We’ve all been there: You’re working on your department website and you can’t remember how to spell that building name. And is it the Philosophy Department or the Department of Philosophy? How do I make one of those backward-facing apostrophes for taking the 1 and the 9 out of Class of 1996? What numbers do I spell out instead of using a numeral, anyway? Do I use a comma in this list?
Until now, Hope College has just kind of winged it (wung it?). Every department and office has done its own thing, which is exactly what you’d expect; there hasn’t been a standard style that would allow users from all across campus to write in a unified voice. It’s one of the reasons the content on our old site has been sort of all over the place.
But when we write for our department or office, we’re really writing for Hope College. The style we use is an important part of our brand. So Public Affairs and Marketing has put together a Web Content Style Guide for Hope that will help answer your questions and ensure that every part of the website is using a consistent style.
We’ll be adding to and expanding this guide, and we’ll make new files available regularly. Of course, we encourage you to print a copy and have it within easy reach whenever you sit down to write for the Hope College website.
The truth is, I sort of nerd out on grammar and style. I’m more excited about this than I should be. So I’m going to share a couple of points that explain how I personally think about grammar and style. (I’ve picked these up from others along the way; they aren’t original to me.)
1. Grammar and style are practical ways of loving your neighbor.
As Christians, we’re called to love our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18). It’s one of the great commandments (Matthew 22:39, Mark 12:31). And one important way to love our neighbor is to make sure that when we speak to her, we do so in a way that she understands. To communicate with a person in a manner that is difficult or impossible to understand is an unloving act.
This approach does two interesting things:
- It puts a high priority on grammatical standards. Words, thoughts, sentences, paragraphs — yes, web content — should behave in expected ways that reinforce common conventions and meaning. I can’t put a comma at the end of a sentence and expect my reader to behave as if it’s a period. Shared rules of grammar exist to help make meaning clear.
- It places a higher priority on our reader’s ability to comprehend than on obeying every jot and tittle of the rules of grammar. This isn’t grammatical legalism. If your content is grammatically correct but difficult for your reader to understand, then you owe it to him as an act of Christian love to bend the rules of grammar — including those rules in the Hope College style guide — so he better understands you.
2. Grammar and style are questions of manners, not morals.
I speak differently to my grandmother — more politely, with greater deference and propriety — than to, say, my friends while we’re out on the town. In the same way, there is a time and a place to be a little more proper with our style and grammar (I’m thinking of formal communications, letters to the Board of Trustees, emails to President Knapp) than in other places (e.g., emails to coworkers, blog posts like this one).
It’s bad form to show up at a black-tie event wearing your swim trunks, flip-flops and a hoodie. But it’s equally bad form to show up at the neighborhood block party and pig roast in a three-piece suit. The question isn’t right or wrong; it’s appropriate or inappropriate — and answering that question depends largely on considerations that can’t be addressed by Mssrs. Strunk, White and Webster.
To sum up:
Know your audience, tailor your style in a way that is respectful to your audience and appropriate to your environment, and make your meaning clear. All grammar and style hangs on these commandments.