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: the story of number styles in lists.

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.

Follow the rules – to a point

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.

(Un)common sense

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: good because you miss the rush hour traffic 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).

Be safe, be kind

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.

Update: James Harbeck recently posted about number style on The Editor’s Weekly. Because he is way smarter than I am, I get very excited when we agree on a style decision. 🙂 However, I also recently encountered a client preference to follow the one-to-nine spelled out rule even in the face of an exception as outlined above. Here I made an exception to my exception, because clients preferences trump mine, and that is just the way it is.

Scary “Scare Quotes”

It seems a topic only too appropriate for today: I ran across scare quotes today in a page proof. They were used inconsistently, so I dug into my trusty Chicago manual to see the scoop and what rules might apply. As usual, I never open that book without learning something. 

“Scare quotes,” according to CMOS 17 (7.57), are used to alert a reader that some term is being used in a nonstandard way: to be ironic, as slang, etc. The manual cautions against overuse, warning that the device (much like the F-bomb, actually), loses its force and becomes irritating when overused. 

In my real-like example, a footnote in an accounting article refers to “big bath” accounting. The term “big bath” (which, by the way, is a sketchy if not fraudulent behaviour, in case you are interested) is used four times in just as many lines of text. It is encased in scare quotes three of those times.

Adding quotes to the fourth “big bath” did reek like overuse to me, but my consistency antenna was blinking, so what to do? A couple of paragraphs down from the don’t-overuse-it advice, I read that “a word or phrase preceded by so-called need not be encased in quotation marks” (CMOS 17, 7.59). That seemed like a workable solution: add so-called before the first occurrence of big bath, and establish the term without using quotes. 

BUT (because exceptions are the rule), CMOS goes on to say that quotes can (and maybe should) be added if only a part of the phrase is highlighted: so-called “running” shoes,

In the case of “big bath”, in this context it is indeed used as a modifier of not less than three nouns that are related but not identical: big bath charges, big bath accounting, big bath reporting behaviour. So, the exception to the rule may apply: so-called “big bath” charges sets off the modifier as being the ironic or nonstandard part of the phrase. 

Thus, as with many elements of style, there is more than one right way to do things, and as a proofreader, my only job is to check against the author copy. In this case, the proof matches the copy, so I choose the least invasive approach and add quotes to the fourth occurrence. Consistency trumps overuse for the lowly proofreader.

However, as a copy editor, I might flag this whole footnote to the author, and suggest introducing the term using so-called “big bath” charges,

Happy Hallowe’en!

Serious Serial Comma Silliness

I am a fan of the Oxford comma (also called the series or serial comma): parsley, sage, rosemary[,?] and thyme. Or at least I thought I was. Recent conversations and reading have led me to think again about where I place my comma allegiances, and why.

My go-to example in favour of the series comma has always been this one:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration.

One might question who my parents are, exactly. Add the Oxford comma and the fog clears:

I’d like to thank my parents, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

However, the fog clears only because “parents” is plural and Bono, bless him, is just one person. Consider this:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono, and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Now we can’t tell the difference between the series comma and the pair of commas used to set off what’s called a non-restrictive appositive. A what now? This is just a fancy name for an optional descriptive word or phrase for the noun next to it. If Bono were my father, his name in this sentence would be an optional modifier of “father”. But since he is not, leaving out the series comma may actually be more clear:

I’d like to thank my father, Bono and Lady Gaga for their inspiration. 

Or not. As you may have noticed, we have come full circle to a sentence constructed exactly like the first example. So an interesting side note might be that if Bono and Lady Gaga were indeed my parents, a second comma would be required in the first example above to delineate that sneaky non-restrictive appositive. Bonus points if you can place it. 🙂

In the end, and in my opinion, the best option is to change the order of the list in question:

I’d like to thank Bono, Lady Gaga[,] and my father [or parents] for their inspiration. 

Now it really doesn’t matter if the series comma is there or not.

In her book The Subversive Copy EditorCarol Fisher Saller uses similar examples to caution against what she calls “witless, raging allegiance to one style or the other.” She acknowledges the importance of rules to establish standards for consistency. The rules are there for the express purpose of avoiding unnecessary distraction for a reader. When following the rule itself becomes a distraction, then suddenly we editors have defeated our own purpose. 

So am I still a fan of the Oxford comma? Perhaps, but hopefully not to the point of being witless and raging. The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed., section 6.19) maintains that the series comma solves more problems than it creates, and I tend to agree. However, I am rather charmed by the cheeky footnote at the beginning of Matthew Stevens’s book The Subtleties of Scientific Style, which sets a certain tone:

I am not a fervent proponent of the “serial” or “Oxford” comma, so you will find here instances of where I haven’t inserted a comma where you might have. Without our getting into an argument about “my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, this usage reflects schooling and not logic. I can find examples of where the serial comma creates ambiguity, not solves it. But feel free to insert your own commas. Here are some spares: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Matthew Stevens, The Subtleties of Scientific Style, p. viii

I am grateful for the reminder to avoid the tar pits of style rules, but what is life without a bit of serious silliness?

Nit-picking Numbers

How a day spent grappling with “2” and “two” taught me something about numbers, numerals, and life

Sometimes I appreciate the technical side of editing. I don’t mean editing technical documents, necessarily – I mean the technical aspects of grammar and style that give me the illusion that I can tell right from wrong. As my previous post relates, sometimes there are good reasons for making certain changes to the copy even without the author’s permission. Even so, these are sometimes rather pompous reasons like because it’s the right way to do things or because the style guide says so.

And yet, if I learned anything today, that sort of fundamentalism can start me off on a slippery slope. Because I have a past life (emphasis on past) where I could quote chapter and verse of the Good Book with the best of them, I am all too familiar with the perils and pitfalls of dogma, no matter what the context. 

The thing I am learning to appreciate about the Chicago Manual of Style is that it makes no claims to have all the answers, and in the end, it is consistency and flexibility that truly matter. How do these things even coexist? Today’s lesson is brought to you by the number two (2). Not Number Two, silly – the number two!

The house style of the academic journal I am working for instructs authors to spell out the numbers zero through nine and use numerals for 10 and up. The exceptions are measurements (8 percent, 6 degrees) and references to specific parts of the paper (Table 1, section 5). Seems simple enough, right? Trucking along through a page proof, I come across the following:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is two (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is two (642) days. 

As an aside, this particular writing style has the peculiarity of displaying two options using parentheses: in the example above, the minimum is two days and the maximum is 538 days (or 642 days in the second clause). Two for the price of one!

This sentence struck me as odd because of the use of words and numerals in juxtaposition like this. Certainly, I thought, the copy editor was just obeying the rules… unless of course “days” is a measurement. What to do? Consult the manual, of course!

And down the rabbit hole I went, wading through several principles and their exceptions, until I came to section 9.7, so appropriately called “Consistency and flexibility”:

Where numbers occur within a paragraph or series of paragraphs, maintain consistency in the immediate context. If according to a given rule you must use numerals for one of the numbers in a given category, use them for all in that category. 

Chicago Manual of Style, 17th ed., section 9.7

Aha, I thought. Regardless of whether “days” is considered a unit of measurement, “consistency in the immediate context” directs me to change “two” to “2” in this sentence:

The minimum (maximum) number of days between [event A] and [event B] is 2 (538) days, and the minimum (maximum) number of days between [event C] and [event D] is 2 (642) days. 

Not that I enjoy stetting any copy editing decision, but this at least made me feel a tad more confident in doing so. Resting on my little laurels, then, I press on until I encounter this gem:

both measured over the last 2 years of [term A]. … we also calculate the average return on assets, ROA, over the two fiscal years preceding [event B]. The [variable of interest] is the excess of each [firm]’s 2-year ROA over the mean of…

Consistency is out of vogue, apparently. As a proofreader, technically my only job is to compare the proof to the author copy. And lo and behold, the author copy uses “two” in all three cases in this excerpt! Why then, would a copy editor change two two’s to 2, and leave one alone? (Are you dizzy yet?)

The reason I even care is that part of my role is to follow the style guide and correct style errors in the proof, because things do get missed. Plus, for me the inconsistency is like an itch that won’t go away. The question of the day seems to be whether “years”, like “days” in the first example, is considered a unit of measure, and if it is, then why is “fiscal year” exempt?

[Note: Because this particular realm of academia walks a fine line between the humanities and mathematics, it’s not always clear whether strict scientific style applies here. And incidentally, Scientific Style and Format basically says use numerals, (almost) always, because it’s just easier that way.]

A quick email to the client reveals that no, units of time in the magnitude of days, months and years do not count as units of measure and we should spell out zero through nine in this context. Okay, I say. This is flexibility. Flexibility within a principle of style, combined with consistent application at all levels of editing (including proofreading), is a recipe for peace of mind for editors, authors, and publishers. 

More than that, I think the principle of “consistency and flexibility” could go a long way in helping me find peace of mind in other parts of my life too: relationships, parenting, hobbies, and working with animals. Being consistent and flexible helps others know what to expect, but allows for change and growth along the way. 

After all, like everything in life, language and style are constantly evolving, so we’re always reaching for a moving target. What better reason do you need to cut yourself some slack?

Comma Confusion: To Include or Not to Include?

Recently, in reviewing an academic article, I came across the following sentence in the notes to a table:

“Industry and year-specific intercepts are not included for brevity.”

At first glance, the meaning might seem obvious, but let’s look again. Are you including the intercepts or not? Because this could mean two things: that the intercepts are there not for brevity but for completeness, OR that in an effort to be brief, the intercepts have been left out. 

The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) addresses this in section 6.31:

A dependent clause that follows a main clause should not be preceded by a comma if it is restrictive, that is, essential to the meaning of the main clause. For instance, in the first example below, it is not necessarily true that “we will agree to the proposal”; it is, however, true that “we will agree” to it “if you accept our conditions.”

We will agree to the proposal if you accept our conditions.

Paul was astonished when he heard the terms.

He wasn’t running because he was afraid; he was running because he was late.

If the dependent clause is merely supplementary or parenthetical, it should be preceded by a comma. Such distinctions are occasionally tenuous. In fact, as the third example below makes clear, the meaning in such cases can depend entirely on the presence or absence of a comma (compare with the third example above). If in doubt, rephrase.

I’d like the tom yum, if you don’t mind.

At last she arrived, when the food was cold.

He didn’t run, because he was afraid to move.


Because he was afraid to move, he didn’t run.

CMOS 17, 6.31 “Comma following main clause”

Bottom line: we include the comma for clarity. For clarity, we include the comma. We do not include the comma for frivolity, we include it for clarity. 

Do you see what I did there? 

While we’re on the topic of clarity, let’s look at the hyphen. “[Y]ear-specific intercepts” is clear enough, but are we talking about industry intercepts or industry-specific intercepts? An expert in the field may find this laughable and the answer obvious, but for the sake of clarity, if we are talking about industry-specific intercepts, we would need what Chicago 17 calls the “suspended hyphen” (section 7.88): “industry- and year-specific intercepts”. 

Put that all together, and the diamond-clear sentence looks like this:

For brevity, industry- and year-specific intercepts are not included. 

As a proofreader, it would technically be my job to only flag this to the publisher, but not to mark it for correction. As a copy editor, I would fix it because the assigned style guide backs me up in both cases. Depending on the publication process and my relationship with the managing editor, as a proofreader I may have room to make a judgement call. 

But yes, I am one of those rare breeds who thinks this stuff is fun, and fascinating. And sometimes, a missing comma can have big consequences, so it’s worth it to have someone around who notices these things. 

The Plurality of Pluralization

I found out today that Editors Canada members now receive an online subscription to the Chicago Manual of Style. Bonus! … even if I just bought my own copy of the 17th edition, um, last week. Ah well. It’s good to have options, and I am indeed grateful for the benefits of membership I am already reaping in the short time since I joined.

In reviewing the contents of said publication today, I came across this little ditty at the beginning of Chapter 5:

In its usual sense, grammar is the set of rules governing how words are put together in sentences to communicate ideas—or the study of these rules. Native speakers of a language learn them unconsciously. (p 225, 17th ed.)

That last sentence made me giggle, because of this meme I saw on Facebook only this morning:No automatic alt text available.

Then I saw a comment that’s worth mentioning even if it’s beside the point:

“(This) is a cartoon about grammar errors that contains absolutely zero grammar errors. Spelling and punctuation are not grammar.”

I also find this funny, because my spanky new Chicago Manual tells me that there are many schools of grammatical thought, and grammarians (yes, that’s a thing!) can’t even agree. I could argue that at the very least, the use of “there” in the cartoon is indeed a grammatical error. The sign writer has not actually misspelled anything, but used the wrong word entirely, and confused a contraction of pronoun and verb (they’re) with a word that could be any of a number of parts of speech depending on the context (there). And “We got…”? Seriously, that’s not grammar?

But I digress…

Sam and the Two Marys

We may enjoy poking fun at the apparent incompetence of people in their grammar, spelling, syntax, or whatever, who apparently missed the memo that native speakers learn grammar unconsciously (or, figuratively speaking, by osmosis). However, I do recall marveling at my son’s language development in his early years, when he catapulted himself through an entire progression of sounds, words, phrases and then full sentences, with no direct instruction of any kind.

Sam was two and a half when we were wandering through a mall sometime after Christmas. During the season he had been rather taken with the Nativity and the players in it. Passing by a shop window, he spied a pair of female manikins and stopped dead. He pondered a moment, then pointed at them and said, “Two Marys.” I swear I never told him to add an s to the end of a noun to make it plural, and I am pretty sure I had never used Mary in the plural myself. I was amused, and in awe of the human brain and its development.

Now nearly 18, Sam is neither amused nor impressed by his linguistic achievement on that day. In his usual deadpan, ultra-pragmatic approach to life, his response to hearing this story was “Well yeah – doesn’t everybody figure that out?” Yes Sam, they do – but that’s exactly what makes it awesome. Everybody figures it out, and I got to witness it happen, with my own eyes, to my own progeny.

I don’t know why it struck me that day – perhaps because my mom brain was easily amused, or steeped in oxytocin. But what the Chicago Manual of Style lays out in several pages of rules and their exceptions, my two-year-old just knew: add s to a word and you get two of them. Most of the time, anyway.

The Data Obsession

Of course, Sam had to figure out much later that pluralizing a proper noun isn’t always considered appropriate, and that there are multitudes of ways to make nouns plural beyond the appended s.

The Manual holds up the word data as an example of a so-called mass noun that is plural in form but may be used grammatically as plural or singular. The latter is a more modern usage, and in a surprisingly familiar tone, the Manual asserts you pick one:

But make your play and be consistent – vacillating will not win the admiration of readers and listeners. (p 229)

Apparently, also, data is always plural when used in the sciences (p 229). This makes me happy, because I am a scientist, and the thing that James Harbeck calls “the language crank” in me does not like it when people confuse data and datum. I confess, though, that I may have a purely sentimental reason for this.

My graduate supervisor was an Englishman who could rival John Cleese in a rant. A hard-working, demanding boss, his favourite routine of the day was to walk into the lab and pick on someone with the pointed question: “Any data, [name of person in hot seat]?” We, his minions, er, I mean, students, grew to dread that question the way the child dreads hearing “Is your room clean?” from a parent. We knew what we were supposed to be doing, but the way biomedical research goes, you can work for days and not have any data to show for it. Still, he had a point, just like parents do, and we worked hard.

One afternoon, in a manner perhaps even more jovial than usual, Dr. Lover-of-Results wanders into the lab and this time asks no one in particular, “Any data?”

Silence. Our heads are down. We are working. Feverishly.

“Any datUM?”

Crickets. Or the laboratory equivalent, at least.

“Erm… anyone have a DATE tonight?”

Nothing. We are very, very busy. One last try:

“Anyone know what DAY it is??”

I’m pretty sure it was Friday, and that we had a good laugh. But what I do remember clearly is this: the data were (not was) central to lab life, and still represent (not represents) the sometimes all too elusive Holy Grail to graduate students around the world.

It’s what we do with the data once we get it, er, I mean them (consistency!), that completes the process, and, in my opinion, defines the relationship between science and the public. But that’s a topic for another post…