It’s part of my job to make sure the texts I work on are consistent in style and in usage, and to identify and/or fix incorrect usages of the English language. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to be able to work from a house style-guide, or a copy of the project style-sheet that has been compiled by someone else, or a list put together by the author. But where do I turn if I don’t have these things? There are lots of resources available, but this post discusses those I use most often.
Style and usage
When I talk about style here, I mean preferred forms in areas such as spelling, hyphenation, capitalisation and punctuation. For example, the use of serial commas is a matter of style, as is whether you write proofreader or proof-reader. Writing style itself, while it includes these things, is not what we are necessarily dealing with here.
Usage looks at how language is used – and I’m focusing on grammar, spelling, punctuation, word choice and syntax. For example, standard modern usage would see programme as the correct British English spelling, but allow program when used in a computer-related context.
New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
New Hart’s Rules is an excellent little guide to style. Don’t be fooled by its diminutive stature – it is thorough and wide-ranging. It’s the first thing I reach for if I need a reminder on how to style publication names, or the principles of presenting numerical date forms. It does touch on US English style, but I have a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style to refer to for US-specific queries.
When editing text to UK-publishing standards, it is New Hart’s I will use as my guide. I don’t enforce the style on the text, unless I’ve been directed to do so by the client, but it serves as an authoritative guide for tackling consistency issues.
New Oxford Spelling Dictionary: The Writers’ and Editors’ Guide to Spelling and Word Division and New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors: The Essential A–Z Guide to the Written Word
I’ve lumped these two together because for me they serve the same purpose. If I have to decide between hyphenated or not hyphenated, check the spelling of a specialist term, or confirm the italicisation of a word from a different language, I will pick up one or both of these books. The Spelling Dictionary has more entries, but at the cost of the extra guidance present in the Dictionary for Writers and Editors.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Fowler’s is a treasure trove of information and advice on the use of the English language. On occasion, I flick through it just for fun, but then I’m a bit odd. I usually turn to Fowler’s when I have a niggling ‘is that the proper way to use that word?’ thought. Sometimes it serves as a hand-holder: yes, you can use further in that context; yes, proven is now common in UK English.
It’s a comprehensive dictionary, and it contains thoughtful and nuanced guidance. For example, it provides a clear and thorough summary of the issue around split infinitives – and comes to the sensible conclusion that split infinitives are acceptable, and can, in fact, be necessary.
Oxford Dictionaries Online and the Oxford English Dictionary
If I’m away from my desk (and therefore my books), or if I can’t find the information I need in the sources above, I go to Oxford Dictionaries Online. This is usually where I do quick checks of spellings and alternative forms. It will often give advice on related grammar and standard usage, as well as details of the word’s origin and pronunciation.
Archaic and unusual words may require me to access the legend that is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). It can be almost overwhelming in the depth of detail for some entries, but it is an excellent resource. (Access is restricted to subscribers – but if your local library has a subscription, you should be able to sign in using your library card number.)
What does this mean for my clients?
It means my clients can be sure that I take style and usage seriously. I don’t make decisions based on a flip of a coin or what I prefer – I use authoritative resources to guide me. The style sheet I compile for each project has a section where I record which books and websites I’ve consulted in the course of proofreading or editing. If the client would like to look into any relevant style and usage in more detail, they can do so.
The key takeaway is what these resources allow me to do: I make sure style is consistent, and I fix or highlight non-standard usage. My clients are informed about what I’ve done, and why, and I engage them in the decision-making when necessary.