FIVE WAYS THAT CONSISTENCY MATTERS
By Geoff Hart
Thomas Mann observed
that "a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for
other people". That's because professional writers know they need to eliminate
obstacles to understanding. The more such obstacles they eliminate, the easier
it is for readers to focus on the thoughts being conveyed.
Many components of
writing contribute to clarity, but one that's too often neglected is
consistency. Authors assume that readers are smart enough to figure out
inconsistencies, so why sweat to eliminate them? What that ignores is that good
writing is about helping readers to comprehend easily. Striving for
consistency is a simple but important way to make comprehension easier.
In the rest of this article, I'll discuss five ways in which inconsistencies
create problems for the reader.
notice a great many things subconsciously. They may not register them all, but
they nonetheless take a toll on concentration. A good example is the serial
comma, as evidenced in the much abused example of the author thanking "my
parents, Ayn Rand[,] and God".
Few readers will believe that the author's parents are Ayn Rand and God. Yet
that's a legitimate way to read that
sentence without the second comma. Adding the serial comma only where it's
necessary for clarity is one option. But if most of a document uses the serial
comma, with this one exception, the part of the mind that deciphers punctuation
raises a red flag about whether the omission was intentional or just sloppy.
Each red flag creates ongoing mental friction that slows reading and
languages, capitalization indicates the start of a sentence or the presence of
a proper noun. Changing from a capitalized form to a lowercase form triggers
the reflex to ask whether the author has switched from discussing a named
entity to a generic category. Each such hesitation slows reading, impedes
comprehension, and increases the risk of an interpretation error.
It might not seem
important whether we use a word (one, two, three...)
or a numeral (1, 2, 3...) to communicate quantities. Yet semiology, the study
of the meaning of symbols such as words and numerals, warns us this isn't so.
Words and numbers are both abstract concepts that can represent the concept of
"quantity", and neither, itself, is the number it symbolizes. This abstraction
generally poses few problems, but when we mix words with numerals, the reader
must translate between the two types of symbol.
Words and numbers are processed, at least to some extent, using
different cognitive mechanisms. The additional translation step required to
convert the numerals to words or vice versa is unnecessary, and can be avoided
by not mixing numerals and their word equivalents when we discuss quantities.
As the Oxford University Press style manual (in)famously noted, "if you
take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad." Perhaps we
should not obsess to the point of madness over hyphen use, but we should
consider taking our hyphens seriously—they are subtle
and powerful tools for clarity.
Adding a hyphen to create a compound word makes it easier
for readers to comprehend that a pair of words work together as a single unit.
But having established the convention that a hyphen is necessary for a given
word pair, omitting the hyphen tells readers you mean something different from
the hyphenated form, triggering the reflex to identify the new meaning. At
best, this slows comprehension; at worst, it may force the reader to re-read
one or more sentences to confirm the intended meaning.
abruptly introduce a synonym, readers assume that the change is intentional,
and not just an excuse to show off vocabulary. Even in literature, where
creative license is encouraged, variations that force the reader to pause and
ask whether you mean something different become what I call "inelegant
master the mantra "one meaning per word and one word per meaning" early because
they understand how disruptive such inconsistencies can become. When the
subject matter is complex, it's wrong to make that worse with inconsistent word
Writers and editors
must constantly seek to achieve consistency. Each inconsistency we remove
eliminates a barrier between readers and understanding, facilitates
communication, and thereby increases the likelihood that our writing will
convey the message we intended. Readers learn the conventions we have used
early in a manuscript and use that knowledge to facilitate comprehension of
subsequent material. Editing for consistency thus serves two goals: it both
eases the task of reading by teaching readers how to understand our writing and
eliminates obstacles that would make that task more difficult.
Geoff Hart is a scientific editor, an
occasional technical writer, and the author of Effective Onscreen
Editing. He has written more than 400 articles, with the majority available
from his website.