In loving memory of John Alec Entwistle, who left this world 14 years ago today.

When writing, it’s important not only to find and stay with our own unique style and voice, but also to be consistent with the stylistic choices we make. Sometimes, it’s necessary (or at least good manners) to explain those stylistic choices in a note at the start or end of the book. Some of the things I’ve made conscious stylistic choices regarding include:

1. Compound words. For example, I always write ice-cream instead of ice cream, backyard instead of back yard. You need to pick one style and stick with it.

2. Spellings. I picked up a number of British spellings when I was really young, and was quite surprised to learn those aren’t the most common U.S. spellings. However, since they’re not true misspellings, I’ve continued using them. These include learnt, aeroplane, travelled, cancelling, spoilt, burnt, dreamt, catalogue, and yoghurt. I’m very fond of using British spellings in my personal writing, but when writing for an American audience, I can code-switch (e.g., color vs. colour, center vs. centre, realize vs. realise). I just think they look prettier and more refined.

3. Transliteration. I’ve previously covered this topic here and here. To recap, find a style you like and stick with it. Don’t refer to one character as Mariya and another as Maria, or one as Alexander and another as Aleksandr. Transliterate each letter consistently. I can live with a style that’s not my own so long as it’s understandable and common (as opposed to the bizarre, all over the place style in the John Glad translation of Kolyma Tales).

One of the reasons I finally stopped using accent aigus in Russian names and words was because it wasn’t consistent. I knew where the stress fell in many names and words, but not in all of them. Either you use accents in every single word and name, or you strip them all out. I chose the latter, and have felt such relief ever since. Accents are typically only used in dictionaries and language textbooks in Russian, as compared to languages like French, Hungarian, and Spanish.

It’s a little more open-ended with languages like Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, and Hindi, but again, be consistent with how you render vowel sounds.

4. Titles of creative works. While I know it’s the style in many languages to only capitalise the first word in a book or film title, I personally capitalise all the words except for prepositions, articles, and some coordinating conjunctions. I feel it looks more natural and familiar to an English-speaking audience.

5. Titles for characters. It’s so jarring to me to see the English titles Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms. used for characters in a non-English-speaking setting. I always use the proper foreign titles, like Pan/Pani, Herr/Frau, and Heer/Vrouw/Juffrouw. And as I explain in the Note About Russian Names which I include as part of the front matter in my Russian novels, the titles Mr. and Mrs. aren’t really common in Russia, but I used them as a way to distinguish the older characters in a way that’s familiar to English-speaking readers.

Don’t get me started on the ridiculous made-up title Mx.! If anything, English should follow the French and German lead by repurposing the existing title Ms. for ALL adult women, married or single, and keeping the title Miss for very young girls. Mrs. used to be the default title for all women, but I agree with the shift to Ms. as a more neutral default.

6. Proper nouns. For example, the Hungarian words utca (street) and út (avenue) typically aren’t capitalised in Hungary, but I chose to capitalise them so they’d be more easily recognisable to English-speakers as part of the names of streets and avenues.

7. Unfamiliar accent marks. It’s so jarring to me when I see foreign words printed without any accents, when I know full well they’re supposed to have certain diacritical marks. It’s one thing if you honestly don’t know, but if you do know, there’s no excuse. For example, I was used to seeing most Polish names written accentless, and was really surprised to learn N is accented when it comes before -ski/ska in surnames. People won’t learn the correct style if they never see it modeled.

8. Native spellings! I’m thinking specifically of Ukrainian names here. Ukraine has been independent for 25 years. Don’t keep forcing Russified spellings on them when they’re finally free! No one will ever learn spellings like Kyiv or Odesa if most news sources keep using outdated spellings. When one of my Ukrainian or Ukrainophone characters says the capital’s name, I render it as Kyiv, but when a Russian-speaker without any connection to Ukraine says or writes it, I render it as Kiyev.

9. Bold and italics. I always use italics for titles, and bold italics for untranslated foreign titles.

4 thoughts on “The importance of stylistic consistency

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