Editing Tip: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

I know it's been a while. I've been ridiculously busy, but as promised, here's a quick editing tip on something I always wished I had known and now I do.

So, I'm a very meticulous human being (most of the time). I like precision, accuracy, and the difference between the two. I like knowing the right way to do things, and I very much like doing things that way.

Which is why the English language drives me absolutely nutty.

One space after a period or two? Leaped or leapt? Jesus' or Jesus's? God damn it, God dammit, or gorramit? How the hell do you pronounce gif? Lots of people have opinions on these things, and many will tell you there is a right answer to them. And there is a right answer, but it's much more wibbly-wobbly than we want to hear:

The correct choice for most spelling, punctuation, and style questions is the choice that is used consistently.


Really, really.

It honestly doesn't matter whether you use one space or two after a period so long as you do one or the other consistently. How you spell "damn it" doesn't matter so long as you do so consistently. Whether you italicize foreign words or not doesn't matter so long as you do so consistently.

"Hold on," you say. "Does that mean I could choose not to capitalize any words at all, and that would be correct so long as I'm consistent? Isn't that objectively bad grammar?"

There is surprisingly little that is objective when it comes to language. But yes, that is usually considered bad grammar...

And yes, you can do it so long as you're consistent. E. E Cummings was famous for doing exactly that as well as screwing with punctuation and word order in general. And lest you think "Well, that's poetry," R. J. Palacio did the same thing for some chapters of the wonderful Wonder, even eschewing basic punctuation like periods and quotation marks.

So even grammar is just like the other "rules" of writing—you can break them so long as you do so intentionally and consistently.

Will it work? Well, that depends on what you're doing and how difficult it is for the reader. But there's nothing that says you can't try.

"Okay, wait. My editor told me I have to put one space after every period, regardless of what my typing teacher taught me. Why can't I do it my way like you're saying so long as I'm consistent?"

That's because your editor is following what's called a style guide—a list of rules they follow to make sure that everything they work on is consistent not just within each work but across every work they publish. Style guides are lovely because they do tell you what is right and wrong (kind of), allowing you to have that feeling of being Right (usually).

Most publishers have their own style guides, which are likely (but not necessarily) based on the Chicago Manual of Style. They are also probably using a specific dictionary (and a specific edition of that dictionary) to determine how words should be spelled to be consistent.

For example, the CMoS recommends one space after a period, serial commas in lists of items, and capitalizing words the way you learned in elementary school. If you're talking about what's "objectively" correct, the CMoS (along with other, similar style guides) is the closest thing you're going to get.

But even the CMoS only "recommends" certain things, stopping just shy of laying down the law. I hope to write more of these posts, exploring some of what the CMoS says about certain rules (rules I always wondered about but have become much more clear on lately), but in the meantime, you can find the answers to a lot of rules' questions with a little Googling, the full content of the 16th edition of the CMoS, or if you're really hardcore, a subscription to CMoS 17.

Or ask me! What questions have you always had about what is objectively right or wrong? If I don't already know the answer, I probably should (given my current, primary means of business), and I am more than happy to research it.

[UPDATE: I am a horrible person because for some reason I had typed that CMoS recommends two spaces after a period when I know, I know it does not. This has been corrected, and I have been self-flogged severely as a result.]