Proofing is all about the reader.

Commas bug me, but what the heck is an infinitive?
Commas bug me, but what the heck is an infinitive?

by Adam Swiger

To use the Oxford comma, or not to use the Oxford comma? For that matter, is the comma in the previous sentence necessary? And, how do we know when a hyphen is necessary and when it isn’t?

Of course, we know that particular rules and particular style guides matter, especially in the context of a given manuscript. After all, if you’re submitting a research paper to a specific journal, you’d better follow the intended publication’s stated style preferences.

But too many writers, editors, and proofreaders miss the forest for the trees. Those of us with an affinity for matters of grammar and punctuation have a tendency to believe that the litany of rules we learned in eighth grade, or simply the way we’ve been doing it for years, is the only correct way.

For such reasons, proofreaders especially tend to be the Pharisees of the writing world, citing commandments like “Thou shalt not split infinitives” while ignoring the deeper principles at play.

Recall that the Old Testament is full of specific rules for living in a right way with God, yet a core aspect of Jesus’ ministry was reminding people of the fundamental principles underlying even the Ten Commandments:

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40 ESV)

The esteem for guiding principles over legalism is not a recipe for chaos. For proofreaders and other professionals, it’s a declaration of freedom from the shifting and contradictory tides of writing style. It’s a declaration of adherence to a higher, or more fundamental, set of laws.

What, then, are the proofreader’s principles? To answer this, we must consider the ultimate point of writing—which, at a basic level, is communicating ideas to one or more readers, even if the writer is the only intended reader. From this understanding, we can derive at least two reader-centered “principles of proofreading.”

First is the principle of clarity:

  1. Punctuation, formatting, and other elements of writing style should be applied in a way that maximizes clarity for the likely or intended readership.

“And the second is like it”—the principle of consistency:

  1. Consistent application of a particular element of writing style, consistently with reader expectations of the genre or any other writing context, is desirable—to the extent possible while clearly conveying the intended meaning or effect in specific instances—in order to minimize distractions to the reader.

This approach is helpful to proofreaders and to practitioners of writing in any of its aspects. It gives us a frame of reference for interpreting and moderating the recommendations of style guides. It guides us when we don’t have a style guide handy or no particular style is called for. It enables us to maintain our sanity even as the style manuals change over the years. Proofreaders can be both principled and practical—because, after all, good principles are eminently practical.

In the writing world, the principle-based approach often leads to a healthy minimalism. For instance, if there’s only one way to read a string of modifiers that makes any sense, or if a couple of the words in that string constitute a set term in a research paper, then you can probably forgo using a hyphen. I wish someone had presented this rationale to me when, as a history student at university, I religiously hyphenated ‘social-studies’ whenever I used it as a modifier—and my instructor marked out the hyphen every time, to my great frustration at the time.

With a series of terms separated by commas, however, I encourage writers to use the Oxford comma between the final two terms in the list—for the sake of clarity when terms are grammatically complex and for the sake of consistency when the terms are simple. By the way, in the first sentence of this post, the comma is discretionary, but I erred on the side of using it because I wanted to emphasize (for the reader) the element of contrast between the first phrase and second phrase.

As writers, editors, and proofreaders, we certainly can (and must) believe that there are right and wrong ways to punctuate a sentence. However, if we use the reader as our central frame of reference, it’s often much easier to discern right from wrong, or at least to make a defensible judgment call.

So for goodness’s sake, if an expression sounds distractingly awkward unless you place the adverb between ‘to’ and the rest of the infinitive verb, then don’t hesitate—split that infinitive.