Previously, I posted about Kate Turabian, The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), and how they’re relevant to our work of verbal storytelling here at Black Lake. (You can find that post here.) CMOS’s rules are designed to increase the clarity of your writing. After all, the clear communication of ideas is one of the main purposes of written prose, especially in the business world. You’ll do no one any favors if your writing causes confusion instead of understanding and engagement.
Another aim of CMOS is imposing consistency, both internally (within a single written piece, or within a single organization) and externally (between organizations that subscribe to CMOS’s standards). This may sound uptight and oppressive, but it’s really a matter of professionalism. If the same word is spelled differently in two different places on the same brochure, or the headline formatting on your website is all over the place, you’re going to look sloppy and unprofessional. And if too many different style guidelines are being used by different organizations, or if these guidelines differ too widely, mutual intelligibility will suffer.
To summarize, style guides like CMOS help us write clearly and professionally, and they foster consistency between organizations. However, in your efforts to comply with CMOS, you may run into some tricky style issues. There are a lot of rules, and they can be hard to keep track of. Here are the top four that I’ve run into, with some tips on how to get them right:
1. How Can an Author Make His or Her Language Gender Neutral?
Audiences are increasingly sensitive about the use of language that may appear to be gender biased. While some still appreciate the elegance and ease of the traditional practice of using masculine pronouns inclusively, others prefer gender-neutral alternatives. This is a complicated issue, since nontraditional solutions like s/he may come off as gimmicky, while circumlocutions like he or she can get awkward, especially when overused.
There’s no one solution. In fact, CMOS lists nine tips for crafting gender-neutral language. Rather than run through them all, I’ll just show you one that I use frequently. Consider the following sentence:
A Black Lake staff member working quietly at his desk might be startled if someone walks into the studio unannounced.
Since this sentence doesn’t name a specific Black Lake staff member, male or female, and since it is general in nature, I’d just pluralize the subject:
Black Lake staff members working quietly at their desks might be startled if someone walks into the studio unannounced.
Voila—a gender-neutral sentence! Pluralizing won’t work in every instance, so be on the lookout for other solutions. Just be careful about using they as a gender-neutral, singular pronoun. This usage makes things a lot easier and has become quite common in spoken English, but since it hasn’t become accepted in formal writing, CMOS advises against it. We’ll just have to wait and see if it becomes standard. Here’s hoping it will!
2. In a Headline, Should It Be Gender-neutral or Gender-Neutral?
Hyphenation rules are complicated, and I won’t go into them all here. Let’s stick with a narrower issue: in a headline, should you capitalize the second part of a hyphenated compound or not? In other words, which of the following headlines is correct?
Writing Gender-neutral Sentences Can Be Difficult
Writing Gender-Neutral Sentences Can Be Difficult
The answer: in a departure from previous policy, CMOS now advises capitalizing the second part of the compound, which I think is more elegant anyway. Therefore, the second headline is correct.
3. Were They Jesus’ Disciples or Jesus’s Disciples?
Ah, the age-old question: how do you form the possessive of a singular noun ending in s? Is it Jesus’ disciples or Jesus’s disciples?
The bare fact of the matter is this: CMOS recommends that you form the possessive the same way you would if the noun didn’t end with an s. Therefore, the possessive form of Jesus is Jesus’s, just as the possessive form of John is John’s. This holds true even if the s at the end of the noun isn’t pronounced (e.g. Descartes and Descartes’s). This may seem a little awkward, but remember, this is a matter of written style, not spoken. You may or may not actually pronounce that apostrophe s as you’re waxing rhapsodic about Descartes’s philosophy around the water cooler.
4. Am I a Snob If I Insist on the Oxford Comma?
Nope! (And I’m not just saying that because I spent a term at Oxford and am kind of a geek about the place.) For the uninitiated, the Oxford or serial comma is the last comma in a list of three or more items (the one that appears before the conjunction). For example, in the sentence “I love clarity, elegance, and the Oxford comma,” the Oxford comma is the one right after “elegance.” It’s named after Oxford University Press, where it has long been used. People who care about these things debate whether the Oxford comma is always necessary, but CMOS mandates it, since it prevents ambiguity. I think it’s undeniable that using the Oxford comma makes the sentence clearer in almost all cases, and I’ll prove it to you with a few examples:
Example #1: Are you scheduling three events or one unsettling hybrid event? (The clients’ brains depend on your answer!)
Cory set a date for the next client meeting, a brainstorming session, and a full frontal lobotomy.
Cory set a date for the next client meeting, a brainstorming session and a full frontal lobotomy.
Example #2: Are you listing three different items or talking to inanimate objects? (Outdated computer programs don’t make the best confidants.)
We deleted all Adobe products from Jessie’s computer and replaced them with Microsoft Paint, Microsoft Word, and Minesweeper.
We deleted all Adobe products from Jessie’s computer and replaced them with Microsoft Paint, Microsoft Word and Minesweeper.
Example #3: Are you thanking three separate people, or do you have a truly bizarre origin story? (Don’t worry—the sentence below does not accurately reflect our designer’s family tree.)
After accepting the award, Ashley thanked her parents, Michael Jackson, and her cat.
After accepting the award, Ashley thanked her parents, Michael Jackson and her cat.
Example #4: Are you listing three different nouns, or are you being more specific about the first one? (The president and the pontiff are not amused.)
Greg threw an office party and invited a pair of dancing bears, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis.
Greg threw an office party and invited a pair of dancing bears, Barack Obama and Pope Francis.
Each of these tip is truly that—merely the tip of the iceberg. If you need more information about particular instances, consult the online or print version of the Chicago Manual. Even the best editors need to reference it from time to time!