Book review: The Sense of Style

We humans have been speaking for a lot longer than we’ve been writing, which is why the former comes to us so much more naturally. When we write, explains Steven Pinker in The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, the physical and temporal distance between us and our audience means it’s impossible to monitor their body language and adjust how we’re communicating to keep them engaged. That distance also makes it easy for us to lose sight of our audience entirely.

But if we aspire to what literary scholars Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner called classic style, we can make our writing as effortless to read as holding a conversation. “The guiding metaphor of classic style is seeing the world,” says Pinker. “The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed, and he and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself.” (pp. 28–29)

Keeping this metaphor in mind can help you steer clear of the hallmarks of stuffy prose: the self-conscious hedging, the tedious signposting, the metadiscourse, as well as nominalizations (Pinker borrows Helen Sword’s term, “zombie nouns”) and excessive use of passive voice. Yet, it also highlights why some of those devices can be useful. The passive, for example, can help steer your reader’s attention toward the receiver of an action, if that’s where you’d like her to look, and a nominalization can be an economical way to refer to a topic you’ve just introduced. As Pinker says:

The advice to bring zombie nouns back to life as verbs and to convert passives into actives is ubiquitous in style guides and plain language laws… But it’s good advice only when a writer or editor understands why it’s being offered. No English construction could have survived in the language for a millennium and a half unless it had continued to serve some purpose, and that includes passives and nominalizations. They may be overused, and often they are badly used, but that does not mean they should not be used at all. (p. 55)

Pinker encourages writers (and editors, by extension) to be discerning and to think critically about communicative effect, which is what sets The Sense of Style apart from other writing guides. It is not just a list of dos and don’ts, although the final chapter, “Telling right from wrong,” does cover which so-called rules you can safely ignore (perhaps grammatical rules that careful writers and speakers regularly break are not rules at all) and which you should probably heed. The motivation for following these rules, though, should not be the self-righteousness of being correct but the desire to be as clear as possible without irritating your readers—some of whom may have been taught to live by the sticklers’ and pedants’ old-school rules. Another of this book’s distinguishing features is that it grounds its advice on evidence, not just an intuitive sense of what reads well—as useful as that intuition may be for strong writers and editors. Pinker offers us psycholinguistic insight into why separating a subject from its predicate makes a sentence harder to read and why negative statements take longer to process than positive ones. It seems the common trait of stylistic infelicities is that they all slow a reader down.

The source of a lot of bad writing, says Pinker, is what he calls the curse of knowledge: forgetting that our readers don’t know exactly what we do. When we fail to give enough background or properly define a term, we risk confusing the reader. Similarly, if, when moving from one sentence to the next, we don’t show how the two are related semantically, we can leave the reader stranded. The strongest writers, says Pinker, are those that have mastered connectives: coordinators and subordinators (what we’ve traditionally called conjunctions), as well as phrases like “in contrast,” and “on the other hand.”

Pinker’s terminology may differ a bit from what many of us learned in school, and for good reason. When we were taught that “Adam’s” in “Adam’s apple” is an adjective, we conflated grammatical category (genitive noun) with grammatical function (determiner). It’s not that “ice” in “ice cream” has magically turned from noun to adjective but that nouns may function as modifiers. To great effect, Pinker uses the “sentence as tree” metaphor, using tree diagrams, ubiquitous in linguistics, to show how a sentence can be parsed. English, he explains, is a right-branching language: we expect new information to be added on as we move from the beginning of a sentence to the end. Too many left branches, as in a noun string, where we have to store a bunch of modifiers before we get to the thing being modified, gobbles up our working memory. We don’t have to create tree diagrams to write effective sentences, but they are another tool in our toolkit that we can reach for to help us untangle unwieldy prose.

Pinker covers an enormous swath of territory in this eminently sensible guide, from diction to syntax to paragraph structure and beyond, and I can’t even begin to do it justice in this short review. Editors will find The Sense of Style illuminating, hilarious, and (for all but the most pedantic sticklers) affirming. Pinker’s guidance resonates with my own approach to editing (although, counter to his advice, I’ll stay away from using “which” in a restrictive sense—for now), and it’s a refreshing change from the prescriptivist writing guides that don’t account for language change or register. I delighted in reading about such topics as how punctuation restores some of the prosody of spoken language—intonation, emphasis, pauses—and how the demise of “whom” and the subjunctive mood has been exaggerated. (The book, incidentally, also has a great index, which extends its life from an effervescent read to what will undoubtedly be a much-consulted reference.)

“Credible guidance on writing must itself be well written,” says Pinker in the prologue, “and the best of the manuals are paragons of their own advice.” (p. 1) This book is no exception. The prose in The Sense of Style is ambrosia, and I guzzled it greedily.

Faster editing: Using PerfectIt to check consistency and house style—Daniel Heuman (EAC conference 2014)

I’d heard only good things about PerfectIt, the consistency-checking software, but I work on a Mac and didn’t want to run Parallels, so I’ve resisted buying it. Still, I wanted to attend developer Daniel Heuman’s EAC conference talk about the software so that I could learn more about what it can and can’t do.

PerfectIt, by Intelligent Editing, is an add-on to Microsoft Word for PCs, and it runs from the toolbar or ribbon. It’s a consistency checker that alerts you to inconsistencies in your text. These alerts don’t prescribe—it’s quite possible that what PerfectIt flags is all correct. “There are exceptions to every rule,” said Heuman, “so PerfectIt does make you slow down and evaluate each situation.”

PerfectIt will find inconsistencies in:

  • hyphenation. Although right now the software only works for open versus hyphenated compounds, Heuman says that checking for open versus closed versus hyphenated is “on the list” of future improvements.
  • numbers. It will alert you if you’ve deviated from your style and used numerals where you should have spelled out a number, and vice versa. It will not, however, find inconsistencies in the use of a comma or a nonbreaking space in a numeral (e.g., 5,000 versus 5000 versus 5 000).
  • spelling. Not only will it catch “adviser” versus “advisor,” but it will also flag usage inconsistencies, such as “preventive” versus “preventative.” Embarrassing errors that a spell check wouldn’t catch—such as using “pubic” instead of “public” or “mange” instead of “manage”—are also programmed to pop up on a PerfectIt scan.
  • abbreviations. Have you defined an abbreviation? Have you continued to spell it out once it has been defined? PerfectIt will also let you generate a table of abbreviations. (Heuman’s demonstration of this feature prompted a lot of oohs and aahs.) However, the software will not detect inconsistent use of full caps versus small caps.
  • capitalization. PerfectIt will alert you to inconsistencies such as “parliament” versus “Parliament.” It will also check for consistency in header cases—a good reason to use Word’s styles to define your headers.
  • lists. PerfectIt will flag inconsistencies in capitalization and punctuation in lists—but only those styled as lists in Word. It won’t work with manually inserted bullets, for example.

For each potential error that PerfectIt finds, a dialog box pops up that describes the inconsistency; shows you how many cases of each form you have in the document and allows you to choose your preferred form; shows an excerpt of text around each instance of the error, letting you fix each case individually or all of them at once; and states any exceptions to the rule or special considerations in a note box at the bottom.

I asked if PerfectIt could be told to ignore block quotes or text style as quotations. Heuman told me that it will respect the “Do not check spelling and grammar” checkbox, but only after you’ve gone into the advanced settings and told it to, specifically.

PerfectIt will not check grammar, nor will it check references.

One feature that makes the software particularly powerful is the ability to create a style sheet for each client or to import an existing style guide, such as ones from the WHO, UN, EU, or The Economist. PerfectIt can then check your text against the selected style sheet and flag any deviations from it. If you’ve created a style sheet and would like to share it with a client or colleague, it’s easy to export it and send it along.

For those of us who don’t have a PC and aren’t using Parallels, Intelligent Editing does offer an online consistency checker, but it is a “shadow of the full suite.” My fingers are crossed that one day, PerfectIt will be available for Mac users. It does seem to be a powerful time saver, and I imagine that future tweaks to its functionality will only make it better.

House style and the zombie apocalypse: How a poorly thought-out style guide can cost you

Professional freelance editors will be familiar with a few industry-standard style manuals:

  • Chicago Manual of Style
  • Canadian Press Stylebook
  • Associated Press Stylebook
  • MLA Style Manual
  • APA Publication Manual

These references offer broad coverage of most style issues; they’ve been honed over several editions and generally serve editors well. Yet, the vast majority of organizations that regularly produce written communications and publications—including businesses, non-profits, government, as well as traditional publishers—will want to have their own house style. The key is to tame your house style before it takes on a life of its own.

Why do you need house style?

House style is important—for branding and identity, to accommodate audience expectations and ensure subject coverage, and for efficiency and workflow.

Branding and identity

As Barbara Wallraff of The Atlantic Monthly wrote in The Art of Making Magazines, “Even a bunch of highly skilled writers won’t do things consistently. And consistency strengthens the identity of a magazine.” The fact that you can see the word coöperation and know immediately that it comes from The New Yorker shows how powerful a style decision can be to a publication’s identity.

Even for non-publishers, house style ensures consistency of your brand: your organization’s name, its divisions and position titles, should always appear the same way. (For example, in Editors’ Association of Canada communications, you’ll see the organization called “EAC”—and never “the EAC.”)

Audience expectations and subject coverage

Industry-standard style manuals are fairly general and aren’t meant to cover specialized topics, so you may want your house style to fill in the gaps if you’re publishing in a particular genre. An example is cookbooks: publishers of cookbooks for the North American market have discovered that using only metric measurements and giving ingredients like flour in sugar in weight rather than in volume will basically doom the book to failure. These kinds of details would be helpful to have in a house style guide for a cookbook publisher.

Further, some specialized audiences have certain expectations; in some academic circles, for example, usage of particular words is restricted to specific situations, and capitalization and hyphenation can have carry special meaning. (For example, geologists will capitalize “Province,” “Zone,” and “Subzone” but not “subprovince.”)

Efficiency and workflow

Specifying a preference for one of several equally valid options helps establish your editorial authority and helps your editorial team work together. Nobody has to make the initial decision and communicate that to the rest of the team. You reap the most benefits if you use the same editors over and over—they’ll quickly adapt to your house style and use it automatically for your projects.

As for workflow, some house styles will also include special formatting and tagging instructions for editors to follow when they prepare a manuscript for typesetting. These elements are also important but, as I’ll argue later, should be separated out as process guidelines rather than style rules.

How do zombies fit in?

House style guides serve a legitimate role. The problem is that too many house styles are rife with zombie rules.

Zombie rules, a term coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, refer to rules that may have made sense in the past but no longer apply. Some people like to make the distinction between zombies (which were alive at one point and are now dead) and bogeymen—which never made sense and were, in linguist Geoff Pullum’s words, “just mythical beings invented to frighten children.” For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring to all nonsense rules—previously alive or not—as zombies. Further, I’m extending Zwicky’s term beyond grammar and usage to all rules that should no longer rear their heads—because of changes in language, technology, or process. Other zombies creep into a house style guide because of personal preferences and pet peeves.

If you’re responsible for your organization’s house style, you can ultimately do whatever you want, but bear in mind that every zombie rule in your style guide is costing you money.

A case study of poor house style

Here’s an example from my own work: I’d sent an edit back to a journal publisher, and the in-house editor reviewed my work and gave me feedback, which I generally welcome. This time, however, the feedback was confounding. She wrote, “For future reference, please note that we use the serial comma before ‘and’ but not before ‘or.’”

Typically, when a client gives me feedback, I’ll thank them and let them know I’ll keep it in mind for the next project. This time I pushed back a little, explaining that I found that rule puzzling. After all, “and” and “or” are both coordinating conjunctions used in series, and usually, in most style manuals, we us a comma before both or before neither. I also told her that her style guide mentioned only “and”—and that she’d have to add the “or” rule if she really wanted to make the distinction clear. I ended by reiterating my confusion about the rule.

She responded, “It may not make sense, but it is our style.”

First, this is something I’d hope you’ll never have to say to your editors, who are likely to operate on logic and consistency. Second, think of all of the actions and interactions this exchange required. The in-house editor had to:

  • find my error,
  • fix my error,
  • correspond with me about my error (over several emails), and
  • update or clarify the style guide.

She would have to repeat most of these steps every time any other editor made the same mistake.

I had to:

  • correspond with the editor, and
  • add the item to my personal checklist.

Worst of all, I will be second-guessing myself about every rule and slowing myself down for every project I do with this client in the future. After all, if the style guide has this strange rule, what other ones does it have?

Each of these interactions cost the client time and money—and all for a rule that didn’t matter. It did nothing to strengthen the journal’s brand or communicate more clearly to readers, and it certainly didn’t lead to greater editorial efficiency.

Isn’t it a freelancer’s job, you might ask, to adapt to different styles? Absolutely—but rules that needlessly contradict industry standards are costly to both you and your editors. What’s more, freelancers are human. If your style guide is too long, we won’t necessarily remember everything when it comes time to work on your project. And any rule that makes editors stop or stumble will cost you money.

House style best practices

House style guides should supplement, not replace, industry-standard style manuals. Otherwise you’re not only reinventing the wheel; you’re essentially replacing a precision-engineered Formula 1 wheel with the wheel off a shopping cart. Because house style guides are supplements only, they should be no longer than five to ten pages—with the upper end reserved for extensive websites, magazines or series.

Further, house style should be audience focused in two ways:

  • the rules in your style guide should serve your readers, not editorial whims;
  • the guide itself should serve its readers—that is, your editors.

To make your house style the most efficient it can be:

  • regularly review your house style for validity (what I call house style audits)
  • separate policies and procedures
  • put it online
  • update to the latest edition of your industry-standard style manual

If you haven’t already chosen an industry-standard style manual to follow, that’s your first step. Next, you’ll want to audit your house style.

Audit house style

Gather your editorial team and at least one external consultant, maybe one of your regular freelancers, to critically evaluate each item in your house style guide. The external consultant will be able to come at the project with more objectivity and ask why the rules you have are there.

For each item in your house style, figure out whether it matches your chosen style manual.

If so:

  • If the rule is a common one, take it out of your house style guide; your editors will know to follow the rule in the style manual.
  • If the rule is uncommon, cite the location in the style manual where the rule appears (e.g., “We follow Chicago 8.82, which states that…”). Referring to the style manual will let you give an abbreviated version of the rule in your style guide.

If not, ask yourself why:

  • If you can’t figure out a reason the rule exists, take it out of your guide.
  • If there’s a legitimate reason for it, such as specific audience expectations, explain it. Your editors may not know your topic as well as you do.
  • If there’s an illegitimate reason for it (e.g., Diana in marketing hates hyphens), explain it. Not only will the clarification help editors remember the rule, but you’ll also know that when circumstances change (e.g., Diana takes a job at another company), you can immediately kill this zombie for good.

Basically, each item in your house style should be justifiable. When you review your house style, watch out in particular for places where your style guide contradicts itself, which can happen if it’s the product of several people’s input.

Finally, ask yourself if you can live with internal consistency alone. If you publish books, for example, each book will have its own style sheet, and readers are unlikely to compare the style of two of your books or care if they differ.

Good times to review your house style are:

  • when people leave,
  • when you introduce a new process, or
  • when you upgrade to a new version of software or update to a new edition of a reference.

Separate policies and procedures

Is your house style document just a style guide, or have you inadvertently canonized it? Some organizations put everything into their house style, from their mission statement to publishing and editorial philosophy. New editors may appreciate the background information, but, for the sake of efficiency, make sure you separate it from the reference material that the editors will have to access regularly. Having to read through preamble to find a rule slows editors down, and you’re paying for that time.

Also separate out style matters (e.g., serial comma or not) from process matters (e.g., formatting and tagging for workflow). Process will probably change much more frequently with changes in technology.

Put it online

I’ve evangelized extensively about the usefulness of editorial wikis, so I won’t do it again here, but I’m a firm believer in putting house style online so that you have one master copy that is

  • easy to revise,
  • easy to search, and
  • easy to make modular.

In a wiki, it’s simple to isolate the parts of your house style that apply just to copy editing, for example, so that you don’t overwhelm your copy editors with irrelevant details that only proofreaders would need to know.

Update your industry-standard references

Use the latest editions of style manuals and dictionaries as your references. Many freelancers now have online subscriptions to their references and have access to only the latest editions.

Taking the leap to a new reference may be an annoyance for in-house staff, but the aggravation is temporary. Freelance editors have to switch between styles all the time, so you’ll adapt in no time. To ease the transition, keep a running checklist of changes to run global searches for (or better yet, make a macro to automate the process).


A house style guide is an essential piece of a communication or publishing operation. Despite the quality of existing style manuals, I’d never suggest going without a house style. Writers and editors benefit from having some guidance and structure on projects, particularly if they’re new to your organization. Just be sure to keep your audience(s) in mind as you develop and maintain your house style guide so that you’re getting the most out of it.

Book review: The Only Grammar and Style Workbook You’ll Ever Need

Good editors have an intuitive sense about language, and I know many editors who’ve never had any formal grammar training. Is knowing what “sounds right” enough?

It may be, but understanding grammatical rules can be enormously empowering to an editor. Knowing the parts of speech, the difference between clauses and phrases, the distinction between independent and dependent clauses, and so on helps an editor understand why something looks or sounds right or wrong. More important, it gives the editor tools with which to communicate knowledgeably and authoritatively with colleagues and authors.

So it was with interest that I read through Susan Thurman’s The Only Grammar and Style Workbook You’ll Ever Need (F+W Media, July 2012), a new companion exercise book to Thurman’s 2003 title, The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need. Each page in the workbook is devoted to a particular grammatical issue—dangling modifiers, say—and it asks the reader either to identify a grammatical construct or to solve a problem in each of ten sentences. Answers to the problems are listed at the bottom of the page. The book covers spelling, parts of speech, sentence structure, punctuation, and some stylistic matters such as eliminating wordy phrases and identifying redundancies.

Thurman’s workbook is just that—it contains exercises only. It assumes that you either have a grammar reference (preferably hers, of course) or that you already know your stuff, and it doesn’t define, for example, what a restrictive clause is. That said, if you don’t already know the terminology, much of it is easy enough to infer by referring to the answer key, so in general the workbook can function as a standalone tool. However, using the workbook on its own may leave you with a skewed impression of what Thurman is trying to convey. Because it uses a bare-bones format to cover basic grammar, it comes off as more simplistic and prescriptivist than I think it intends. For example, its page of exercises on hyphens makes no distinction between hyphens and en dashes; only if you look in The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need do you realize that Thurman does address the difference, noting that some word processing programs will automatically change hyphens to en dashes when they are used in number ranges. Further, although a few of the style exercises are prefaced “Answers may vary,” having a simple right-or-wrong answer key for most of the exercises means that readers aren’t given a chance to consider that language evolves and that register can dictate whether a certain usage is acceptable. For these reasons, I found it handy to have Thurman’s grammar book as a reference and for context as I worked through the exercise book.

I did find myself looking at The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need to understand the motivation behind certain exercise problems. For example, page 14 of the workbook includes the following sentences:

3. Clara will (a) annoy (b) aggravate Clarence if she spends too much money.

4. Clarence will (a) annoy (b) aggravate the situation if he insists on watching every penny Clara spends.

The grammar book says, “If you mean pester or irritate, you want annoy. Aggravate means exaggerate or make worse.” (p. 7)

Although I agree with Thurman that annoy is probably the better choice in sentence 3, Webster’s does list as a definition of aggravate “to rouse to displeasure or anger by usually persistent and often petty goading,” and as an editor I wouldn’t necessarily have marked aggravate as incorrect.

To be fair, editors aren’t really the workbook’s target audience. Nor are professional writers, I’d go as far as to say. The grammar book and workbook would probably be most useful to students and those Robin Kilroy called “functional writers”—people who have to write for work, for example, but who aren’t writers by trade or title. However, the workbook does offer editors a quick refresher on topics like coordinating and subordinating conjunctions, gerunds, and linking verbs. If at one point you’d learned these concepts and just want to briefly pull them out of your memory bank and dust them off, this workbook will certainly do the trick. By contrast, if you’re starting from scratch, finding a solid grammar reference would be a more logical first step.

In addition to the grammar exercises, the pages on style—identifying misplaced modifiers, eliminating wordiness, and the like—are a very helpful reminder to editors about the kinds of problems they may encounter when working with an author’s text.

Much less useful are the sixty-eight pages Thurman devotes to commonly misspelled words. For example on page 66, the first sentence reads:

1. Recently, (a) guerilla (b) gerilla warfare has intensified in the dense jungle area.

Not only do I doubt that the misspelling “gerilla” is an actual problem (certainly it would be picked up by any spell checker), but the sentence also misses the obvious opportunity to teach readers about the difference between “guerilla” and “gorilla”—which is a frequently confused pair of words.

The sentences in the “Common Misspelled Words” chapter are also problematic in that some of them contain what I would mark up as grammatical or usage errors. Some examples include the following:

10. To avoid confusion, place angle (a) brackits (b) brackets around Internet addresses. (p. 40)

I would change avoid to prevent here; to avoid means to sidestep something, whereas to prevent means to stop something or make it impossible.

1. The marathon runner collapsed due to (a) exhaustion (b) exaustion. (p. 61)

“Due to” should be used only with the verb “to be” or to join two nouns (e.g., “smoke due to fire”) and not as a substitute for “because of” or “owing to.” Although this usage rule appears very much to be changing, sticking to it does prevent ambiguity in some cases.

6. While experiencing food poisoning, Joe’s face turned an (a) unatural (b) unnatural color. (p. 92)

Although Joe’s face was probably also experiencing food poisoning, I think most of us would agree that the intended subject of “experiencing” was Joe.

I have another—admittedly petty—issue with the book: its little bit of false advertising. The cover copy reads, “Never again end a sentence with a preposition” (a rule many grammarians would claim is a myth), yet there are no exercises in the book that directly address that rule.

For the book’s intended audience, the workbook may be perfectly adequate, although to those readers I would definitely recommend also having on hand a grammar reference that defines the terminology and explains the rules. For most editors, however, Thurman’s book will not be the only grammar and style workbook you’ll ever need. Certainly, editors preparing for certification will want more practice editing in context, which a book of single sentences simply won’t provide. That said, certified editors (who take this book’s prescriptivist bent with a grain of salt) may find it an easy way to earn credential maintenance points and restock their grammatical toolkit.