Wednesday, December 17, 2014

English as Acrobat, or the Folly of TOCWTS

Several weeks back, a blogger that I really should have stopped reading by now asked in a post whether the correct styling was As and Bs or A's and B's. This question actually can't be answered, believe it or not, and within it lies an invaluable writing/editing lesson for a certain type of person. If you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, this post might run a little dull for you. (And, by the way, if you couldn't care less about punctuation mechanics, what are you doing reading this blog?)

In my view - those three words apply to the rest of this paragraph - apostrophes are only available as punctuation when substituting for other letters in contractions (would not --> wouldn't) or when indicating possession (Krycek's prosthesis). A's and B's is not a possessive construction, it's a plural construction, and apostrophes cannot be used correctly when pluralizing nouns. Even though styling it As and Bs can be a little confusing, because the first item in the list looks like a capitalized version of the word "as", it’s still the mechanically correct style. And anyway so much of English syntax and grammar depends upon context, upon user effort, and As and Bs will only be confusing for as long as it takes the reader to read through the next two words.

I was not the first commenter on the relevant blog post, and one of the earlier commenters laid down that it was definitely A's and B's. I commented and specifically said that I didn't want to get into an argument, but that in my view, apostrophes can't ever be used for possession, etc., basically a short version of the paragraph above. I noted that I had three years of experience as a copy editor. The prior commenter responded pretty rudely, saying that whoever was paying me to be an editor should be made aware that they were paying someone incompetent, and noted that she had many more years of experience editing than I did. I sort of went  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ on it, and said that my company followed the Chicago style guide fairly closely but that we had our own house guide and that, of course, style guides vary. The commenter responded by quoting a passage from Chicago that kinda proved my point rather than hers, and then closed with something like "the vast majority of writers and editors would prefer A's and B's."

A Google Image search of "grammar Nazi" turns up all kinds of delightful stuff,
including things I feel really bad laughing at 

Like I said, I didn't want to get into it. Apostrophes are a sore point with me because they are so often misused out there in the non-grammar-devoted world, and this commenter was unpleasantly aggressive, and that combination meant ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ was the way to go. So I didn't respond a second time.

But I knew without a doubt that the commenter was invested in a phenomenon called The One Correct Way To Style. TOCWTS is something that I thought existed in the years before I was a copy editor, but I now know something that, if you are a picky, grouchy grammar fiend like me, take heed, weary one, because this will make your future life a thousand times easier: it does not exist.

There is no one correct way to do certain kinds of punctuation and styling in English. There just isn't. There are different styles, and which one is used in whatever it is you're reading depends on 1) the publication and 2) the context. That's all. No other big rule in the sky; the publication and the context. Some organizations use Chicago, some use AP, some use house rules. If you're the one writing, with no other answerable party, which one is used depends on your preference and potentially on your investment in the rhythm of a sentence. So the rude commenter was right, it's A's and B's, but so was I, it's As and Bs.

(dies laughing)

In this blog I use the Oxford or serial comma, meaning that in a list of three items, a comma appears before the last item in the list. Mulder, Scully, and Skinner. In quite a lot of style guides, the second comma, after "Scully", is not correct. For me, this is nuts, because it causes unnecessary confusion, but for the Washington Post, it's the law. I also would say (contrary to the style guide of the company where I worked for three years) Jesus's taxes or Texas's fertilizer, rather than Jesus' taxes or Texas' fertilizer. Not because one or the other is correct - neither is correct or incorrect (!!), it depends on the style guide - but because the apostrophe hanging out there looks weird to me on a non-plural noun, different than the friends' convictions or the creatures' fangs, for example. And I would always say As and Bs, because apostrophes matter a hell of a lot to me, but if I worked for a company or a client that insisted on A's and B's, I would cringe and correct for that. Because that's how it's correct in that context. No immutable TOCWTS exists for that phrase. It's all context.

There are rules of English punctuation and style that do not bend. The difference between it's and its is not negotiable. But English is a remarkable acrobat, flexible and strong and death-defying, and there is no one way to be an acrobat. Once I accepted this, the arguments I was willing to have about punctuation and grammar dropped to nearly zero. Because if there's no one correct way to do certain stylings, who's to say that I know the one correct way to use any of the rules I've always considered immutable?

From here, I could ramble awhile about poststructuralism, and how my whole worldview seems to be heading in that direction as I get older and learn more - truth dissociating itself from certainty, and vice versa, and things getting really malleable and interesting and me thinking that yeah, this is how life really is, lived in the liminal spaces between this rule and that reality - or I can give you a concrete example, hastily created in Paint, to sum up.

Neither one is wrong. They are both acceptable. It just depends on where, when, and how you are.


Max Gross said...

I sort of feel like there is an important role for TOCW, and it is not necessarily to be rigidly adhered to, but to control for drift. So there is always a point from which you don't want to stray too far. Maybe I'm guilty of a slippery slope fallacy, but I feel like the simple existence of the attitude of no TOCW leads to people continuously moving steps away from steps until the original intent of the rules are barely recognizable.

Katharine Coldiron said...

I love your phrase, "to control for drift", because it puts a precise finger on why rules of grammar are in place. But the thing is, in reality, language is more like the last half of your last sentence. Like the rule of not splitting infinitives - in English, it could make sense to split an infinitive, because English uses two words to form the infinitive. Because that two-word structure doesn't exist in other languages, the grammar gods frown upon the practice. It's a rule two steps away from useful.

Language is continuously a process of moving further away from its current self. We can't even read Middle English, FFS. In a short human lifetime, this process is best seen in how the rules of usage for individual words shift; no one knows anymore that you can't use "of" after "comprised", and "continue on" is starting to be acceptable. Those rules have disintegrated to all but sticklers like me. Wailing and gnashing teeth over this is a waste of time, which is more or less what I meant to communicate above. Because language will evolve, the rules will change, and the music you loved in your youth will sound lame to your kids.

Max Gross said...

I agree and accept that language is in a constant state of drift. My worry, though, is that as more and more sticklers like you tend to veer away from a structured approach to hands-off because it all changes anyway, we'll move not from the rules changing from generation to generation, but a "no rules" mentality within generations. And I think that within any given time, it is highly useful to have rules that are expected to be adhered to--especially for those trying to learn a language, let alone those trying to communicate effectively within it. We still need sticklers!

Katharine Coldiron said...

As a stickler of sticklers, I can get behind that.

Shetachai Chatchoomsai said...

I like you how you mention post-tructuralist theory of indeterminacy of language, the fleeting essence of signifiers. I love reading your post; it's very knowledgable. <3

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks, Shetachai! I'll be sure to let you know when I do get to rambling about poststructuralism. :)

Shetachai Chatchoomsai said...

PS. I've just read the novel Americanah, the Bestseller, and it uses As not A's!

Katharine Coldiron said...

YES! I win!