During the President and First Lady’s recent trip to England, Michelle Obama spoke to schoolgirls in London on a number of topics. As an editor and writer, I was struck by her wise advice about how to achieve goals:
… I would encourage you all to read, read, read. Just keep reading. And writing is another skill. It’s practice. It’s practice. The more you write, the better you get. Drafts–our kids are learning the first draft means nothing. You’re going to do seven, 10 drafts. That’s writing, it’s not failure, it’s not the teacher not liking you because it’s all marked up in red. When you get to be a good writer, you mark your own stuff in red, and you rewrite, and you rewrite, and you rewrite. That’s what writing is.
Which and that are used nearly interchangeably in everyday speech. Yet since which seems more formal, many people conclude it must be better in written material. Why is there so much confusion surrounding the use of these two words?
The Chicago Manual of Style, Associated Press Stylebook, MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing, and New York Times Manual of Style and Usage: these are just a few of the style guides available to editors, and they are one of the most important tools an editor can have.
Why are style guides so important? Close observers of the English language may notice that many elements of written works vary from publication to publication. These elements include capitalization, punctuation, hyphenation, and the treatment of numbers, units of measurement, and other terms that occur frequently, all of which are the natural province of a copyeditor (see Levels of Editing for more about the different levels of editing). Read more..
“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.” —The Oxford Style Manual, via The Economist Style Manual
Welcome, and thanks for stopping by The Style Guide, a blog about writing and editing.
As a professional editor, I’m fascinated by the peculiarities and idiosyncracies of language. My office bookshelves are filled with works that examine the minutiae of the English language, down to its commas and semicolons, participles and conjunctions, and fragments and phrases. And I’m of that odd breed who’s captivated by it all. I find established rules worthy of study in and of themselves, but am also struck by the way common usage–whether in speech or literature–so often diverges from the consensus of experts. Many an enjoyable afternoon has passed at my desk roaming from one reference work to another, trying to track down a definitive ruling on some question regarding hyphens, relative clauses, or the exact difference between “among,” “amid,” “amongst,” and “amidst.”
In my work, I strive for a combination of authority–that is, knowing the reasons one might make one choice over another–with a respect for common usage, both in speech and in writing. I also have a healthy respect for tradition: I’ve studied Latin and Ancient Greek, and I’ll often use my knowledge of etymology to make judgments about usage, meaning, and connotation. On the other hand, when I turn to reading fiction from 50 or 100 years ago, I often see the “rules” professional copyeditors follow today broken by writers I respect and admire. Thus, I don’t think of editing or copyediting as a mallet with which to beat a writer about the head, or as some kind of punitive measure that restricts creativity. At their best, writing and editing balance a preoccupation with grammatical precision and tradition against a scrupulous respect for clarity and creative expression.
In short, putting the philosophy aside for a moment, I’m an editor, and I simply enjoy thinking about language issues. So that’s what this blog is about. Look for future posts about my favorite editorial references, from the authoritative and helpful to the quirky and entertaining; what a style guide is, how they’re helpful, and the guides I use most; and “controversial” copyediting topics such as the use of which vs. that, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and when it’s appropriate to use sentence fragments in your work.
If you have a question, whether simple or complex, I’d love to hear from you, and I may try to answer it in a future blog post. Send a message here. Discussion is encouraged in the comments as well.
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