Breaking a Habit

For the last couple of days I’ve been thinking about a wonderful line in the song “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Henry Higgins (the professor of speech in My Fair Lady) is musing regretfully about the strong feelings he’s developed for his pupil Eliza Doolittle. Luckily, he thinks, it will be easy to forget about her: “…rather like a habit one can always break.”

Everyone who’s ever tried to break a habit can appreciate the delicious irony in the song: It’s not so easy, Prof. Higgins!

The song has been running through my head because I am faced with several habits I need to break – writing habits, that is. I always capitalize Internet and Web. But (if I’m successful!) this is the last time I’ll write them with capital letters. The latest editions of the Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook have just decided that both terms should be lower case.

They’re also asking us to drop the hyphen in email. And there’s one more:  flyer (not flier) is the preferred spelling for a person who travels by plane – and for a paper handout.

Today’s post is sort of a double whammy. I’m a) updating you about some changes in our language and b) using this opportunity to give you some background about why these changes happen.

I – for one – am very happy writing Internet, Web, and flier. I use all three words frequently, and I’m not looking forward to making the changes. So why should I knuckle under?

The short answer is that I’m a professional writer. That means I have to keep up with what’s going on in the English language. The longer answer is that I respect the reasoning behind these changes. The Associated Press checked airline websites and discovered that flyer was their preferred spelling. That’s a good reason for making the change. The terms Internet and Web have been around now for a number of years, and they’re not trademarked terms – good reasons for switching to lower case.

The more writing you do, the more ambiguities you uncover. Is it okay, ok, o.k., or OK? That’s four spellings to choose from! What about catalogue and catalog? Barbecue and barbeque? Adviser and advisor?

Serious writers don’t make guesses or rely on hunches. They have solid reasons for their choices. Usually that means checking a reference book. Journalists rely on the latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook. Other writers (like me!) generally check the Chicago Manual of Style.

It’s ok to have preferences of your own as long as you’re consistent and don’t pretend you’re right and everyone else is wrong. I always use the ok spelling in my blogs because it has an informal feel. But yesterday I chose the okay spelling for a book I’m editing because it looks more professional.

How do you make word choices?

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