Old habits die-hard. Having a teacher pound a specific lesson or style into your head week after week, correcting each tiny mistake with a giant red marker on every page until the rule sinks into the brain, is an even harder habit to break.
I’ve seen and heard many so-called “rules” about writing. Most of them came into being because of common usage from newspapers and book editors printing manuscripts with said rules in the texts. In other words: people made them up over time.
Instead of arguing about the “who, what, when, and why” of some common formatting rules, I’m going to focus on five common rules and discuss methods of they mean. Arguing away in the comments section below. Have at it, just be nice and wear condoms.
Rule #1: Two spaces after a period.
I always wrote sentences putting two spaces after the trailing period. I learned about this from an old book my mother bought me when I was maybe 5 or 6 years old, and she picked it up from a garage sale with an ancient metal black Royal manual-action typewriter, complete with the ribbon cartridge of black film the heads of the keys would strike on the page to imprint the letters. After reading the book and practicing typing on the old typewriter, I never thought twice about it. My thumbs automatically struck the space bar twice after a trailing period. This practice continued until about a year ago. The podcast Grammar Girl helped me see the errors of my ways, and I’ve performed a few tests of my own since then – sure enough, no one uses two spaces anymore.
However, that’s part of the problem. Ever since the 1940’s, style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and the American Psychological Association informed typesetters to move away from monospaced fonts on a typewriter or typesetter, machines having the same sized letters, and upgrade to proportional fonts such true types, similar to everything we see and read today. Due to this change, the double-space altered margin sizes, width of paragraphs, and in most modern word processors such as Word and Pages, both the double and single space after the period exist with no autocorrection. Even though both style guides argue against the double space, you will still see people arguing for the use of the double space in every corner of the web.
Despite the personal preference for the number of spaces, please keep this fact in mind: every double-spaced article I’ve submitted that went through a professional editor ended up with single-spaces afterwards. Not a single published article contains two spaces after the periods.
Rule #2: Spell numbers One through Nine.
This topic originally appeared on our nano-roundtable Facebook page about how to announce a phone number in dialog. The amount of different answers and varied opinions shocked even the pro editors in the group. My personal stance is “as long as the point comes across, do it.” But others had different and varied thoughts.
The Chicago Manual of Style states: “Always spell out numerals one through ninety-nine, despite the connotation or context.” Which means the head editor of the group had the right idea: no matter what you do, stay consistent. If you say “I’m going to Thirty-three Elm Street at nine o’clock.” You’re fine. You can’t say: “I’m going to 33 Elm Street at Nine o’clock.” Mixing up numbers spelled out with whole digits is a problem. Never write: “Can you meet us there with a six-pack and 2 bags of chips?” Stay consistent. Spelling everything out solves this problem.
Rule #3: Math
Another question which popped up in the amazing Facebook group involved how to ask another character in a story about math. Does one type the percent sign, or %, or type out the word “percent”? Similar to C, or Celsius, for temperature?
Both the APA and Chicago style guides state “Use the proper symbol for all mathematical and academic research papers. However, spell out the describing symbol for every other journalistic work. For example: A news article states “There is a 40 percent chance of rain tonight” correctly, while an academic paper stating “An increase of 40% rainfall in the Brazil rainforest over the past 20 years due to greenhouse gasses” is correct.”
Rule #4: Ellipses
I’m going to get smacked for this one. If you’ve ever texted me or chatted with me online, in a game, on Facebook or twitter…hell, I just did it now, you know I do this ALL THE TIME. It’s like my little nervous habit of chewing fingernails or biting the inside of my lip I can’t break away from. I know I do it, I don’t know how or why I do it at all. It started back with BBS’s when multiple people could sit in a chatroom (pre-AOL) and talk. Instead of space bar, I would hit the period.
The point of the ellipses is two-fold. In speaking with communication (such as dialog,) it indicates someone thinking, pondering, or their mind wandering. In quoting or citations (in the academic field), ellipses indicate a shortened group of text. For example: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has a bit where it says: “For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” I can use an ellipsis to shorten it and say “For a moment… nothing continued to happen.” Make sense?
The main point with ellipses is to not be like me. Until then, I’ll continue to annoy everyone I chat with online…
Rule #5: The Oxford Comma
This last one is probably the most annoying because, out of the list here, it’s not only the most confusing, it’s also the most hilarious. The Oxford Comma (no idea why Oxford gets the credit) otherwise known as “the serial comma” is when there is a comma placed between three or more terms. Simple? Wrong. Look everywhere. NO ONE DOES IT.
- Bobby looked at his wife, Peggy and the police officer.
- Bobby looked at his wife, Peggy, and the police officer.
For example #1, you can say “Bobby looked at his wife, Peggy and the police officer. The police officer named Peggy pulled the gun on Bobby and his wife.”
Example #2 defines Bobby looking at his wife, someone named Peggy, and a random police officer.
There’s also a joke about “Let’s Eat Grandma. Let’s Eat, Grandma. Commas save lives.” Get it?
Like I said at the beginning of this article, if you feel any of these are wrong or feel something incorrect, feel free to let me know in the comments or shoot me a message. I’ll gladly admit I’m stupid and wrong in public.
Also, if you have any suggestions on what you may like to see, feel free to add your own two cents.
Big thanks to Reddit/r/Writing, the Facebook RoundTable NaNo group, The Write Practice site, my good friend Grammar Girl Mignon Fogerty, and the WoW raiding guild – looking forward to having more time to tanking soon!