Category Archives: * Editing choices

We all speak the same language – or do we?

If you think that editing gets complex as you have to keep track of individual “house styles” versus APA or MLA Style, versus Chicago Style, and so on — imagine adding another layer to the complexity as you need to keep track of Canadian English versus American English, versus British and even Australian.

You may not be dealing with differences in pronunciation, since you’re editing words on the page, but there are plenty of alternate spellings to keep track of, and even alternate words for the same thing.

Most people are aware of the “-our” words in Canada and Britain (flavour, saviour, behaviour, and so on) compared to the American versions (flavor, savior, behavior). But there are many more differences than that.

For example, think of the American lyrics, “I’ve been working on the railroad, all the livelong day.” Do you realize that in Canada you’d technically need to sing, “I’ve been working on the railway”? And as a Canadian, I remember driving in the U.S. and asking a gas station attendant if I could use the “washroom,” and getting a blank look. In most places I’ve visited in that country, they don’t use that word, but say it right out: “bathroom.” If I’d been in Britain, I might have had to use “toilet,” and in Australia, “comfort station.”

This is why, if you’re going to be editing materials from other English-speaking countries — which is more and more likely in the internet age — it’s very important to use the right dictionaries. You may have to amass quite a collection. And since even dictionaries from the same country will vary to some degree, you’ll want to establish ahead of time, with your client, which one is going to be the standard for the project.

The same thing will likely apply to style guides, and you’ll need to investigate whether, say, the Chicago Manual could properly be applied to a manuscript you receive from Australia. If your client wants you to conform to a guide that reflects Australian style, you’ll need to get some sort of access to that guide.

We may all be able to read each other’s books and other writings, because we all still do speak the same language. But these regional and national differences in grammar and spelling (and even, in some cases, punctuation) are very real. And we’ll ignore them at our peril.

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Filed under * Editing choices, * Style tips

This, that, and the other reason for the Oxford Comma

I have to say that I’m very happy when I read this post, from Tomato Nation, about why we need the Oxford Comma.

That’s the comma which, in a long list of things, either comes before the second last thing or — in some people’s view — does not get inserted there, so that the last two things in the list don’t have a comma between them.

An example of such a list would be, say, a list of colours: red, orange, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The Oxford Comma is the one between indigo and violet. Those who are opposed to this usage would do the list like this: red, orange, green, blue, indigo and violet.

The fight between the pro- and anti-Oxford camps has been long and sometimes full of rage. The trend these days seems to be to remove the comma, so if I’m editing in a style that goes that way, I try to comply. I suspect this goes with the current trend to try to remove as many commas as possible while retaining the sense of the sentence.

But if left on my own (or in my own writing), I will always use the Oxford Comma, because as far as I’m concerned, it fulfills the requirement of good editing and writing: it makes things unambiguous and clear.

Take a list of pairs of things. Here’s how such a list would look without the Oxford comma:

A cup and saucer, knife and fork, cream and sugar and bowl and platter.

I suppose the anti-Oxford people would say that it’s still clear that “bowl and platter” are one entity, separate from “cream and sugar;” otherwise there wouldn’t be that “and” between them. But there are other sentences, with several things in a list, that are much less clear.

When I was a kid in grade 7, I worked this out for myself, having no idea there was any controversy about it. I decided that I would use a comma after every item prior to the last one, to make it absolutely clear which items were individual entities. I wouldn’t risk anyone confusing the last two items as one thing. It seemed so logical to me that I wasn’t even aware that it could be disputed.

As I said, when I’m editing I follow the style chosen by the writer or, more often, the publisher or organization putting out the document. But whenever I’m allowed to have my own way, I go with the choice that makes things clearer. At least I know I’m not alone.


Filed under * Editing choices