Go to the Source
After a recent extraction of a decayed tooth, my dentist prescribed antibiotics for me. The paperwork that came with the pills instructed me to take one pill every six hours, four times a day. Even after my Novocain-induced mental fog lifted, I couldn’t figure out how to follow those instructions without setting an alarm to wake myself up in the middle of the night just to take a pill. And that didn’t seem logical.
So I went online and did a search. I found numerous forums where people asked the same question I had. Some said the “every six hours” was most important, even if that meant taking just three pills a day. Others said “four times a day” was most important, even if that meant less time between pills. A few people said both were equally important and a middle-of-the-night dose was crucial enough to set that alarm.
Frustrated, I did what I should have done in the first place: call the pharmacy. In far less time than it took me to search the Web for people’s opinions, I got the official answer. (Four times a day, spread out over the course of my waking hours … which made the most sense.)
This experience reminded me of what many writers do when they’re not sure how to punctuate a sentence. I’ve been on numerous author e-mail loops and seen countless posts with punctuation questions. The answers almost always differ from one another because they’re based on personal opinion and experience. “Here’s how I’ve always seen it done …” “Here’s what makes the most sense to me …” “This is what my neighbor who teaches high school English told me …”
Those things drive me nuts. Because there’s a definitive source for punctuation questions: The Chicago Manual of Style (for books and popular-style magazines) or The Associated Press Stylebook (for newspapers and journalistic-style publications). Since those resources can be cumbersome or confusing, I wrote Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, which highlights the punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling rules that most authors struggle with and provides answers from the US publishing industry’s standard reference books. (It also contains tips from multi-published authors on how to proofread for typos and inconsistencies.)
The next time you find yourself wondering how to properly punctuate a sentence, don’t just ask a bunch of people who have the same question you do. Consult the industry-standard resource. Then you’ll know you have the definitive answer. And you’ll actually get it more quickly!
March 1, 2016 @ 5:54 am
You are absolutely correct to recommend that people go to a reliable authority for answers. However, that concept is counter-cultural. In today’s world, people want to know what everyone else thinks. The hard truth is not what they want. They want to fit in and do what the other people are doing.
I learned this unfortunate fact about our culture by reading a survey conducted by Barna Group. They discovered that on moral issues, the way “most” people think is the standard that matters. The culture wants to appear to have reached consensus, and in order to get there, they will sacrifice standards.
This problem affects language, too. Pronouns in English have gender and number, and we all learned long ago to be sure that gender and number match the antecedent. We also learned to use the male gender pronouns for those cases where the gender was not clear or where it could be either gender. Now, however, many social activists pretend that some injustice is done by using the male gender pronoun when the gender could be anything. Instead of doing that, they demand that we use the plural number, where both genders are represented by one word. This silly practice results in a lot of sentences that sound silly. For example, instead of “Everyone has his own idea about fashion,” the culture dictates that we say, “Everyone has their own idea about fashion.”
Style manuals and dictionaries have always been subject to change when the language changed, and language is in a constant process of change. I understand that fact. However, I fight silliness as much as possible, and this current atrocity wrought in the English language over a social agenda without any real value to anyone makes me just a little crazy!
March 1, 2016 @ 1:37 pm
I couldn’t agree more, Katherine! There are many legitimate (and pretty easy) ways to reword a sentence so it is grammatically correct without being awkward. (I list ten of them in my Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors.) But it’s “easier” to just use a plural pronoun for a singular antecedent. And since that’s how “everybody” talks, it doesn’t look or sound wrong to some people. However, for those of us who work with words (writers, editors, etc.), it’s like nails on a chalkboard. Unfortunately, this trend has strong supporters–like the publishers of the NIV and a few big-name authors. So I have a feeling it’s going to continue to gain ground and that we “sticklers” are just going to have to accept it. At least in other people’s writing. 🙂