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I've been musing recently about minutiae of English punctuation: apostrophes, periods, commas, and all the rest of it. There is considerable variation in usage on many points, and astonishingly passionate opinion about some of these points, even when they are mind-numbingly inconsequential.

Case in point: the use of periods in abbreviations composed of initial letters: I.B.M. or IBM? U.C.L.A. or UCLA? F.B.I. or FBI? Style guides vary, from those that are fond of periods (because the periods clearly mark the words as abbreviations and indicate where material has been suppressed) to those that are shy of them (because the result looks cleaner and takes up less space). Something can be said in favor of each scheme, and there is no issue of substance here. But some people have strong preferences.

The Wikipedia entry on abbreviation surveys a variety of schemes, noting that

The New York Times is unique in having a consistent style by always abbreviating with periods: P.C. [personal computer], I.B.M., P.R. [public relations]. This is in contrast with the trend of British publications to completely make do without periods for convenience.

Now a few words about the NYT's practices, and about the value of consistency.

The Times tolerates abbreviations with lots of periods in them: four in U.C.L.A. and L.I.R.R. (Long Island Rail Road), five in N.A.A.C.P., six in A.F.L.-C.I.O. (against the practice of these institutions and organizations themselves, which is clean and period-free). But it's not quite true that the paper always uses periods.

First, some abbreviations have become detached from their sources and are now seen as words on their own, and the paper prints these without periods: CD, for example, and in fact (despite the Wikipedia's claim) PC. (But the paper seems to use A.T.M. consistently.)

Second, the names of broadcast networks and television channels are period-free, whether or not people appreciate the origin of these names as abbreviations: BBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, ESPN, AMC, etc.

Third, abbreviations that have been "orphaned" — treated by the organizations in question as no longer "standing for" some longer name — are almost always period-free in the Times: AARP, KFC, ACT, SAT, PSAT, etc. But the paper hasn't always gotten the news: AAA is still A.A.A. in the paper, and FFA is sometimes FFA and sometimes F.F.A.

Fourth, abbreviations that are acronyms (pronounced as whole words rather than as sequences of letter names) are period-free: OPEC, NATO, FARC, etc.

Finally, there's occasional variation. While Gross Domestic Product is almost always G.D.P. in the Times, Paul Krugman wrote about the GDP back on 30 April. And both N.Y.S.E. and NYSE occur, and both H.I.V. and HIV, though the versions with periods seem to predominate.

There are probably more loopholes. But in general the paper uses periods, even in headlines (where doing without them would save a little space) and even in the sports section (where some stylistic latitude is often allowed — but it's N.B.A., N.H.L., and so on).

Now a few words about the fact that the Times completely disregards the practices and preferences of named entities (institutions, organizations, associations, whatever), in favor of its house style. The American Association for the Advancement of Science calls itself the AAAS in all of its materials (the abbreviation is pronounced "triple-A S"), but it's A.A.A.S. in the Times.

This is yet another conflict between Faithfulness (Faith: reproducing some original) and Well-Formedness (WF: making things conform to local customs). (I've returned to this topic on Language Log on a number of occasions, most recently here, with links to five earlier postings.) In matters of the mechanics of writing, where the conflict is usually between different style sheets, there's a strong tendency for WF to override Faith: in citing or quotating an original (even, sometimes, the titles of books), its spelling and punctuation are "corrected" to suit the writer's preferences. As here.

Why should WF trump Faith in this case? It comes down to Consistency. Some editors take consistency to be a bedrock virtue, a principle that should always be followed to the letter. That's hard to justify on rational grounds.

Don't get me wrong. There are circumstances in which consistency is genuinely important. One of the facts of life in teaching is that every field necessarily has its own set of concepts, and terminology to go along with them, and students have to learn that — even though they've been taught to vary their vocabulary and not just keep using the same words over and over again (good advice, but it has its limitations) — there's very little wiggle room with technical terms. Thesaurisizing is a really bad move.

There are other cases where you would not want to vary the form of expressions, for fear that readers or hearers would read too much into the choice of variant.

But there are also cases where the variants are just part of a big pool of variation, with different people doing different things, and if there's any way in which one variant conveys a different tinge from others, that difference is well below almost everybody's consciousness and might reasonably be treated as a random effect.

In which case, nobody should care.

In particular: when there are widespread differences in punctuation or spelling, so that pretty much everyone will be exposed to variants, rigidly enforcing a choice of variants won't help readers one bit. They'll be used to confronting the variants, and they won't notice your meticulous choice of one of them. Frankly, my dear, they don't give a damn. Only readers who are fanatically attached to "rules" would notice, much less care about, my using travelling (with consonant-letter doubling) at one point in my writing and canceled (with no doubling) at another.

No, no, I'm not saying that Anything Goes. I'm saying that SOME distinctions are of no consequence. And, more important that it's a mistake to spend energy on such distinctions (including beating them into the heads of small children, as if they were God's word).

I do understand where this disproportionate emphasis on tiny inconsequential points of writing comes from: this stuff is really easy to (attempt to) regulate, while more significant matters of grammar, style, and usage are much harder to grapple with. In addition, a lot of people think there's got to be One Right Way.

Four final notes.  First, on some points, some style guides will describe stylistic choices without insisting on one of them. But invariably the guides will go on to say that a writer should pick one scheme and use it consistently. In many cases, I can't see the point of this advice.

Second, the schemes almost always turn out to be more complex than they appear at first. Note the exceptions and provisos in my discussion of the NYT's scheme for periods in abbreviations using initial letters. 

Third, the schemes also turn out to be hard to adhere to consistently. Variation in practice will crop up, as in my examples above from the NYT. Is achieving consistency worth the effort it takes to root out these variants?

Fourth, each scheme usually has something going for it (if only the weight of tradition), so that it's not possible to claim that one scheme has to be right. They're just conventions.


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