You Damn Kids Get Offa My Lawn: In Defense of Persnicketiness

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015 by Lisa S.

Recently, the Content Bureau editorial team had one of our style check-ins. These occasional email flurries help us debate or clarify points of style—topics that I fear may seem arcane to anyone but a dedicated editor. E-mail or email? Anytime or any time (or, more precisely, which to use at which time)? And what about that new service offering from a longtime client? Is it branded and so capitalized, or just a garden-variety descriptor?

The issue here is not just that the English language is incredibly complex. It’s not just that inside every good editor roils a no-holds-barred cage match between her inner prescriptivist and descriptivist. (It’s not even that I am clearly in need of a new hobby.) It’s that the language is growing and changing – and an editor’s job is both to enforce consistency and to communicate clearly to a contemporary audience.

The issue in last week’s debate? The slash mark. I led with a rant about how often writers insert extra spaces around slashes – using and / or instead of and/or. Lucy (whom I forgive because she is half British) suggested that it might be acceptable to insert spaces when the mark separates two open compounds (credit card / debit card).

Reader, my inner prescriptivist responded with horror. I don’t care how the Brits do it; it’s just … wrong. Now you damn kids get offa my lawn!

Eventually I calmed down, released the armlock on my panting descriptivist, and turned toward the Internet.

Well. It turns out that standard American usage (per the Chicago Manual of Style[1]) is to close up spaces around slashes.

The prescriptivist raises her arms in triumph.

But the winds of change are blowing. There seems to be a move toward acceptance of spaced slashes separating open compounds. Huh.

The descriptivist smiles smugly and offers the prescriptivist a good stiff drink, which they both enjoy immensely. The prescriptivist acknowledges that a living language is by nature an evolving thing, though she retains her right to grump about it.

[1] The default style guide for business communications, the 16th edition of which a Borges-loving editor friend described as “a map the size of the territory.”

is a member of the Content Bureau editorial team.



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