Advice

A Matter of Style

We word nerds can get pretty testy about the subject of language usage

Brian Taylor

June 18, 2009

Most of us who work in campus public relations follow one style manual or another. But whether it's The Chicago Manual of Style, The Associated Press Stylebook, or some other version, few of us are slavish to it. Truth is, we are idiosyncratic when it comes to writing styles. There is tradition to consider (the "we've always done it that way" syndrome), and personal preferences (aka presidential, board-chair, or marketing-director fiat). Add in the fact that language is dynamic and constantly evolving, and one of the greatest challenges confronting a public-relations officer is trying to ensure consistency across editorial platforms, and to defend style decisions.

While most of us recognize that there is no single, right way of writing something, it's nonetheless important that you reach a consensus in your PR office about how to treat common grammatical and punctuation questions, and then execute that consensus faithfully. To denote time, for example, should you use "a.m. and p.m.," "AM and PM," or "am and pm"? Should acronyms include periods (C.A.G.S., for certificate of advanced graduate studies) or not (CAGS)? Make your choice, then be consistent.

We word nerds can get pretty testy about the subject of writerly style and usage. After all, we are the experts. We are the ones in the trenches who think about these things all day. We not only want consistency, we want people to do it the right way. Our way.

You wouldn't dream of telling an economics professor how to teach the subject, or a development staff member how to raise money. But everyone, it seems, is a writer. For those of us who practice writing for a living, that means we not only have to think carefully about the words we choose, but also have to be prepared to explain and promote our choices.

It's more than a matter of consistency. Much of it has to do with meaning and emphasis. It bothers us to see writing that is unclear or otherwise does not meet our high standards. Seemingly minor mistakes add up, especially when they appear over and over again, and as an institution of higher learning, inconsistencies reveal an inattention to detail and standards that can accrue to the detriment of your institution's academic reputation, consciously or otherwise.

I am a minimalist. In making my style choices, whenever I can gain space —even a character or two —I err in that direction. People are bombarded with information of all kinds, so anything I can do to simplify the page for my readers will be appreciated. I dispense with periods in acronyms, for example —they take up space and do not add to our understanding. Virtually all telephone numbers require area codes now, so including parentheses around one in listing phone numbers is passé and takes up space; I just use dashes. And you don't need to write "e-mail:" before an address. We all know what "powellr@elms.edu" means.

Yet some situations require more, not fewer, characters. Postal abbreviations for states (MA for Massachusetts, for example, FL for Florida) seem inappropriate in text, akin to slang. I prefer to spell out the state name or at least use the traditional abbreviation (Mass. and Fla.).

Other common style debates:

Time. I use lowercase letters, with periods ("9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.") because of its literary quality (spelling out "to" instead of using an en dash, as in "a.m.-p.m."). Whole hours should appear as "7 p.m.," not "7:00 p.m." The idea is to save space wherever you can by using common sense, not shortcuts. An ampersand in text is as outré as writing "thru" or "donut."

Commas before "and." I go back and forth on use of the serial comma before "and." Personally I generally like to omit it, gaining a space without affecting meaning. But in the case of a list that contains compound phrases, the meaning becomes clearer with the comma. At Elms College, where I work, we routinely use the serial comma before "and." I can live with that. (You'll always see the serial comma used in these columns because The Chronicle follows The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, which requires it.)

Compound expressions. Should they remain separate words, be merged into one, or be hyphenated? Two common examples in higher education are "health care" and "Web site." To me, this style question is a matter of common sense, of how we perceive the phrase as readers —as one idea, or two? If the expression communicates a single idea, there is a good argument for making it a single word. For that reason, I treat both "healthcare" and "Website" as one word (you also pick up a space in the process!). Yet, lest you think I am from the Nestle's Quik or Dunkin' Donuts generation, I always precede the first reference to "website" with "Internet," which may strike some as superfluous or formal, but which seems more precise to me and locates the reader in the ether of cyberspace. Compound adjectives, in my book, are nearly always hyphenated, for the same reason: to aid or reflect the reader's perception by congregating ideas.

Capitalization. Many writers get carried away with capitalization. In campus PR materials, you see an awful lot of "History Departments" and majors in "Sociology," and headlines where every word begins with a capital letter. To me, that negates the emphasis intended for proper nouns. In a news-release headline like "Professor Johnson Awarded Nobel Prize In Literature," I would only capitalize the first word, Johnson, and Nobel Prize, to make the latter two stand out. We have better tools to distinguish headlines, including size, font, and color. While there may be fewer options in text, the same logic applies: When you begin to apply capitals artificially, you diminish the impact of capitalization where it truly belongs.

But beyond making choices about style matters, or simply accepting the dictates of our style guides, there are a number of writing decisions we make of greater consequence, and we all have our ideas of best practices. There are also language trends and treatments that gall us. Here, in no particular order, is a list of my Top 10 pet peeves in writing:

(1) It is important to note. Whenever I see that phrase in print, I cringe. If something is important, I don't need the writer telling me outright. It is either condescending or lazy, depending on your point of view. The surrounding text should communicate the item's importance without drawing attention to itself.

2) Says. We writers like to write, so it often feels too prosaic to use "says" over and over in quoting someone, when we have so many other choices, like "explains," "describes," or "notes." But it is best to leave those for fiction; they almost always carry editorial weight and, as a result, either are inaccurate or produce unintended meanings. Best to just stick with the simple, straightforward "says," and reserve our creativity for other purposes (like getting rid of "it is important to note").

It is also preferable to use "says" rather than "said" when the time of the citation is indeterminate. "Says" sounds less dated than "said," so if you are not compelled to use the past tense, dispense with it. In the same vein, avoid "will" when you can. It sounds tentative; if you are confident of the result, say so ("Our graduates are prepared for careers in education," rather than "Our graduates will be prepared. …").

3) However. A lot of times writers seem uncomfortable with pauses or transitions, and they clutter up the page with unnecessary words that, to their ear, make the sentence sound less awkward. "However" is a common one of these, and many times, it can be dropped altogether. When it is necessary, I avoid beginning a sentence with "however," as is common practice. To me, the sentence should begin with its main content, not a modifier, and "however" should be buried in the middle. ("The president announced there would be no layoffs. If enrollment goals are not met, however, the decision could be revisited.")

4) Also. When I revise my work I find I usually can eliminate about 90 percent of the "alsos" that make it in the first draft. With few exceptions (such as a long list), they are a case of stating the obvious. Check your use of the word "the," too. Chances are it pops up more often than necessary.

5) On. I have yet to find many allies on this one, but I stand by it: When you list a date for an event, "on" is superfluous. It is enough to say that "commencement will be held Sunday, May 17," not "on Sunday, May 17." The two phrases mean the same thing. Why add extra words that you don't need?

6) 2009. On the subject of dates, if you are sending out a news release or posting an item on your Web site, you don't need to add the year after the date. Readers know you mean the current year. I would not, for example, send out an announcement about the 2010 commencement in May 2009. It is obvious that I mean the 2009 commencement, so I don't need to clutter up the page or condescend to the reader by adding the year.

7) As well as. We generally try to avoid repeating words in our paragraphs, and some of us get bored writing "and" over and over again, so we often substitute "as well as." I don't like that for two reasons: It is long, and, more important, it editorializes, suggesting that the ensuing clause is less important than or dependent upon the first one, which is seldom the case.

8) For example. See "however." Both are passive and require a subject, and they should not be used to begin a sentence. Put "for example" in the middle, separating subject and object.

9) Some. There are instances when you can justify using "some" to modify an indeterminate number. But all too often, "some" is used when it is not needed, or to avoid having to spell out a number at the beginning of a sentence. In general, "some" sounds casual and imprecise. "Approximately" or even "about" are preferable.

10) Monies. That one drives me crazy. Money is both singular and plural. Monies is the useless invention of somebody with too much time on their hands. Strike it.

Obviously, many style questions are debatable. We should always be willing to be challenged on our practices and ideas, and to consider alternatives as our institutions and the language we use to describe them grow. It's good discipline to always insist on having reasons for our grammatical choices and being able to articulate them. That way we at least have a reasonable basis for discussion.

My final advice on style: Loosen up. These issues matter, true, but in a collegial setting, you are not always going to get your way. It's good to be prepared for style battles, but, in the end, few justify a war.

Russell Powell is a public-relations officer at Elms College, in Chicopee, Mass. He previously worked as director of public relations at Hampshire College and at Greenfield Community College, and as a consultant. He writes for On Message, our column on career issues in academic public relations. If you would like to write for the column, send your ideas to careers@chronicle.com. For an archive of previous On Message columns, see http://chronicle.com/jobs/news/archives/columns/on_message.