On Sourcebooks for Editing Grammar and Style . . .

Clients of mine often share insecurities in their writing that pertain to grammar and find that their writing is ruled by primary school instructions, “not to start a sentence with ‘and,’ ‘but’ or ‘because.’ ” Another similar injunction is to place commas in places in the sentence where you would pause to breathe, if you were to read your text out loud. Some say further that they use hyphens only “when it feels right.” These “rules” have become what grammar and usage expert Bryan Garner calls “superstitions.” And as an editor, I work to rid my clients of them.

Earlier in my catalog of blog postings, I referred to and followed the writings of “grammar girl,” Mignon Fogarty, since her style and explanations tend to be straightforward (especially for a non-academic client). But I am increasingly finding that questions on usage and style need to be answered in Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (GM) and in the Chicago Manual of Style (CM; even if you don’t have the very latest edition of the latter). The latter has been highly recommended by many editors, including Michelle Boulton of Michelle Communications; and the two volumes are regularly endorsed (in workshops) by Ruth Wilson of the West Coast Editorial Associates. In response to these technologically advanced times, Garner features a regular email news feed on English usage that is clear and powerful.

These volumes are not the only route to reliable editing. One highly proficient editor in Saskatoon whom I know uses The Canadian Press Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors (published by The Canadian Press) and The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing (funded by the Federal Government and by Dundurn Press). And she is someone not easily stumped!

But for most writers and editors, competence in editing comes from using the CM, supplemented by books like Editing Canadian English (McClelland & Stewart). The putative American focus that some (anglophile) writers believe GM or CM has is unfounded: often, issues of Canadian usage are accurately explained by the American rules, and not the British ones. Here is a taste of the kinds of usage explained by CM and GM:

From CM:

(1)   Theo’s and Kate’s dog is brown.  Or Theo and Kate’s dog is brown.  (The second is correct, as the possessive form of two or more subjects falls to the last one.)

(2)   The difference between “affect” and “effect.” “Affect” is nearly always a verb, meaning “to influence, have an effect on.” By contrast, “effect” is nearly always a noun, meaning “an outcome, result.” Exceptions: “affect” has a specialized meaning in psychology as an emotion or mood. And “effect” can be used as a verb to mean “to make happen, produce.”

(3)   “A lot,” despite common usage, is two words, not one.

From GM:

(1)   “alright” for “all right” has never been substituted in American English and has had only “shadowy acceptance” in British English. Garner notes that this is not a new standard, even colloquially.

(2)   “For” is a casual word whose meaning is similar to “because, since, and as,” but which is not a subordinating conjunction, as they are. “For” is proper at the beginning of an independent clause and so can be classed as a coordinating conjunction: “Perhaps I should feel grateful for the hard work that Ms. Smith has put in on my behalf. For she certainly has worked very hard indeed” (358).

(3)   “Bi-weekly”: “bi” means “two” (once every two weeks) and “semi-” means “half” (once every half-week, or twice a week).  But because “bi” has been used to mean “occurring twice” in a week or other unit of time, it’s best to avoid this prefix.

Fine, you may say, but I don’t want to study the English language for my writing and marketing projects. These are resources that I continue to apply to all of the projects that you hire me to write or edit.

Wouldn’t you rather hire a writer and editor who consults standard, peer-authored and peer-reviewed resources, than one stumbling blindly (or at least still relying) on grade-school “superstitions?”

To close, a shameless plug for the day: the Editors’ Association of Canada (EAC) is a great organization of committed wordsmiths, nation-wide, that deserves the participation (and support) of writers and editors like me, when we serve clients like you. Visit www.editors.ca for more information.

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