Sacrificing style guides for clarity


If you have a question about writing style, there’s probably an answer in The Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. Follow their rules and you will achieve consistency — both internal and with other writing. But will you achieve clarity?

I first faced this dilemma as a technical writer decades ago. In American English, the period at the end of a sentence goes inside the quote marks:

“This is correct.”

“This is not”.

In writing computer books, however, quotes carry a somewhat different meaning. They mean, “you should type this, exactly as it appears.” I found that if I wrote a sentence like this:

Make sure your cursor is at the bottom of the screen, and type “delete.”

People would type the word “delete” with a period after it. I could recast the sentence, of course, so that the quoted material came in the middle instead of the end, but it was easier and clearer to write it like this:

Make sure your cursor is at the bottom of the screen, and type “delete”.

The instructions at the beginning of the book could then be clear and unambiguous. If it is inside of the quotes, type it. If it isn’t, don’t.

I learned about words and grammar changing with genres when I was a contributing editor at VLSI Design magazine. As any gamer or grammarian knows, the word “dice” is the plural of the word “die.” One die, two dice. In the semiconductor field, however, where a die is an integrated circuit cut out of a wafer, the word “die” does double duty as singular and plural. The first time I wrote an article for them, I asked the editor-in-chief, Jerry Werner, whether I should pluralize as “dice,” showing that I’m hip to proper grammar, or “die,” showing that I’m hip to the semiconductor industry.

Jerry explained to me then that if an industry comes up with a new use for an existing word (complete with new conjugation rules), that word becomes “correct” within the context of that industry. That’s called jargon. It means that different books, magazines, or websites can use different styles and different rules without any of them being “wrong.”

I like that concept.

This cropped up again this week in a new book I’m working on. I won’t say yet what it is, but I can tell you that it’s technical and it deals with music. I was having a devil of a time writing sentences that refer to a song, an artist, a genre, a software menu selection, and the name of a playlist without peppering the sentence with an impenetrable maze of quotation marks. My preferred style book, The Chicago Manual of Style, says that song names should be set in italics. That helps. It does not, however, give any assistance when dealing with things like computer menus — or at least my creaky old 15th edition doesn’t. And I found myself constantly having to include explanatory words: the genre “blues” or the band “Blues Traveler.”

What to do?

I made some stylistic decisions of my own, just for the purposes of this book. I decided to set song titles in italic, playlists in bold, and window and menu text in small caps. It took a few minutes to get used to, but it makes sentences much shorter and much clearer. Instead of

Select the menu item “Genre|Blues” to make the song “Carolina Blues” by the band “Blues Traveler” appear in the “Blues” playlist.

I can write:

Select Genre|Blues to make Carolina Blues by Blues Traveler appear in Blues.

I can drop 40% of the words, all of the quotes, and the sentence is completely unambiguous.

I eagerly await commentary from some editors.


Postscript: When mentioning Jerry in this post, I decided to Google him and see what was up. It surprised me to see this blog post that he wrote about me in 2006, after I dedicated one of my Who Pooped in the Park? books to him. I have no idea how I’ve missed that for all these years. Maybe I need to do more vanity searches.

About Gary D. Robson

Gary Robson: Author, tea guy, and owner of Phoenix Pearl Tea. I've written books and articles on a zillion different subjects, but everyone knows me for my "Who Pooped in the Park?" books.

Posted on 17 January 2012, in Blog and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Gary:

    I used to be a lot pickier (more snobbish? stupider?) than I am now, but even back then I don’t think I would have found anything to disagree with in this post. It distresses me that so many people think punctuation marks go outside the quotation marks, but in the case of your computer manual, it makes perfect sense.

    However, am I wrong in thinking that in the music piece you referenced, you forgot to take italics off the other parts of the sentence? Otherwise, your ideas there make perfect sense, too.

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