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A Word, Please: Consistency is key when choosing between editing styles

The Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center vaccine check-in area in January 2021.
The Fountain Valley Regional Hospital and Medical Center vaccine check-in area in January 2021. Grammar columnist June Casagrande points out that the rules aren’t settled for compound words like “healthcare” vs. “health care” and whether to spell COVID-19 with all capital letters or lowercase as some dictionaries recognize.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Some days, I change “O.K.” to “OK.” On other days, you might find me changing “OK” to “okay.” Sometimes I spend a good deal of time deleting spaces around dashes, other times I insert spaces around dashes. Then there are the mornings when I add an extra S after a possessive James or Charles. In the afternoon, no S.

I’m not confused. I’m not being fickle. I’m not playing God with the rules. Instead, I have the dubious privilege of editing according to two different style guides: the Associated Press stylebook for my newspaper work and the Chicago Manual of Style for my magazine work.

Astute readers might be wondering: If two ways of writing something can both be correct, why worry about them? Why bother putting them in a stylebook? Just let the writer choose between “okay” and “OK” and between James’s and James’.

That would make sense but for a simple fact: Consistency counts. A lot. If you write “2-year-old” and “two-year-old” on the same page, it looks sloppy and unprofessional. That’s why you should pick your style and stick with it. Here a few of the common issues for which you probably should choose sides now.

OK/okay. AP style prefers “OK.” Chicago doesn’t have a rule but tends toward spelled-out forms like “okay.” No one seems to favor the version with two periods.

Spaces around dashes. When you use em dashes — like this — to set off words in a sentence, news media usually put a space on either side. Book publishers do not.

James’/James’s. AP Stylebook says that, to make singular proper names ending in S possessive, just add an apostrophe: James’ hat. Chicago says to add both an apostrophe and an S: James’s hat. That’s only for singulars, though. Plurals that end in S all follow the same rule: Apostrophe only. The dogs’ tails, the Williamses’ house, the attorneys’ clients.

When you want to give seasons greetings using family names, when do you add an S and where do you add the apostrophe? June Casagrande has the answers.

Serial comma. The serial comma, also called the Oxford comma, is the optional mark before the conjunction in a list of three or more items: red, white, and blue. News media tend to eschew it. Book and magazine publishing tend to use it. Most individuals with an opinion seem to prefer the serial comma and some fans are downright fanatical.

Healthcare/health care. Both are correct, but AP and Chicago style both prefer “health care.” Compounds tend to meld into single words over time: teen-ager, key board, long-time, good-bye. So even though “health care” is preferred now, “healthcare” could win in the long run.

COVID-19/Covid-19. When a new word bursts into the headlines, often from the field of technology or medicine, publishers have to pick their preference quickly. No time to wait and see how the word will evolve over years or decades. The major authorities are leaning toward all-caps COVID-19, though dictionaries also recognize Covid-19 and even covid-19.

No. 1/#1/number one. I don’t like the pound sign in running text. It looks ugly. And “No.” is just weird because the word “number” doesn’t have an “o” in it. But my opinions are irrelevant. AP says “No. 1,” so that’s what I use for newspaper editing. Chicago doesn’t take a position, but I’ve noticed books often spell it out: number one.

Vaxed/vaxxed. None of the major language authorities have taken an official position on “vax” as a verb. But Benjamin Dreyer, Random House copy desk chief and author of “Dreyer’s English,” argues it’s best written like “taxed” and “faxed.” Publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary appear to favor “vaxxed.”

Italics/quotation marks for composition titles. Writing about a movie, book, TV show or other composition? You can put the title in quotation marks or italics. News agencies, still influenced by the days when italics wouldn’t transmit over wire services, use quotation marks. Book publishing leans toward italics. Pick your preference and stick with it.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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