I read two interesting blog articles recently. One reminds us that Canadian spelling isn’t wrong (though how depressing that Adrienne Montgomerie should even have to address the issue (This Book Contains Canadian Spelling). The other describes the use of the serial comma as a rule, which it's not; it’s a preference. I have mainstream academic publishing clients who specifically ask for the serial comma not to be used except when omission would impact on clarity. (For a rather more sensible assessment of this particular punctuation preference, see Rich Adin's To Serial or Not to Serial?, published at the same time I was writing this piece.)
I respect anyone's preference for a serial comma; but I object to it being called a rule because it leads some to think that leaving it out is always a mistake, which is untrue. And readers might think, “Oh, I had it all wrong. Since this authoritative source has laid down the rule, it must be so.” And this will be dandy unless they are uninformed editors who acquire work for a new publisher client who doesn’t want hundreds of the things being edited into a perfectly acceptable and clear manuscript, and then have to pay a proofreader and typesetter (a double hit on their straining production budget) to take them all out again in order to conform to house style. Or even worse, they are uninformed readers who, once the book is published, leave online comments complaining about its rubbish punctuation. And on a related note, see, in the article cited above, Montgomerie’s concern over a fellow Canadian’s failure to acknowledge that the Canadian-standard spelling of “practise” (verb) was fine.
The thing is that even if you like a serial comma, perhaps your customer won’t. Not because they haven’t read the “rules” but because they’re using a different set to you! Perhaps, dare I say it, they simply don’t use the serial comma unless they think it’s necessary for sense. And even if they do like a serial comma, perhaps there are other differences: they live in a different country; they talk in a different way; they spell like a Canadian, an Australian, an American. Maybe they’re a Norwegian with an American accent who punctuates like a Brit.
As I commented in Montgomerie’s post, the internet age was supposed to make the world smaller, not smaller-minded. And yet even in the editorial community there is still centrism. You say it like this. You punctuate it like that. You spell it this way. You apply the “rule” that way. But what if we don’t talk like that or write like that? And more importantly for the editorial professional, what if our client doesn’t talk like this or write like that?
Some time ago, a colleague asked me why I used US spelling on the Parlour. I don’t so I enquired further. “You spell with -ize,” came the reply. Actually, that's not US spelling. It's a perfectly standard British alternative, and has been for some time. Well, I say "some time" ... I mean hundreds of years. "The ending -ize has been in use in English since the 16th century, and is not an Americanism, although it is the usual form in American English today" (New Hart's Rules, 3.1.3). Even if I wanted to organise, my client might prefer me to organize. And even if they want me to organize they might still want me to analyse in the same set of proofs. Or they might not. It will depend.
Spelling and punctuation styles are sticky, because people are sticky, because we have choices – and because our clients have choices.
I’m going to be looking at this in more detail in my March column on An American Editor. In the meantime, I’m defending the Canadian's right to spell like a Canadian in the same way I defend any client's wishes not to use a serial comma. There are some rules, yes, but more often there are styles. But most often of all there is a plea for consistency and clarity. Editorial professionals above all need to be cognizant of diversity. As Montgomerie told me recently, "there is a whole wide wonderful world of options out there". Too right!
About Louise Harnby
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing and Proofreading Business. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn.
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