A grammar geek’s guide to the universe

If you believe that sacred texts such as the Bible, Torah, Qur’an and the Yoga Sutras are practical guides that outline the rules under which particular religions expect their followers to live, the Canadian Press’s authoritative reference book on standardized writing practices is most definitely mine.

I spend the bulk of my workday in front of a computer screen writing brochure copy, speeches, website content and, yes, blogs. I can’t tell you how many times a day I refer to my copies of The Canadian Press Stylebook or Caps and Spelling to check the rules on how to use punctuation or the accepted way to write a particular word. For me, these two guides provide the structure I crave. They are the "backbone parent" to my inner grammar geek.

I realize that in most circles this behaviour is considered nerdy. My family definitely calls it anal. This week, as I giddily opened the package that contained the latest versions of these guides, I could see their eyes rolling.

“Do you realize,” I asked them, “that most people don’t know when to write out numbers and when to use numerals?”  

I held back from going on, but I could have pointed out that still more don’t know the difference between a hyphen and an em dash, or that“email” doesn’t take the aforementioned hyphen anymore, but that according to the latest version of Caps and Spelling, “co-ordinate” still does.

My family argues that most people don’t care.

That may be so, but I do!   

Not that I always get it right (just ask my editor extraordinaire). Nor does it mean I’m a follow-the-rules type of gal (my parents have a lot to say on that topic). However, as great artists know, it is important to know the rules, or even to know that there are rules, before deliberately breaking them. So yes, I am making an intentional choice when I decide to write “percent” instead of CP’s recommended “per cent.”

I am also prone to some grammatical snobbery. I don’t exactly read the newspaper with a red pen in hand, (although I was delighted to achieve a perfect score on this recent quiz in the Globe and Mail), but I do have to work hard to withhold judgment and comments when I see particularly glaring mistakes in my inbox.

My biggest pet peeve is not misspelled words or even the superfluous serial comma; rather, it’s the penchant so many writers have for uppercase letters. While it seems to have become common knowledge that writing anything in all caps is akin to screaming, many people still insist on using capitals for job titles, school subjects and every word in headings. If there is one commandment from my sacred text that I wish I could impose on others, it is this basic tenant gleaned from the Stylebook’s 23-page section on capitalization: “…where a reasonable choice exists, we use lower case.”

Don’t get me started on two spaces after a period. As Jennifer Gonzalez of the Cult of Pedagogy blog so aptly points out, that particular outdated practice will reveal even the most Botoxed writer’s age (i.e. you probably learned to type on an IBM Selectric, like me).

So, before you pooh-pooh my seemingly unnatural connection to the Stylebook, consider that one day, it’s going to come in quite handy for you – whether it’s giving you the low-down on the proper use of an exclamation point, how to address a former prime minister or demystifying the “that-which” conundrum.

Catch any grammatical mistakes in this blog post? I welcome your corrections!