Tuesday, March 31, 2020

You're Italic, I'm In Bold

Following on from yesterday's post, today's is not so much a piece of advice as a warning. Although yesterday's was a warning, too. Hmm...

If you study English at university, and particularly if your syllabus covers the New Criticism, a predictably ironically-named literary movement that began just after the Second World War and fell out of fashion about forty years later, there's a good chance you'll run into something called the Intentional Fallacy. It's sometimes also known as the Intentionality Fallacy, if only by those who like to add bonus syllables to words to make them seem more portentous.

In brief, the theory states that the author of a work is in no better position to know what it means than a subsequent interpreter or, as the online portal of the Oxford University Press' reference library has it, "Once a work is published, it has an objective status and its meanings belong to the reading public. Any surmise about the author's intention thus has to be tested against the evidence of the text itself." And if the OUP says it, it must be true.

Oddly, I never came across this important concept until I'd graduated. My clever-clever comic fan friends, self-taught polymaths, many of them, introduced me to it with bludgeoning force as we argued across pub tables across London in the 1980s. Oh, how foolish and naive I felt, the one with the piece of paper qualifying me to talk about this stuff and yet the one least equipped to do so. Of course, by then the theory itself was falling out of fashion, but I didn't know that either, so it didn't help me win any arguments.

There's bound to be a word for that; realizing you're the living embodiment of the principle you're trying to deny. If I'd taken my education seriously I might even know what it was.Then again, maybe I shouldn't be so swift to shoulder all the blame. I could have been better taught.

I'd say it's hard for someone barely out of their teens to question the competence of the teaching they're receiving at one of the world's most highly-recognized centers of excellence for the subject in question but in fact two people in my tutorial group did make a formal complaint about the abilities of one of our tutors in my third year. And I had a stand-up row with my Director of Studies over something similar in my very first term.

As I said at the time, I had better teaching in my school sixth form than I got most of the time at university. It's something to be aware of as we grizzled veterans dole out our teaspoons of advice. Just because someone does something all the time doesn't mean they know what they're doing.

It's also yet another example of exactly what I came here to discuss. Intentional Fallacy, my aunt Sally! I can't even keep my intent on the rails for a paragraph - how could anyone suppose I'd know what I meant to write even when I've finished writing it? It's frequently as much a surprise to me as it is to anyone.

Let's be a little more concrete, shall we? Yesterday I sat down to write a short piece about style. Syp published a Perfect Ten column at Massively OP a while back in which he went in to some detail about things that annoy him when he puts on his games journalist hat. The one that caught my attention was #4 "PR statements that randomly capitalize words".

That's a habit I'm not mad keen on, either, but then neither do I entirely subscribe to Syp's take on which words should be capitalized. At this point, two things come into play: accepted convention and house style. The thing to remember about syntax and grammar is that neither of them is physics. You can deny gravity all you want but you're still going to fall to your death when you jump off that cliff.

If you want to split your infinitives, though, or randomly capitalize Odd words then nothing and no-one can stop you. Chances are, even if someone calls you on it you'll be able to come up with an "authority" who says it's okay because all grammar and syntax ultimately derive from opinion and usage, not some literary Big Bang.

No-one can stop you, that is, unless you have an editor. If you have one of those, you'll almost certainly need to adhere to some kind of "house style", by which I don't mean "a repetitive four on the floor beat and a tempo of 120 to 130 beats per minute."

That - that right there - is an example of house style. At Inventory Full it's mandatory to make those kinds of faux clarifications with humorous intent whenever they can be shoehorned in. Annoying isn't it? And there's another, faux self-deprecation. We're big into faux here, as you can see, along with using plural pronouns for singular subjects, which brings me somewhere close to the point, at last.

In most cases the editor of the blog is going to be the blogger themselves. It's kind of like being a singer-songwriter or a writer-director. In fact, you're more of a hyphenate than that. Bloggers are writer-editor-publishers for the most part. And illustrators, too, often as not. Some of us are close to becoming Crazy Jane.

The good part is, it means you get to call all the shots. If you want to use three different fonts in the same post, you can. If you feel like putting every adjective into italic script, knock yourself out. You, as very irritating people like to say, do you.

If the you who you are happens to be the sort who decides this kind of thing before even before hitting Publish on the very first post, there's most likely not much I or anyone else can tell you. You know it all already. More likely, though, time will go by and one day you'll notice a house style has crept up on you.

The reason I sat up and took notice when Syp was taking PR reps to task over capitals is that, entirely unintentionally (insofar, as we have established, that intent can be known or assigned) I seem to have ended up with a whole set of House Rules on both capitalization and italicization. I also have a number of color-coded conventions for hyperlinks.

I never consciously planned for any of them and I don't have them written down so sometimes I forget exactly what they are and get them wrong. And sometimes I change them. After reading Syp's minor-key rant I decided he probably had a point about stock concepts like "class" so I'm trying to avoid capitalizing those.

Wlhelm also said something sharp once about bloggers who use acronyms for games without ever naming the game in full and that hit home. These days I always give the full name on first use, as in Elder Scrolls Online, before moving to ESO.

The observant (and, indeed, anyone still reading, which can't be many, surely?) will notice both of those are not just capitalized, as you'd expect, but italicized. That's because it's the first time either has appeared in this post.

I decided a while back to italicize proper nouns on first use. I have no real idea why but I noticed only this week that Tad Williams does it in the recap at the start of Empire of Grass so I probably picked it up from somewhere.

It is starting to get out of hand, though, and that's the danger. You begin with a harmless affectation that you think adds character and end up with so many self-imposed rules you spend more time copy-editing than coming up with interesting ideas.

Still, as I always say, it's your blog. And sometimes editing is more fun than writing the stuff. Often, actually. I really like editing.

If I ever had a point here I think I must have made it by now. Oh, wait, no, I know what it was!

This is the post I meant to write yesterday, when I ended up rambling about comments instead. Still don't know how that happened. The original intent of today's post, the critical piece of advice I wanted to pass along from my exalted position up here on this high horse, from which I have this excellent and flawless view, as I'm sure everyone understands, is that sometimes the post you end up writing isn't the post you thought you were going to write when you sat down.

And that's fine. You can always write the other post tomorrow.


  1. House rules. At some point in the past I decided to italicize game/expansion names, though I was taught way back in school that I should put them in quotes. But at the time computer text was as static as that from a typewriter. But that was maybe at the half way point of the blog so far, so I do find lots of old posts where I do not do that.

    Also, out of long habit, I put two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. There is/was a holy war going on about this, filled with spurious reasoning and preference cast as rules, but I just do it because that was the way I learned to type and I might as easily change how I breath as stop.

    I do find some house rules odd. I knew somebody who worked for Wired and asked why they always write Lego when the LEGO company style guide says it should be written LEGO. His answer was mostly "because" with some "we don't let companies tell us what to do" injected in it.

    One house rule I find irksome is the BBC and how they have decided that acronyms are just words and only the first letter gets capitalized. So NASA is always Nasa over there, though they tend to break that rule at times for British institutions. It is the NIH and not the Nih, so I am not sure what they are trying to accomplish. But no doubt some senior editor feels very passionately about topic and so it is what it is with no more justification than that.

    1. We had this at work for many years, where people would arrive with whatever set of rules for ordering names they'd been taught at school or university and start to re-arrange sections accordingly. Which would be fine if they were the only people that used and maintained them but of course they never were. So some people would put the Mcs with the Macs and others would put them in strict alphabetical order and some would put de Waal under D and others would put it under W and so on.

      Then we got a change of ownership and after a while someone on high was authorized to start issuing orders on how it should be done so now we all do it the same way (at least in theory). And in the end 8it doesn't matter which way is "right" because none of them are. It just matters that everyone knows the same set of rules and follows them.

      Now if only I could persuade myself to do the same here...

      Also, the BBC never refers to itself as the Bbc, does it? I hadn't noticed that quirk. I bet there's some internal logic to it, quite possibly along the lines that acronyms which can be articulated as words get the Nasa treatment while those that can't stay in all caps.

    2. You are right. I found their style guide:

      "Where you would normally pronounce the abbreviation as a string of letters - an initialism - use all capitals with no full stops or spaces (eg FA, UNHCR, NUT). However, our style is to use lower case with an initial cap for acronyms where you would normally pronounce the set of letters as a word (eg Aids, Nafta, Nasa, Opec, Apec)."

      Of course, there is a list of exceptions afterwards, and it still annoys me, but welcome to life. There is also a fun section about American usage that is not allowed right after the section that frowns on using "America" to refer to the United States.

  2. Hehe, a thoroughly entertaining read -- although that is probably as much as I'll take from it. Not because of any stubborn intent on my part, but rather... I think I'm fairly set in my ways on much of this stuff now.

    At least where the basics are concerned. As couldn't help but to have a fair chuckle at your mention of forgetting your own house rules from time to time. Because I've found on numerous occasion a need to go back and actually look what, precisely, I did in a particular context. (Usually around handling of block quotes.)

    There are other stylistic decisions I've experimented with or just decided to change over time. e.g., I used to have a preference for drop caps at the start of a post. I don't bother any more, for a number of reasons. One being they can cause layout issues, but also because they don't actually add anything to readability.

    I'm sure one day, beyond the basics, I too will have a set of house rules. Right now they don't exist in anything beyond a nebulous state though.

    1. It's impossibly hard to keep track, I find. I just noticed this morning, on what I think is my third post-publication read-through, that I capitalized House Rules but not house style. Why? I have no frickin' clue! I just did and then I didn't even notice I'd done it.

      There's a temptation to keep going back and editing these things every time I notice but there was a discussion about that during some other year's NBI or Blaugust and I think the consensus was that after a day or two it was probably best to leave things alone. So House Rules and house style it is. Until next time.

  3. Thank you. Several good chuckles here after a long day of work. I look forward to more tomorrow as always.

    1. Why, no, thank you! Going to attempt to post every day for Blapril so I'm sure there will be plenty of filler. Don't get your hopes up!


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