Writers and editors must constantly seek to achieve consistency. Each inconsistency we remove eliminates a barrier between readers and understanding, facilitates communication, and thereby increases the likelihood that our writing will convey the message we intended. Readers learn the conventions we have used early in a manuscript and use that knowledge to facilitate comprehension of subsequent material. Editing for consistency thus serves two goals: it both eases the task of reading by teaching readers how to understand our writing and eliminates obstacles that would make that task more difficult.
Essentially, this means choosing a style and sticking with it. I’ve written a lot about rules that it’s okay to break and situations there is a choice between different rules to follow, especially here and here. The key is that you need to choose a rule and stick with it throughout your writing, or at least throughout a given work.
This is why most publishers, newspapers and other industries that deal with writing have a “house style” – to ensure that their publications remain consistent. If you pick up any well-edited magazine, you should be able to read it cover-to-cover without encountering variations in style.
Further reading: American Journal Experts on consistency in academic writing. Most of what they say applies to pretty much any type of writing.
I came across this fascinating article recently and wanted to share it here. The article talks about rules non-English speakers are taught when learning English, and how most native English speakers follow these rules automatically without even knowing they exist.
In particular, did you know that a series of adjectives has be in a specific order? I didn’t! But when you think about it, you would never put adjectives in the wrong order, because it wouldn’t sound right. For example:
Her beautiful long blond hair.
Her blond beautiful long hair.
Why does the second phrase sound wrong? I couldn’t have told you, other than “it just does.” Turns out, there is actually a correct order for a series of adjectives. It goes like this:
Today I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite words that was coined by Shakespeare: multitudinous.
Whence is that knocking?
How is’t with me, when every noise appals me?
What hands are here? ha! they pluck out mine eyes.
Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas in incarnadine,
Making the green one red. – Macbeth, Macbeth, Act II, Scene II
Multitudinous is really just about the most complicated way of saying “many,” but that’s what makes it so great. Sometimes, an overly flowery word is exactly what you need to spice up your writing.
Then again, sometimes it’s just what you need to make it sound ridiculous. But isn’t that half the fun?
Half is a weird word because it can be either singular or plural.
Example 1: Half of a pie was left after we each ate a slice.
In this sentence, a singular verb (was) is used since I am referring to half of a singular object (pie).
Example 2: Half of the sodas were left after we each drank one.
In this sentence, a plural verb (were) is used since I am referring to half of multiple objects (sodas).
Fractions can be tricky since sometimes they are plural, even though a fraction is usually less than 1. For example, all of the following are correct:
Three quarter teaspoons
Three quarters of a teaspoon
Three eighths of a truckload
.375 truckloads (read aloud as “point three seven five truckloads”)
Usually in writing, it’s best to write a fraction as “half” or “three eighths,” etc. Only use decimals when it is important to be accurate and a simple fraction can’t be easily conveyed, as in “that house is worth $3.279 million.” If the house were worth $3.5 million, you could say “that house is worth three and a half million dollars” or “that house is worth $3.5 million.” It all depends on the context.
There really isn’t a rule that applies across the board with fractions, so sometimes it is best to check a dictionary if you are unsure. Or you could always check with your editor!
People frequently get confused about the names of holidays, especially ones they aren’t familiar with. For example, Labor Day is often confused with Memorial Day. This could be because these two American holidays are the bookends of summer, or because each one is a 3 day weekend for most American workers.
The backgrounds of and reasons for celebrating the two holidays, however, are very different. Memorial Day, originally named Decoration Day, was established sometime after the Civil War as a day to remember all the people who died in service to the United States (source). Labor day, on the other hand, came out of the labor movement (when workers organized and formed unions). Labor day is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers – so laborers, union members, those in public service and essentially everyone else who holds a job in this country (source).
I decided it would be fun to start writing posts based on a theme for each day of the week. My weekly schedule is going to be as follows:
Modifier Monday: devoted to exploring the role of modifiers in writing and discussing certain modifying words that can be particularly problematic.
Tricky Tuesday: This is a bit vague, but it was “tricky” to think of something that would fit with Tuesday. So on Tricky Tuesdays, we will talk about grammar rules that are “tricky,” as in, there are times when it’s okay – or even best – to break them. (Notice in that sentence I used the passive voice, something that is frequently discouraged in writing.)
Wordy Wednesday: On Wednesdays we will wear pink talk about words. Commonly misused words, words with meanings that have changed, or interesting and useful words you may not have heard of before.
This & That Thursday: Thursdays are for anything. If I write a post but it doesn’t fit into any other category, I’ll just go ahead and schedule it for a Thursday! (I probably should have waited until tomorrow to publish this post, but I was just too excited!)
Phrase Friday: On Fridays, we’ll talk about phrases. Clichés, phrases that are often misused, and how phrases fit into a sentence.
Slang Saturday: Slang is a lot of fun – when used sparingly. When overused, it quickly gets annoying. On Saturdays, we will talk about common slang terms and when it’s okay to use them.
You might not have even known there were two spellings, and meanings, of this word! Well, now you do. Read on the find out what the difference is.
Compliment: Noun – a polite expression of praise or admiration. Verb – to praise politely.
Complement: Noun – a thing that completes or brings to perfection, or a number or quantity that is required to complete a set or group. Verb – add to something in a way that enhances or improves it, or make perfect.
“I complimented Emily on the wonderful party that she threw for her sister’s 18th birthday. I don’t give out compliments lightly, so I hope she knows I really meant it.”
“Vanilla ice cream is the ultimate complement to warm apple pie.” “The dress Emily wore to the party complemented her hazel eyes.”
These two words have a lot in common: they can both be used as either a verb or a noun. They also share the Latin root word “complere,” meaning “to fill up.”
I use this trick to remember which word is which: the definition of “complement” is similar to that of “complete,” and they share the e in the second syllable; whereas, “compliment” is to say something “nice”, which has an I in the middle.
A wether is a billy goat or ram that was castrated at a young age. Whether is a word which expresses doubt or a choice between alternatives. To further complicate the matter, weather is what the conditions are like outdoors.
“The farmer harnessed his wether to pull a cart of vegetables to market.”
“’I don’t know whether you want me to stay or to go,’ she implored him, her brown eyes pooling with tears.”