For your consideration and amusement

Has it really been nearly a month since I posted last? It’s been very busy here, but it didn’t seem quite that busy.

While I’m working on several other posts (a full review of WOTY 2012 candidates and the ‘winner;’ ought vs. should; what makes a good story?; unsafe casual sexism; why the phrase “gun industry officials” is under my skin this week; etc.), some of which require a fair amount of research, I’ll share a couple of recent links with you.

This one made the rounds a couple of weeks ago, so you’ve probably already seen it. If you work with language chances are this was somewhere between mildly amusing and laugh-out-loud funny to you: AP – CMS Gang War. The Onion rarely fails to entertain.

Of course, if there ever really were a war between the ‘AP Stylists’ and the ‘Chicago Mans,’ I’d put my money on Chicago. Relying on the Associated Press Stylebook over the Chicago Manual of Style in this sort of contest would be like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

Put aside the difference in history (Chicago has been around since 1906, AP since 1953). Ignore the fact that one (Chicago) runs to over 1000 pages in tight type while the other (AP) barely manages 380 pages of useful grammar and style coverage in a type face that seems aimed at senior citizens with deteriorating eyesight. There really isn’t much comparison between the two. But then again, each volume fills a different need.

Chicago is comprehensive and systematic. It goes into every jot and tittle of manuscript preparation. Do you want to know how to format the copyright page? It’s in there. When to use an en dash instead of an em dash? It’s there. Need suggestions on Hungarian capitalization? Chicago’s got you covered. (On page 548.) There are proofreading symbols, a list of problematic words and phrases (read: ‘commonly confused words’), a chart to help with compound word formation, and many other useful features, not the least of which is a comprehensive index.

Did I mention an index? That’s one place where AP falls glaringly short — although they would probably defend the lapse by noting that, unlike CMS with its convoluted subject organization, AP is organized alphabetically: it doesn’t need an index. CMS, on the other hand, would be extremely difficult to navigate without one.

Again, while both are manuals of “style” (it says so in each title), the audience and intent is different for each. CMS is academic, meant for the authors and editors of professional and academic articles and monographs; AP is practical, meant for journalists and their editors. Both can (and are) used by many others, but that’s out of the publishers’ hands.

Like CMS, AP includes some useful features: I have found the sub-section on weather terms and the separate section on sports style especially helpful in the past.  (On the other hand, the social media guide already seems quaint less than two years after it was first added.) While both guides have their value, and any good editor will have a copy of each handy, there really aren’t a lot of points of comparison between the two. If you work with both for long, AP’s history begins to show, even if you’re not familiar with it: what they really mean by ‘style’ are they conventions of spelling, capitalization, and punctuation that have been randomly cobbled together and generally agreed upon by working editors and journalists over the past three quarters of a century. Up against Chicago’s comprehensive approach, comparing AP to CMS is like comparing a collection of anecdotes to multi-year research project. Or maybe, to return to the knife at a gun fight analogy, prioritizing AP over CMS would be like going up against a tank with revolver. It’s not a fair fight.

= = = =

I said there were a couple of recent links to share, and here’s the other: what do you think of this report that during the ’70s and ’80s the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary was busier deleting words from the dictionary of record than adding them?

If you’re interested in the English language, or dictionaries, or both, you should take a minute to read this short article. The summary here of Sarah Ogilvie’s research on how the OED was put together, how universal its earlier editors tried to be, and how Robert Burchfield undermined that broadness during his tenure, is interesting stuff.

Oddly enough, I actually ran into an issue last year that made me question the thoroughness of the OED: when I was delving into the origin of the word scam (and a follow-up post), the search took me to two obscure out of print dictionaries (Chambers and Wright), both of which seemed to include a large number of dialect words that were not present in the OED. Now, perhaps, we know why.

It’s really a shame that Burchfield did this, since the OED is seen not as a guide to current English usage, but as a historical repository of all words that have ever existed in the language, past or present. Let’s hope that the effort to review and restore purged words, referenced near the end of that Guardian article, succeeds. We don’t have to keep using obsolete words, but we do need to keep them around for reference. After all, our words — and how we’ve used them — are as much a part of our history as our actions.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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2 Responses to For your consideration and amusement

  1. atarunomiko says:

    I think you meant “its convoluted subject organization.” Also, I believe it should be “CMS, with its convoluted subject organization,” as a non-defining phrase needs to be set off with commas.

    • No, I meant it that way. You could choose to insert it, and it would even be technically correct, but the comma you suggested is the epitome of what I think of as ‘the optional comma.’ It’s ugly and unnecessary and can distract the reader.

      From a stylistic standpoint, because it’s actually smoother and easier to read, I prefer the way I’ve written it above. Adding the comma you suggest doesn’t add any clarity to the sentence…it simply breaks what is now a single subordinate clause into two nested subordinate clauses. The simple test I apply here — when I choose to apply it (and I make no claim to consistency) — is “how does this sentence read if only one half of the nested subordinate clause is removed?” To illustrate:

      As written:
      they would probably defend the lapse by noting that, unlike CMS with its convoluted subject organization, AP is organized alphabetically

      Subordinate clause removed:
      they would probably defend the lapse by noting that…AP is organized alphabetically

      If the ‘optional comma’ is used, removing only part of the subordinate clause yields these choices:
      they would probably defend the lapse by noting that, unlike CMS…, AP is organized alphabetically
      they would probably defend the lapse by noting that, …with its convoluted subject organization, AP is organized alphabetically

      While the first option still works, the second now gets the meaning wrong: shifting the description from CMS to AP. This is, I know, perhaps an exaggerated and artificial way to make a comma placement decision. But good — clear — writing is about more than adhering to strict and sometimes arbitrary rules of grammar. Style and reader experience are important, too. In fact, they’re often more important. My experience is that when you keep (or add) optional commas you’re more likely to cause confusion, even if it only happens for a small percentage of readers. A good writer should always err on the side of clarity — toward the more efficient and less ambiguous method of information transmission. (Unless ambiguity is desired, but that’s for another discussion.)

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