Sunday, June 26, 2011

Writing with Consistency

by Ilana W-B

Usually, my blogging will consist of instruction in proper grammar and punctuation. I promise to return to my grammar soapbox soon. But for the moment, I will bring to your attention a small issue that afflicts many otherwise-fine résumés and essays. To eliminate this evil in your own writing, you need not memorize any rules or consult any obscure references; you need merely pay attention to small details. The problem to which I refer is a lack of consistency.

In English, both grammar and formatting leave us lots of choices. However, within a single document, you always want to make the same choices. You may leave either one or two spaces between a period and the first letter of the next sentence, but your essay should never have some periods followed by a double space and others followed by a single one. If you use a colon before an independent clause (something that could stand alone as a sentence), it is up to you whether to capitalize the first word of the clause following the colon. But again, your choice should be consistent throughout your piece.

Here, in no particular order, are the inconsistencies I most commonly see:
  • Punctuation at the end of a bulleted list. You should end no points with a period, all points with a period, or only the last point with a period (if the list forms part of a larger sentence, as in this case)
  • Capitalization of list items. See how they’re all capitalized here? It would look pretty bad if some were and some weren't
  • Alignment of bullets. If you have multiple bulleted lists, the bullets should all line up, and there should always be the same amount of space between the bullet and the start of the list item. The same goes for numbered or lettered lists
  • Number of spaces between sentences. Choose one or two and stick to it
  • Capitalization after a colon (see the paragraph above for details)
  • Serial commas (the ones that come between the penultimate item of a list and the conjunction). I don’t have strong feelings about this particular piece of punctuation, but I make a point of always using it simply so that I know I will be consistent
  • Capitalization of titles of jobs, clubs, positions, etc. You may describe yourself as “Chairman of the Board” or as “the chairman of the board”, but make sure it’s the same for all the boards you’ve chaired
  • Placement of commas and periods with respect to quotation marks. This is a sticky issue right now, with various groups cheering for and ranting against the rise of “logical punctuation” (look it up). I think it’s fine if you want to put the punctuation outside the quotation marks if what’s within the marks isn’t what’s truly being punctuated (which isn’t how we traditionally do things on this side of the Atlantic, but which makes more logical sense), but don’t mix two styles in one composition
  • UK vs. US spelling. Choose your form of grey/gray, color/colour, honor/honour, realize/realise, theater/theatre, etc. and stick with it
  • Part of speech that begins each list item. Note how each of the items in this list begins with a noun and without an article. It would be inconsistent for me to begin some with nouns and some with other parts of speech (for instance, with a command to “begin lists consistently” or with a noun preceded by an article like “the capitalization”). This applies both to bulleted lists and to lists within sentences.
This is of course an incomplete list, but it offers a catalogue of some of the most common offenses. With a careful proofreading and attention to detail, you can easily avoid these and other inconsistencies.

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