A shelf of half a dozen style guides I use for editing

Happy National Grammar Day!

I had a handful of other potential topics to cover today, including my current translation diary for Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 3, a list of books to read before you die, and an overview of future projects, but the internet tells me it is National Grammar Day, so here is an impromptu message about grammar and its friend editing.

What Grammar Is

Grammar is how a language — any language works. It names the parts of the language, like noun, verb, pronoun, adjective. It gives you variations on those parts, like possessive nouns, and tells you how those variations work. For instance, possessive nouns show that something belongs to another thing. Michael’s horse: the horse belongs to Michael is some way.

Grammar tells you how to structure those parts so that communication makes sense. English is a subject-verb-object language for the most part: Talia (subject) eats (verb) a sandwich (object). French is more flexible. Sometimes it’s subject-verb-object (Talia mange une sandwiche), and sometimes it’s subect-object-verb (Talia le mange). Other languages have other parts of speech, other grammatical structures, and other variations on the parts of speech, including having more verb tenses or pronoun cases.

Syntax is a related idea, since it’s also the order of the words in the sentence. Some language, like Latin or Old English, rely on endings to signal meaning. Modern English, however, often relies on where the word is in the sentence. Take a sentence like, “Throw the ball to Eliot behind the fence.” Is Eliot behind the fence? Or is the ball behind the fence? Or is the act of throwing supposed to happen behind the fence? Since English relies so heavily on word order, the reader has to assume Eliot is behind the fence, since that phrase is closest to their name. But maybe the writer meant to communicate that the subject of the sentence (an implied “you”) has to go behind the fence and throw the ball to a waiting Eliot. It’s not a great example, but I think you get the idea.

What Style Is

Grammar and style are often paired, but they are not the same. Grammar rules aren’t too variable; if you go too far outside them, the language starts to break down, and you won’t communicate your ideas clearly. Style, on the other hand, varies a lot. It’s also really hard to pin down.

A classic example of style is the Oxford or serial comma. You can read this sentence just fine: I have a dog, three cats and a fur-covered couch. No serial comma. Here it is again, just as comprehensible: I have a dog, three cats, and a fur-covered couch. Serial comma.

I started to get into a deep dive on the serial comma yes-or-no debate, then remembered you also have the internet and can look it up if you like. I prefer a serial comma myself, but I’m not dogmatic about it. If an author I’m editing doesn’t use it, or I’m working with a publisher that does not use it in any of their books, I’ll only insert one if there is a serious possibility for confusion.

That is the hallmark of style: it’s not worth being dogmatic. Style is a guideline, not a rule. For writing, you can use The Chicago Manual of Style or MLA or APA; it really doesn’t matter. In any case, you’ll probably have an in-house style to follow too, or a style guide created for your particular project. The key is comprehensibility. If the reader will pick up what you’re putting down, then your style is functioning correctly.

Prescriptive vs Descriptive Editing

I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this before, but it’s always worth clarifying these two basic schools of editing.

Prescriptive editing makes sure that the text complies with all grammar and syntax rules and guidelines. It’s often used in formal writing, like academic works, and in places where there is no room for misunderstanding. User guides, tech manuals, legal and medical texts — editors will likely choose to be prescriptive in their suggestions for these projects.

Descriptive editing makes sure that the author’s intention is coming through to the reader. Grammar and syntax are still important, but an author’s individual voice may skew those rules and guidelines for a purpose. Novels, poems, short stories, memoirs, and even how-tos and self-help books that have a casual, person-to-person tone will require more descriptive editing. Maybe a character has an accent, or maybe the author likes to create new words, a la James Joyce. A style sheet for the project is key to consistency for descriptive editing.

Now go out there and celebrate this important national holiday by marking everything up with a red pen!

Order KHG’s latest translation, Memoirs of a French Courtesan Volume 1: Rebellion, available now as a paperback or ebook.