Arrant Pedantry

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The Style Guide Alignment Chart

I’ve been thinking a lot about style guides lately, and I decided that what the world really needs right now is the definitive style guide alignment chart. I posted a version on Twitter the other day, but I wanted to do a slightly expanded version here. (Quotes are taken from easydamus.com.)

Lawful good: The Chicago Manual of Style, Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook, Chaotic Good: Buzzfeed Style, Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style, True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide, Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style, Lawful Evil: The New Yorker Style Guide, Neutral Evil: The AP Stylebook, Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the  American Psychological Association

Lawful Good: The Chicago Manual of Style

A lawful good character “combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly.” And boy howdy, is Chicago relentless—the thing is over 1,100 pages! Even if you use it every day in your job as an editor, there are probably entire chapters that you’ve never looked at. But it’s there with its recommendations just in case.

Neutral Good: The MLA Handbook

“A neutral good character does the best that a good person can do.” Look, the MLA Handbook certainly tries to do what’s right, even if it can’t make up its mind sometimes. Remember when it said you should specify whether a source was print or web, as if that wasn’t obvious from context, and then it took that rule out in the next edition? Enough said.

Chaotic Good: The Buzzfeed Style Guide

“A chaotic good character acts as his conscience directs him with little regard for what others expect of him.” Buzzfeed style is guided by a strong moral compass but doesn’t feel beholden to a lot of traditional rules. It has great entries on gender, race, and disability and would probably recommend singular “they” in that last sentence. It also has entries on celebricat (a celebrity cat), dadbod, and milkshake duck, because that’s the internet for you.

Lawful Neutral: The Elements of Style

“A lawful neutral character acts as law, tradition, or a personal code directs her.” The Elements of Style, a.k.a. Strunk & White, certainly upholds a lot of laws and traditions. Are they good laws? Look, I don’t see how that’s relevant. The point is that if you follow its diktats by omitting needless words and going which hunting, your writing will supposedly be just like E. B. White’s.

True Neutral: The Wikipedia Style Guide

A true neutral character “doesn’t feel strongly one way or the other when it comes to good vs. evil or law vs. chaos.” Wikipedia doesn’t care for your edit wars. There are lots of acceptable style choices, whether you prefer American or British English. Just pick a style and stick with it.

Chaotic Neutral: Wired Style

A chaotic neutral character “avoids authority, resents restrictions, and challenges traditions.” Wired Style has a chapter called “Be Elite” and another called “Screw the Rules.” The first edition is also printed on day-glow yellow paper, because screw your eyes too. It also has a chapter called “Anticipate the Future” but probably didn’t anticipate that it would go out of print twenty years ago.

Lawful Evil: The New Yorker

A lawful evil character “plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion.” The New Yorker uses jarring diereses to prevent misreading of words that no one has trouble reading, and it doubles consonants in words like focussed because it said so, that’s why. It also unnecessarily sets off certain phrases with commas based on a hyperliteral idea of what restrictive and nonrestrictive mean. Tell me that’s not mercilessly evil.

Neutral Evil: The Associated Press Stylebook

“A neutral evil villain does whatever she can get away with.” The AP Stylebook used to say that two things couldn’t collide unless they were both in motion, and it also used to recommend against not only split infinitives but also adverbs placed in the middle of verb phrases, which is the normal place to put them. They only abandoned those rules when John McIntyre finally called them on that BS.

Chaotic Evil: Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association

A chaotic evil character is “arbitrarily violent” and “unpredictable.” Have you ever seen APA-style references? Some titles are in title case, while others are in sentence case. And, for reasons I can’t understand, volume numbers are italicized but issues numbers aren’t, even though there’s no space between them. “Arbitrarily violent” is the best description of that mess that I’ve seen.

Naturally, there will be some disagreement over the placement of some entries. I’ve also had a lot of calls to include Bluebook, with most people wanting to put it somewhere on the evil axis, while others have wanted to include The Yahoo! Style Guide, The Microsoft Manual of Style, or AMA Manual of Style. I’ve decided that I’m probably going to have to do a yearly update to add new entries or move some to more fitting spots. In the meantime, if you’ve got opinions—and I’m sure you do—feel free to chime in below.

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Arrant Pedantry

When you study and work with language for a living, a lot of people naturally assume that you’re some sort of scowling, finger-wagging pedant who is secretly keeping a list of all the grammatical and usage errors they make. It’s difficult to make people understand that you only correct errors when you’re on the clock, and even then you sometimes do it grudgingly because that’s what the style guide says, not necessarily because you believe you’re actually improving the text. It’s even harder to make people understand that what you’re really interested in is understanding how language works, not telling people that they’re using the language wrong or that they’re somehow lacking or inferior because they split an infinitive and dangled a participle.

The problem is that too many people have had bad experiences with just such language pedants, the Miss Thistlebottoms of the world. Now, I have to say that I do believe that there should be standards in the language and that they should be taught to students and followed by writers and editors (when appropriate).

The problem is that the standards in English are too often defined or enforced by people who apparently pull rules out of thin air. These grammatical fussbudgets aren’t interested in a standard based on the usage of educated speakers and writers; rather, they seem to prefer rules that set them apart from the unwashed masses, that give them a reason to judge and condemn. The Elements of Style is their bible, Strunk and White are their prophets, and they sneer down their noses at those not of their faith. The objective, empirical truth of English usage is of no interest to them; they have faith in their false gospel of grammar.

Why do these grammar nazis bother me so? For a lot of reasons, actually. First of all, because a lot of people assume that I’m one of them, and that is simply not true. I was never much of a grammar nazi even when I was new to the field of editing; I favored the spirit of the law over the letter of the law. I still enjoy editing, and I have some very good friends who are excellent editors, but too many people in that profession are either incompetent or tyrannical (or likely both).

Second, I have a strong respect for the truth. Most grammaristos will believe whatever falsehoods they happened to hear in their English classes. If an English teacher tells them that it’s always wrong to split an infinitive, to strand a preposition, or to use they with a singular antecedent, they will unquestioningly accept it as gospel truth, no matter how nonsensical it may be. Any rational person could do a little research and find all three of those “rules” broken by virtually all the finest English writers of the last several centuries. You’d think this would be enough to convince them that such rules are faulty, but the grammar pedants will usually respond with a retort like “Just because Shakespeare made mistakes doesn’t make it alright.” You simply can’t argue with people like that.

And as if those rules weren’t ridiculous enough, there are teachers in the world who tell their students that it’s outright wrong to use the final serial comma or to use the subordinator that when it could be omitted. These sorts of rules only serve to teach students that English is a difficult, frustrating subject that doesn’t make sense. These students then spend the rest of their lives fearing anyone in a position of grammatical authority and believing that many of their natural tendencies in the language are probably wrong.

When people are blindly stupid about grammar and usage, it makes me angry, but when people have been cowed into believing that no matter what they do, they’re always going to get it wrong, it just makes me sad. There’s something seriously wrong with the way English grammar is taught today. At some point the system was taken over by people who favored literary analysis over any sort of teaching of the principles of the language, so what little grammar is being taught is fundamentally flawed because no one has taken the time to learn it properly before they attempt to teach it to others. It’s a subject that’s been highly abused, and too often it’s used for abusive purposes.

Unfortunately, I have no idea what the solution is. I may not be a grammar nazi, but neither am I a grammar anarchist. All I know is that I don’t like the way things are, and I think it’s time for a change.