Writing Tip #81

Got Oxford comma? Style is in the eye of the beholder. Just when I thought I had a firm grasp of spelling and punctuation, I started working with a London-based magazine that called into question all that I knew to be right and true.

As an American writer, I like my closing quotation marks outside my periods, my “organizations” spelled with a “z” and not an “s,” and my “percents” written as one word, not two. However, I had to make all kinds of concessions as I edited the UK pub, since, as one UK writer reminded me, I should stick to “using US style in US magazines and British style in British magazines.”

But style differences are not only found across the pond. When I submitted Baby Grand for copy editing, the American copy editor stuck in all the serial, or Oxford, commas that I tend to eschew and replaced all my spaced en dashes with em dashes firmly planted, space free, next to the neighboring words (apparently, my preference for spaced en dashes is quite British — go figure).

Style is not really etched in stone. It can be fluid, depending upon your audience. Therefore, as I continue to edit the UK pub, I will keep the magazine’s style guide next to my laptop to keep me from spelling “program” without an extra “m” and an “e” at the end (“programme”). And while I’ll probably continue to use spaced en dashes and leave out the Oxford commas as I write the early drafts of my next novel — since that’s the way I write comfortably — for my final draft, I will add those commas and do a “find and replace” on those en dashes and convert them to em dashes if that is what the American literary world wants.

I’ve always been a big proponent of proper grammar, and I think it’s important that we all strive for correctness. But sometimes there is no “correct,” just “preference.” And in those cases I think you should adhere to the rules of whatever audience you’re writing for. In the end, punctuation and spelling are just structure, guideposts that help readers navigate and understand your words. Your words are what REALLY matter.


3 thoughts on “Writing Tip #81

  1. Hi.I don’t normally leave comments to point to my blog, but I thought you might be interested in my take on style and style guides.


    I’ve worked as a writer at a number of companies and organizations, and all had their own corporate style guides to ensure consistency.

    By the way, you should try editing Canadian English – it’s a mixture of British and American style. Of course, working with British and American style as well, that could get confusing. :)

    BJ (who reads style guides for fun and has been known to memorize one or two, and who always enjoys reading posts about style)

  2. Good observation, on being correct versus preference. I agree 100 per cent. ;)

    I’m an American who also sometimes copyedits UK English. Interestingly, I find that my Concise OED lists “z” (or ‘zed’) spellings first in all cases for words such as “organization.” The only such words that preferably take an “s” are ones in which that sibilant is preceded by the vowel “y.” For example, “analyse.” (When I found this out, it started making my job a bit easier.) But perhaps many UK publishers work with a different dictionary.

    Like you, I seem to have a blind spot for the “me” in “programme,” so I usually do a search for “program” (for some reason Word doesn’t flag it as a misspelling when I set the language to UK English).

    Writers: It’s a good idea to notify your copy editor ahead of time (if you can) about any stylistic preferences, pet peeves, etc. that you have. It’ll make less work for both of you. Especially if you prefer the journalistic style of not using the serial/Oxford comma, because many book editors probably see that extra comma as a practical necessity. Rather than decide when to use it and when not to, they’d probably rather be consistent and apply it across the board.

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