Archive for the ‘Style guides’ Category

Vanishing Periods: a Punctuation Bane or Blessing?

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011

Periods are “terminal punctuation,” mean-ing they signal “stop.”

We all know to put a period at the end of sentence. But the use of periods with abbreviations, acronyms, and other shortened versions of words is in flux.

Acronyms—abbreviations where the first letter of each word “makes” a word that’s pronounced as a word—have not used periods for ages. Examples:

  • NATO
  • OPEC
  • AIDS
  • FAQ
  • ROM
  • PIN

When acronyms linguistically take on the identity of regular words, we don’t even capitalize them any more:

  • laser
  • sonar
  • scuba

But other abbreviations that formerly required periods are increasingly going without. Is that a good or bad thing?

Well, it saves space and time. I’d much rather type “MD” and “USA” than “M.D.” and “U.S.A.”

Corporations and style guides are dropping periods after certain abbreviations called “suspensions”—such as “Dr,” “Mr,” Mrs,” and so on. Because both the first and last letter of the word are present, the trend is to drop the period afterwards. (And, some argue that not having a period after “Dr” distinguishes it from “Dr.” in an address.)

In contrast, Prof. still needs a period because the last part of the word is not there (i.e., it’s abbreviated).

Is that confusing?

It wouldn’t be, if everyone could simply agree on it.

You can see the most glaring examples of this disagreement in style guides. In academia and social science, the APA style guide still insists on periods after most everything. So, you cite an author’s name as “Smith, J. D.” in APA style—but in AMA (medical) style, it’s “Smith JD.”

Not a big deal? It is when you have big strings of author names:
APA style:    Smith, J. D., Johnson, A. M., James R. W., & Evans, D. A.
AMA style:  Smith JD, Johnson AM, James RW, Evans DA.

If it were up to me, we’d ditch APA style and universally adopt AMA style or something similar. It’s succinct, intuitive, easier to read and involves less punctuation. But something that radical might spark a turf war.

Balancing the federal budget may be impossible to agree on, but standardizing the use of periods in abbreviations should be easy.

4 Reasons to Insist on Proofreading Final Changes

Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Typical scenario: client asks your help in editing a manuscript or report. Client likes your edits and asks you to proof the final copy before submission. Client runs behind schedule. Client submits document without your proofing expertise. What could go wrong? Plenty.

“Plenty” happened to me twice last month.

In the first instance, language issues were involved. The main author was a non-native speaker of English.

While language hiccups would make a journal editor think twice about sending a manuscript to peer review, the second instance had even more dramatic implications.

The second manuscript hit a snag when a drug manufacturer published unfavorable interim results of a clinical trial after I had finished working on another client’s manuscript. We aborted the submission process to wait for word on whether the company would continue the trial. When the drug company said it likely would suspend all trials on this drug, it was a big blow to my client—who had invested years of time in the drug’s late-stage testing.

I asked my client if I should amend the manuscript or if he would prefer to. He e-mailed me a paragraph to insert—and it raised red flags all over the place for me.

That brings me to the four reasons why you should insist on proofing final documents, even if the client’s last round of changes is “minor:”

  • The tone may be inconsistent with the rest of the document.
    That’s what happened with my client who got the bad news. His tone reflected his disappointment. But the tone needed to stay objective, underscoring the merits of what came before, despite the drug’s uncertain future.
  • The language may be inconsistent with the rest of the document (e.g., native vs. non-native English).
  • The changes can contain grammar, punctuation, and spelling errorsespecially if they were written in haste (which often happens in the 11th hour).
  • If the submission is to a journal, some of the changes may contradict submission requirements. Most authors ignore the requirements set forth in journals’ style guides. They leave those details to people like me. 

So, tread lightly but give objective reasons why you should cast your eyes one more time on something your client deems “finished.” They’ll thank you for it after the fact!

Make Every Word Tell

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

I missed Strunk and White’s birthday again this year. April 16 was their 51st.

In case you don’t know who Strunk and White are, they produced the shortest, most concise style guide of all time—only 43 pages when it was first published in 1919. Originally intended for his students, Cornell university English professor William Strunk Jr. wrote the slim book known as The Elements of Style. One of his former students, EB White, took up the mantle with revisions over the years. What’s so extraordinary about that? The book still exists—and it’s still selling.

Some people poo-poo the book as a hodgepodge of advice that is partially incorrect by today’s rules. (OK, they missed the mark with split infinitives and restrictive clauses.) However, we all can apply the principles in the book. My favorite? “Make every word tell.”

Some people call it “writing tight.” Whatever you call it, it’s easier said than done. “Make every word tell” speaks volumes about intentionality and precision in writing—picking just the right words and no more for a given sentence.

When every word “tells,” each has something to say. No superfluous stuff floats around it. Every bit of the sentence contributes to its meaning. What a concept!

“Make every word tell” is the essence of how to cultivate good writing. Don’t overwrite. Don’t obfuscate. Tell.

If only we could write like that!

You can. 

Want to have some fun learning how? Check out my next post. This Thursday the Center for Plain Language will announce the winners of its contest for the worst—and best—official writing. The finalists are a hoot.

Dictionary versus Style Guide, part 2

Friday, April 9th, 2010

Several people asked for more information about online dictionaries and style guides, so I’m dedicating this post to answering your questions.

Although flipping through pages of a book can be faster than searching online, the portability of accessing online dictionaries and style guides from any Web-enabled device can’t be beat. In addition, online versions are updated in real time; updates to printed versions vary widely (by years). The real-time feature may be most critical to journalists, as terminology (e.g., ethnic, political, global terms) changes constantly. My previous post noted that real-time updates are important to medical writers as well. Besides saving trees, the real-time aspect of online dictionaries and style guides are the biggest reason why I purchase those subscriptions.

Merriam-Webster offers many online products, including:

  • their unabridged dictionary (my constant writing companion)
  • a thesaurus
  • a medical dictionary
  • a visual dictionary (perfect for seeing all the parts of something, drawn and labeled in great detail)
  • Encyclopedia Britannica

If you compare the cost of an annual online subscription versus buying the print version every five years or so, it’s a wash. Merriam-Webster’s latest unabridged print dictionary retails for $129; my annual online subscription is $29.95. You also can get a monthly subscription for $4.95. (Prices were accurate as of this posting date.)

My subscription to their unabridged dictionary comes with a bonus: an electronic newsletter full of interesting, useful information. (A newsletter about words might sound boring, but the opposite is true!)

Merriam-Webster also offers freebies: an open dictionary, word games and more—all accessible from their main site. (Note: If writing is a large part of your daily work, the open dictionary may not meet your needs.)

Style guides are another issue. Many, but not all, style guides have online counterparts. And, style guides vary according to the type of writing you do. Examples: college students use APA style; journalists use AP style; medical writers use AMA style. Government writing, legal writing, scientific/technical writing [etc.] all follow their own nationally recognized style guides. For a full discussion of how, why and when to use style guides, check out my book, Proofread like a Pro.

Got more questions? Post them, and I’ll consider them for future blogs!

Dictionary vs. Style Guide: which is Trumps?

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

Because I write for many venues, I work with many style guides. And I use multiple dictionaries. A writer needs both. But, when push comes to shove, the style guide trumps the dictionary.

Sound confusing? It can be. This confusion merits a spot on medical writers’ “pet peeves” list when they wrestle with issues like using or dropping the possessive form of “Alzheimer’s” in spelling the disease.

Dictionaries keep the apostrophe. (So does the Alzheimer’s Association.) Style guides don’t.

Why the discrepancy? And why the fuss?

The answer lies in understanding the different functions of dictionaries and style guides. Dictionaries give spellings, definitions and widespread usage. They don’t dictate what’s right or wrong (operative words: don’t dictate). On the other hand, style guides DO dictate specific usage—to maintain consistency for an organization or publication.

Style guides say, “Drop the ’s.” Dictionaries don’t. 


A couple reasons. First, medical usage and the most recent medical style guides say to do so. Because style guides are, by definition, rules for certain situations, those specifics supersede what’s in a dictionary. Second, although dictionaries add words annually, new print versions may be published every four years or so.

Words evolve over time. Dictionaries still retain the traditional form of the eponym (a word named after a person), and the Alzheimer’s Association probably won’t change its name any time soon. But, for some time now, medicine has said to drop the ’s.

That’s why one of the first things I do when working on an article for a medical journal is to download their style guide. It describes that journal’s particular set of rules—from how to list references and how to spell certain words, to acceptable file formats for online submissions.

An aside: last year I received more requests to write corporate style guides than in the past five years combined. As more employees who aren’t primarily writers assume additional writing tasks, corporations need to ensure that their internal and external communications (including use of corporate cultural “-isms”) are consistent throughout the organization. One of the best vehicles for that is a style guide.

So, whether you write often or infrequently, ask for a style guide before you start your project. It’s the ultimate trump card in writing.