And by “style” I mean language style, not fashion. Specifically, there are two aspects of style I’d like to discuss.
The first is technical style. Actually, no. I don’t want to discuss this now. But I’ll sum up so you have an idea of what I mean, and then I’ll shelve it until I want to discuss it more. Technical style, in the case of a how-to publication (and, really, any type of publication that has anything to do with explaining something) involves, roughly, two things: Operational definitions and grammar. In a particular field, a word that might mean one thing in general usage might mean something slightly different or something highly specific in a technical context (an example of this in the yarn world is the knitted short row. In general usage, short row means a row that’s short relative to a longer row. In knitting, it very specifically means a row that is made to be shorter than others by turning the work before completing the row [it’s a descriptive term, yes, but it’s also a technical term referring to a particular technique]). Abbreviations are a part of technical style, as is how those abbreviations are used and/or modified (for example, in Interweave Crochet we pluralize the abbreviation for stitches as “sts” but we do not pluralize the abbreviation for chains, “ch”.) Grammar has to do with very specific rules of word order, word choice and punctuation that don’t necessarily mirror the conventions of “normal” spoken or written language. Clearly, there is much to write about this; I just don’t feel like it.
What I do feel like discussing is usage of common language. Generally speaking, opinions on language usage fall somewhere on the prescriptivism–descriptivism spectrum. I fall squarely in the descriptivist camp when it comes to spoken language. My background in linguistics contributes largely to this: I believe very strongly that if spoken language is understood as it’s intended, then it is good. I’m more in the middle when it comes to written language, because the rules of written language exist in large part to provide information that can’t be conveyed in writing (namely: tone, pacing, facial expression, body language). I believe that proper spelling is important to creating a sense of shared understanding and to lend credibility to the writer. Proper use of basic punctuation is important. Appropriate use of commas (there is nearly only grey area when it comes to commas) is crucial. I also believe that breaking the steadfast rules of written grammar and punctuation can be wonderfully effective; that’s why I’m not all the way over in the prescriptivist camp. But really: Know the rules you’re intentionally breaking.
I occasionally find myself in a head-spinny tizzy of confusion when it comes to nit-picky decisions about language usage in the magazine. On the technical-writing side, we have a style guide we follow very closely (or as closely as possible, given that we’re still figuring it out and a lot of people edit technical language before it’s finalized, not all of whom can spout the style guidelines with ease [me included]). And on the general-language side there is a style guide that is shared across magazines; I don’t know as much about it as it’s not specific to IC. But occasionally I will butt heads with it, and that’s one of the satisfying parts of going to press for me (for inevitably I see final copy of the articles all laid out and pretty in the few days before the magazine is sent to the printer, and during those days I’m at the office in Colorado). That’s when I end up pushing my chair back from the desk and waving my arms about, raving all curmudgeonly in one way or another. (Yes, this is satisfying. If you don’t find such things satisfying, clearly editing is not for you.)
Sometimes my arm waving is over a crochet-specific term. If you haven’t noticed, there aren’t many tomes about crochet. We don’t have a rich history of documentation of our craft**, and that means there is much flexibility in how things are referred to in writing, especially across publications. For example, is it freeform crochet or free form crochet, or free-form crochet? Who decides? And how should it be decided? Should we go based on authority (one organization calls itself the International Free Form Crochet Guild, yet in the first line of its website refers to “freeform crochet.”) When something, in general, is of a make-it-up-as-you-go nature, most publications hyphenate it to read free-form something. But both the international guild above and the best-known scrumbling crocheters and knitters tend to make it one word when it’s modifying crochet (see Prudence Mapstone, Margaret Hubert, Myra Wood, Bonnie Pierce, and even the Lacis Museum).
Look at the book reviews in the summer issue of IC and you’ll see I lost the argument to go with crochet’s one-word convention—Merriam-Webster’s hyphenation was used. In general usage, I’m cool with the hyphenation. Specifically about crochet, though, I’m unconvinced.
One more example of an argument I’ve lost more than once (I understand the reasons for my losses and am perfectly comfortable to respectfully disagree [see, my tone and body language aren’t here to let you know I’m not ranting; I’m merely exploring a topic]): It is the official style for all the fiber magazines to use the word ravel—never unravel—when referring to something made from yarn that is in the process of coming apart. The first time I recall ever seeing the word ravel in print was the first time I saw an instance of unravel in IC corrected for style (though I’m sure I must have seen it before, because I knew some things about its history). I’m certain I’ve never heard anyone say it. It makes me hiccup in my reading every time I come across it. It strikes me as unnatural and odd. I relent in my arm-waving curmudgeonliness because I respect that it’s the official style of the publication to use it. I’ll likely bring this word up at the next style-review meeting. Anyway, this is a good example of a descriptivist (me, in this case) opposing a prescription. My argument is that the prescription is for a term that might hinder easy communication. (You’ll notice that Merriam-Webster lists as one of the possible meanings of ravel, “to entangle.”)
Style is a very big deal and it’s a very small deal. At the highest level, it significantly contributes to the overall feel and tone of a publication. At the lowest, it makes people tear their hair out.
Where do you fall? What do you think of grammar rules in written and spoken language? Do you struggle with such things, or do you not worry about it?
** One of the things I love about working on a crochet publication is that crochet is, in a very significant way, a folk craft that has been passed from one generation to the next by word of mouth. We’re writing it down. It’s a big and juicy responsibility.