“Please take back out every Oxford comma,” a journalistic-minded author of mine once said. I began my editing career using Associated Press (AP) Style, so I understood his suggestion, but the house style at my current company mandated the use of the serial comma. We had a short, spirited, and (thankfully) respectful debate about it, and ultimately house style prevailed. I convinced the author that the meaning in his writing remained unchanged and using a serial comma accomplished something important to the company—it maintained consistency throughout their titles.
If you’re a copyeditor, you’ll inevitably run across a writer that questions the choices you make in order to fall in line with house style or a style guide. Most of the time you can do as I did above and simply tell them that you made this choice for consistency. But every piece of writing is different, and sometimes a style choice will compromise the writing’s meaning. Take a work of cleverly crafted stylized fiction; if the tone and the meaning of the piece is diminished by blindly applying a style rule, you may want to re-examine your process. This is why it’s important to approach each project with fresh eyes and a mission to serve the reader in the best possible way. You could memorize all one thousand pages or so of The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) and still find moments when CMOS doesn’t provide an answer or the rule outlined won’t benefit the text. Use your head, though; if an author isn’t using commas because they think they’re “lame,” you need to get on your soapbox and preach about reader comprehension.
Carol Fisher Saller, editor of the “Chicago Style Q&A” and author of The Subversive Copyeditor, promotes the idea that style rules are often arbitrary and changeable. According to Saller, “Your style guide—or any given ‘rule’ you learned in school—was created so you would do something the same way every time for the sake of consistency, for the reader’s sake.” She goes on to explain that if adhering to a style rule will complicate the reader’s understanding of the text, or if an author makes a strong case against the rule, it’s all right to consider departing from convention. Saller’s on the University of Chicago Press’s payroll and still recognizes that a style manual isn’t always the ultimate authority when making editing choices. In fact, here is one of my favorite quotes from her: “Rules are made to be broken; copy editors are not.” For more of Saller’s wisdom, you can check out her blog here.
As copyeditors shift from job to job and, as a result, house style to house style, they develop a unique background and quirks that influence their work. For example, I worked for a managing editor that had an arbitrary hatred of the phrase “for example.” I never got a clear answer out of her as to why, but she would’ve made me change the beginning of that last sentence to “for instance.” In a departure from CMOS (16th edition), I like to keep technological terms as updated as possible—email and ebook without the hyphen, internet with no capitalization—choices that are becoming more common as this type of language evolves. Another of my quirks, which is much less popular, is a preference for “ok” over “okay” or “OK.” This habit, probably as strange to some as the “for example” example, is purely based on personal inclination, and I usually have to let it go.
I’m okay with it.