I used to think steadfast writing rules existed for every word, sentence, and punctuation mark around. That’s what we learned growing up, right? Don’t begin sentences with “and.” Use a comma after each item in a series. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
Except then I got to college and started to learn that perhaps everything in the English language is not so black-and-white. I entered the workforce and continued to learn that language sometimes isn’t so much about hard-and-fast rules but about consistency.
Now that I’ve been working in the writing and editing industry for more than 15 years, I have come to embrace all of that gray… or is it grey? A client of mine recently switched from using the “a” version of the word to the “e” version.
The AP Stylebook tells us to use “gray.” So does William A. Sabin’s Gregg Reference Manual.
My kids’ crayon uses the “a” as well.
They mean the same thing. A little Internet research shows that “grey” is more commonly used in the UK, with “gray” being a variant spelling most popular in the United States. Though as with all usage issues, other arguments are out there too.
I say, who cares as long as it’s consistent. Consistency within a single document is lovely. Consistency within all of the written communications a company puts out is even more delightful. Consistency makes the reader’s job effortless.
So when I am faced with using “%” or “percent,” “well being” versus “well-being,” “Web site” or “website,” this is what I do:
1. Check the client’s in-house style guide.
2. Consult the client’s industry style guide or reference manual, such as one of those mentioned above or the often-used Chicago Manual of Style.
3. Use the dictionary.
4. Look at other communication pieces from the client for similar cases.
5. Explore options for recasting the sentence to avoid the issue if it’s a really tricky one.
If I find no set rule or the client doesn’t follow a preferred style, then I simply make a stand and stick with it. Consistency will make you look like you never debated about it for a minute. And most important, it makes the client look good.
What are the not-so-black-and-white style rules that trip you up? (See how I recasted that one to avoid the whole gray/grey thing?!)
Kate Harold is a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader. She knows she is in the right field because of how excited she gets every time she opens a style guide to look up a usage rule.
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