The WhyNot of Style

by Mark L. Levinson

Editing is like chess, in that once you’re experienced you don’t ponder most of what you’re doing.  Well, I can’t be sure it’s like chess.  I don’t play chess.  But it’s like Windows Minesweeper.  Once you’re experienced, you still stop to analyze a situation that’s complex and unusual but your reflexes have become conditioned well enough to handle the rest.

When you’re trusting your editorial reflexes, false alarms are the problem.  Before you correct what another of God’s creatures has written, it’s your responsibility to be sure you’re reacting to a real, explainable flaw and not merely to a difference from your personal style. 

If the phrasing is correct but you nonetheless change it because you like another phrasing better, then you’re performing what some people call “preferential editing.”  You can do it to the ghostwriter of your autobiography, but in the workplace it’s an unfair, demoralizing, counterproductive thing to inflict on a professional writer — or even on an editee who doesn’t write for a living. 

Even if everyone follows an off-the-shelf style guide, plus the company style guide, plus the excellent advice of this column, people will still write differently from one another.  If someone constructs an English sentence in a way that’s more likely to occur to a native speaker of Hebrew or Russian than to a native speaker of English, but the sentence creates no awkwardness and violates no rule, why not let it be? 

On the other hand, some writers can threaten to undermine the established order.  Once, years ago, I was supervising a writer who surprised me with his semicolons.  He would write something like “Your necktie’s name should be descriptive; for example, PaisleyFromCousinDave.”

I said, “That’s no place for a semicolon.  There’s a clause before it, but nothing but a noun phrase after it.”

He said, “It’s a legitimate usage.  It’s in the grammar book that I learned from.”

I said, “Maybe you’re right.  If you can show me a real grammar book that allows such a usage, fine.  But otherwise, I’ll have to disallow it.”  I congratulated myself because rather than scoffing, I had tactfully left it to him to discover that his grammar book said no such thing — if he had even kept his grammar book.  And who keeps their grammar book?

He brought the grammar book in and showed me.  Indeed it considered that at the end of a sentence, the phrase “for example,” followed by a noun, could properly be preceded by a semicolon.

So I allowed it.  I’d left myself no choice.  In a case like this, though, consistency is a factor.  You wouldn’t want half your instances of “for example” preceded by a semicolon and half by a dash, just as you wouldn’t want half your explanations beginning with big bold letters saying “This is how to” and half beginning with big bold letters saying “Here is how to.”  Where inconsistency would be unpleasantly conspicuous, it’s worth enforcing an arbitrary rule.  But a mature company should have such arbitrary rules compiled into a style guide, supplementing an off-the-shelf style guide such as Chicago; and as a matter of principle what isn’t explicitly forbidden should be permitted.

In this case, I solved the problem by adopting the semicolon myself.  In fact I got to like it, and I continued using it until, years later, someone challenged me on it and I couldn’t remember the name of the grammar book.

Questions and comments are welcome:  ]]

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.