When I received the edited manuscript of one of my books from the publisher a couple of years ago, I was annoyed to find that every instance of “OK” had been turned into “okay.” Well, not quite every instance: in places where I was talking about a button on a computer screen that actually said “OK,” that was allowed to stay. There followed a lively exchange between my editor and me, she claiming that it had to be “okay” because that’s what the publisher’s style guide said, and me claiming “okay” is etymologically illegitimate, style guide or no. I couldn’t countenance the thought of having a book with my name on it include grating juxtapositions like “It’s okay to click the OK button.” I eventually got my way, though I lost quite a few other battles over differences between my style of writing and what the publisher prescribed.
In cases like these, a dictionary or English textbook will be of little help. Almost any dictionary will tell you that both “okay” and “OK” are acceptable, along with “O.K.” and “o.k.,” the only difference being which is listed as the preferred spelling. But preferred by whom? Under what circumstances? And why? The question is even trickier when it comes to recently coined terms. Should there be a hyphen in “email”? Is “Web site” one word or two? Is “internet” capitalized always, sometimes, or never? And then there are questions of usage that even scholars debate. Are expressions such as “for free” and “from whence” redundant? Is it mandatory, optional, or forbidden to use the pronouns “he,” “him,” and “his” to refer to people of either gender?
A Matter of Style
If you want to know the preferred way to use a term for a particular type of writing, you need to consult a style guide. In high school or college, your instructors probably insisted that papers you write follow a set of rigid guidelines in order to make the writing consistent and clear. Academic style guides are often referred to by their authors, such as “Turabian” (Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations) or “Strunk and White” (The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White). Other style guides are specific to fields such as psychology, mathematics, or linguistics. And most publishers require their authors and editors to follow a house style guide, whether writing magazine articles or technical books.
Even outside the worlds of academic and professional writing, issues of usage are still quite common and quite important. English, like all languages, is constantly changing. The more frequently a given usage occurs, the more likely it is to become canonized as “proper”—even if the most frequent usage is based on a misunderstanding. This happens automatically and often haphazardly, which is why English has so many strange spellings and inconsistent rules. The further the language strays from its past conventions, the harder it will be to learn, teach, and use. For those who care about the ability to communicate clearly, choosing better usages over worse ones can be seen as a way to keep the language on the straight and narrow, so to speak. And this is exactly what style guides aim to do.
The Decline of the English Language
You don’t have to go far to find examples of common usages that stray from convention. Have you ever been waiting in line and heard a clerk yell, “Can I help who’s next?” You’ve witnessed a new (and, arguably, unfortunate) construction in the making. In the same way, the word “nauseous” is gradually taking on the meaning “nauseated,” even though the dictionary definition of “nauseous” is “disgusting.” The expression “going forward” no longer means “moving in the direction of your nose” but rather “from now on.” I’ve heard people use words like “dollarize” and “incentivize” without a trace of irony, even though every child learning English in school is cautioned against verbing nouns. That may be bad, but is it “actionable”? If you hear something often enough, it starts to sound right.
The job of a style guide author is to figure out, for a given point in time (and usually, a specific audience), which way of saying or writing something is best—not necessarily correct. This is not as easy as it sounds. The English textbooks you read in school made it sound as if the language is ordered by sacred, inflexible rules, but in reality, there is ultimately no single objectively correct way to say anything. There are only better ways—that is, less ambiguous or more commonly used—and worse ways. So the author of a style guide has almost godlike powers to proclaim which variant is, in his or her opinion, the one that serves the language best in some particular context.
To return to the “OK” example, everyone agrees on how it should be pronounced, but the spelling is another issue because there are numerous competing theories as to the expression’s origin. According to a story I heard long ago, “O.K.” came from the initials of a tongue-in-cheek alteration of “all correct” as “oll korrect.” There’s also a claim that it originated in the presidential campaign of Martin Van Buren as the initials for his nickname, “Old Kinderhook.” A number of respectable linguists think its origins are much older, from the West African language Wolof spoken by many slaves in the U.S. In Wolof, a word that sounds like “waw-kay” means “OK” (more or less), and it’s quite plausible that this was the term’s entree into English. There are probably a dozen other theories as well. The consensus seems to be that the letters O and K don’t stand for anything individually (at least, not now—even if they once did), so it would be misleading to include periods. But as to whether it should be written as a phonetic word (“okay”) or a pair of uppercase letters (“OK”), that is a matter of strenuous debate.
Choosing a Guide
Sorting through all these theories and opinions—for hundreds or thousands of expressions—is one of the tasks a style guide author must undertake. Style guides also provide detailed instructions for the use of punctuation and capital letters, typographical elements such as bullets and italics, and grammatical advice on such matters as split infinitives, dangling prepositions, and irregular verbs. Of course, advice is all it is or can be; no two style guides agree on everything. As a result, in choosing a style guide—and in choosing how diligently to follow it—one must consider the author’s credentials, attitude, and rationale for making decisions. Good writers must ultimately be prepared to make, and justify, their own decisions about style.
A wonderful article by David Foster Wallace titled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” appeared in the April 2001 issue of Harper’s Magazine. Among other things, this article served as an extended review of a recent style guide: Bryan A. Garner’s 1998 A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU). Wallace is the kind of person who would read a style guide recreationally—in other words, he’s my kind of person. And after comparing ADMAU with competing guides and dissecting Garner’s approach, he concludes that Garner is a genius for deftly and authoritatively resolving some of the thorniest issues of English usage. I picked up a copy of ADMAU myself, as well as its updated 2003 edition, now called Garner’s Modern American Usage. Garner’s advice is absolutely brilliant, and the reasoning he provides for almost all of his usage pronouncements strikes me as both thorough and reasonable. He’s detailed and strict where he needs to be; in other places, he is appropriately critical of silly, anachronistic writing rules that no reasonable person should have to follow. In other words, I trust him with my language. That’s not to say I agree with him all the time, or that he covers everything I wonder about (technical terms, for instance, are a bit sparse). But I strongly prefer his advice over that of most other style guides I’ve read, and I consulted it frequently when developing the style guide used by Interesting Thing of the Day.
I like to do things right, to the extent that I can figure out what “right” is. I think I’m fairly proficient in English, but it’s still a perplexing language, and I’d be lost without a good style guide. I like to think that by choosing a guide wisely, I’m helping to keep English a little more sane. —Joe Kissell