Seahorses and Style

Hippocampus hystrix

Hippocampus hystrix

When copyediting,* why is it important to follow a written standard — and when should you part company with that standard?

The prime directive for copyeditors is this: be consistent. Whatever decision you make about spelling, punctuation, or the minutiae of syntax, make sure to apply it consistently throughout the document you’re editing. If you aren’t going to follow the strictures of an established style guide, at least maintain your own style guide, even if it’s only a list of the decisions you’ve made so far. (See “What Is a Style Sheet?” for some notes on the terminology here.)

But when you need to apply that consistency across documents (articles in a journal, chapters of a book, books in a series), or when you have multiple copyeditors working on related documents, you really need both an established style guide — at IO, we generally use the Chicago Manual of Style — and an internal house guide to record any decisions to gently disagree with that main style guide.

Why would you ever disagree with the established guide? Well, for one thing, established guides are only revised every several years, sometimes decades; and the language evolves much faster than that. For example, Chicago advises hyphenating “e-mail,” when to many in the 21st century, the hyphen looks antiquated. Chicago’s 16th edition has updated the rules for many technology-related terms that were still new to the 15th edition, but sometimes the authoritative sources can seem behind the times on even nontechnological terms.

An odd example we recently ran across is “sea horse.”

The Chicago Manual advises the use of the extensive and trustworthy Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.

 So we were surprised to discover that Merriam-Webster regards sea horse as an open (two-part) noun.



Over time, open compounds generally become hyphenated, and later they close up entirely. (Snow man becomes snow-man becomes snowman). Because sea horse is already well established, we’d expect it to be closed by now. Indeed, that’s the way it’s treated in the seafaring and scientific communities. Take, for example, NationalGeographic.com.

Because having open compounds can lead to ugliness and ambiguity in sentences (the sentence “We will conduct a sea horse survey” could indicate travelling by sea to count the number of horses on the coast) and because sea horse is familiar enough that it really ought to be closed up by now, we have decided to close it up in our house style — and note the decision in our internal style guide, so all IO copyeditors can be consistent.


Many thanks to BK for his contributions to this post.

* Is it “copyediting” (one closed word), “copy-editing” (hyphenated), or “copy editing”? It depends on what style guide you follow.

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