One of many ways to refine our writing is developing a personal style guide. Some employers have a style guide to help ensure consistency and correctness across all departments, but most don’t. That shouldn’t stop you, however, from maintaining your own.
For example, you might have decided you prefer “email” to “e-mail,” “adviser” to “advisor,” and “stamping ground” to “stomping ground.” If you keep a mental or written list of these choices, you’ll save a few seconds of decision-making from time to time and avoid distracting your reader with inconsistencies.
You can also create a style guide for a particular document. Let’s say several members of your department have written sections for a brochure, and you are responsible for editing the copy. Program your antennae to catch inconsistencies like “health care” vs. “healthcare,” en dashes vs. em dashes, and italic vs. bold headings.
A key style guide decision – the serial comma
Back in elementary school we learned that placing a comma before “and” or “or” in a series of three or more words or phrases is optional. (The punctuation is called a “serial comma,” “Oxford comma,” or “Harvard comma.”) So either of these is correct:
We’re looking for a new VP, manager and associate. (No comma after “manager.”)
We’re looking for a new VP, manager, and associate. (Comma after “manager.”)
A fundamental step, therefore, in developing a personal style guide is determining whether you are a serial comma person or not. As you might guess, many writers are oblivious to the issue – because they’re correct either way – so you’re one up on them by staying consistent.
Which style is better?
It’s your call. The “con” argument is that you’re going with the flow because most newspapers, magazines, and books omit the serial comma. The “pro” argument is that using the serial comma can eliminate ambiguity in a sentence like the following:
The courageous performers at our staff party were Al and Betty, Carol and Drew and Esther.
Hmm. There were three acts, but we don’t know who performed with whom. Did Drew partner with Carol or Esther? Inserting a serial comma solves the problem:
The courageous performers at our staff party were Al and Betty, Carol, and Drew and Esther. (Carol was the brave soloist.)
The courageous performers at our staff party were Al and Betty, Carol and Drew, and Esther. (Esther was the brave soloist.)
This example illustrates one reason I use the serial comma, but on occasion I need to reword or join the non-serial comma camp:
The best presentations were made by Jason, our HR director, and Kate.
Because I use the serial comma, I’m not being clear about whether Jason is the HR director or the HR director is a different person. Did two people make effective presentations or three? Changing the order or departing from my usual style solves the ambiguity:
The best presentations were made by Kate and Jason, our HR director. (Two people.)
The best presentations were made by Kate, Jason, and our HR director. (Three people.)
The best presentations were made by Jason, our HR director and Kate. (Three people – clear because the serial comma is omitted.)
Yes, once in a while the serial comma issue gets sticky, but for the most part adhering to your choice is an easy stride toward consistent style.
In addition to presenting workshops on writing in the workplace, Norm Friedman is a writer, editor, and writing coach. His 100+ Instant Writing Tips is a brief “non-textbook” to help individuals overcome common writing errors and write with more finesse and impact. Learn more at http://www.normfriedman.com/index.shtml.