Consistency and Flexibility

One pitfall of being an editor is seeing things that I wish didn’t bug me, but do. I don’t want to be a critical or judgmental person, and I certainly don’t want to be one of “those people” who thinks she knows better than anyone else. But here’s a story of the (mis)application of style just for the sake of following the rules.

My son is about to write his test to prove he knows the rules of the road so the Province of Manitoba will grant him a learner’s permit. Last night, we were reviewing the Driver’s Handbook and having fun with the practice quizzes (a great resource, and a great refresher for veteran drivers like me).

The question came up: how far away from a railway track do you have to park? Well, that one stumped us both (I’ve never had to think about parking next to a railway track), so we looked it up. Page 88 of the Driver’s Handbook has a lovely, comprehensive list that looks like this:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within three metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within three metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within nine metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within six metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

Now, I have no way of knowing how this list strikes you, but it bugged me. So much so that I stopped and said, “As an editor, this bugs me.” My son said, “Yeah, what’s with the mixing of the words and numbers?” To him, it seemed totally illogical. I laughed, because the poor handbook writers are just trying to follow the rules.

The basic rule is simple, and follows Chicago 17: the numbers zero through nine are written out, and everything else is set in numerals. I tend to write this way myself, and I’m not sure why except that I’m used to it (which is, by the way, the wrong  reason to insist on any point of style). But if I’m used to it, why did this list bug me?

In an earlier post I pondered number styles according to Chicago 17  in far too much detail, having spent far too much time trying to decide whether to reverse the decisions of a copy editor. I settled on the section in the manual called Consistency and Flexibility, which in its essence says, “Follow the rules unless you have a good reason not to.” One good reason to bend the numbers-vs-numerals rule is “local” consistency, such as a list like the one above. Using numerals consistently to indicate how far away from something you should park would make the whole thing so much easier to scan and memorize, would it not? See for yourself:

It’s illegal to park:
• on a sidewalk
• across the entrance to any driveway, back lane or intersection
• within 3 metres from the point on the curb or edge of the roadway
immediately opposite a fire hydrant
• on a crosswalk or within 3 metres of a crosswalk
• within 15 metres of a pedestrian corridor
• within 9 metres of a stop sign or other traffic sign or signal posted
at an intersection
• within 30 metres of the nearest rail of a railway crossing, unless
otherwise posted
• within 6 metres of a driveway entrance to a fire station, unless
otherwise posted
• on a roadway beside another vehicle that is already parked
• at a curve on the highway outside a city, town or village, when
the vehicle cannot be clearly seen from at least 60 metres in each
direction upon the highway
• in such a manner that it becomes a hazard or that is contrary to
any section of The Highway Traffic Act or any municipal bylaw

This kind of local consistency does not mean that the rules aren’t followed elsewhere throughout the handbook. It just means you make an exception for that list, because really, what are you trying to remember? Distances. In metres. Numbers.

  • 3 – fire hydrant, crosswalk
  • 6 – driveway entrance to a fire station
  • 9 – stop sign
  • 15 – pedestrian corridor
  • 30 – railway crossing
  • 60 – range of sight of a vehicle parked on the road.

What a nice, neat list of multiples of three. Yes, three. The list is done, and so I revert back to the rule.

It comes down to common sense, a lot of the time. Following the rules absolves us of the responsibility of thinking for ourselves. It’s better to think and make a conscious choice than hit something and claim you had the right of way.

In writing to convey information, our goal should always be to never make the reader work harder than they should have to. Some information is hard to process, and we’re not talking about simplifying everything. We are talking about avoiding unnecessary distractions, which can be likened to impairment. Check out this Driving Quiz question (just because it’s funny):

A few drinks after work before driving home:
a.is good because you miss the rush hour traffic
b.is good because they help to release the day’s tension and make you a safer driver
c.will impair your ability to drive
d.will never hurt anyone

If blindly following a style rule impairs the ability of the reader to retain the information you are trying to convey, then it undermines the purpose of the writing, just like alcohol in your bloodstream impairs your reflexes. Even rules of the road, if blindly followed, can get in the way of defensive driving (for example, driving according to conditions instead of blindly following the speed limit or proceeding because you have the right of way).

The central message of the Driver’s Handbook is, don’t be stupid or reckless. The central message of the astute editor is: don’t be stupid or reckless. Be courteous. Be safe. Be kind. To other drivers and to your readers. Just be glad “reader rage” isn’t a thing. Unless you’re on social media. But that’s another thing altogether.

One thought on “Consistency and Flexibility

  1. I love your real-life examples of the application of these style “rules”. I actually remember a teacher, long ago, explaining the zero through nine rule but was too young to fully understand or appreciate the nuance involved.

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