Category Archives: Style manuals

“slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language”

If you are confused about the difference between style and grammar, you should read this testy but important post from The Economist’s Johnson blog, pointing out a problem with Paul Farhi’s Washington Post profile of David Minthorn, one of the editors of the AP Stylebook. Here’s an excerpt, but go read the whole thing:

“E-MAIL” or “e-mail”? “Bed and breakfast” or “bed-and-breakfast”?… “Smart phone” or “smartphone”? “Mic” or “mike”?

My question isn’t which of these readers prefer, but a more abstract one: which of these are questions of grammar?

The Washington Post profiles the Associated Press’s “grammar and style expert” David Minthorn today. In raising all these questions (and Mr Minthorn’s answers) and in describing Mr Minthorn as a kind of linguistic Solomon, the Post’s Paul Farhi never once makes a crucial point: none of these questions has a correct answer at all, because they are not questions of grammar. They are all style…

Whether to hyphenate “e-mail” or not is one of the most trivial and boring things I can possibly imagine having a debate about, but the AP’s recent move to “email” caused an almighty furore….

It’s good to be consistent, and that’s why the AP and The Economist (and probably the Washington Post) have something called a style. But this is just a series of subjective, almost capricious rulings so that we don’t see “e-mail” and soon thereafter, “email”, a “Ghaddafi” here and a “Qaddhafi” there. As the name suggests, style is a matter of taste…. Who cares, for goodness’s sake? Just pick one and stay with it.

Grammar, on the other hand, really does render “right” and “wrong” judgments…. This isn’t to say there aren’t open or controversial questions of grammar. And there are meta-level questions about the sources of authority in questions of grammar, the old prescriptive versus descriptive argument…. Whatever your language or dialect, it has rules….

Many people worship and slavishly follow the AP’s style. They shouldn’t, because the whole idea of slavishly following a style is more like fetishism than a real passion for language…

It’s also important to remember that there are different style guides for different types of writing, and each style is influenced by practical considerations unique to their publications. For example, Chicago style (used by most of the publishing world) uses the serial comma for clarity, while AP style (used by most newspapers and journalists) doesn’t use the serial comma in order to save column space. Here are two additional examples from Farhi’s article. The AP decision to drop the hyphen from “e-mail” was made because “the extra character was unnecessary because it slowed writers down, if only by a fraction of a second.” And though Chicago italicizes the titles of books and periodicals, Minthorn notes that “AP puts quotes around titles (exceptions: the Bible and standard reference works, which get neither) and it never uses italics. This is for practical reasons more than anything. AP doesn’t transmit copy with embedded italics because not all computer systems can send or receive them….”

So you should make sure the style you are using is appropriate to the specific type of writing or publication, understand the reasons behind the style decisions you make, and apply your style choices consistently. For more about style manuals, see my previous posts on the subject. For more examples of Chicago and AP style differences, see the AP vs. Chicago blog.

No, Oxford hasn’t abandoned the Oxford comma

As long-time readers of this blog know, I love the Oxford comma (also known as the serial or series comma). I wrote in a post over two years ago:

If only we could convince the Times (and other newspapers) to use the serial comma (also known as the series comma or the Oxford comma). I’m a big fan of the serial comma, and the Chicago Manual of Style now “strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities…, since it prevents ambiguity.”  Here’s an example from the Times that shows what can happen without the serial comma: “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” Perhaps the most famous example of why the serial comma should be used is this apocryphal book dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” (For the origins of these two examples, see this 2006 Language Log post and this 2003 Language Hat post.)

This morning a GalleyCat post reported that the use of the Oxford comma is now discouraged by the University of Oxford (in their online Writing and Style Guide). This has, of course, ignited the Twittersphere with strong reactions, pro and con.

However, it turns out that the story isn’t really true.  Galleycat has just added an update to their blog post:

Reader Michael Williams adds this clarification: “That’s the University of Oxford PR department style guide. Oxford University Press is a commercially and editorially autonomous organization.”

So, much ado about nothing. (Yet another reminder not to believe everything you read on the Internet.) But even if it were true, that would certainly not convince me to give up the Oxford comma.

Update, 6/30/11: 

Oxford Dictionaries tweeted this morning:

The Oxford comma is alive and well at Oxford University Press:

This AP article explains:

But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications. “It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Yet the report caused a Twitterstorm….

Even the National Security Agency has a style manual

I’ve previously blogged about a number of different style manuals, but this is a rather unusual one. BoingBoing has published online the style manual of the National Security Agency, received through a Freedom of Information Act request filed in April 2010.

The NSA has a style guide—a Strunk and White for spooks—which we’re delighted to publish here for the first time.

Most of the document is an alphabetized compendium of ambiguous, easily-misused or otherwise troublesome words. As style guides go, it’s standard fare: more interesting than the grammar tips are clarifications on obscure intelligence terms and the usage examples, which often lean toward military operations, geopolitics, killings and diplomacy.

Go to the BoingBoing post to read the embedded document or download it as a PDF or TXT file.

Below I’ve copied an assortment of entries that caught my eye as I browsed:

about, approximately …
About is preferred in general and informal contexts. Approximately is common in technical and reference works. Do not use either term (or estimated or nearly) if precise figures are given. POOR: During the attack, about 304 were killed. GOOD: During the attack, 304 were killed. If you are not sure of the number, round it off: During the attack, about 300 were killed.

aircraft …
Do not abbreviate the generic types of aircraft in serialized reports. Use fighter, not “fir”; bomber, not “bmbr”. In keeping with modern journalistic style, capitalize only the first letter of aircraft nicknames: F-15 (Eagle).

bomb …
Do not use the terms A-bomb or H-bomb. Spell out the words. Do not capitalize atomic bomb, hydrogen bomb, etc.

bureaucratese …
Bureaucratese is a pejorative, non-technical term for the language style commonly associated with bureaucrats.

Avoid bureaucratic style whenever possible. It is the mark of the timid writer. What is bureaucratic style? Robert Claiborne identified the four main principles of bureaucratic style as:
• never use a short word where a long one will do;
• never use one word where you can use three;
• use abstract and general terms rather than concrete and specific ones; and
• avoid flat statements by hedging and qualifying.

Bureaucratese speaks in passive voice and buzzwords, and it carefully avoids assigning responsibility for any action or decision. It will bore or put to sleep most readers. Don’t use it unless you have no other way to communicate.

casualties …
In military terms, casualties means the total number of dead, wounded, missing, and captured. Do not use casualties when referring to only one of these categories.

communism, communist. ..
Use lowercase for the word communism.

Capitalize communist when referring to the political party or to individuals who are members of it: Communist Party. He is a Communist.

Use lowercase for communist in all other situations: a communist government; he has communist leanings.

Shortened term for electronic mail. The spelling without the hyphen is becoming more common and is preferred, but the alternative form e-mail is also correct.

foreign phrases and words …
Keep the use of foreign words and phrases to a minimum. Few of our readers are linguists.

Where the capability exists…, italicize any foreign word or phrase that may not be known to the average reader. Commonly recognized terms that need not be italicized include, but are not limited to:
• ad hoc
• attache
• blitzkrieg
• bona fide
• charge d’affaires
• communique
• coup d’etat
• de facto
• demarche
• detente
• fait accompli
• junta
• laissez faire
• per se
• persona non grata
• rapprochement
• versus
• vis-a-vis

Phonetic spelling of the letter “f.”

gender …
When talking about a specific person, use a term appropriate to that person: chairman Jones, chairwoman Doe.

Use neutral terms when talking about mixed groups or persons whose identity has not been established: members of the Assembly, rather than Assemblymen; a member of Congress rather than a Congressman.

Do not change an official title to a neutral term. If the official title is “Party Chairman,” use that term; don’t say “Party Chairperson.”

For pronouns, the problem is different. Modern English does not have gender-neutral pronouns for people.

When a pronoun must be used and the gender of its antecedent is not known or can refer to persons of either sex, there are four three choices the writer can make, all of which are acceptable in SIGINT serialized reports.

1. Use the plural pronoun: Everyone hopes they will win the contest.
2. Place the whole sentence in the plural: All people hope they will win the contest.
3. Rewrite the sentence and eliminate the personal pronoun: Everyone hopes to win the contest.

Government, as a political term, refers to an established system of political administration. In American usage, it takes a singular verb; in British usage, it takes a plural verb.

guerrilla …
Preferred spelling. The alternate spelling is guerilla.

jihad …
Preferred transliteration of the Arabic word for “holy war.”

missile …
A missile is an unmanned, self-propelled weapon whose flight path or trajectory can be controlled. A missile may be aerodynamic or ballistic. Distinguish it from a “rocket, which is a self-propelled vehicle whose trajectory or flight path cannot be controlled.

Two n’s and s’s. Avoid abbreviating it as “Recon” except as part of a unit designator in a listing or in a narrative report where it occurs repeatedly. Also avoid the abbreviation “recce,” which is chiefly British. The verb form of reconnaissance is reconnoiter.

revolt, revolution …
A revolt is widespread opposition to current standards. Politically, it refers to an armed attempt to change authority.

A revolution is a radical alteration in a system or in social conditions. In the political sense, it is the overthrow by open and organized armed force of an established government and its replacement by another.

security control markings …
Words or phrases added to restrict the dissemination of a serialized report. At this time there are five such markings:
• ORCON – Dissemination and Extraction of Information Controlled by Originator
• NOFORN – Not Releasable to Foreign Nationals
• PROPIN- Proprietary Information Involved
• REL – Releasable to (name of the countries)
• EYES ONLY – (used only on electrical reports in place of REL due to existing software limitations)

title after a name …
Capitalize only national-level titles (Cabinet-level or above) that appear after a name: Jane Doe, Minister of Defense. Lowercase and set off with commas most other titles that appear after a name: John Doe, the deputy assistant minister of culture, arrived yesterday.

title before a name …
Capitalize a formal title appearing before a name: President Jane Doe, Assistant Secretary John Jones. Do not capitalize a title that serves primarily as an occupational designator: astronaut John Doe…. See the entries for courtesy tjtles, military rank, and religious titles.

totalitarian …
Avoid. See the entry for authoritarian.

The document also contains an appendix on abbreviations and acroynyms.

So, what’s your favorite entry?

NY Times ignores AP, clings to “e-mail” and “Web site”

As you know, Bob, most newspapers follow the AP Stylebook, but the New York Times has its own famously idiosyncratic style. Though the AP dropped the hyphen from “e-mail” a few days ago, the Times is keeping the hyphen, according to a blog post by Phillip B. Corbett (associate managing editor for standards) describing some recent revisions to their in-house stylebook. Here’s an excerpt:

We no longer have to write about people sending “an e-mail message” — we can call it “an e-mail.” The term is also acceptable as a verb. (For now, at least, we are keeping the hyphen for this and similar coinages like e-commerce and e-reader.)

Some of the changes simply acknowledge the cultural ubiquity of digital technology. Most of our articles followed popular usage long ago in dropping the “World Wide” from “World Wide Web.” Now the stylebook has caught up: just call it “the Web” outside historical references. Keep in mind that it is just part of “the Internet.”

For now, we’ll continue to capitalize Web and Internet, and we’ll keep “Web site” as two words. But “webcam” is one word, lowercase….

While writers are still urged to avoid some of the newer fad words and jargon, the ubiquitous “app” is now acceptable in all references to software applications, particularly for mobile….

As with PDF, we are no longer requiring points in USB or URL. (The same goes for fanciful texting abbreviations, should you feel the need to ROTFL. Sparingly, please.) We have given up on the insistence that “firewall” always be two words….

Note that the Times alone continues to use “Web site,” though common usage and all of the most recent editions of major stylebooks (including AP, Chicago, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Apple) use “website.”

The AP Stylebook is dropping the hyphen from “e-mail”

Last August I compared how a number of new style manuals treated tech words. In 2010, both the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition) and the AP Stylebook Online finally changed their style recommendations from “Web site” to “website,” reflecting what has long been common usage.  But there was disagreement over other terms. Most notably, Chicago and AP still used “e-mail,” but the tech/digital style manuals (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) all dropped the hyphen (“email”)

Today Jim Romenesko reported that the AP Stylebook editors just announced a series of new changes— including the dropping of the hyphen from “e-mail”–  at the American Copy Editors Society Conference. Here’s an excerpt from the ACES 2011 post:

David Minthorn and Darrell Christian, editors of the AP Stylebook, brought with them to ACES 2011 in Phoenix some of the changes that will be effective as of 3 a.m. EDT Saturday, March 19.

They are:

• email, instead of e-mail. (Other “e” terms, such as e-book and e-commerce, retain the hyphen,)

• Kolkata, India, instead of Calcutta, India. To follow local style.

• cellphone, smartphone become one word. (No longer cell phone and smart phone.)

• handheld, n., hand-held, adj.

Most news organizations follow AP style, but book publishers usually follow Chicago style, so the hyphen isn’t dead yet. (See my April 2010 post for more on “e-mail” vs. “email” and Bryan Garner’s “Language Change Index.”)

A comparison of how the new style manuals treat tech words

Though two of the most influential style manuals (Chicago and AP) recently changed from “Web site” to  “website,” they still differ in their treatment of other tech words, which won’t be a surprise to writers and editors who work with different styles.

Below I’ve compared the current recommendations for tech words from new editions of four style and usage guides.

Chicago is the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (published August 2010), the authoritative style guide used by most of the publishing world.

AP is the AP Stylebook Online (updated April 2010), the style manual used by most newspapers and journalists. (The New York Times uses its own idiosyncratic style.)

Yahoo! is the Yahoo! Style Guide (published July 2010), a new style guide for digital content.

Garner is the 3rd edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (published August 2009), an excellent book that tracks recent changes in usage and language.

The results:

  • All four agree on “website,” “World Wide Web,” and “the Internet.”
  • All except Chicago capitalize “the Web.”
  • Chicago, AP, and Garner use the hyphenated “e-mail,” but Yahoo! uses “email.”
  • Yahoo! and Garner use “webpage,” Chicago uses “web page,” and AP uses “Web page.”

It may look like consensus has finally been reached on “website,” but this is not the end of “Web site,” as it is still the standard in older works like the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications (which hasn’t been updated since the 2004 3rd edition) and both Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition, published in 2003) and Merriam-Webster Online. (By the way, the December 2009 Apple Publications Style Guide uses “website,” “webpage,” and “email” without the hyphen.)

What does this mean for you? If you are using an older style manual, you should probably get a more current one. Which style manual you use will depend on the kind of writing, editing, or publishing you do. Chicago will likely be your primary style manual unless you work with specialized fields or content, such as technical writing, journalism, academic writing, scientific writing, etc. If you are working for a publisher or company, use the style manual and/or “house style” they specify. (Some use a hybrid, based primarily on a particular style manual but customized for internal preferences.) If you are writing for yourself, you can do what you want, but try to be both consistent and open to change. (Though Chicago is my default style manual, I’ve been using “website” and “the web” since I began this blog two years ago. Though I’m tempted to eliminate the hyphen from “e-mail,” I’m not quite ready to do so.)

So, in light of all this, are you going to make any changes to your style or try to convince your employer to modify the house style?

For more on style manuals, see my previous posts.

Update, 8/11/10: In the comments, Delf notes that though Microsoft’s published style manual hasn’t been updated since 2004, their style guide for internal use continues to be updated, and the latest version (June 30, 2010) specifies the following:

World Wide Web
the Internet
the web

Note that all of the tech/digital style guides (Microsoft, Apple, and Yahoo!) have dropped the hyphen from “email,” which I don’t think we’ll see adopted quickly by Chicago and AP.

Update 3/18/11: AP has just dropped the hyphen from “e-mail.”

“The new phone book’s here!”

My print copy of the new 16th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style just arrived from, though the official publication date is not until the end of August.

Here’s an interesting change: the 16th edition of the CMOS, like the new edition of the AP Stylebook, now embraces “website” (instead of the more formal “Web site”) as well as “the web” and “web page” (see 7.76 and 7.85). For more on “Web site” vs. “website,” see my earlier post on the subject.

For a list of some of the other changes in the 16th edition, see The Subversive Copy Editor’s “16th edition Sneak Peeks and Retired Rules.”

If you prefer your reference works in digital form, see The Chicago Manual of Style Online for online subscription options.

By the way, in the package with the CMOS was another new style manual, The Yahoo! Style Guide: The Ultimate Sourcebook for Writing, Editing, and Creating Content for the Digital World. When I have more time, it will be interesting to explore and compare the two works.