Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A Matter of Style

We have a grammar question! Mary in Tennessee asks, "which is correct: Forward and backward or forwards and backwards? Do I go toward something or towards something?"

And the answer is "yes."

All are correct. (Do note that there are a few phrases that require certain versions. We "step forward." We experience "forward motion." And in some places you might still label a "backward child" though, wow, people really still say that? Maybe we should not worry about that one.)

When you have more than one correct answer, the question usually becomes a matter of style. Take for example, the serial comma. It is correct to write:
Three cheers for the red, white, and blue.
It is also correct to write:
Three cheers for the red, white and blue.
I'm personally a fan of the serial comma (the former example), so you should always see it here. Journalists hate me; it's just not their style. (This was actually one of the first questions I got two jobs ago when I was hired as the associate director of communications. The interlocutor was pissed when I told her both were correct. {I think she was hoping the director was wrong; frankly, he was the kind of schmuck that elicited that response.} People don't want the answer to be "it's a matter of style"; that's too frustrating.)

So the real question is does your company have a style guide? If they use a particular style guide (whether in house or AP or Chicago Manual of Style), you'll have to go along with that. If they don't have one, don't complain because you'll end up writing it yourself.

Otherwise, as long as you are consistent, you can't go wrong. (Some people do say that the "S" versions are more widely used in Britain, but that's neither here nor there.)

Speaking of style, those Victorian ribbon embroidery kits aren't going to give themselves away. The winner is...

Kat! Please send me your snail mail address.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the answer to my question. I, too, use serial commas. I do medical transcription and I cannot find an answer in the style guide to this one. I prefer without the "s" although I hear the "s" most of the time.

Mary in TN.

Karen said...

In grade school I was taught to use the serial comma. Over the years, I've seen the other version more often, so, I thought that the grammar rules changed. It's nice to know that they are both correct.

Anne Sans Tete said...

You know what drives me crazy? The word orientate. I know it's accepted as a variation of orient, but every time I hear someone say it, I want to slap them! (Yes, I use singular "they".) It drives me crazy. I wonder if there are people out there who are driven mad by toward vs. towards & the other examples you gave. And even though I teach English language, I still haven't figured out further vs. farther. I love language! :D

mainely stitching said...

I loved working for companies that had style manuals. I could feel so smug and self righteous about doing things the "right" way. I slept with mine under my pillow. I have a Chicago Manual of Style where religious people keep their Bibles. And I love serial commas.:D

Donna said...

Argh. Sentence diagramming. Are you trying to cause nightmares? I was a total spaz at this in junior high. And the grammar class I took in college was transformational grammar for which I was extremely grateful. So says the person who is willing to use a sentence fragment started with the word "and."