An IA Weighs In on Grammar and Style

Usually I’ll keep my nose out of style issues. I’m an information architect, not a grammarian. But that doesn’t keep me from having opinions on clear communication. Three, in fact.

 

Here is the first.

Serial Commas

Use the serial comma. It is just more clear. Consider this example:

 I had the opportunity to buy my dream vehicle, a Hyundai and an SUV.

Is my dream vehicle a Hyundai, is it an SUV, or is it something other than either of those choices? Did I buy three vehicles? Serial commas give us the signals that let us more readily recognize a list in a sentence. As an information architect, I like more structure. Colons and bullets, even. Now, I agree that they’re not always needed for clarity. But I think that consistently using them anyway reduces cognitive load.

Semicolon

I used to love the semicolon. I understood it. I thought that using it gave my writing a certain sophisticated flair. I liked the nuanced coupling of sentences more tightly than one simply following another in the same paragraph. But I am also an inveterate scanner. I get impatient and I skip over some of the words, looking for what interests me (like you’re doing now).

The problem with semicolons is that they are not very scannable. In my experience, the sentence that is joined to the previous one with a semicolon is likely to be pithy, even profound. And there it is hiding out, looking for all the world like a somewhat rambling sentence; there’s just that sly semicolon kerned up to its neighbor to tell me otherwise. See how that works?

So, as much as I enjoyed the panache of the semicolon in the past, you’ll see me using full stops and capitals for a more immediate “Hey look at me! I’m a new thought.”

Title case

The great thing about title case is that there are so many standards for it, you’re bound to find one you like. But seriously, title case allows you to go through fewer contortions to make it clear where your title citation ends and where your sentence continues. You’ll note that I didn’t use title case for my subheadings. That’s because they’re subheadings. I’m advocating using title case for citable units such as articles.

Yes, you could use presentation styling, like italics, to set the title off. But the problem with presentation styling (OK, one problem) is that it’s not always available. On Twitter, for example. If I want to tweet your excellent article’s title, set in sentence case, I might need to change it to title case to make clear where your title ends and my short enthusiastic affirmation begins. Then again, that might be too much trouble, excellent though your article is.

So why not keep title case for subheadings?

That’s why. I can use sentence case for subheadings to preserve a conversational tone, but use title case for my article title. Depending on the purpose of your site, such as posing questions, you might need to preserve sentence case for articles too.

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