Usage styles in writing: A look beyond English grammar

Flower close upAs a freelance editor and copyeditor, I’ve often wondered whether people in general understand what writing styles mean. Recent discussions with a writing client led me to believe that style usage may not be a common realization after all; more than this, styles even seem unnecessary for most of our personal writing tasks from day to day. However, businesses, newspapers, publishing houses, and organizations that employ writers, editors, and communication specialists, look at style guidebooks to go beyond English grammar in an effort to get the help they need for their daily writing projects—and with good reason, because style guidebooks help take the guesswork out of usage conflicts and confusions, especially when a need for originality, consistency, and distinctiveness is crucial to each organization’s writing voice. But don’t be mistaken, style guides are important tools for individual writers as well. What is a writing style guide? you may ask. What are usage styles, or conflicts and confusions in the written word? Let me begin by saying that I wish I had learned about writing style guides early in life while hammering out my English grammar exercises, as I often felt like the Joker in a deck of cards, heralded by question marks which showed my confusion about usage rules in English. The last thing I needed was more rules, and I had never heard about such usage rules, only those that pertained to essential grammar, spelling, and punctuation, which my English teachers pounded into me and regulated with red markup pens in my writing pieces. I am grateful to them now! Later, during years in college, when I made a mid-career move to earn a BA in English, I struggled to put words and sentences down efficiently, the way you’re supposed to when dealing with prose or poetry. There is a marked difference between spoken and written sentences! Our professors asked all students to write papers in either the MLA or APA style format (see the end of the post for definitions), depending on our career directions; and I put a lot of time in my writing, trying to understand what MLA style really meant for my academic coursework. I focused on creative writing and poetry. But having to comprehend a style guide was the last thing on my mind as I made my way though this formative and valuable education, although the effort made me more aware; and I soon realized that I simply couldn’t write in a vacuum as I had done in the past—if my work ever got published, it needed to follow established formatting and style usage rules urged on by the publishing industry. Aside from grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, and other crucial building blocks in writing, I had to get to know pertinent styles and usage rules while continuing to search for my writer's voice. So while your writer’s voice is the holy grail that can lead you toward success, writing style helps remove hiccups in the words themselves. Industry style guides give writers insights on how to avoid acts of randomness in the way they choose and use words in a written work, although usage and grammar errors have a lot to do with an author’s not knowing how a word should be written rather than the randomness itself, which is clearly a consequence. Usage rules even include how an author should cite or make a reference to an Internet address being used in a writing project, or how Web headlines, book titles, and magazine article titles should be written and referenced for an intended publishing market. Take, for example, this usage issue: When is it correct to hyphenate two words used together (high-heeled, red-winged) or leave them open (as two words without the dash)? A writing style guide will show you how and why you should be consistent to avoid any conflicts and confusions throughout your writing; the guide will suggest that two words acting as adjectives get hyphenated when placed before a noun {high-heeled shoes, red-winged blackbird}, but remain open when following the noun {her shoes are high heeled, or these blackbirds are all red winged}. Now that’s a style suggestion, but it’s also a usage rule that editors in online and print journals will look for in your submitted work. Of course, I’m simplifying here with the above examples, but know that there are many, many usage rules and style suggestions for serious writers to follow. If you are interested in finding out more, check out the Internet links I’ve provided at the end of this post before you decide to invest in a style manual—some are not cheap! In closing, I’ll say that English is a fascinating and equally complex language, and you can’t do much in your writing without a strong foundation built on grammar, but a style guide will make you a more confident and proficient writer. Some usage suggestions from The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):

—Do you use a “down style” (the president speaks) or “up style” (the President addresses the nation tonight) when capitalizing words? CMS suggests that, if it’s a proper name and term, use the up style {Senator Dick Durbin}; use down style after the first usage of the proper name term {We hoped to talk with Senator Dick Durbin, but the senator had to leave.}

—For the use of numbers in writing that is non-technical (CMS recommends saying nontechnical), spell them out from one through one hundred {sixty-eight, twenty-one}, if they are round numbers {thirty, four}, and especially when they begin a sentence {One hundred and fifteen applicants came for the same interview last month, or When I counted, 115 applicants came...}

—Troublesome expressions: When do you use affect or effect? How about farther or further? CMS says affect (as a verb) means “to influence something”{The dean’s hard views were sure to affect the faculty}; as a noun, affect is used in psychology to mean an emotion or mood {the behavior or affect display of an organism}. On the other hand, effect is the result of or outcome of something {The manager’s hard words had no effect on the tea pickers that hot afternoon}. Farther is used for physical distances {She biked farther than her partner did}, whereas further is used in a non-literal or figurative sense {I’ve given you the facts, so please look no further}.

Style guides: The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), general publishing style guide— The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (medical)— Words Into Type (another known and general publishing style guide)— The Modern Language Association (for academic writing, non-medical)— It is not unusual for companies to adopt their own writing style guides and usage rules, and copyeditors (whether freelance or fulltime) will often create personal style guides for fiction and nonfiction manuscripts that keep them busy. § I do welcome your opinions. Please log in or register to write a comment.  

Possessives and contractions in grammar: A case of orange’s and banana’s

Fruit stand with oranges and bananasA recent discussion on grammar with a close friend inspired a flurry of humorous text messages that she and I shared the next day; these messages were intended as a play on words related to problems with grammar, punctuation, possessives, and contractions. But what prompted our silly exchange was nothing more than an innocent hand-painted sign at a local fruit stand that stated, “We sell fresh orange’s and banana’s.” Hmm. Clearly, there’s an issue here, and the resolution may seem obvious, but I felt a need to address the problem for readers who are still unclear about using possessives and contractions correctly. Before I begin, here’s a short extract from those text messages in which my friend and I also mention an overnight power failure; and I show in italics all grammar-plagued words we inserted in our playful cell-phone texts:

Friend: Just finished the board meeting. Whew! Well, I didn’t notice if are electricity went kaput last night. Did you and [she] hit the hay after dropping I off and while the electricity was out? The outage must have been wacky for you and she. And, I’ll give [my friend] you’re thanks for the papayas—hope their sweet! (hahaha!)

Mine: ...Sounds like the board meeting was “heavy”. (Or is it “heavy.”—hehehe?) Not sure when the microwave beeped during the night, but I flicked the switch on the mains at 7am, and nyeth [sic]—until 9 or so when it came back (no, the power came back, not the switch nor the mains!) We’re just hanging now...emailing the schools’ VP on the copyright issue. No rains now, and no sun for I to bask in. Doing laundry. Bwaaah.

Shortly thereafter, I sent a follow-up text to my friend:

Mine: ...just getting back from the [house]; all is fine their. No worrie’s if you come later. We’re making coffee and doing little task’s. We’s just waiting. Hahaha.

So, other punctuation and grammar issues aside, I want to focus on the contraction (it’s) and possessive (its) primarily, as these are critical grammar slammers that can inhibit proper usage. The incorrect use of its and it’s (two tiny and nearly identical words) happens when we choose one inadvertently in place of the other without understanding the purpose of our culprit: the apostrophe (’). This sixteenth century punctuation mark (originating from Latin via Greek) makes all the difference between what it’s and its mean (see, little details do matter). So here’s the slant between it’s and its: of the two, it’s is a short form or contraction showing a missing letter in it is {the dog barks when it’s (it is) time to eat}, and it’s is also a short form for it has {it’s (it has) been a slow morning at the Cozy Cafe}; whereas, its (no apostrophe!) is a possessive adjective and possessive pronoun construction of the pronoun it {the cart rolled downhill, and it crashed against the fire hydrant, destroying its (the cart’s) two front wheels}. In case you ask, a pronoun such as it is an unnamed substitute for a named thing in a sentence {use it after the first use of the word ball to avoid annoying repetition of ball; use it for cart, it for computer, etc.}—as long as you make sure that, when using it, you point it to the named subject (ball, cart, computer) that first shows up at the beginning of your sentence {I started my computer and put it to sleep minutes later, and it stopped humming} or {my cell phone froze, forcing me to restart it again and reset its default wallpaper image}. Note that the possessive pronoun its does not take an apostrophe after the t, unlike possessive noun forms which I discuss below. So while its belongs to some named thing (ball, cart, computer), we also have other possessive pronouns with the same function for persons: his, hers, whose, yours, ours, and theirs (also without apostrophes). It’s easy to confuse the omitted apostrophe in the possessive its when there are apostrophes scattered everywhere at the end of words in print and online. Just know that the possessive pronouns its, hers, ours, etc., do the same thing as cart’s, mother’s, shop’s, dog’s, and, yes, orange’s and banana’s, which are named, singular possessive noun forms that also point to things belonging to them {the cart’s wheels, mother’s phone call, the orange’s sweetness}. You wouldn’t write our’s, your’s, or their’s, for example, which spellcheckers will flag as mistakes, and rightly so. Unlike pronouns like its, hers, ours, etc. (which do not use the apostrophe), singular and plural nouns (orange, car; phones, bananas, maps, etc.) must use the apostrophe when they point to things that belong to them {the orange’s waxy skin (the waxy skin belonging to the orange)} or {the banana’s surface is still too green (the surface belonging to the banana)}, and if the nouns are plural {the stores’ hours are not the same as the parking lots’ hours}. In addition, to just say orange’s or banana’s is not enough, because both words (being singular noun forms and subjects) cannot stand on their own; each needs a verb and object phrase (or predicate) to form a complete sentence {the orange’s waxy skin has a dull sheen}; although {the orange’s waxy skin} can stand on its own as a phrase or fragment (a group of words). Without the apostrophe, singular nouns become plurals, obviously—that is, they are many carts, mothers, shops, dogs, oranges, and bananas. So if the owners of the fruit stand in question were to advertise their vast supply of fruit correctly, they would have (you guessed it) written, “We sell fresh oranges and bananas.” Now that’s something worth stopping for! Some other uses of the apostrophe in grammar contractions and possessives: 1. we’ve = we have {No more coffee, thanks. We’ve had enough.} 2. won’t = will not {He won’t agree with Carly, no matter how hard she tries.} 3. politicians’ = plural possessive nouns ending in -s take the ’ only. {The politicians’ attack campaigns disheartened the citizens.} 4. Dennis’s = singular possessive nouns ending in -s or with an s sound must take an -s {The congregation seemed enthralled by Reverend Dennis’s sermon.} 5. anyone’s, everyone’s, someone’s = possessive indefinite (nameless) pronouns {The janitor entered the classroom and asked, “Is this anyone’s laptop case?”} 6. Micah and Kim’s = joint possessions take a single -s (or -s’) after the last noun, Kim {Micah and Kim’s tent (a tent belonging to them) withstood the strong winds all day}. 7. Tom’s and Jerry’s = individual possessions take -’s for each noun {Tom’s and Jerry’s desires (their individual desires) amused TV audiences for decades}. I welcome your opinions. Please log in or register to write a comment.  

Implicit or zero articles in grammar

Discussions of grammar can be long and tedious, but they will always be necessary in our language systems. The question that I often ask myself is: Do I really know why I use a certain grammatical word in a sentence or omit it altogether while still retaining its influence on the sentence? Of course, I’m referring to the use of articles in grammar (a, an, the), and I use them unconsciously in nearly every sentence that I write, as I’m sure you do too. Before I go any further, let me say that articles behave as adjectives by their very nature, and are placed in front of nouns or phrases made from nouns (noun phrases). The article the is considered a definite article because it points to a definite noun or object {the billing cycle, the city, the best movie}. The also points to a definite object that does not have to be described completely {the snow is melting—meaning this: the snow that fell yesterday is melting}; in contrast, a and an are indefinite articles because they do not point to specific nouns or named objects in a sentence {a marketplace (a general marketplace), an emergency (an unspecified event)}. Implicit or zero articles are implied but never used in sentences, and such articles usually come before plural or mass nouns {the green paint is used to fill in all arrow shapes (the is implied before arrow shapes)} or {please apply butter to toasted slices only (the is implied before toasted slices)}. Note, however, that consciously excluding an article can also change the meaning of a sentence {he had slight chance of winning the tournament (he was so far from winning the tournament)}, but {he had a slight chance of winning the tournament (he could have won the tournament)}. I hope this helps you, as I know it reinforces my own understanding of grammar. But before I finish, let me say that the proper usage of a or an before a word depends on the sound of that word. The indefinite article a is generally used before words that sound off like consonants (h, y, t, d, etc.); as long as the word following the article a has a consonant sound (for instance, hunger sounds off with h, or universal sounds off with y), you use the article a before it {a humdrum party, a hungry man, a desperate team, a universal idea (yoo-niversal)}; in contrast, you use an before words that have a vowel sound to them {an elevator, an LA resident (el-A), an exterminator (x-terminator)}. I’ll admit that, more than anything else here, the situations in this paragraph continue to keep me on my toes, and I always refer to dictionaries and writing style guides for reassurance. I’d love to hear your opinion. Please log in or register to write a comment. Until next time, Ignatius