Most of us have a generally good grasp of English usage and punctuation. The problem is that some usage and punctuation errors are so subtle and pervasive that we are tricked into thinking they are correct. Additionally, language use is constantly evolving, and thanks to the internet, it changes faster than ever.
Throw in wrinkles such as how to express numbers and dates, when to italicize, or how to quote regulations and you have a proofreader’s migraine in the making.
That’s why you need a style guide and usage standards.
Keeping Track of Your Style
I recommend the annually updated “Associated Press Stylebook,” supplemented with your own internal usage cheat sheet.
Available in multiple print and electronic formats, the AP Stylebook is the leading style for many non-journalistic publishers, including corporate marketing and public relations departments. Its grammar rules are simple, clear and concise. I prefer using the spiral-bound edition, available for $22.95 here. The paperback is less expensive but more cumbersome for daily use.
Just as Merriam-Webster adds new words each year, AP updates its guidelines as well. For example, in March it updated the use of ‘“they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in some cases. Just yesterday, the 2017 edition launched with new guidance on the usage of “fake news” and “cyberattack,” in addition to a new entry on addictions and drug-related terms. These are vital helps in writing respectfully and rationally about topics in which definitions are often dynamic, rather than static.
Plus, adopting AP style will end what can be interminable arguments over whether “internet” is capitalized (it’s not) and whether “website” is one word (it is). Avoiding fights among word nerds saves time, and according to The Onion, lives. (See “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence.”)
Admittedly, adopting AP style won’t end all debates. Though the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is mandatory in certain legal documents, AP style calls for it to be used only when absolutely necessary to avoid confusion. You’ll need to make the call for your own practice.
That’s where internal usage and style guides come in.
Creating Your Style Guide “Cheat Sheet”
I suggest compiling a short list of exceptions to AP style and keeping it next to your AP Stylebook. Also, create an A to Z list of commonly used proper nouns germane to your practice, such as the proper names of courts or state agencies you deal with frequently.
Make sure all the people in your office, as well as any outside writers, editors or proofreaders you hire, have the same materials. Be sure everyone is working from the same edition of the AP Stylebook, too. As noted earlier, there are changes every year, some of which are important usage updates, such as dropping the term “illegal immigrant” (actions, not people, are illegal). Updates also include slang that has entered common usage and is now deemed acceptable.
“But I Spellchecked That …”
Beware that your spellchecker and AP style won’t always agree. Microsoft still believes “internet” should be capitalized and will prompt you to change it. Just add a note to your internal usage guide as to which standard you want to adopt and when to ignore your spellchecker. Or purchase AP’s Styleguard for Word, which integrates with Word to proof for AP style.
NOTE: Usage in this piece may vary from AP style, per Attorney At Work’s own style guide. No matter where you come down on the Oxford comma, comments from fellow word nerds are most welcome.
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