My friend (and fellow Shaw enthusiast!) Gustavo A. Rodríguez Martín just sent me a link to an intriguing article about academic publishing: Most Common Formal Grammatical Errors Committed by Authors. The writer is Dr. Anthony J. Onwuegbuzie, a professor of education with a distinguished background in writing and teaching.
His article is based on an examination of 116 submissions to a professional journal over a six-year period. Onwuegbuzie classified 35 kinds of mistakes (he called them “formal grammatical errors”). The article lists them in order – from most to least frequent – and offers examples of each one.
Any writer – especially someone who wants to write for professional journals – will find a wealth of useful information here. For example, Dr. Onwuegbuzie counsels writers to avoid using this and these as stand-alone pronouns. That trick is a simple and elegant way to help writers avoid a problem grammarians call an indefinite pronoun reference. Here’s an example:
Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight. INDEFINITE PRONOUN REFERENCE
Joe gave me the wrong flight number. That mistake caused a delay when we tried to meet his flight. CORRECT
All you do is change that to that mistake, and the problem disappears!
Now we’re going to take a detour. I have always been curious about how people think. What do psychologists think about during a social encounter? Do they analyze people’s behavior? What do professional dancers think about when they’re performing? What details and subtleties do they focus on that completely escape my attention?
I’m hoping that some of you reading this post are curious about how a professional writer thinks. So I’m going to discuss some of the thoughts that went through my head when I read Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article. Because his field is education, and mine is English, our thinking processes are (of course) different.
Often where Dr. Onwuegbuzie sees a grammatical error, I see a problem with usage (a topic I’m going to save for another day) or house style (which I’m going to discuss today).
Grammar is the system and structure of a language. (Another term for grammar is syntax.) Grammar issues are solidly embedded in the language. In English, for example, subjects and verbs have to agree (you can’t say “I are”). Pronouns have to agree with their antecedents. Word order is important in English: Joe likes Jane has a very different meaning from Jane likes Joe. (In some other languages, word order doesn’t matter.) Grammar is fixed and slow to change.
House style, on the other hand, deals with arbitrary choices and evolving issues that publishers have to contend with. Every publisher has a house style, and so do many businesses and other types of organizations. They create documents with names like “style guides,” “style sheets,” “guidelines for authors” to lay out their writing preferences. I’ve worked as a consultant for several organizations that wanted to create style guides to ensure that all their publications and correspondence were consistent.
You might be surprised how many writing practices fall into the “arbitrary” or “evolving” category. Here are some examples:
- The Oxford comma – which do you prefer: Jane, Joe, and Linda or Jane, Joe and Linda?
- Should you write healthcare, health-care, or health care? Childcare, child-care, or child care?
- Is data singular or plural?
- Should you write ok, okay, o.k., or OK? 1860s or 1860’s? Hallowe’en or Halloween? Catalogue or catalog? Theater or theatre?
Sometimes an organization will create a house rule to meet a particular need. For example, Yale University capitalizes Incomplete in explanations about students’ grades. Newspapers (to save space) don’t usually capitalize titles like president and director, but many colleges and businesses want to honor people in important positions by capitalizing those titles. And I could cite many, many more examples.
Another issue is that the ways we use words inevitably change over time. Manuscript comes from two Latin words that mean “written by hand” – but if you sent a handwritten manuscript to a publisher today, it would be thrown in the trash. You might be surprised how many everyday words were once controversial. Escalate – which wasn’t even allowed in the American Heritage Dictionary in 1960 – has become a perfectly respectable word.
Those changes continue to happen all the time. Only 8% of the experts recently polled by the AHD still treat data as a plural word: 92% accept the singular form (data is or data was). Snuck (for sneaked) isn’t there yet, but it’s moving toward mainstream status. Enthuse – a word I used to warn my students not to use – has crossed the line and now shows up even in formal writing.
How do professionals decide these issues? Google can help. When I do a consulting job, I also like to check the Chicago Manual of Style to see how they handled a particular problem. The Usage Notes in the American Heritage Dictionary are another excellent resource because I can track controversial words and usages as they gradually become acceptable.
What does all of this mean to an ambitious writer? I’d suggest reading Dr. Onwuegbuzie’s article to make sure you’re familiar with some fine points of grammar and usage. If you’re thinking about submitting an article to a magazine or journal, go to the publisher’s website and learn about their house style.
You should familiarize yourself with the words that are in flux right now, and you should have resources at hand to help you stay in touch with what’s happening in professional publishing. What’s most important is to develop a healthy respect for both the big and small issues associated with writing.