way throughout the work. Do you hyphenate numbers, such as nineteen-hundred? Then be sure you don't write forty seven on the very next page.

Just remember, though, foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. As long as your style quirks aren't egregious errors, you should be fine. Worry more about plot, character, and world than how to punctuate I.D. The editors will take care of that. :P

Edittorrent said...

Mittens, I'm with you there. Consistency is all, which is why a style guide of some sort is helpful so that you always know what to do. (Even if there are more than one acceptable way.) Theresa made up a style guide once, and I still use that!

Iola said...

ID or I.D.? Just be consistent, and bear in mind the audience you are writing to and the geographic location, because things vary by location.

For example, in looking through CMOS, it seems favour I.D. But I live in New Zealand, and the Post Office has encouraged us to leave punctuation out of addresses for over 25 years, because their address-reading machines don't like it. So the predominant style for addresses here is "ID Jones" not "I.D. Jones,". And that style has moved into all correspondence and writing in general, not just addresses on envelopes.

There are also contradictions. One writing guide I read recommended expressing dates as "27 March 2012" (which is how dates are expressed here in NZ, as well as in the UK), whereas CMOS prefers "March 27, 2012". Again, the correct choice will depend on your audience.